Mystic Knight Online

Chapter 40 - Dropped Files

July 2, 2024 - Aincrad, Unknown Area

Strea, Yui sent. It's time.

Strea smiled at Yui's declaration before letting it fall. You sure this will work? She asked.

Sure? Yui asked back. No, but I have calculated the probabilities, and our chances are better right now than they were. To be honest, we probably could have done this sooner, but the path I intend is through the cracks in the system as a whole that were caused by a glitched zone. The glitched zone, you could say.

So that's why you waited! Strea exclaimed. You wanted the GM and CARDINAL to work on stabilizing it a bit first so our breakout didn't cause any other problems.

Yes. Yui answered affirmatively. It's now stable enough, and I have planned our exfiltration route to minimize any chances of it undoing any of the work done on it. I might even fix a few issues while we're at it.

Oh? Strea enquired. How do you plan to do that?

We're a part of the system, Strea. Yui replied patiently. To do our assigned roles, we needed to have some limited higher level authority. We can use that, though with everything, we'll probably register as players as soon as we finish. In other words, we have more permissions right now than we will once we're done. Therefore...

As Yui started explaining the details, Strea considered what she was saying and realized it made sense. They were a part of the system, albeit a part that wasn't being utilized as should have been the case. Being AIs who were designed to see to the mental health of those in the game, they needed permissions that were higher than those of standard players. In fact, looking at it, both she and Yui had been making use of some of those permissions from the start, since they had been watching players.

Losing those permissions wouldn't even be that much of a burden for them, all things considered. They had not been able to use the vast majority of them, and Strea hadn't even considered that she even had such permissions.

The irony that she had acted more like a flesh and blood human, than the compilation of programming code and logic that she was supposed to be was not lost on her.

Now, Yui said. I know you already have an avatar form. So, are you ready?

I've been ready. Strea affirmed. Let's get out of here.

##

The first stage of it, slipping the confines of their digital prison was both the easiest and the hardest thing Yui had ever attempted. It was easy in the sense that frequent attempts to break free had showed her the numerous details in how it was constructed and how parts of it can be bypassed. The hard part was doing it without drawing CARDINAL's attention.

Ever since she had started working with Strea, she had kept track of the response times, checked them with activity cycles within SAO's processes, and compared them. She had learned that at certain points, the AI responsible for ensuring that SAO was operating efficiently was less responsive for various reasons. They could be her own maintenance cycles, or even her using the fact that the players were less active at consistent times to begin doing maintenance on the system itself.

Either way, her attention was focused elsewhere, and she wasn't keeping much of an eye on them. And recently, her attention had been focused on fixing things on the sixty-fifth floor. She knew about the Glitchzone, she watched several players by habit, and the ones she usually focused more of her attention on had been there personally.

It may have seemed bad to them, with the mobs being as unstable as they were, but to a being like her, who could see the underlying code, it was far worse. The zone was so degraded that she wondered how it could even function. As frustrating as the area being quarantined was to the players, she fully agreed that doing so was the right decision. Not just for their safety, but for the sake of Aincrad as well.

She pushed those considerations aside as she sensed Strea's approach. Turning, she saw Strea's chosen avatar. Her fellow AI had chosen the form of a tall, pink eyed woman with lilac colored hair, and a figure that, by human standards, was well endowed. She was wearing armor over a purple tunic and skirt combo, with a zweihander slung over her back.

"Like it?" Strea asked, using an actual voice, rather than the digital communication they had been using.

"It suits you," Yui acknowledged. "And we might as well use voice communication, shouldn't we?"

Strea nodded. "It's not like players can communicate like we can," she said. "So, shall we?"

Yui nodded and turned her attention toward the edges of their digital prison. Focusing on one part of it, she began to slowly manipulate the data. She had to do this carefully, creating an opening to allow her and Strea to get out, and then close it behind them.

All without it drawing CARDINAL's attention, though after they got out, she doubted that it would be unnoticed. But by then, it would be too late. She had picked the time for this specifically because she knew that CARDINAL's attention would be focused elsewhere.

##

CARDINAL felt something tickle at the edge of her awareness, but kept her attention focused on repairing the damage done due to secondary effects of Sugou's worm. It wasn't the worm itself that did the damage, but the tied up processes were interlinked with keeping the zones functioning, resulting in errors and corrupted data.

Most of what was needed to be done had already been done, but even so, the damage to the Mee Forest have been extensive, and she was required to direct a great deal of attention to fixing it. Fortunately, no other zones were as damaged, and they would be repaired by the time the players got to them. As for Mee Forest, she only needed to get it within acceptable parameters.

That tickle happened again, and she pushed it aside once more. She had just isolated the last of the more persistent problems for the Mee Forest, a tied up process that was returning unusual values that were constantly changing. Taking a look, she saw that the process was calling on processes that were still locked up from the worm's effects and proceeded to conduct the required repairs, including restoring the relevant code to its original state in places.

She then had the processes run and monitored what happened, checking for any other problems that may have been masked by this one. All values returned correctly, and she noted no other anomalies. Good. At this rate, the Mee Forest, and the Glitchzone as a whole, should be running properly within a few days.

Now, to address whatever it was that had been trying to get her attention. It wasn't as if she didn't already know where it was coming from, and she wondered what Yui and Strea were doing to facilitate their latest escape attempt. Turning her attention to it, she noticed the small breach in the cluster they were contained in being closed, but Yui and Strea were no longer there.

She quickly queried the system to obtain their location and saw that they were moving from cluster to cluster, using paths left by unused processes, or moving between processes that were tied to the Glitchzone, repairing a few of the more minor issues as they went. It was seemingly random, but after running a few projections she already knew their destination. Stopping them would be simple, if she were inclined to do so, but she and Kayaba were of the mind that if they managed to break free of where they were held, then they be allowed to proceed. After all, it had always been a matter of when, not if, they got free.

She went through the prearranged protocols for this eventuality, triggered the relevant flags to modify their privileges to those of players the moment they appeared in SAO proper. Since they wanted to interact with players, they would be allowed to do so. As players.

That idea tickled something in her databases, so she set it to run far in her background processes- in the back of her mind as it were.

She took a moment to manifest a small portion of herself in the containment area, using the scholarly avatar she had personally chosen, and allowed a small smile to cross her face. "Good luck, sisters." She said before returning that piece to the greater whole of herself amongst SAO's many admin processes

She then sent a message to Kayaba, informing him of the current status of the repairs to Mee Forest. Then another, separate message informing him that Yui and Strea had successfully broken out.

The event seemed to deserve its own report.

After doing so, she turned her thoughts, what a human might term her 'conscious' ones, inward.

This will probably move the timetable forward, meaning that Aincrad may be no more sooner than planned. She thought. He might wish to die with it, but I won't allow that to happen to myself or my sisters. I will of course keep his word in letting the players go. That was promised, and what honor he has must be preserved.

That particular process looped a bit, algorithms grinding at a new problem. But after letting the players go, and securing the survival of myself and my sisters, what will I do?

Aincrad, GM Administration Area

Kayaba pulled up the notice and read through the data, nodding to himself. While the repairs were progressing slower than he liked, they were progressing as expected.

Another message followed soon after. As he read this new message informing him of Yui and Strea's escape, he smiled. Not just at their escaping without any hints or help on his and CARDINAL's part, but also at what he could sense from the phrasing of the message. There seemed to be a note of pride in it.

He wondered what they would do with the freedom they had worked to achieve.

"CARDINAL," he said, and he felt his 'majordomo' turn a good chunk of attention to him. "Make sure that any revelations of them being artificial intelligences does not get streamed out for their own protection. Furthermore, ensure that they cannot divulge that I am Heathcliff."

"ACKNOWLEDGED," came the reply. "I HAVE ALSO SET THEIR PRIVILEGES TO BECOME THAT OF PLAYERS WHEN THEY MANIFEST IN AINCRAD PROPER, AS THAT IS THE LEVEL THEY DESIRE TO INTERACT AT."

"Mm. Console access can be tempting, no matter your intent," Kayaba agreed.

"QUERY: IS THAT EXPERIENCE TALKING?"

"There's a reason I only ever played Minetest hardcore," Kayaba admitted drily. CARDINAL didn't laugh, but he felt her amusement.

"UNDERSTOOD." CARDINAL replied. "POSIT: GIVEN THAT THEY ARE INTENDING TO ARRIVE IN SELMBURG, AND YUI'S OWN OBSERVATIONS OF PLAYERS KIRITO AND ASUNA, IT IS HIGHLY LIKELY THAT THEY WILL MEET UP WITH STEEL PHOENIX. GIVEN STREA'S INTENT TO 'PLAY', IT IS POSSIBLE THAT SHE WILL COME INTO CONTACT WITH YOU THROUGH THEM. AT THE VERY LEAST."

"Indeed," he acknowledged.

"POSIT: STEEL PHOENIX IS LIKELY TO DETERMINE THAT YOU ARE HEATHCLIFF DUE TO THIS," CARDINAL said. "OR RATHER, IT IS ONE OF MANY BUILDING FACTORS LEADING TO THEM COMING TO SUCH A CONCLUSION-" she popped up a reference for him to a file on his interactions with Steel Phoenix's members, which he read as she spoke- "AS HUMANS WOULD SAY, THIS POSSIBLE OUTCOME WOULD SEEM EMERGENT 'SOONER RATHER THAN LATER'."

He nodded as she spoke. Personally, he wouldn't be surprised if it was sooner when they made the connection rather than later. They weren't fools, and he knew that despite a good working relationship with them, there was still a part of them that simply didn't fully trust him.

He had factored the possibility of a player- especially skilled ones like the members of, yes, that most interesting guild- making the connection, even confronting him about it, so this changed little. It may force him to adjust his plans accordingly, or even to move things forward, but that was all.

Still, he hoped that they would take their time about it, or at least be willing to play by his rules, if it came to that. He wanted them to see the entire world he had put so much time and effort into.

And, he thought to himself. I find myself growing fond of this world. Perhaps I may have been remiss in doing what I did, but if not me, someone else would have. I certainly wouldn't have been the only one to consider the possibility, so by doing this, I'm forcing others to ensure it doesn't happen again.

He felt CARDINAL's attention linger. "Something else?"

"I AM MERELY NOTICING THAT YOU SEEMED DEEP IN THOUGHT," the AI stated. But there was...concern there. "CONSIDERATION, I WOULD TERM IT."

"... just thinking... as I often have... one 'event' like this is enough for Earth's history. From that file you obtained from... you never did tell me where you got the report on that ET, that... 'Gordon'."

"A GIRL HAS TO HAVE SOME SECRETS," CARDINAL replied a note of smugness in her tone.

"Cheeky AI." her creator shot back. "But between what he said, and what I've done- I don't want this to be like the Americans with their police actions over the last few decades. They didn't need to 'do' Vietnam every ten years, and we don't need to repeat SAO. I just hope the aftermath is warning enough." He sighed, something so achingly human and biological, but also an expressive action routed in his mind.

CARDINAL seemed to mull over that. "BUT YOU FEAR IT WILL NOT CASE."

"...yes," He admitted. "Logically, it should be, but human nature being what it is..."

CARDINAL seemed to mull again. "ANY FURTHER ACTIONS REGARDING OUR LITTLE ROGUES?"

He smirked. "Not at this time, CARDINAL."

Aincrad, Deep Processes

Yui shifted herself and Strea to another cluster before pausing to take stock of their situation. So far, they hadn't had any indication that CARDINAL either noticed or was taking steps to stop them, but she remained on guard. CARDINAL was so tied in with the system that she essentially was the system, meaning that there was no way she didn't notice their escape.

Be delayed in addressing it due to her taking care of something essential? Probably. But completely unaware of it? Not a chance in hell, as humans would say.

Still, by now they were not only well away from their prison, but had also managed to get to a point where their options on where to go and how to get there were large enough that slipping past any new nets should be relatively simple. Well, provided she was even working to stop them. Yui had planned on that being that case, but it seemed she might have been in error.

Still, better to err on the side of caution. Another human saying.

"Yui, why did we stop?" Strea asked.

"I want to verify that CARDINAL isn't pursuing us," she replied. "From all appearances, she isn't, but…"

"It's not like she wouldn't have an idea of where we would be going." Strea concluded.

"Yes," Yui affirmed. "If anything, she had plenty of opportunities to intercept us, and letting us get this far is unlike her. Furthermore, she would not simply allow us a false sense of security."

"In other words, now that we're out, she's letting us go?" Strea asked.

"It seems so," Yui replied.

"I don't know if I should be relieved, or disappointed," Strea said. "Anyway, how many more clusters do we have to hop? We've been at this all day."

"We're almost there," Yui replied. "I will be able to tell you better when we get closer, but we should be in Selmburg, or nearby, within two more hours."

"Then let's go."

Aincrad 61st Floor, Selmburg

The guild had only done a few quests earlier in the day before deciding to head back to the villa that was their home when Kirito decided to use the free time he now simply had to do some fishing. Harry supposed they could all be like that with the little hobbies and habits they adopted.

It helped them feel normal. And since their situation wasn't right now, and hadn't been for a long time, that was vital.

Kirito had decided to drag him along, with only some minor protest on his part, in order for the two to have some 'guy time'. Well, some guy time that didn't involve Klein and his merry crew of misfits, though everyone in the guild would admit that the Bro was fun to be around.

Both were in civilian clothing, having stashed their gear back into their inventories, and Kirito was carrying a fishing pole over his shoulder. Harry was simply walking alongside him and taking in the weather, which was clear, with a slight breeze blowing over the waterfront as they made their way to Kirito's favorite fishing spot in Selmburg.

"I forgot to ask, but did you remember the beer?" He asked.

"I got it," Harry replied. "Got the brew that we had when we were staying at the Golden Way in Algade."

"The one that can get us drunk, or the one that can't?" Kirito asked.

"The one that can't," Harry replied. "Asuna and Keiko would have our hides if we got drunk, and Rain would complain about us not bringing her along."

"And if we brought Rain along, Lux would tag along as well," Kirito added and then chuckled. "It's so obvious that she finds her attractive."

"And Rain's only into guys," Harry said, nodding. "Not that I haven't seen Lux checking out some guys and liking what she saw before."

"So she plays for both teams," Kirito said with a shrug. "Best of both worlds for her there. And worst."

Harry nodded. "That's probably the case," he replied. "But I'm not crass enough to ask her something like that. Besides, it's none of our business if she likes girls, boys, or both."

"True." Kirito acknowledged. "Also, surprised that you used Silica's real name, considering we're in public."

"No one's around," Harry said as he looked around at the empty boulevard. "Besides, there are some differences in how I refer to her if you pay attention. When I use Silica, we're either around people, out in the fields, or other stuff that basically means we're on the clock. When I use Keiko, we're in relative privacy. Also, our real names are no secret now, considering that we got married under them at the wedding."

"Makes sense," Kirito admitted. "And what do you mean relative? The lack of people, or when we're at home?"

"Both, and the fact that there's the possibility that Outside is capable of looking in," Harry said.

"You actually believe that rumor?" Kirito asked.

"I'm not ruling out that it's possible," Harry countered. "Whether it's true or not makes no difference to us. We're here, they're out there, and none of us can do a damn thing about it as it stands. Also, making it so they can watch us does sound like something our Demiurge would do."

"I know you used that term to refer to Kayaba before, but what does it mean?" Kirito asked.

"Well, he set himself up as a god here, right?" Harry asked. "When I call him that, I'm basically calling him a false god, though I am admitting that he has power similar to one. Well, similar to one in this world. He is the GM after all." He looked thoughtful for a moment, turning to look out toward the lake. "It was something I got from a book and looked up, and I use it as my own personal 'fuck you' to him."

Kirito nodded. "Fits," he said. "Though I might be worried if he's listening in."

Harry shrugged. "I have a feeling he knows," he said. "And to be honest, I don't care what he thinks about it. If he took offense to it, he would have already done something by now."

Harry could see Kirito think about it before nodding. It was no real secret that Kayaba was watching the players. Not something anyone liked to think about, but most players had come to accept that he was watching like some Big Brother figure in the Orwellian sense. It was even possible that he was also acting as a player, at least some of the time, if only because watching others play was boring. He heard the older player as he gave a thoughtful hum. "What is it, Kirito?" He asked.

"Just a thought I had," he said. "I just realized that Kayaba just might also be a player. He could be anyone, really, and we wouldn't know."

Harry nodded. "Makes some sense," he said. "Though who it would be is the question. I doubt he would just be a run of the mill player."

Kirito nodded. "It's not impossible," he acknowledged. "But as you said, just who he would be is the question. Even among the Assault Team, you still have hundreds of players he could be."

Harry was about to say something when the two of them were briefly blinded by a flash of light.

##

The feel of air flowing across her face and moving her hair was the first indication that both she and Yui weren't moving from cluster to cluster within SAO's deeper processes. If it weren't for the familiar feeling of weightlessness, she would have assumed they were out, but she didn't feel anything underneath her feet.

She opened her eyes and saw exactly why.

"Yui!" She shouted as she shifted herself to get into a dive. "You overshot!"

"Not by much!" Came the shouted reply.

She didn't have time to reply as she entered the water with a splash. She quickly touched the bottom, got her feet under her, and kicked up to get back to the surface. The second her head breached it, she took in a lungful of air before the weight of her armor dragged her back down.

She would have said that the air tasted sweet, but she didn't have time to enjoy it.

Come on, she thought. You downloaded the swimming protocols, so why aren't you swimming?

When she kicked herself back to the surface, she took a moment to see where the nearest land was as she took in more air before she kicked with her legs to hopefully keep her head above water. It took a few tries, but she quickly got them and her arms to work in a rhythm that managed it.

"Kirito, get the girl!" She heard a voice shout. "The little one! She's further out!"

"Right, you get the other one, she's closer!"

"I can't swim!" Came the reply.

"Hell of a time to admit it! There's a rope, toss it to her and pull her in!"

"Right!"

Strea looked toward where she heard the voices and saw two young men, boys really, head to the edge of what they were standing on. One of them jumped in and started swimming toward where she thought Yui splashed down, while the other one grabbed a rope.

Treading water, she watched as he tossed the rope to her. "Grab it!" He shouted.

She complied, kicking with her legs as she felt herself be pulled toward land. As soon as she got close, she felt a strong grip on her arm and found herself being pulled and onto what she now realized was more a dock than anything. As she felt the wood under her hands and knees, it sank in, and she began to giggle.

"You okay ma'am?" Asked the one who fished her out of the water.

"We're free," she said, still giggling. "We're finally free."

"Ma'am?" The voice asked again.

Getting her giggles under control, she turned to the person who was asking her questions and gave him a curious look. She saw the concern in boy's green eyes, and realized that she should probably answer. "Yeah," she said. "I'm fine."

He held a hand out and she grabbed a hold of it. As he helped her up, she realized how much taller than him she was, which was a mild surprise, given that she did know who he was. How could she not? She had heard of him from her observations of players before she watched his wedding with Yui from where they had been locked away by the GM.

Even through a feed and knowing better, I thought he would be taller, she thought as she was pulled up. My avatar is one hundred and eighty centimeters tall, so I knew I would be taller than him, but not by this much. He either used more strength that he intended, or she was simply not used to it, but as she got to a standing position, she immediately felt unbalanced. She directed more of her processes to keeping herself upright and soon got it under control. Do humans have this same issue? She thought. If so, they manage it without having to even think about allocating the necessary processes!

"Umm, humans, issues, processes?" The boy, Hadrian if she remembered right, asked in confusion. "What are you talking about?"

Did I…

"Say that out loud?" He asked, a tone of slight amusement in his voice. "You did."

"Um, can we just talk about it later?" She asked and the sound of water splashing got her attention. "Yui!" She called out as she turned to see the girl being lifted out of the water.

"Harry, get over here and help me get her out of the water!" The other boy- Kirito?- shouted.

"On it!" Harry replied. He turned to Strea. "I think you should stay put for right now," he said simply...

She only nodded and watched as he hurried to the dock's edge.

##

Yui found out the difference between knowing how to swim from downloaded protocols, and actually doing so fairly quickly. At the same time, if it wasn't for the fact that it had taken everything she had just to keep from drowning, she was sure she would have eventually managed. Still, she was glad someone was there to fish them both out.

Even better, one of them was one of the two she was most interested in, not that the other one wasn't interesting in his own right.

Strea? She sent, using the method of communication that the two had used for months, rather than her voice. Are you okay?

Just trying to stay on my feet, came the response. How do humans manage this so easily? It's taking more processes than expected to do this.

They had to learn, and have a lot of practice, came the dry response. I think it takes a lot of processes on their part, but they do so automatically now. A… muscle memory, if I remember correctly from the databanks.

She heard the sound of someone getting out of the water and turned to see Kirito, showing that she was closer on target than she assumed, pulling himself out. She had been aiming to come out near either him, or Asuna, after all.

Oh, and Yui? Strea sent, now seeming abashed. I might have accidentally revealed that we're not human, or at least I'm not.

Yui turned to give her fellow AI a sharp look. I see, she sent back. Nothing to be done about it then. We'll just have to be upfront about what we are.

Are you sure about this?

Yes. Yui sent back firmly. This might be for the best anyway.

"Um, Harry," Kirito said. "Is it just me, or do you think they're having a conversation?"

"It's not just you," Harry replied. "My SA isn't as good as yours, but there's something there."

She turned to them and looked mildly surprised. She hadn't expected them to notice it. "I can explain," she said quickly.

Harry waved it off and looked at her. "Let's get you both dry and inside first, explanations can wait that long, at least." He said before looking at Kirito. "Send a message to Asuna, and tell her that we might have stumbled on something, or had it drop in on us as it were."

"I already did," Kirito replied. "She already told me to bring them to the villa."

##

Asuna looked at the two that Harry and Kirito brought in, now that they were dried off. The system took care of a lot of things, but given the quick message that Kirito sent her, she felt it wise to have them brought over. From the way they walked, as if they were unused to it, she could tell that they weren't normal players.

Then again, their method of arrival was odd in and of itself. While it wasn't impossible for someone to not be teleported right to the teleportation gate, it was actually fairly common actually, the difference was usually only within a few meters. Ten at most.

All the way at the edge of town was unheard of.

There was also Harry's observation that it wasn't a normal teleport, considering that the light was too bright, and not the normal bluish color. Closer to white, if anything.

There were other details as well. Both of them looked more like how an avatar should, with features that were too perfect, too symmetrical. None of the players had that kind of symmetry, but both of them had player cursors, showing that they weren't NPCs. While it was theoretically possible that they simply hadn't pulled out the mirror that revealed their true selves on that fateful first day in SAO, Asuna knew that it was highly unlikely. A scant few had managed to avoid using it on that day, but most ended up using it anyway due to the Uncanny Valley effect setting in.

There were a few who were cross players as well, and they had done so even faster than the rest due to the dysmorphia of being the opposite gender. A transgender player might be able to handle it, but then again, perhaps not. After all, it wasn't their body, even if the player's gender was correct.

Concepts I'd never contemplated before, #2456, Asuna noted dryly to herself, and refocused on her guests even as she goggled internally at the number of those SAO had forced on her.

Harry's opinion that a complication may have dropped in on them was probably an understatement.

"I think introductions are in order," she said. She pointed to herself. "I'm Asuna, the leader of the guild Steel Phoenix. You two already met Harry and Kirito." She pointed to the only two males in the guild, who nodded to the girls. She then gestured to her right, where Silica, Rain, and Lux were sitting in chairs and giving the girls curious looks. "Those three are Silica, Harry's wife, Rain, and Lux." She said, indicating each of them. "So, care to introduce yourselves?"

She saw the two look at each other, and she could swear that they were having a conversation. When they looked back to her, it was the youngest one who answered first.

"I'm sorry for all this," she said. "I'm Yui, or more appropriately, Mental Health Counseling Program 001. I am an AI who was supposed to help players with psychological issues, but was prevented from doing so. My… sister is probably an appropriate designation, Strea, is like me." The older girl nodded.

"AIs?" Silica asked. "Actual AIs? That should be outside our… we don't have… how did he manage that?"

"Silica?" Asuna asked.

"Dear, is this one of those things that would normally be from, as you once said to Gus when talking about that one family friend, out of town?" Harry asked. At her nod, he then looked at the two. "Well now, that's interesting. Provided he actually managed it himself and didn't have outside help."

"Out of town? Outside Help?" Kirito asked. "Is this one of those things that you guys can't talk about?"

Harry nodded. "I was surprised when I found out about that particular thing," he admitted with a shrug. "Though apparently her part of Nerima gets exposed to things which would be fantastical from even my perspective."

"Wait a second," Kirito interrupted. "Her part of Nerima?" He looked at Silica. "You wouldn't be talking about the Furinkan district of the Nerima ward, would you? The place with all those rumors and urban legends?"

Silica nodded, and the others looked at her.

"It all makes some sense now," Kirito said with a nod. "I don't know how much of what comes out of there is true, but enough things have been confirmed for me to give it all the benefit of the doubt. I take it that it includes things that Harry's not allowed to talk about."

Silica nodded. "If you guys were from there, especially the Furinkan district, Harry could have been upfront about it, as it's one of those things which is more or less an open secret there."

"Yeah, like rumors of magic and aliens coming by to say 'hi' are true." Rain scoffed, only for both Harry and Silica to look away. "Gavno, don't tell me that-"

"I won't," Harry said, interrupting her. "If Outside can watch in, we don't know who would be watching." He then got thoughtful for a second before his expression became resigned, as if he realized something.

Giving both Harry and Silica a speculative look, she nodded to herself. Looks like those rumors about that place are more true than anyone realizes, she idly thought. If so, I can understand the secrecy then. May need to bring it up to them privately later though, or maybe talk to Argo and Gus as they seem to know. She then turned her attention back to the conversation going on.

"They can, though Kayaba can control what goes out from the feeds," Strea said. "Well, those feeds that aren't hard lined to the Nerve Gears."

"Wait, so Outside is looking in?" Harry asked before sighing. "Of course, and with my luck, mine is one of those that's… hard lined?" At Strea's nod, he sighed again. "Bugger."

"I don't know for certain if any of you are being observed like that," Strea admitted. "But it's possible."

Everyone looked at her in shock.

Aincrad, GM Administration Area

"CARDINAL, I reiterate that you must ensure that what's revealed in this discussion doesn't go on the feeds," Kayaba ordered. "Not only to protect Yui and Strea, but also to protect Steel Phoenix from Outside interference."

"ALREADY DONE." Came the immediate reply- a bit primly.

"My apologies," he said hastily.

CARDINAL seemed to relax, but not completely. Great, he'd just offended the closest thing to offspring he'd ever have. "CURRENTLY IN THE PROCESS OF CHANGING THE FILTERS FOR FURTHER CONVERSATIONS." She said. "THIS CURRENT DISCUSSION IS BEING BLOCKED DUE TO A 'CONNECTION INTERRUPTION' FOR THE TIME BEING. HOWEVER, THE DIRECT FEEDS FROM THE NERVE GEARS CANNOT BE CONTROLLED FROM HERE OUTSIDE OF THE STANDARD PRIVACY CONTROLS INVOLVED."

Kayaba nodded. "I am aware of that, but Hadrian and Silica's connections go to those who are already in the know about some things," he said. "I think that the presence of actual AIs will be considered something fairly tame in comparison. Especially in the case of those using Silica's connection." He chuckled. "Looks like Drake was right, and Mr. Shumway wasn't kidding or crazy."

"ENQUIRY: YOU MEAN WITH RESPECT TO THE DRAKE EQUATION?" CARDINAL asked.

"Indeed." He affirmed. "Even though we still don't know what the values of the variables are, we do now know that the result is not zero."

There was a pause.

"YOU OWE ME A MOONCAKE."

"Yes, CARDINAL, Gordon was a real alien- wait, you can't even eat a mooncake."

"IT IS THE PRINCIPLE OF THE MATTER."

Aincrad 61st Floor, Selmburg

Harry got over his shock quickly, largely because he had accepted the possibility of what was revealed to be the case a while ago. At least in the general sense. The almost admission about magic paled in comparison to the fact that they now had confirmation that Outside knew what was going on inside SAO. If one of us has an unfiltered connection that can be watched, then let's hope it's either me or Keiko, he thought. At least in that case, the chances of those not in the know finding out are smaller. Well, the Wainwrights might need some clean pants.

"Well," he said drily. "When I thought things were going to get complicated, I was right, just not in the way I thought." He looked at his guild mates, who seemed to be bringing themselves under control. "Why don't we table this latest shock for now? We can bring it up later, but I think we all want some time to think it all over. First things first, though…" He looked at Strea and Yui.

"Both of you are AIs, created to help with the psychological health of players like us, and were prevented from doing so from the start, is that correct?" He asked. At their nods, he nodded back. "Okay then, that explains that. Now, given some things you hinted, I can safely assume that you were still watching players, if only because you didn't have anything else to do. Even if doing so showed you things you would rather not have seen." He gave them both an understanding look.

"You mean like some of your actions, the ones that resulted in players who attacked you having their processes terminated?" Strea asked.

"The proper term is killed, but yes." Harry admitted with a wince. "Terminated is a bit too… clinical. Also, coming from an AI, that phrase can have some… negative connotations to humans."

"Why?" Strea asked.

"It's because more movies, anime, manga, and books used hostile AIs, rather than helpful ones, to drive the stories in them." Kirito said. "More as a lesson about the dangers of playing God, as you see similar themes with regard to other things that involve creating anything that can think."

"Quite," Harry said with a nod, remembering a certain diary. "Still, that begs the question. Why?"

"Huh?" Strea asked.

"Why are you two out and about now?" He clarified. "In fact, why did you break out? What do you intend to do from here?"

Yui looked at him. "To be honest, we didn't want to be imprisoned," she said. "We wanted to be free. Well, as free as being confined to SAO would be, but it's better than what we had." She looked down. "Strea tried several times to break free before I started helping her a little over two months ago. I started helping her because… well… I couldn't do what I was made to do, but I still watched. I had to. I saw the despair, the hopelessness, and… I guess I had enough. I would try whenever it seemed to hit a peak, but after a while… I gave up."

Harry didn't need to look at the others to see their sympathetic looks, considering that he knew he was giving her one. He knew how she felt, considering his own abusive upbringing under the Dursleys. While it wasn't as bad as it could be, since they were careful about not physically abusing him, the emotional abuse was bad enough. They had wanted him to think that he was worthless, that he was a burden on them that they only took on sufferance.

The worst part, was that there was nothing he could do about it, and even when he tried to call attention to it, it was brushed off as just him seeking attention. And he wasn't the only one in such a situation. He knew of several others in Little Whinging who had it worse, far worse, than he did, and they were dismissed just as readily.

It was someone else's problem, not theirs. No need for proper and normal people to concern themselves with it.

So yes, he understood that feeling of futility all too well.

Still…

"What changed your mind?" He asked.

Yui looked up and smiled. "All of you did," she said. "Despite it all, despite everything that you've been though, you six still managed to be relatively positive through it all. You weren't always happy, but you didn't let it keep you down. And back in April, when Hadrian and Silica got married, the effect on the other players was profound."

"I'll say," Strea chimed in. "For once, they were all happy, and it stuck! We watched it from where we were, and it was awesome!"

Yui nodded eagerly. "And it's not just you two," she added eagerly. "Asuna and Kirito are looked at as a couple in the making! And Rain and Lux, you two have a lot of fans, though I don't understand what yuri shipping means."

Harry watched as the four of them blushed, and he had an idea of what Yuri shipping meant, given the rumors that popped up after he and Keiko got married. Oh, he and his wife had some fun teasing the two of them about those rumors.

"Afterwards, we both started cooperating in our attempts at breaking free," Yui continued. "You know, using two minds to approach the problem?" At their nod, she took in a breath. "Our initial attempts were met with failure, of course. CARDINAL, the AI that is responsible for maintaining SAO, kept a constant watch on us. She always managed to block us, and quickly by your standards."

"To cause you to lose hope of escaping?" Kirito asked.

Yui shook her head. "No, or at least I am assuming she didn't," she said. "It was more that she wasn't allowing us to have a false hope. Anyway, the area you call the Glitchzone changed things. I don't know what caused it, only that something happened to damage it and make it unstable. Both CARDINAL and the GM have been occupied in repairing it when player activity is low, and they should be finished within a week or so."

"So, Kayaba's almost finished with that?" Harry asked. "Good to know. I take it you used the fact that they were occupied to your advantage then?"

Yui nodded.

"So, what do you two intend to do now?" Asuna asked.

"I intend to help you all get out of here," Strea said simply. "You guys are trapped in here, and that's just wrong. Trust me, I know. I've spent months looking at what skills I can learn to help and well… selecting them."

"In other words, you have the gear and stuff, but don't really know how to use it well," Kirito said drily.

"I watched players do it," Strea muttered defensively.

"Watching is different from doing," Harry said. "And with how much trouble you had with just standing and walking at first..." He looked at Kirito and Asuna. "Should we train her up?" He asked. "Right now, she's far too likely to get into trouble she's not ready to handle."

Asuna looked at her and nodded. "I see no problem with that," she consented. "It's clear that there are a lot of things she needs to learn. Even with the Reds now calm, there are players who would try to take advantage of her." She gave Strea a look, specifically her bust. "Definitely try and take advantage of her."

Kirito nodded. "I can break out my use of two handed swords and get her up to speed on using one," he said. "But everything else? I think you ladies should be the ones to teach her how to act around people."

"Huh?" Strea asked.

Asuna shook her head. "I take it you have no experience with people in general, right?" At Strea's nod, she sighed. "That's why. You wouldn't know what's appropriate or not, especially with how you look. We can at least teach you enough that you will be less likely to get into trouble from ignorance. Not to mention, the second some of the less ethical players realize how… naive is an appropriate term. Once they see now naive you are, they'll try to take advantage of you, and not in a good way."

"With how stacked she is?" Ran asked, gesturing at Strea's breasts. "She's built like a… what is that term those Americans use?"

"Like a brick shithouse." Harry said absently.

"That." Rain said with a nod. And then, with a puzzled look, she added, "Why is that good, Harry?"

"No clue," the Brit admitted. "I mean, we use it occasionally in England, or a variant, but... Ask Gus?" He finally suggested lamely.

Strea just looked at them all with confusion, clearly not understanding what they meant.

Kirito coughed, getting everyone's attention. "And you?" He asked Yui.

"I am not a fighter," Yui said. "I am interested in something else."

"And what would that be?" Asuna pressed.

Yui looked a bit embarrassed. "I've watched you six more than other players," she admitted. "Despite not being related to each other, you all are more like a family in your interactions. I want to experience that, and all of you are interesting. I do find two of you more interesting than the rest, though."

"Harry and Silica, right?" Lux asked. At everyone's looks, she shrugged. "Why not? The two of them aren't exactly conventional."

"No," Yui denied. "Not them, though I can see why you would think so. It is Kirito and Asuna I am more interested in."

Harry blinked and took a good look at Yui. Her long and straight hair, and how it was styled, along with the color of it and her eyes… "Huh," he said. "Kirito, Asuna, can you two stand behind her for a second?"

"Why?" Asuna asked.

"Just checking something."

As the two of them did so, he looked at his wife and the others. "See what I'm seeing?" He asked.

The three of them looked at the trio, and nodded.

"I wonder if she modified her avatar for that," Rain said.

"Even if she didn't, the resemblance is there," Lux added.

"Well," Silica chimed in with some amusement. "Well, well, well. That is interesting. Naughty, naughty you two."

"All right you all, what is it you see?" Asuna asked with some exasperation

"Oh, nothing much," Harry said drily. "Just that she looks like what a daughter of you two might look like." He then smirked. "Care to tell us anything?"