Disclaimer: I do not own Sword Art Online. This is a work of fan fiction.


Chapter 1: VRDP

Kirito's life bar was dropping to zero.

It's over now.

He heard a voice in his head. I believe in you, Kirito.

The bar dropped to zero.

Kirito's world went to black. It was replaced with a message that was displayed in a large red sans-serif font that spanned his entire visage:

YOU ARE DEAD.

Kirito had died at the hands of Heathcliff, who in real life was Akihiko Kayaba, the computer scientist and A.I. researcher who was the creator of SAO and the person responsible for the imprisonment of over 10,000 young souls. Heathcliff was still holding his Tower Shield and his Great Sword over the boy whom he had just defeated.

Akihiko felt a bit disappointed with the result of the battle. He had even turned off his own immortal-object protection mode and disabled all of his cheats, and still the boy could not defeat him.

But then...

No. I refuse. "Not yet."

Akihiko raised an eyebrow. "Mmm?" The boy hadn't de-rezzed yet. Why was that? This was not part of the established death protocol.

And then something happened. With Heathcliff's Great Sword still transfixed within Kirito's thorax, the Black Swordsman stood up one last time...

What is this? Could it be possible?

... and ran his sword through the god of this world.

It was finished. Kirito sank to the floor and began to de-rezz.

He whispered quietly to himself, "We did it, didn't we, Asuna?" He disappeared from the world in an explosion of crystal shards.

And so Kirito died.

On November 7 at 14:55, the game has been cleared.

Meanwhile, in a higher level of reality, one that was literally unreachable from within confines of the created universe that was called SAO, Akihiko Kayaba awoke in a medical bed located in a remote mountain villa.

He made a small smile.

The reason he smiled was simple.

For you see, Kirito did not actually see Akihiko die.


Kazuto sensed his spirit moving up and away from the world.

What was death like? Was it simply oblivion? Or was it something else?

He felt himself floating upward, higher and higher. He could now see the Town of Beginnings far below. Higher still he saw the surrounding green environs of Floor 1, then he saw a section of the entire floor-stack, and finally all of Aincrad itself floating magnificently in the clouds.

And yet he went higher still. He felt as if he might be passing right into Heaven itself.

Time passed of unknown duration.

"Where am I?"

He found himself standing on some kind of thin translucent horizontal platform somewhere among the clouds. The sun was low in the sky, painting the passing clouds with brilliant shades of yellow and orange punctuated with gaps of darkening blue.

So beautiful.

Eventually a voice spoke quietly behind him. "Kirito-kun?"

His eyes widened in recognition of her voice. He turned and saw Asuna standing there, her fatal wound now gone, as great orange cloud-pillows rolled in the wind behind her silhouette.

He looked down in shame. "I'm sorry. I guess I ended up dying too."

Asuna gave him a teary smile. "You dummy." Then she approached him. They kissed for what they thought might be their last time.

The lovers embraced each other in the clouds. Finally Kirito asked, "Where are we? Do you know?" They both looked at the orange and blue vista that surrounded them.

Someone else spoke nearby. "A stunning view, isn't it?" The surprised lovers turned and saw a lanky man in his late 30s wearing a white lab coat. He was looking down impassively at the destruction of Aincrad, his creation.

Akihiko Kayaba.

He spoke as if talking to himself. "The SAO mainframe is in a room five floors below street level, and right now it is deleting all the data from its drives. In about 10 minutes everything in this world will disappear forever."

Asuna asked quietly, "And all the players down there in Aincrad? What happens to them?"

Akihiko continued to gaze down upon the dissolution of his creation. "You don't have to worry about them. The 6147 players who survived the game up to now were logged out a few seconds ago."

The man in the white lab coat turned to face the pair. He had small smile. He said, "You see, I kept my promise. You should be happy."

Kirito's face darkened as he clenched his fists. "And what about the 4000 other people who had already died? What about them?"

That smug bastard. He's the one that should die, not all those innocent people.

Akihiko looked at him with a bemused smile.

"My dear lad, they are all fine."

"Huh?"

"Nobody has died."

There was a pause.

Eventually Kirito and Asuna both said a flat "What."

Dr. Kayaba's smile broadened. He wished that he had a camera to capture the look on their stunned faces. "Like I said, nobody has died. Well, not in the sense you mean. They merely shifted up a level and woke up."

Kirito and Asuna looked at each other uncomprehendingly, then turned back to face the scientist in disbelief.

They began to yell at him. "That makes no sense!" "But, but, what about..." "That's bull[bleep]*!"

The researcher in the white lab coat raised his hands up in his defense. "Please, let me explain..."

They pair weren't listening. It was because they were still yelling at him. "There is no way the authorities would have let it go on that long!" "It was over two years!" "They would have taken the helmets off!"

Akihiko quickly responded, "Oh some of them did take the helmets off right away. I anticipated that in my calculations. They did so despite that the fact that I had broadcast a solemn warning to the whole world, made at the same moment that my in-game avatar warned you on Day 1, that should any attempt be made to remove the NerveGear, that a microwave transmitter inside the NerveGear would emit a powerful focused microwave pulse that would strike the subject's brain and prevent them from ever waking up again."

"But not kill them?"

"Of course not. That would be barbaric."

The pair blinked their eyes.

The scientist crossed his arms indignantly over his white lab coat. "Oh come now. Kill them? Whatever for? It was simply a scientific experiment. What do you think I am, a monster or something?"

Kirito silently registered his opinion of that statement.

The researcher continued. "Of course I did not kill them. I merely had threatened that if the helmets were removed that they put the subjects into what I had claimed would be a permanent coma."

"A coma..?"

"As I already told you, the NerveGear emits a powerful microwave beam, which could in theory indeed fry and destroy the brain just like I told all the players. If a NerveGear helmet was dissected - and its internal self-destruct mechanism was somehow bypassed - it would confirm the threat was real. But what I had neglected to tell the players was that the microwave pulse could be focused to hit only the parts of the brain that controlled consciousness and sleep, namely the pons and the neo-cortex. The beam was focusable so that it hit only these sections of the brain, and for only a very short duration, and at a very specific frequency, in order to temporarily disrupt the higher brain functions in those locations - basically putting the subject into a dreamless sleep state. The lower functions of the brain - the medulla, the hippocampus, the thalamus, the cerebellum, and so on - were completely unaffected.

"You can think of the helmet acting like an electroshock paddle when it gives a quick sharp shock to the heart to temporarily stop it from beating during surgery. The heart is still actually alive, just inactive. All it takes is a second shock to restart the heart again. Well, the NerveGear helmet can do the same thing with the brain. Once the brain has rebooted with a second pulse it simply restarts and high level neural activity is resumed. Simple."

Kirito asked, "But what about those 2000 people who died during the first month? You kept them in comas for years!"

"Well, that was anticipated by my statistical calculations.."

Asuna spat back, "Those were real people, not lab rats! They had lives! You had no right to do that!"

He ignored her and went on, ".. and that was why I had released those people early of course. They were no longer part of my experiment, so there was no point in my holding such a large group in comas for years for no purpose. Are you happy now?"

Asuna yelled, "No!"

Kirito was thinking. "But wait, if you did that then why didn't they just.."

The doctor anticipated. "Of course, I then sternly warned everyone else that the remaining players would suffer permanent comas if anyone else had tried to forcibly remove them from the game. No more reprieves."

Kirito understood. "I get it. So they left the helmets alone after that."

"Yes."

"And the players who 'died' in the game? Hmm.. they woke up immediately. Am I right?"

"Yes."

"Right. It was because they were no longer part of your experiment, so there was was no reason to keep them asleep anymore."

Akihiko was pleased. "Very good. My, you do catch on quickly, Kirito, just like when you discovered me as Heathcliff. I'm proud of you. Good lad."

Now it was Kirito's turn to cross his arms. "Feh."

"Honestly, you were my favorite player in SAO. I knew you'd be the one to eventually confront me on floor 100 and clear the game. It's a pity you saw through my little disguise so early and forced me to abort the experiment on floor 75. Anyway, you are correct, so yes, none of those who had 'died' in SAO actually died in real life."

Kirito re-crossed his arms in disgust. "Oh shut up. You're still scum."

Akihiko ignored the retort. Granted, the psych tests had revealed that he was a sociopath, and he wasn't fooling himself about it. It was why he was never given a security clearance to work in a Japanese national research lab and instead was forced to work in private industry.

He decided to continue justifying his actions to his favorite test subject. "Kirito, please understand, this was a very important experiment. It was a test to see if I could set up a highly complex chaotic system that could evolve and create emergent phenomena. To get it bootstrapped it needed a massive amount human input to create the necessary complexity, the statistical variations, with as many volunteers as I could, uh, get..."

Asuna snorted. Kirito rolled his eyes.

The scientist gamely kept trying to explain himself. He felt that it was important that at least one other person should understand his life's work. "Please, don't you see? I had no choice. Nothing is more chaotic and complex than the human mind. I needed that kind of input into the system to drive it, thousands of minds. But as the months went on there was little progress, and I was concerned. But during the second year things started to happen. I was so excited! You had discovered Yui, that little AI, a basic sub-system that I had completely forgotten about. She was a virtual player assistant who was part of the original game design in order to give help to players who needed it. Somehow she woke up, and she was absolutely amazing! She was a perfect example of the emergent phenomena I was hoping to see. I never would have been able to create anything like her in a million years!"

Kirito said dryly, "Well, how wonderful for you then."

Akihiko looked down again at Aincrad. Huge chunks were peeling away and dropping down into the void. They were like icebergs calving away from an Antarctic ice sheet. As he watched he kept on talking, mostly to himself now.

He said wistfully, "Even before I developed the system for the full dive environment, I dreamed of this place, a floating castle in a world that wasn't governed by earthly laws and restrictions. I had poured my life into making that world a reality. I had created this world, and I got to see something that surpassed anything I could have imagined for it.

"My steel castle floating in the sky. I don't remember how old I was when I became obsessed with it. I wanted to leave the earth, to fly to that castle. I wanted that more than anything else, for as long as I could remember."

He finally looked up again. "You know what, Kirito? I want to believe it's still out there. That somewhere, in some other world, my castle is still standing, taller than ever."

Kazuto began to feel sorry for the poor man. Although he could not forgive the grown-up Akihiko, he tried to understand and empathize with the feelings of that young boy.

Finally he said, "Yeah, maybe it still is." Asuna remained silent.

The scientist finally ended his private reverie. "Oh, before I forget, congratulations on clearing the game, Kirito and Asuna."

I guess that's it. He put his hands in the pockets of his lab coat, then turned to leave. "Well then, I should probably get going now."

He walked away into the clouds and he became one himself.

And the lovers were alone.


Aincrad was no more. Asuna and Kirito were now the last living entities remaining in a dead universe. They sat huddled together in silence among the clouds in the dimming sunlight.

Finally Kirito said, "So, I guess this is goodbye?"

Asuna shook her head. "Nuh-uh. This isn't goodbye at all. We are going to be together when we finally wake up. We're going to be together forever."

He smiled at her.

She thought of something. "Hey, you never told me your real name. Could you please tell me so I can find you?"

He said, "Kazuto. Kazuto Kirigaya. Last month I turned 16."

"So you're younger than me. My name is Asuna Yuuki. I'm 17 now."

"Asuna Yuuki..." He said her name again. He tried to burn it into his memory. Then he broke down. "I'm so sorry... I promised I'd save you, get you back to the real world..."

She reassured him. "It's okay. We both know we're going to wake up. I'm just happy I got to meet you here in SAO, Kazuto, and to be with you, and to live with you, and it's the happiest I've ever been in my whole life. Thank you for that, and I love you."

"I love you too. See you on the other side then?"

"Yeah."

And so for the very last time the avatars named Asuna and Kirito embraced as they dissolved into nothingness.

The universe was empty now; the only thing that remained was but a single thought.

I love you.


The interviewer asked, "So, what you are saying is that we are all living in a simulation?"

An odd looking little man with spiky tufts of gray hair over his ears answered the interviewer's question. He was wearing a polka-dotted bow tie that was slightly askew. The bow tie was affixed to a button shirt under a frumpy yellow sweater that was under a rumpled tan sportcoat with elbow patches. "Well, yes. We are living inside a simulation, more or less." A caption appeared under him, Dr. Julius Cohen.

Another man wearing a properly pressed conventional suit and tie was also sitting at the table. He also leaned forward as he spoke, "Now, Dr. Cohen, we both know that is an exaggeration." The caption read, Dr. Daisuke Yamaguchi. "Even if the Holographic Universe theory is correct - and it is far from proven at this point - that does not mean that we are living in a so-called 'simulation'. Under your theory all physical processes are still real, in the sense that are still actually happening according to the Standard Model."

The interviewer turned and asked, "So, Dr. Yamaguchi, you are saying that we are in fact are not living in a simulation like in the movie The Matrix or the SAO Incident?"

"Not literally as such, no. It is understandable why a lay-person might make that assumption when thinking about the possibility that we are living inside a Holographic Universe, but the analogy is far from perfect."

"Why is that?"

"Because real physical processes weren't actually happening in those two simulations. In the film The Matrix, Neo was not actually flying in the air, nor were those children fighting real battles with monsters in SAO. They were just imagining that they were doing those things."

The little man spoke up. "True, but..."

The television panel continued to prattle on. Sachi's favorite soap opera had ended a half hour earlier. She was irritated that she couldn't change the channel nor cut the sound on the wall panel. According to the doctors it was was ostensibly to help 'stimulate the subject's neural activity', or some such nonsense.

She sat as she always did in the chair next to the bed with her book. She was proud that her beloved Kirito was given a private room. Most of the rest of the VRDP victims were relegated to the public wards.

Kirito laid in bed as he always did, with his eyes closed and his face impassive. She lifted his hands and inspected his fingernails to see if she needed to trim them again. Earlier that morning she had given him a careful shave with a razor.

She knew that she would need to give him another haircut again in about two weeks. That was tricky because of the helmet. It was why one of the facility's aides had always had insisted on being present for it. Otherwise she she took care of all his physical needs as a volunteer.

After all, she had been doing it non-stop ever since she had died in SAO and popped up. That was 17 months ago.

She checked the monitors. His glucose levels, his pulse rate, and his BP were all normal. Earlier when she had arrived that morning she had checked his chart. There was still no reports of any sign of further infections with either the catheter or the colostomy bag. A month earlier she had spotted the pending infection with the bag and immediately informed the doctors, who had praised her for catching it so quickly to prevent potentially serious complications.

She lovingly gazed upon his sleeping face.

As she sat there watching him she heard the TV panel babbling in the background again.

The little man said, "Oh not at all, Dr. Yamaguchi. I agree that the physical universe is quite real, in the sense that the various elementary particles, the protons, neutrons, and electrons and their constituent quarks and so on that make up our physical universe are indeed interacting per the Standard Model. What I'm saying is that those physical particles themselves are not real, that they are projected. In other words.. " He waved his hands around the studio. "... that everything that you and I see here is all fake."

Dr. Yamaguchi replied, "Please, Doctor Cohen, don't use loaded words like 'fake'. I will concede that it is theoretically possible that the universe is actually a projection being emitted from some mysterious and as yet undefined 2-dimensional construct that exists at the farthest edges of our universe. But all that means is that the physical processes that we see in our daily lives actually originate from something that is one step removed from our visible 3D reality, that our everyday experience is somehow being generated from somewhere 'outside' our 3D universe."

The little man almost jumped out of his chair. He spoke excitedly to the interviewer, "Exactly! There is something outside our universe, something driving it - I won't call it a simulation out of deference to the good doctor here - but something is running our universe from the outside. Something at a higher level. Aren't you curious to know what that is? Well, I certainly am."

The other physicist sighed, "Now, we can hardly test that experimentally.."

The little man rubbed his hands together, "I admit that it's reaching a bit, but I suspect that, perhaps, it is possible that..."

Sachi mentally tuned out the TV again as she closed her eyes. She began to think about the her schedule for the rest of her week.

She was planning to see Keita's mother again. That poor woman. Keita's VRDP was the worst of all the Moonlit Black Cats. She also knew that she needed to get cracking with her study tablet if she was going to pass her high school history exam. She was also happy that she already had the required signatures to sign up for Individual Study via online courseware, something that was available in 2024 for high school students.

And it was just as well, she thought, that she was able to exploit the advances in 21st century information technology in order to skip most aspects of daily high school life. It was all due to the stigma of her being branded as a Virtual Reality Displaced Person. It was a mark of shame that was shared by all of the awakened survivors of SAO who had died in that game.

I don't need to experience high school. For social development? Whatever for?

They don't want us. I've heard the whispers, seen the disapproving looks on peoples' faces, listened to their titters and giggles, how everyone avoids us. It is because we are VRDPs: unstable elements, potentially violent, possibly suicidal, useless NEETs. Useless to society. Useless to everyone.

Well, I'm a VRDP. And I don't care. I don't need their approvals.

All I want to do is take care of you, Kirito.

I will protect you and shield you.

I will let you know that you are loved.

She gently touched his sleeping face.

It was at that moment that Kazuto had begun his coughing fit. She snatched her hand away as he slowly opened his eyes.

He grimaced and covered his face with his forearm. The bright sunlight streaming in from the window had blinded him. It was because his eyes had not seen anything in over two years.

He heard someone exclaim "Oh!" and then quickly run to the shades to close them. Then someone dimmed the lights.

Eventually his eyes were able to focus. He saw a petite girl with long dark hair sitting next to his hospital bed. She had a beatific smile, like a Madonna in a renaissance painting.

"Welcome back, fellow traveler."

He did not recognize the girl. He asked, "Who are you?"

"It's me, Sachi."

"Sachi?"

"Yes. I've been taking care of you this whole time. You are finally home."

And now you've come back to me.


A/N:

* In this story words enclosed in [brackets] are elisions to bleep-out swear words or to redact text.

The Holographic Universe is a real theory. It is possible that our physical universe might actually be a hologram (a three dimensional 'simulation' with real physical effects) that is being generated by some strange 2D projection source at the edge of our universe. For more information search Google for 'quantum holographic universe'. Several physical experiments are now underway to prove or disprove this theory.

Personally I hope the theory is true, as it dovetails nicely with the Hubble UDF and a lot of other recent cosmological evidence (e.g., dark matter and dark energy) that, when combined together, seem to indicate that the universe was designed by some external entity who appears to be going out of their way to let us appreciate it all: A universe that contains over 100 billion galaxies, each with 100 billion stars, all spread across billions of light years, and all of which we can actually see (which by all rights ought to be impossible).

Note on SAO: This series has been on my radar for a long time. It had famously started with a strong first cour (Aincrad), only to fade in the second (ALfheim). Sugou is a ridiculously melodramatic villain, but after giving it some thought I finally came up with a way to handle him in what I think is a novel way (I dropped a couple hints in this chapter) while still making ALO fun, or so I hope.

As always, thank you for reading.
-HuuskerDu