Ocean Turtle Raid
Translation of Sword Art Online’s volume 15, chapter 16.
Ocean Turtle Raid
July AD 2026
The many events that conspired in these two hours were beyond the expectations of even the self-proclaimed genius of the finest caliber, Higa Takeru.
However, the developments before Higa’s eyes this moment surprised him far more than any of those earlier.
A delicate girl of approximately eighteen or nineteen held up a man who had fifteen centimeters on her by the nape of his neck with her slender right arm. His gaudy-patterned Hawaiian shirt was strained to the edge of tearing and the heels of his sandals were off the ground.
Staring at Lieutenant Colonel Kikuoka Seijirou with her two blazing eyes, Yuuki Asuna shot off words, sharp as blades, from those lovely lips.
“I will never forgive you if Kirito-kun remains unconscious.”
Higa could not see Kikuoka’s expression beyond his black-rimmed glasses gleaming from the lights from the ceiling. However, the Self-Defense Force executive who should have black belts in both judo and kendo seemed overpowered by Asuna’s words, gulping with his hands raised to each side of his face in surrender.
“I understand. I will make it my responsibility to ensure Kirito’s recovery.”
The dim sub control room was immersed in still silence.
No one could say a word: not Higa sitting on the chair before the console, or Koujirou Rinko standing beside him, or the various staff members from Rath still in the room. That was how overwhelming the aura let out from the girl, the youngest person in this place, was. I see, she was a «survivor» who returned from a real battlefield, wasn’t she; Higa thought so in a corner of his mind.
Asuna eventually opened up her right hand without saying anything. Released, Kikuoka took in a deep breath, almost ready to collapse onto the floor, while Asuna stumbled backwards. Rinko’s lab coat fluttered out as she immediately supported her back.
The female physicist, who Higa treated as his senior from that seminar, held Asuna tight in her chest covered by the lab coat and whispered in a firm tone.
“Don’t worry. He will be okay. He will come back for sure, back to your side.”
Asuna’s expression, as tense as it could be, crumpled upon hearing that.
“……Yes, he will, won’t he? I apologize… for losing myself there.”
Rinko gently wiped away with her fingers the tears from Asuna’s eyes that were utterly absent even throughout the assault.
The air that had finally loosened somewhat drew tight once more with the noise as the sliding door was opened manually. The one who rushed in was Lieutenant Nakanishi.
With his white dress shirt stained with sweat and dust, and a large pistol peeking from his shoulder holster, Nakanishi glanced across Rinko and the rest before directing his words towards Kikuoka standing behind.
“Status report! We have confirmed the lockdown of pressure-resistant barrier walls number one and two as well as the evacuation of civilians to the bow block!”
Kikuoka straightened his Hawaiian shirt’s collar before stepping forward and nodded.
“Good work. How long do the barrier walls look like they will hold?”
“Yes… it depends on their equipment, but it will stand up to small arms. It will take eight hours at least even with a tool like a chip saw. Explosives could break through… but it is doubtful they will resort to those. The central barrier wall is right next to the…”
“The light cube cluster, huh.”
Ending his words for him, Kikuoka pushed up the bridge of his spectacles as he sank into a short silence.
He raised his face before long, however, and scanned through the tight subcon space.
“Right, let’s put things in order. Lieutenant Nakanishi, the status on our human casualties, please.”
“Yes. Three researchers from the civilian project team with minor injuries are undergoing treatment in the prow’s sickbay. Among our combatants, there are two with heavy injuries and two with light injuries. They are likewise undergoing treatment, but their injuries appear to be non-fatal. Including the two with light injuries, we have six able to fight.”
“It’s a stroke of luck having no fatalities despite all those shots fired… Next, the status on the hull’s damage.”
“The operation room in the dock at the bottom of the ship is filled with holes. Remote control of its access is likely impossible. Likewise for the route from the dock to main control, but these are, well, mere scratches. What matters is the break in the electrical line… there is a stable supply of electricity from the auxiliary line, but the propeller will not spin unless we restart the control system.”
“A sea turtle without its fins, huh. And with a shark snapping at its belly, at that.”
“Yes. Blocks one to twelve of the lower shaft were all occupied along with the ship’s bottom dock.”
Vexed, Nakanishi spoke with his brows knitted under his shortcut on his features that spoke of his fortitude. In contrast, Kikuoka combed up his fringe with a slight resemblance to that of a teacher and placed himself on the console by the side before wriggling his geta with his toes.
“So they took everything: the main control room, the first STL room, and even the nuclear reactor, huh. …So the silver lining’s how their aim isn’t to destroy.”
“Hah… it isn’t?”
“They wouldn’t need such a grand operation to break in with a submarine if they just wanted to sink us; a cruise missile or torpedo would suffice. So the question here is who exactly they are, instead… Higa-kun, any thoughts?”
With his name brought up without warning, Higa blinked several times, and then somehow restarted his mind still reeling with lingering shock.
“Aah, right, well.”
Turning back to the console while joining those meaningless groans, he operated the mouse with his right hand and called out the recordings from the onboard observation cameras onto the front large monitor.
The opened video window was dim and blurred, but upon pausing it at a random spot, he adjusted its brightness and contrast. What showed up were several silhouettes slouching as they moved through the passage on-board. They were dressed in entirely black combat suits with a helmet and multi-purpose goggles worn on the upper half of their faces and imposing assault rifles in their hands.
“…So, well, as you can see, there aren’t any marks indicating their nationality on their heads or bodies. Guess the color and form of those equipment aren’t from any regular army either. Their rifles look like they’re from Steyr, but there are plenty of those, so… all I can really say is that they probably aren’t Asian, judging from their average figure.”
“In other words, that’s not a special unit belonging to our nation at least. How delightful.”
Kikuoka scratched his chin and voiced out those disturbing words. A sharp glint shone in his usually calm and narrowed eyes as they looked up towards the large monitor.
“And we know one more thing. …These people are aware of the existence of Project Alicization.”
Higa nodded with that pointed out.
“Well, guess they would. They did break in from the ship’s bottom dock and charge straight up to the main control room without any detours and all. So that would make their aim probably the theft of the STL technology… no, the true bottom-up artificial intelligence, «A. L. I. C. E.».”
Which implies a major information leak over a long period of time. But Higa refrained from voicing that out and held back his urge to check on the expressions on the staff members of Rath in the sub control room as he continued in an optimistic tone.
“Luckily, we locked up the main control room in the nick of time. It’ll be harder to manipulate the Underworld directly with that lock on than even with the console smashed. They won’t be fiddling with the simulation or ejecting the light cube with «Alice»’s fluct light.”
“But the same applies to us, doesn’t it?”
“Yep, yep. There’s no running with admin rights here at this subcon either. Neither the main nor sub will be able to eject «Alice»’s light cube externally. …But Kikuoka-san, ain’t that the same as our win? Those guys won’t be getting access to the cluster both physically and digitally, so they’re right where we want when reinforcement from the escort Aegis ship rushes in here.”
“I fail to see how they are where we want them to be… but there lies the problem.”
Kikuoka’s stiff expression remained as he questioned Nakanishi.
“How is it, can «Nagato» move?”
“Well… on that issue…”
Nakanishi forced his brawny mouth into giving the answer.
“Nagato was ordered to stay its position by the fleet command in Yokosuka. It appears command had judged that we were taken hostage by the attackers.”
Higa’s lower jaw dropped.
“What hostages, weren’t all of the crew evacuated to this side of the pressure-resistant barrier walls!?”
A composed reply came from Kikuoka.
“Those men dressed in black must have a connection to the ones above the Self-Defense Force. It was eight in the morning today when Nagato separated from the Ocean Turtle, a whole six hours before their raid. The order for Nagato to break in will likely only come after they secure «Alice»’s light cube. Naturally, they would have a time limit, but…”
“So that means those guys aren’t just a bunch of terrorists, huh. This isn’t good… they might notice if they have a specialist with them. That alternate way of retrieving Alice…”
“Acting from within the Underworld, you mean…? They did seize the first STL room and it is possible to execute the ejection procedure from the virtual console set up in the Underworld too…”
“What will happen if that’s done?”
Higa gestured as he replied to Koujiro Rinko’s query.
“A target cube will be extracted from the light cube cluster in the exact middle of the main shaft and be brought to either control room through the air tubes. That’s where the exit is when extracting it.”
After pointing at a rectangular hatch located at a corner of the console desk, he turned his sight towards the door installed deeper in the room.
A small metal plate was screwed into the door made from aluminum alloy. The words carved into it were, “Second STL Room”.
Beyond that door were two STL—«Soul TransLators». A young man lay in one, watched over by Aki Natsuki, a nurse and a Sergeant first class. Playing a major role since the start of Project Alicization, he, Kirigaya Kazuto, now even had the capability to chart its course.
Turning back, Kikuoka spoke in a serious tone with his arms crossed.
“So our final hope will be in his hands yet again. Higa-kun… what can you say about it, in what state is Kirito-kun?”
Higa turned to look upon hearing faint breaths and his eyes met with Yuuki Asuna’s, staring straight towards him while supported by Rinko.
He was at a loss at how to explain the current situation before the girl, apparently the girlfriend of Kirito, Kirigaya Kazuto. However, a scratchy yet firm voice immediately reached Higa’s ears.
“I am fine. Please tell me the truth.”
Higa nodded after taking in a deep breath and letting it out.
“In a nutshell… he’s just a step away from the very worst he could go, yep… yes.”
Speaking while correcting his tone, Higa moved the mouse once again.
Wiping away the photo of the attackers, he opened another window. What was shown there was a gently wavering three-dimensional rainbow-colored graph.
“This is a visualization of Kirito-kun’s fluct light.”
The whole room stared silently at the screen.
“He was injected with a muscle relaxant in Tokyo a week before and fell into cardiopulmonary arrest. Fortunately, he held on to his life, but a part of his brain was hurt… that was the fluct light network, to be specific. Though the damage would be difficult to treat with existing neurology, there was a chance for recovery by utilizing STL technology. Thus, in order to stimulate the creation of a new network, we attempted the usage of the STL without its limiter to activate Kirito-kun’s fluct light.”
Catching his breath, he picked up a bottle of mineral water and rehydrated himself, parched from the unfamiliar style of speaking.
“It was crucial for him to dive into the Underworld in order to carry out this treatment. After all, the treatment will bear no results unless his fluct light was active like in reality. As such, like when we had him dive from Rath’s branch office in Roppongi, we sealed off Kirito’s memories and unloaded him into a remote region in the Underworld… or at least, we should have. However, though we still do not know exactly why, his memories were not sealed off, probably due to the damage to his fluct light. Kirito-kun was thrown into the Underworld as the real Kirigaya Kazuto-kun. We only found out earlier when we received communication from him inside, but…”
“Wait… wait a moment.”
Rinko was the one who interjected.
“Then Kirigaya-kun has been spending all that time in the accelerated Underworld as himself? How many months… have passed inside…?”
“…Roughly two and a half years.”
Asuna, propped up by Rinko, trembled the moment Higa answered so. It must have been a shock to her, but he believed in her earlier words and continued his explanation.
“Kirito-kun went into contact with the artificial fluct lights of that world for that much time. Probably while knowing those fluct lights will be erased upon the end of the current simulation… That must be why he aimed for the communication console with the real world set up at the heart of the Underworld where the first village was once formed. To request that you preserve all of those fluct lights, Kiku-san.”
Taking a glance to his side, he saw Kikuoka staring at the three-dimensional graph with the light from the screen reflecting off his glasses. He turned back to Rinko and Asuna.
“…He must have gone through a lot. The communication console was taken into the headquarters for the ruling organization, the «Axiom Church», after all. The fluct lights belonging to the church have overwhelming statuses and not at a level Kirito-kun could go against as a normal inhabitant. He would have normally «died» immediately after trespassing into the church and been logged out from the Underworld… —But he made it. I couldn’t confirm the details in the log since we were under attack, but it seemed he had several people helping who were of course, artificial fluct lights, but… in any case, it appeared he had comrades. Most of them died in the battle against the church and as a result, he was suffering badly from self-condemnation when he succeeded in opening that connection to us. To put it in another way, he was attacking his own fluct light. It was at precisely that moment when those guys dressed in black cut the electrical line and made the STL’s output increase for an instant due to the electric current surge from that short. In the end, Kirito-kun’s self-harming urges became reality… and his «sense of self» went into stasis…”
“His sense of self… went into stasis? What does that mean?”
Higa turned back to the console at Rinko’s question.
“…Take a look at thiss.”
Nimbly tapping on the keyboard, he expanded the image displaying Kirigaya Kazuto’s fluct light activity in real time.
In the core of the irregularly wavering rainbow cloud was a small space of blank darkness, hovering like a dark nebula.
“Unlike the artificial fluct lights in the light cubes, we have yet to fully analyze a living human’s fluct light, but a good part of it has been mapped. What should have originally been in this black hole is what would be the «core»… one’s self-image.”
“Self-image… you mean one’s perception of oneself?”
“Yes. It appears our decisions are guided through binary circuits, of yes or no, going, ‘what would I do in this situation’, in our fluct lights. For example, Rinko-senpai, have you ever ordered seconds in a beef bowl place?”
“Even when you really think you still want to and could have another?”
“And that’s the processing result from the self-image circuits in you, Rinko-senpai. Likewise, most decisions will not be realized unless they pass through those circuits. In Kirito-kun’s case, his fluct light is mostly unhurt. However, as those particular circuits are inactive, he can neither handle input from outside nor produce output by his own will. All he can do now… is probably reflexive reactions from his innate memories. On the scale of eating or sleeping.”
“Then… where does that put his consciousness?”
Higa paused his words for a moment and continued with his eyes turned downwards.
“He wouldn’t know who he is or what he should do, unable to speak or do anything by his own will… I would believe that would be his current state…”
Silence reigned over the dim space with its solitary rule yet again for the third time.
The following syllable was erased by the clamor of sturdy combat boots striking the steel plate on the wall.
It appeared putting two, three dents into the wall was insufficient in appeasing Vassago Casals, a member of the assault team, as he stomped with all his strength onto a confectionery pack dropped by some Rath researcher who was in this control room tens of minutes ago before finally ceasing his torrent of expletives.
Combing up his slightly wavy black hair from his Hispanic blood, he clomped over to the front of the console desk and held the man standing there by his collar with a single hand.
“Say that one more time, you bastard.”
Hanging from Vassago’s right arm, flexible as a whip, was a young man who appeared overwhelming skinny in comparison. His blonde hair was cropped short with his skin morbidly white.
Wearing rustic glasses with a metallic frame atop his scrawny cheeks, the man was the only non-combatant in the team. His name was Critter, a hacker consultant from Glowgen Defense Systems’
As though he was a network criminal with a record, his name was not his actual name, but his handle. But the same likely applies to Vassago. Vassago is one of the seventy-two demons recorded in the grimoire from the medieval times, “Goetia”, said to be the prince of hell. Surely no parents would give their son such a name. He was staff from the CYOP department as well, though his expertise lies in combat rather than computers—in a full-dive environment, of course. Though his history was as dubious as Critter’s, the man excelled in VR battles.
In actual fact—
Aside from Gabriel Miller, the twelve on the Ocean Turtle assault team were all dogs kept through the exchange of new personal references for their shady pasts.
And Critter, one of those dogs, showed no sign of fright even when hoisted by Vassago and audibly chewed on his gum while he replied.
“I will say it as many times as you want. This console is locked down harder than dry shit and the laptop we brought in won’t crack it even after you grow senile and kick the bucket, geddit?”
“Not that, four-eyes! I’m talking how you said it’s our fault that it’s locked with how long we took to break in!!”
Exchanging harsh words in turn, Vassago let out curses from his foul mouth. His wild good looks could land him a career as a model if he desperately put in the effort, but that was just how menacing he would appear when enraged.
“Oh c’mon, I’m just pointing out the truth there, ya know?”
“Rich words coming from someone trembling in the back during the fight, you bastard!”
The other members made no attempt to stop the quarrelling pair as they watched them while sniggering. Spotting an apt time, Gabriel snapped his fingers and drew the pair’s attention.
“Okay, that’s enough, the two of you. We don’t have the time to push the blame. We have to think about our next course of action.”
With that, Vassago who turned his head to look back pouted his lips like some child and spoke.
“But bro, if we don’t drill some discipline into this guy…”
Stop it with that «bro»; he held back those words. It seemed Vassago called Gabriel bro in recognition of his strength during their one-versus-one VR combat training, but he felt strange discomfort no matter how many times he heard it. Vague human relationships grounded on mere emotions, be it friends or comrades, were beyond his scope of understanding.
At any rate, he would be able to classify all of those human emotions in an orderly manner with the information from the color and form of the «cloud of light» upon obtaining the technology to extract and preserve souls. With that in mind, Gabriel adopted the tone of a leader and instructed the two.
“Listen here, Vassago, Critter. I am satisfied by the team’s work thus far. We did succeed in our first objective, occupying this control room with no casualties aside from a scratch on Gary, after all.”
Upon hearing that, Vassago grudgingly release Critter’s collar and placed his hands on his waist.
“But bro, there’s no point in that with the crucial control system locked. Our final objective, that light cube cluster thing, is beyond that steel wall, right?”
“That is precisely why I said we should be thinking about how to break through that wall.”
“That said, those guys from the JSDF aren’t going to keep quiet forever, ya know? If the pros from the Aegis ship escorting this slow turtle were to break in, we’ll be on the losing side with just us eleven plus that one extra guy.”
As expected as the one Gabriel chose as the vice-commander, Vassago grasped the situation unlike some mere wild dog. Gabriel lightly shrugged his shoulders after some thought.
“It appears our client had a deal with the top brass of the JSDF. The Aegis will not make a move for the twenty-four hours from the start of the operation.”
The thin whistling came from Critter. His pale-grey eyes narrowed beyond those goggles-like glasses.
“That means this operation isn’t some simple robbery… no, no, I suppose it’ll be wise to keep those words to myself, huh.”
“I am of the same mind.”
Nodding with a faint smile, Gabriel scanned through the team once more.
“Right, let’s confirm the situation. It is currently 14:47 JST with forty minutes passed since we broke in. We are now in the Ocean Turtle’s main control room. Though we succeeded in occupying it as per our objective, we failed to secure the researchers from Rath and the system here is locked down as well. Our next objective would be to occupy the sub control room, but… Brig, can we cut through the pressure-resistant barrier doors?”
The giant he called out to sluggishly stepped out from the group and answered.
“It’ll be a little tough. It’s using that newest composite material and the portable cutter we brought in won’t get through it within twenty-four hours.”
“I see Japan’s going strong financially. Hans, how about blowing the barrier wall off with C4?”
The tall member with an orderly-maintained moustache was the one to spread his arms apart without restraint this time round.
“I wouldn’t recommend going down that route at all. The light cube cluster’s holding room is right behind that wall, isn’t it? I can’t give any assurance we can blow that door down without hurting anything inside.”
Gabriel crossed his arms and continued his words after a moment of thought.
“…The mission handed to us is to locate and extract a single light cube from all of those and bring it back along with its interface. We already have the cube’s unique ID. In other words, if we could operate the console, it should be a breeze to search through the cubes and eject that one from the cluster. We should have been on the ship back with a beer in hand by now.”
“Geez, it’s all because this bespectacled pile of bones can’t remove one crappy lock despite spouting off lies about hacking into the Department of Defense’s servers.”
“Oh, now that’s a real shocker. I didn’t expect some gamer who had never shot a gun made out of anything but polygons to say that to me.”
Giving just a glare at Vassago and Critter who were about to restart their quarrel, Gabriel stressed his words.
“Do the lot of you want to return empty-handed and get jeered at instead of a bonus?”
The group shouted as one.
“Are the lot of you some dimwits outsmarted by a bunch of half-assed engineers?”
“Then think! Prove that thing on your necks has more than just oatmeal in it!!”
Furtive thoughts went through Gabriel even while he acted out the role of the «tough commander» almost autonomously.
Obtaining the first true artificial intelligence, «Alice», created by humans was Gabriel’s greatest goal as one who pursued souls along with the monopolization of the Soul TransLator technology. He planned to deal with the team with that nerve gas he secretly brought and first escape to Australia upon obtaining them both.
However, this operation commissioned by the NSA coincided exactly with Gabriel’s objectives up to that phase. With the administrator rights system controls locked away, he had to obtain «Alice»’s light cube through other means.
Alice… «A. L. I. C. E.».
It was the
He was not informed of the rabbit’s personal data. However, assuming a significant sum of money was what lured it into betraying the organization and leaking that intelligence, it would likely not expose itself to danger in such a situation.
In other words, he could not expect any further help from the rabbit on the other side of those pressure-resistant barriers. He had to achieve the objective with the current intelligence and equipment within that short time limit.
The time limit—the time limit was the issue.
Gabriel could fully curb those futile emotions, be it impatience or unease, but he could not help but feel a certain pressure as the time limit in twenty-three hours loomed closer.
The NSA agents told Gabriel this when they requested this intelligence theft mission, to be conducted in absolute secrecy.
Rath’s activities could heavily influence the vested interests of Japan’s defense industry. As such, the higher-ups within the Self-Defense Force held little like for Rath’s existence—or rather, some among those would even assertively hinder them.
The younger Self-Defense Force executives with meager political influence made up the foundation of Rath. The NSA had targeted that and arranged a secret arrangement with a certain high official in the Maritime Self-Defense Force through a member of the CIA in the embassy. The Aegis ship, «Nagato», escorting Rath’s headquarters, the Ocean Turtle, would prioritize the safety of the hostages and make no move for twenty-four hours from the start of the attack.
However, the Aegis would have to act after that standby period in order to eliminate future issues with the media. If their fully-equipped soldiers were to charge in, Gabriel and the assault team would be easily annihilated due to the difference in numbers and equipment.
He planned to escape alone in a small submarine even if it reached the worst-case scenario. But if he failed to obtain the pivotal light cube, his valiant pursuit of the human soul would be forced to regress to an irredeemable degree.
Gabriel had already laid out detailed plans for his life after this operation.
First, he would escape to Australia with Alice and hide the light cube and the STL technology in his villa on the Sovereign Islands. Returning to San Diego via plane, he would report the failure of the operation to the NSA. Crossing back over to Australia after the heat died down, he would install a STL machine in the large basement in his villa and construct a virtual world designed to his whims.
Alice and Gabriel would be the only inhabitants of that world initially. However, that would be far too lonely. He had to source more material for the purpose of his research on the soul as well.
He would search for young souls overflowing with vigor around Sydney or Cairns, capture them, and extract their souls with the STL before disposing of their unnecessary shells. Eventually, he hoped to cross the seas for his motherland, America, or the origin of the full-dive technology, Japan, as well.
Gabriel possessed a deep fascination with the unique mentality of those who plays VR games in Japan. Though not all of them, some of those players seemed to treat them as more real than reality and held nothing back in exposing their emotions there. Those strong desires pulsated upon recalling that sniper girl he met in Gun Gale Online even now.
That likely had a relation to the «real virtual world» that once existed in that country for a mere two years. Those youths who experienced a death game endowed with true life and death hacked in by a developer. They, those «survivors», possessed souls compatible with virtual worlds beyond any other.
He wanted them all if possible—especially the souls of those players called the «
That ultimate radiance unobtainable by the world’s filthy rich even if they laid down bundles of notes, amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars. He would line them up in his secret room, let his whims decide which souls to load into his desired worlds, and treat them as he liked.
That was truly marvelous was how he could freely copy and paste those souls extracted from humans and sealed into light cubes. Gabriel could rollback those broken, warped souls and carve them however he wanted. As though cutting them to exhibit their finest radiance like with rough gems.
Gabriel’s long journey would have made a full circle back to its origin when he arrives at that point.
To the time he witnessed that exquisite gleam Alicia Klingerman’s soul showed under that large tree in the forest.
Those thoughts lasted a sheer instant, but Gabriel lowered his eyelids as his back shivered slightly.
His icy-cold cognition had returned by the time his eyes reopened.
If the souls of various countries’ youth were to be the rubies, sapphires, and emeralds surrounding a crown, «Alice» would be the gigantic diamond encrusted at its center. Only Alice, the ultimate soul free from all impurity, sufficed as his eternal partner. He had to find and obtain the girl’s light cube at all cost.
However, he could not seize it through physicals means without breaking the pressure-resistant door to the light cube cluster’s holding room.
Thus, he had no choice but to utilize the system from here. That said, it appeared not even a first-class cybercriminal like Critter could do anything about the lock on the main console.
Gabriel’s boots rang out as he stepped behind Critter whose fingers were running over the keyboard.
“How is it?”
His hands raised up high in reply.
“It’s hopeless logging in with administrator rights. All we can do is suck on our thumbs while peeking into the fairyland where those fluct lights in the cluster above live.”
Critter moved his fingers and a window opened on the large screen on the opposite wall, displaying a curious sight.
It was far from a «fairyland». A sickly red permeated the air and the ground was as black as fresh asphalt.
Multiple primitive tents sewed together from leather were stood in the middle of the image. Beside them gathered roughly ten strange organisms, short, stout, and bald, who were making a racket for one reason or another.
Though humanoid, they could hardly be mistaken as humans. Their backs were horrendously hunched, their arms were long enough to scrap against the ground, and their bent legs were stumpy in comparison.
Gabriel murmured and Critter spoke cheerfully after a soft whistle.
“Ooh, well-informed, aren’t you, commander. That’s right, they don’t seem like orcs or ogres, so they’re probably goblins.”
“But they look pretty big for those. These must be the hob kinds, hobgoblins.”
Vassago who came closer from the side added his opinion with his hands on his waist. As expected as one with VR combat as his specialization, he apparently had quite some knowledge regarding fantasy RPGs.
The uproar among the ten or so hobgoblins escalated progressively as Gabriel and the others watched on.
The two in the center grabbed onto each other and as they started a rough scuffle, the rest surrounding them raised their hands while screaming.
With what seemed like an idea on the verge of taking shape, Gabriel called out to the close-cropped head on the seat.
“Are these guys…. these monsters part of the system?”
“Hmm, that seems off. These guys are real humans in a sense. They’re artificial souls loaded into the light cube cluster above… they have fluct lights.”
“Seriously!? What the fuck!”
Vassago immediately leaned forward with a hysterical cry.
“These hobgoblins are humans!? You mean they have souls like us!? Grandma Frisco would keel over this instant if she heard that!!”
He yelled out again while slapping Critter’s close-cropped hair.
“I can’t believe they would be doing such research without regard for God. So that’s how it is, everyone’s some goblin or orc in those light cubes? Even our Alice-chan?”
“Like hell they are.”
Critter corrected Vassago while sweeping away his hand, annoyed.
“Listen, that world those guys from Rath built, the Underworld, is separated into two areas. A bit west from the middle’s the «Human Empire» and normal humans live there. And outside that’s the «Dark Territory» swarming with monsters like these. Naturally, Alice’s somewhere in the Human Empire, but that’s ridiculously huge, so there’s no way we’ll find her while peeking in like this.”
“Then it’s a piece of cake. Our words will get through if they’re humans, right? Then we’ll dive into that Human Empire place and just ask those there, ‘You know some girl called Alice?’ and we’ll be done”
“Woah, idiot warning. There’s one right here.”
“The fuck was that, you bastard!!”
“Come on, it’s the Japanese who built the Underworld. Naturally, the words used by «those there» would be Japanese. And what, you can speak Japanese?”
Critter pointed that out with disdain to which Vassago replied with a somewhat crooked smile.
“I can’t have you looking down on me now.”
In that instant, everyone stared in amazement, not just Critter. Vassago’s words were fluent to an extent that shocked even Gabriel.
The Hispanic youth returned to English and continued.
“Communication’s no problem at all, ya know? Any other problem, four-eyes-kun?”
“There… There is, of course.”
Recovering from his shock, Critter snorted.
“Tens of thousands of people live in the Human Empire. Do you really think you can go up to and ask each and every one of them… all alone……”
It appeared his own words served as inspiration as his frame jolted up upon speaking that far. Though Vassago cursed with that close-cropped head crashing into his chin, the hacker shouted out without any concern for him.
“Wait. Waitwaitwaitwait. Maybe you won’t have to do it on your own…”
The vague idea in Gabriel’s mind, too, settled into a rough shape upon hearing that.
“…I see. It’s hardly likely that the accounts for logging into the Underworld… would all be some level 1 citizen. Is that it, Critter?”
“Yes. Yess, boss!!”
The keyboard clattered like a percussion instrument and several lists immediately appear on the large monitor as they were scrolled through.
“There should be accounts from all sorts of social classes for Rath’s operators to log into to observe or manage inside. An army officer… no, general. No, no, a noble, noble… or maybe we could even get the emperor himself…”
“Ooh, that sounds cool, huh.”
Vassago spoke, rubbing his split chin.
“In short, I’ll just have to log in as some general or president or bigwig and order everyone as I like, huh. Army, fall in! Right, face! Go find Alice!! Like that?”
“…That good idea just sounds stupid now after those words from you.”
Critter continued scrolling at a tempestuous speed even as he grumbled. However.
The man’s rare complaints came to a stop along with the listing mere seconds later.
“Damn, we’re outta luck, huh. They didn’t just put a password on direct access from here, but to log into the high level accounts too. Unfortunately, it looks like we can’t dive into the Human Empire with anything from a normal citizen’s account.”
The hue of disappointment showed itself clearly on Critter and Vassago’s faces, but Gabriel’s expression remained still as he lightly inclined his head.
The time they had left was certainly not very long.
However, that limit applied only to the real world. Time flowed, compressed to an absurd degree of several hundred times slower than reality, in that other world extending beyond the screen, Under World.
To put it in other words, the remaining twenty-three hours of reprieve they had was equivalent to over a year in the Underworld. With that much time, it was not necessarily impossible to search and secure Alice, as well as eject her into the real world from an information console inside after logging in as a common citizen.
However, that would certainly be tedious. If they had to go to such lengths, would it not be faster to approach the Human Empire from outside it?
“Critter. Are there no high level accounts outside the empire… in the Dark Territory?”
“…Outside? But there’s barely any chance Alice’s out there, no?”
Critter’s fingers flashed fleetingly even as he voiced that doubt.
Looking up at the newly opened window, Gabriel responded.
“Well, that is likely. However, it isn’t impossible to pass through the boundary between the areas, is it? There may be means of crossing that boundary with the rights given to the account.”
“Ooh, that’s bro for you! His mind’s on a whole different level! In other words, it’s that, huh… becoming some boss on the monsters’ side rather than a human general and going on an invasion!? I’ll be even more on board with that!!”
Apparently rather fed up, judging from his tone, Critter poured cold water onto Vassago who was shouting out after a whistle.
“I don’t care how on board you are, but you may have to become some hobgoblin or orc if you’re logging into the Dark Territory. Well, it suits you, though… oh, there, there’s one, look.”
With a loud click from the keys, another two windows appeared.
“Let’s see, there are only two super accounts unlike in the Empire, but… alright, there’s no password on them! Let’s take a look… first we have one with the position of a dark knight. Its priority level is… 70! Now this is usable!”
“Ooh, that sounds good! I’ll take that!!”
Ignoring the noisy Vassago, Critter focused the other window.
“And, the other one. …What’s with this? The position field’s blank and there’s no level shown. All that’s set is the name, huh. This guy’s… how is this read? ……«Emperor… Vector»?”
“Woah, if it says emperor, then that’s an emperor, huh. I guess I’ll take…”
Gabriel softly patted Vassago’s shoulder from behind after he started speaking.
“No, I’ll use that.”
“Heh? But bro, you can speak Japanese?”
“Not as well as you, though.”
And Gabriel replied in the Japanese he studied for three years. Though he gave up on reading and writing from the very beginning, he had the confidence he could get through daily conversations without issue.
“As expected, huh. Then bro, I’ll leave you the emperor and I’ll go with the dark knight. Looks like things are getting fun! Hey, four-eyes, can we log in yet!?”
Utterly ignoring Vassago, noisy as usual, Critter continued tapping on the keyboard. His profile appeared serious as he glared at the information displayed on the monitor one after another and Gabriel asked softly after walking to his side.
“How does it look, Critter, are there any other issues?”
“……I can’t tell if it’s a problem or it’s just bugging me… there are some odd terms popping out here and there in the data. I don’t understand exactly what they mean yet, but…”
“Oh? What terms?”
Critter took in a breath before replying to Gabriel’s enquiry.
“…«Final load test».”
Higa shyly broke the gloomy silence enveloping the sub control room.
“Err-erm… right. His body, or rather, the state Kirigaya-kun is left in here in the real world is like I explained… it’s not looking optimistic.”
Seeing Yuuki Asuna’s slender frame tremble while Koujiro Rinko held onto her shoulder, he added on in a fluster.
“B-But, however slight it is, there’s still hope!”
Rinko asked in a voice, sharp yet tinged with faith.
“Kirito-kun is still logged into the Underworld.”
Higa looked up at the monitor relatively smaller than the one in the hijacked main control room. Switching the display after several clicks of the mouse, he showed the entire Underworld made up of the circular Human Empire and the Dark Territory surrounding it.
“In other words, though I said he lost his self-image, his fluct light itself is still active and receiving all kinds of stimuli. Thus, it may be possible to treat his soul in the Underworld even if it’s impossible in the real world. If someone were to «forgive» him, who hurt his own soul by blaming himself excessively… it may just…”
Higa was well aware his own words could hardly be considered scientific.
However, they came straight from his heart.
The Nerve Gear, the Medicuboid, and following that as an evolved Brain Machine Interface, the Soul TransLator. However, the mysteries of that quantum incorporeal entity, the «fluct light», owned by humans and discovered through the machine Higa personally assisted in developing still overwhelmed what he knew about it.
Was the fluct light a physical phenomenon?
Or perhaps it was a conceptual phenomenon beyond the explanations of modern science?
If it was the latter, Kirigaya Kazuto’s hurt and battered soul could be healed by some power that exceeded science.
For example—a person’s love.
“…I will go.”
It was as if she agreed with Higa’s thoughts.
Her soft yet determined voice reverberated through the sub control room.
Those in the room caught their breaths as they looked at the one who said it. Yuuki Asuna nodded towards Koujiro Rinko who was supporting her shoulders and took a step forward before repeating those words.
“I will go to the Underworld. I want to tell Kirito-kun on the other side. You tried your best, didn’t you? Many things must have happened, both sad and painful, but you did all you could.”
The visage of Asuna saying those with tears residing in her light brown eyes was so beautiful, it rendered even Higa who was prepared to devote his entire life to the academics speechless.
Kikuoka watched Asuna, likely touched as his expression suggested, but soon hid that behind the lens of his glasses and turned his sight towards the door to the adjacent room.
“…I do believe we have another unoccupied STL.”
The commander who quietly announced that put on a complex expression and continued.
“However, the current Underworld couldn’t be said to be in a stable state. It will be plunging into the last stage of the scheduled final load test in a few more hours on this side.”
“Final… load? What will happen?”
Higa gestured with his hands while explaining to the frowning Rinko.
“Erm… to put it simply, the shell’s breaking. The «Great East Gate» separating the Human Empire and Dark Territory for hundreds of years will have its durability reach zero and an army of monsters will surge into the humans’ world. If the humans prepared a sufficient defense structure, they should be able to repel it in the end. However, Kirito-kun destroyed half of that ruling organization, the Axiom Church, in the experiment this time, so… I wouldn’t know how it’ll…”
“Come to think of it, the situation might necessitate that we have someone dive over there regardless.”
Kikuoka muttered with his arms crossed before his chest.
“It’s possible «Alice», somewhere in the Human Empire may be murdered in the chaos when the invasion begins. We wouldn’t have had any reason to lock main control to earn this time if that wasn’t the case… If only we could enter with a high ranking account and secure Alice while moving her to the «World End Altar», ejecting her light cube to sub control here…”
“Aah… you did request that of Kirito-kun, didn’t you, immediately before the incident.”
Kikuoka nodded regretfully at Rinko’s words.
“Yes. He would have definitely carried it out if he was safe. After all, Alice was right next to him back then…”
“Then there is a high possibility they are still together now even after months have passed on the inside… you mean?”
Higa answered that question.
“…Yes, I believe that is worth considering. Thus, it may be best to have Asuna be the one to dive… It goes without saying that she’ll be able to talk with Kirito-kun and securing Alice will likely require combat ability in the Underworld. Asuna’s the most used to moving in a virtual world among us here, I’m totally sure of that.”
“Then it will be best if we use an account with a level as high as possible, huh.”
Nodding to Kikuoka’s voice, Higa ran his fingers over the keyboard.
“Well, sure, she can take her pick. We have knights, generals, nobles… all sorts of high ranking accounts prepared.”
“Hey, hold on for a moment.”
Rinko’s slightly nervous voice barged in.
“Something’s the matter?”
“…Isn’t there the possibility the attackers will think of the same thing? You mentioned it earlier, didn’t you? That the loophole to secure Alice is to do it from inside.”
“Aah… yes, those means are available to them too. Main control below does have two STLs set up. But they shouldn’t have the time to crack the login password for the high ranking accounts. All they can use are the level 1 common citizens. They won’t be doing anything in the chaos of the final load test with statuses like those.”
Higa’s explanation sped on—
Even as slight unease suddenly rose to the surface of his consciousness as though he had forgotten something important.
However, those thoughts were lost before given form upon spotting something in the account listing he rapidly scrolled through.
- Translation – Tap