What if Hideo realizes he’s made a huge mistake?
A pair of torn jeans, with both of my knees showing through. My favorite old T-shirt with a vintage print of SEGA on it. The same beat-up pair of boots I wear almost every day. A red plaid flannel shirt, faded from too many washes.
Dad would be horrified.
Despite how comfortable the bed is, I’d tossed and turned all night. I’d woken up at the crack of dawn, bleary-eyed and disoriented, my head crowded with thoughts. Now I have bags under my eyes, and my skin has seen better days.
I’d ironed my poor plaid flannel as well as I could, twice, but the collar still looks crumpled and worn. I roll the sleeves up neatly to my elbows, then tug the shirt as straight as I can. In the mirror, I try to pretend it’s a sharp blazer. The only thing I like this morning is my hair, which seems to be cooperating with me. It’s thick and straight, and the rainbow of colors in it shines in the morning light. But I don’t have any makeup to cover the dark circles under my eyes—and with exactly thirteen dollars to my name, I’m not about to go out and blow it on face creams and concealer. Both my T-shirt and the flannel look hopelessly old and worn when contrasted with everything bright and new in this penthouse suite. The sole of my left boot is noticeably peeling off. The holes in my jeans look even bigger than I remember.
Game studios aren’t exactly known for strict dress codes, but even they must have some sort of etiquette for meeting the top bosses.
For meeting the top boss in the entire industry.
A pleasant ding echoes around the suite, and a light near my bed’s headrest alerts me to an incoming call. I tap to accept it, and a moment later, Sakura Morimoto’s voice comes on through speakers hidden throughout my room. “Good morning, Miss Chen.” Over the speakers, with no virtual overlays, she switches to speaking English. “Your car is waiting outside for you, whenever you are ready.”
“I’m ready,” I reply, not believing my own words.
“See you soon,” she says.
Jiro and the same car from last night are waiting outside. I half expect him to make some sort of remark about my clothes, or at least raise an eyebrow. But instead, he greets me warmly when I approach, then helps me in. We ride along with a scene of sunflowers and sunrise playing on the windows. Jiro’s suit is flawlessly sharp, a perfect black outfit with a crisp white shirt that must be some high-end brand. If this is how Hideo’s bodyguards look, then what should I be wearing? I keep tugging at my sleeves, trying to magically change my clothes into something nice by straightening them repeatedly.
I imagine Dad’s face if he were to see me right now. He’d suck in his breath and wince. Absolutely not, he’d say. He’d grab my hand and start dragging me immediately to the nearest boutique, credit card debt be damned.
The thought makes me tug harder on my sleeves. I push the thought away.
The car finally stops before a white gate. I listen curiously as the bodyguard says something to what looks like an automated machine attendant. From the corner of my eye, I notice a small logo on the side of the gate. Henka Games. Then the car moves forward, and we continue inside, parking at a spot near the front sidewalk. Jiro comes around to let me out. “Here we are,” he says with a smile and a bow.
He leads me through a large set of sliding glass doors. We step into the largest lobby I’ve ever seen.
Light pours in from a glass ceiling atrium and down to where we stand, in the middle of an open space decorated with towering indoor vines. Water trickles from several fountains along these walls. Stacks of clean white balconies curve along the building’s insides. A faint carving of the Henka Games logo covers one of the white walls. Hanging down from the ceiling in drapes are colorful banners of the competing Warcross teams, each one displaying a team’s symbol in celebration of the current championship season. I pause for an instant to admire the sight. If I were wearing NeuroLink glasses right now, I bet these banners would be animated.
Welcome to Henka Games!
2,500 Pts. Daily Score: +2,500
You leveled up!
Level 26 | N3,180
“This way,” my bodyguard says, guiding me forward.
We walk toward a series of clear glass cylinders, where a smiling woman is waiting for us. She has a gold pin on her perfectly ironed blazer, in honor of the current tournament season, and a clipboard tucked under one arm. Her smile widens at the sight of me, although I notice her eyes flicker briefly to my clothing. She doesn’t say anything about it, but I blush.
“Welcome, Miss Chen,” she says, bowing her head in a calm gesture. My bodyguard bids me farewell as I’m handed off to her. “Mr. Tanaka is looking forward to meeting you.”
I swallow hard as I return the bow. He won’t be, once he gets a look at the mess that I am. “Me too,” I mumble.
“There are a few rules you’ll need to follow,” she continues. “First: No photos are allowed during this meeting. Second: You will need to sign an agreement stating that you won’t publicly discuss what you’re told here.” She hands me the form on the clipboard.
No photos. No public discussions. Not a surprise. “Okay,” I reply, reading the clipboard’s paper thoroughly and then signing it at the bottom.
“And third: I must request that you never ask Mr. Tanaka any questions about his family or their private affairs. This is a company-wide policy, and one that Mr. Tanaka is very strict about maintaining.”
I look at her. This one is a weirder request than the first two—but I decide to nod anyway. “No family questions. Got it.”
The elevator doors open for us. The lady waves me inside, then folds her arms in front of her as we start to head up. I look out at the expanse of the studio, my eyes lingering on the giant team banners as we rise past them. This building is a beautiful work of architecture. Dad would have been impressed.
We keep going until we reach the top floor. A few employees pass us by, each of them sporting Warcross T-shirts and jeans. The sight is reassuring. One of the employees glances my way with a hint of recognition in his eyes. He looks like he wants to stop me, then reddens and decides against it. I realize that everyone working here must have been watching the opening ceremony—and seen me glitch into the game. As I’m thinking this, I catch sight of a few other employees down in the lobby below, their necks craned curiously up in our direction.
She guides us down an open hallway until we reach a smaller lobby, where another set of sliding glass doors stands. The glass is completely clear, so that I can see part of a room beyond it, along with large paintings of Warcross worlds on the walls and a long meeting table. My legs start to feel numb, and fear shoots up my spine. Now that I’m moments away from my meeting, I’m suddenly gripped with the feeling that maybe I don’t want to be here after all.
“Wait one moment, please,” the lady says as we reach the doors. She presses a finger gently against a pad on the wall, then walks inside as they slide open. From where I am, I see her bow low and ask something in Japanese. All I can understand are Tanaka-sama and Chen-san.
A quiet voice answers her from somewhere on the far side of the room.
The lady returns and opens the sliding door. “Come in.” She nods at me as I pass. “Have a good meeting.” Then she’s gone, heading back down the hall from where we came.
I find myself standing in the middle of a room with a stunning view of Tokyo. At one end of the room, several people lounge in chairs around a meeting table—two women, one dressed in a blouse and skirt, another in a Warcross tee, blazer, and jeans. A young, golden-haired man sits between them, making gestures in the air with his hands. I recognize him as Kenn, who had spoken to me on the private jet. The women argue back, scrutinizing something about one of the worlds for the Warcross championships.
My eyes wander from them to the last person in the room.
He’s sitting on a sleek gray couch right next to the meeting table, his elbows perched on his knees. The other three people are unconsciously turned in his direction, clearly waiting for him to give the final say. He’s dressed in a perfectly tailored white collar shirt rolled up to his elbows and with two of the top buttons casually undone, a pair of lean, dark trousers, and deep scarlet oxford shoes. The only game-related item he’s wearing is a pair of simple, silver cuff links glinting in the sunlight, both cut in the shape of the Warcross logo. His eyes are very dark and framed by long lashes. His hair is thick and midnight black, except for a curious, thin silver streak on one side.
Hideo Tanaka, in the flesh.
After years of admiring him from afar, I’m not sure what I expected. It somehow startles me to see him without a monitor or a magazine cover obstructing the view, like he’s in focus for the first time.
He looks up at me.
“Miss Chen,” he says, pushing himself off the couch in one graceful move. Then he approaches me, bows his head once, and stretches out a hand. He’s tall, his gestures easy and effortless, his expression serious. The only imperfection on him is his knuckles—they’re bruised, newly scarred, and surprising on his otherwise elegant hands, as if he had been in a fight. I catch myself gaping curiously and manage to stop just in time to extend my hand, too. My movements feel like those of a lumbering ox. Even though my clothes aren’t that different from everyone else’s, I feel dirty and underdressed compared to his flawless style.