CHAPTER ONE THE BOMBING LINGYI
Lingyi was their leader. And she was sending them headlong into danger—possibly even to their deaths.
She forced herself not to dwell on this, on every possible awful outcome. She needed to keep the surge of panic at bay. If Lingyi lost focus, her friends would pay for it.
It was a huge risk to blow up Jin Corp the same night they needed to save Zhou, but they couldn’t use the fire alarm ploy twice. It was tonight or never. Still, it hadn’t felt quite real before—a challenging game, a far-fetched fantasy. But there was a sense of finality tonight,
when she had kissed Iris once before the group departed. They had all agreed to do this, had worked for months toward this end, but planning and doing were two very different things.
She feared for their lives.
Lingyi studied the nine video feeds pulled up on her wall screen. Three were from the body cams attached to Iris, Victor, and Arun, following their every movement. The other six were from Jin Corp, with one trained on the main entrance and lobby, one directed at the back door her friends would use, and another showing Zhou, who was slumped in a chair, unmoving. She toggled between various corridors and areas in Jin Corp with the other three feeds.
Lingyi paced the small area of her sitting room. Iris had always insisted they needed a bigger apartment, but Lingyi thought this was perfect. Cozy. She had chosen to orchestrate everything from her apartment tonight instead of their headquarters. Headquarters was too filled with the presence of her friends—echoes of them at every turn. She hadn’t expected to feel the same hollow emptiness in her apartment.
Iris wasn’t sprawled on their sofa, napping, with a hand tucked beneath her ear—her favorite pose. She was nearing the back entrance of Jin Corp, and from her body cam, Victor and Arun were right beside her. Lingyi tapped the screen that showed Zhou in that basement room littered with old machines. Flickering fluorescent light illuminated the space. She stared at Zhou, trying to detect any movement at all; the rise and fall of his chest, the jerk of a knee or
shoulder, but saw nothing. There was no sound from Jin Corp’s feeds, and she was terrified for him.
“You there, boss?” Victor’s voice came in close and clear, as if he were standing beside her in the room.
Lingyi jumped. “Here. Everything looks good.” She made her tone light, not letting the anxiety slip in. They needed her confidence and guidance so they could do their tasks quickly and right. “The building’s quiet. Move fast. I won’t have access to the security system until the fire alarm is triggered.” If a security person happened to see them slip into the building, it’d only make things harder.
Iris used Daiyu’s access code to try and enter the building. Lingyi held her breath, her heart in her throat. After a few seconds, the door clicked open and they each filed in, letting it close securely behind them.
“Arun,” Lingyi said into her earpiece. “Zhou is in one of the rooms in the basement. Go down one level.”
“Got it, boss,” Arun replied.
They had gone over everything at headquarters earlier that day. But Lingyi couldn’t help but call out the commands, directing each of them to their tasks. It gave her a false sense of control. “You have twenty minutes once the alarm goes off,” Lingyi reiterated.
They knew, but Lingyi’s palms dampened with sweat from saying it out loud. Arun headed down a dark stairwell, emerging onto a long corridor filled with blank doors. It was dimly lit; he began trying the knobs. He didn’t expect to run into anyone down there.
The majority of the doors swung open, revealing empty rooms filled with machinery and other junk stored below the building. He used the motion detector for the rooms that were locked to try and locate Zhou. Lingyi’s heart speeded up every time, but the detector never found him behind the locked doors.
Arun was cursing under his breath, and everyone could hear it. “I’ve already checked all the rooms on the right side. I need more time.”
He picked up his pace, running from one door to the next, his cam bobbing with the motion.
“I’m coming up on the fire alarm,” Iris replied. “The longer we hold off, the more likely we’ll be discovered.”
“Just five minutes.” Arun was panting.
Five minutes to give security a chance to glance at any of the cameras that showed Arun, Vic, or Iris skulking around. Five minutes could give them all away. They’d already discussed and argued over this earlier in the afternoon. Iris was right.
“We don’t have time,” Vic said in a grim voice. “Stick with the plan.” Lingyi knew Victor loved Zhou like a brother—it couldn’t have been an easy thing to say.
“He’s somewhere down there, Arun,” Lingyi said, her chest constricting. Was she issuing Zhou’s death sentence? “Iris, sound the alarm.”
Iris’s gloved hand pulled down on the red handle. A pulsing alarm immediately filled Lingyi’s earpiece. A soothing female voice
broadcasted over the building’s sound system, “Attention. Please leave the building via your nearest exit. You have ten minutes.”
Lingyi swung into her seat at her glass-top desk, accessing Jin Corp’s main security system now that the alarm had been sounded. The building was in emergency mode. Even the security crew had left their areas. Lingyi watched as a few employees trickled out of the main entrance. At this time of night, they were mostly security and custodial staff.
Vic and Iris stayed out of sight as Arun continued to run down the basement corridor, trying doors. Lingyi checked on Zhou’s feed. To her immense relief, he had woken, probably from the blaring noise of the alarm. He looked around, slowly rolling his shoulders, possibly trying to get out of his bindings. “Hang on, Zhou, Arun’s on his way,” she said, even though she knew he had no way of hearing her.
“I can’t find him!” Arun shouted in frustration.
“Keep looking,” Lingyi replied. “He’s down there and awake!”
Arun began screaming Zhou’s name over the sound of the insistent alarm. But Zhou’s mouth was bound, and even as Arun shouted, Zhou gave no indication he could hear him.
Lingyi forced herself to turn her attention to the ground floor.
Vic and Iris were running down a wide corridor and stopped at an elevator. Seven minutes in, and the building already looked empty. There were a few stragglers hurrying toward their nearest exit. “The elevator is clear,” she said, toggling between the security cameras.
“Thanks, boss,” Iris and Vic replied at the same time.
They entered the empty car, and Victor punched the third- and fifth-floor buttons. He then adjusted the silver cuff link at his wrist. Vic had put on a sleek gray suit with a silver vest and blue tie knotted perfectly at his throat. Lingyi almost smiled, would have teased him under any other circumstances. Iris slipped out on the third floor, and Victor got off on the fifth and highest floor. There wasn’t enough time to set a bomb on each floor with only two people, but they could strategically set two each on the third and fifth. The bombs would be powerful enough to destroy the inside of the building.
When Iris had argued that she should take the fifth floor, because she was faster than Victor, and the location was riskier, Vic had countered that he had a better handle on the tech, should anything go wrong. In the end, Lingyi made the final call, like she always did. Victor would take the higher floor. Lingyi suddenly realized she could feel her heart thumping hard against her chest, as she followed both Iris and Vic on their feeds.
Arun’s panicked voice burst into their earpieces. “I still can’t find Zhou. I’ve checked every room down here twice. We have to abort!”
Lingyi lifted her head to the wall screen, then jumped from her seat, fighting the sick feeling in her stomach. She touched the feed that had displayed the dingy basement room Zhou had been trapped in. It showed only an empty chair. “He’s gone!” she shouted.
“What?” Arun stood stock-still in the middle of the basement corridor. “Where did he go? Is he still in the building?”
Lingyi pushed up her glasses with a shaking hand. “I don’t know. But we can’t abort now.”
“First bomb is set,” Iris said.
“First bomb is set,” Victor replied not ten seconds later.
There were eight minutes left before people would be let back into the building.
They were halfway there with two bombs set. No turning back now.
Lingyi skidded back to her desk, toggling through all the cameras located within the basement of Jin Corp on her computer—more than two dozen. Most of them only showed empty, dark rooms. “Arun, you have to get out. I don’t know where Zhou is.”
He let out a long string of curses. “I won’t just leave him!”
Lingyi ignored the sudden stinging pressure behind her eyes. Zhou. She flicked between the feeds again, seeing nothing. She loved him like a brother too. Now she was sealing his fate, abandoning him. “Arun. There’s less than six minutes and the bombs are going to blow.” Her voice cracked. “Go. Leave the building now!”
“Second bomb set,” Iris said into their earpieces.
Arun was staring down on the floor, both hands clenched into fists. “Fuck!” he shouted, then began running toward the stairwell. She watched until his feed showed he was out in the alleyway again, behind Jin Corp.
Lingyi let out a long breath, even as she swiped at the corner of her eye, knocking her glasses askew. Readjusting them, she checked on
Iris’s and Victor’s progress. Iris was in another stairwell, headed down to the ground floor. Vic’s feed showed him fiddling with his second bomb. The timer was counting down already, but one of the three lights that controlled it glowed red, while the other two were green.
Something was wrong.
“Victor,” she said into her earpiece, trying to keep her voice even. “Leave it. Now.”
He didn’t budge. She watched in horror as he worked the wires with his long fingers. Victor wore a rectangular titanium ring on his right hand. Lingyi felt like she was floating out of herself for a moment, adrift. The clock showed less than three minutes before detonation.
Then she slammed back into her body and was screaming again, “Victor!”
“I heard you, boss,” Victor replied in a calm tone; cool and collected. “But we’re down two bombs without Zhou’s help. They all have to blow for the maximum damage we need. I’ve almost got this.” A hand reached up, out of view, and Lingyi saw the word MUTE light up in green on his feed.
“No!” Lingyi screamed.
“Boss,” Iris’s voice came in through the earpiece. “What’s going on? Where’s Vic?” She had stopped in a stairwell.
“Keep running, Iris,” Lingyi ordered. “Clear the building!” She was trying to draw enough breath. “Now!”
The clock began counting down from one minute. Vic continued
to work the wires patiently. Iris stood frozen in the stairwell, and then the first of her bombs went off, so loud Lingyi ripped out her earpiece. Iris’s feed shook from the impact, and she was running again, bursting through the emergency exit door onto the ground floor.
Lingyi felt light-headed. Terror smothered her, like a monstrous beast sitting on her chest.
The ground shuddered beneath Victor. He flicked a switch on the bomb, and the light that had been red suddenly turned green. The digital clock started counting down from ten in red. Vic had been crouched over the bomb, but straightened now. He brushed off the sleeves of his suit jacket, then flashed her an okay sign with his hand. There was a burst of blinding white light from his feed two seconds later.
“Vic!” she screamed again.
His feed displayed only gray static.
Frantic, she toggled between all the screens, searching for him, knowing what she was doing made no sense. The cameras within Jin Corp showed only chaos, shaking walls and crumbling floors, machinery collapsing onto each other. Iris’s feed was obscured with dust and smoke. Tears blurred Lingyi’s vision. She grabbed the earpiece and put it back in her ear. Lingyi had to get Iris out.
“Head to the main entrance,” Lingyi directed, her voice wavering and thick. She cleared her throat.
“Should I wait for Vic?” Iris asked, pausing at the sliding doors that led into the main entrance area.
“No,” Lingyi managed to croak. “I lost his connection.” She couldn’t bring herself to say anything else.
Iris didn’t speak, then pressed the button to open the curved golden doors, revealing the grand foyer. She ran to the front entrance, but the doors wouldn’t open for her. She slammed her hand onto the square button, then pounded on the steel doors, but nothing worked.
Lingyi searched through Jin Corp’s security system. “The building’s in lockdown.” She tried to override the command, then worked on manually opening the front entrance. Nothing worked. Lingyi checked who had initiated the lockdown. Jin. Not two minutes after the first bomb went off. “Nothing will open now, not without special access.”
“How do I get special access?” Iris shouted above the rumbling noise.
“There are some emergency exits on the ground floor. Turn right. We might be able to use Daiyu’s access code to open them.” But Lingyi was only guessing. She couldn’t face the notion that she might lose Iris, too.
Iris was trying to navigate through the smoke-filled haze in the corridor, when she exclaimed, “Zhou! Thank gods, Arun couldn’t find you—”
“Daiyu got me.” Lingyi heard Zhou’s familiar voice crackle through her earpiece. “She knows the way out.”
Lingyi held herself taut, because otherwise, she would collapse
onto her desk from relief. Zhou was alive, and Daiyu would take them to safety. Iris was speaking to her, but none of the words were registering. Instead, Lingyi found herself searching through every camera still working in Jin Corp, looking for Victor’s familiar shape. He was always slick, always a step ahead. If anyone could actually cheat death, it’d be Vic. She squinted at the corridors filled with smoke, searched the rooms sparking with live wire, writhing like electric serpents.
She checked Iris’s feed but couldn’t see anything except thick smoke, and the vague sense of someone moving in front of her. Suddenly, she heard Zhou screaming that they needed to go back. To find Vic. Lingyi wanted to say something but couldn’t form the words. She heard Iris instead, her love, her heart, convincing him to keep heading toward the exit—telling Zhou that Victor was gone.
Lingyi couldn’t see. She wiped her nose with one sleeve, then blinked hard, flicking through the security cameras. There were fewer and fewer that still worked, and all of them showed chaos and ruin; gaping maws, fire, and smoke. She could hear voices speaking on Iris’s feed, but Iris didn’t say anything again. Then they were outside, clear of the crumbling building.
Lingyi drew a long breath that erupted into shaking sobs.
They were out.
Iris and Zhou were safe.
Iris’s feed jostled as they ran away from Jin Corp. Lingyi felt as if
she were floating outside her own body again, untethered. Then Iris spoke directly into her ear, summoning Lingyi back to herself. “He’s not coming.”
Lingyi tried to grasp what Iris meant. No, Vic wasn’t coming. Vic was dead. Then she saw Zhou standing there beside a girl who looked vaguely familiar. “Let me speak with him,” Lingyi said, her voice cracking.
Iris stalked toward Zhou and shoved her earpiece into Zhou’s ear.
“Come home, Zhou,” Lingyi managed to say.
“Is Arun all right?” he asked.
“I’m here, bro. Where were you?” Arun interjected from his earpiece. “I searched all through the basement.”
“There are two levels,” Lingyi heard the girl standing beside Zhou say in a quiet voice. Daiyu.
Arun had been on the wrong floor, because Lingyi hadn’t studied the building plans thoroughly enough.
“I need some time,” Zhou finally replied in a hoarse voice. “Victor’s dead.”
“Oh, Zhou.” Lingyi broke into a sob. “I know. Go with Iris. Please.”
A long pause. “I can’t,” he finally said.
Iris and Zhou argued, but Lingyi barely heard them.
Lingyi couldn’t blame him. She had ordered Arun to abandon him—good as dead. “You’re angry,” she said. “Because we failed to find you. We left you there—”
“No,” he cut her off. “I’m not angry. It was always the mission first. We all knew that.”
She did know that. But Lingyi had been the one who had been forced to make all the tough decisions, had forced her friends to abide by the hard choices. And now Vic was dead; and his blood was on her hands. She’d failed them. She said more to Zhou, but it was as if someone else had taken over—someone blathering meaningless words.
Finally, the voices stopped in her earpiece.
Lingyi folded her arms onto the cold glass and rested her head down on them. Most of Jin Corp’s cameras had winked out by now, displaying static. She closed her eyes and felt hot tears slide down her face.
The image of Victor giving her an okay sign flashed before her eyes, before he, too, had been consumed by gray static.
Lingyi lost track of time.