“No one chose you,” I snap.
“And have people been so great at choosing their leaders?” he snaps back.
“But you can’t do that! You’re taking away something that makes us fundamentally human!”
Hideo steps closer. “And what is it that makes us human, exactly? The choice to kill and rape? To war and bomb and destroy? To kidnap children? To gun down the innocent? Is that the part of humanity that shouldn’t be taken away? Has democracy been able to stop any of this? We already try to fight back with laws—but law enforcers cannot be everywhere at once. They cannot see everything. What if I can? I could have stopped the person who stole Sasuke—the NeuroLink can stop anyone who might do the same now to another child. I can make ninety percent of the population crime-free, allowing our law enforcement to focus only on the remaining ten percent.”
“You mean you’ll control ninety percent of the population.”
“People can still live their lives, pursue their dreams, enjoy their fantasy worlds, do everything they’ve ever wished to do. I’m not standing in the way of any of that. They can do anything they want, as long as it is not a crime. Nothing in their lives changes except for this. So why not?”
Everything about Hideo’s words seems contradictory, and I find myself standing in the middle, not sure what to believe. I think of my own city, how I have a job as a bounty hunter because the police can no longer keep up with the rising crime in New York. I think of how the same has been happening everywhere. They can do anything they want, as long as it is not a crime. Nothing in their lives changes except for this.
Except for giving up their freedom. Except the thing that changes everything.
“It’s an essential part of everyday life, the NeuroLink,” Hideo says. “People work inside it and build businesses on top of it and are engulfed in the entertainment it offers. They want to use it.”
And I realize that, of course, he’s right. Why would anyone give up the perfect fantasy reality just because they have to give up their freedom? What’s the point of freedom if you’re just living in a miserable reality? It would be like telling everyone to quit using the internet. And even as my skin crawls at the knowledge that I’ve worn the NeuroLink lenses—am still wearing them—I still feel a sharp pang at the thought of never logging back into the Link, a reluctance to abandon them.
Even without the film against the eyes, people would never stop using it. They probably won’t even believe that it’s doing this to them. And even if they did start arguing with each other about the implications of the NeuroLink’s manipulation, their lives now revolve around it. Anyone not logged in to the NeuroLink right now will use it before long, triggering this new algorithm the instant they do. Eventually, everyone will have this installed in their minds. And that will give Hideo control over each of them.
Maybe no one would even care.
“What about protestors?” I press. “What about fighting for what’s right or making mistakes or even just respecting people who disagree with you? Is it going to stop people from passing laws that are unjust? What laws is it going to enforce, exactly?” I clench my fists. “How is your artificial intelligence capable of judging everyone in the world, or understanding why they do what they do? How do you know you won’t go too far? You aren’t going to bring about world peace all by yourself.”
“Everyone pays lip service to world peace,” Hideo says. “They use it as a pretty answer to pointless questions, to make themselves sound good.” His eyes sear me to the core. “I’m tired of the horror in the world. So I will force it to end.”
I think of the times, after my father’s death, when I’d picked fights in school or shouted things I later regretted. I think of what I’d done to defend Annie Pattridge. Hideo’s code would have stopped me. Would that have been good? Why does it feel like a knife twisting in my chest, to know that this is the reason why he flew me to Tokyo? All those warnings from him for me to leave.
“You lied to me,” I say in a firm voice.
“I was not the one who attacked you.” Hideo’s eyes are soft and steady. “I was not the one who destroyed what was precious to you. There is real evil in the world, and I am not it.”
Zero had destroyed the things that mattered most to me—my pieces of the past, my ornament and my father’s painting. My memories. Hideo is the one who gave me a way to even store those memories, who saved me from being thrown into the streets, who mourns his brother and loves his family and creates beautiful things.
Zero uses violence to further his cause. Hideo furthers his by preventing violence. Some part of me, some crazy, calm part, sees sense in his plan, even as I recoil in disgust.
Hideo sighs and looks away. “When I first hired you, all I wanted to do was stop a hacker whom I knew was trying to stop me. I didn’t know that . . .” He hesitates, then abandons the sentence. “I didn’t want you to continue working for me without truly understanding the weight of what you were doing.”
“Yeah, well, I did keep working for you. And you let me, without telling me why.”
The times he had hesitated in my presence, reluctant to take us further. The moment when he’d decided to let me go. My removal from the Phoenix Riders’ team. He had been trying, in his own way, to go about his plans alone. The lenses I’m wearing feel cold, as if they were something foreign and hostile. I think about the hacked version of Warcross that I use. Am I safe?
Hideo leans close enough for our lips to touch. The part of me that is made of raw instinct stirs, wanting desperately to close that distance between us. His eyes are so dark now, almost black, his expression haunted. Every problem has a solution, doesn’t it? I want to prove to you the sense in my plans. His brows furrow. I can show you the good in this, if you’ll let me. Please.
And through the Link, I can sense his earnestness, his burning ambition to do right, his desire to prove it to me. When I search his gaze, I recognize that curious, passionate, intelligent man I’d first seen in his office, showing me his newest creation. This is the same person. How can this be the same person? His expression remains uncertain, unsure.
Don’t leave, Emika, he says.
I swallow hard. When I respond, I respond with my real voice. It is calm now, even cold. “I can’t support you in this.”
I can almost feel his heart crack, stabbed right where he had risked opening it up to me, where he had let me see the beating wound inside. He had confided in me, thinking that perhaps I would be the one person who would side with him. Why wouldn’t I, he must have thought—I understood his loss, and he had understood mine. We’d understood each other . . . or so we thought. He looks suddenly alone, vulnerable even in his determination.
“Emika,” he says, in one last attempt to convince me.
I take a deep breath, then sever the Link between us. The subtle stream of his emotions cuts off abruptly. “I’m going to stop you, Hideo.”
His eyes turn distant, those familiar walls going up until he’s looking at me in the same way he had during our first meeting. He leans away from me. He studies my face, as if taking it in for the last time. “I don’t want to be your enemy,” he says quietly. “But I’m going to do this, with or without you.”
I can feel my own heart breaking, but I stand firm. He does not give, and neither do I, so we continue to stand on opposite sides of a ravine. “Then you’re going to have to do it alone.”
The streets of Tokyo are still emptier than I’ve ever seen them. I tear down the road on my board, my hair streaming out behind me, the wind making my eyes water.
How complicated everything has become. Not long ago, I had been gliding through the crowded center of New York City, wanting nothing more than to make enough money to keep myself off the streets. Hideo had been a magazine cover then—a glimpse in a news article, a photo in a televised broadcast, a headline in a tabloid. Now he is someone I am struggling to understand, someone with a thousand different versions of himself that I am trying to piece together.
All around me, the only screaming headlines seem to be accusations that the final championship results were unfair, that the game was compromised by illegal power-ups. Fans are calling for a redo of the match. Conspiracy theories have already sprung up all over fan communities, claiming that some employee had planted the power-ups as a joke, or that Henka Games had wanted to raise their ratings, or that the players had somehow stumbled upon secrets hidden in the final world. If the truth were thrown in there, no one would be able to tell the difference.
Everyone else goes about their business without even realizing the subtle, significant shift in the NeuroLink that can now control their lives. And is anything different, really? Haven’t we all been plugged in for years now, completely addicted to this world beyond reality? Are we this willing to give up? I force myself to look away as I pass a police car. Can Hideo come after me now, by simply telling the police to arrest me? Would he do that to me? When will his patience run out? When will he turn on me completely?