The security knows something is wrong now. Hideo knows. And that means Zero probably knows, too. The timer runs out on my power-up. The world moves again. Shahira’s mech crouches, shaking its head for a moment as it tries to reorient itself. I immediately activate my second power-up. Team Freeze.
Her mech freezes in its motions. All around us, the Andromedans freeze, too. Through Brennar’s comm, Asher’s voice comes on. “Go!” he shouts.
But I have no time to explain. I jump up from my seat inside my mech and grab hold of the cover over my head. I push it up. Rain lashes me, dotting my view, and I realize that the storm on the horizon has now reached us, one thing I hadn’t changed during my control of the surroundings. I haul myself out of my mech. The other Phoenix Riders are circled around me, the backs of their mechs turned to protect me.
I crouch on top of my mech and turn my attention to Shahira’s frozen one. Through its eyes, I can see her staring back at me, eyes wide, unable to move. I hop down onto the shoulder of my mech and break into a run along its extended arm. Overhead, the announcer’s voice echoes above the storm. “Brennar has broken from the pack and used a second power-up! We are trying to figure out—”
They are going to stop the game at any moment now. I’m surprised they haven’t stopped it already. What is Hideo doing? Just concentrate. I reach my mech’s hand and take a flying leap onto Shahira’s mech arm. The rain has turned the metal into a slippery slope—and I almost slide off during my landing. My arms grapple for support. I manage to scramble to my feet and continue sprinting up her arm. I climb up the side of the mech’s head. As the audience breaks into a rumble of confusion and bewilderment, I yank open the hangar right as the Team Freeze runs out.
I look down through the opening at Shahira, who has just unfrozen enough to turn her head up at me. Her Artifact shines right over her head, scarlet red. I take out my third power-up. Artifact King.
I move to activate it.
But I can’t. I blink, shocked. My limbs are frozen, head to toe, and I stand there with my power-up in my hand, unable to budge an inch. Below me, Shahira narrows her eyes and jumps up to pull herself out of the mech. She comes to stand in front of me. I realize through a haze that she has used a power-up on me, too, something that has rendered me frozen.
“I warned you, Emika,” she says.
And, even though the words are in Shahira’s voice, I know. I know that it is not her who is really talking to me.
It is Zero, inhabiting her body.
I struggle in vain as Shahira approaches me, her gait now having the same predatory grace as Zero’s. Her ruby Artifact shines brightly above her head. So close. She circles me once, just as Zero had done in the Pirate’s Den, and then she reaches out and takes my power-up.
No! I want to shout, but I can’t. Shahira holds out the power-up to me as if we were clinking glasses. “Two can play at this,” she says. She turns her back and starts running toward Asher’s mech.
Why isn’t Hideo stopping the game? Surely by now everyone can see that the game has gone wrong. As the audience roars with a cacophony of confusion, cheers, boos, and incredulous shouts, the power-up finally wears off on me. I stumble forward, gasping, then start sprinting after Shahira. Whatever happens, I can’t let her use the power-up on Asher. I can’t let Zero’s Artifacts activate. My hands grapple for the rope at my waist.
All of our heads turn to see Hammie’s mech hurtling toward us. She brings her legs down hard into the water, sending waves pummeling over the bridges. The hangar on her mech’s head flies open, and out shoots Hammie in a blur of motion, suspended in the rain in a flying leap. She holds up a bright-green power-up she’d grabbed earlier. Then she flings it at Shahira.
An explosion lights up the end of my mech’s arm, just shy of where Shahira is running. She skids to a halt, but the blast still throws Shahira off her feet and sends her flying through the air. On our other side, Franco’s mech comes charging through the water, bent against the strengthening winds. “Hammie!” I shout, but it’s too late. Franco grabs Hammie with one mech arm, closes the fist, and throws her. She goes flying through the air, landing with a splash in the churning open ocean beyond the wall. With his other hand, Franco catches Shahira and saves her from her fall.
Asher’s mech is moving fast now, fist raised at Franco. I stop running for a second to duck down. I see Asher soar high over me, his mech’s eye a distant scarlet dot high in the sky. He smashes hard into Franco’s side—the impact knocks me to my knees. Water slams into me as the waves from Asher’s landing pour over the ruined arm of my mech. I wipe water from my eyes and look up. Franco strikes back against Asher, each blow a deafening crunch of metal. In the midst of everything, I find Shahira. She is racing up Franco’s arm toward Asher’s mech. I run in her direction.
“Need a lift?” Roshan’s voice comes on in my comms. I turn just long enough to see his fist come from nowhere, scooping me up and closing around me. His mech is flying, his metal blade wings beating so hard that they form a whirlpool in the lake’s water. I soar through the air to where Franco and Asher are locked in a death grip.
Nearby, Ivo’s mech comes hurtling toward us, aiming straight for Roshan. We’re almost there. “Let me go!” I call to Roshan, banging my fist against the inside of his palm.
He does as I say and drops me. I fall toward Asher’s shoulders. At the same time, Shahira reaches his opposite shoulder. We both climb. Rain lashes against me, threatening to hurl me into the water. I hang on as tightly as I can and try to climb faster. Franco lands another hit hard against Asher’s chest, sending me careening wildly to one side, hanging on by only my arm. I force myself to swing back. Keep going.
I reach the top of the mech’s head right as Shahira gets to her feet. She runs toward the head’s cover. If she gets it open and sees Asher’s Artifact, she can use the power-up on him, and we’ll lose. I clench my jaw and force myself onto my feet. Then I sprint toward her. Everything seems to happen in slow motion.
Shahira pulls the head’s cover open.
She raises her hand to use the power-up.
I reach her, throwing myself at her with every ounce of strength I have.
My hands close on the power-up. I yank it out of her—Zero’s—grasp right as she is about to use it. Do it, now. I turn my view’s focus on Shahira’s Artifact. Before she can stop me, I aim the power-up at her and throw. Her eyes widen.
The power-up bursts into a ball of black smoke, engulfing both of us. Through the darkness, Shahira’s ruby Artifact appears in my hand. My fingers close around it at the same time I run my deactivation hack. It sparks wildly, streaks of electricity whipping out from it in every direction. Then, a split second later, it turns black.
Mine. Game over.
The audience explodes into chaotic noise all around us. The sound is deafening, drowning out anything and everything. “It’s all done!” the announcer’s voice shouts over the noise, mired in confusion. “But hang on, folks, what happened in the arena today? This is an unprecedented hack of the final tournament! We are standing by for more—”
It’s all done. I clench the Artifact like my life depends on it. That’s it. Is that it? A choked laugh breaks out of me, and all the energy rushes out of my chest. Asher’s voice has come on through my earpiece, and he’s shouting something ecstatically, but I can’t understand what he’s saying. I can’t concentrate on anything except the fact that the game is over.
Then, something strange happens.
A jolt of electricity sparks through me. Like a static shock. I jump. A unified gasp ripples through the audience, too, as if everyone had felt it at the exact same time. Numbers and data flicker over each of the players, in and out, then gone.
What was that? I stand there, blinking for an instant, unsure of what just happened. A feeling of dread hits me.
In front of me, Shahira’s avatar vanishes, replaced by Zero, his dark armor and opaque helmet black under the stormy sky. He stares at me. “You triggered it,” he says. His voice is low, furious.
“Triggered what? You’re done!” I shout at him. “And so is your plan.”
Something about my words seems to surprise Zero. “You don’t know.”
Don’t know? Know what?
He straightens. “My plan,” he says, “was to stop Hideo.”
I shake my head, not understanding. But before I can reply, Zero vanishes as the Silver Circle world around us freezes and fades into black. When I blink again, I’m back in my hotel room, and the games are done. I sit for a moment, startled by the silence. It’s all over so suddenly. I’d done it—and even though I still haven’t figured out who Zero is, I know that I’ve stopped his plans, whatever they happened to be.
You don’t know. My plan was to stop Hideo.
What the hell is that supposed to mean? What don’t I know? Something tugs at the back of my mind, a nagging little worry.
As if on cue, a message pops up in my view. It’s Asher. I accept it, and his familiar face appears as if he’s in the room with me, his expression elated. “Emi!” he exclaims. “You did it! We won!”