“Great. There is a car waiting outside your apartment, ready to take you to John F. Kennedy International Airport. Pack whatever you like. The car is ready when you are.”
“A car? But—wait—when’s the flight? What airline? How much time do I have to . . .”
“It’s my private jet,” he says, unconcerned. “It will take off whenever you are in it.”
His private jet.
“Wait, but—all of my stuff. How long will I be there?” My eyes shift back to Keira. She looks pale, still processing the fact that our debts have been erased in the blink of an eye.
“If you’d like any belongings packed up and shipped to Tokyo with you,” he replies, “just say the word and it’ll be done today. In the meanwhile, you will have everything you need here.”
“Hang on.” I start to shake my head. Shipping my belongings over? Just how long does he want me to stay there? My brow furrows. “What I need is a sec to think. I don’t understand.” My emotions finally spill out, unleashing a torrent of thoughts. “What’s this all about? The car, my debts, the plane—Tokyo?” I sputter. “Yesterday, I disrupted the biggest game of the year. Someone should be angry with me. You should be. What am I going to Tokyo for?” I take a deep breath. “What do you want from me?”
There’s a pause on the other end. Suddenly, I realize that I’m mouthing off to one of the world’s most powerful people—to my idol, someone I’ve watched and read about and obsessed over for years, someone who had changed my life. Across from me, Keira watches the phone intently as if she could see what Hideo’s expression looks like. I swallow in the silence, afraid for a moment.
“I have a job offer for you,” Hideo replies. “Would you like to hear more?”
Confession: I’ve been on an airplane a grand total of one time. It was after Mom left, and Dad decided to move us from San Francisco to New York. What I remember of that flight is the following: a tiny TV monitor to watch cartoons on; a little window through which I could see the clouds; a Tetris-like meal tray holding something questionably called chicken; and a mod of the original Sonic the Hedgehog 2 video game loaded onto my phone, my go-to game whenever I was feeling stressed out.
Somehow, I think my second flight will be very different from my first.
After the call with Hideo ended, the first thing I did was rush down the hall and knock on Mr. Alsole’s door. One glance at his dumbstruck face was all I needed to know that I didn’t just hallucinate everything.
Our rent is paid through the end of next year.
I pack in a daze. I don’t own a suitcase, so I end up stuffing as much clothing into my backpack as it can fit. My thoughts jumble together, every one of them about Hideo. What does he want me for? It must be huge, if it means flying me like this to Tokyo. Hideo has indeed hired a few hackers in the past—to help him work out bugs inside Warcross—but they were way more experienced, and probably with no criminal records. What if he’s actually angry with me, and is waiting to dole out punishment once I’m in Japan? It’s a ridiculous idea, sure . . . but so is being asked to pack up everything and go to Tokyo. Asked by Hideo Tanaka. The thought warms my insides again, and I tingle at the mystery of what this job offer might be.
Keira’s eyes trail me as I dart around the apartment. “When are you going to come back?” she asks, even though she’d heard the same conversation that I had.
I cram another T-shirt into my backpack. “Don’t know,” I reply. “Probably soon.” Secretly, I hope I’m wrong.
“How do you know this isn’t just some huge prank?” she says. A note of confusion in her voice. “I mean—it was broadcast everywhere across the internet.”
I pause to look at her. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, what’s to stop someone from dialing your number a million times and then playing the biggest hoax of all time on you?”
That must be it. It has to be. Some hacker out there thought it would be funny. Somebody broke into my phone’s weak security, faked Hideo’s voice, set me up—he’s probably laughing his head off right now.
But our rent is paid off. What prankster would waste his money like that?
All I can do is shrug. “Well, I’m going to see how far I can push it. Not like I have much to lose.”
As I finish with the last of my things, I hurry over to the little menagerie of objects by my bed. My Christmas ornament. Dad’s painting. I pick up both, taking extra care with the painting. It’s an explosion of blue, green, and gold streaks that, when you step back, somehow look like him holding my hand and walking me through a warm, tree-lined evening in Central Park. I stare at it for a moment longer, then pack it carefully into my bag. I could use a bit of good luck traveling with me.
An hour later, I’m as ready as I’ll ever be. I hoist my backpack and skateboard over my shoulders and step out of the apartment, then glance back, my eyes settling on Keira. I have a strange feeling I’m studying a life that I won’t be returning to. That this will be the last time I ever see her. And I find myself softening toward her, quietly wishing her well. She’ll have a rent-free apartment until the end of next year; maybe that’ll help her get back on her feet.
“Hey,” I say, feeling unsure of how to say good-bye. “The corner diner is going to need someone now. If you’re looking.”
“Yeah.” She smiles. “Thanks.”
She gives me a single, solemn nod. Like she also knows this may be permanent. “You too,” she replies.
Then I close the door behind me and don’t look back.
When I push open the building’s main entrance doors, an explosion of flashing lights blinds me. I squint and throw a hand over my face. A roar of voices go up. “Miss Chen. Miss Chen! Emika!” I wonder for an instant how the hell these people recognize me, before I remember that, with the rainbow of colors in my hair, it’s pretty obvious that I’m the same girl from the published screenshots.
An enormous figure bounds up the steps, pushing journalists aside in the process. “Allow me, ma’am,” he says in a friendly tone as he takes my backpack and board. He holds an arm out in front of me and starts making a path down the steps. When one journalist gets pushy, he shoves him back with a growl. I follow my new bodyguard dutifully, ignoring the questions thrown at me from all sides.
We finally push our way over to a car—the most beautifully sleek auto-car I’ve ever seen. I bet it’s the first time one has ever been spotted on our street. The bodyguard puts my stuff in the trunk. One of the car doors opens automatically, waits for me to shuffle inside, and then closes. The sudden silence, and the separation from the din outside, is a relief. Everything in it looks so luxurious that I feel like I’m ruining it just by sitting here. The clean scent of a new car hangs in the space. Bottles of champagne sit in a molded block of ice. Through the windows, I can see an overlay of virtual markers over the streets and buildings. Randall Avenue, reads a string of white letters overlaid across the street we’re on. Colorful little text bubbles pop up over each of the buildings. Green Hills Apartment Complex. Laundr-O-Matic. Chinese Food. This car has the NeuroLink fully integrated into it.
The car’s interior lights up. A voice comes on. “Hello, Miss Chen,” it says. I startle.
“Hi,” I say back, unsure where I should be looking.
“A preference for the car mood?” the voice continues. “Something serene, perhaps?”
I glance out at the mob of journalists still shouting at the car’s shaded windows. “Serene would be nice, Mr. . . . Car.”
“Fred,” the car says.
“Fred,” I reply, trying not to feel weird about talking to a bottle of champagne in an ice block. “Hi.”
All of the windows suddenly shift, and the journalists outside are replaced with a view of a stunning landscape—long grasses blowing in the wind, white cliffs out along the horizon, clear ocean and white foam, and a sunset tinting the clouds orange and pink. Even the chaos outside now sounds muffled, covered by calling seagulls and the crash of the virtual ocean.
“I’m George,” the bodyguard says as the car starts to drive us forward. “You must have had quite a morning.”
“Yeah,” I reply. “So . . . do you know why we’re heading for the airport?”
“My instructions from Mr. Tanaka were only to escort you safely to the jet.”
I go back to staring at the virtual seascape passing us. Instructions from Hideo. Maybe it’s not an elaborate prank after all.
Half an hour later, the serene views on the windows fade away, and the real world comes back into view. We’ve arrived at the airport. Instead of pulling into the usual circle where all the other vehicles go, though, ours turns into a small looping road that takes us toward the expanse of tarmac behind the airport. Here, the car pulls into a private garage that is situated next to a small row of jets.
I scoot out of the car’s dark interior, then squint in the light. One jet has Henka Games written on its side. It’s enormous, nearly the size of a commercial liner—except thin and sleek, with an elegant, sharp-nosed design that distinguishes it from the other jets. The panels along the sides of the plane look strange, almost translucent. The main door is open, and a set of stairs leads down to the tarmac, where a plush red rug lies. This is the plane that Hideo himself uses whenever he travels.