UPDATE: The chapter has been edited to be as accurate as we can make it! Thanks CJ!
Translation of Chapter 16 of Volume 15 of Sword Art Online.
Any feedback would be very helpful.
Translation – defan752
Terminology – Tap
Proofreading – DarthMewtwo, CJ
Japanese Version Parallel – CJ
Even the self-proclaimed super genius Higa Takeru was unable to predict all that had happened in the past two hours.
But, the current situation could be called extremely startling, and could only be described as dumbfounding.
Unexpectedly, a delicate young woman of roughly eighteen or nineteen used her thin right hand to seize and hoist up the collar of a man fifteen centimeters taller than herself. The tasteless Hawaiian shirt was gripped so tightly it was nearly torn apart; heels of sandals floated in the air.
With both eyes, brightly flashing as though they were ablaze, staring straight at Lieutenant-Colonel Kikuoka Seijirou, Yuuki Asuna let words sharp as swords out of her cute cherry red lips:
“If Kirito-kun can’t wake up like this, I will absolutely never forgive you.”
From Higa’s position, it was impossible to see Kikuoka’s expression under his black-rimmed glasses reflecting the ceiling light. But the Self-Defense Cadre who was supposed to be a black belt in both judo and kendo was seemingly crushed by Asuna’s words; he swallowed, and slowly raised both hands to his left and right, as though in a gesture of surrender.
“I understand. I will take responsibility: I will make sure Kirito-kun recovers.”
Solemn silence flooded the dark Auxiliary Control Room.
No matter if it was Higa, who was sitting in the chair in front of the console, or Koujiro Rinko, who was standing besides him, or the numerous «RATH» staff inside the room, no one dared to speak. It was clear how surprising the the youngest woman’s verve was. As it was, that young woman deserved the title of a «Survivor» of a true battlefield. Higa couldn’t help but think this aside.
Finally, Asuna wordlessly released her right hand. Kikuoka, having been freed, let out a long sigh with an almost dispirited expression. Asuna stepped back, swaying on the spot. Rinko immediately moved forward and supported Asuna’s back, her white coat flying.
The female physicist who was a senior to Higa in the research facility tightly hugged Asuna to her chest, whispered with determination:
“It’s all right, everything will be fine. He’ll definitely come back, back to your side.”
Her gentle voice instantly soothed Asuna’s extremely taut face:
“… Yes, you’re right. I’m sorry… for being so panicky.”
Asuna’s eyes leaked tears that had been absent even when enduring the attack. Rinko gently wiped them away with the tip of her finger.
The sound of the sliding door being opened tightened the slightly relaxed atmosphere again. Running into the room was Lieutenant Nakanishi.
Nakanishi, whose dusty white shirt was soaked with sweat and whose shoulder holster revealed a large pistol grip, glanced at Rinko and Asuna and said loudly to Kikuoka behind:
“Report! Complete sealing of blast doors one and two, plus completion of evacuating noncombatants are confirmed!”
Kikuoka adjusted the collar of his Hawaiian shirt as he stepped forward and nodded.
“Good work. How long can the blast doors hold?”
“Yes… That would depend on the attackers’ equipment, although small firearms are unable to penetrate it. Even using tip saws or similar tools to cut through it would take at least eight hours. If explosives are used, it might not hold… I assume, though, they would not, since near the central blast door…”
“There is the light cube cluster.”
Kikuoka finished his sentence, pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose, and sank into deep thought.
But he immediately raised his head and surveyed the slightly small Auxiliary Control Room.
“Good, let’s straighten out the situation. Nakanishi, report of casualties.”
“Yes sir. Civilian research team, three lightly injured, in treatment at the bow infirmary. Our combatants, two heavily injured, two lightly injured, all in treatment with no risk of death. Ready for combat, six, including two lightly injured.”
“Under that kind of fierce attack, it’s a miracle that there have been no deaths… Then, report any hull damage.”
“There are rupture points all over the bottom dock control room. It’s impossible to shut them remotely now. The passageway from the dock to the Main Control Room is the same, but these are just negligible damages. The most severe is, because the main power line has been cut… although the auxiliary line can supply stable power, if we don’t restart the control system we can’t turn the propellers.”
“A sea turtle without fins. And its belly has been bitten by a shark.”
“Yes, sir. Zones One through Twelve of the Lower Shaft and the bottom dock have been completely taken.”
The extremely short-haired Nakanishi, whose face represented strong will itself, unwillingly knitted his brow. Comparatively, Kikuoka’s teacher-like long hairline twisted up, as he leaned onto the console while shuffling his clogs with his toes.
“The Main Control Room, STL Room One, and even the nuclear pile have also fallen into their hands… Most fortunately, their goal is not to destroy.”
“Is… is that so?”
“If they just wanted to destroy, they wouldn’t use submarines to carry out such an exaggerated surprise attack. Striking us with a cruise missile or torpedo would do. That begs the question: who are they… Higa-kun, what do you think?”
At the sudden question, Higa blinked several times, turning his brain that had not yet fully recovered from the impact.
“Uhh, yes, yeah.”
Mumbling meaninglessly as he turned towards the console, he manipulated the mouse with his right hand and brought up an in-ship camera recording on the big monitor.
Although the video window he opened was dark and indistinct, he paused at a random place and adjusted the brightness and contrast. What appeared were a number of figures in combat suits, sprinting forward in a passageway inside the ship. Their faces were half covered by helmets with multi-function visors, and they wielded serious-looking assault rifles.
“…So, as you can see, from head to toe, there are no markings whatsoever, such as flags, that can identify them. From the color and specifications of their equipment, they don’t seem to belong to any regular army. Their rifles appear to be Steyrs, but those are quite common… The only thing we can say is that, from their average physiques, they’re most likely not Asian.”
“Which means, at least they aren’t Japanese Special Forces. How pleasing.”
Kikuoka talked offhandedly about the frightening situation while scratching his chin. Emitting a sharp aura from his calm eyes usually squinted, he looked up to the monitor.
“We can confirm one more thing… These people know the existence of Project Alicization.”
“Yeah, that’s right. After their assault from the bottom dock, they immediately ran to the Main Control Room. Their goal is crystal clear: to seize the STL technology… No, the true bottom-up AI «A.L.I.C.E.».”
In other words, information had severely leaked in long-term work. But Higa did not directly say it; he resisted the urge to scan the face of every «RATH» worker in the room for any sudden motions, and said in an optimistic tone:
“What’s fortunate is, the Main Control Room lock caught up. It’s securer than physically damaging the console; I’ve made sure direct commands to the Underworld aren’t working anymore. Any intervention towards the simulated experiment, and the ejection of the Fluctlight of «Alice» from the Light Cube Cluster just can’t be done.”
“But, it’s the same for us, isn’t it?”
“Indeed. Using this auxiliary console, we can’t execute administrator privilege commands either. No matter if it’s from the opposite side – the Main Control Room – or this side – the Auxiliary Control Room – it is impossible to eject «Alice»’s Fluctlight by way of external commands… But Kiku-san, doesn’t this equal our victory? See, they can’t access the Cluster by physical means or informational means, as long as we wait until our escort Aegis destroyer to dispatch reinforcements for a counterattack, those guys are a piece of cake, a piece of cake.”
“I don’t know what kind of cake… but therein lies the problem.”
Kikuoka’s expression remained solemn as he inquired Nakanishi.
“How about it, has the Nagato moved?”
“Uh… about that…”
Nakanishi channeled power into his chin in an effort to steady his voice, and bowed his head slightly.
“The Nagato received orders from the Yokosuka Fleet Command to maintain its current distance and standby. It seems that Command has classified us as hostages.”
Higa’s mouth dropped open.
“Hostages? But, all hands have retreated back here in an evacuation!”
The one who replied calmly was Kikuoka:
“I’m afraid, those people clad in black have connections with the higher-ups of the Self Defense Force. The Nagato pulled away from the Ocean Turtle at eight in the morning, about six hours before that bunch broke in. By the time Nagato receives an order to come to rescue, they would have seized «Alice»’s Light Cube. Of course, there must be a time limit…”
“That means… those people aren’t just normal terrorists. This is bad… If there are experts on the other side as well, they might find out. The hidden way of collecting Alice…”
“Operating from within the Underworld, right?… Now that they have control over STL Room One, it’s possible to set the virtual console installed within the Underworld to complete the ejection command…”
“What will happen if that command is executed?”
Higa turned around and answered Koujiro Rinko’s question:
“The target Light Cube will be retrieved from the Light Cube Cluster within the Main Shaft and transported by vacuum tube to any control room. It’ll exit there.”
He pointed at a square hatch on the side of the console, and turned his eyes towards the door on the wall inside.
There was a small metal plaque set on the aluminum door, with the words [STL Room Two].
On the other side of that door there were two STLs – that is, «Soul Translators». In one of the machines laid a youth currently under the care of Nurse and Sergeant First Class Aki Natsuki. He, Kirigaya Kazuto, had been playing an important role since the beginning of Project Alicization, and drove the direction of the project even more so today.
Kikuoka turned away and crossed his arms, speaking in a sincere and solemn tone:
“Our last hope will have to rest on his shoulders again. Higa-kun… How is Kirito’s condition?”
Hearing the weak breathing, Higa raised his head and directly met eyes with the intense glare of Asuna, who was being hugged by Rinko.
He sank into a hesitation over how to convey the current situation to her, who was Kirito’s, that is, Kirigaya Kazuto’s lover. Immediately, however, a hoarse but determined voice reached Higa’s ears.
“Don’t worry, I will be fine. Please say it, the true situation.”
Taking a deep breath, Higa nodded.
“To summarize in one sentence… It’s gonna be… It would be a condition just shy of the worst possible.”
Higa said in a newly serious tone, manipulating the mouse again.
The image of the attackers disappeared and another window was opened. What appeared was an irregularly flashing colorful stereoscopic image.
“This, is an imaging of Kirito-kun’s Fluctlight.”
Everyone in the room silently stared at the screen.
“A week ago, since he was injected with succinylcholine in Tokyo, his heart and lungs ceased normal function. Fortunately, he has managed to stay alive, but a portion of his brain… Specifically, his Fluctlight network, has been damaged. Although treatment would be difficult with current medical methods, there might be a chance of recovery if STL technology is used. Therefore, to foster the synthesis of new networks, we attempt to grant new dynamism to Kirito-kun’s Fluctlight through unrestricted STL.”
Higa sighed, picked up the bottle of water on the console and took a sip. He was not used at all to this kind of long explanation.
“To proceed with this treatment, it would be necessary for him to dive into the Underworld. If his Fluctlight cannot move around as though it were in the real world, the treatment would have no results. Therefore, same as his Dive at the Roppongi branch: we concealed Kirito-kun’s memories and let him land at the border of the Underworld… This is what we originally planned. But, even today the reason remains unknown… I’m afraid it is due to the damage to his Fluctlight; his memories had not been concealed at all. Kirito-kun has been placed into the Underworld under his current real-world condition of Kirigaya Kazuto. We just found out from his contact with his from inside…”
“Wait… wait a minute.”
Koujiro Rinko interjected.
“Then, has he, in the time-accelerated Underworld, spent those days as Kirigaya-kun? How many months… inside…?”
“…About two years.”
Hearing Higa’s reply, Asuna’s body that was being hugged by Rinko trembled slightly. Even though his words were likely to be extremely shocking to her, Higa continued, trusting in her earlier promise:
“In that time, Kirito-kun has contacted the artificial Fluctlights in that world. I’m afraid, he also knows that the Fluctlights will eventually, due to the end of this current virtual experiment, all be destroyed… So, his target is installed in the center of the Underworld, and was once the contact console connecting the starting village with the real world. Kiku-san, he was planning to request you to protect all of the Fluctlights.”
Higa glanced to the side; Kikuoka, whose glasses reflected the light of the monitor, was still gazing at the stereoscoping image. He turned back to Rinko and Asuna:
“…This is not something simple, since the contact device is buried in the stronghold of the ruling power, now called the «Axiom Church». Since the Fluctlights belonging to the Church possess absolute status value, Kirito-kun, who was set as a common person, had no way to fight them. Originally, shortly after he breaks into the Church, he would [Die], and log out of the Underworld… But he did it. Being attacked, we could not confirm detailed information from the logs, but we assume that he recruited some people, who of course are artificial Fluctlights… that is, the help of partners. In the fight against the Church, those partners nearly all died, and as a result, when he successfully opened a connection to here, he felt deep guilt. It can be said that he attacked his own Fluctlight. In that instant, those black-clothed people cut the power line, creating a short-circuit that instantly spiked the STL output. As a result, Kirito-kun’s impulse of self-destruction has become reality… His [inner self] has lost activity…”
“Inner self… Lost activity? What do you mean?”
Hearing Rinko’s question, Higa turned back to the console:
“…Please take a look at this.”
He quickly typed on the keyboard and magnified the live feed of the activity of the Fluctlight labeled as Kirigaya Kazuto.
Near the center of the irregularly flashing spectrum-colored cloud, a small puff of darkness like a dark nebula was cradled.
“Compared with the artificial Fluctlights in the Light Cubes, we are still quite far from a full analysis of human organic Fluctlight structure. The general mapping, however, has been completed. This black hole, what was originally in here, simply put, is the [Subject] …Self-Image.”
“Subject …An image of the self determined by the self?”
“Yes. All human choice is determined by a Fluctlight Y/N path: [Whether or not I will proceed under these conditions.] By way of example, Rinko-senpai, have you ever ordered a second bowl in a gyudon restaurant?”
“… Of course not.”
“Not even have the slightest thought of ‘I still want to eat’ or ‘I can have one more’?”
“That is to say, these were the results of Rinko-senpai’s Self-Image circuit processing. Similarly, virtually no decisions can be made and no movements can be undertaken if they do not pass through this circuit. In Kirito’s situation, the majority of his Fluctlight is unharmed. But, because the vital circuit has lost its function, no matter if it is processing external input, or outputting voluntary actions, it cannot be done. What he is capable of now… I’m afraid, are reflexive actions ingrained within his memory. For example, eating, sleeping, and related tasks.”
Rinko bit her lip, as though she were thinking about something. She eventually whispered:
“Then… then now, how is his state of mind?”
Higa hesitated, lowered his head, and continued:
“He does not know who he is, or what he wants to do; he cannot say or do anything… That would likely be his condition…”
Silence permeated the dark room for the third time.
The following part of the syllable was completely drowned out by the deafening noise of hardened boots kicking away a sheet of metal.
A member of the assault team, Vassago Casals, seemed unsatisfied with denting the wall two or three times, and forcefully crushed with his foot an empty candy box that a RATH technician had probably left tens of minutes ago, before finally stopping his stream of profanity.
As proof of the Spanish blood coursing through his veins, he ran a hand through his slightly wavy black hair, moved briskly to the console and seized the collar of the bulletproof jacket of his teammate with one hand.
“You sucker, try saying that again.”
Vassago gripped an exaggeratedly skinny youth, who was as weakly thin as a whip. His golden hair was trimmed very short, and his skin was snowy white as though ill.
This man who wore a pair of rough metal-framed glasses was the only non-combatant in the team. A hacker by the name of Critter, informally employed by the Glowgen Defense Systems Cyber Operation Department [CYOP].
A self-proclaimed internet criminal with an arrest record, with an internet name instead of a real name. But Vassago was the same. Vassago was one of the 72 demons recorded in the «Ars Goetia» , also known as the Prince of Hell. There were no parents on Earth who would name their son that. He was also an employee of the CYOP and was not an expert on computers but in combat – of course under Full Dive. Although he was a man with a suspicious record lesser than that of Critter, his VR combat skills were quite outstanding.
In reality —
The twelve members of the «Ocean Turtle» Assault Team, apart from their leader, Gabriel Miller, all had dark pasts, and adopted new identities in exchange for being fed as [Dogs].
As a dog in their midst, Critter expressed no fear whatsoever at being hoisted up by Vassago, replying as he loudly chewed his gum:
“I’ll say it as many times as I want. Listen, this console’s locked as hard as dried shit, and the laptops we brought in aren’t gonna be able to calculate the unlock code until you bastards die of old age. Got it?”
“I ain’t talking ‘bout that, four-eyes! Weren’t you saying that it locked because we moved too goddamn slowly!?”
Vassago shot back loudly. If he tried hard enough, with his wild flair, he was handsome enough to be a successful fashion model, but he was quite frightening when enraged.
“Hey, hey, just telling the truth, man?”
“You were trembling like a leaf during combat, but you sure are one cocky bastard now!”
The other teammates snickered at the two men firing expletives at each other, instead of stopping them. Capturing the right timing, Gabriel snapped his fingers at the two men to attract their attention.
“OK, cut it out, you two. There’s no time to determine who’s responsible. Now we need to think about our next step.”
Then, Vassago suddenly changed to a child-like tone:
“But bro, if I don’t teach him a lesson…”
He wanted to tell him not to say “bro”, but swallowed his words. Vassago called Gabriel this probably because they had both acknowledged each other’s prowess during one-on-one VR training, but no matter how many time he heard this, it felt ill-conceived. To Gabriel, these kinds of ambiguous human relationships only based on emotions, such as friends or partners, were only convoluted synonyms.
Sooner or later, when the technology of extracting and saving souls was his, all human emotion would be able to be categorized under hue or shape through the «cloud of light». As he thought, Gabriel said to the two in an authoritarian tone:
“Listen to me, Vassago, Critter. I’ve been very satisfied with the actions of the team until today, as we have successfully achieved our first goal of taking over the control room.”
Hearing this, Vassago very reluctantly released Critter’s collar and put his hands on his hips.
“But, bro, there’s no meaning in that ‘cause this important console is locked. Our final objective, the Light Cube Cluster or whatever, is on the other side of this metal wall, right?”
“Look, we’re just about to discuss a way to bring this wall down.”
“But, the JSDF men ain’t shrinking away forever, eh? If we keep going after them, this big stupid turtle’s escort, the Aegis destroyer will send the pros to attack us, and we’ll be in real trouble ‘cause we have only eleven men fighting and one sitting as still as cargo.”
As expected of a Vice Captain hand-picked by Gabriel, Vassago possessed control of the situation at hand that was not a trait of a simple wild dog. Thinking for a moment, Gabriel shrugged and said:
“… As it seems, our client has some kind of secret deal with the higher-ups of the JSDF. The Aegis destroyer won’t do anything within 24 hours of the attack.”
Critter whistled softly. Behind wind goggle-like glasses, his light gray eyes narrowed.
“So, this operation is more than just a burgl… —No, no. it’s better left unsaid.”
“My thoughts exactly.”
Gabriel lightly smiled and nodded, surveying everyone again.
“Right, let’s confirm the situation. It’s 1447 hours, Japan Standard Time. From infiltration to now, 40 minutes have passed. We are currently in the Main Control Room of the «Ocean Turtle». Although we successfully secured the target facility, we have been unable to detain a «RATH» technician, and the control system here has been locked. The next objective should be securing the Auxiliary Control Room… Brigg, can you cut through the blast door?”
The hulking teammate who was called slowly stepped forward and replied:
“Doesn’t look good. Seems to be the newest synthetic material. Using the portable cutting saw I have, it’s completely impossible within 24 hours.”
“The Japanese economy is alive and well. Hans, can you breach the wall with C4?”
This time, a tall, slim teammate with a very handsome mustache waved his arms freely.
“I say we forget it. On the other side of that wall is the Light Cube Cluster storage, so I can’t guarantee no harm to the goods before blasting this door.”
Gabriel crossed his arms and thought for a split-second, then continued:
“… Our mission, is to find a particular one from an immense number of Light Cubes and take it along with its interface. We already have the ID information of the Cube. In other words, if we can operate this console, we can effortlessly find the Cube and extract it from the Cluster, and we would’ve been having beers on the return trip at this moment.”
“Goddamn it, it’s all because of that turtle four-eyes, always boasting [My crime is infiltrating the central server of the Pentagon] or whatever, but can’t open a tiny lock.”
“Ooh, didn’t see that coming. I’m actually being told off by a gamer who’s only fired a gun made of polygons.”
Staring at Vassago and Critter who were itching to fight, Gabriel intensified his tone.
“Do you all want to go back empty-handed and be ridiculed instead of rewarded?”
Everyone shouted together.
“Are you all merely laymen who can’t even best an amateur technician?”
“Then THINK!! Prove that the round objects on top of your necks aren’t filled with oatmeal!”
Semi-automatically putting on the [Tough Commander] persona, Gabriel thought by himself in silence.
As the one who seeks souls, Gabriel’s biggest goal was to obtain the first true artificial intelligence «Alice» mankind had ever created and take Soul Translation technology for himself. After he obtained those, he planned to use the nerve agent he had secretly brought in to take care of everyone else, and then escape to Australia.
But, having only reached the current stage, the attack that the NSA had consigned him somewhat counted towards Gabriel’s goal. Now, since system commands through administrator privileges were blocked, they must figure out another way to take «Alice»’s Light Cube.
The one who told Gabriel’s client, the NSA, this codename, was a «RATH» insider informant, [Rabbit].
Gabriel did not yet know [Rabbit]’s personal profile. But, given that the motivation to an organization and disclose its information could only be a handsome reward, he likely would not reveal himself in this dangerous situation and take action.
In other words, they could not expect assistance from Rabbit, on the other side of the blast door. They must utilize the information and equipment they have now, and achieve their goal within a short time.
Time — All was time.
Gabriel, who had absolute control over useless emotions such as nervousness and anxiety, could not help but feel a certain pressure when faced with a slowly approaching time limit of 23 hours.
When the NSA agents had entrusted him with this top secret seizure mission, they had said to Gabriel:
The activities of «RATH» have been severely wavering our vested interest and rights in the Japanese military industry. Therefore, the higher-ups of the Japan Self Defense Force are displeased with the existence of «RATH» — Furthermore, many of them were eager to obstruct the project.
«RATH» was mainly comprised of young Self-Defense cadres who did not hold much power in politics. The NSA was very sure of this, and signed a secret treaty with the CIA at the embassy and some high official of the JSDF navy. The Aegis destroyer Nagato that protected the «RATH» headquarters, «Ocean Turtle», will take no course of action within 24 hours since the attack, under grounds that [the safety of the hostages comes first].
But, after the period of standby, when considering the upcoming media coverage, the Aegis destroyer would eventually have to act. As soon as heavily armed forces came, outnumbered, outgunned, Gabriel’s strike force team would likely be annihilated.
If the situation really developed into the worst-case scenario, he could still escape back to the submarine, alone. But at the same time, without retrieving the important Light Cube, his great journey to seek the soul would retreat to an irreparable state.
Gabriel had already meticulously planned out his long life after this attack.
First he would take Alice and escape to Australia, concealing the Light Cube and STL technology in a villa in the Sovereign Islands in the Gold Coast. Then he would take a plane back to San Diego and report the failure of the attack to the NSA. After it had all blown over, he would return to Australia, construct an STL machine in the vast basement of his villa, and architect his dream virtual world.
The inhabitants of this world would only include «Alice» and Gabriel at first. But that would be much too lonely. As the goal was to study souls, he must increase his resources.
He would search for young and energetic soul carriers in Sydney or Cairns, kidnap them, use the STL to extract their soul and dispose of the unwanted shell. There would be a day when he would cross the seas and trek back to his home country — and travel to the country where Full Dive originated, Japan.
The unique mentality of Japanese VR gamers once deeply charmed Gabriel. Of course, not everyone was like this, but one group of gamers seemed to live there, in the VR game, as though it were more realistic than real life, carelessly casting around their real-life emotions. Whenever he thought of the sniper girl he had met in Gun Gale Online, he would feel a twinge that arose from a strong desire.
The reason was likely connected to the [Real Virtual World] that had existed for only two years in that country. With their machines being hacked by the developers, these young people experienced a death game with real aspects of life and death. The souls of these [Survivors] possessed an adaptability to virtual worlds unlike anyone else.
If possible, even if it were just one, he hoped to obtain them — especially the souls of the elite players who were termed [Progressors]. Although he didn’t know if that sniper girl was one of them or not, he of course also wished to obtain her soul. The Light Cubes sealed with those souls would exude a shine far more precious than any gem.
An ultimate light that the tycoons of the world would be unable to buy with tens of millions of dollars. He would line them into his secret room, selecting whoever he wanted everyday and loading them into his favorite world, playing with them however he wanted.
What was more beautiful was that the souls extracted from humans and sealed into Light Cubes could be freely copied and stored. Broken ones, twisted ones, all could be easily rewound and ultimately sculpted into Gabriel’s favorite posture. It was like cutting and polishing a raw crystal to make it shine with a supreme glow.
When he reached that stage, Gabriel’s long journey would return to the beginning, as if he had been travelling in an enormous circle.
Back to the moment when he was young, under the huge trees of the forest, seeing the beautiful glow of Alicia Clingerman’s soul.
These thoughts flashing in his mind, Gabriel closed his eyes, a slight shiver running down his back.
When he opened his eyes again, he recovered his ice cold mentality.
If he analogized the souls of youths from different countries as ruby, sapphire and emerald encircling a king’s crown, then the great diamond encased in the center could only be «Alice». Only Alice, with the untouched, unblemished, ultimate soul, would qualify as his own eternal partner. Therefore, he had to think of a way to find and obtain her Light Cube, no matter what.
But without destroying the blast door to the Light Cube Cluster storage, he could not seize it through physical means.
Then, he could only control it from the system. That said, even the first-rate digital criminal Critter was helpless against the lock on the console.
Clacking his boots, Gabriel moved behind Critter, who was moving his two hands at top speed over the keyboard.
“How is it?”
Two hands punched the air in response.
“The administrator login is really despairing. What we can do is jealously chew our nails and peek at the fairy-tale kingdom that the Fluctlights up in the Cluster are happily living in.”
Critter moved his finger; a window opened on the big screen on the wall directly in front of them and displayed a wondrous scene.
It was quite unlike a [fairy-tale kingdom]. The sky was soaked in a frightening crimson and the ground was as pitch-black as asphalt.
In the middle of the picture stood several primitive tents made of what appeared to be animal skin. On the side gathered ten or so chubby, bald, strange creatures, causing some unknown commotion.
There were generally humanoid but no matter how you looked at them, were not human. Their backs were bent, their hands were nearly long enough to scrape the ground, while their crooked feet were very short.
Gabriel muttered. Critter whistled softly, saying with apparent happiness:
“Oh, you’re pretty knowledgeable, Captain. That’s right, they don’t look like orcs or ogres, so they should be goblins.”
“But, as goblins they’re way too fucking large. These are hobgobs, hobgoblins.”
Vassago stepped besides them with his hands on his hips and added his own comment. Although he was just an expert in VR combat, he seemed to know much about fantasy RPGs.
At the place where Gabriel was looking, the fuss of the ten [Hobgoblins] escalated. Two of them seized each other’s chests, twisting together in a scrambling fight, while the surrounding goblins cheered with hands raised.
Gabriel felt a certain faint intuition, and spoke to the monk-headed man in the seat.
“These guys… These monsters, are they a part of the system?”
“Hmm, doesn’t look like it. From a certain viewpoint, these guys are real [humans]. They’re artificial souls read from the Light Cubes up there… Fluctlights.”
“For real?! What the hell!”
Vassago jumped and yelled furiously.
“These hobgobs are humans!? They have the same souls as us!? My granny in Frisco’s  gonna die if she heard that!!”
Drumming with a pitter-patter on the monk-head, he shouted:
“Aw, these guys are actually doing this kind of God-forsaken research. Right, are those shiny things full of these goblins, orcs or whatever? Is our Alice-chan one of them as well?”
Annoyed, Critter pushed Vassago’s hands away and corrected:
“Listen, the world called Underworld that the «RATH» guys created is divided into two areas. Located in the center, slightly west, is the «Human Empire» where normal humans live. Then, outside is the «Dark Territory», where monsters like these are all over the place. Alice will of course be somewhere in the Human Empire. It’s so freakin’ big that it’d be impossible to find her if we keep peeping like this.”
“Well that’s easy. Since they’re humans, we can talk, eh? Can’t we just dive into the Human Empire and ask the people there if they know an Alice?”
“Wow, a pig. There’s a pig here.”
“The fuck did you say?!!”
“I’m telling you, the people who made the Underworld are Japanese. Of course, the [guys who live in there] would speak Japanese. Can YOU speak Japanese?”
Hearing Critter’s words mixed with derisive laughter, Vassago revealed a twisted grin.
“Don’t take me lightly.”
Now, not just Critter, the entire team widened their eyes. Vassago had spoken Japanese so fluently that even Gabriel was shocked.
The young Hispanic man changed back to English and continued:
“No problems with communications, eh? Got anything else to say, four-eyes?”
“Y-Yeah. Of course.”
Critter recovered from surprise and snorted.
“There are tens of thousands of people living in the Human Empire. Are YOU going to ask each and… every one of them…”
Critter paused his retort as though he had inspired himself through his own speech and suddenly stood up. Although his monk-head bumped into Vassago’s chin, who wanted to spit out expletives, the hacker shouted unhesitantly:
“Wait. WaitwaitwaitWAIT. It doesn’t have to be one man…”
Hearing this, the faint inspiration in Gabriel’s heart finally burst completely into being.
“… Yeah. Accounts set up to log into the Underworld… They can hardly all be Level 1 normal citizens, can they. Right, Critter?”
“Yes. Yes, boss!!”
Critter tapped the keyboard hard as if it were a percussion instrument; the big screen instantly rolled up lists of names.
“If «RATH» operators wanted to log in to observe or perform internal actions, there should be identities of all classes in their accounts. Military officers… No, generals… No, no, noblemen, royalty… Could even be the King himself…”
“Wow, that’s cool, isn’t it?!”
Vassago shouted, massaging his chin that was about to split in half.
“In other words, we can use a general’s, president’s, or whatever high-class profile to log into the Underworld, and can make whatever commands we want! ‘Army parade! Right, face! Find Alice!!’ or something like that.”
“… Why is it that when you talk about it, something so brilliant would instantly become so stupid.”
Continuing his muttering, Critter scrolled the list with frightening speed.
Seconds later, along with a rare instance of profanity from him, the list was halted.
“Shit, no good. Not just direct commands from here, even using high-level accounts to log in are protected with heavy passwords. Unfortunately, it looks like we can only dive into the Human Empire as normal citizens.”
Clear disappointment floated onto Critter and Vassago’s faces, but Gabriel remained expressionless and tilted his head slightly.
There was not much time to hesitate.
But, that was but a limit of the time in reality. Beyond the screen, in the abnormal Underworld, time was compressed in an astonishing ratio of hundreds of times.
In other words, the remaining 23 hours equated to over a year in the Underworld. With this much time, even if they logged in as normal citizens, after finding and capturing [Alice], it wasn’t impossible to use the internal information console to extract her into the real world.
But that was definitely a long task. Compared to such a time-wasting task, it would be faster to approach from outside the Human Empire.
“Critter. Are there any advanced accounts outside the Empire… prepared for the «Dark Territory»?”
“…Outside? But aren’t the chances of Alice being there infinitely close to zero?”
Although he questioned, Critter’s fingers flashed quickly.
Gabriel looked at the newly opened cluster of windows, replying:
“Mm, yes. But, the border is not absolutely impenetrable, is it? With the parameters given by the account, we might be able to cross the border.”
“Oh, as expected from my bro! Your thoughts are unique as always! It’s that… using a non-human general, or a monster general to fight your way through, right?! That’s burning hot!!”
To the whistling and shouting Vassago, Critter shot at him with utmost hatred:
“If you want to burn, then burn, if you’re the one who logs in: you’ll be a goblin or orc in that world. Eh, you fit the bill anyway… Hm? Ah, this is it, this is it!”
With the click of the keyboard, two more windows popped open.
“Uhh, different from the Empire, there are only two super-accounts…Yes! There are no passwords! Let’s see… One of them is the «Dark Knight» profile. Priority level is… 70! We can use this one!”
“Ooh, that’s great! I’ll have that one!!”
Ignoring the noisy Vassago, Critter activated the other window.
“Then, the other one is… What’s this? The profile’s blank, and there’s no level whatsoever. There’s only a name. This… How do you say this? … [Emperor… Vector]?”
“Oh, an Emperor. Then I’ll take tha…”
Gabriel patted Vassago’s shoulder from behind, as he was just about to continue.
“No, I’ll use this account.”
“Eh? But bro, can you speak Japanese?”
“Not as fluently as you can, though.”
Gabriel replied with three years of Japanese study. Although he had given up on reading and writing from the beginning, he was confident about conversational usage.
“Hah, you’re pretty good. Then my bro shall be the Emperor, and I’ll be the Dark Knight. Now we’re talking! Four-eyes, when can we log in!?”
Completely ignoring the noisy Vassago, Critter continued punching the keyboard. Seeing his focused scanning of information on the screen, Gabriel walked besides him and asked calmly:
“What is it, Critter, is there another problem?”
“… Should I call it a problem, or a slight concern… There’s a strange phrase all over the data, though I can’t really understand it…”
“Oh? What phrase?”
Critter took a deep breath and answered Gabriel’s question:
“«[Final Load Test]».”
Higa considered carefully breaking the heavy silence that engulfed the Auxiliary Control Room.
“Uhh… Well, his physical body… or should I say, the condition of the Kirigaya Kazuto in the real world, is similar to what I just described… not optimistic.”
Seeing Asuna, whose shoulders were gripped by Rinko, tremble her thin body in surprise, Higa added in a panic:
“B-but, there’s still some hope!”
“…What do you mean by that?”
Rinko asked with a sharp, yet seemingly praying voice.
“The Kirito-kun in the Underworld is still logged in.”
Higa looked at the screen that was much smaller than the one in the Main Control Room. He moved the cursor, clicked a few times, and the picture changed: a bird’s eye view of the Underworld, with the round Human Empire surrounded by the Dark Territory, appeared.
“That is to say, although his Self-Image has been damaged, his Fluctlight is dynamic, and undergoing stimulation. If so, even though we are completely out of options in the real world, we can probably heal his soul within the Underworld. Because he overly blames himself, he damaged his soul. If there was someone who could grant him [forgiveness]… it’s hard to say…”
Higa knew that his words were unrealistic.
But those were his unadulterated true thoughts.
Succeeding the NerveGear was the evolution of the Medicuboid Brain-Computer Interface, the Soul Translator. Although Higa had discovered the human quantum consciousness «Fluctlight» through his development of that machine, there were still a great many things yet to be understood.
Was a Fluctlight a physical phenomenon?
Or, was it a conceptual existence unexplainable by modern science?
If it was the latter, Kirigaya’s Kazuto’s injured, exhausted soul would probably only be able to be healed by some supernatural power.
For example — someone’s love.
“…I will go.”
As if Higa’s mind had been read.
A frail yet determined voice resounded in the Auxiliary Control Room.
The people in the room gasped and stared agape at the owner of the voice. Yuuki Asuna nodded at Koujiro Rinko, who was supporting her shoulders, and took a step forward, continuing:
“I, am entering the Underworld. I will find Kirito-kun there and say to him: You’ve done your part; many sad and terrible things may have happened… but you’ve tried your best.”
Higa, who had dedicated his entire life to researching this type of psychological awakening, was dumbstruck by Asuna, her great chestnut eyes flashing with tears.
Kikuoka, with an expression as though he had been struck by something in his chest, immediately concealed his expression with the lens of his glasses and looked to the STL Room on the side.
“… Indeed, there is still one empty STL.”
After saying this, the commander made a complicated expression, continuing:
“But, the current state of the Underworld is in no way stable. According to the predetermined plan, by our time, there are only a few hours left until it enters the Final Load Test.”
“Final… Load? What will happen?”
Higa explained, gesturing with his hands, to Rinko, who wrinkled her brow:
“This… Put simply, the shell is gonna break. The endurance value of «Gate of the East» that has divided the Human Empire and the Dark Territory for hundreds of years will decrease to zero, and an army of monsters will pour into the Human World right away. If the humans have a complete defensive mechanism, they should be able to repel them. But, in the experiment this time, Kirito-kun has destroyed a large portion of the ruling power, the «Axiom Church», so… We really don’t know what’s going to happen…”
“If you think carefully about it, for the situation now, one of us needs to dive in no matter what.”
Kikuoka muttered with his arms crossed.
“As soon as the invasion begins, in the chaos, the «Alice» in the human world is very likely to be killed. If it comes to that, the time we gained when we painstakingly locked down the console will all be for naught… If we can let someone enter with an advanced account, protect Alice, and bring her to the «World End Altar», we can extract her from there to this auxiliary console.”
“Right… Before this happened, you told Kirito-kun that already, didn’t you?”
Hearing Rinko’s words, Kikuoka helplessly nodded.
“Mm. If he’s fine, he will definitely do it. At that time, he happened to be with Alice, so… ”
“So, in the months that have passed according to internal time, the chance of the two of them being together is very high… Is that what you were trying to say?”
This time it was Higa who replied:
“…You… could say that. If so, perhaps it would be better if we had Asuna-san dive in… Aside from her communication with Kirito-kun, we need the combat ability to protect Alice. Among us, the one most familiar with activity in virtual worlds would be Asuna-san, definitely.”
“Then, it would be best to use the highest level possible for the advanced account.”
Nodding to Kikuoka’s words, Higa moved his fingers across the keyboard at breakneck speed.
“Hey, just pick whatever you like. Knight, general, nobility… There are all kinds of advanced accounts.”
Rinko interjected, slightly nervously.
“…The attackers, could they be thinking the same thing? Didn’t you just say it? The hidden way to secure Alice is to operate from the inside.”
“Ah… Indeed. This could very well become their method. In the Main Control Room below, there are two STLs. But they won’t have time to crack the login passwords for the advanced accounts. They can only login as LV1 normal citizens. They just don’t have the Priority to do anything in the terrible situation during the Final Load Test.”
While he was quickly explaining—
Higa suddenly felt a sliver of anxiety, as though he had forgotten something important.
But this concern was dispersed by the quickly scrolling list of accounts.
 The Ars Goetia (Latin from Greek, literally “Art of Sorcery”) is the first section of the Lesser Key of Solomon and contains descriptions of the 72 demons that King Solomon is said to have confined in a bronze vessel sealed with magic. The Lesser Key of Solomon is a “spell book” on demonology. More info here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lesser_Key_of_Solomon
 Frisco is a city in Texas, USA. It is regarded as one of the best places to live.