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Wildcard, Page 2

Marie Lu

  An instant buzz of conversation fills the room at Hideo’s words. Asher leans back and frowns at the screen. “Well, it’s happening,” he says to us all. “An official rematch. We’ve got three days to get ready.”

  Hammie slurps up a mouthful of noodles. “An official rematch,” she echoes, although there’s no enthusiasm in her voice. “Never happened in the history of the championships.”

  “Gonna be a lot of Phoenix Rider haters out there,” Tremaine adds. Already, a few shouts of “Cheaters!” can be clearly heard from the other bars outside.

  Asher shrugs. “Nothing we haven’t faced before. Isn’t that right, Blackbourne?”

  Tremaine’s expression is blank. The excitement of the new game is lost on all of us as we continue to stare at the screen. A rematch isn’t the big news. If only those reporters knew what Hideo was really doing with the NeuroLink.

  I’m tired of the horror in the world, he’d said to me. So I will force it to end.

  “Well,” Roshan begins, rubbing a hand across his face, “if Hideo’s bothered by anything that’s happened in the last few days, he’s not showing it.”

  Tremaine’s concentrating on something invisible in his view and tapping rapidly against the bar. A few weeks ago, I would’ve bristled at being in the same room as him. He still isn’t my favorite person, and I keep waiting for him to sneer and call me Princess Peach again, but for now he’s on our side. And we can use all the help we can get.

  “Find anything?” I ask him.

  “I dug up some solid numbers on how many people have the new lenses.” Tremaine sits back and huffs out a sigh. “Ninety-eight percent.”

  I could cut the silence in here like a cake. Ninety-eight percent of all users are now controlled by Hideo’s algorithm. I think of the long lines, the police tape. The sheer scale of it makes me dizzy.

  “And the other two percent?” Asher manages to ask.

  “Is made up of anybody still using the beta test lenses,” Tremaine replies, “and who haven’t switched over yet. Those folks are safe for now.” He peers around the bar. “Us, of course, and a number of the official players, since we got the beta lenses before the full version went out. A lot of people in the Dark World, I bet. And the tiny number of people worldwide who don’t use the NeuroLink at all. That’s it. Everybody else is locked in.”

  No one wants to add anything to that. I don’t say it out loud, but I know we can’t stay on the beta lenses forever. Word on the street is that those lenses will download a patch that converts them into algorithm lenses on the day of the Warcross closing ceremony.

  That’s happening in eight days.

  “Seven days of freedom left,” Asher finally says, voicing what we’re all thinking. “If you want to rob a bank, now’s your chance.”

  I glance at Tremaine. “Any luck digging up more info about the algorithm itself?”

  He shakes his head and pulls up a screen for all of us to see. It’s a maze of glowing letters. “I can’t even find the faintest trace of it. See this?” He stops to point at a block of code. “The main log-on sequence? Something should be here.”

  “You’re saying it’s impossible that there’s an algorithm here,” I reply.

  “I’m saying it’s impossible, yes. It’s like watching a chair float in midair without any wires.”

  It’s the same conclusion I came up with over the past few sleepless nights. I’d spent them searching every crevice of the NeuroLink. Nothing. However Hideo is implementing his algorithm, I can’t find it.

  I sigh. “The only way to access it might be through Hideo himself.”

  On the screen, Hideo is answering questions from the press now. His face is serious, his stance easy, and his hair perfectly tousled. As put together as ever. How does he stay so calm? I lean forward, as if the few moments we’d had together in our brief relationship were enough for me to see what he’s thinking.

  My dream from last night flashes through my mind again, and I can almost feel his hands running down my bare arms, his expression undone. I’m sorry, he’d whispered. Then, the dark silhouette watching me from the corner of the room. The glass all around us shattering.

  “And what about you?” Tremaine says, snapping me out of my reverie. “Heard anything new from Zero? Have you contacted Hideo?”

  I take a deep breath and shake my head. “I haven’t reached out to anyone. Not yet, anyway.”

  “You’re not still seriously thinking about Zero’s offer, are you?” Asher has his head propped against one hand, and he’s looking warily at me. It’s the same expression he used to give me as a Captain, whenever he thought I wasn’t going to listen to his commands. “Don’t do it. It’s obviously a trap.”

  “Hideo was a trap, too, Ash,” Hammie says. “And none of us saw that coming.”

  “Yeah, well, Hideo never tried to blow up our dorm,” Asher mutters. “Look—even if Zero is serious about wanting Emi to join him in stopping Hideo, there’s got to be some strings attached. He’s not exactly a model citizen. His help might come with more problems than it’s worth.”

  Tremaine rests his elbows against the counter. I’m still not used to seeing genuine concern on his face, but it’s comforting. A reminder that I’m not alone. “If you and I work together, Em, we can try to avoid Zero’s help. There have got to be hints about Sasuke Tanaka out there somewhere.”

  “Sasuke Tanaka vanished without a trace,” Roshan says. His quiet voice is cool and cutting as he wraps a length of noodle around his chopsticks.

  Tremaine glances at him. “There is always a trace,” he replies.

  Asher speaks up before things turn more awkward between Roshan and Tremaine. “What if you contact Hideo first? Tell him you found out that his brother’s alive. You said he created all of this—Warcross, the algorithm—because of his brother, right? Wouldn’t he do anything for him?”

  In my mind, I see Hideo look at me. Everything I do is because of him. He’d said that to me only a couple of weeks ago, in the steam of a hot spring, as we watched the stars wink into existence.

  Even then, he’d been planning his algorithm. His words take on new meaning now, and I shrink inward, the warmth of that memory hardening into ice.

  “If Zero really is his brother,” I reply.

  “Are you saying he isn’t? We all saw it.”

  “I’m saying I can’t be sure.” I stir the noodles around my bowl, unable to work up an appetite.

  Hammie tilts her head thoughtfully, and I can see the cogs of her chess mind working. “It could be someone who stole Sasuke’s identity. It could be someone trying to throw people off his trail by using a dead boy’s name.”

  “Ghosting,” I murmur in agreement. I know the term for it because I’ve done it before.

  “Emi can’t tell Hideo something this big if it might not even be true,” Hammie continues. “It could make him do something unpredictable. We need proof first.”

  Roshan suddenly gets up. His chair scoots back with a grating clatter against the floor. I glance abruptly up to see him turning his back to us and heading out of the bar through the sliding door.

  “Hey,” Hammie calls out. “You okay?”

  He pauses to look back at us. “Okay with what? That we’re all sitting here, talking about the technicalities of how Emi should throw herself into a situation that might kill her?”

  The rest of us halt in our conversation, words hanging unspoken in the air. I’ve never heard real anger in Roshan’s voice before, and the sound seems wrong.

  He looks around at his teammates before letting his eyes settle on me. “You don’t owe Hideo anything,” he says softly. “You did what you were hired to do. It’s not your responsibility to dig deeper into this—into Zero’s past or what happened between him and Hideo or even what he plans on doing to Hideo.”

  “Emi’s the only one who—” As
her begins.

  “Like you’ve always looked out for what she needs,” Roshan snaps back. My eyebrow raises in surprise.

  “Roshan,” Asher says, watching him carefully.

  But Roshan tightens his lips. “Look—if Zero’s team is still set on stopping Hideo, then let him do it. Let the two of them go at each other. Step back and remove yourself from this. You don’t have to do it. And none of us should be convincing you of anything different.”

  Before I can respond, Roshan turns away and heads out into the night air. The door slides shut behind him with a sharp bang. Around me, the others let out an inaudible breath.

  Hammie shakes her head when I look at her. “It’s because he’s here,” she mutters, nodding to Tremaine. “He throws Roshan off.”

  Tremaine clears his throat uncomfortably. “He’s not wrong,” he finally says. “About the danger, I mean.”

  I stare at the space where Roshan had been and picture his prayer beads sliding against his wrist. In my view, I can still see the last message from Zero sitting in my archives, the letters small and white and waiting.

  My offer to you still stands.

  Hammie sits back and crosses her arms. “Why are you going on with this?” she asks me.

  “Is the fate of the world not enough of a reason?”

  “No, there’s more to it than that.”

  Irritation rises in my chest. “This is all happening because of me—I was directly involved.”

  Hammie doesn’t back down from the edge in my words. “But you know it’s not your fault. Tell me—why?”

  I hesitate, not wanting to say it. In the corner of my view, I see Hideo’s profile haloed in green. He’s awake and online. It’s enough to make me want to reach out and Link with him.

  I hate that he still has this pull on me. After all, everyone has had that one person they can’t help but obsess over. It’s not like I haven’t enjoyed flings that came and went in the span of a few weeks. And yet . . .

  He’s more than a fling or a bounty or a mark. He’s forever bound to my history. The Hideo who has stolen the world’s free will is still the same Hideo who grieved his brother so deeply that it left a permanent thread of silver in his dark hair. The same Hideo who loves his mother and father. The same Hideo who once lifted me out of my darkness and dared me to dream of better things.

  I refuse to believe that he’s nothing more than a monster. I can’t watch him sink like this. I keep going because I need to find that boy again, the beating heart buried underneath his lie. I have to stop him in order to save him.

  He was once the hand that pulled me up. Now I have to be his.

  * * *

  * * *

  BY THE TIME we leave the bar, it’s well past midnight, and the pouring rain has dwindled to a fine mist. Some people still dot the streets. The first two all-star players have just been announced, and virtual figures of them now hover under every streetlight in the city.



  Hammie barely glances at the images of her best in-game moves now dancing below the light posts. “You should head back with us,” she says, eyeing the neighborhood.

  “I’ll be fine,” I reassure her. If someone really is following me, best not to make it so that they’re following my teammates, too.

  “It’s Kabukichō, Em.”

  I give her a wry smile. “So? Hideo’s algorithm is running on most of these people now. What’s there to be afraid of?”

  “Very funny,” Hammie responds with an exasperated lift of her eyebrow.

  “Look, we shouldn’t all be traveling together. You know that makes us too tempting a target, regardless of the algorithm. I’ll call you when I’m in back in my hotel.”

  Hammie hears the note of finality in my voice. Her lips twist in frustration, but then she nods and starts to walk away. “Yeah, you better,” she says over her shoulder, waving her hand at me as she hurries off.

  I watch her join the others as they head toward the subway station, where a private car waits for them. I try to picture each of them before they were famous, the first times they arrived in Tokyo, whether or not they felt invisible enough to take the subway. Whether they felt alone.

  When my teammates disappear into the haze of rain, I turn away.

  I’m used to traveling by myself. Still, my solitude feels sharper now, and the space around me seems emptier without my teammates. I shove my hands back into my pockets and try to ignore the virtual male model that now saunters up to me with a smile, inviting me in English into one of the host clubs that line the street.

  “Nope,” I reply to him. He vanishes immediately, then resets at the entrance of the club and looks for another potential customer.

  I tuck the rest of my hair completely under my hood and keep going. Just a week ago, I probably would’ve been walking with Hideo beside me. His arm wrapped around my waist, his coat over my shoulders. He might’ve been laughing at something I said.

  But I’m on my own here, listening to the lonely splash of my boots in the dirty street puddles. The echo of water dripping from signs and overhangs keeps distracting me. It sounds like someone else’s footsteps. The feeling of being watched has returned.

  A static buzz vibrates in my ears. I pause for a moment at an intersection, tilting my head this way and that until it stops.

  I glance again at Hideo’s green-haloed icon in my view. Where is he now, and what is he doing? I imagine contacting him, his virtual form appearing before me, as Asher’s question rings in my ears. What if I did tell him about Zero’s connection to his brother? Would it be so bad to see what happens, even without being entirely sure?

  I clench my teeth, annoyed with myself for thinking of excuses to hear his voice. If I just give myself enough distance from him and focus on this whole thing like it’s a job, then maybe I’ll stop wanting to be near him so much.

  The static buzzes in my ear again. This time I halt and listen carefully. Nothing. Only a few people are on the street with me now, each a nondescript silhouette. Maybe someone’s trying to hack me. I start an inspection of my NeuroLink system to make sure everything’s in order. Green text floats past my view, the scan looking normal.

  Until it skips over running a diagnostic on my messages.

  I frown, but before I can examine it closer, all the text vanishes from my view. It’s replaced by a single sentence.

  I’m still waiting, Emika.

  Every hair on the back of my neck rises. It’s Zero.


  I whirl in place on the sidewalk, my eyes darting to each silhouette on the street. The colorful reflections on the road blur in the wet night. Lampposts suddenly look like people, and every distant footstep sounds like it’s headed toward me.

  Is he here? Has he been the one watching me? I half expect to see a familiar figure walking behind me, his body encased in fitted armor, his face hidden underneath that opaque black helmet.

  But no one’s there.

  “It’s only been a few nights,” I whisper under my breath, my words transcribing into a reply text. “Ever heard of giving someone time to think?”

  I did give you time.

  Irritation flashes hot under my fear. I grit my teeth and start walking faster. “Maybe this is my way of telling you I’m not interested.”

  And are you not interested?

  “Not interested at all.”

  Why not?

  “Maybe because you tried to kill me.”

  If I still wanted you dead, you would be.

  Another shiver down my spine. “Are you trying to get me to take your offer? Because you’re not doing a very good job of it.”

  I’m here to tell you that you’re in danger.

  He’s toying with me, like he always does. But something abou
t his tone makes me freeze. I realize that maybe he’s hacking through my shields right now, digging through my files, digging through me. He once stole my father’s Memories from me. He could do it again.

  “The only danger I’ve ever faced was from you.”

  Then you haven’t been in the Dark World lately.

  A view of the Pirate’s Den suddenly appears all around me. I jerk backward at the abrupt shift. Just a second ago, I was standing on a city street; now I’m belowdecks on a pirate ship.

  Tremaine was right—a good number of people in the Dark World must still be using beta lenses, because Hideo’s algorithm would never let them go down under. The ship looks crowded with virtual people, all of them gathered around the glass cylinder in the den’s center. The screen that displays the assassination lottery.

  Always the first pick, aren’t you?

  My gaze runs up the list. Some names are familiar ones—gang lords and mob bosses, politicians and a few celebrities. But then—

  There I am. Emika Chen. I’m at the top, and beside my name is a reward sum for five million notes.

  Five million notes for my death.

  “You’ve got to be kidding me,” I manage to say.

  The Pirate’s Den vanishes as quickly as it appeared, leaving me standing in Kabukichō again.

  Zero’s messages come rapidly now.

  Two assassins are making their way up this street. They’re going to reach you before you can get to a train station.

  Every muscle in me tenses at once. I’ve seen what happens to others who end up on that list—and for a price that high, the assassinations almost always go through.

  For a split second, I find myself wishing that Hideo’s algorithm already affected everyone. But I quickly shake the thought away.

  “How do I know that you didn’t send them yourself?” I whisper.