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Sword Art Online

Sword Art Online Chap 14

Translator’s Notes:

Sword Art Online Volume 18 is the final main volume of the Alicization arc. It consists of Chapter 21, Chapter 22, Chapter 23, an Epilogue, and a Prologue.

Translation Credits:

Translation – defan752

Proofreading – defan752

Scans – 

Illustration Editing – Mttblue2

Consultation – SAO Wiki

Chapter 23 – Return 7 July 2026 / Eighth Day of the Eleventh Month of the Human Empire Calendar, 380 1 Koujiro Rinko was sitting in the operator's chair in the sub control room, fixating upon the tiny glass hatch situated slightly to the left on the front of the console.

The liquid crystal display above the hatch was blinking with red letters: [EJECTING…]

The low hiss of escaping pressurized air was heard.

Finally, a small, black, square-shaped object emerged behind the glass window. The letters on the LCD changed to [COMPLETE].

Rinko reached out a trembling hand, slid the hatch open, and retrieved the object within.

It was a solid metal package. A cube, roughly six centimeters wide, and unexpectedly heavy. It was seamless and jointless; only one side was carved with a six-digit number and fitted with a microconnector port.

The soul of «Alice» was sealed inside.

Just as the the system had commanded, a single cube had been ejected from the Light Cube Cluster installed at the center of the Ocean Turtle's main shaft, bundled into a protective package, and dispatched through a long vacuum chute.

It was, at the same time, traveling from the inner realm of Underworld to the outer realm of the real world.

For a moment, Rinko found herself quite unable to speak, beset by an indescribable emotion, but quickly regained her composure and cried into the microphone while clutching the package:

"Asunsan, Alice's ejection is complete! Now it's just you and Kirigaykun; hurry!"

She continued to yell, watching the main monitor give way to a scarlet countdown:

"There's only 30 seconds until the maximum acceleration phase starts!! Hurry up and log out!!"

For a moment, there was silence.

And then, something she did not anticipate finally came out of the speaker.

"I'm sorry, Rinko-san."

"Wha…? W-What do you…?"

"I'm sorry. I'm… staying here. Thank you so much for everything. I will never forget what you did for me, Rinko-san."

Yuuki Asuna's voice sounded calm, pleasant, and full of determination through the speaker.

"I'm leaving Alice to you. She's a kind person. She holds great love inside her, and she is loved by many others. For the sake of the many souls lost in her name… and for the sake of Kirito-kun, please do all in your power to prevent her from being put to military use."

Rinko was speechless. Then she heard the final words Asuna would say to her.

"And please tell everyone: I'm sorry… thank you… and goodbye…"

And then, the countdown fell to zero.

***

A prolonged siren ushered in the rumbling hum of machines, echoing throughout the narrow cable duct.

It was 10:00 am on July 7. With the end of the 15-minute countdown, the cooling system behind the wall began chugging at full force. Several massive fans started to siphon away the vast amount of heat generated by the cluster of machinery sustaining Underworld. Anyone at sea observing the Ocean Turtle now would likely be able to catch sight of the shimmering air billowing from the pyramid's apex.

"……There it goes…"

Higa Takeru muttered softly.

"Yeah," came the reply of Kikuoka Seijirou, hauling Higa down a narrow ladder on his back.

Upon deciding that they would not be able to prevent the onset of the maximum acceleration phase, both had immediately begun preparations to descend once more into the maintenance cable duct, but the single task of stabilizing Higa's body with a harness had burned through eight minutes of their time.

Kikuoka continued scrambling down the ladder at a speed that was surely producing streams of sweat, but Underworld's maximum acceleration phase was well under way before they had even made it to the pressure-resistant partition.

Almost imploringly, Higa pressed his radio switch and called Dr. Koujiro in the sub control room.

"Rinko-san… how's everything?"

There was static, followed by a successful connection tone, but he heard only dull silence in reply.

"…Rinko-san?"

"…Sorry. I've secured Alice's Light Cube without incident. But…"

In a stifled voice, Dr. Koujiro told him what had just happened.

Higa swallowed his breath and shut his eyes tightly.

"…I understand. We'll work as hard as we can from here. I'll contact you to unlock the partition hatch next."

Higa disconnected and emptied his lungs in one long, thin exhale.

Kikuoka did not inquire, perhaps guessing the circumstances from their conversation. He went on exerting his muscular back.  

"…Kiku-san…"

It was a few seconds before Higa finally managed to muster a whisper, and convey to the commander what Dr. Koujiro had told him.

***

Critter stared in silence at a new window that popped up on the main monitor and the message appearing within it.

The short memo informed him that a single Light Cube had been ejected from the Cluster and sent to the sub control room beyond the pressure-resistant partition.

This meant that «Alice» had been acquired by RATH.

It also meant that their 10-hours-and-counting operation of locating Alice within Underworld and obtaining her had completely failed. All of the effort that went into Vassago and Captain Miller personally diving in, urging the Dark Territory army into an invasion of the Human Empire, waging an extravagant war that was the envy of a Hollywood movie, and even going as far as to drag tens of thousands of online gamers from the US, China, and Korea into battle, had gone to utter waste.

Critter scratched his close-cropped hair, snorted, then switched trains of thought.

With eight hours left until the destroyer began its raid, did they still have a chance at making a second, physical attempt to get Alice?

They had no way of breaking through the ultrstrong, composite material pressure-resistant partition from this side; it would be a different story, however, if they managed to unlock it, like RATH just had.

But why were they even opening the partition to begin with? Did RATH really think they stood a chance of holding them back with a clumsy robot and a couple of smoke grenades?   

What if that had been a diversion…? If they had another reason to open the partition, what in hell was it?

Critter turned to address the squad, which had just begun playing cards again.

"Yo, you know that robot that just came at us from upstairs? Did it have a bomb or anything strapped to it?"

Whereupon Hans' tall figure scratched his mustache and replied:

"Well, I definitely made sure to check, y'know? There weren’t any fixed weapons on it at all, let alone a bomb. They were probably trying to use it as a ballistic shield, but it stopped moving after we lit it up. And the soldiers following behind it made a quick retreat after that, y'know?"

"Hmm… —By the way, the JSDF guys aren't 'soldiers', they're called personnel."

Critter spun his chair back forward after adding a wholly unnecessary bit of trivia.

So that robot's little disturbance must have been a diversion. But even with smoke grenades, rushing past Hans, Brigg, and the others without them noticing was impossible.

In that case—

He picked up the tablet computer sitting on the table and pulled up the sketch of the Ocean Turtle’s interior.

"Hmm… here's the main shaft, and the partition cuts across from here… this must be the stairway that the robot was hauling ass from…"

At that moment, the countdown on the monitor reached zero and a shrill alarm blared. Underworld's time acceleration was beginning again. What was more, Brigg's numbskullery had resulted in him breaking off the operating lever, which was causing the speed multiplier to rise to outrageous levels.

But it no longer mattered what happened to Underworld now. Since the Alice retrieval mission had failed, Vassago and Captain Miller had probably «died» in their dives and should now be undergoing logout procedures in the attached room.

In that case, Critter had to devise their next plan of attack before Captain Miller reappeared.

He magnified and scrolled over the complex sketch, before finally becoming aware of something.

"Oh, there's a tiny hatch here too… 'Cable duct'? What’s this…?"

***

Having communicated the situation to Higa Takeru, Rinko sighed wearily and leaned back into her mesh chair.

Yuuki Asuna's determination to stay in Underworld herself just because Kirigaya Kazuto had no way of escaping before acceleration started, was too young, too impulsive, and yet — pricelessly beautiful.

She could not resist thinking of him. 

How the man she once loved had deserted her in the real world and vanished into cyberspace.

If she had the chance to go with him back then, what would she have done? Would she had chosen to fry her own brain with the STL prototype like he had, leaving behind only a copy of her own consciousness?

"Akihiko-san… you…" Rinko said in an inaudible whisper, closing her eyes.

A «true alternate world», realized merely with the floating castle of Aincrad and the 10,000 players trapped within: that had been his… that had been Kayaba Akihiko's ambition.

But he had discovered something — had learned something over the two years he spent in that floating castle. It was this something that had changed his mind.

There was still much, much more work to be done.

He had realized that SAO was not the end point after all; rather, it was only the beginning. It was this very reason that had spurred him to continue condensing the NerveGear technology, and finally complete the prototype with which he would end up destroying his own body in a Nagano mountain village wrapped by primeval forest.

His development data was left to Rinko, who adapted it to design a medical-use high precision FullDive device, the «Medicuboid».

RATH and Higa Takeru then built upon three years of extensive data provided by a tester — a young girl — of the first Medicuboid prototype, to complete the STL.

In the end, you could say that Underworld, the ultimate alternate world, had been borne out of Kayaba Akihiko's dream.

Did that mean, then, that with Underworld's completion Kayaba's dream had been fully realized?

No, that couldn’t be it.

Why? Because the other piece he had left behind — the jigsaw piece he called «The Seed» package, still did not seem to fit anywhere in the puzzle.

Yes, the standardization of VRMMOs built with The Seed was what made it possible for the Japanese players to retaliate against the foreign attack by converting their accounts.

But not even Kayaba would be able to predict this years before it happened. The account conversion rescue was, at most, only a secondary effect.

What on earth had been his goal, then? Why was there a need to bring many VR worlds together and unite them under a common standard…?

The duralumin safekeeping case containing Alice's Light Cube sat atop the console.

Being an aggregation of quantum gate elements, the Light Cube was non-volatile, but since the driver circuit of the logic gates inside the package required electric current to function, Alice's soul would remain inactive as long as it was sealed within the case.

Caressing the silver container with her right hand, Rinko turned towards the humanoid silhouette poised in the left corner of the sub control room — the mechanical body «Niemom».

Installing Alice's Light Cube package into the socket on the robot's head would turn Niemom into Alice's body, and she would be able to move and speak.

She thought of carrying out that idea, of talking to Alice — but Rinko gave a slight shake of her head and chased away the impulse. This was no time for that sort of thing, not when Kazuto and Asuna were still in such danger; besides, although considerably slimmer than Ichiemom, Niemom's complete lack of feminine properties would probably come as a shock to Alice if she woke up with its body.

Cutting short her silent reflection, she took her right hand away from the duralumin case, and—

"Dr. Koujiro," came a voice behind her, and she spun around.

Captain Nakanishi was standing there, having returned to the sub control room at some point.

"Preparations are complete for reopening the partition hatch. We're ready when you are."

"Ah… okay. Thanks a lot." She replied, checking the monitor clock. More than a minute had passed by since the maximum acceleration phase had begun. In Underworld time, that was… 10 years.

It was unbelievable. Kirigaya Kazuto and Yuuki Asuna's «soul lifespans» now exceeded her own.

Even with the passing of a minute and a second, it was imperative that those two were logged out as soon as possible. If they managed to escape before their soul lifespans totally ran out, it would be possible to remove all of their memories after the maximum acceleration phase began. But in theory they had fewer than 12 minutes left to achieve that.

—Higkun, Kikuoksan.

—Hurry!!

Rinko pleaded, positively chewing her lip.

***

Lieutenant Colonel Kikuoka's throat was wheezing painfully. A waterfall of sweat was discoloring his shirt, even seeping into Higa's clothes.

Several times, Higa had swallowed the suggestion that he would climb the rest of the way down by himself.

Taking the maximum dose of painkiller had not lessened the throbbing pain from Yanai’s bullet wound in his right shoulder. His body felt weighed down by the sheer amount of blood he had lost; it was enough to prevent him from supporting his own weight.

Even so — Higa thought.

In all honesty, considering their present circumstances he had not expected Lieutenant Colonel Kikuoka to put up such a desperate fight.

They had secured Project Alicization's ultimate goal, the boundary-breaking Fluctlight «A. L. I. C. E.». All they needed to do now was analyze Alice's framework, identify what set it apart from other Fluctlights, and they would be able to work out a way of mass-producing bottom-up AI. Japan would establish an unparalleled technical foundation in the forthcoming age of autonomous weapons and break free of the American military system's domination — they had already accomplished the goal that RATH been created to fulfill.

This was supposed to be Kikuoka Seijirou's dearest ambition.

This was the only reason he had stuck his nose into the SAO incident — even amid a temporary transfer to the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications — and the only reason he had created the character of «Crysheight» to remain in contact with the VRMMO players.

Therefore, Kikuoka's first course of action was more likely to gravitate towards keeping the pressure-resistant partition firmly shut and defending Alice's Light Cube with his life, before the Aegis destroyer stormed the ship. He would refuse to relent even if Kirigaya Kazuto and Yuuki Asuna's Fluctlights, still left in Underworld, fell to collapse. Even if they had to lock Dr. Koujiro in her room, as she would no doubt strongly object to such a decision.

"…Quite unexpected… don't… you think?" Kikuoka panted unexpectedly, and Higa couldn't stop himself from letting out a bizarre squawk.

"N-Nah, that's… Well, how do I say it? I just don't think it seems to fit your personality, Kiku-san…"

"Indeed…"

Kikuoka chuckled briefly, continuing to climb down the ladder at full speed.

"But… I've mentioned it before. This is… a calculated… action."

"O… Oh?"

"I'm a guy… who likes to jump to the worst case scenario. Right now… I think it's best… to let the enemy think… that they still have a chance at retaking Alice."

"The w-worst case… scenario?"

Was there really a worse scenario than the enemy noticing the existence of this cable duct and attacking them from below before they could fully open the pressure-resistant partition?

But before Higa could continue his speculation, the soles of Kikuoka's shoes touched the titanium alloy hatch.

As the commander came to a stop, gasping, Higa pressed the connection switch on his radio.

"Rinko-san, we've arrived! Unlock the partition, please!!"

***

"Whoa… it's actually opening!" Critter yelled, gawking at the pressure-resistant partition release warning on the main monitor above.

But why? For what reason?

It just didn't make sense. If they had gotten Alice now, why in the world was RATH purposely weakening their own defenses?

But there was no time to consider the matter. Critter spun his chair around and delivered instructions to the squad.

"Umm… Ahh, Hans and you lot, get to the stairs, everybody except Brigg! Fire at will and secure the barrier control!"

"Easier said than done…"

Hans clucked his tongue but raised his assault rifle. More than ten other squad members mirrored him.

"Hey… Wait a minute, then what do I do?"

Brigg was pouting and looking bad-tempered. Critter stared at him, then snapped his fingers.

"I've got another job for you. Something important, perfect for your brawn."

He was speaking the words, but his mind was thinking something else entirely. If possible, it was best to let this simpleton remain somewhere he could keep an eye on him.

"Look, I want you to come with me while I go check out this cable duct. Something tells me that this is enemy's true objective—"

"Oh… Oh, I see. That sounds good."

Brigg grinned widely and checked his rifle magazine with exaggerated noise. Critter suppressed a sigh and patted him on the back.

He followed Hans and the others from the main control room out into the passageway, but a moment before he ran in the other direction, Critter caught a glimpse of an inner door — STL Room 1.

—Come to think of it, what the hell is taking that idiot Vassago so long to log out? He's not taking a smoke break in there, is he?

He had a mind to check on him, but just then Brigg broke into a run along the passageway. With no choice, Critter pursued him from behind.

They reached their destination in a matter of minutes. At first glance they only saw the corridor running the length of the main shaft's inner wall, but the map had shown a cable duct behind a small hatch on the left wall that led to the upper shaft. Of course, the duct itself was barricaded by a heavy-duty partition, but if his guess was correct—

He grasped the crank with sweaty hands and swiveled it counterclockwise.

Pushing open the heavy metal door, the first thing Critter could make out under the dark orange lamp light was a tunnel about two meters deep and less than a meter high. It stopped at a wall stretching straight up, where an unobtrusive ladder had been installed.

And directly beneath the ladder, there was what looked like a bundle of fabric—

"…Whoa?!"

The instant he recognized the object, Critter recoiled and banged the back of his head on Brigg's chin, but pain and the brute's cursing were lost on him as his eyes widened.

There was something inside the fabric, or rather, the clothing. A gaunt body appeared to be curled up there. Brigg shoved Critter aside and lifted his rifle, but then said abruptly:

"He's already dead."

Sure enough, the hunched man's spine had been twisted at an unnatural angle. Face horribly taut, Critter inched into the tunnel and checked the man’s face.

"Wait… isn't this that other guy? The RATH informant…? Did they kill him when they found him out? But, to kill someone in such a way…"

Reluctantly, he touched the man's skin and felt a sliver of warmth in his finger. Judging by his temperature, the man had probably died the first time the partition was opened. Did that mean it was first opened because he was trying to flee to the lower shaft? And then he lost his footing on the ladder and fell to his death?

If so, then why was the partition being opened again?

Critter wanted to examine the hatch on the partition above them more closely, and for that, he needed to drag the body out of the way. But he didn't want to do it himself.

He backed out of the tunnel into the hallway, and commanded Brigg:

"Help me check if the coast is clear up the duct."

The stubbled giant snorted, entered the tunnel, and yanked the spy's body outside. Then he went back in and arched his body upwards, staring towards the other end of the vertical duct.

Even Critter's amateur instincts were alarmed by the sight of Brigg putting his head so far up the passage, but just then—

"Shit!!" Brigg yelled. He raised his assault rifle and fired.

Yellow flashes seared themselves into Critter's retinas as two different kinds of gunfire pounded his eardrums.

Leaping back and swallowing a scream, he watched as Brigg's monster figure slumped onto the tunnel floor, as though he was struck by an invisible sledgehammer.

"Whoa!! What happened?!" He screamed, sitting backwards onto the hallway floor. Brigg laid motionless where the informant’s huddled body had been only ten seconds ago. Critter didn't need the blood pooling on the floor to tell him that Brigg had met the same fate; there was a RATH combatant somewhere up in the cable duct, and they had shot him.

—Now what?

Cold sweat pouring down in torrents, Critter began to think.

Retrieve the rifle from Brigg's right hand, and return fire at the enemy in the duct in revenge? Of course not! I'm just a computer geek; my job consists solely of thinking and hammering on a keyboard.

He continued to think while half-crawling back towards the main control room in retreat.

At least he now knew that RATH had every intention of using aggressive force. However, in terms of battle strength his own side was clearly superior. If fighting broke out, there was little doubt that RATH would also suffer losses. If they weren't careful, they could lose the entire upper shaft, and then, wouldn't they end up losing Alice again too?

Had RATH's commander considered a scenario even «worse» than that? Did RATH think they had enough firepower to blow up the entire Ocean Turtle? The C4 charges they had on hand weren't even capable of breaching the partition hatch…

Firepower…

Critter gave a sudden gasp. The two bodies lying in the passageway behind him were quickly forgotten.

They did have it.

There was only one way of completely destroying the Ocean Turtle, of sending Alice's Light Cube and the RATH workers all to a watery grave.

In the event that procuring Alice became impossible, their client's orders has been to liquidate it. But could he really implicate this entire, gigantic, self-propelling megafloat and her ten plus crew in order to achieve that goal?  

There was no way he was making such a terrible decision on his own. The prospect would haunt his nightmares for the rest of his life.

Critter stood up and ran towards the main control room, seeking the opinion of his captain.

***

"Ki… Kiku-san! Are you all right, Kiku-san?!!"

Higa demanded in a strangled voice. The enemy that appeared at the very bottom of the cable duct had fired off at least three shots.

There was no reply. With his back to Higa, his right hand on the ladder and his left gripping a pistol, Lieutenant Colonel Kikuoka's head drooped as his shoulder seemed to press into the wall.

—No way. Hey, don't do this to me. I still have things I need you for.

"Ki…"

Kikuoksaaaaaaaaan!!

He was just about to scream when the lieutenant colonel went into a fit of coughing.

"Ugh… Ahh, damn… He got me. Looks like I was right to wear a bulletproof vest…"

"That… That goes without saying! Were you really going to come here in nothing but a Hawaiian shirt…?"

Higa heaved a deep sigh of relief and looked down at Kikuoka's back again.

"You're not hurt, then?"

"Well, I think I was only hit once, on my vest. Are you hurt? Those bullets bounced all over the place."

"N… No. Neither I nor the computer got hit."

"Then let's hurry. The maintenance connector is just ahead."

Swaying on Kikuoka's back as he began climbing down again, Higa muttered to himself again: Quite unexpected.

Lieutenant Colonel Kikuoka had always struck him as someone without a hint of physical skill, but right now his broad muscled back felt like steel, and the marksmanship he just displayed — as uncomfortable as hanging from the ladder and firing with only his left hand was, both of his rapid shots had hit bang on target: right though the enemy's throat and chest.

—And to think I've known this guy for so long and still can't figure him out.

Gently shaking his head, Higa pulled a cable from his pocket for the maintenance connector, which was now coming into sight.

***

Critter retraced his steps through the passageway at a sprint, bursting into the main control room as he heard rapid gunfire coming from the stairs.

There was no trace of Captain Miller or Vassago inside. Had they not exited the STLs yet? Five minutes had already passed since the start of the maximum acceleration phase.

He was still hesitant over whether to tell them what he was considering. He knew that as soon as he brought it up, both of them would immediately put it into action. They were the type that didn't flinch at civilian deaths for the sake of completing the mission.

Without arriving at a decision, Critter threw open the door to STL Room 1.

"Captain Miller! Alice got taken by the enemy…"

His next words died in his throat.

Gabriel Miller was lying in front of him on STL #1's gel bed. Everything above his forehead was obscured by machinery, and an expression Critter had never seen him with before was plastered on his face.

No, it would be more accurate to say that Critter had never seen any human with this expression before.

His blue eyes were bulging so hard that they looked ready to pop out. His mouth gaped hugely, his jaw looking almost dislocated and slightly crooked. His tongue protruded all the way out of his mouth. He looked like an alien creature.

"Ca… Cap… tain…?"

Critter was gasping, his knees shaking violently. He knew that if Captain Miller's bulging eyeballs started moving, he would not be able to hold back a scream.

It took several seconds for him to steady his breathing. Then he put forward a timid right hand, and felt the wrist of the left arm hanging limp from the bed.

There was no pulse.

What's more, the skin was cold as ice. Gabriel Miller, Ocean Turtle raid team captain, was dead without a single wound on his body.

Trying with all his might to keep down the contents of his stomach, Critter gave a hoarse yell:

"Vassago… get up now! The captain's… d-dead…"

He walked around the gel bed on feet that felt like water, bringing STL #2 into closer view.

This time Critter really did let out a shrill scream.

Vice Captain Vassago Casals was, at first glance, sleeping peacefully. The eyes on his expressionless face were closed, and his arms lay straight on both sides of his body.

But—

His once long, raven-black wavy hair…

…was now a shock of crusty white wire, like the head of someone over a hundred years old.

No longer feeling the need to check Vassago's pulse, Critter took slow steps back. His highest personal axioms consisted of logic and source code, and right now he was certain that if he did not leave this room at once he would end up the same way as these two.

He pelted out of the open door and slammed it shut with his right foot.

Wheezing uncontrollably, Critter began reorganizing his thoughts at a furious pace.

He had no way of investigating what happened to the captain or Vassago, and he didn't want to know. He guessed that something had probably befallen them in Underworld, resulting in the total destruction of their Fluctlights.

In summary, the mission had failed. With their commander now dead, he could not make the decision on whether or not to destroy Alice and this ship together with it. There was no meaning in staying here any longer.

Critter snatched up a mouthpiece from the console and spoke in husky tones:

"Hans… get back here. Brigg, Vassago, and the captain are all down."

Seconds later, the manliest member of the team burst into the main control room, a razor-sharp look on his face.

"Brigg's down?! Why?!"

"He… He got hit from above, in the cable duct…"

Hans had barely finished listening to him before raising his rifle and turning right around, but Critter barred him in desperation.

"Stop! They took Alice's Light Cube. There's no point in fighting anymore…"

Hans was silent for a moment. Suddenly he roared and punched the wall, then took a few steps towards Critter.

"…No, we've still got orders. If we can't get Alice then we have to destroy it. You have some sort of idea, don't you?"

Hans's painstakingly straight-cut mustache was quivering. Intimidated, Critter gave a tiny nod.

"Well… Well, it's not like I don't have one… No, we can't. We can't make that kind of judgment without the captain."

"Tell me. Spit it out now!!" Hans bellowed, jabbing the rifle barrel into Critter's throat. Faced with the dangerous glare of a mercenary — a mercenary who had been Brigg's partner for many years before his employment by Glowgen — Critter found it impossible to refuse.

"The… The engine…"

"Engine? Of the ship?"

"Yeah… The main engine of this massive ship is a nuclear reactor…"

2 Ten minutes elapsed.

Koujiro Rinko wrung her sweat-drenched hands, staring at the digital numbers as they ticked by without mercy.

The amount of time that had passed in Underworld since the beginning of the maximum acceleration phase — was 100 years.  

Exactly what time of such monstrous length felt like to Kirigaya Kazuto and Yuuki Asuna was something far exceeding her own imagination. All she could be certain of was that both their Fluctlight memory retention capacities were nearing their limits.

Higa estimated that once a human soul accumulated 150 years' worth of memories, it would no longer function normally and begin to collapse. But naturally that had not been experimentally confirmed; the real limit might arrive later — or sooner.

All she could do now was pray that they finish the logout procedure before their souls destroyed themselves. If they could manage that, then there was still hope of restoring the both of them to normal.

—Higkun, Kikuoksan, please.

In the midst of her praying, Rinko failed to notice that the faint gunfire traveling from downstairs had ceased some time ago, until Captain Nakanishi came running back to the sub control room and informed her.

"Doctor! The enemy is retreating from the Ocean Turtle!"

"Re… Retreating?!"

Rinko lifted her face up and repeated, stunned.

Why now? Now that the partition was reopened, wasn't this the attackers' last chance to grab Alice? They were giving up far too easily. There were still eight more hours before the escort vessel «Nagato» began its assault.

Typing on the keyboard to call up a status window monitoring the conditions of various regions inside the ship, Rinko asked the captain:

"Was anyone hurt in the fight?"

"Yes… two lightly wounded, one severely who's being treated right now, but nothing life-threatening."

"I see…"

She softly exhaled her held breath. A slight glance towards him revealed that the bold lines traced by Nakanishi's cheekbone had been obscured with a large bandage, which was steadily growing bloodier. He was probably one among the lightly wounded.

They had to save those two kids so all the fighting did not go to waste.

At least the enemy's retreat came as good news. Her eyes flew across the status window, affirming that the door of the underwater dock at the Ocean Turtle's bottom — the one used by the attackers when they boarded — was being opened.

"They seem to be fleeing in their submarine. It's just that, this is much too hasty…"

Rinko raised her eyebrows, and—

A tremor, completely unlike anything they had felt ever before, shook the entire main shaft.

Hyuuuun. Bassy rumbling permeated the gigantic self-propelling megafloat like cold wind. A ballpoint pen rolled off the table and clattered to the floor.  

"Wha… What?! What's happening?!"

"This is… Ahh… the bastards, they can't have…!!"

Captain Nakanishi's shout was half a moan.

"This trembling — it's the main engine running at full speed, Doctor!!"

"Main… engine?"

"The main engine… the pressurized water reactor at the bottom of the shaft."

Nakanishi raced past a wide-eyed, dazed Rinko and took her place at the console, awkwardly manipulating the status window. New windows popped up continuously, and one of them was playing a blurry video feed.

"Shit!! The control rods are all raised!! Those bastards, what the hell are they playing at?!"

Bam! He slammed a fist down on the console. Her throat dry, Rinko asked him:

"But, there are fail-safes, aren't there…?"

"Of course. The control rods are automatically lowered to stop the fission before the reactor core reaches criticality. But… here, take a look at this."

Nakanishi's finger was pointing to the monitor, at one position on the live feed of the reactor's containment vessel. It was hard to tell through the hodgepodge of crimson light, but something tiny and white appeared to be stuck onto a spot of the large, orange-painted machinery.

"I believe this is C4… plastic explosive. A piece this small should be insufficient to breach both the containment vessel and pressure vessel, but directly under there is the electrical CRD responsible for lowering the control rod cluster into the reactor core… the drive mechanism, in other words. If that gets destroyed, then the control rods won't be able to lower themselves…"

"And we… won't be able to stop the fission? What happens then…?"

"The first thing that will happen is that the coolant will generate a steam explosion, wrecking the pressure vessel… worse comes to worst, the molten core will breach the containment vessel and the ship’s hull, then drop into the sea and create massive amounts of steam, and at that point the entire shaft will be blown sky-high, including the main control room, the Light Cube Cluster, and our sub control room here."

"Wha……"

Rinko couldn't help but stare at the floor underneath her. These solid metal plates getting melted through, and superheated steam shooting up from below—?

If that were to happen, there would be nothing left: nothing of the RATH technicians who had somehow all survived until now, nothing of Kazuto and Asuna who were connected to the STLs, and nothing of the ten thousand plus Artificial Fluctlights in the Light Cube Cluster…

"I'm going to disarm the C4.” Nakanishi muttered suddenly.

"The bastards should have set a charge timer long enough to put sufficient distance between their submarine and the Ocean Turtle. At least five minutes… which is plenty."

"B-But, Nakanishi-san. The temperature in the engine room, it's already…"

"It's okay, it’ll only be like a slightly hotter sauna. I'll just bolt over and rip off the detonator. Easy."

—Surely a situation that warrants protective clothing. But there's no time to make such preparations.

Rinko found herself unable to say the words. Nakanishi was already walking towards the door, his wide back swelling with steely resolution.

However.

A second before his black leather combat boots reached the automatic door.

Rinko's ears suddenly detected a noise she had never heard in this room until now. Nakanishi's hand flew to the holster at his right waist and his eyes darted towards the left side of the room.

Whirrrrr. With the metallic hum of a motor, something stretched out a right foot from its fastened frame—

A mechanical body constructed from metal and plastic: Niemom.

Rinko and Nakanishi goggled blankly as the humanoid machine approached at a sluggish pace, its head sensor glowing red.

It should not be able to move.

Hadn't Higa, its designer, told them that? Unlike Ichiemom, which was equipped with many walking balancers, Niemom was designed from the start to be an Artificial Fluctlight vessel and couldn't even take a single step without a Light Cube inserted in it. The only Artificial Fluctlight missing from the Cluster was Alice, and she was still sitting inside her case on the table. The socket in Niemom's head should be empty.

"Why… Why is Prototype #2…"

Nakanishi uttered, astonished, as he drew his handgun from its holster and held it aloft. But without sparing him so much as a glance, Niemom headed straight for Rinko, stopping roughly two meters away from her, and began to emit a voice — somewhat corrupted with electronic noises — from a speaker installed at an unknown location on its head:

“I will go.“

That voice.

The faint odor of oil emanating from Niemom's body stung her nose.

Rinko had heard that same voice and smelled that same scent in the dream she had in her cabin bed during her first night on the Ocean Turtle.

She stood on shaking feet and began to walk towards Niemom, croaking:

"Is… Is that you, A… Akihiko-san……?"

Glowing a muddled light, the sensor flickered as though it were blinking, and the robot gave a small nod.

Rinko took a final step, almost drawn to it, and silently caressed the aluminum chassis with trembling hands. Motors whirred as the robot's hands raised upwards, stroking Rinko's back.

“I'm sorry for leaving you alone for so long, Rinko-kun.“

It was a computerized, artificial voice, but unmistakably belonging to the only man Koujiro Rinko had ever loved — Kayaba Akihiko.

"Why… are you here?"

She whispered in the local dialect she should have forgotten long ago. Tears sprang from her eyes, turning Niemom's laser light into a blur.

“There's no time, so I'll only say what's important. Rinko-kun, I was very fortunate to meet you. You have been the only one who can connect me to the real world. If you wish… I would like you to keep this connection into the future: keep on connecting my dream… the two worlds that remain separate even today…”

"Yes… of course… of course."

She nodded frantically, and the masklike mechanical face gave her a very faint smile.

The robot moved away from her, changed direction by nimbly shifting its center of gravity, and exited the sub control room into the hallway with what resembled a running gait.

Without thinking, Rinko was just about to chase after it when the automatic door slid shut.

She drew in a deep breath and clenched her teeth. She could not leave this room now. She was still responsible for monitoring the conditions of various locations.

Rinko looked up at the video of the engine room, clutching the locket at her chest. She could hear a bemused Captain Nakanishi say in an almost exasperated tone, "Why now…"

It was true that they had faced many dangers so far. But Rinko felt that she understood why Kayaba had chosen this moment to shed his role as an observer.

"…He's not doing it for Underworld. That man has no intention of intervening with the simulation. He chose this moment to reveal himself because he wants to protect Kirigaykun and Asunsan…"

***

When Higa Takeru heard the low roar of the turbines from somewhere underneath the cable duct, he finally realized what was meant by Kikuoka's feared «worst case scenario».

"Ki… Kiku-san, those assholes, they… the reactor…"

His moan was interrupted by determined instructions.

"I know. But right now, we need to focus on shutting down the STLs."

"O… Okay. But…"

Arriving at the maintenance panel at last, Higa felt cold sweat all over his body as he inserted the cable jack a second time.

This would all be pointless if the reactor lost control. Even Underworld and Alice's Light Cube would be utterly obliterated by scorching steam and powerful radiation. Not to mention the many deaths that would occur.

But causing a reactor explosion was nothing trivial. Small arms were incapable of breaching the double-layer, solid metal containment vessel encasing the reactor core, and there were numerous failsafes installed into the control system. Even if the engine were forced to run at full speed, the safety procedure would immediately kick in and drop the control rods to stop the fission.

At this point, Kikuoka asked Higa in his normally calm tone:

"Well, Higkun, can you take it from here on your own?"

"Mm… Yeah, I can keep working if I secure my harness to the ladder… B-But, Kiku-san, you're not thinking of going down there and…"

"Nah, I'm just going to quickly check the situation. I won't do anything stupid, I'm coming right back up."

With that, Kikuoka swiftly undid the harness tying them both together, slid the woven nylon belt through the ladder, and rebuckled it. After making sure Higa's body held steady, he climbed down a few steps.

"I'll leave it to you then, Higkun."

The slender eyes behind his black-rimmed glasses flashed with a grin.

"P-Please be careful! Some of those guys might still be here!"

Kikuoka gave an very uncharacteristic thumbs up with his right hand in response, then resumed climbing down the ladder at top speed.

After stepping into the tunnel at the very bottom, he took a cautious peek inside, and slid his body through.

Higa only began to notice after Kikuoka's figure had completely vanished.

He was typing on his laptop's keyboard with his right hand and tried to adjust the harness with his left as it was digging into his abdomen, when he felt something sticky. Startled, he peered down, and realized by the glow of orange emergency lights that his palm had been dampened by dark blood.

It took only one glance for Higa to register that it was not his own.

***

Although nearly all of the surveillance cameras inside the lower shaft — which, until a few minutes ago had still been occupied by the attackers — were destroyed, the camera head in the reactor containment engine room area remained unharmed.

Rinko looked up towards the main monitor at an enlarged image of the video feed, both hands clasped around her locket, waiting.

To her immediate left, Captain Nakanishi's clenched fists were resting upon the console. Behind them, the security forces and technicians who had returned from battle were now deep in prayer, each in his own way.

Rinko had pleaded with everyone to at least retreat to the bridge, but not a single person left the main shaft.

Every single person here had dedicated their all to the clandestine research and development of the front organization RATH. Each entrusted his hopes and dreams to a new era that true bottom-up artificial intelligence was sure to pioneer.

Until now Rinko had believed herself only a temporary visitor on this ship. She had felt unlikely to ever approve of the goals of someone whose true motivations were as inscrutable as Kikuoka Seijirou’s.

But she still came to RATH. And now, she was finally beginning to understand.

Artificial Fluctlights should never be restricted to such a narrow research goal as becoming AI for autonomous weaponry.

Similarly, Underworld was not just any societal development simulation.

Both represented the beginning of an epic paradigm shift.

A different reality — one would inspire change in a world heading ever closer towards a closed future. A world that realized the will of young people fighting to break free of the established system into an invisible power: An Incarnating Radius.

—That's your goal, isn't it, Akihiko-san?

That's what you noticed and discovered during your two years in that floating castle — their infinite potential, and the dazzling, blinding light of their spirits.

No matter the reason, trapping 10,000 people in a electronic prison and causing the deaths of 4,000 among them counted as the worst crime in human history and did not deserve forgiveness. Not even Rinko could ever be absolved of her own cooperation in bringing about such an atrocity.

But right now… this wish was something she permitted herself to believe in.

—Please, Akihiko-san. Protect everyone… and protect the world.

As though in response to Rinko's prayer, something in the remote feed on the monitor shifted at last.

The silver mechanical body emerged onto the narrow walkway leading towards the engine room, which housed a state-of-the-art pressurized water reactor.

By now its battery level was likely already beginning to decrease; the robot's footsteps were growing heavier. It advanced with a great kalunk, kalunk, as though it were fighting against its own weight.

It was difficult to imagine when Kayaba's mind-simulation program had begun hiding inside that body, but Rinko was sure of one thing: the program in #2's memory was the original, the one and only. No intelligence could withstand the thought that it was a copy of something else.

How much of the engine room's blistering heat would the prototype body's electronics — which did not possess any special heat resistance — be able to endure? Removing just the detonator would prevent the plastic explosive from blowing up, but if Niemom's memory were damaged, Kayaba's consciousness would vanish in an instant.

Please, disarm the bomb safely and come back to me again — Rinko implored, biting her lip.

One could only assume that Kayaba Akihiko was fully prepared to perish.

Back then he had been willing to destroy his brain to leave behind a copy of his mind, and now he had finally achieved his goal and found a place to die.

The robot's joint actuators creaked dully.

Its metal feet clunked on the floor.

With earnest but steady steps, the metal body arrived in front of the engine room door at last.

It stretched out its right hand and manipulated the control panel with stiff movements. The indicator changed to green, and the bulky alloy door swung inwards—

At that moment.

Earsplitting rapid gunfire rang out of the speaker. Niemom stretched both arms around its body in defense, retreating with rigid steps backward.

A soldier in black combat garb shot out from beyond the door, shouting something.

It was undoubtedly one of the attackers, but unlike before, he was not wearing a helmet and goggles to hide his face. Even from the grainy video of the surveillance camera, they could tell that the delicately featured, somewhat stubbled man had quite a venomous expression on his face.

"Wha… There's still someone here?! Why?! Isn't that suicide…?!" Captain Nakanishi groaned in shock.

Without mercy, the man showered #2 — in its defensive position — with bullets.

Sparks flew as several holes were punched into its aluminum chassis. Bullets severed nerve cables all over its body and jets of lubricant sprayed from polymer muscle cylinders.

"No… NOOO!!"

Rinko could not stifle her scream. The enemy soldier on the screen shouted again in heated English, and depressed his trigger for a third time. The robot staggered, and began to take step after step backward.

"No! #2's chassis can't handle that!!"

He would never make it in time, butCaptain Nakanishi made to snatch up his sidearm and dash outside.

Next moment.

A series of new gunshots was heard from the speaker.

A third figure had charged forward from the side closer to the hallway and begun firing wildly. The enemy's body gave a violent shake to the right. Not a single shot of the continuous fire coming from directly behind was misfiring onto the mechanical body. Who on earth was displaying such marksmanship—?

Eyes so wide she forgot to breathe, Rinko watched as blood spurted from the enemy soldier's chest at last, and as though he were being swept out of the way, he keeled over onto the ground, where he lay motionless.

Immediately after, their savior knelt gingerly down in the middle of the walkway—

Then he collapsed sideways. Rinko moved the mouse with a trembling hand, zooming the camera closer.

A fringe fell over his forehead. Black-rimmed glasses askew. The corners of his mouth lifted in what appeared to be the traces of a smile.

"Ki… Kikuoksan?!"

"Lieutenant Colonel…!!"

Rinko and Nakanishi screamed in unison.

This time the JSDF serviceman really did bolt from the room, almost falling over in his hurry. Several security force members pursued him. Rinko could no longer stop them.

A technician raced to the console in her stead. After several keystrokes he pulled up what looked to be #2's status.

"Left arm output at zero. Right arm at 65 percent. Left leg and right leg both at 70 percent. Battery level 30 percent. We're good, it can still move!!"

As though it had heard the technician's yell, #2 began its advance once more.

Zzt, krak. Zzt, krak. Sparks flew from severed cables with every rigid step.

The instant its battered body crossed through the door, Rinko switched cameras to show video from inside the engine room.

The second heat-resistant door was physically locked with a huge lever. #2's right hand closed around the handle and attempted to push it down, but its elbow actuator spun chaotically and ejected a shower of sparks.

"Please…"

Rinko whispered, and at the same time shouts of encouragement were heard all around the sub control room.

"You can do it, Niemom!!"

"That's it, just a little more!!"

Kchunk.

The lever sank with a hefty thunk.

The heavy steel door burst open at once, as though forced outwards by pressure from inside. On the monitor they could see waves of heat shooting out.

Niemom's body wobbled. Sparks, more intense now, flashed along the thick cable hanging from its spine.

"Ah… Ahh, oh no!!" One of the technicians suddenly shouted.

"What… What's wrong?!"

"The battery cable's damaged!! If that breaks, then the whole body's power source will be cut… and then it won't be able to move at all…"

Neither Rinko nor any of the other staff members spoke.

Kayaba should have noticed this severe blow within #2 by now. He appeared to hold the swaying cable steady with his right elbow, and begin taking gradual steps forward again.

The long-awaited engine room interior was already at such a high temperature that any living human would find it unbearable: the reactor was constantly running at full capacity and unable to evacuate any of the blistering heat it was producing.

Soon the safety procedures were bound to trip, and the control rods would automatically descend into the reactor and stop the fission.

But if the plastic explosive detonated before that and destroyed the control rod drive mechanism, the immense number of neutrons emitted from the fuel rods would continue to drive the sustained fission of uranium atoms, eventually reaching the point of uncontrollable criticality.  

The molten core would hit the primary coolant and create a steam explosion, damaging the pressure vessel, and then, under the influence of gravity the core would continue to penetrate the containment vessel, the ship's hull, and finally the ocean surface—

A sudden image of white steam blasting out of a perforated Ocean Turtle flashed through Rinko's mind.

She shut her eyes, and prayed again.

"Please… Akihiko-san…!!"

Renewed cheers came quickly from everyone behind her. As though spurred upon by their voices, #2 approached the reactor inch by inch.

Rinko switched to the final camera.

Instantaneously, tremendous noise began issuing from the speaker. The monitor image was splashed with the bright red color of emergency lights.

Parting the heated air as it dragged one of its feet, #2 was only five to six meters away from the plastic explosive on the containment vessel.

The robot raised its right hand towards the detonator. Sparks burst continuously from all over its body as fragments of its chassis broke off onto the floor without interruption.

"Come on… come on… come on!!"

Those were the only words ringing throughout the sub control room now. Rinko's fists were clenched as she shouted herself hoarse.

Four more meters.

Three meters.

Two meters.

All of a sudden, flares seemed to explode from #2's back.

The broken, hanging black wire looked no different from an organ that had spilled out of a body.

All sensors on its head darkened. Its right arm fell slowly to its side.

Both of its knees stooped steadily downwards—

#2 was completely silent.

The group of output graphs that had been oscillating back and forth on the main monitor now plummeted as one, dropping into darkness.

The technician's voice was barely audible as he declared:

"…All output… gone…"

—I don't believe in miracles.

Kayaba Akihiko said to Rinko that day — the day that the death game SAO was cleared far ahead of schedule and every player was released.

His eyes shone with an unwavering light, and his unshaven mouth was curved into the hint of a smile.

—But today, for the first time in my life, I witnessed a miracle.

—I had him at the end of my sword; his HP should have dropped to zero for good. But almost as if he were resisting the system itself, he refused to accept his own destruction… then he moved his right hand, and thrust his own sword into my chest.

—That moment might have been just what I've been waiting for all this time…

"…Akihiko-san!"

Rinko had not noticed that her right hand was gripping her locket so tightly it had begun to bleed. She was screaming:

"You're «Holy Sword» Heathcliff, aren't you?! You're the greatest rival of «Black Swordsman» Kirito-kun, aren't you?! Then at least… why don’t you show me a miracle too?!"

Blink.

Blink blink.

Twinkling red light was fluttering on the distance sensor on #2's head.

Its exposed muscle cylinders were quivering slightly.

A faintly shuddering purple glow emerged at the very bottom of the pitch-dark status window—

Page 260 The output graphs of all four limbs and torso shot up all at once. Sparks blew from each actuator on every joint as they began to spin.

"Num… #2 has restarted!!"

The technician almost screamed, and simultaneously, the wound-ridden mechanical body got to its feet once more.

Rinko's eyes filled with tears.

"Let’s goooo!!"

"That’s iiiiit!!"

Everyone in the sub control room was roaring.

With oil dripping from it like blood, a right foot was put forward.

Lugging its severely injured right foot behind, Niemom raised its right hand aloft.

A step. And another step.

Part of the battery erupted in a small explosion. The body convulsed, but put out another step.

With its right hand stretched to the limit, the tip of Niemom’s finger brushed the plastic explosive on the containment vessel.

Its thumb and forefinger clasped upon the electronic detonator inserted into the C4.

Sparks blew from the joints at its wrists, elbows, and shoulders, in such a way that it was reminiscent of someone in horrible agony. #2 pulled off the IC timer — the detonator, and raised its right hand high into the air.

A flash of light rendered the video completely white.

The exploding detonator had blown the fingers off #2's right hand; its body slowly pitched to the left—

And crashed onto the floor as though it were a thread breaking in two. The sensor's blinking light vanished, and at the same time the output graphs plunged once more into darkness.

For a while, no one said anything.

The enormous cheer that came seconds later shook the sub control room.

***

The low roar of the turbines gradually weakened and grew further away, like the recession of a chilly wind.

Higa's held breath came tumbling out in great pants. They were finally seeing a decrease in the output of the reactor that had been running at dangerously high power.

He dabbed the sweat on his forehead with the cuff of his sleeve, staring at the laptop monitor through grimy glasses.

Shutdown procedures for both STLs had finally finished 80% of all processes. More than 17 minutes had elapsed since the start of the maximum acceleration phase — equivalent to over 180 years in Underworld.

This astronomical amount of time already exceeded Higa's projected Fluctlight lifespan. In theory, Kirigaya Kazuto and Yuuki Asuna's souls were very likely to have already destroyed themselves.

But Higa had already admitted that he probably really knew nothing at all about Underworld, or Fluctlights. Sure, he had been the designer, the developer, and the operator, but it looked as though that alternate world, nurtured by artificial souls, had evolved to a level beyond what anyone at RATH could ever dream of.

And yet the only one from the real world who most understood Underworld was Kirigaya Kazuto. Merely a 17-year-old high schooler, he had been thrown into Underworld without a shred of prior knowledge, acclimated to his situation, evolved within, and displayed strength exceeding that of all four Super Accounts.

It had not been strength innate to Kirigaya Kazuto as a person.

None of the RATH staff members thought of the Artificial Fluctlights as anything more than programs for experimental use; Kirigaya Kazuto was the only one who treated them as human from the start. He approached, fought with, protected, and loved them as he would fellow humans.

That was the reason Underworld — the people who lived in it had chosen him as their protector.

If that were true, then maybe, by some miracle that not even Higa could think of, they might survive these 200 years too.

—Isn't that right, Kirito-kun?

—Now I finally understand why Lieutenant Colonel Kikuoka wanted your help so badly. I also understand that we will need you in the future as well.

—So…

"…You have to come back."

Higa murmured, eyes fixed firmly on the last few percent of the shutdown procedure as it gradually completed.

***

Rinko was the only one left in the sub control room.

Every other staff member had rushed out to rescue Lieutenant Colonel Kikuoka and retake command of the main control room.

In fact, she was rather inclined herself to burst into the reactor containment room and ensure #2’s safety, as it was now lying on the floor, and that of Kayaba Akihiko's mind imitation program, which now ought to be suspended inside #2's physical memory. But she could not leave her station. Before Higa finished the STL shutdown procedure, she had to monitor the statuses of Kirigaya Kazuto and Yuuki Asuna, who were lying asleep in the neighboring room.

Rinko trusted that both of them would awaken like nothing had happened.

She wanted them to hold Alice's Light Cube in their hands and tell them: this is what you protected.

Then, she wanted to tell them that someone had protected Underworld from the real world too. The very same Kayaba Akihiko who had imprisoned them, pit them against each other, and made them suffer, had protected the Light Cube Cluster and the Ocean Turtle while driving a mechanical body with a broken battery cable.

She did not want them to forgive him.

There was no absolution for Kayaba Akihiko's crime, the mass murder of 4,000 young people.

But no matter what, she wanted Kazuto and Asuna to grasp Kayaba's will to remain, and understand his goal.

Rinko's eyes were closed and her hands were resting upon the duralumin case containing Alice's Light Cube when she heard Higa's voice coming out of her earpiece.

"…Rinko-san, 60 seconds until logout procedures for both are complete."

"Roger. I'll go meet them immediately."

"Please do. Looks like I really can't climb all the way up this ladder on my own… Also, Kiku-san's gone down to check the situation, how's he doing? I think he might be hurt."

Rinko could not give him an immediate answer. It had been three or four minutes since Captain Nakanishi had made off to assist Lieutenant Colonel Kikuoka, who had exchanged gunfire with the enemy soldier in the hallway leading to the engine room and then collapsed, but she had not heard from Nakanishi yet.

But Kikuoka was not someone who stood down before his goal was achieved. That man always maintained an attitude so easygoing it was impossible to look underneath his surface, and he always overcame his circumstances with little effort, no matter how punishing.

"…Yeah, the lieutenant colonel was great back there. Right out of a Hollywood movie."

"Dang, that's really unlike him… 30 seconds."

"I'll move to the STL room. Contact me if anything happens. Out."

Rinko ended the correspondence and, clutching the duralumin case to her chest, left the console and set off for the adjoining room.

Seconds before she touched the sliding door, the speaker in the room relayed something from one of the staff members who had gone downstairs.

"Engine room here! Doctor… Can you hear me, Dr. Koujiro?!"

Rinko fought back the sudden leap in her heart rate, changed the channel on her radio, and yelled:

"Yeah, I can hear you! What is it?!"

"W-Well… the C4's been successfully disarmed, but… it's gone."

"Gone?… What's gone…?"

"#2. We can't find Niemom's body anywhere in the engine room!"

***

The cheap digital watch’s timer was chirping faintly.

Crouched in a corner of the Advanced SEAL Delivery System's personnel transport compartment, Critter was listening hard for any noise outside. After failing for several seconds to hear the megafloat’s explosive liquidation, he let out a single shaking breath.

Not even he was sure whether that was a sigh of relief, or dejection.

The only thing he was sure of was that the C4 explosive they had planted on the Ocean Turtle's reactor had, for some reason, not exploded, and therefore the control rod drive mechanism had not been destroyed, and a meltdown had not occurred.

Hans was still in the Ocean Turtle's engine room. If he was safe, he should have been able to manually set off the bomb if something had happened to the detonator, so he had probably been eliminated too.

Not for a second had Critter expected a profit-seeking mercenary to avoid reboarding the ASDS with the full knowledge that he was going to die otherwise. He had sensed something off with Hans when his partner Brigg had bought it, but nothing to suggest that they were close enough to warrant dying in the same place.

"…Well, there were a lot of things I didn't know…"

Critter muttered inaudibly, restoring his watch to time-display mode.

Indeed — Captain Miller and Vassago had bitten the dust before Hans and his friend, and they probably had motives and reasons of their own that had nothing to do with money. Those obligations had cost them their lives.

Taking that into consideration, Critter and the rest of the squad aboard the submarine were about to land into a heap of trouble for this operation ending in utter failure. Their employer, private military contractor Glowgen Defense Systems, was a corporation that grew large by accepting wetwork affiliated with the NSA or CIA, and likely would not turn a hair at discarding their field agents. All of them could be silenced the moment they set foot back on US soil.  

As an insurance measure he had smuggled a microSD card out of the Ocean Turtle and stuck it to the center of his chest with flesh-colored waterproof tape.

He did not know how much something like that could protect him, but at least he would be going out with a bullet to the head. Much unlike the appalling ways in which Vassago and Captain Miller had died.

"Goddammit…"

Critter snorted and cast a reluctant look towards the two body bags piled at the very back of the transport compartment. He shuddered uncontrollably as Captain Miller's horrid death swam to the surface of his mind again — and just then.

"……Huh? Two?"

He furrowed his brow and stared at the submarine's dim stern, but no matter how much he stared, there were only two body bags there. This did not add up. Passing over Hans, who had stayed behind of his own accord, there should have been a total of three fatalities: Captain Miller, Vassago, and Brigg.

"…Hey, Shack."

With his elbow, he poked a nearby squad mate who was gnawing on an energy bar.

"What?"

"Your team went to collect the bodies, right? Why is there one missing?"

"What do you mean? It was just Brigg in the hallway and Captain Miller in the STL room. Who else is dead?”

"No… there was one more in the STL room…"

"Only the captain's body was there. Shit, that look on his face? Straight out of my nightmares."

Dumbstruck, Critter withdrew his right hand, and surveyed the transport compartment.

Nine squad members, looking equally exhausted, were seated in the narrow space. The figure of Vice Captain Vassago Casals was not among them.

Critter was sure that he had confirmed Captain Miller’s death in the STL room, but he had only seen Vassago. Vassago's skin had appeared utterly bloodless and his hair had turned gray; nothing about him looked alive. Moreover, if he were still alive, why didn't he board the submarine?

His brain refused to contemplate the matter further. Critter hugged his knees in silence.

Until the ASDS docked with Seawolf-class nuclear submarine «Jimmy Carter» several tens of minutes later, the normally chatty hacker remained silent.

***

19 minutes and 40 seconds after the start of the maximum acceleration phase—

Soul Translators #3 and #41, installed in STL Room 2 of the Ocean Turtle, completed their shutdown procedures.

Although delayed by approximately three minutes, the time acceleration also came to a stop, and as the cooling system ground to a halt, silence was restored inside the ship.

Released from the STLs with the help of Dr. Koujiro Rinko and Sergeant First Class Aki Natsuki, Kirigaya Kazuto and Yuuki Asuna — did not awaken.

Their Fluctlight activity had dropped to the absolute minimum; it was clear that both of their mental activities had all but fallen to zero.

But Rinko held their hands tight nonetheless, calling their names, tears running down her face.

Faint smiles adorning their lips, Kirito and Asuna were plunged into deep slumber.

3 Clack.

…Clack.

The noises stopped directly in front of me.

And then, someone called my name.

"…Kirito-kun."

It was a steady, lucid voice, one I thought I would never hear again.

"You're always such a crybaby when you're alone… I understand all of it. Everything you did."

Slowly, I lifted my tear-stained face.

Standing there with both hands behind her back, head tilted slightly, and wearing a smile, was Asuna.

I didn't know what to say. All I could do was stare and stare at Asuna's face, and those nostalgic hazel eyes.

A cool breeze blew past; a butterfly between us rode atop it in a graceful jig, disappearing into the blue sky.

Asuna watched it go, then looked back to me and reached out her right hand without a word.

I felt that she would vanish like an illusion if I touched her. But the warmth coming from her white palm announced that the person I loved was indeed there.

Asuna knew. She had known that this world was going to be sealed immediately. Returning to the real world would likely mean reaching the other side of an eternal river of time.

That was why she decided to stay behind. For my sake. For me, who would do the same for her if the situation was reversed.

I reached out and tightly grasped Asuna's small hand.

Pulling myself up with that hand, I gazed into those beautiful eyes once more from a closer distance.

And I still couldn't say anything.

But I felt that I didn't need to say much. So all I did was pull her slender body towards me and hug it tightly.

Gently resting her head on my chest, Asuna spoke in almost a whisper:

"…Alice's going to be furious when we get back to the other side."

I visualized, in my mind's eye, the tenacious knight's blue eyes flashing, almost sparking as she rebuked us, and smiled softly.

"It'll be all right. As long as we try our best to remember. As long as we never forget a second of the time we spent with her."

"…Yeah. You're right. As long as we never forget Alice… Liz, Klein, Agil-san, Silica… and Yui, it'll be all right."

We let go of our embrace, nodded to each other, and simultaneously looked towards the uninhabited temple.

With all of its functions suspended, the «World End Altar» slept silently under the gentle sunlight at the end of the world.

We turned, took each other's hands once more, and began running along the marble path.

After proceeding for a short while through the polychrome flowers, we arrived at the northern end of the floating island.

Beneath the sky, which was now deepest blue, the world expanded as far as the eye could see.

Asuna looked to me and inquired:

"Hey, how long are we going to spend in this world?"

It took me a bit of silence before I told her the truth.

"They told me at least 200 years."

"Oh."

Asuna nodded as the same smile, unchanged from the old days, blossomed over her face:

"As long as I'm with you, not even a thousand years is a long time…… Now, let's go, Kirito-kun."

"…Yeah. Let's go, Asuna. There's still much we have to do. This world has only just been born."

And so, each clutching the other's hand, we opened our wings and took our first step into the infinite azure.

References 1. "Kawahara meant #4 and #5.”↩

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