357 – Link, Start! – I
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*BZZZT*

John felt his phone vibrate in his pocket, but he pointedly ignored it.

Rin tilted her head and said, "Shouldn't you answer that?"

"Don't worry about it. Anyway." John picked up his work tablet from the side of his desk and started scrolling through the list of sponsorship deals for Rin. "Raid- I mean, Loot: Dark Mythos is definitely out. It'll send a bad message, especially since you and your target audience are mostly high schoolers."

Rin sighed. "Fiiine." She paused and said, "I can still play it by myself though, right?"

"Well, I can't really stop you-"

"Yay!"

"-But I'll definitely tell Sakura about it."

"Aw... But why?" Rin pouted and said, "It's just a game, isn't it? What's wrong with loot boxes?"

"That's hell you're walking into, Rin." John looked off into the distance with a thousand-yard stare. "...Take it from a former gacha salt miner."

"Salt miner? Gacha?" Rin blinked and tilted her head, confused.

"Better that you don't find out. Anyway, if you want to get random drops and cool loot, just go play Titor's <World Line>. I'm pretty sure he talked about a service letting people cash-out their equipment for real-life printed models. At least that way the money you spend will get you neat collectibles instead of just pixels."

Rin huffed and said, "The stuff you get from loot boxes aren't just pixels!"

John let out a wry smile. "Just trust me on this one. Anyway..." He held out the tablet and said, "I've got some interesting sponsors lined up after filtering out all the quick cash grabs-"

*BZZZT*

"One second." John pulled open his desk drawer and then chucked his phone inside.

It didn't stop vibrating, but it was definitely more muffled after being covered in a bunch of random papers.

Rin glanced at the drawer and said, "Are you sure you should be ignoring that, Mister John?"

"I'm sure."

Intuition and experience told John that it was something ridiculous that had to do with his family members. Something that would quickly escalate to insane proportions the moment he got involved.

So he didn't.

Mostly because he wanted to confirm a hypothesis he was developing after seeing how events were starting to unfold around his adorable daughters.

"Anyway." John reached over to swipe his tablet and said, "Since Project MirAIs is still new, a lot of the big names want to wait a bit to see if we'll be sticking around, but there's a few who want to work with us. I mentioned that you were interested more in the music and idol side of things... Ah, here." He stopped scrolling and slid it over to Rin.

Rin picked it up and tilted her head, reading the sponsorship deal. "Fony headphones?"

John nodded. "We can probably make better ones in-house, but they mentioned that they wanted to make a music video commercial with Hana. That would get broadcasted on TV, so... what do you think?"

Rin scrolled down a bit and then stopped at the name of the song she would be singing. "Meeting Again...?"

"Yep!" John leaned back in his chair, pointedly ignoring the constant buzzing echoing from his desk drawer. "You'll get creative input into the music video shot and everything too, so it's a pretty good gig, right?"

Rin nodded, carefully reading the fine print. But then she paused on a clause and tilted her head. "Um, Mister John?"

John casually pulled open his desk drawer and held the power button on his phone. As he was doing that, he looked up at Rin and said, "Yes?"

Rin stared at the drawer for a bit before shaking her head and ignoring it. Instead, she pointed at the tablet screen and said, "What does it mean when it says Hana has to perform live on set? Isn't that impossible?"

John paused and then said, "Oh yeah. I guess we haven't showed you girls the Imaginary Digital Object Loader bodies yet, have we?"

"...The what?"

"IDOL bodies for short. As for what they are... Well." John leaned forward and said, "...Have you ever thought about becoming a magical girl, Rin?"

"???"

xxx

A wacky and wild weekend. Trending video clips of an old man cosplaying as a Chinese Martial Artist beating up a bunch of athletic young men and women popped up all over social media, making people wonder if a brand new blockbuster Martial Arts movie was finally going to be released. Especially after clips of a cute young girl drop kicking the old man popped up afterwards.

At the same time, news continued to drum up about the latest hits with Ars Nova Productions' new game, Ilgarde's first arc, and the server opening for the world's first VRMMORPG <World Line>.

And then it was the start of a new week.

xxx

January 6th, 2025. Monday morning, Asako's office floor.

Asako sat on the edge of a bed in the back of the office and picked up the custom VR headset that Titor had sent over. Tilting it around to examine it, she frowned and said, "This thing doesn't even have a cable. Is it really going to work?"

Across the room, Garbage sat behind a computer desk. Hearing Asako's question, he glanced at the nearby monitor and then gave a thumbs up. "I got ya, Queen! Triple and quadruple checked the headset this morning before you got here and managed to log on just fine! Hehehe..."

Asako cringed and immediately dropped the VR headset on the side, looking at it with disgust.

Foxy walked up behind Garbage and smacked him on the head.

"Ow!" Garbage rubbed his head and said, "What?! I had to check!"

"Perv." Foxy rolled her eyes and then pulled out a small pack of disinfectant wipes from her bag before walking over to Asako. She held it out and said, "Here, Queen. Use this to help clean it."

Asako took the wipes and then pulled one out before gingerly reaching out to the headset. "Thanks, Foxy. But... ew." She started throughly scrubbing the headset down and then turned her nose up at Garbage. "Should I toss you to Miss Couch again to learn your lesson?"

Garbage immediately straightened his posture and quickly shook his head. "N-No Queen- I mean, Ma'am! T-There's no need to go that far!"

Asako kept scrubbing down the headset and then looked at the last person in the room.

Orca met Asako's gaze from his spot at a lounge chair close to the bed.

Seeing that, Asako said, "Orca. You'll keep these two idiots in check to make sure they don't do anything weird to me while I'm in the game, right?"

Orca nodded and said, "Of course, my Queen. Even if I did not, however, I am more than certain that Miss Alphy would have plenty to say about that if something happened. Along with our fellow support staff members."

Garbage immediately paled, subconsciously rubbing his neck.

Asako chuckled and then finished wiping down the headset. After that, she took a look around at everyone and said, "Alright then you clowns... minus you of course, Orca."

Orca nodded. "Obviously."

"Hey!" Garbage huffed and said, "I'm not a clown!"

Foxy puffed out her cheeks and said, "Yeah! I'm not either!"

Asako pointedly ignored Garbage and Foxy. Laying down on her bed, she slipped on the headset and said, "Okay. I'm going in now. Again, no weird stuff."

Garbage rolled his eyes and said, "Fine, fine. Like I'd even have time for that with how busy we'll be monitoring the stream."

Foxy dragged over a beanbag before flopping down on it and pulling out her phone. "Right? All these idiots are deeefinitely going to need the ban hammer when Queen starts streaming."

Orca pulled out his phone as well and said, "Worry not, my Queen. Just enjoy playing the game as much as you can before you begin getting mobbed by stream snipers."

"Ugh." Asako reached up to turn on her headset and said, "That's going to be a pain in the ass... But I guess I can relieve some stress then." She cracked her knuckles while waiting for the headset and game to start and said, "Everyone's been asking to get beat, so I might as well give it to them, right?"

Garbage looked away from the monitor and then slowly said, "Is it too late for me to login and play too?"

"Yes." Asako lowered her hands and said, "Now... Connect us!"

A rippling sea of rainbow lights. One that only Asako could see. And then...

"Welcome to the Velv- Gah!"

Asako lowered her fist and stared at the collapsed form of a man wearing a white lab coat in front of her. She blinked and then let out a sheepish smile. "Sorry. Force of habit."

Titor groaned and jumped back to his feet, rubbing his chin. "Dammit. Definitely need to remember to turn down that pain replication number in the future... But anyway." He grinned and said, "Welcome to my world, oh Dragon Queen. Now..." He snapped his fingers, causing Asako to flash blue before turning to Aoko. "Shall we begin?"

Asako- No, [Aoko] gave Titor a blank stare before slowly saying, "How are you married again?"

"..."

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