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Some Stars Are Closer Than You Think
By Worldancer & Dunning Kruger
Jay fell onto the ground with a loud thud. “Argh! Why hasn’t the teleport bug been fixed.” He was regretting teleporting directly into the busiest district of AM. It was hard not to when the ruthless crowd trampled over him as though he was part of the floor (the pain was blocked in AM, but still).
“Hey, are you okay?” A young woman blocked the next trampler, standing beside him like a guardian angel. The crowd spilt around her like rushing water around a rock. He glanced at the name tag hovering atop her head. Ari, it read. “Getting trampled was oddly satisfying actually,” Jay said as Ari hoisted him to his feet, “lovely full body massage.”
That earned him a chuckle from her. “You’re a pretty weird guy.” She put an arm on her hip as she assessed him. “Good for you”—she leaned in close to him—“I like weird.” She winked.
“And I like to keep on top of my schedule.” He dusted off himself. “Thanks for the help though.”
He turned and continued on his way. Noticing his direction of travel, she piped up, “You’re going to Rainbow Way too?”
“Yeah. Karaoke at my usual spot,” he said without turning back.
Smiling to herself, she hurried to keep up with his brisk pace. ‘That man is strange—oddly driven in this world where the emphasis is on the fun. A singing partner will be nice for a change.’
They walked out of the square and joined the river of human traffic entering and exiting the Entertainment District, commonly known as “Rainbow Way”. The district was essentially Akihabara, fast forward a few decades. The wide and busy street was alive with glitzy neon lights and clutter of holographic projections that blocked out swaths of the night sky overhead. It was a veritable light show, ‌yet Jay paid its glamour no heed.
“You must be a regular here, to be so jaded by such a sight”—her eyes flickered to the name tag bobbing above his head—“Jay.”
“Yeah. It’s just part of the daily grind.” He yawned.
“Grind? What’s there to grind for?”
At this statement, he turned sharply to her. “What’s there to grind for?” He frowned at her as though she was telling him to eat a kit-kat without snapping the bars in two. “A whole ton of activities! Excavation, Education… the list goes on. Karaoke’s simply my next stop at farming $ANIMA before cycling to the other activities.”
“Are you having fun, though?” Ari tilted her head.
“I came to AM for a specific reason. Fun”—he fluttered his fingers melodramatically—“isn’t really one of them.”
Ari grew silent, mulling it over in her head.
They stopped at the Grand Concert Hall that loomed at the end of the busy street. The front of the concert hall was massive, spanning the entire wide road, and it was decorated with enough neon glamour to rival the entire Rainbow Way.
“Let’s get this over with,” he muttered.
The glassy doors slid open for them, revealing a well-furnished foyer. Instantly, a holographic interface popped up in front of them. Hands flashing over the interface, Jay keyed in the details for the Karaoke system.
[Total number of people you’ll be singing with?]
By instinct, he reached to tap “1”, but Ari coughed loudly. “How about you stop singing alone for once,” she said. “We’re both here anyways.”
With evident apprehension, he tapped “2”. “Just this time, I suppose,” he said.
Upon confirming his selection, both of them were whisked into a separate instance. The lobby blinked away, replaced by pitch blackness as if they stood in a void. A series of screens surrounded them in a full circle.
“So, where do you usually prefer singing?” he asked, idly swiping through the limitless Karaoke locations provided. “Bamboo forest? Luxury mansion? Space station? Or maybe you like the normal karaoke set up?”
“Let’s do Mauna Kea,” she said. Noting his confusion, she added, “The dormant volcano on the island of Hawaii?”
A blank stare met her.
“Super advanced astronomical observatory at its peak?” she said.
Jay blinked.
“Oh never mind, you’ll see why soon enough,” she said, tapping the [Mauna Kea] option. “Song preference?”
“Let’s do Hikari’s newest song: Star Shower,” he said.
Ari’s eyes widened a fraction. “You’re a fan of Hikari?”
“Of course! Her voice, her song lyrics… it’s the one thing that isn’t a grind for me,” he said.
“I… am sure she would be delighted to hear that.” She smiled, pressing her lips together ‌to prevent it from spreading further.
He noticed her growing smile. “You’re a fan too?”
“I am her biggest fan.” She giggled.
“That’s what everyone says,” he replied, making the song selection.
The selection screens dissolved in a blur of blue pixels then ate away at the darkness, gradually replacing it with a set of stunning scenery,
They stood atop a mountain peak, puffs of low-lying clouds at their feet. Huge white globes—observatories—dotted the mountain range at odd intervals. But what caught Jay’s eye was a magnificent sunset that set the sky ablaze in swaths of pink, orange, and red.
“And this isn’t even the best part,” she said.
The gentle piano opening of Star Shower began to play. At the bottom of their visions, the lyrics appeared. The System would amplify their voices—there was no need for a microphone.
Jay sang the first stanza, a calming tune, soft and tranquil like the wind that caressed his face. He had sung it countless times, and its silky melody was etched into his mind. Singing it without seeing the lyrics or the music was effortless for him.
But when Ari sang the next stanza, he realized she was on a whole other level. It was as though she was part of the melody itself. Her voice twirled and danced to the lilting flutes and the lively violins. Like the setting sun’s rays, her soaring notes seemed to bring vibrant colour to the music, complementing it perfectly but never letting it overshadow her. The chorus approached, but Jay didn’t utter a word. Instead, he stood, transfixed by the vocal magic she cast upon him. Then the chorus hit and the floodgates opened as Ari glided through crescendo after crescendo. A tingle rose up to his neck, driven by the raw emotion and peerless command her voice exuded. He found himself lost in her singing, his trance broken only when the last note faded into the night.
[You received 1500 EXP and 100 $ANIMA! Congratulations!]
'This girl could sing. And the sheer quality… it was like Hikari herself was singing.’ A curious thought entered his mind.
“You’re a bloody talented singer, Ari!” he said, applauding.
“And you’re too kind,” she said between light pants, her face flushed from the effort. “My mentor would have called this subpar.” Her gaze shifted to the ground.
“Then your mentor doesn’t know jack shit,” he said boldly. She narrowed her eyes at him. “Err, I meant to say, your mentor doesn’t, err, know your true potential,” he corrected.
The sun sank beneath the horizon, ushering in curtains of twilight that quickly surrendered to dusk. Time moved differently in this metaverse bubble, and they could see twinkling stars gather overhead.
“Why do you look up to Hikari so much?” she asked, glancing at him from the corner of her eye.
“Because,” he said, “she reminds me of everything I’m not. She’s achieved stardom—greatness. Meanwhile, I’m stagnating in my mediocre life. If she’s the rising star, then I’m the chunk of an asteroid floating in the void.”
Ari mulled over this for a moment. “Sometimes, greatness isn’t as glamorous as it seems. And sometimes, being average is valuable‌.” “Easy to say when she’s sitting on that singing talent.”
“You think it’s easy being up there?” she snapped, taking Jay aback. “Oops, sorry. I didn’t mean it that way.” She blushed furiously, clenching the sides of her skirt.
“It’s fine. You probably come to AM to destress from your irl life. Whatever that may be.” He gave her a sidelong gaze.
“Yeah, you’re right,” she said, looking at the sea of stars that glittered like a million silver sequins sewn onto a dark canvas. “Sometimes, it's the one place I can truly be myself. No need to maintain an image or keep up to society’s suffocating expectations.”
“How ironic. AM a safe haven for you and a grind fest for myself. I didn’t think I’d meet my polar opposite here.”
“Funny how AM connects people like that.” She paused, her gaze softening a fraction. “You think having a hoard of $ANIMA will earn you greatness?”
“Anything beats my irl situation. I loathe it—my office job, I mean. So… boring.” He kicked a stray pebble. “If I could, I’d exchange mine with someone of fame or reputation.”
“And I’d do the opposite.”
“The opposite?”
“I mean—uhmm…” she struggled with a follow-up, ending her mumbling with an awkward laugh.
Pieces of a puzzle clicked together. ‘Could it really be her?’ “You’re not really ‘Ari’, are you?” he said.
“And you’re not really Jay—”
“Actually, that is my real name.”
“Oh.”
He laughed, and she saw the troubled look in his eyes clear temporarily. “I always wanted to meet you, Hikari.” he reached out his hand.
“I’m not Hikari.”
“Okay. Nice to meet you, Not Hikari. You sing just as well as Hikari herself!” he said with mock surprise. “I just figured it out, by the way.”
“This wasn’t supposed to happen,” she grumbled. But she took his hand and shook it. “But how did you find out?”
“SO IT ACTUALLY IS YOU!” he cried, spreading out his arms as though he won an NFT Twitter giveaway. “I can’t believe this. You, in the flesh. Or digital flesh. Whatever.” He bounced on the spot, whooping for joy.
“You tricked me!” she said, her look of comedic betrayal so priceless that he burst out laughing. “Jay, I’ll send assassins after you if you leak this!”
“Um, can’t you just change how your avatar looks, change your name and achieve the same result?”
“Oh. Right.”
He opened the song selection menu, a silly grin still plastered on his face. “Wanna sing another song?”
“Sure,” she said. “But maybe another singer, please. Singing my own songs gets tiresome.”
“Hell, I never imagined meeting my idol in virtual reality.” He looked up at the stars. “Maybe there is more to grinding after all.”
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