Translation of Sword Art Online’s volume 11, interlude 3.
Just a note, italics are for English words written in katakana. Full caps are English words written in English.
In the middle of the huge oceanic research mothership, «Ocean Turtle», stabbed a hollow pillar with a diameter of twenty meters and a height of a hundred.
That titanium alloy round pillar, termed the main shaft, was supporting every floor of the ship, while also serving its duty of protecting the heart of the ship via encasement as a pressure bulkhead. Aside from the ship’s control and power systems, machinery developed by the mysterious research organization, «Rath», were stored within it as well.
To be specific, there were four ominous fulldive machines that could read and write a person’s soul, the «Soul TransLators (STL)». Also, there was the single central arithmetic unit they were connected to, the «Light Cube Cluster».
The enormous cluster was installed near the middle of the shaft, and below it were the STL number 2 and number 3 located at the «lower shaft». Number 4 and number 5 were placed on the «upper shaft» on the top side. STL prototype number 1 was not on this ship, but at a research branch of Rath at Roppongi, Minato-ku, quite a distance from here.
The one that Kirito—Kirigaya Kazuto, stuck in his sustained coma, was being connected to for treatment on his damaged neural network was STL number 4 on the top side of the shaft. Hence, getting all the way there would require one to enter the shaft from below and move upwards via the stairs or elevator.
6th July 2026, Monday, 7:30 AM.
Asuna—Yuuki Asuna adjusted the collar of the summer knit she wore atop her t-shirt as she ascended the gloomy spiral staircase.
The clanging echoes of her hard footsteps upon the anti-rust coated metal steps under the orange emergency LED lights brought forth memories. Asuna did not know exactly how many times had she went up stairs resembling these in a steel castle floating in the infinite skies, far, far away from this place. Those spiral staircases connecting the rooms of boss monsters that protected each floor with the next in the Floating Castle Aincrad—
The leader of the «Knights of the Blood», Heathcliff, would walk before her most of the time with the guild members excited over the boss fight’s victory following behind, but there were exceptions. That black-clad solo player had always walked at her side before she joined the KoB, at the initial phase of clearing the death game.
Making Asuna mad with those bad jokes he told in that indifferent attitude that expelled fatigue from the fierce battles, teaching her information about the next floor… and the countless times he pulled Asuna’s hand when she was exhausted from the endless fights too.
As the clanging footsteps rang out from the steel steps, Yuuki Asuna softly called out the name of the one she loved.
Of course, there was no reply.
She forced the despair and loneliness that threatened to overflow back down the depths of her chest. Unlike the day before yesterday, Kazuto was no longer missing. He was awaiting Asuna in that small room at the top end of the stairs. Even without exchanging words—even without holding each other’s hands, the time for him to wake was approaching little by little. The nurse, Aki Natsuki, did say that at the current rate, the treatment through the STL would regenerate his cranial nerves network within a day or two, likely approaching a stage where he would regain his consciousness.
Asuna was visiting the Ocean Turtle, floating in the seas near Izushichi Island, without clarifying the entire issue in detail with her parents. Still, she managed to secure the cooperation of Professor Koujirou Rinko and thought up of an explanation that «couldn’t be said to be a complete lie»: “I’ll be accompanying the professor and observing the research facility of a certain cutting-edge corporation for a few days”.
She herself thought it would be difficult indeed, but her mother, Yuuki Kyouko, stared at Asuna for a short while, then said nothing more than a “Take care of yourself and go”. Perhaps, she had already seen through everything, though.
One way or another, the time granted to Asuna was a mere three days from the 5th to the 7th of July. In short, she would have to ride on the helicopter with a regular route towards Shin-Kiba from the Ocean Turtle tomorrow evening. It was unconfirmed whether she would return to Tokyo with Kazuto, but if Nurse Aki’s words prove right, she should be able to have a conversation with him conscious.
And at that time, she would get angry a whole lot, cry a whole lot and laugh a whole lot.
Stopping on the steps of the spiral staircase, Asuna took a deep breath before returning to her pace.
The end of the current staircase was in another twenty steps or so above. It wasn’t a dead end; she was to go through a round hatch that opened from the massive metal ceiling, but that was the only place where she had to climb, with its short vertical ladder.
This metal floor that was over twenty centimeters thick was the pressure bulkhead made from composite titanium that divided the top and bottom of the Ocean Turtle’s main shaft. Lieutenant Nakanishi said it could easily withstand gunfire from an automatic rifle at point-blank range, but that sort of situation obviously shouldn’t be happening at all on this megafloat that wasn’t even a battleship.
—Kikuoka-san alone was enough for making up exaggerations, but all of those people were much the same.
Muttering so in her heart, she climbed the aluminium alloy ladder and passed through the hatch. The gloomy spiral staircase still continued on ahead, but the tint of the illumination was turning greenish. Much like how the «floor» changed; she held onto such thoughts as she ascended the staircase once more.
The lower part of the upper shaft that she was in now was where the gigantic equipment that served as the physical backbone for «Project Alicization», the «Light Cube Cluster», was stationed. That was likely right beside this narrow stair hall.
Matters related to the Light Cube Cluster were treated with the utmost secrecy, so she wasn’t informed on the details of its construction, but she had heard that it was a cluster of countless light cubes, as its name suggested.
The media that stored the artificial fluct lights—or in other words, the souls of the Underworld’s residents, those bottom-up AIs, were the light cubes, and in the exact middle, amongst over hundreds of thousands of them arranged in a systematic order, was a single massive cube. A soul didn’t exist within that, with the extensive «mnemonic visuals data» of those in the Underworld were saved within it instead. That truly was the core of the STL technology, the «Main Visualizer»…
That was how the researcher in charge of Rath, Higa Takeru, lectured to her about the structure of the Underworld while more or less breaking the duty of confidentiality, but honestly speaking, Asuna’s “Just what is that supposed to be?” was an unfeigned reaction.
If you’re going to tell me so much about it, it should be fine letting me see the Light Cube Cluster in person once at least; when Asuna said that, Higa replied with a wry smile. The entire Cluster’s covered by a metal shell, so it’s not like you would see anything except a rectangular box, ya know, he said. That shell could be opened by neither Higa nor the rest of the staff, not even the plan’s supervisor, a member of the Japan Self-Defense Forces, Lieutenant Colonel Kikuoka Seijirou.
As such, all Asuna could do was to faintly imagine what the Cluster looked like.
A countless number of small crystals suspended orderly in darkness. All made in the shape of perfect squares, and the nucleus dedicated to a single larger crystal, with narrow lines of light passing between them without pause. That was just like the heart of the Milky Way, densely packed with galaxies of stars……
Perhaps it was due to her absentmindedly contemplating those thoughts.
Asuna was a little slow noticing someone descending the spiral staircase.
“Ah, excuse me.”
Instinctively lowering her head, she shifted to the left while apologizing in a small voice. That someone slowly started to go past her without even returning the greeting. Each footstep down the steps went clink and whirr.
What’s with those sounds; Asuna questioningly thought in her heart and finally raised her face, before she stared at the figure just about to pass by her side.
And then, she audibly leapt back, with her back pressed against the wall.
After all, what came down the staircase was not «someone», but «something». In other words, it wasn’t a human no matter how you looked at it.
Its entire silhouette was that of a human, but its skeleton structure was a plain metal frame and countless plastic cylinders were mounted on its limbs and waist. Its joints were complex formations of exposed gears and the multicolored signal cables crept around like blood vessels.
It carried a largish box on its back, with a face composed of three lenses of big, medium and small sizes. They should’ve placed two of those medium-sized lenses; after thinking up such things, Asuna finally came to her senses. Letting out the breath she choked on, she murmured in a hoarse voice.
In that instant, the mysterious humanoid walking machine suddenly stopped its motion.
Stopping its foot in mid-step, the gears spun and drew back with a whirl. Standing upright on the same step as Asuna, it slowly turned its body towards its left this time… in other words, towards Asuna. The big and medium lenses were pitch-black, but a red light source was within the small lens and as though it was looking at Asuna, it blinked with the light flickering intermittently—
A thin voice escaped from deep in her throat and Asuna tried to retreat backwards. But her back bumped against the stair hall’s wall, so she could fall back no further. Whether Asuna shifted to the right or the left, the lens with its red light would follow her face without fail.
Monsters shouldn’t spawn on the staircase leading between floors; there shouldn’t be any machine-type mobs in the first place; no, wait, this should be the real world; such confusing thoughts flooded her mind as Asuna got ready to flee back to where she came from when that happened—
“C’mon, stop that already, Ichiemom!”
That voice fell from above. Upon taking the time to look, a man was running down the stairs with a flustered expression. With a printed t-shirt and shorts on, his short hair bristled up like a mountain of needles, and wearing a pair of boorish metal-framed glasses, the man was the main researcher in charge of Project Alicization, Higa Takeru. His right hand was holding onto a well-worn mobile PC.
As though it understood the “C’mon” from Higa, the humanoid machine broke its focus off Asuna and spun its body ninety degrees once more.
Asuna finally released the strain on her shoulders and upon looking up at Higa who came to a stop on the step right above, she asked in a relatively wooden voice.
“…Higa-san. What exactly is this?”
“Eh, well… this here’s «Ichiemon». Its real name’s «Electroactive Muscled Operative Machine»… in short, EMOM, and then adding on the one since it’s the first in the series, you get Ichiemom *.”
Higa’s expression gradually changed from an apologetic one to a boasting one as he answered, so Asuna gave another glare as she asked again.
“…And, what’s that Ichiemom doing here?”
Higa was not the one who answered that question.
“Higa-kun’s assisting me with the tuning for my program. Even if we aren’t senior and junior at that seminar any longer.”
Those words mingled with a strained laughter belonged to the woman who came down the stairs after Higa. Wearing a white robe above a dungaree work shirt and jeans, her hair was neatly parted to the side. This woman, whose appearance brought forth the thought that there couldn’t be many whom the term ‘intellectual’ suited so well, was Professor Koujirou Rinko who had played a big part in Asuna’s infiltration of the Ocean Turtle.
After exchanging greetings with Rinko who came to a stop beside Higa, Asuna examined the robot, or to be accurate, Ichiemom, from top to bottom once more and asked the two researchers.
“……Don’t tell me this is a part of Project Alicization as well?”
With Ichiemom leading the ascent up the spiral staircase, upon reaching her destination, the sub control room, Asuna shelved her misgivings about various matters aside and first hurried towards the passage leading to the STL storage room.
Although the door at the end of the narrow passage couldn’t be entered, the wall on the left was made from reinforced glass. Pressing her two hands and even sticking her forehead against the glass, she peeked into the storage room almost utterly absent of illumination.
The two gigantic rectangular cuboids, taking up much space side by side, were the Soul TransLator number 4 and number 5. Number 5 was switched off, but many indicators gave off a gentle glow or flickered on number 4. Upon staring at it, a slender silhouette could be seen lying on the gel bed linked to the main unit.
He was Kirito—Kirigaya Kazuto. The person who, in various ways, was Asuna’s «partner».
Kazuto was assaulted by a fugitive from the Death Gun Incident on the roads of Setagaya-ku a week ago. A large quantity of the drug succinylcholine was injected into him and he even went into cardiac arrest for a while.
While he managed to keep his life somehow, thanks to the speedy lifesaving measures taken, the damage to his brain remained due to the cessation of blood circulation. The one who took Kazuto, who could have gone into a vegetative state in the worst case scenario according to a doctor’s diagnosis, to the Ocean Turtle and even prepared a fake ambulance for that purpose was Lieutenant Colonel Kikuoka Seijirou, the main lead of «Project Alicization».
That difficult choice was due to the belief that the STL could serve as treatment for Kazuto, or so the person himself had said.
One way or another, it seemed that Kazuto’s consciousness was now existing in the virtual world, «Underworld», which was adapted into a VR space for treatment. And by revitalizing his consciousness, or in other words, his fluct light there, he should be able to stimulate his neural network. She couldn’t quite comprehend even with that explanation, but she understood that Kazuto was not in a mere coma at the very least.
At the moment, Asuna was looking merely at Kazuto’s body, with his mind left for some faraway virtual world. Thinking about it, she was in the same position as Kazuto when he paid her visits almost every day when Asuna was once forced to dive into the home of fairies, Alfheim, by Sugou Nobuyuki.
—I wish I could dive into the Underworld to help Kirito-kun out too, just like he did for me back then…
While thinking of such things, her gaze continued fixed on Kazuto for over a whole minute, after which Asuna finally parted from the glass. I’ll come again in the noon; whispering so in her heart, she returned to the sub control room.
This place was rather cramped when compared to the main control room at the lower shaft. The control console was the basic version as well, and even the desk and chairs arranged there looked a little cheap.
Higa and Rinko did not sit on the chairs and remained standing as they peeked into the mobile PC on the desk. The unnerving figure of the aforementioned humanoid machine, «Ichiemom», was at their side.
While confirming the robot had entered standby mode, Asuna slowly approached the two.
They were senior and junior of the same university seminar when they were students—additionally, it appears Kayaba Akihiko and Sugou Nobuyuki were admitted there as well—those two scientists were rapidly discussing one thing or another as though they had returned to that time.
“The bottleneck was the processing speed of the balancing system, as I thought. There’s still room in the budget, isn’t there? Couldn’t you use a faster chip?”
“That’s how as far as my brain gets when I start thinking about the excess heat and battery consumption, ya know. There’s no choice but to focus on tuning up the EAP actuators…”
“Those polymer muscles are outdated in the first place. Try using CNT; I believe it’ll turn out easier if you do.”
“I-If something like that’s used, the budget’s totally gonna… well, I might be able to get just one of them though…”
“Your frugality in the usage of machinery parts hasn’t changed, has it.”
Rinko who shook her head in exasperation finally noticed Asuna then and shrugged her shoulders awkwardly.
“Ah, I apologize for that, Asuna-san. For making all that noise.”
“No, I believe Kirito-kun would be happy with it livelier around here too.”
After replying so with a wry smile, she took another gander at the robot. It seemed the actuators for its entire body were artificial muscles made from organic material. Rath might be on the leading edge of research worldwide, but it did seem unrelated to its main goal of a highly adaptive AI.
Perhaps guessing at that doubt from Asuna, Higa grumbled with his back against the table.
“Building this thing here’s a request from that old dude too.”
“Eh… Kikuoka-san did? Why would he…”
“I have no idea how serious he was about it either, though…”
The one who gave the answer with a sigh was Rinko.
“A movable body would be needed to invite a fluct light that grew up in the Underworld, don’t you think? …That’s what he said.”
“Eeh… then, this robot is for an AI to pilot?”
“That’s what it seems like.”
“Zat’s how it is.”
Both Rinko and Higa nodded at the same time, so Asuna gazed at Ichiemom’s body from top to bottom once more. True, its entire form could be said to be a humanoid, but its frame was angular, its joints jutting out and above all that, the part where silicon or something else covered it made it look unlike a human, no matter how you looked at it.
“……It’s not very nice towards Ichiemom, but wouldn’t an AI get shocked too, when its body suddenly changes to this…?”
At the very least, Asuna and Kazuto’s «daughter», the top-down-type AI, Yui, would definitely reject entering this. Asuna spoke as she thought so and Higa waved about his right hand in a fluster.
“No-no, you should know that nothing’s gonna pilot this guy. Ichiemom’s a prototype used for data collection, so its mind’s on a conventional architecture too; that’s why it became this crude. There’s a number 2 used for trials for loading an AI on board aside from this guy, so that one’s smarter.”
“Number 2…… By the way, what is that child’s name…?”
Upon Asuna timidly asking, Higa replied with an expression as though the answer was obvious.
“Zat’s so… no, I mean, is that so?”
She lightly shook her head, and then continued her question.
“Why would the type with an AI on board be smarter?”
“Well, that would be because the sensors and balancing system would experience a rapid rise in their performance… or so we expect they would.”
Tagging Higa out to answer once again, Rinko took one step sideways and stood on the tiptoes of both her feet for some reason. Spreading her hands out a little, she maintained her posture while swaying her body.
“We humans are always regulating our entire body balance ever so slightly, even while we’re standing still as we usually do, without any purpose. And not to mention that’s mostly done unconsciously, you see. We can keep our balance without falling over, but still, it’s not like our minds are thinking, ‘I’ll lean over to the right this much, then stretch out my right foot and pull back my left leg.’ or anything of that sort. It’s all in our minds… in other words, our fluct lights, that the so-called auto-balancing system would control our muscles and skeleton.”
The heel of her sneakers thumped onto the ground and she smiled.
“Ichiemom is equipped with servomechanisms that replicate that auto-balancing system mechanically and electronically. However, merely going up and down the stairs slowly like earlier requires a large quantity of sensing and balancing equipment, in conjunction with a high-performance CPU, a battery to run all that and a cooling system for the excess heat, plus a solid frame to support the weight of all of those. That is why Ichiemom couldn’t get any smarter.”
“But still, this is way closer to a human when you take a look at those from ten years ago.”
Turning to Higa who cut into the conversation with a bitter smile, Asuna gave a slow nod.
“In other words… if its mind wasn’t a conventional CPU, but an artificial fluct light, the auto-balancer would have the same performance as a human’s, so…”
“Yes, that’s totally it. We could reduce the number of servomechanisms, even if its just by one, then the frame would get lighter with that and the number of actuators will reduce as well, creating a near-perfect human-shaped body… that would be nice if it happened, but this is well, just my wild observations. I said this earlier, but Niemom at the development department looks pretty human if you look at its silhouette alone.”
“If you plan to boast about it that much, I would rather you hurry up and show it to…”
Rinko suddenly went silent after she began speaking. After thinking deeply with a frown, she continued with her tone lowered by a notch.
“…Higa-kun. That Niemom is still not capable of autonomous walking, is it?”
“Heh? Yea, well, of course. There is a CPU on board, but the vital control program’s empty and all. Besides, even if the same program as Ichiemom’s loaded, Niemom’s gonna fall over on the third step with that sensor system, probably.”
Rinko gently nodded and took a deep breath, perhaps for a change of mood, then looked at Asuna.
“Asuna-san, will you be having breakfast now?”
“Then let us go to the dining hall together. It does seem Higa-kun will be eating here with Ichiemom.”
She thought it was definitely a joke, but Higa pulled out an energy bar from the pocket of his shorts and waved it left and right with a “Go ahead”. Lightly bowing her head half with amazement, half with gratitude, Asuna started to walk behind Rinko.
Looking towards the STL storage room for one last time, her lips merely moved: “See you”.
Exiting the passage from the sub control room, human figures were approaching from the direction of the elevator. Two males; both wearing a white robe atop their t-shirts. They were likely from the Rath staff that numbered over ten, but she still didn’t know all of their names. They should recognize Asuna as Rinko’s assistant, whom she disguised herself as at the start.
Following Rinko, Asuna exchanged a quick bow as well and they went past the two members of the staff, before she felt something and shifted her vision to the side. With their long hair bundled behind and unshaven faces, she couldn’t recall seeing those men’s profiles before. However—something stuck out deep in her mind. If this was Aincrad, although she wouldn’t go as far as to draw her rapier, this sensation would make her touch its grip with her fingertips…
“What’s the matter, Asuna-san?”
Rinko called out in a small voice and Asuna finally noticed she was standing still. The male staff were going further away towards the sub control room with the pitter-patter of their resin sandals.
“…No, it’s nothing.”
Even after she replied and started walking again, Asuna tried to search for the source of the queer sensation for a while. But as her mind drifted from one thing to another, that feeling faded away and vanished.
“…the first in the series, you get Ichiemom.” – One (“1”) in Japanese is “ichi”. Hence, ichi + emom = ichiemom. However, it’s pronounced as “ichiemon”, like the “mon” from “monster”, rather than the “mom” meaning mother.
- Translation – Tap