Was I really a hero?
I can’t say for sure. It felt that way back then, at that cafe--everyone made sure to let me know. But it felt wrong, misplaced. Those people only knew me as Kite.
Sometime during that meeting, this immeasurably unsettling feeling grew deep in my stomach. For a passing moment I almost believed the smiling faces of everyone around me. That there had been merit to my actions, and that they had been my own. I wanted to be the hero--no, at that moment I was the hero. My front-facing self, the hero Kite--a shield I created to avoid inquiry. Everyone was more or less who I expected them to be. The lack of a perceivable other self made them either terrifyingly two-faced or exceedingly simple, and there’s no way all of them could be the former. How well did I know them, and how well did they know me? The last few months had been a grand act on my behalf--a kind of role playing of being a hero. Would I be able to keep the facade up when speaking to them face-to-face? These concerns didn’t matter. All of them accepted me for what they thought I was--a hero. The easiness of it all was almost an affront to me, that they should be so self-interested that the possibility of my being anything more than what had been presented to them in an online game was illogical.
I know, at least, BlackRose could feel its falseness. She didn’t question it, probably because it would be too much trouble to engage with someone so bizarre any more than she had to. I knew as soon as we met in person that she could sense the self I kept hidden behind the screen. I couldn’t discern the look on her face. Was it disgust? Whatever it was, she had to bear it no longer--she had her brother, and that was enough.
The performance became unbearable. I was sick of myself, and sick of these people who accepted my poor playacting so easily. The feeling grew deeper, deeper, until finally I had to excuse myself to vomit.
In the bathroom I cleaned up and gazed into the mirror.
I was the only one that felt otherwise, that I had been a sham.
There was one other person who was supposed to be here that I was most nervous to meet--the only one who could see through my act.
The mysterious hacker, Helba.
That too, had been a let down. There was no way someone with that kind of reputation would show their face in front of a CC Corp administrator among other civilians. Instead she had sent someone in her place, a young man who handed us a business card that read “Ichiro Sato.” An alias, of course. Sato had explained that it was strictly formality that Helba was not present with us that day. He was her spokesperson of sorts, a young man barely older than myself at the time.
I was disappointed.
More than anyone else, it was Helba I wanted to see. There was so much I wanted to ask her, so much I wanted to say… she had been there at every corner of our journey, and yet all it amounted to was that Sato sitting at the table in his black turtleneck, coyly sipping a coffee. It was almost like a joke, one fitting of her.
Most of all, I felt I would never be able to ask her the thing I wondered most.
The one final question that remained at the end of my journey.
On the way out of the bathroom, Sato walked in. He took a step towards me and cornered me in the cramped room, almost falling over the sinks. He looked at me with a smile, and began to speak:
“You should know that she really wanted to be here today.”
I couldn’t say anything.
“Unfortunately, it’s just impossible with this kind of setting. But,” he said, pausing for dramatic effect. “If it were to be decided under her own circumstances, then a meeting of sorts can be arranged. All you have to do is call my number on that card, and I’ll make it happen.”
He stepped back, and made a motion to leave before stopping to look back at me.
“You really are just a kid, huh?”
And then he walked out.
When I finally left the bathroom, Sato had already left. Everyone else was listening intently to a story Piros was telling, making a big deal out of nothing in particular. I exchanged a glance with BlackRose, who seemed to be calling me over with her eyes.
Then I left.
The only person to notice something different about me had been Yasuhiko, who knew I had my misgivings about going to the cafe. When I came back with little to say about the whole experience, I could tell he sensed something beyond that. Whatever it was, though, he had no intention of prodding further--since that Christmas he had become less and less interested in talking about what had happened, let alone remember it. There was one day I can’t forget, though, a day like any other in my bedroom--one of the last times we ever spoke about The World. I had laid back on my bed with some manga in hand while he fiddled with my computer.
“Are you working hard?”
“What’s that mean?”
“Ever since then I’ve been taking a bunch of remedial classes to make up for time lost, but it feels like whenever you and I hang out we’re mostly just dicking around.”
“So what I’m saying is: do you ever think about the future?”
The question seemed pointless to me.
“Of course I do.”
“Take a look at this,” he said, pointing to the computer screen. I got up from the bed and joined him. The website on display was that of a prestigious university in Tokyo.
“This is what I’m talking about--the future. Don’t you want to make a difference in this world?”
I hadn’t really thought about it. The real world began to seem less and less interesting since that Christmas Eve. Watching Yasuhiko struggle to make his grades while attending night school seemed a pointless effort, but at the same time he was so dedicated to it. School had become an afterthought to me, but Yasuhiko had moved on completely from anything else--he sought to change the world, the real one, and he knew his grades were his ticket there.
Looking back now, I realize that somewhere along the way I had become warped--that I was no longer myself, a stranger even to my own reflection. There were so many things I wanted to be, and I was none of them. At the same time, things like grades or school seemed so distant and inconsequential to achieving those ideal selves, I couldn’t begin to consider them.
“I do want to make a difference,” I told him.
“Then I want you to promise me right now.”
“Promise you what?”
“Next year is our last, right? We can’t just laze around like this anymore. I want you to promise me that we’ll both study hard and go to this school. I want you to promise me we’ll make a difference in the world--that we’ll be worth something to society.”
“Why are you so focused on this?”
He looked away.
“I just don’t want to fall behind you again.”
There was a pause while he stared back at the screen.
“I promise,” I said to the back of his head.
After that we would spend our time studying, cramming English words into our head, memorizing dates, spending hours solving equations. These sorts of arbitrary trials that you’re put through to make you “worth” something in society were what became the focus of our lives. I made a real effort to separate myself from what had happened, to just be a high school student like any other--I wanted to be that much, at least, for Yasuhiko.
The day of the entrance exams, we travelled to Tokyo together to stay until they announced the results. The cramped business hotel was overflowing with review materials and practice books. Our conversations until that point too had overflown with nothing but schoolwork, and I became keenly aware that we hadn’t spoken--truly spoken--in a long time. That’s probably why I broached the subject as we laid in our beds that night.
“Yasuhiko,” I said.
“Do you think we can do it?”
“Yeah, why not?”
“No matter how much I put into my head, it never feels like enough. It’s like there’s always some new question around the corner that I can’t answer, and then my inability to do even that discourages me from the whole thing.”
“So what? If we don’t pass, we’ll just bum it for a year until we can try it again. There’s no shame in that. What’s important is that you don’t let failure even enter your mind.”
“I wish I could think like that.”
“Don’t you? What about in The World?”
Hearing its name after all that time surprised me with how casually he began talking about what I had accepted to be a taboo subject with him.
“What about it?”
“Well, it was just some silly game, right? I dragged you along that day, and I forced you into that situation. It became an impossible task to quit, right? You couldn’t just leave me there. What I’m trying to say here is that you should treat this test--and all other tests in your life--exactly like that: a life-or-death situation. Once you accept it as that it suddenly becomes less scary. It becomes an inevitability that you should pass, because the other option doesn’t exist.”
I was a little shocked.
“Yasuhiko, I…” I didn’t know how to phrase it without sounding rude, but I went on anyway. “I don’t think it’s so black and white.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean that there were many, many times I considered giving up. My saving you was something that wasn’t dependent on only me. You’re putting too much confidence in me, and I don’t think I deserve that.”
He took a while to respond.
“If I can’t be confident in you, then who am I to look up to?”
I was dumbfounded. Had he been the one looking up at me, and not the other way around? It took me a long time to think of what to say. He was silent too, and I dared not turn my head to look at him. By the time I had thought of something to say, I heard him sleeping. I stared at the ceiling and laid awake for the rest of the night.
Maybe my lack of sleep is the reason I failed that test.
I could come up with a variety of excuses as to why I couldn’t do it: I didn’t know enough English vocabulary, my calculus was a little rusty, or maybe I thought the 19th century meant the 1900s. Perhaps, most of all, it was that I simply wasn’t cut out for it. Being the heroes Yasuhiko wanted us to be wasn’t as simple as it was in The World. There was no divine intervention, no riddles, no treasure chests--no amount of experience points could help me here.
I shut down after that.
I can’t even remember anything Yasuhiko said to me. Not during the evening after, or even the day of the results--I don’t think I was able to even look at him for the rest of our time in Tokyo. All I remember is disappearing in the crowd of students all looking up at that board to find their tiny little registration number.
I can’t even remember what Yasuhiko looks like.
I don’t even remember what kanji are used to spell his name.
What did his voice sound like?
I don’t know what happened to him after that day--something amazing, I bet.
After slipping away. I got on the train. I watched Tokyo scroll by through the window, the Chuo-Sobu line cutting right through the city. After a while it became more rural. I fell asleep.
When I woke, I was already in Chiba.
I got off the train, and the smell of the ocean greeted me. While listening to the gentle drifting of its waves, I found myself standing in front of a public telephone, receiver in my hand. I pulled the crumpled business card of Ichiro Sato out of my pocket.
Helba wanted to meet in Net Slum.
It had been at least a year since I last logged in. Supposedly it was a time of peace--no strange incidents, no AI run amok. When I entered Mac Anu I felt a kind of vertigo overcome me. The experience of virtual reality for the first time in a while had become foreign to my brain now so accustomed to analog reality.
Ichiro Sato logged in. His PC was named Bith the Black--a name from the Epitaph of Twilight. He gave me the latest keywords that would take us to his employer’s field.
Net Slum, too, remained largely unchanged. Its bizarre scenery was still lined with all sorts of strange characters who had made it their home. Sato led me to the inner chamber, the office where I had met Helba once before. We entered the mountain of junk data, and I suddenly found myself in her domain.
She sat ahead of me.
Unlike before, she stared straight at me. There were no papers on her desk to sign, no distractions--just her and I. Sato stood by the door.
Her presence was overwhelming. Since the last time I had seen her, I had forgotten all about the nature of digital spaces. The unrelenting reality of the FMD seemed to abstract her entire image and make it a force in and of itself. She was smiling, and then began to speak.
“My, it’s a shock to see you again. How long has it been now? A year, perhaps? I must say, I didn’t think you’d ever contact me. And yet, I’ve waited for you here all this time, because I knew you would. How were your entrance exams?”
The question pierced through me.
“My apologies, perhaps I’ve touched on a sensitive topic. You always were the kind to listen very carefully before acting. That was one of the qualities I liked about you the most--that you knew when and when not to speak. You and I are quite similar like that, don’t you think?”
She stood up and moved to the side of her desk.
“But today I intend to speak. There are no more games between you and I, boy. You played your part perfectly, and I owe you at least that much. You will come to find that I am, above all, fair.”
She stepped closer towards me.
“And now, I can only assume you have come here to claim your reward. Back then I sent Bith to you as a messenger, as he is for me on some occasions. A pity he must retire, but that’s the nature of those in his role. I hoped you would know what to do when he handed you his card. It seems you got lost somewhere along the way, but like I said--I knew you would come back to me. At least, if my assumptions of your character were correct then this was a certainty.”
I stepped back.
“So, boy. What is it you want to ask me? I will give you free reign today. What is the question that’s been hurdling through your skull since that day? What’s left you dissatisfied?”
I didn’t realize it, but I was trembling. The controller in my hands was soaked with sweat. The FMD felt stuck to my head, like a parasite. There was no escaping her anymore. I wanted to ask her about so many things, things she could never possibly know of, things about the darkest corners of myself, all because it seemed like she knew everything there was to know about this world, including my entire being. But in the midst of that overwhelming pressure of her PC standing in my FMD’s screen, I could only think of the question I had wanted to ask her for so long.
“Who are you, really?”
Corner to corner, she began to smile wildly, and when she could smile no wider the corners of her mouth began to twitch. It was the first time I saw her real smile.
I was terrified.
“This is the question you’ve kept inside you all this time? This is what you wanted to know? You must know the answer already yourself.”
It was irrevocably true. I had already thought for a long time about the identity of Helba, and I had only begun to verbalize those thoughts before it became a possible reality that I should meet her in that cafe. It had always been clear to me she was someone with a deep personal interest in this whole affair. The fact of the matter was there was no way she should have been as knowledgeable as she was--she had informed every step of my journey to save Yasuhiko and provided me with the terms and conditions that made it possible to progress. Harald Hoerwick, Emma Wieland, the Epitaph of Twilight, the Cursed Wave, Virus Cores, Data Drain, Aura--these are all words I learned from her. I never once questioned why it was her and only her that knew about these things.
She had given me the direction, and I followed it.
“Perhaps you should rephrase your question, seeing as it has already been answered.”
I thought a long time about how to ask this again. As I gazed into the abyss of myself, it felt like lifetimes passing by. Then I realized: the question being asked was a game--a game I had unknowingly started between myself and Helba. Just as she had once spoken to me entirely in riddles, I had just posed another riddle to her. Who was she? She knew I had an idea of it. But I realize now, as an adult, that I had posed the question because I wanted her validation. I wanted to be recognized by her. I wanted to point in her face that I had figured her out, and that I was better than her.
I wanted to be the mastermind.
I wanted to be the hero.
And so I asked:
“Am I a hero?”
And she smiled monstrously again.
“You never were,” she said. She stepped closer to me, and her face filled my FMD. There was no escaping her now. I had become hers completely, and she knew it.
“But you can be,” words spoken to me that lit the abyss from deep within. I could finally feel the fire light itself in me again--the fire of adventure, the fire of ambition--the fire of the protagonist.
“I can show you how to change the world,” she said. “We’ll do it together.”