It was as I reached the western exit to the park, where a set of stone steps descended to the sidewalk, that my player heard someone calling her name.
“Annika. —Annika!” Then, louder: “Fine, Kijé! Whatever.”
Standing next to a chained-up bicycle was a young man my player knew all too well. His close-cropped black hair, his boyish good looks (“the sort of thing that makes a man look the same,” she once said, “between the ages of fifteen and fifty”), his broad, thin mouth to which smiles normally came so easily. But now his mouth was unsmiling and pinched-in, his thick brows knit tightly together over his hazel eyes.
My player knew what he saw when he looked at me: a woman of about his height, but with a whipcord body laced tightly with muscle. My player’s dusky skin and wavy black hair were what the role demanded, but those things would have been freely overlooked in light of how well her performance did justice to me. That she looked and embodied the part made her all the more appropriate a choice.
“I figured one of those names would work,” he said, and weaved between pedestrians as he stepped in closer. “With you, though, I can never tell which one.”
“Kijé,” I said. “Annika is a name I cast off.”
His face crumpled all the more as I spoke the words is a name. “I know. I know, I know. Look. You’re probably busy saving the city from marauders or whatever it is you do, but just humor me, all right? Ten minutes, five minutes, whatever you can spare.” His brow smoothed out, if only slightly. “Just that much ought to be enough.”
“Ten minutes, for her sake,” I said.
And by her I mean Annika Suvasiri, my player—the woman whose form I, Kijé, took on for the sake of bringing our own world into fruition through it. All this he already knew to some degree, courtesy of Annika from before. Not that he accepted any of it; he was unconvinced the first time he heard it, and grew no more convinced through each successive explanation.
Many will resist, I was told. Some will hear. A few will understand.
The last few words of the litany were the most important: We need only a few.
“Over there,” he said, tossing his head back towards the western side of the street. “Second floor of the bookstore, there’s a little cafeteria. I’ve eaten there before. You order whatever you want. On me.”
He took a step backwards towards the storefront behind him, a second one, then hesitated when I did not follow. My player knew full well what he was likely to ask for in there, apart from sharing a meal and a cup of coffee (her preferred drink, not at all mine). But she also knew he was unlikely to let her be until he had his time with her, and so my player set me in motion to follow him across the street.
I had never been in that bookstore before, but its space and light and broad aisles appealed to me. The climb to the second floor was quite steep, and the cafeteria had tables against the window that lined the eastern wall of the building. Through its panes one could look down on the park where I just finished my play, or the sidewalk where Renton—this young man—and I faced each other.
“Go on, it’s on me,” Renton repeated. He collected a sandwich and a canned drink for himself, but only after one shake of my head did he turn, blowing out a snort of dismay, and line up to pay for only his food.
I seated myself at the window and sensed more than one pair of eyes pointed my way. My player knew Kijé was a woman of discipline, discipline that came from within and not without, and so had me positioned straight up in the chair, chin high. In some ways, my player knew, the whole point was to be stared at; the better for us to be known in this world. And, eventually, to be emulated—maybe not by all who looked, but by the few who saw and understood. After all, we only needed those few.
Renton tugged his chair out and turned it so that he could sit half-facing me. “You can probably guess,” he said, opening the plastic carton around his sandwich, “what I want from you—from your player, if that’s how you want to put it. I just want some time with her, and not you. And I know that sort of time’s in deliberately short supply, but I’m going to ask for it, because I’m sick of dealing with her like she’s some goddamn prisoner that I have to—to pass letters to through a lawyer.”
My player sent me reaching into my pocket, and allowed me to bring out the device through which a player could tabulate the time they spent as themselves. Our players were allowed no more than a total of thirty minutes a week out-of-character time in this phase of their training; if Annika was indeed permitted to embody me completely, she would be allowed thirty such minutes a day. By that time, though, she would have embraced the character to the point where she would not actually need even a tenth of that.
Ignoring Renton’s rolling, disgusted eyes, Annika touched the face of the device to show the OOC timer application. It showed ten minutes remaining, and at another touch from her finger the numbers began to slither downwards.
In that moment I felt the control I normally had over Annika’s body slacken. It was curious, actually, quite fascinating and disturbing, to watch from within as she spoke for herself.
“I’m going to need at least five minutes OOC time to get through the rest of the week,” she told him, “so whatever you’re going to say, you should say it now.”
“What do you need five minutes out of character to get through the rest of the week for?” His eye-rolling was only the beginning of his sarcasm, it seemed. “Seems like you do just fine not being yourself anymore.”
“It’s not for my sake, Renton. It’s for the sake of everyone who doesn’t understand what’s going on, and who’ll only get that much more in the way if I’m in character with them.”
“Oh, yeah. That’s right. Banks, courts, police, that kind of thing. All that stuff you only deal with because if you don’t, your player’ll get busted.” He put the corner of the sandwich into his mouth and bit down, and he chewed long enough for Annika to realize he was waiting for her to respond.
“You know,” he went on in lieu of her answering, “I figured after a month of this, maybe not even that much, you’d have some idea of what it was all about. So that month goes by, and I figure, ‘Six months and she’ll get tired of it.’ Now it’s eight months, going on nine, and I have to book a reservation to call you by your real name.” He shook his head.
“That should tell you how seriously I take this,” Annika replied.
“What it’s telling me—” He winced at what she thought was something in the sandwich. “—what it’s telling me is that you’re in way the hell over your head. That’s what it’s telling me! You don’t think it’s even remotely troubling, or dangerous, that you’re not only dressing like this twenty-four-seven, that you’re not only insisting you’re a different person—a person out of a book, no less—that you’re shacking up with a whole crew of other folks pulling this stunt, all of whom are ripping each other’s livers out for a chance to do this full time? You don’t think any of that’s bad news? Then again, if you did think it was a problem, you would have done something about it by now. Like, leave.”
He looked down at the timer; it was just under four minutes now.
“One time,” he went on, “back when you first hooked up with this crew, I asked you what it was about this stuff that was so important to you; what was so important about it that you had to throw away everything else in your life. Not all at once, but by inches, by degrees. First you get rid of the relationships, then you get rid of the clothes, then the personality, then the name. —Why go through all that? What was the reward?”
I remembered that conversation vividly. Annika explained it to him in four words: This way is better. He asked: Better than what? Better how?
Out loud Annika said, “You’ve been determined from the beginning not to understand.”
“No.” Renton put his sandwich down hard enough to dislodge its top slice of bread. “It’s not that I don’t understand. It’s that I understand a little too well. What you’re in, it’s comfortable, isn’t it? You can hide in it. You can hide in it from all the shitty things life deals out. I get that, I do get that. I also get that it’s wrong.”
“Why is it wrong?” she asked, with a little prodding from me.
“Why—! Because that’s not how life works and you know it! Knew, I should say. You knew at least as well as anyone else, that there was no point in running away from problems. You came back to the apartment one night, I remember this. You came back and you were fuming, your hair was all on fire, because you’d written some piece for work about phone contracts, I think it was.” He shot a look down at the clock and talked faster. “And then some friend of yours who worked for AT&T said ‘Whoever wrote that story was a fuckin’ idiot, man,’ and you wrote them back and said you were the fucking idiot who’d written it and you wanted an apology from him. And then you said to me, ‘And now I have to wait for him to answer,’ because you were worried now that he was right and you were wrong, and you might even have to go to your editor, whom you’d only been working with for a month at that point, and get the whole thing retracted. And the waiting sucked bigtime, you said so yourself. But you knew you didn’t have a choice but to wait. It took a day and a half for him to get back to you, didn’t it? But you still waited it out, and it was worth it, because he owned up, and you even got to talk to him about his side of it.”
He pushed the sandwich aside.
“That’s what kind of person you were once,” he said, his voice now sobered and sad. “Someone who didn’t back away from problems, but confronted them, even when it hurt. I liked that person. What happened to her? Why did she trade all that up for—for running around in a costume?”
I moved Annika’s hand over to the almost-empty clock and added three more minutes. I knew I would regret doing so, but he deserved more of an explanation.
“For most people,” she said—and it was at least as much me saying this as it was her, now—”this world is more than enough. It’s what they know. It’s easy to be satisfied by it, because it’s all they know, and all they want to know. But some other people—well, they want more. The world as it is doesn’t give them anything close to what they want. Some try to create the things they feel are missing, but that doesn’t always work either. Maybe they do create something, but it’s only a temporary measure. It changes fewer things than they thought it would.”
“Go on,” Renton said.
She had seen him wear that face and use that voice before; so had I. It was the voice and face of someone waiting for the other person to stop talking altogether so they can start again.
“Sometimes,” she went on, “a person needs to be part of something bigger than they are. Big enough that they need to ditch everything they were, or are, before they can take part of it. It’s not easy to do that—that’s why most people never do it. But the few that do … once they submit themselves to something … ”
She looked down. Two minutes left.
“I guess next thing you’re going to tell me,” Renton said, “is that it’s not something I can understand unless I’ve been there.”
“No.” She shook her head. “I don’t think it is.”
“Yeah, you said as much before anyway. And so this—” He gestured at her phone, the hilt of her sword. “—all this is more interesting to you than all that?” He turned his gesture at what lay beyond the window. “Everything else there is, it’s just—no good?”
“It’s not what’s needed.”
“Well, what is needed, then? What’s more important than the only world you’ve got that you can actually live in? What’s more important than that? Pretending that you’re living in the world that only exists in your head? And in the heads of a couple of other people, and absolutely nowhere else? How is that an improvement?”
“Because the more people that believe in such a world—” She hovered her thumb over the button to add another minute, then drew it back on my insistence. “—the easier it is for such a world to actually come into existence, that’s why. And it’s a better world than this one, that much I’m sure of.”
“How is it bet—”
The alarm sounded its gong. I drew myself up and gave Renton a stiff, formal little bow.
“I apologize,” I said, “but Annika is finished for the week.”
“Oh, no you don’t; don’t you even dare—” He shoved his chair back, its feet scraping shrilly against the floor.
If that alone did not draw the attention of everyone else in the cafeteria, him attempting to seize me by the elbow did. Doubly so when I responded to it by slapping him.
In truth, I expected Annika to hesitate when I directed her to swing her hand. But her arm became my arm, become it as completely as it needed to be. I felt certain I could have just as easily punched Renton with a closed fist, but the slap landed on the cheekbone below his left eye, with more than enough force to jar him into open-mouthed stupefaction.
“You’re not ever to touch me again,” I said. “The next time, it won’t just be a slap.”
A man in formal-looking clothes emerged from behind the counter. He was halfway through his demand for an explanation when Renton told him, “We were just leaving.”
Renton remained close on my heels all the way down the steps.
“And thanks to you,” he half-shouted at my retreating back, “I’m probably never going to be able to come back here now—but I’m sure you couldn’t care less. Whoever the hell you are!”
I turned to face him as we burst out onto the sidewalk, and almost plowed sideways into a man with three huge, snowy-furred dogs in tow. He stared at us only long enough to realize, perhaps, that he shouldn’t stare, and turned hastily away.
“What do you see when you look in the mirror?” Renton rose from a half-shout to a full-on shout now. “A hero, a revolutionary, all that great stuff, I’m sure! You know what these people down here see when they look at you? A weirdo in a costume!”
He didn’t turn and storm off. He simply stood in the middle of the sidewalk, staring and staring, drawing one ragged breath after another—drawing them too heavily to be from the run down the stairs. Only after rubbing at the lower half of his face with one limp hand did he stumble away.
There was, I admit, a stab of sympathy for him from somewhere within Annika, one smothered quickly by me. Or rather, by both of us together: she by way of her remembering all of Renton’s past intolerance, and me with my strength of will.
I let her watch him walk away. He did stumble at first, but in time he lifted his own head higher and began to lengthen his strides away from both of us.