I shake my head, still unwilling to touch the file. “I don’t trust you.”
“And I don’t like you either. But we don’t have time for that right now, do we?”
We eye each other for another beat before I finally reach out and accept the file. For a moment, I expect something in my view to go horribly wrong, like I’ve just downloaded a virus. But nothing happens. The file seems clean.
Maybe he’s being genuine, after all.
I look back at Tremaine. “You helped Roshan get Ash out of our building.”
At that, his expression wavers. I wonder if his change of heart had anything to do with that moment—if he, as another hunter, also understands what had really happened.
Tremaine shrugs and turns away. “Just tell Roshan I stopped by,” he mutters. Before I can say anything else to him, he vanishes, leaving me alone again in the room, staring numbly at the spot where his virtual form had just been.
How is this possible? I think back to the opening ceremony party, when I’d confronted him and Max Martin, when he’d sneered at me. His data had looked perfectly normal, disguised to be indistinguishable from an average player’s—I hadn’t even seen any shields installed to protect his info. He had probably set up an entire, elaborate system of false info to throw off anyone who tried to get to him. He’d likely been studying me, too. He’d been right in front of me, and I’d missed him entirely. You tricky bastard, I think.
I squint at the file, trying to make sense of it. It’s clearly garbled, just like the piece that I have.
My eyes dart back to the contents in my box.
My Christmas ornament and Dad’s painting had been destroyed, but just because they were destroyed doesn’t mean some traces of them, however small and broken, weren’t left behind. And if there are enough pieces, you can see what the original object was supposed to be.
I bring up a main menu and tap my fingers rapidly against my thighs. A scrolling list appears. I sift through it backward until I finally reach the day of our first Warcross tournament.
Then I pause.
I tap on it. Sure enough, an error message pops up, telling me that the file no longer exists. But this time, I run a hack that forces the file to open, regardless. The hospital room around me disappears, and I am immersed in a field of mangled ghost code.
It is all nonsense, partially corrupted—just like the file Tremaine had sent. I pull up what he sent me, and then I run both files together, splicing them into one. Suddenly, there is just enough info for the file to open.
It is a Memory.
I am standing in someone else’s recorded Memory, inside a massive, dimly lit space. A train station? Wherever it is, it’s a real, physical location. Cobwebs adorn the air between archways, while thin shafts of light slice through the darkness to dot the floor below. People are gathered here in a loose circle, but they remain silent, their faces hidden in shadows. Others appear as virtual figures, as if they’d logged in from distant places to be here.
“The track’s done,” someone says. I startle, realizing that the words are coming from the person I’m watching this through. It’s Ren’s voice. This is one of Ren’s Memories.
One of the figures in the darkness nods so slightly that I barely notice it. “Hooked up?” he says. His words come out as a whisper, but from the way the tunnel’s archways curve at the ceiling, I can hear his words as clearly as if he stood right beside me.
My point of view—Ren—nods. “It’ll play the instant the championship final’s world loads.”
The authority in the mystery figure’s voice makes me freeze. This is Zero, in real life, flesh and blood.
Ren obliges. A second later, music is piping through my earphones, the familiar beat of his track. When it hits the chorus, he pauses it, then brings up a ream of glowing code for everyone to see. “This will start the countdown on the rigged Artifacts,” he says.
I suck my breath in sharply. Rigged Artifacts? The teams in the finals will have rigged Artifacts?
Rigged to do what?
“Good,” Zero says. He looks around the room at each person in turn. As he does, they each bring up a hovering copy of an assignment, syncing with one another and checking their progress. In my view, Ren brings up a copy of it, too. My eyes widen as I read it. This is what I’ve been looking for.
It details what Zero is going to do.
During the final game, Zero is going to switch out the Artifacts and replace them with rigged ones. Corrupted ones. Ones containing a virus on them that will sweep through to every active NeuroLink user.
It’s why Zero had been gathering so much data inside each of the Warcross worlds. Why he was assigning locations to his followers. They’re making sure the virus will trigger in each location, that no security shields can stop them.
My breaths come short and quick now, my eyes darting frantically across the text. What will the virus do? Destroy the NeuroLink? What does he want from destroying it? What will it do to people who are logged on during the final tournament? The final tournament. It’s no coincidence that he chose this time to unleash a virus. The maximum number of NeuroLink users will be online around the world at the height of this final game.
Why would Zero, someone clearly skilled in technology, want to destroy this technology?
In the Memory, Ren speaks up again. “One more you should check,” he’s saying. “Emika Chen. The other wild card.”
Zero turns to him. “You’ve found something?”
“She’s connected to Hideo outside of the tournament, in more ways than one. She’s sniffing out your trail. If she finds something significant and alerts him to it, he’ll find a way to stop all this.”
A chill sweeps through me at his words. Ren had found me first; he had alerted Zero to me, possibly even at the same time that I’d alerted Hideo to him.
“I’ll look into her.” Zero’s voice is calm. “We’ll be watching their comings and goings, and if she tries to alert him, I will know. We can always make this a double assassination.”
The Memory ends. It fades around me until I’m back in my hospital room. I sit there with my heart pounding, head whirling, feeling more alone than ever.
A double assassination. This meeting must have happened before the first attempt on Hideo’s life—I’d shared information with him, and in return, they’d tried to kill him. Then Zero had appeared to me, warning me to stay out of it, offering for me to join him instead. The house bombing. Zero has no qualms about coming after me, too.
Instinctively, I reach to connect with Hideo.
I should send all of this to him right now—tell him everything about Zero’s planned virus, the rigged Artifacts. But if I contact him, Zero might know. And if he sees Hideo do something about the final game to stop this plan, then Zero will definitely know that I’ve been communicating with Hideo. He might change their plan, and then everything I’ve already discovered will be useless.
I have to stop this without tipping off Zero, without Hideo’s involvement. And that means I have to find my way into the final game and stop Zero from planting those rigged Artifacts.
I let out a long, shaky breath.
Maybe I am in over my head. And a small, scared part of my mind reminds me that, if I just stop right now, just leave like Hideo had insisted I do, Zero might return my Memories to me.
But I can't stand the thought of leaving. If I do, what will happen? My gaze now returns to the box sitting at my side. All I can concentrate on are the shattered remains of my precious things. All I can linger on is the thought of Zero hidden behind his insufferable mask, frustratingly opaque, telling me what to do. My temper stirs, and my fists tighten.
Hideo wants me off the official games and the hunt. Zero has warned me to stay away. But I’ve never been good at following instructions. I’m a bounty hunter. And if my bounty’s still out there somewhere, I have to finish this.
I get out of bed, walk to the corner of the room underneath the security cam, reach up, and yank its wires out. It goes dark. Then I call Roshan and Hammie. When they answer, my voice comes out as a hush.
“Ready to hear the truth?” I say.
“Ready,” Roshan replies.
“Good. Because I could really use some help.”
Common sense would tell me that this is absolutely the worst possible time to log back in to the Dark World. I almost died in an explosion, I’m no longer on the job, and a hacker and his crew are after me, turning me from the hunter into the bounty, ready to take me out the instant I show some sign of continuing on their trail. There might even be assassins after me by now—I’m probably on the assassination lottery list in the Pirate’s Den.
But I’m out of time.
Now my virtual boots slosh through puddles in the Silk Road’s potholes as I pass street after street of neon-red signs, all listing the names and info of people who have been exposed in the Dark World. There is more traffic in this section of the Silk Road, a jumble of anonymous users crowding into alleys and in front of doorways, creating the sense of a night market. Wayward strings of lightbulbs hang overhead, beyond which I can see the mirrored, upside-down version of the city hanging down toward us from the sky.