Page 47

The stadium feels like a blur today, and as we enter the arena and go to our individual terminals, I feel like I’m walking in a fog. The announcer sounds far away, and the cheers from the audience turn into a mess of background noise. I keep my head turned up to the balcony seats. Sure enough, Hideo is there, surrounded by bodyguards.

Then the world goes dark, and I find myself transported into another realm.

“Welcome to the Lost City Level!”

The echo of the announcer’s voice fades away as the virtual world materializes around us. Dim light filters down from the ocean’s surface far above. I find myself floating above a spectacular, ruined city surrounded on all sides by walls of colorful coral. Stone pillars tower up toward the surface. Piles of rock are everywhere, looking like once-grand theaters and bathhouses. Turquoise light shines from within some of their crevices, forming glowing lines that seem to point out pathways to take. The ruins stretch as far as I can see, dappled sunlight dancing against their surfaces, and drifting over them are a field of shining, jewel-like power-ups. The only thing keeping us from feeling completely immersed is the sound of the crowd’s cheers all around us.

I look to either side. My teammates are all here, dressed in outfits of bright white with flippers on our feet and fins on our arms. I look down at my hands. They are equipped with buttons in my palms. When I experiment with pressing them, my avatar jerks forward a bit. This will be how we get around.

Far on the other side of the ruins appear our rivals. The Cloud Knights. They are dressed in outfits of bright yellow, standing out against the blue tint of this place. All of our eyes are turned toward them—all except Ren’s. I glance at him to see him staring down at the ruins already, as if searching for something. My jaw tightens. Follow him.

“Game! Set! Fight!”

The game starts. Asher barks orders at us through our comms, and we split immediately. On the other side of the ruins, the Cloud Knights dive down for the ruins, no doubt ready to lose themselves inside the maze of crumbled structures. We dive, too. I clench my fists down on the buttons on my palms, and I jerk forward through the water in a blur of motion, slicing a trail behind me. A bar appears in the center of my view, showing how much oxygen I have left.

As we get to the point where we start splitting up, my teammates reappear as tiny dots on a small map in my view. But the only person I’m paying attention to is Ren. He swims away from the others and toward a series of collapsed columns that form a cave. Considering what had happened after our first round, I change course from where Asher tells me to go and instead trail after Ren.

“Emi,” Asher calls through our comms. He sighs. “Can you follow my lead for once? I said go center, toward that collapsed amphitheater.”

“I see a better route,” I lie, continuing in my direction. “Don’t worry.”

Asher makes a sound as if to argue, but then he stops, as if he’d remembered my successful moves from our last game. “Your only solo move,” he says. “Hear me?”

“Yes, Captain.”

He flickers out. The light grows dim around us, with only faint rays of blue and silver dancing against the stone formations. I keep my gaze on Ren. He’s moving at a good pace in front of me and has just rounded a corner. Where is he going?

“And it looks like the Cloud Knights have secured the first rare power-up of the game!” the announcer’s voice comes on all around us. “The silver-and-gold Invisibility!”

I should be concentrating on the game right now. But I find myself continuing on my hunt. My oxygen level starts to deplete. Warning: 25% left flashes in my view. Up ahead, I see a spot between the rocks where bubbles of air are coming out in a steady stream—but if I stop now, I might never catch up to Ren. So I skip it, then propel myself onward. I’m so close.

Then—suddenly—everything around me shifts. The underwater ruins vanish.

I’m no longer floating in an ocean, but standing in a cavern encircling me, trapping me in. Dim, scarlet light illuminates the space. The sounds of the audience’s cheers abruptly go silent. I blink. What had happened? In real life, I reach up to adjust my earphones. Did they glitch? It’s as if I’d suddenly been taken out of the game. I can’t even see my teammates on a map anymore.

“Hello?” I say, shifting around. My voice echoes.

If my game has glitched, then I should take off my lenses right now and alert the authorities. The game would be paused as they fix it. But instead I continue looking around, my heart beating faster now. No. This is not an accident. The red hue of this space looks too similar to the Dark World.

When I blink again, a tall figure is standing in front of me. He’s clad in the fitted black armor I’ve become so used to seeing now, and his face is completely hidden behind a dark, opaque helmet. His head is turned directly toward me. For a moment, we just stare at each other in silence.

Zero’s proxy. Or his follower.

Or, maybe, himself.

I find my voice. “You’re who Hideo is after,” I say, taking a step forward.

“And you’re the one who's been trailing me. Hideo’s little lackey.” His voice sounds deep and distorted in this cavern.

This is really him. He knows who I am. He knows what I’m doing. Instantly, I think of the moment when I’d seen him appear in the last game. Had he set that to test whether or not I could see him? And now he has sabotaged this game in order to speak directly to me.

“My teammates will see that I’m trapped,” I say to him. My words come out forceful and frustrated as memories of Hideo’s near-assassination flash back at me. “You can’t keep disrupting every world.”

Zero walks closer to me, his muscles shifting underneath the black armor, until we are separated by a mere foot. He stares down at me. “Here’s what your teammates currently see.”

A window pops up in the center of my view, and I see the underwater ruins. I see myself, ignoring Asher’s repeated commands and idling in an area away from the others, collecting simple power-ups. I see myself getting trapped in an obvious airless pocket.

“Right now, as far as they’re concerned, you’ve managed to seal yourself in an underwater cave in the ruins. And you’re running out of air fast.”

“Why are you here?” I say. “What do you want?”

“I’m here to give you a fair offer,” he replies. His voice echoes around me.

“A fair offer?”

“How else should I say it? A deal. A proposal. A suggestion. Take your pick.”

My temper flares. “I’ve been causing problems for you, haven’t I? You were forced to speak to me directly? What’s this—are you angry that someone has finally managed to get close to bringing you in?”

“Do I sound angry?” My words make him laugh once. It’s a low, quiet sound. “You’re too good to be working for him. How much does Hideo pay you to keep you so loyally at his side? To come when he whistles? Or is something else drawing you to him?”

“Your charm overwhelms me,” I say in my driest voice.

“And what if I overwhelm his number?”

I narrow my eyes. “Are you honestly offering to hire me?”

“Everyone has a price. Name yours.”


Zero shakes his head at me. “Choose carefully.”

“I am careful.”

“Are you?” He looks down at me so that I can see my own avatar’s face reflected in his helmet. “Because, as far as I can tell, you’ve been living a risky life in New York City. Because you’ve been risky in choosing your . . . relationships.”

A shiver runs through me. Has he been researching my past? Has he been watching me? Does he know about Hideo and me? “And you are messing with the wrong person,” I say through gritted teeth.

“I was giving you a compliment.”

“This is your idea of a compliment?”

“I’m not known for making offers, Emika. Interpret that however you’d like.”

My hands clench into fists. “Well, you can take that generous offer,” I say in a low voice as I move toward him, “and shove it up your virtual ass.”

He leans close to me. “Everyone always thinks they’re so brave.”

And when I look down, I notice with horror that the arm of my suit, originally bright white like my teammates’, is turning black. Plates of dark armor clip into place around my wrist, then cover my forearms, then creep up to my shoulders. They line my chest and neck, my waist and legs. I choke out a gasp and step away from him, as if this will stop it. But in this moment, I no longer look like an Architect. I look like his hunter, dressed entirely in black.

“Get away from me,” I snarl. “Before I kill you.”

“It is you,” he replies, “who came to me.”

His words just make me angrier. “I’m going to give you one more chance to turn yourself in. It’ll make life easier for everyone.”

He just watches me, his silent calm unnerving. Finally, he starts to turn away. “You’re going to regret this,” he says. Then, before I can shout anything else at him, he vanishes. So does the scarlet cavern.