Sword Art Online: Volume 17 – Chapter 21

Translator’s Notes:

Sword Art Online Volume 17 is part of the Alicization arc. It consists of Chapter 20 and Chapter 21.


Translation Credits:

Translation – defan752, luacs1998

Editing – CJ, David Ruegg, defan752, ZeHaffen, FatedWolf, Shiina, DarthMewtwo

Scans – ruranobe.ru

Illustration Editing – Mttblue2

Consultation – SAO Wiki

Chapter 21 – Awakening

7 July 2026 / Eighth Day1 of the Eleventh Month of the Human Empire Calendar, 380

1

“We made it… didn’t we…?”

Higa Takeru murmured to himself as both his arms, stiffened from overwork, dangled heavily.

After all, he had managed to successfully convert approximately 2,000 pieces of account data, which had been suddenly transferred to the «Ocean Turtle», from Japan’s The Seed network into Underworld in just under an hour. The texture of the keyboard still clung to his fingertips, unable to be shaken off.

“We made it. Definitely.”

Professor Koujiro Rinko answered firmly while thrusting a sports drink towards him.

Accepting the bottle, Higa painstakingly twisted the cap with a numb right hand and drank in large gulps. The liquid flowing into his mouth was lukewarm, but it did make his stomach feel a lot better.

After downing about half the bottle, Higa sighed and shook his head weakly.

Really… That’s the first time I’ve been that careless…”

Upon being told by two female high school students calling themselves Leafa and Sinon, who had suddenly appeared at the «RATH» Roppongi branch, that their assailants had been letting real world American VRMMO players dive into Underworld, his mind had blanked for a full five seconds.

Moreover, the one to discover this had been a top-down AI connected to Yuuki Asuna’s portable terminal. He could not help but fully acknowledge his own oversights.

They had allowed these high school students, who claimed to be acquaintances of Lieutenant Colonel Kikuoka, dive into Underworld with the leftover Super Accounts using the Roppongi STLs, completed the mammoth conversion operation afterwards, and finally, landed 2,000 reinforcementst at Yuuki Asuna’s current coordinates.

If they fail to eliminate the more-than-50,000 American players, Alice would almost certainly fall into enemy hands. Lieutenant Colonel Kikuoka and Captain Nakanishi actually both understood the situation and had already considered scaling the outer wall of the «Ocean Turtle» to physically destroy the satellite antenna.

However, to reach the outer wall, they would need to release the lock on the pressure wall dividing the upper and lower shafts for a couple of tens of minutes. If their assailants notice them, then the worst case scenario involving them losing control of the sub-control room would likely occur…

Therefore, Kikuoka and Higa entrusted everything to one point: the three female high school students descending into the Underworld with the names of the «Three Goddesses of Creation», and the Japanese VRMMO players wishing to join the battle as reinforcements, despite knowing the risk of losing their accounts.

From the moment that they had established their connections, more than half the confidential information concerning «Project Alicization» had already become public.

But that was no longer a significant issue.

That is, compared with losing Alice to the assailants, possibly America’s military-industrial complex, and then falling completely under their control in the oncoming era of autonomous weaponry.

“Indeed…”

Higa muttered in a voice inaudible to anyone else, his entire body slumping into the chair.

“Alice is no longer a simple UAV controller AI.2 She is now a new human born into a truly different world… You’ve known that for a while, haven’t you… Kirigaya-kun?”

His eyes moved from the main monitor presenting the situation in southern Underworld, to a corner display showing Kirigaya Kazuto’s Fluctlight.

That delicately quivering ray was, as usual, embracing cold emptiness in the center. The damaged, absent core… His self-image.

Thinking that it would unbearable to keep this window open, Higa moved his cursor with the intent to minimize it.

Then, just as he was about to click the left mouse button, his finger halted abruptly.

“Hm…?”

Pushing up his round glasses, he fixated on the Fluctlight activity log displayed at the bottom of the window.

Just 45 minutes ago, engraved on the line graph that had never moved until then, there was a single sharp peak. He frantically maneuvered the cursor again and slid the log to the left. Doing so, he saw another, even greater peak around 10 hours ago.

“Uh… Um, Rinko-senpai. Could you come and take a look at this?”

“Could you not call me that?”

Professor Koujiro snapped as she faced the main screen.

“This is Kirigaya-kun’s Fluctlight monitor, isn’t it? … What’s up with this movement?”

“He should’ve lost his consciousness, but for a second it was showing activity… or something like that, but, that… isn’t supposed to happen.”

“Your grammar is all over the place. —Perhaps he was somehow stimulated intensely from outside?”

“Even so, the circuit that processes those stimuli is at a complete standstill. …Let me see, the time was…”

Higa clicked on the peak and the corresponding timestamp popped up. But even if he did confirm the time, they had no way of learning what had taken place in Underworld.

But at that moment—

“Wait a second.”

Professor Koujiro spoke with growing anxiety.

“Right during this time period. Aren’t these… the times when those girls dived in with the STLs? The first peak was Asuna-san, and the next would be Sinon-san and Leafa-san, who both showed up in Roppongi…”

“Huh, really? …Whoa, really.”

Higa inhaled deeply. Indeed, the timestamps listed under those two sharp peaks could only be when the female high school students had descended into Underworld. That much was definite.

“Um, what exactly happened…? Are these just intense reactions to familiar people appearing? No… Kirigaya-kun’s wounds aren’t something that can be recovered by such fantastical means… There must be some cause… Some physical or logical causality…”

Higa stood from his mesh chair and began to wander in circles in front of the console. Perhaps noticing his mood, he immediately attracted strange glances from Kikuoka, who was sitting dispiritedly in a chair some distance away, and the technicians against the wall.

But Higa paid them no attention and continued to think intently.

“The self… The Subject… An image that narrows one down to oneself… The backup of that quantum pattern, where was it…? No, that’s impossible… Kirito-kun’s Fluctlight has never been duplicated before. Even if it has, there’s no way to separate his self-image from the backup and copy it over… A dynamic quantum pattern that can connect to his Fluctlight…? Where is it… Where the hell is it…”

“Hey… Hey, Higa-kun.”

After his name was called several times, Higa finally looked up.

“What is it?”

“What exactly do you mean when you said that he ‘lost his Subject’?”

“Erm… Well, that is…”

He took several seconds to switch thought processes before answering rapidly:

“«The one who sees and acknowledges»… the ‘self’ deep within your heart. In philosophical terms, it is the Subject, the opposite of the Object. The main processor that deals with all information received through the senses.”

“Okay… In other words, you’ve united materialism and duality through the STL. Well, that’s fine. What I want to ask is, can you really separate the Subject and the Object so easily?”

“… Hah?”

Higa blinked several times at this unexpected question.

Kikuoka and the technicians said nothing. In the room, filled only with the drone of the circulatory cooling system, Professor Koujiro’s hoarse voice broke the silence.

“Subject, the one who recognizes. Object, the one who is recognized. Those are merely philosophical concepts used to express relationships. I don’t believe you can apply such theory to our consciousnesses, which are visualized as Fluctlights. Humans are social animals, not solitary existences that shun others. Others in you, and yourself in others… They’re all connected, like a network, to some extent. Don’t you feel that way?”

“Yourself… in… others…”

After expressing it in language, Higa realized that this concept was one of the things he had overlooked due to avoidance.

How am I seen? How do I compare to others?

How does Koujiro Rinko see me?

How do I compare to Kayaba Akihiko?

—Yeah…

—I don’t even really remember my face. If I were to draw myself, the outcome would be something that looks somehow like me and yet actually doesn’t. That’s because I’ve been avoiding myself— this useless me, who can never compare with Kayaba-senpai, mentally or physically. I see. The Subject in me is only of that level.

Yeah, perhaps my level is so low that you could even mimic me by combining the surrounding people’s very impressions of «Higa Takeru».

Okay, she’s got me, Higa thought as his mouth stretched in a self-deprecating smile—

Arriving at that conclusion, he finally understood what Koujiro Rinko was trying to say.

“… A backup… of the self image.”

As he murmured, the self-loathing embarrassment disappeared from his face as he gingerly looked up.

“I see… It’s there, there it is! The data capable of restoring Kirigaya-kun’s blown away Subject! It’s inside the Fluctlights of the people close to him…!!”

He shouted and began to rapidly hover back and forth.

“But, we need an STL to extract the data… Also, simply extracting from one person would make it very difficult to get the complete data… We need at least two, no… we need three… people…”

He took a deep breath, and stopped.

The one who understood Kirigaya Kazuto the most and preserved a detailed image of him in their soul. It was, without question, Yuuki Asuna— and she was currently connected to the STL beside Kazuto.

Furthermore, within the STLs in the Roppongi branch, there were two more girls who should have close relationships with Kazuto.

Higa turned towards Lieutenant Colonel Kikuoka, and spoke hoarsely:

“Kiku-san. Do the people who dived in from Roppongi… have relationships with Kirigaya-kun?”

“… Ahh, of course.”

Kikuoka nodded, lenses glinting in his black framed glasses.

“Sinon-kun was Kirito’s partner when he took care of the «Death Gun» incident half a year ago, and Leafa-kun is Kirito’s younger sister.”

For a moment, the atmosphere was silent. Higa’s round glasses flashed.

“… Great! That’s great! We can do it… We might be able to restore Kirito-kun’s self-image! Let’s say we separate their stored impressions of Kirigaya-kun from their Fluctlights, then connect it to the missing area… That living data may fit into Kirigaya’s soul and activate it, and that should restore the lost Subject…”

Driven by waves of warmth gushing through him, he clapped his hands together.

A second later.

A wave of cold suddenly extinguished this warmth.

“Ah… Ahh… No way… Aaaahh…”

“Wh-what happened, what happened Higa-kun?!”

Watching Professor Koujiro stutter frantically, Higa murmured uneasily.

“To execute… this operation… we must do it from the main control room…”

Once again, heavy silence sank like ash, piling up on the floor of the sub-control room.

Commander Kikuoka let out a heavy sigh.

“That’s right… That’s how it is… No, don’t look so down, Higa-kun. We’re very fortunate to be able to see the path towards treating Kirito-kun. As for the actual operation, after this current situation is finished and we drive away the people on the «Ocean Turtle»…”

“It’ll be… too late by then…”

Higa interrupted Kikuoka’s words, hanging his head.

“When Nagato begins the assault as ordered, if a huge battle breaks out in the main shaft, the sub-power will be cut. They may even destroy equipment in the main-con. Of course, Kirigaya-kun’s STL will shut down, and he will also log out from Underworld without waking up. But then… I’m afraid that Kirigaya-kun will never be able to connect to the STL again. In his current condition, he wouldn’t even be able to pass the preliminary stages… To continue treatment, we have no choice but to do it while the three girls are still diving in Underworld.”

Higa said lightly. He felt himself filling with a sort of determination.

What should he do in this situation?

Higa’s Subject before would have definitely replied like this: There’s nothing I can do, I’m not Kayaba-senpai anyway.

However, this isn’t my true self-image. It was just an excuse to escape, after all.

The Higa Takeru I know, the brilliant genius who designed the STL and Underworld, would absolutely say this:

“… I’m going, Kiku-san.”

“… Where?”

Looking at his Hawaiian shirt-wearing, brow-creasing commander, Higa took a deep breath and replied:

“I’m not going to break into the occupied main control room. Listen… At the stern side of the main shaft running through the «Ocean Turtle», there’s a cable duct connecting STL Room Two, where Kirigaya-kun is now, and the main control room below the pressure wall. There should be a maintenance port on the cable. If I enter the duct with a ladder from STL Room Two and connect my laptop to the maintenance port, I’ll be able to operate Kirigaya-kun’s STL.”
Hearing Higa’s idea, Kikuoka’s eyes widen in surprise behind his black framed glasses for a moment. But he immediately returned to his severe expression and refuted.

“But the maintenance port should be on the other side of the pressure wall dividing us and the attackers. To access the port, the lock on the pressure wall sealing the cable duct needs to be temporarily released. Moreover, the duct can also be accessed from STL Room One, which is right next to the main control room. If they notice the lock’s release and realize what we’re doing, they might attack us from below.”

“Then we’ll just combat that with a decoy.”

“A decoy… You say?”

Kikuoka’s eyes glinted sharply. Higa hurriedly shook his head and replied:

“We can’t use precious human resources here, of course. As soon as we release the barrier wall, we’ll be able to rush down the staircase on the opposite side of the duct… That’s what we’ll use.”

“I see… «Ichiemom», huh. Luckily, it’s being kept in the upper shaft storage room. Could someone bring it here?”

Under Kikuoka’s directive, two staff members who had been sitting against the wall and listening to the conversation got up and left the room at a half-run. On the other hand, Professor Koujiro spoke with a worried look:
“Wait a second… we’re using Ichiemom as bait, but it can only move slowly on stairs, you know. If it attracts the enemy’s attention, it can’t just run back immediately.”

Ichiemom, properly named «Electroactive Muscled Operative Machine 1», was an experimental humanoid machine body used for loading artificial Fluctlights. Using polymer muscles to drive its metallic skeleton, it was what could be called a humanoid robot. Since it was experimental, it had exposed robotic parts and cables that did not make for an aesthetically pleasing exterior, and it was without any sort of bulletproof technology.

Although Rinko, whom Higa requested tune Ichiemom’s self-walking balancer yesterday, had complained quite a bit, she seemed to have gotten rather engrossed in it and likely had a lot of thoughts regarding this “Ichiemom decoy operation”. Of course, Higa also deeply regretted this strategy, but now was not the time to hold back from using the equipment.

“I feel really sorry for Ichiemom, but he can only do his best now. However, the way it looks is a bit that, you know, so our enemies might not immediately attack for fear that it might explode.”

“… Indeed…”

Just as they were talking like this, the door slid open and a huge trolley was pushed into the room. Carried in a seated position with its legs held in its arms was a grim mechanical figure with three lenses mounted in its roughly-shaped head.

Professor Koujiro glanced at Ichiemom with a somewhat complicated expression and immediately turned around:

“… Well, it does look pretty conspicuous, and will probably make them think that we have some grand plan here…”

“At least it definitely can’t be ignored. While the enemy is dealing with Ichiemom, I’ll slip into the lower part of the cable duct and operate Kirigaya-kun’s STL through the maintenance port. The problem is how much time this thing can buy me…”

At Higa’s words, Kikuoka asked as he jiggled the sandals on his feet:

“Then, couldn’t we throw in «Niemom» as a decoy as well?”

“We can’t do that, unfortunately.”

Higa shrugged and replied:

“Although Niemom’s physical performance is stronger, it was created under the pretense that it would be piloted by an Artificial Fluctlight, and, unlike Ichiemom, it’s not loaded with a self-balancer. In its current state, it’ll fall over as soon as it starts going down the stairs.”

“Really…”

Rinko’s gaze turned to the right, away from the nodding commander’s face. She stared at the ground with a strange expression, then asked as if waking from a dream.

“But, Higa-kun, even if we manage to camouflage ourselves unlocking the wall like that, there is still a risk of you being seen when it opens. It’s still better to bring a bodyguard with you to the cable duct, isn’t it?”

“No, right now the Self-Defense staff is way too precious as our fighting strength. Besides, I’m the only one small enough to move quickly through that small, overly cramped duct. In any case, I’ll just be in and out in a jiffy.”

Even though he answered in his usual tone, his heartbeat accelerated, even just a bit, when he thought about the real circumstances.

If he were to be found by the enemy and shot at while inside the lower section, there would be no escape. Just like he was during the attack on the «Ocean Turtle», Higa resembled a combatant who couldn’t face the enemy as soon as he heard gunshots.

—However.

I… No, the entire organization of «RATH» has much too great a debt with Kirigaya-kun. Higa Takeru engraved those thoughts deep inside his mind.

If they temporarily put aside the act of sealing away his memories, forcibly making him dive for three real world days, equivalent to 10 years in Underworld, had transformed into the Artificial Fluctlights’ most important spark. The birth of a Fluctlight that broke the boundaries of the world, «Alice», was undoubtedly related to Kazuto from the very beginning.

But afterwards, although it had been under the pretense of treatment, having him connect to the STL with unrestricted conditions ended up dealing severe damage to his Fluctlight. This was because he had fiercely battled the ruling organization of Underworld to protect Alice, causing him to lose many of his partners in the process. Therefore, as long as the chance to treat him existed, he had to challenge whatever risks arose. If he didn’t, he wouldn’t be able to lift his head for the rest of his life.

Higa Takeru clenched his fists, and nodded at Kikuoka.

It was at that time.

When a fourth voice resounded in the sub-control room.

“Errm… Me too, I’m going with Chief Higa…”

Everyone’s eyes gathered on one of RATH’s staff technicians, who until now had been seated on a mattress against the wall.

He was about as short as Higa, with long hair tied behind his head. Mustering as much courage as possible, he stood a bit clumsily and continued his speech.

“I’m also quite thin… But, I could at least be the chief’s shield or something… And also, I’ve always done the maintenance around the cables…”

Higa gazed unswervingly at the face of the man, whose voice was barely audible.

He was fairly old, probably in his mid-thirties. Having been aboard the Ocean Turtle for several months, his skin was pale white. If memory served, this was a man who had quit his job at a large game development company to join «RATH».

p207
Page 207

Although his fighting strength could not be compared to that of a Self-Defense soldier, having a companion was reassuring. Higa immediately stood from his chair and bowed deeply to this staff member.

“… To be honest, I actually don’t know the exact location of the port. Thank you very much for your company, Yanai-san.”

 


References

1. Kawahara made a typo and wrote “Seventh Day” instead. It has been corrected here.

2. Unmanned aerial vehicle, commonly known as a drone. Aircraft without a human aboard that can be remotely controlled to attack targets. More info: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unmanned_aerial_vehicle