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Instead of Jiro answering me, the car does. “Of course, Miss Chen,” it says.

Of course, Miss Chen. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to that. The windows’ forest scene fades away, leaving the glass clear. I stare in awe at the city we’re approaching.

I’ve seen Tokyo on TV, online, and inside Warcross’s Tokyo Night level. I’ve fantasized about being here so much, I’ve seen it in my dreams.

But now I’m actually here. And it’s even better than any of that.

Skyscrapers that disappear into the evening clouds. Highways stacked on top of one another, drenched in the red and gold lights of cars racing by. High-speed rails running in the sky and disappearing underground. Commercials playing on screens eighty stories tall. Kaleidoscopes of color and sound, everywhere I look. I don’t know what to take in first. As we near the heart of Tokyo, the streets turn crowded, until the sea of people jamming the sidewalks makes Times Square look empty by comparison. I don’t realize my mouth is hanging open until Jiro looks back at me and chuckles.

“I see that expression a lot,” he says (or rather, my English subtitle tells me he’s saying).

I swallow, embarrassed that he caught me gaping, and close my mouth. “Is this downtown Tokyo?”

“Tokyo is too large to have a single downtown district. There are two dozen wards, each with their own characteristics. We’re entering Shibuya now.” He pauses to smile. “I’d recommend putting on your glasses.”

I put the glasses back on, tap their side to put them on clear mode, and when I do, I gasp.

Unlike New York, or the rest of America, Tokyo seems completely redone for virtual reality. Names of buildings hover in neon colors over each of the skyscrapers, and bright, animated advertisements play across entire sides of buildings. Virtual models stand outside clothing shops, each twirling to show off a variety of outfits. I recognize one of the virtual models as a character from the latest Final Fantasy game, a girl with bright blue hair, now greeting me by name and showing off her Louis Vuitton purse. A Buy Now button hovers right over it, waiting to be tapped.

The sky is filled with virtual flying ships and colorful orbs, some displaying news, others displaying commercials, still others just there seemingly because they look pretty. As we drive, I can see faint, translucent text in the center of my vision telling us how many kilometers we are from the center of the Shibuya district, as well as the current temperature and weather forecast.

The streets are crowded with young people in elaborate getups—giant lace skirts, elaborate umbrellas, ten-inch-tall boots, eyelashes that seem miles long, face masks that glow in the dark. Some of them have their Warcross level floating over their heads, along with hearts and stars and trophies. Others have virtual pets trotting alongside them, bright purple virtual dogs or sparkling silver virtual tigers. Still others wear all kinds of avatar items, virtual cat ears or antlers on their heads, enormous angel wings on their backs, hair and eyes in every color.

“Since it is officially game season now,” Jiro explains, “you will see this quite often.” He nods toward a person on the street with Level 80 and 3,410,383 over her head, smiling as several people give her high fives and congratulate her on her high rank. A virtual pet falcon swoops in circles around her head, its tail blazing with fire. “Here, almost everything you do will earn you points toward your level in the Link. Going to school. Going to work. Cooking dinner. And so on. Your level can earn you rewards in the real world, anything from popularity with your classmates to better service at restaurants, to an edge over others for a job interview.”

I nod as I look on in awe. I’ve heard many parts of the world are tricked out like this. As if on cue, a transparent bubble appears in my center view with a pleasant ding.

First Time in Tokyo!

  350 Points. Daily Score: +350

You leveled up!

My level jumps from 24 to 25. I feel a rush of exhilaration at the sight.

Half an hour later, we turn onto a quiet street sloping up a hill and stop in front of a hotel near the top. The name—Crystal Tower Hotel—and address float over the roof. I may have never been to Tokyo before, but even I can tell that this is in an upper-class neighborhood, with perfectly clean sidewalks and neat rows of cherry trees not yet in bloom. The hotel itself is at least twenty stories tall, sleekly designed, with a virtual image of floating koi swimming across its entire side.

Jiro holds my backpack as I scoot out of the car. The edges of the sliding glass doors light up as we approach it, and when we step inside, two attendants bow at us from either side of the entrance. I bow my head awkwardly back.

“Welcome to Tokyo, Miss Chen,” the hotel’s registration attendee says to me as we reach the front desk. Over her head is her name—Sakura Morimoto, followed by Front Desk and Level 39. She bows her head at me.

“Hi,” I reply. “Thanks.”

“Mr. Tanaka has requested our best suite for you. Please,” she says, holding out an arm toward the elevators. “This way.”

We follow her into an elevator, where she pushes the button for the top floor. My heart starts to hammer again. Hideo had personally requested my room. I can’t even remember the last time I stayed in a real hotel—it must have been back when Dad had managed to get an invite to New York Fashion Week, and the two of us got to stay in a tiny little boutique hotel because I’d caught the eye of some modeling scout. But it was nothing even close to this.

When we reach the top floor, the attendant guides us to the only door along the hall. She hands me a keycard. “Please enjoy,” she says with a smile. Then she swipes the door open and guides me in.

It’s a penthouse suite. We walk into a space that is several times larger than anywhere I’ve ever lived. A basket of fresh fruit and green tea–flavored snacks sits on the glass coffee table. There’s a bedroom and a living room with a curved glass window stretching from floor to ceiling that overlooks a glittering Tokyo. From here, with my new glasses on, I can see the virtual names of streets and buildings blinking in and out as I move around the room. Icons—hearts, stars, thumbs-ups—cluster over various parts of the city, emphasizing areas where the most people have bookmarked favorite spots, shops, or meet-ups with friends. I walk toward the windows until my shoes bump up against the glass, then look out at the city in wonder. Warcross’s virtual Tokyo is a sight to behold—but this is real, and the knowledge of it being real makes me light-headed.

A transparent bubble pops up again:

Checked into Crystal Tower Hotel Penthouse Suite 1

  150 Pts. Daily Score: +500

Level 25 | N1,580

“It’s even better than I imagined,” I say.

The attendant smiles, even though it must be a pretty silly thing for her to hear. “Thank you, Miss Chen,” she says with another bow. “If you need anything during your stay, just let me know, and I will see to it.”

As she closes the door behind her, I do one more full turn around the room. My stomach growls as if in response, reminding me that I could use a proper meal.

I walk over to the coffee table, where an option called in-room dining is floating over it. I tap the virtual words and I’m suddenly surrounded by dishes hovering in midair. There must be hundreds of options: enormous burgers dripping with melted cheese, plates of spaghetti thick with sauce and meatballs, assorted platters of sushi, steaming bowls of noodle soups in rich broth, crispy fried chicken with rice, fluffy pork buns and pan-fried dumplings, stews thick with meat and vegetables, silky soft dessert mochi with sweet red bean filling . . . the dishes go on and on.

My head spins as I finally settle on fried chicken and dumplings. While I wait, I spend a full ten minutes trying to figure out how to use the toilet and another ten minutes turning the lights on and off just by waving my hands before me. And when my order arrives, everything tastes even better than it looks. I’ve never had a meal as fancy as this—I can’t even remember the last time I ate something that didn’t come out of a box.

When I can’t eat another bite, I wander to the bed and flop on it with a contented sigh. The bed is ridiculously comfortable, firm enough that I can just sink slowly into it until it feels like I’m lying on a cloud. My mattress back in our tiny studio had been salvaged for free off the sidewalk, a ratty old spring pad that squeaked like hell every time I moved on it. Now, here I am, staying in this vast penthouse suite that Hideo himself had requested for me.

My contented mood wavers, and abruptly I have a sensation of unbelonging. A girl like me simply shouldn’t be touching these luxury linens, eating this expensive food, sleeping in this room larger than any home I’ve ever been in. My gaze wanders to the corner of the suite, searching for the mattresses lying on the floor, Keira’s figure huddled under a blanket on the couch. She would have looked at me with that wide-eyed stare. Can you believe this? she’d say.

I want to reply to her, to someone. But she’s not here. Nothing familiar is here, except for myself.

Tomorrow morning, ten o’clock. It occurs to me that I don’t even have appropriate clothes to wear—no interview suits, no proper slacks or blouses. I’m going to walk into Henka Games tomorrow looking like a kid literally plucked from the streets. This is how I’m going to meet the most famous young man in the world.