I hadn’t planned my outburst correctly, and I regret some of it right away. Hammie looks incredulous. Then, skeptical. Nearby, Ren regards me curiously. He’s daring me to say more.
“Wait,” Roshan says, making a twirling motion with one finger. “So, this isn’t just a fling. What do you mean, when there’s a lot more at stake?”
I take a deep breath. Everything is on the tip of my tongue now, ready to tumble out—but I stop just short of saying too much. Ren is still here, sitting with us. Zero has threatened me. It’s not worth putting the others at risk. I mutter a curse under my breath and stand up. “I’m sorry.”
Hammie leans her elbows on her knees. “There’s more you’re keeping from us. And I can’t understand why.”
“What aren’t you telling us, Em?” Asher asks, his voice very quiet now.
“I have my reasons.”
Something sympathetic flickers in Roshan’s gaze. The edge of Ren’s lip quirks up again, so subtle that no one else notices, and his eyes harden at me. I stare levelly back, refusing to give him the satisfaction of intimidating me. Then I turn around and head back to my room. Asher calls my name, but I don’t respond.
The voice echoes in my ears. I freeze in my steps.
There, through my virtual view, is Zero, standing at the end of the hallway leading up to the second floor, his silhouette encased in dark armor and his opaque helmet turned toward me. My mouth turns dry at the sight of him.
I warned you, he says.
“What are you doing here?” I say in a hoarse croak.
Behind me, I hear Hammie’s voice as she walks toward me. “Emi,” she says, “who are you talking to?”
He just stares calmly at me. Check your Memories.
My Memory Worlds.
Suddenly, my heart seizes. I type a quick command and bring up a window to search for my Memory Worlds, all the carefully compartmentalized pieces of my father that I spend so much time revisiting. No. Please. When they come up, I freeze.
The files are blank. The option New Memory World hovers over them.
I tremble. Impossible. I put up all sorts of security shells on them, buried them deep in my accounts so that nothing could ever happen to them, secured them in the cloud, cloned them multiple times out of an abundance of caution. I search frantically for my cloned versions now. But they are gone, too. Dad, humming cheerfully at our dining table as he cuts fabrics. Dad, crafting handmade Christmas ornaments with me. Dad, showing me how he mixes paints. Dad, sharing roasted peanuts with me in Central Park; wandering the halls of museums; celebrating my birthday.
Zero has deleted them all.
I’m stunned, reeling from the wound.
Stay out of my way, and I might return them to you. Continue, and this will only be the beginning.
My fingers curl tightly into fists at my side. My anger sharpens like a blade toward the armored silhouette before me. It takes me a second to realize that tears are blurring my vision. Behind me, Hammie finally approaches. “Emi, what’s going on with you?” she says.
Zero’s head tilts ever so slightly. Like he’s mocking me. Too late.
And just then, an explosion rips through our dorm.
A faulty gas line. That’s the public explanation given for the blast.
I don’t get a better sense of what happened until I see it broadcast on the small TV in my hospital room. From the outside, it looks horrendous—one moment, the Phoenix Riders’ dorm still standing; the next, a deafening explosion and an orange ball of fire erupting from the roof of our atrium. Windows shatter, spraying glass everywhere. As the fire billows out of control, pouring black smoke into the air, nearby dorms’ lights turn on and the players from the other teams come running over. Some are screaming. Others stand with their hands on their heads, at a loss for words. But most come rushing to our windows, shouting our names. Even Tremaine—bullying, obnoxious Tremaine—is there, helping Roshan pull Asher out through a window.
Then the fire trucks come, along with the ambulances. Flashing lights fill up the TV screen. There’s a news announcer talking in front of our dorm, then interviewing Hammie, who looks awake and dazed as she clutches a blanket around herself. Asher suffered some cuts and bruises from broken glass, as did Roshan, but miraculously, all of us came out of it alive.
It doesn’t mean we’re not all shaken up, though.
“Miss Chen,” a nurse says as she peeks in through my door, bobbing her head once. “You have a visitor.”
I sit up with my arms wrapped around my legs, then nod quietly at her. My limbs feel numb. “Okay,” I reply. She leaves, and a moment later, returns with two others.
It’s Roshan, clutching a box, followed by Hammie. They look like they haven’t slept in days. I open my mouth to greet them, but Hammie just shakes her head and reaches out to pull me into a hug. I wince—my arm still burns from the scratches I’d gotten, while my back aches from when the blast had tossed me off my feet. “Ow,” I groan, but the hug feels nicer than the pain, and I lean into her.
“Ash sends his love,” she says against my shoulder. “His brother and parents are with him in his hospital room.”
“I’m sorry,” I whisper to her, tears welling in my eyes. The blast has thrown me all off. “I’m so sorry. Ham—”
“You don’t remember anything, do you?” she says, pulling away a bit to look at me. “You half carried me to the back door before you collapsed. Stop apologizing.”
The explosion, the fire, the smoke, the faintest recollection of me shouting Hammie’s name as we lean against each other. I shake my head repeatedly.
Roshan holds out the box with a grim face. “We salvaged what we could,” he says.
When I open the box, I see broken shards of my Christmas ornament, along with burned scraps of what must be my father’s painting. I run one hand across the remains. The lump in my throat grows until I can’t swallow it anymore.
I wipe my eyes with one hand. “Thank you,” I reply as I place the box carefully beside me.
Roshan leans close. “Based on what little we know, Ren’s being questioned by the police right now. I don’t buy the gas leak story.”
“But you know more about this than we do, don’t you, Emi?” Hammie adds, searching my gaze. “You have to tell us what’s going on. We deserve to know.”
Your lives were threatened, too. But still, I hesitate. If I tell them everything, it might only endanger them more. They might fall on Zero’s radar. They never asked to be involved in any of this, never entered the championships to hunt down a criminal, were never getting paid to put themselves at risk.
Hammie studies me like I’m a chessboard. “You remind me of myself from several years ago,” she says. “I always offered help—but I refused to accept any. My mother scolded me about that. Do you know what she told me? When you refuse to ask for help, it tells others that they also shouldn’t ask for help from you. That you look down on them for needing your help. That you like feeling superior to them. It’s an insult, Emi, to your friends and peers. So don’t be like that. Let us in.”
Hammie’s words strike me clean in the chest. Even though I’ve lied with the best before, I know that both of them can see the truth on my face—that I’m involved in something beyond my capabilities.
Something that could have killed them.
I’m used to working alone. Even if I told them everything, what good would that really do? Am I really going to drag them into this hunt with me?
But this is no ordinary hunt, and Hideo is no ordinary client. If our lives are all in danger, then we have bigger problems to deal with than whether or not I put my faith in my teammates.
The mention of my name on the TV makes us turn toward the screen in unison. The news anchor is talking beside a photo of me, taken when I was celebrating our first win with the other Riders.
“—that this morning, Hideo Tanaka announced that he is officially pulling two players from the Phoenix Riders, currently one of the top-ranked Warcross teams: their Fighter, Renoir Thomas, and Architect, Emika Chen. No word yet on the reasons behind either decision, although speculation—”
Pulled from the team. All the air rushes out of my lungs.
Roshan and Hammie whirl to face me. “Pulled?” Hammie whispers sharply.
Roshan is quieter, searching my gaze. He seems ready to say something, then decides against it.
I only hesitate one more time. Then I pull Roshan and Hammie in for another hug. “Tonight,” I whisper in their ears. “I promise. I can’t talk about it out loud right now.” Then I break away and say, “The fact that you’ve brought me this box is help enough.”
Roshan frowns, but Hammie gives me an imperceptible nod. She tries to smile. “Will do,” she replies. It sounds like the right answer to what I said, but I know it also means she understood what I meant.
“Miss Chen,” the nurse says as she steps back in. “You have another visitor.”
Roshan and Hammie exchange another pointed look with me. Then they get up and head out of the room. A moment later, the nurse opens the door wider to usher in my new visitor.