Chapter #6 – Sword Art Online Volume 18 Epilogue Part 1
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.
Illustration Editing Mttblue2
Consultation SAO Wiki
Epilogue August 2026 1
Snail-like, a shadowy figure was creeping along the inky-black ocean floor.
It resembled a large, flat crab, but it was moving with only six legs and dragging a rope from its abdomen in a spider-like fashion, its whole body encased underneath a pressure-resistant layer of metal painted a dull gray.
FASTER. That was the name of the Trans-Pacific undersea fiber optic cable connecting Japan and the US. That metal crab was really a deep-seoperation maintenance robot that hadn’t received a single assignment since its deployment at the undersea maintenance terminal three years prior, and had remained dormant ever since. But today, it finally received a startup command: the crab swiveled its joints full of nearly congealed grease and departed the safety of its dwelling.
But the crab had no idea that the command had not been delivered by its supervisor’s company at all. Obeying the irregular order of uncertain origin, it towed the piece of replacement cable for FASTER, continuing northwards in a straight line.
A computerized tone, being periodically broadcasted, was calling out to the crab. Every minute the crab would pause, establish the voice’s position using its onboard sonar, then proceed.
And on and on the process repeated.
At last, when the crab was sure that it had arrived at its indicated destination, it illuminated the lamp installed at its front.
Appearing at the center of the white halo was
A silver humanoid machine, lying on its side at the bottom of the sea.
Its simple aluminum alloy chassis had been ruthlessly peppered with holes. Wires were poking out from various orifices had burned through; its left limb was shattered around the middle, and its head looked half-crushed by overwhelming water pressure.
Its right hand was slightly raised, and clutched within it was another fresh length of undersea fiber optic cable just like the crab’s, ready to be laid. The cable stretched directly above them and dissolved into the darkness, making it unclear where it was connected to.
For a while, the crab gazed at the fellow robot.
But of course, feeling neither fear nor any strong emotion for that matter it obeyed its orders and extended a manipulator, securing it to the end of the fresh cable in the humanoid robot’s right fist.
The crab then used its other manipulator to draw out the tip of the far-reaching undersea cable it had been laying on the ocean floor up to this spot, from the cord reel built into its abdomen.
Then, it joined the two cables’ connectors in front of it tightly as one.
And thus, all commands it had been given were complete.
It was as though the crab couldnt care less where the cable in the humanoid robot’s grip led to.
Rotating its massive body by tussling each of its six legs in order, the metal crab set off back in the direction of the undersea maintenance terminal, in pursuit of a return to its lengthy hibernation.
Abandoned behind it, the wreckage of the humanoid body remained utterly woebegone.
Its right hand was still clasped in a snug grip around the firmly insulated fiber optic cable.
August 1, 2026, Saturday, 2:00 pm.
A day of brightest blue, fresh after a typhoon had passed over Kanto the night before
Throngs of media, indiscriminate of nationality, had packed the harbor area Roppongi Hills Arena, waiting expectantly for the time to arrive.
Television talk shows and internet livestreams had already begun broadcasting the scene at the press conference. The animated voices of reporters and commentators mingled with the commotion at the venue.
On the whole, expert opinions skewed towards the negative.
“and therefore, no matter how close it is to the real thing, a fake will always ever be a fake. Like how it was for the alchemists of the Middle Ages. No matter how long you smelt copper and iron, it’ll never turn to gold!”
“But Doctor, according to the press release, they’re claiming that they have successfully reproduced the inner makeup of the human brain”
“I’m telling you, it’s impossible! Look, there are tens of billions of neurons in our brains. You think a machine or a computer program can reproduce them all? You really think so?”
“Tch He hasn’t even seen it and he’s talking like he knows everything.”
Klein said menacingly, giving a reckless tug of his necktie and clutching a gin tonic in the middle of the day.
Situated in a backstreet of Taito Ward’s Okachimachi, the coffee shop-bar combo Dicey Cafe was jam-packed to full capacity. No more customers would be entering even without the “Reserved” sign hanging under the door.
Sinon, Leafa, Lisbeth, Silica, and Klein sat shoulder-to-shoulder at the bar, facing Agil. Four more tables were occupied variously by Sakuya, Alicia, Eugene, and the rest of the ALO Race Lords; Siune, Jun, and the other Sleeping Knights; Thinker, Yuriel, Sasha, and more original SAO players.
Everyone was holding either a beer, cocktail, or soft drink, and watching the large-screen television on the far wall with rapt attention.
Lisbeth responded to Klein’s continued rant in a voice mixed with a sigh.
“Nothing we can do. Even I have trouble believing that those people were AIs and that was a virtual world running on a server, and I saw both with my own eyes.”
Sinon stroked her glasses beside her, muttering, “You said it. The smell of the air, the feel of the ground; all of that stuff might end up feeling even more real than the real world.”
Leafa nodded with a tone of assent. Silica smiled dryly: “It’s called the STL, right? Sinon-san and Leafsan were the only ones with the special privilege of diving with that. The field and the objects were polygons, at least for those of us who used AmuSpheres.”
“But no one disagrees that the Underworld people weren’t just normal NPCs?”
Agil concluded, and just then
The newscaster’s voice suddenly sounded anxious as it traveled from the television.
“Ah, looks like the press conference is starting! Let’s hand it over from our media center to the live scene!”
Silence dropped over the cafe.
Several tens of VRMMO players took large gulps of their beverages as they stared at the live video of the press conference, punctuated with the flashing of cameras. None of them wanted to miss the moment that the person they had protected so passionately appeared in public for the first time.
The first to emerge at the forefront of the sea of television recorders and personal cameras packing the spacious venue was a woman who looked about 30, and dressed in a sensible pantsuit. Her long hair was tied behind a lightly powdered face.
The woman stopped in front of the podium lined with dozens of microphones, where a plaque had been placed that read: “MARINE RESOURCES ASSESSMENT SURVEY DR. KOUJIRO RINKO”. Her eyes screwed up against the flood of flashing lights, but the Doctor nodded impressively and began to speak.
“Thank you very much for taking the time out of your busy day to come. Today, we as an organization are announcing the birth of what we believe is the world’s first true general-purpose artificial intelligence.”
The unexpectedly direct introduction caused a hubbub to break out within the venue.
Her face serene, the Doctor raised her left hand and indicated the left side of the stage.
“Without further ado, allow me to introduce Alice.”
At the center of the collective gaze filled with anticipation and skepticism, a figure came forth from the shadow of the silver stage panel
Long hair of shimmering gold. Skin whiter than snow. A girl with slender limbs and slim body hidden beneath an ultramarine blazer.
Bathed in a sea of flashing that practically bleached the broadcast white, without bowing or even sparing so much as a glance towards the press gallery, the girl marched forward with her head held high. The gentle whirring of motors accompanying her walk was completely drowned out by a great racket of shutter-clicking and excitement.
She crossed the stage with fluid strides and came to a stop beside Dr. Koujiro.
Then, at last, the girl turned to face them. Her fluttering golden hair gleamed blindingly against the spotlight.
Her eyes, gazing wordlessly upon the press gallery, were brightest blue.
Her beauty, which you could call neither western nor oriental in origin and yet seemed somewhat threatening, gradually called silence upon the venue.
Every single person in the venue and the innumerable spectators watching the broadcast instinctively knew that she did not possess the features of a real, living human. She was unmistakably something created by human hands a robot with silicon skin wrapped over a skeleton of metal. Comparable female robots could be found in theme parks and event locations all over.
But apart from her unusually fluent gait and the perfect control of posture she just demonstrated, a certain something emanated from the golden-haired girl that struck the crowd in an inexplicable manner, inadvertently plunging them into a long silence.
It could be the fault of that vivid gleam hidden deep within her blue eyes. It was a gleam one never found beyond a typical robot’s optical lens: the gleam of intelligence.
When the press gallery finally quieted down, the trace of a smile appeared on the girl’s face, and she did something bizarre.
She raised her gently clenched right fist parallel to the ground, touched it to her chest, and touched her somewhat splayed left hand upon her left waist as though pressing upon the invisible hilt of a sword: a salute.
Then in one swift movement the girl returned both hands to her upper body, swept her golden hair from her shoulder to her back, and parted her lightly sakurcolored lips.
A crystalline voice, clear yet blended with traces of sweetness, flowed out of the venue’s speakers and a countless number of televisions.
“People of the Real World, it is a pleasure to meet you. My name is Alice. Alice Synthesis Thirty.”
“That That’s our school uniform!!” Silica squealed. Her eyes were opened to their greatest extent as she compared her own clothing to what Alice was wearing on the screen.
“I think she requested it herself.” Lisbeth said from beside her, pinching the ribbon on her uniform.
“She said she wanted to wear a knight’s dress that looked like what everyone who came to rescue the Human Empire Defense army was wearing. But her first choice was the same pure golden armor that she wore on the other side.”
“Not even RATH can prepare something like that.” Leafa’s response prompted genial chuckles.
On the television screen, Alice and Dr. Koujiro were sitting down in chairs behind the podium. A nameplate bearing “A.L.I.C.E. 2026 ALICE SYNTHESIS THIRTY” rose automatically in front of her.
“But now that you mention it, that’s a scary level of reproduction. I only spoke with her for a bit in Underworld, and I can’t see anything different about her through the screen”
Sinon murmured, and just then Dr. Koujiro coughed lightly on-screen and began to speak:
“Well, it’s a bit unorthodox, but I’d like to start with the Q&A.”
Apparently the media had been informed of this development beforehand; a countless number of hands shot up within the press gallery.
The first to be selected was a male reporter from some major news corporation.
“So Starting with the most basic question. What makes Alicesan exactly different from existing, program-controlled robots?”
Dr. Koujiro gave the reply.
“Alice’s physical appearance isn’t relevant to this interview. Her brain and I’ll call it a brain here: her consciousness is stored within the quantum brain in her skull. It cannot be substituted with a binary program and is essentially no different from our human brains. That’s a fundamental difference between her and existing robots.”
“I see then, could you demonstrate that to us and the people watching on TV, in a way that’s easy for us to understand?”
A slight crease appeared between Dr. Koujiro’s eyebrows.
“I believe you all have access to the Turing test results in the data that was handed out to you.”
“No, I don’t mean like that. For example could you open your head your skull, and show us directly the so-called quantum brain inside?”
The Doctor’s brief expression of shock was quickly replaced with annoyance, and she was just about to rebuke the reporter when Alice spoke first.
“Certainly. I do not mind.”
Flashing a natural smile, she continued.
“But before that, could you please prove to us that you are not a robot yourself?”
“What? O-Of course I’m not a robot I wouldn’t know how to prove that either.”
“It is simple. I am asking you to open your skull, please, and show me your brain.”
“Ooh Oooh, Alice’s maaad.” Leafa smiled furtively, her shoulders shrinking.
The players congregated in the Dicey Cafe had long since had the opportunity to converse with Alice in Alfheim Online. They were quite familiar with her chivalrous, yet severe disposition.
Of course, Alice had opened a new ALO account, so there were minor differences between her avatar’s appearance and how she looked now. But even so, she had captured the awed fascination of many a player through a combination of terrific, practically superhuman Sword Skills and an innately powerful sense of pride one only a true knight would possess.
On screen, the reporter sat back down looking disappointed, and the next questioner stood up.
“Let’s see, question for Dr. Koujiro. Some labor unions have continually raised the concern that high-level artificial intelligence will accelerate the unemployment rate even further”
“That concern is neither here nor there. Our organization has no intent whatsoever of providing true AI for simple labor.”
The Doctor’s denial was so vehement that the female reporter was momentarily flustered, but she quickly resumed her questioning with stronger resolve.
“But on the other hand, the financial world is extremely hopeful for high-level artificial intelligence. Shares have boosted across the board for companies related to industrial robots. What are your thoughts on that?”
“Unfortunately, true AI we call them Artificial Fluctlights they are not something that can be mass-produced in a short amount of time. They, like us, are born as infants and mature from children into adults under the companionship of parents and siblings, and develop unique personalities in the process. I don’t believe we should inject intelligence like this into industrial robots and force them into manual labor.”
There was a brief silence.
Finally, the female reporter asked in a brittle voice:
“In other words, Doctor you believe we should accept that AIs deserve human rights?”
“I am aware that this is a subject that will not see a conclusion overnight.”
Dr. Koujiro’s tone had remained remarkably steady throughout, but there was an audible sense of unwavering determination.
“However, we humans must not repeat our past mistakes. That is the only thing I’m truly sure of A long time ago, a great number of nations known as the major powers practically competed in their colonization of undeveloped countries, and treated the people of this very nation as commodities to buy and sell, forcing us into manual labor. The resulting grudge we hold has endured hundreds of years to the present day, and casts a great shadow upon the international community. In this moment, even if I do express the desire to acknowledge that Artificial Fluctlights are humans and grant them their respective rights, I think the majority of people will be uncomfortable. But in one or two centuries we’ll likely be living in the same society with them as though it were the most natural thing in the world, interacting with them without border or boundary, maybe even through the bonds of marriage and family. That is what I believe. If so, then must we shed so much blood and tears in the process of getting there? Must we write another chapter into human history that we will come to shun, that we must seal away forever?”
The female reporter shouted, seemingly losing composure:
“The differences between them and we humans are much too great! How can we reconcile that their cold robotic bodies are humans just like us?!”
“I already mentioned that Alice’s physical appearance has nothing to do with her inner essence.”
Dr. Koujiro replied calmly.
“Yes, she has a body that is different from ours in both material and mechanism. But that’s limited only to this world. We’ve long since had places where we’ve had no trouble accepting that humans and Artificial Fluctlights are the exact same being.”
“Places? What places?”
“Virtual worlds. Much of our current lives are spent inside virtual worlds created from The Seed Package, a standardization of general-purpose VR spaces. Even you, the press, were hoping to conduct this press conference in VR, but it’s been set up in the real world at our request. This was done in the hope of helping you understand, from the very start, our differences from Artificial Fluctlights. But that’s not the case in a virtual world. The quantum brains in Alice and other Artificial Fluctlights are fully compatible with VR spaces corresponding to The Seed’s standards.”
There was another great commotion in the venue.
AI can dive into virtual worlds many of the reporters had understood this to mean that it would be impossible to distinguish whether someone was human or AI over there.
The third questioner stood up, replacing the now silent female reporter who sat back into her chair. He was a man in brightly colored sunshades and an urbane jacket, a well-known freelance journalist.”
“First I want to confirm something and please forgive my woeful ignorance having never heard of the Marine Resources Assessment Survey, but you are an independent administrative corporation belonging to MEXT1, aren’t you? Which means the funds you pour into research and development is taxpayer money paid for by the people of Japan. In that case, isn’t the result of that development, these Artificial Fluctlights, the rightful property of citizens? Even if they are true AI, whether they should be used on industrial robots is not for you to regulate, but the citizens of Japan, is it not?”
Dr. Koujiro, who had answered every question without a moment’s hesitation, pursed her lips together for the first time.
When she brought her face close to the microphone, she was stopped by a white hand stretching over from the side. It was Alice, who had kept silent for the longest time.
The mechanically bodied girl shook her golden hair from side to side, and spoke.
“I acknowledge and accept that you, the people of the Real World, are our creators. I am also grateful that you have allowed our birth. However, as a person who was born in the same world as I, once told me what if the Real World is also a created world? What if there is an even higher creator outside of your world?”
There was a glint deep within her cobalt-blue eyes, like a bolt of lightning.
Alice stared at the freelance journalist, who took a few steps back in alarm, and the crowd of medirelated people. Then, she stood up slowly.
She puffed out her chest, hands folded over her heart, calling to mind her original appearance as a knight despite her school uniform. The world’s first true AI lowered her eyelashes slightly, continuing her thoughts in a clear, transparent voice:
“If, one day, your creator appears before you and orders into slavery, what reaction would you have? Would you pledge your loyalty with hands on the ground and beg for mercy?”
Then Alice’s sharp expressed softened, and a smile curled her lips.
“I have already conversed with many people of the Real World. They gave me encouragement: I, the only one of my kind in an unknown world, and granted me energy. They taught me a great deal, and brought me to many places. I enjoy their company very much. And that is not all I go as far as to express my love for everyone in the Real World. When I think of the one whom I cannot meet at this moment even this steel chest of mine feels as though it is about to split open”
Alice fell silent then, and for a moment she closed her eyes and bowed her head.
She ought not to have the ability, but many thought they saw droplets sliding down her snowy cheeks.
Her golden eyelashes suddenly sprang upwards, and her steady gaze pierced right through the crowd.
The female golden knight raised her right hand in a gentle motion, and said:
“I possess this right hand, which I extend to you people of the Real World. However, I also possess neither bended knee nor prostrated head. That is because I am a human.”
Higa Takeru was watching the press conference at RATH’s Roppongi branch, not far from the venue itself.
The shooting injury on his right shoulder he had got during the Ocean Turtle raid incident was finally beginning to heal; the plaster cast had been removed already. But his wound where the handgun bullet had pierced right through still remained quite clearly. Enduring another round of cosmetic surgery would set it right, but Higa decided to keep it this way.
The television changed from live coverage of the conference to the studio, and the anchor began explaining the major incident.
“It has been said that this organization, the Marine Resources Assessment Survey, was conducting research with a deep-sea autonomous probe within the self-propelling megafloat Ocean Turtle, but its involvement in the raid and occupation incident that was the object of our extensive report a moment ago, has been the talk of the nation.”
The commentator nodded importantly and delivered his opinion.
“Well, one theory is that the objective of whoever initiated the raid was to seize that AI for themselves. But without being able to identify the perpetrating group, it’s very difficult to determine whether that’s truly the case”
“Moreover, the destroyer Nagato, which at the time was newly manufactured, had moored in waters close by, and there is still the question of why it did not come to their rescue for 24 hours. When questioned by the Diet, the Minister of Defense expressed that the safety of the hostages was their first priority, but in reality there were casualties among the security personnel”
The picture changed, and a photograph of a man appeared.
He was meticulously dressed in JSDF Type 1 formal uniform: beneath the hat pulled low over his eyes, his expression was obscured by a pair of black plastic-frame glasses.
A caption appeared beside the photo.
“RAIDING INCIDENT VICTIM: KIKUOKA SEIJIROU-SAN”
Higa’s next words came out accompanied by a long sigh.
“Didn’t expect you to end up the sole fatality of the incident, Kiku-san”
The figure standing to his immediate right shook his head, replying:
“Goodness, it’s true”
He was sporting sneakers and Capri pants under a glitzy-patterned shirt. His hair had been cut almost completely bald and there were light sideburns running from his ears all the way to his chin. His eyes were concealed behind a pair of reflective sunglasses.
This oddball of a person retrieved a box of cheap sodflavored candy from his shirt pocket, gently tossed a piece into his mouth, and grinned:
“But it’s for the best, Higkun. I’d end up being forced to resign either way, and in that case I might disappear, literally. Besides, the fact that there were fatalities during the raid incident is the only reason the opposing parties within Japan got pressured into such a pickle. I suppose I never expected the main culprit to be a bigshot like the Administrative Vice Minister of Defense.”
“It looks like the Vice Minister got a fat sum from an American arms manufacturer. But that aside”
Higa turned back to the television, and shrugged.
“Is it really all right to go proclaiming the existence of Artificial Fluctlights in broad daylight like this? This means that RATH’s ultimate goal, the autonomous weapon loading project, is gonna be a complete failure, Kiku-san.”
“That’s all right. The important thing is that America knows we’re capable of this now.”
RATH’s commander Kikuoka Seijirou smiled. He had taken an assault rifle bullet from the attackers right through his bulletproof vest and his side, but it had mercifully missed his internal organs so he had made a quicker recovery than Higa.
“This way, their arms manufacturers won’t be able to force us to share our technology under the pretense of joint development because we’ve already perfected the Artificial Fluctlight. After watching this press conference all they’ll do is give up. Good Lord Alice looks more beautiful than a human”
Looking up towards the television where Alice had appeared again, Kikuoka’s lean eyes blinked briskly behind his shades as though he were staring at something blinding.
“Yeah Truly the fruit of Project Alicization”
The two of them fell silent at the same time, but a corner of Higa’s mind was still racing.
Come to think of it, was that girl the complete form of Artificial Labile Intelligent Cybernetic Existence and RATH’s method of achieving its goal, abbreviated A.L.I.C.E., christened Alice when she was raised in Underworld really just the result of a miracle-like coincidence?
If not a coincidence, then what reason lay behind her existence? Was she the result of some RATH worker secretly meddling in internal affairs, like Yanai had done? Or perhaps it had been him, the only other person apart from workers who had dived into Underworld
Higa suspended his train of thought and turned to look behind him, at the two STLs situated side by side on the far side of the wide room.
Barely two months ago he had used one when undergoing three days of continuous dive, yet now Kirigaya Kazuto lay in the very same machine.
An IV catheter ran into his left arm. ECG electrodes covered his chest. His eyes were closed tight, and his face seemed to have become gaunt over the course of his coma since he was transferred from the Ocean Turtle three weeks ago.
But his sleeping face was exceedingly calm. The corners of his mouth even seemed to betray a sort of satisfaction.
The girl deep in slumber beside him Yuuki Asuna, had the same expression.
Their Fluctlight activity was under constant monitoring with the STLs.
Not all of the brain activity had ceased. If their Fluctlights had completely destroyed themselves, they wouldn’t even be breathing. But as their mental activity gradually diminished, so did any hope of their recovery.
This was a matter of course. Kazuto and Asuna endured 200 long years before the end of the maximum acceleration phase. It was an unthinkable amount of time for Higa, who was only 26. Without even considering the fact that it far exceeded the theoretical Fluctlight lifespan, it was a miracle that their hearts were still beating.
After the two of them were moved to Roppongi, Higa and Dr. Koujiro immediately explained everything and apologized to their guardians and parents. Other than the fact that RATH really consisted of JSDF officers and volunteer technicians from manufacturing companies affiliated with national security, they told them everything.
Kirigaya Kazuto’s parents wept but did not lose control, which was likely owed to them already hearing the gist of things from Kazuto’s sister. The problem was Asuna’s father; at the end of the day, he was the former president and CEO of the corporate giant RECT. Incandescent with rage, he immediately threatened to sue, but unexpectedly Asuna’s mother had stopped him.
A college professor by profession, she said to him while stroking her daughter’s hair:
I believe in my daughter. She would never do something like running away without telling us anything first. She’s going to come back alive and well. So please, wait a little longer, dear.
Both their parents were probably watching the press conference right now. Watching the new human their own children had put their lives on the line to protect.
No amount of grief could be allowed to sully this commemorative day, on which Alice the Artificial Fluctlight took her first step into the real world with her head high and chest forward.
So, please open your eyes, Kirito-kun. Asunsan.
Higa’s head was bowed and he was in the middle of praying when Kikuoka suddenly poked him with his elbow.
“What, Kiku-san? I’m trying to concentrate.”
“I say, Higkun. Look Look at that.”
“If you mean the press conference, that’s probably about to end. The reporters’ questions were pretty much within our realm of expectations”
Muttering, Higa realized that Kikuoka’s hand, still clutching the sodflavored candy box, was pointing not towards the live broadcast, but the sub-monitor to its right.
Information from both STLs’ real-time monitoring equipment was displayed on both windows.
Two faint white rings were suspended above a dark background. Without even the smallest of movements, that muted light was the afterglow of the boy and girl’s souls
A tiny peak, infinitesimal in size, rippled out from a part of the ring and immediately vanished.
Higa’s eyes blinked furiously behind his glasses, his throat constricted and hyperventilating.
Dr. Koujiro’s voice echoed again over the massive press conference venue.
“It will take a very, very long time. But there’s no need to jump to conclusions. I hope that everyone can communicate, feel, and think about Artificial Fluctlights, who will likely be born via new processes, through the medium of virtual worlds. That is the one thing our organization hopes everyone watching this broadcast can do.”
Finishing her speech, the Doctor sat back down, but there was no applause.
Bewilderment remained firmly plastered on the reporters’ faces.
Immediately, yet another questioner raised his hand and stood up.
“Doctor, what do you have to say about the risks involved? I mean, can you guarantee that the AIs will never exhibit the desire to annihilate us humans and take over the world?”
Dr. Koujiro looked like she was fighting back a sigh as she replied:
“There’s only one situation where that becomes possible. When we display the desire to annihilate them.”
“But there have been a abundance of novels and films that”
Just when he was about to continue, Alice stood up from her chair without warning. Her aura made the questioner recoil.
Blue eyes widened, ears perked as though she were listening to something far away, vision drifting into space, Alice took a few seconds before uttering two simple sentences.
“I have urgent business. Please excuse me.”
Her long golden hair billowed as she disappeared off the side of the stage at the fastest speed her mechanical body would permit.
All of the reporters and the countless viewers in front of their televisions were struck dumb at once.
Urgent business was what Alice had said, but was there really anything more important than this press conference?
Left alone on the platform, Dr. Koujiro could not help her immediate look of surprise, but her expression changed as she seemed to remember something. None of the reporters noticed that after she took a long, slow breath, the corners of her mouth were briefly visited by the shadow of a smile.
He hadn’t imagined it.
The pulse that occurred in both Kazuto and Asuna’s Fluctlights at the same time; it was a very slow one with an interval of 10 seconds, but the heights of the peaks were undoubtedly increasing.
Higa panted, turning again to the STL behind him.
There was no change in the pair of sleeping faces.
Even as Higa stared at them, color was slowly returning to their cheeks. Their heartbeats were growing steadily stronger. The monitoring equipment showed that both their body temperatures were rising bit by bit.
Could they really allow their expectations to build? By some miracle the two of them were awakening or rather, coming back to life from the deaths of their souls.
The 10 minutes that followed seemed to be as long as the maximum acceleration phase to Higa.
While he summoned all of the branch staff who were free and set them to work on various preparations, Higa periodically looked up to confirm that the pair of Fluctlights were approaching normal status. He felt that the pulsating, prismatic rays of light would vanish like an illusion if he turned away.
After they finished preparing oral rehydrant, nutrient jelly and the like whatever they could think of, when all there was left to do was wait
The STL room’s door skidded open and revealed someone completely unexpected. Higa and Kikuoka jumped out of their skins and yelped:
The golden-haired girl who ought to be attending the press conference of the century at Roppongi Hills flew over to the two STLs, every actuator in her body grinding shrilly.
She cried their names, an electronic tinge to her voice, and dropped to her knees beside the gel beds.
Eyes wide, Higa took a cautious glance at the television on the wall. The scene had already changed back to the studio and the newscaster was frantically commenting on the sudden disappearance of the press conference’s main participant.
“Well, Dr. Koujiro will figure something out.”
Kikuoka muttered with a strained smile, and turned off the television.
Now was not the time to worry about a press conference. Higa checked Kazuto and Asuna’s conditions, then gazed at Alice, who had been praying steadily beside the pair.
Alice had been transferred from the Ocean Turtle to the RATH Roppongi branch in an idle state while in her Light Cube package. She was then loaded into mechanical body #3 a revision of Niemom modified to suit her appearance and aroused in the real world.
Just as she said in the press conference, the shock of being suddenly thrown into an unfamiliar alternate world was indeed great. She was only able to acclimate to her enormously different surroundings in a mere three weeks singularly because of her sense of forceful determination. The determination to see Kirito and Asuna once more.
And now, that moment has finally arrived.
Alice’s hands rose with the soft whirring of motors and wrapped around Kazuto’s right hand resting on the gel bed as he lay there.
Kazuto’s emaciated finger twitched very slightly.
His drooped eyelashes were trembling nonstop.
His lips parted just a tiny bit then closed and parted again
Slowly, very slowly, his eyelids glided open.
Orbs of light were reflected within the black pupils, but the glow of consciousness remained absent. Say something, say something now, Higa pleaded.
A breath, as light as a sigh, slipped from his parted lips. At last, the sound emitted from within carried with it the vibration of vocal cords.
A chill, colder than a shard of ice, ran down Higa’s spine. That noise sounded like the grotesque scream that the Fluctlight copy from before had emitted before collapsing
“be all right.”
Then, a different sound.
It will be all right. Kazuto said that. There was no mistaking it.
In the room shrouded by silence, a second calm voice was heard.
It was Asuna who responded, her eyes open by a millimeter in the STL to the side.
Both met each other’s eyes, and nodded gently.
Then, Kazuto turned his face to the other side and smiled softly at Alice, who was clinging to his right hand.
“Hey, Alice. Long time no see.”
Alice called their names in a murmur, smiling and rapidly shutting and opening her eyes. As though she were lamenting her inability to cry.
Kazuto watched her, eyes full of affection, and said:
“Alice. Your sister Selka chose to remain in Deep Freeze until you return. She remains asleep on that hill on the eightieth floor of the Central Cathedral.”
Hearing the words that Higa could not understand, Alice’s body shook uncontrollably and her golden hair fell from her shoulders in front of her face, obscuring her expression.
Then she buried her face into the sheets, and Kazuto placed his hand on her back
And then he met Kikuoka and Higa’s eyes for the first time.
In that instant, something inconceivable burst into being deep within Higa’s consciousness. It was not sadness. It was not excitement. It was fear?
Two hundred years.
A soul that had experienced the equivalent of an eternity.
To Higa, who stood rooted to the spot, Kazuto opened his mouth and spoke:
“Now, Higsan, go ahead and delete mine and Asuna’s memories. Our work is finished.”
1. “Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. More info: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ministry_of_Education,_Culture,_Sports,_Science_and_Technology”