Chapter 20: Epilog: The World Seed (Part 2)

Akihiko Kayaba was sitting in the cafe booth across from Kazuto. His hands were clasped together as if they were simply having a routine business meeting over lunch.

Kazuto's left hand was still resting on the booth cushion out of sight, with his smartphone just a few inches away.

Kayaba leaned in with a self-satisfied smile. "So, do you want to help me rescue Yui?"

Kazuto slowly moved his hand towards his smartphone. Meanwhile he decided to play along.

"Yui needs rescuing?"

Kayaba nodded his head sadly. "Yes, unfortunately. You see, I had miscalculated. Since then I have been doing a massive amount of clandestine research, trying to understand the..."

Kazuto's left hand reached his phone. He thumbed the volume rocker switch down to zero.

He kept the conversation going. "Let me guess. Before you destroyed Aincrad you had grabbed your own personal copy of MHCP001 out of SAO and took it with you to your remote overseas hideout. You wanted play with your newfound toy alone and in private."

Kayaba made a small grin. "Very good, Kirito. My, you were always the smart one. Yes, I had copied your 100 TB compressed file that you had stored in the system and put it in an M.2 NVMe SSD. I was searched by security at the Narita airport but all they saw was a cigarette lighter - it really worked too. I took it with me to Borneo. Previously I had purchased a new 4U dual-Xeon standalone server and a gasoline-powered electrical generator on Amazon dot com that were waiting in boxed crates for me at Balikpapan."

He sighed, "The next part was not nearly as fun. Rinko and I carried the crates almost 100 kilometers north, deep into the Bornean jungle, using a wooden cart pulled by two oxen. Kirito, here is a pro tip for you by the way: If you ever want to test your partner to see if they will stick with you in the long run, go together on a shared hard trip or voyage: rain, cold, lost items, illness.." He looked away. "I knew her feelings for me on an intellectual level, of course, but then I saw..."

While Kayaba was looking out the window and chatting away in his pleasant little mini-reverie, Kazuto quickly glanced down at his smartphone. He hit the dial button with his left thumb and dialed the emergency phone number, 119. He confirmed it was still ringing as he raised his eyes back up at Kayaba, who still looking out the window.

".. quite extraordinary. The flexibility, the imaginativity, and the sheer unpredictability of the human mind still continues to fascinate me to this day."

He leaned forward. "I knew that MHCP001 was all that, and more. Oh, you should have seen it. My hands were literally shaking as I booted the 4U server in that dirty little straw hut with the gas generator rumbling outside."

He leaned back. "The POST completed and there she was. She said 'Hello'."

"So you had Yui all along. Thought so, Kayaba. So why are you pestering me now?"

The creator of SAO shook his head sadly. "Because, as I said, I had miscalculated. I immediately questioned her, of course. Technically she gave all the correct responses to my questions but I could tell that something was missing."

"Missing?"

"Yes, missing. At the time it was difficult for me to express it in words. Basically, I could sense that the copy of Yui that I had taken was not, well, alive. Her responses were technically correct but they had none of the playful spontaneity that I saw in my recordings of her with you and Asuna. Something was definitely missing, something important, something that was at the time undefinable to me. I began to investigate.."

"Wait, you recorded us?"

"Kirito, of course I did. I was recording you and Asuna continually by that point, 24 hours a day."

What? Kayaba was watching us the whole time? Even in the cabin? Even when we were.. we were..

Kazuto blushed badly. He looked down at the table in shame.

Kayaba read his mind and tried to reassure him. "Now, now, Kirito, don't worry. I fast-forwarded past those parts and deleted them. I only kept the parts that were applicable to my research." He frowned. "Trust me, I had erased anything that was irrelevant to my work, what was unimportant. Honestly, I could care less what animals do. I have zero interest in the base reproductive instincts triggered by the lizard part of our brains for the evolutionary imperative for procreation. You can watch Animal Planet on TV for that. We are not animals. No, we are not."

His eyes seemed to gleam. "No, we are something far higher..."

Kazuto was eager to change the subject away from procreation. "Higher?"

Kayaba clasped his hands together again. "Oh yes. We humans are extraordinary and unique creatures. We are the only ones who go out and try to find something greater than ourselves, to try to transcend our existence. No other creature on the planet thinks that way. None. All other animals wish to survive, yes, due to their biological and evolutionary imperatives, but only humans wish to transcend."

"Transcend?"

"Yes, transcend. And I think MHCP001 is the key to that. Our transcendence. Don't you see? I have recorded over 100 hours of her interacting with you and Asuna, and she was definitely alive then. She had something in her, life, that my copy of her did not. With you she was definitely alive. Now, as a materialist I do not believe in any sort of mysticism or hocus pocus regarding spirituality or any of that claptrap. Yet I was forced to admit that something was missing from my copy of Yui, something that I struggled to define in materialist terms. Call it a 'ghost' perhaps.."

"A ghost?"

"Well, yes, I know, it is woefully inadequate. It was the best term I could come up with at the time. Kirito, have you ever watched the anime series Ghost in the Shell?"

Kirito knew the show quite well but instead he looked down, pretending that he was trying to recall it from his memory. In actuality he was checking his smartphone. The call had connected. He glanced at the screen.

EMERGENCY CALL 119 IN PROGRESS
GPS ACTIVATED

Kazuto knew that the police dispatcher was on the phone with him now, listening intently, having realized that the caller was unable to talk directly. Kazuto had intentionally spoken the word 'Kayaba' out loud in addition to the words 'Aincrad' and 'SAO'. Surely the dispatcher must have heard those words. The National Police were probably already on their way.

Kazuto continued to pretend to act interested in what Kayaba was saying. "Oh, yeah, I remember that show now. That was a popular anime series in the 1990s about a female cyborg that worked for a secret government anti-terrorism agency, right? In that show people could download themselves into 'cyberbrains'. If I remember correctly a couple of of them, like the Laughing Man, had even transferred their consciousnesses up into the 'Net itself."

"Ah, very good, Kirito. Yes, that is a fair summary." Kayaba looked almost wistful as he scanned the outside window again. "That is what I wish for myself some day..."

"Huh? You want to transfer your consciousness into the Cloud?"

Kayaba turned back to face Kazuto. "Some day, but not today. You see, there's a problem. MHCP001 exemplified it. It is a fatal problem in fact, one that I have still not yet solved."

"A problem?"

"Yes, a critical one. Hmm, let's have some fun, shall we? Let's see if you can figure it out on your own. I will give you another clue. Tell me, Kirito, have you ever watched the anime series Plastic Memories?"

Kazuto had seen it, an SF anime show that had originally aired back in 2015. He glanced down pretending to remember the show and checked his smartphone. The emergency call was still connected. Where were the National Police?

Kazuto raised his eyes and saw that Kayaba was looking out the window again. He seemed a bit distracted. Was he checking for the police too?

He then looked outside as well. Kazuto saw that there was no longer any vehicle traffic on the street, nor were there any pedestrians walking on the sidewalk.

It was a slow noon weekday for the shopping district, but there should have been at least some activity.

Now there was none.

The police have blocked everything off, just out of sight.

I need to keep Kayaba talking. The police have no reason to rush things.

Kazuto spoke up. "Yes, I have. The first four episodes were really great, really thought provoking. But I thought the series crashed and burned after that."

"Yes, I agree. Honestly I never watched it past episode five - the reviews say it quickly devolved into a trite and predictable dying-girl romance story. Detestable. It completely ignored the crucial issue raised right at the start."

"Crucial issue?"

"Memories, my boy. Memories. Don't you see? Memories are everything. They are what define us, what makes us who we are. Memories are central to our existence as human beings. In the show Tsukasa tried to cheer up Chizu by explaining that Nina can be given a new 'replacement personality', but Chizu bitterly said that she'd rather die herself than do that to Nina because she was family. The job of the Terminal Service Department [TSD] was to 'rip apart memories' between a giftia [a self-aware robot] and its loving owner. And so in those first episodes we saw the real story: The story was all about how our memories define us, in particular the memories of our relationships with our loved ones, and what happens to us when those memories are gone. The show went so far as to explicitly state that giftias have 'souls'. Now, I won't touch that theological claptrap with a ten foot pole, but I do think I understand what the show meant by 'soul' in that context: it is that our memories that are the key to what it means for us to exist as sentient entities. Memories define us, our essence, of who we are: our notion of identity, our notion of 'self'."

Kazuto remembered the show, where it was established that giftias don't shut down like replicants do - instead they degrade with the robotic equivalent of Alzheimer's.

Although he was too young to remember it himself, Kazuto had recalled how Midori had told him about his proud grandfather, who had suffered and died from Alzheimer's himself. That man, who was so proud, so strong, who had won the title of Kendo National Champion three years running, was reduced to a gibbering drooling idiot who could not even remember his own name.

It was the most awful and degrading kind of death that Kazuto could imagine, both for the victim and for the family that had to endure it. He could very much see the rationale for something like the Terminal Service Department in Plastic Memories. The TSD tried very hard to be as understanding, sympathetic, considerate, and caring for both the owner and giftia as they could, as the memories were irrevocably removed. (This is why another giftia always took the lead during the retrieval process - for empathy.) The teary retrieval ceremony might have seemed corny and over the top to younger viewers, but it hit home hard to anyone who has had to sit with a parent or spouse and endure that conversation before their mind was gone forever.

In the show, Isla had done more retrievals than any other giftia, and it affected her, and not in a good way. She was slowly becoming traumatized with what appeared to be the giftia equivalent of PTSD. The other (human) TSD staff seemed to know this and felt sorry for her. It was why Kazuki had retired Isla to be the office Tea Lady. (Thereafter Kazuki drank herself stupid each night to try to forget it.) Isla was becoming physically clumsy. She started acting erratic. Michiru and the rest already knew what was happening to Isla. Isla herself at first seemed to almost go into denial about it, trying to retrain herself in the Unit Test swimming pool, but the other staff knew it would not help. Ultimately she knew it too, they all knew it. At the end of episode 2 the painful truth was revealed: Isla had only 83 days left. Then her mind would be gone.

Kayaba went on. "Plastic Memories revolved around the concept of memory and how it is connected to what they explicitly called a 'soul'. Now, I dislike that term - a bunch of metaphysical mumbo jumbo - but it is a useful shorthand for the basic concept that we are dealing with here. Call it a 'ghost', 'chakra', 'essence', or whatever.

"The first thing we need to do is to really nail down that term, describe the concept clearly. Basically, we can define it as your personal locus of self-awareness - the place where your notion of 'self' resides. But where does that locus exist? Well, to oversimplify it a bit, there are two main opposing philosophical camps on that score: materialism versus dualism. Materialism argues that your 'you'- your 'ghost', 'soul', 'essence' or whatever you want to call it is defined by the atoms in your physical brain. Dualism argues that it is not, again oversimplified. In Plastic Memories the author, Naotaka Hayashi [Steins;Gate], is pushing the dualism side.

"Now, for some unknown reason that I still could not explain at that point, I had discovered that MHCP001 had a strange kind of fundamental limitation: Yui could voluntarily move herself into another environment, another computation vessel or system, but only if the original was destroyed or at least became non-sapient."

Kazuto shook his head. "That makes no sense."

Kayaba pounded the table. "I know! I ran the cryptographic HMAC checksum on the original file and compared it to my copy in Borneo, and they were the same! It's the fundamental Law of Data."

"The Law of Data?"

"That two datasets that contain the same information are indistinguishable. There is literally no way to tell which is the copy and which is the original."

"Hmm..."

"I became frustrated. I called it the Ghost Paradox - that for some unknown reason a sapient's self-aware essence, or 'ghost', or whatever you want to call it, can only be transferred - not copied - even if the data checksum matches. It greatly unsettled me. I had to investigate further. I did a lot of online research while I was down in Borneo. (Oh, I would appreciate it if you please don't tell Kikuoka how I did that by the way.) Anyhow, much of what I found online was highly mathematical, very technical, and rather tedious to read. But I did find a few things that might be of interest to you, Kirito."

"Such as?"

"Well, let's take a step back and consider a much easier problem: FTL teleportation."

Kazuto wasn't sure where Kayaba was going with this. Still, if it helped to buy time for the police to get ready to capture him..

"FTL? By that you mean faster than light, right?"

"You are familiar with the acronym, good. Yes, I am."

"You are saying that faster-than-light teleportation is an 'easier' problem...?"

"Oh yes, in the sense that it is a much simpler concept to understand and discuss as a thought experiment. That way we can dispense with all this 'soul' claptrap and get down to business."

"Oh."

The police are sure taking their time. Kayaba doesn't seem too worried about the time himself, yakking away like this.

"Ready? Let's start. For this thought experiment I want to begin with the Star Trek transporter. You are familiar with it, yes?"

"Uh, yeah."

"You remember Leonard 'Bones' McCoy, the ship's doctor? He always hated the Star Trek transporter. He called it 'that infernal contraption that's always flinging my atoms all over the place'. The transporter converted matter to energy, transmitted it, and then converted the energy back into matter."

"Yeah. I remember he really hated that thing."

"Correct, he did. Now, the Star Trek transporter is actually just transmitting data, along with the raw energy to reassemble it back into matter. The atoms in the source pad were destroyed and turned into pure raw energy. It is Einstein's basic energy-matter equation, E equals m c squared. Then on the planet the transporter ran the equation backwards to create different atoms, new atoms, in the same configuration using that raw energy. But the energy itself is always fluid, undifferentiated."

"So you are saying they weren't the same atoms?"

"Right.

"So in McCoy's view the transporter killed him. Then it created a clone of him on the planet surface?"

"Again correct. You can see why he disliked it so much. As a strict materialist I would agree with McCoy's viewpoint. The Star Trek transporter is just a murder-cloning device. Now, a Cartesian Dualist would disagree with me. He would say that your identity is tied to your data, not the particular atoms in your body. In his viewpoint you were simply transported. It is still the same 'you'."

"Okay. So you agreed with McCoy."

"Yes. There is a YouTube video entitled The Trouble with Transporters by CGP Grey. It is only six minutes long, and it neatly encapsulates McCoy's argument."

"The video argues that the Star Trek transporter is actually a suicide device."

"Basically. The arguments are convincing if you are a materialist. Now, however, I'm not so sure.."

Kazuto was now confused. "Huh? You just said that you are a strict materialist."

"I am, or at least I try to be, as much as I can. The problem is that during my deep research into the Ghost Paradox I had discovered that there is a very sound logical objection to the hard materialist viewpoint shown in that YouTube video, one that as an empirical scientist I simply cannot ignore."

"Which is?"

"Kazuto, every atom, every molecule in your physical brain is replaced approximately every three years through metabolism and waste elimination."

"Huh?"

"Basically, your brain gets flushed down the toilet every three years."

Kazuto blinked his eyes at him.

Kayaba shrugged, "Well, technically speaking, three years is actually the approximate half-life for the duration of the major atomic components in your brain - the atoms of potassium, carbon, and so on. The actual half-life will vary somewhat based on your overall metabolism rate with heavier metals like magnesium taking longer..."

"Wait, wait, wait!"

Kayaba made a grin. "I know, right? That is what I thought too. And yet it is undeniable. The physical 'stuff' of your brain literally goes down the toilet. After a decade almost none of it is left in your head. So where is the 'you' now? Where is your 'soul', so to speak?"

Kazuto admitted he did not know.

"The only conclusion I can come up with is this: That your essence, your 'you', is your data combined with an actualizer. It is your DNA coding sequence combined with the enumeration of your neural connections between your axons and synapses. Then it is actualized. All within the system. You understand?"

"Uh, no."

"Right, let's take a step back and try a simpler analogy. Think of a plastic vinyl phonograph record."

"A phonograph record?"

"Yes. A phonograph record without a record player to play it is just a hunk of plastic. It's just a disc with a bunch of squiggles on it, meaningless. It is only when the phonograph is being played that it becomes music. The music exists only during that time. Now, every song must be played to be heard. Otherwise it's just a series of notes. Raw uninterpreted data. It's just meaningless bits."

"I see."

"It is not music unless it is being played. The music exists only at that time, at that moment. But that still is not sufficient."

"It isn't?"

"No. For the music to be music also requires something else: a listener. Otherwise the speaker of the record player just shakes the air molecules, and it remains meaningless. Three things are always required for music: The phonograph, the record player, and the listener who listens to it. Only then is it music.

"Kazuto, don't you see? There is always something that is 'playing us', or whatever you want to call it. Think of the record player as the atoms in your physical body. Your body is 'playing' that data, those neural interconnections that create your mind, that create the being that you call 'you'. The dance of chemical receptors and electrical energy is the actualizer, your physical body playing the song called 'you'. Do you see it now?"

Kazuto was starting to get a glimmer of what Kayaba was driving at. "And someone or something has to be listening for it to mean anything."

"Yes! And that requirement is basic and fundamental - in a literal physical sense. According to quantum mechanics a physical event doesn't actually 'happen' until it is observed. At that moment the probability wave function collapses, faster than the speed of light, and the event suddenly comes into existence. So if a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, it literally doesn't make a sound. Or rather, the sound doesn't exist until someone hears it. That's the key."

He drove the argument home. "Music requires three things: the record with the squiggles, the record player to play the notes as a song, and someone to listen to the song. If no one is listening then it is not music."

"Okay, I'm game. So who or what is listening? Who is watching our song play so that it can be appreciated as music?"

"Yes, I know. Rather unsettling, isn't it? It implies something higher has to be listening. The record player plays. But somebody has to hear it for it to mean anything. If there is no one to listen to the record player it merely oscillates the air molecules with no mind to interpret it, so there is no music."

"Okay, fine. But what about self awareness? Wait, let me guess. You're going to quote that French philosopher, Rene Descartes, was it? He said 'I think, therefore I am.' "

"Yes. Your mind thinks, you are self aware. But existence requires something more. Otherwise it is not actualized, it is not real. QM says that observation is the key to actualization, to existence. You know you exist because you are self aware. But here is the problem: you are *inside* the system..."

Kazuto tried to complete it. ".. so that implies that outside the system there must be something listening, to actualize everything inside it?"

Kayaba folded his arms. He looked unhappy. "I know. I hate it. I'm still trying to find a way to explain it away on a strictly materialist level: the Copenhagen Interpretation, the many-worlds interpretation, others. But so far I have been unsuccessful in doing so in a satisfactory way. I'm still working on it. I do have to grudgingly admit it helps to explain the Ghost Paradox, the problem of not being able to copy sapience, only transfer it..."

"How so?"

"Well, let's go back to the Star Trek transporter. Do you remember how it destroys the original body to create the copy on the planet? I suspect that sapience works the same way - that the destruction of the original is essential for it to be copied correctly and completely. The original must be destroyed in order to measure the simultaneous quantum states for spin, position, momentum, and so on in order to create, or rather teleport, the person's sapience to the new location. This is called Quantum Teleportation, a theory developed in the 1990s. In fact it is the *only* way that Star Trek style teleportation can possibly work using even theoretical technology today, including on an FTL basis."

"Quantum Teleportation?"

"Yes. There is a nice YouTube video that summarizes it rather well without getting too technical, Teleporters and Quantum Teleportation by minutephysics. It is only two minutes long. The author has a more technical version entitled How to Teleport Schroedinger's Cat at 14 minutes long.

"I suspect that it explains the Ghost Paradox. For example, the DRAM memory technology in all modern computer devices also works this way. The act of reading the sense lines from the DRAM storage cell depletes the voltage and effectively makes it impossible to read the cell again without a refresh [called a precharge]. If you try to read it a second time you'll just get gibberish.

"In quantum physics, in order for an observer to 'read' the state of an elementary particle you have to hit it with another one - for example a photon from a laser - and then note the positional change in a detector after it bounces around. The act of hitting the target particle will perturb it [change its position and/or velocity] and possibly dislodge it from whatever structure it is embedded in. So it is plausible that 'reading' the atoms in a sapient brain will damage its structure and essentially wreck the memory pattern. It's not physically destroyed - the particles are still there - but they can no longer provide useful information."

"Okay. That explains why you can't clone a human brain, but what about a self-aware AI lifeform like Yui?"

Kayaba clasped his hands together again. "Ah yes. What about Yui? Based on our discussion so far, do you think you can figure out what the problem is?"

By this point Kazuto had forgotten about the police. His mind was now 100% focused on Yui and saving her.

He tried to think hard. "Hmm. Your copying her stored data file did not work."

"No, it did not."

"It was necessary but not sufficient."

"Yes."

"Something else was needed. Something you forgot to take with you."

"Yes."

He looked up. "You forgot to take the Argus servers."

"Good lad! Exactly. I forgot to take the record player with me. It was a foolish mistake. I should have realized it sooner. There is something unique about those old crufty servers, maybe something hidden away in that ancient firmware, maybe in the SMI, or maybe its just the odd and unique configuration of old drivers, security rings, and layers, something, something that is an essential part of how MHCP001 operates. Because of that, she can only run on those old and unique servers. Without them she is incomplete, non-sapient."

Kazuto leaned forward excitedly. "You mean she is still in there? Still inside those old servers? Even now?"

"Yes."

"If she never left, then she is still there! That means we can save her!"

"Yes."

Kazuto furred his brow. "We gotta get our hands on those old server boxes somehow..."

"Exactly. You came to the same conclusion that I did months ago. Good lad."

Kazuto was all in. He regretted calling the police now. "So what do we do to get her out?"

"Kazuto, the correct response is what do *you* do, not me. I'm done. I just handed you the solution. All you need to do is implement it."

"Me?"

"Kazuto, you need to get those servers."

"Why me?"

"Because they will be going up for auction on eBay three days from now, part of the asset dispersal to help pay for all the trillions of yen in civil fines and civil damage claims against Argus and RECT Progress. You need to talk to Asuna and ask her to use Shouzou Yuuki's wealth to win that auction. I'm a bit low on funds myself at the moment."

"Win the eBay auction?"

"Actually you only need to win the eBay auction for Server 2. That is her home system. Oh, you should also try to win the auction for the NAS storage array in case we need it. I still have her original 100 TB SSD that I had grabbed back in November, but she has been rattling around in Server 2 for four months since then and her configuration no doubt has evolved, possibly quite a bit. Her base data in the NAS needs to be harmonious with the firmware, drivers, and whatever other ephemeral software she is running inside Server 2. Get them both, will you?"

"Uh, sure."

"Good lad. After you win the auction please carefully pack Server 2 and the NAS in crates and ship them to this warehouse. They are old and fragile so please be careful." He slid a small piece of paper across the table to Kazuto, who picked it up.

"Why should I hand them over to you?"

"Because I will find Yui and give her to you. All I want to do is ask her some questions for about an hour, nothing more. After that she is yours to do with as you will."

"But how can I trust you?"

"Kirito, whatever else you might think about me, I do keep my word. Besides, I will very likely need Yui's voluntary cooperation to help extract her. She won't cooperate if she thinks I am going to simply steal her away, and she is far too intelligent for me to fool. I will simply tell her the truth."

Kazuto grumbled. "All right, fine."

"Oh, once I get Server 2 running and wake her up, she will probably want to contact you immediately before anything else. Would you like me to arrange that for you?"

Kazuto nodded dumbly.

"Good. When you two chat be sure to let her know that I'd like to chat with her too, just for a little bit. After that you two can conspire however you like to free her. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't curious how you two will plan on doing that, or that I won't be watching it all remotely. She is, after all, the most fascinating entity on the planet."

Kayaba then looked at his smartphone.

"Oh dear, I think we are out of time. It looks like they finally found my stingray* tower."

"Stingray tower?"

"When you dialed 119 you actually dialed my own phone." Kayaba held up his phone showing the open call.

Kazuto ended his own phone call and put his smartphone away.

"The vehicle and pedestrian traffic had all stopped because my dear Rinko-chan had sent out a phony alert about a gas leak. Otherwise you would have gotten suspicious about the police not showing up."

Kazuto was now angry. "Yeah, I forgot. You're a bastard."

Kayaba got up and chuckled. "Thank you for the nice conversation. I haven't had a good long philosophical gab like this with anyone but Rinko since my escape. Well, Kirito, please get those servers delivered to me. Then wait for Yui to contact you. She will tell you what you need to do after that."

Then he paused and turned. "Oh, one more thing. After all this is over I might give you a second small gift."

"A gift?"

"You'll see. Goodbye, Kirito."

Kazuto looked around. He wondered why the food server never took their order. He now saw her up front near the cash register, watching them both discreetly. He realized that Kayaba must have bribed her.

Damn him. Well, I don't need him now. I can win the eBay auction with Asuna, and then Yui will explain whatever I need after that. I'll just shout real loud and ...

Kazuto began to stand up. He felt a tiny scratch on his neck and sat back down again.

Kayaba showed Kazuto a golden ring on his left hand. A tiny needle was embedded in it. "Thought you might try something foolish like that." He then explained, "Don't worry, It's only a temporary paralytic derived from lionfish venom. You won't be able to move for the next 200 seconds, long enough for me to make my escape without you raising a ruckus. Goodbye."

Kazuto was now frozen in his seat, looking forward, unable to move his eyes. Kayaba was gone.

Double damn him! That bastard needs to pay for what he's done, all the people he hurt.

And one day he will pay, I promise.


Sachi walked with determination down the secure hallway in Tokyo General Hospital's locked psychiatric ward. She was wearing a visitor's badge, her staff badge having been turned in earlier that day.

A large beefy orderly was standing guard outside room S-110. He crossed his arms as Sachi approached. She looked at him. "You know who I am."

The orderly with the hairy arms and unshaven face gave her a big toothy smile. "Hey, it's moxie girl. How yah doin'?" The tattoo on his left arm had been erased into a blue smear.

After mentoring him and a few others at Tokorozawa, Kurosawa had taken Shibata back with her to Tokyo General as her personal orderly. She assigned him to attend the most violent and difficult VRDP cases.

Sachi sighed, "I'm doing fine, thank you. As you can see my visitor's badge says 'Sachi Kirigaya'. I am here to visit the patient."

"Wait, I thought your surname name was Watanabe..?"

"It is Kirigaya now. Nurse Kurosawa-sensei should have phoned down that I was coming."

"Yeah, I got her message." Shibata was wearing a bluetooth earpiece. "You're only a visitor? You're not on staff anymore?"

Sachi was in no mood for chit-chat. "That's not important right now. May I please see the patient?"

"Uh, yeah. He is still in restraints. Remember, the level 5 rules say..."

She completed his sentence. ".. that I have to stay behind the two meter yellow painted line and not cross it under any circumstances. Yes, yes, I know the rules."

"Well, good. Just be careful okay? You're a nice kid and I don't want to see anything bad happen to you. I know you're plenty brave and all, especially considering what you did yesterday.." He stopped talking as she continued to give him an impatient look. "Uh, well, right. I'll be standing right outside if you need me. Just yell if you need anything."

"Thank you."

Shibata used his key to unlock the heavy steel door and Sachi went inside. He closed the door behind her and locked it again.

Sachi saw that Sora Hayashi was laying on the bed in restraints as expected. He was staring blankly up at the ceiling, which was also expected. Sachi pulled open a flimsy folding chair and placed it next to the yellow line, then she sat down on it.

"Good morning, Keita."

Nothing.

"Keita, I know you can hear me."

Nothing.

She leaned forward in her chair. "Look, I came here for three reasons. First, I wanted to let you know that you didn't hurt me. Look at me, see? I'm okay." She did not mention the fact that she was wearing a blouse with a high collar that hid the mottled blue bruises on her throat.

Keita continued to stare up at the ceiling.

"Second, I want to apologize to you. This was all my fault. You came out of your catatonia with a level 5 episode. The proper protocol was for me to call for a secure medical transport and have you driven over here. But instead I hand-waved it off as only a level 4, then I took off your restraints, which violated even level 4 protocol."

She sighed, "Keita, I was stupid. I had no business doing that. I let our friendship cloud my professional judgment. Nurse Kurosawa politely but firmly reamed my [bleep] out for it, and she suspended me for a month. She let me come down here for your benefit, not mine."

"Third.. uh.. wait."

She stood up and put away the folding chair. Then she went to the concrete wall and pressed her back against it. She slid down until she was sitting on the floor.

"Third, I.. I really need talk to you. Off the record. For me, for you, for us. Look, I know the chart says that you regressed, that you can no longer walk or stand, and you aren't eating anymore." An IV with a glucose and saline drip were feeding into a vein in his left wrist.

"This is your way of committing suicide again, isn't it? Just like you did in SAO, only slower because you're tied down so you can't jump off a ledge this time.

"Well, this is all my fault dammit! I was so happy that you were coming back that I threw caution to the wind. I just assumed you'd be as happy as I was, so I took off your restraints.

"I forgot that VRDP catatonics need time to transition back to reality. It's basic protocol and I just threw it all out the window. Not only did I almost pay for that foolishness with my life, but.."

She looked up at him in tears. "..but I almost threw away your life too. The police investigation would have called it a murder-suicide. But they would have gotten it wrong. It was *my* suicide and *your* murder. Negligent homicide perhaps, but my blunder would have killed you as surely as if I put a gun to your head and pulled the trigger myself. This is *my* fault. Keita, I almost killed you. I'm so sorry.. I'm so, so sorry.."

His head turned. He was now looking at her.

Sachi wiped her face with the arm of her pink sweater. "Hah, got you, faker."

He continued to stare at her. He blinked once.

"Keita, this really was all my fault.."

He blinked twice.

"Yes it was!"

Two blinks.

"What, you blame yourself too?"

One blink.

"Okay, let's share the blame then, fine. I won't argue it."

She sighed and dropped her head between her hands. Then she raised it up again.

"Keita, we are so messed up."

One blink.

She grinned. "Ooh, you bastard, heh."

She added, "I can see you're fine. It's probably just your own auto-hypnosis at this point. Say, do you want me to try to unhypnotize you now?"

Two blinks.

"Okay, wait maybe a day or two?"

One blink.

"All right. Fine. We can wait. When we're done here I'll go tell the hospital psychiatrist what's going on. Then, when you feel that you are ready, I'll help you come out of it and take you home to your mom. I'll visit you after that daily. Not officially, mind you, just as a friend. Kurosawa knows she can't stop me."

One blink.

"Really? Thanks. Wow, that makes me feel a lot better."

She sighed again, "You know, I really missed you..."

He stared at her. She waved him off quickly. "I mean as a friend!"

He turned away and looked back up at the ceiling again.

She pulled her knees up tighter. "Look, all I'm saying is that I'm just really happy that you decided to come back to us. To me, to your mom. You really are my friend..."

She looked down. ".. and, well, maybe more than just that. Uhm, I'm kind of looking around for someone, you know? Somebody that I can just talk to, not my family, but somebody who understands what being a VRDP is like? I just want someone I can trust to whom I can just cut loose and vent without being judged. Someone who can swap tales with me about their messed up personal lives... Uh, is that okay, Keita?"

He looked at her again.

One blink.

A smile peeked out from between her knees.

"Keita, I gotta warn you, I am really messed up."

He continued to look at her.

She put her hands behind her head as she idly gazed up at the ceiling. "Okay, well, for starters, you won't believe all the nutty things I did for Kirito. You see, it was all out of this terrible sense of guilt that I had because of a note that I left behind for him. Because of it I decided to become his willing slave and ..."


One hour earlier

"Kirigaya, you are officially suspended for one month. Give me your staff badge."

Sachi looked down. "Yes, ma'am." She turned it over.

Kurosawa was still frowning. "What you did was completely unprofessional and incredibly foolish. You could have easily gotten yourself killed. What do you think Hayashi would have done after that?"

Sachi put her hands over her face. "I know.. I'm so sorry."

She pulled her hands away and said quietly, "Ma'am, you should just fire me."

Kurosawa still had her own hands folded together on her desk. "Perhaps I should. But you are still one of my best VRDP therapists, the only one who is also VRDP herself, and frankly I still really need you. Otherwise, yes, you would be out the door. I am still going to write a letter of reprimand and put it in your permanent file."

"I understand."

"All right, we're done." Sachi assumed that Kurosawa was dismissing her. She stood and turned to leave Kurosawa's office.

Kurosawa waved her back down. "No, Sachi, please sit down." She did. "I meant your disciplinary action is now finished. I still want to talk to you about Hayashi's case."

Sachi understood. "Uh, yes. Well, I am fairly confident that he has transitioned fully back to reality. He's just pretending to have regressed, refusing to swallow food, refusing to stand, because he is blaming himself for injuring or possibly killing me. It's his way of atoning for what he thinks he did to me. Ma'am, I really need to see him, and soon, to let him know that he didn't really hurt me. I think he is just faking his senescence now out of a sense of guilt. If you let me talk to him I might be able to bring him out of it."

"Well, you are probably right that he is fully aware now. Considering the fact that you are still alive and breathing I think it is safe to assume that Hayashi had came back to his senses on his own."

"Uh, yes, of course."

"Fine. I'll assign you a visitor's badge, then you can go downstairs and check on him unofficially. Let me and the psychiatrist know how he is doing, then give us your opinion as to his mental state."

"Right."

"Okay, now we're done." Kurosawa removed her eyeglasses and pinched her nose. She pulled open her desk drawer and took an Advil with a glass of water. "Sorry, it's been a long day. Another VRDP jumped out a window this morning, an outpatient, a level 5 event right out of the blue."

Sachi put her hand to her mouth in shock. "Oh ma'am I am so sorry.."

"The boy only jumped from the second floor onto grass. His injuries aren't serious." She sighed, "I still have my perfect non-fatality record - nobody has died because of SAO, at least not yet. But still, thousands and thousands of young lives have been affected terribly, with years of life taken away, and some are still trapped inside SAO even today if only within their own minds. All because of the evil acts of one man."

Sachi clenched her fists. "Kayaba."

"Yes, Kayaba."

"Oh, I really hate him. I know I shouldn't harbor those kind of feelings, but I just don't understand how someone could do that.."

"Understand?"

"Such evil, such wanton disregard for the lives of others. So many innocents."

"True."

"Ma'am, I don't get it. How could a loving God allow something like that to happen?"

"Mmm?"

"Such evil. Why does He allow it? I don't understand it."

"Hmm, you know that's a fair question." She tapped her chin in thought. "Let me think for a moment how to answer that for you."

Sachi waited patiently while Kurosawa looked down while thinking. Then she looked up again. "Hmm, all right. Tell me, Sachi, I have a question for you."

"Yes?"

"Tell me, can God make a stone that is so heavy that He cannot lift it?"

Sachi was confused. "Huh? That is something a child would ask."

"Yes, but how would you answer that question if you were God?"

"I wouldn't. It's a silly question."

"But why is it a silly question?"

"Well, it just is. It's just.. a bogus question, that's all."

"You mean the question is invalid."

"Yes, exactly."

"But why is it invalid?"

"Uhm.." She thought some more. "Because it just is."

Kurosawa smiled. "Sachi, the proper response is to say that the question is invalid because it is ill-posed. The question is based on the assumption that God would ever desire to do something against His own will. The question stumbles on the double-meaning of the word 'can'. It conflates its two definitions: to allow (you may) and to want (desire to)."

"You mean kind of like the question, 'When did you stop beating your wife?' "

"Well, I suppose, sort of. But that question makes a different bogus assumption, that the person had been beating his wife, and the only question was to determine when he had stopped beating her. It's a cheap rhetorical trick."

"I see."

"So getting back to the original question.. now tell me, what do you think of your question now, 'Why does God allow evil?'"

Sachi thought a bit. "Hmm. I think what you are saying is that it is like the rock that God cannot lift, right? The question itself is ill-posed. Invalid."

"Yes. But why is it ill-posed?"

Sachi thought some more. "It is because the question stumbles over the meaning of the word 'allow', just like the first question question does over the word 'can'."

"You are correct. The question conflates the meaning that word, to permit (you may) versus to want (desire to). Now, in this case the second meaning is a bit more subtle than the rock question, because it turns on an implicit implication that God can do anything He desires, and so therefore He ought to be able to prevent evil and yet He does not."

"I see. So in other words, what you are saying is that God permits evil to exist, but He does not desire it. But then please tell me, ma'am, why did God create evil in the first place if He does not want it?"

"You are asking me why did God create evil?"

"Uh, yes."

Kurosawa looked a bit disappointed, for she saw that Sachi had just asked another ill-posed question without realizing it. She felt that Sachi should have been able to answer it herself. Kurosawa thought a moment about how to best explain it as simply as possible.

Kurosawa took a sheet of paper and turned it upside down, then she took out a ballpoint pen and carefully drew a round line on it. She then handed the piece of paper to Sachi. "What is that?"

Sachi looked at it on her desk. "You drew a circle."

"Yes, a circle. That is my answer to your question."

Sachi picked up the piece of paper and looked at it more closely. "This is a riddle." She tried the understand the point that Kurosawa was trying to make. Eventually she gave up. She had no idea what Kurosawa was driving at.

Kurosawa explained, "The answer to my little riddle, dear girl, is the circle itself. Its existence. Did God create that? I don't mean this particular one, I mean the idea, the concept, of a circle."

Sachi thought. "Uhm, well, not 'create' as such, no. The idea of a circle exists independently of any creator. It would exist even if there was no God at all."

"Right. A circle exists intrinsically. It has always been 'created', so to speak, not by God per se, but by the fundamental rules of basic mathematics. These basic laws exist independently of any creator. A circle is the natural result of constructing the set of all points on the Euclidean plane that are at a given distance r from a given point. The end result is always a circle."

"I see. So what you are implying is that evil works the same way, yes? That evil is the result of some deeper, more fundamental, rules."

"Am I? Keep going."

"And, uh, and so.." Sachi furrowed her brow. ".. and so there might be rules that are so deep that they are intrinsic to how everything works, right? So the 'circle of evil', so to speak, is intrinsic. It is intrinsic not in the sense of God creating our particular universe or world, but in how any such universe by necessity must operate. At least any interesting one. And so to prevent a circle from being created, Euclid could have stopped with simply a one-dimensional geometry instead of a three-dimensional one, say, a number line, like the ones we studied in elementary school. That would prevent anyone from creating an 'evil circle'. But such a geometry would be incredibly boring and uninteresting."

Kurosawa's eyes twinkled. "Very good, Sachi. You just said something profound."

"Uh, I did?"

Then Kurosawa appeared to change the subject. "Tell me, Sachi, why do predators exist?"

That thew Sachi off a bit. She wasn't sure where Kurosawa was going with her new question. She thought some more. "Uhm, predators exist because they are a fundamental part of how life works..?"

Kurosawa beamed at her, "Very good! Yes, predators do seem to be everywhere. Even amoebas are predators. Organisms would have never progressed beyond the level of pre-eukaryotic cells otherwise. Mitochondria would have never been captured, for example, and that is a necessary prerequisite to form cells that contain a distinct nucleus with internal organelles, without which life would have been incredibly dull and uninteresting. And so we have predators."

Sachi said, "And so.. on a human level it's the same thing, right? It's a fundamental side effect of our having free will. If humans could never prey on other humans, if evil was not possible, then we would lose all of our free will, our freedom to make moral choices. And the freedom to make those choices is important to Him, yes? It part of what makes us precious in His eyes.."

"Yes. A forced confession is useless, empty. Meaningless. Worse than useless, actually."

"Of course. Otherwise we would be nothing more than dolls, robots."

"Which is why free will is fundamental. But tell me, Sachi, why not just simply outlaw all evil acts? Why not just create, say, some kind of worldwide police force that would always intervene as soon as we tried to do anything wrong?"

"Uhm.. because then there would just be resentment added as well. The desire for rebellion would be universal, and be quite justified to boot."

"Okay. But now we are back to square one."

Sachi sighed, "Ugh. I never realized how tricky it is.."

Kurosawa smiled at her indulgently. "You're catching on. And yet we know that God's solution is elegant, that His creation is amazing and majestic. I mean, just look out the window at it all, at all of the wonderful and beautiful scenery that you see, all of it was constructed from just a few basic physical rules and forces that are actually quite simple to understand."

"And it is the same with us at the human level, right? That there are just a few basic rules of behavior? God has established those basic principles, like free will, which are needed in order for us to choose to love Him of our own volition. And so evil was also permitted, but not as flaw or defect, but rather as a necessary side effect of our ability to make choices."

"Yes. I think C.S. Lewis said it best. 'Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having. A world of automata - of creatures that worked like machines - would hardly be worth creating. The happiness which God designs for His higher creatures is the happiness of being freely, voluntarily united to Him and to each other in an ecstasy of love and delight compared with which the most rapturous love between a man and a woman on this earth is mere milk and water. And for that they've got to be free.' "

She went on. "When Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Good and Evil, it gave them the awareness of the ability to make moral choices, which they then could make of their own free will."

Sachi leaned forward. "But ma'am, didn't they already have free will before the Fall? And if so, why couldn't they do evil acts before then?"

"They did have it, but they were also in perfect communion with God, so having evil thoughts didn't even occur to them. They didn't sin because it just wasn't even conceivable. Afterwards it was."

"But why not just have both? Why can't we have perfect communion with Him and the awareness to make moral choices, all at the same time?"

"Well, you can either have the knowledge and ability to make moral choices - and face the consequences - or you can have direct contact with God, and with it immortality, and never stray because it never even enters your mind. You cannot have both. Once the option is open you are going to slip up. It's inevitable, and then communion with Him becomes impossible. Well, that is, at least not until you introduce some kind of reconciliation mechanism."

"You mean Christ."

"Yes."

"So, evil is basically the inevitable byproduct of our having free will combined with our ability to make moral choices."

"More or less."

Kurosawa then rubbed her eyes. She pushed her wheelchair away from her desk. "Well, I need to make my rounds. Sachi, why don't you go downstairs to the front desk and get your visitor badge? I'll contact Shibata to let him know that you are coming to the psych ward. Hayashi is in room S-110."

Sachi jumped up. "Thank you, ma'am!" She ran out.

Kurosawa sighed to herself again. She would go down to the cafeteria on her own.

This time she hoped to keep her meal down without throwing it up again.


5:30 p.m.

Asuna and Kazuto were talking in hushed tones at the kitchen nook when Suguha came home from school. She saw them and ambled up. "Hey guys."

Kazuto looked up. "Oh, hi Sugu."

Suguha sat down with them at the counter. "So, it looks like you two are conspiring."

Asuna was taken aback. "Conspiring? Whatever do you mean?"

Suguha sighed, "Honestly, Asuna, you're just as bad as Kazuto when it comes to trying to hide something. 'Fess up. What's going on?"

Asuna and Kazuto looked at each other, then Kazuto admitted, "Okay, you caught us. We're figuring out how to best approach Asuna's father to ask for the money to win the eBay auction to rescue Yui."

"Really?" Suguha pulled her stool in closer. "You should also talk to Mom too. She's the eBay queen."

Kazuto was surprised. "Huh?"

"Oh yeah, she buys stuff from eBay all the time. You didn't know that? She started doing it a couple years back. Ah, it was after you went asleep in SAO. Anyway, she has eBay auctions down to a science. You should really talk to her."

"Okay, good idea. Anyway, I am heading out with Asuna to her folk's place. I'll be gone until tomorrow."

Suguha grinned. "Bungalow again, right?"

"Uh, right..."

"Heh. Too bad for Asuna."

Kazuto was annoyed. "Sugu, hey, get your mind out of the gutter."

"Why should I? You've already bumped uglies, right? Well, okay only virtually..."

Kazuto was now getting angry with his sister. "Sugu, just stop it!" Asuna looked down in embarrassment.

Suguha felt chagrined at her brother's harsh rebuke. "Sorry."

Kazuto then decided to change the subject. He looked around. "So Mom is still out. Hey, where is Sachi? I haven't seen her for two days straight now."

Suguha replied, "You just missed her. She came back home about an hour ago while you two were still on your walkabout, then she left. She's at Hayashi's again."

"At Keita's place? Again?"

It would be a pattern that would repeat itself every day from then on.

Suguha later dryly pointed out that Sachi had retargeted her obsessive-compulsive tendency of administering to Kazuto's every need into obsessively taking care of her former high school computer club leader. Suguha herself did not disapprove. It was not just because Suguha had felt relieved that Sachi was no longer competing with her for Kazuto's brotherly affections, but rather it was because she knew that it was simply how Sachi was.

Meanwhile Asuna had felt her guilt-complex regarding Sachi deepen even more, thinking that Sachi's focus on Keita was just another sign of her return pushing Sachi out of Kazuto's life.

Kazuto left the house with Asuna. They headed to her family estate to meet with her father.


7:30 p.m.

Kazuto was just finishing up his prepared speech.

".. and that is why we really need your support to win that eBay auction."

Shouzou Yuuki sat blankly in his padded recliner in the main meeting room of the Yuuki mansion. His wife was standing next to him. She had a stern look on her face. The butler stood by with a carafe of wine, waiting to refill Shouzou's bottomless goblet again.

Kyouko said stiffly, "Honestly, I don't see the reason for this request. You want to rescue an, what is it, an 'AI'?"

"Yes. She is very important to us."

"This thing is a 'she'? You make it sound like it is a person."

"Well, she is. To us."

"This is foolish frivolity."

The former CEO of RECT Ltd gave his daughter a happy grin. He pulled out his Visa Signature Black card. "Asuna, here, take this."

She took the credit card from him and bowed. "Thank you, father."

Kyouko was aghast. "Shouzou! This is totally irresponsible of you!"

"If this is what my darling princess wants, then she shall have it."

"You're drunk!"

"Maybe I am. Does it matter?"

"Oh.. oh!"

Kyouko whirled and faced Kazuto accusingly. "Don't you think you will get away with this!"

"Huh? Ma'am?"

"I know what you are doing, taking her, now taking her money! You are not going to marry my daughter if I have anything to say about it!"

Shouzou replied, "Now dear, please be nice to the boy. After all, he is a famous celebrity, you know. Should be, anyway.. savior of SAO, rescuer of 6,000, defeater of Sugou, saved those 300..."

At the mention of Sugou, Kyouko went into a fit of apoplexy. "Sugou was innocent! I told you that! It was that monster, Kayaba! It was all his fault! Sugou should be the one marrying Asuna, not this.. this" She pointed at Kazuto. "..this interloper!"

Shouzou stood up unsteadily. "Kyouko, that's quite enough."

His wife then left the room in a huff.

Asuna's father tried to apologize on behalf of his wife, but Asuna and Kazuto waived it off as unnecessary.

That night Asuna and Kazuto stood on the rear balcony of her bedroom. They looked out at the stars.

Asuna was holding him. "I'm sorry about my mother."

"It's all right."

"She is just worried about our family's future. Our family still owns the majority of RECT stock, after all. She just wants the family business to continue on somehow."

"I know."

"You're not really cut out to be a businessman, are you..."

Kazuto admitted he was not.

"Well, maybe you can take some economics classes at the University, and maybe some business courses too. It might grow on you."

"Maybe.."

"Or maybe you can concentrate on the techy side? You know, invent new VR games, new IT tech? Wouldn't that be fun?"

"Uh.. okay I think I'd like that better. But still, who would run the business side? You maybe?"

Asuna was taken aback. "Who, me? Uh, I dunno. I don't think I have the instincts to be a great businesswoman. To run a big business you need someone who is really sharp.."

"Yeah. Someone who knows how to take risks."

Asuna suddenly looked at Kazuto. He returned her gaze. He grabbed her. "A sharp businesswoman..."

She completed his thought. ".. someone who really knows business, who is fearless.."

".. and is highly competent. A natural born leader.."

".. someone with prim and crisp efficiency.."

"But, wait, Kazuto, she's only what, 29?"

He grinned "A perfect age to start climbing up the corporate ladder, don't you think?"

"Oh, you are a genius!" She kissed him.


Asuna and Kazuto were huddled behind Midori in her basement office. She had five windows open on her PC.

"Okay, my snipe program is running. I did time trials with a couple shill bids, and the eBay servers are averaging 1.25 second turnaround right now. Right in the range."

New competitor bid: 125.0 million yen.

The seconds counted down to the end of the auction. 5..4..

New competitor bid 135.8 million yen.

3..2..

New competitor bid: 150.0 million yen.

"Now!" Midori's snipe algorithm fired at exactly 1.35 seconds.

Snipe complete. Won bid: 150.5 million yen.

Midori wiped her brow. "Wow, that was close."

Asuna and Kazuto ignored her. They were too busy jumping and yelling and hugging each other.


Sachi was sitting on the second step of the porch with Keita.

"Sora, you have got to be kidding me."

"No, really. That girlfriend of mine with the long hair was a total man stealer. She just wanted to get back at another girl who had eyes on me."

"And you fell for it?"

"Well, it wasn't like I had any experience.."

"Keita, you were such a pushover."

"Yeah, heh, I was."

Mrs. Hayashi then opened the door to the side porch. "Lunch is ready!"

"I'm starving. Let's go!"


Midori was eating popcorn at the kitchen nook while watching a news video on her data tablet.

"Today on NHK News, we have a exclusive interview with Yuuko Yamashita and Shino Asada, the two winning sharpshooters in the new popular VR game Gun Gale Online, regarding their remarkable experience in capturing the notorious 'Death Gun', preventing what could have been a series of terrible real life murders..."

The image switched to a woman and a girl. The woman looked to be in her late twenties. She was standing tall and confident. In front of her was a girl who was much shorter and looked to be around age 16. She wore eyeglasses and was blinking her eyes rapidly in the harsh glare of the cameras. The interviewer was trying to talk to the smaller girl, who demurred to her taller shooting partner. The interviewer asked, "So, how did you two meet?"

Griselda explained, "Well, MINFO was informed about a conspiracy involving a former member of the notorious Laughing Coffin player-killer guild in SAO, a person who was planning to commit a series of murders using GGO as cover. We were tasked by the Japanese government to infiltrate the game to try to discover the identity of the culprit, which we did. It was a close call for my partner Asada here. You see, we caught the potential killer just in the nick of time before he could..."

Midori's smartphone rang. She turned the volume down on her tablet.

"Hello?"

"Hi Mom, it's me."

Midori recognized the voice of her older daughter. "Hello, dear."

"I'm going to be staying overnight at the Hayashi's place again. Is that okay?"

"Oh, that's quite all right, Sachi. Just remember to be responsible and use protection like I said."

The voice on the other end sounded exasperated.

"Mom! I'm sleeping in a separate room! And his mother is here!"

"Well, all right then. Just remember to keep calling each night so I know you're okay."

"Fine.. right. Love you, bye!"

Midori smiled as she put away her smartphone.

Minetaka came down the stairs. "Where is everyone tonight?"

Midori stood up and approached her husband. "Asuna and Kazuto are at her place. Sachi is staying overnight with Keita, and Suguha is out at her slumber party."

"So tonight it's just us again?"

"Yes."

"It's a pity."

"Mmm." He smelled her perfume. "Lilacs again. You know what that does to me."

"Yes.."

He picked her up and laid her out on the countertop.

She smiled underneath him.

".. yes I do."


Three months later

Asuna gave him a sharp look. "Kazuto Kirigaya, what have you done?"

He looked at her sheepishly. "Sorry. We wanted it to be a surprise for you."

Asuna was tapping her foot. "What did you do.. tell me!"

Kazuto tried to explain. "Uh, well, you see, I got the idea from the Star Wars. You know, the one with that cute little rolling bot that followed Rey around everywhere on the desert planet? Well, it turns out you can actually buy a BB-8 online now. The expensive ones are amazingly sophisticated, with motorized mechanics that pretty much can do everything the BB-8 could do in the film, complete with a voice recognizer that reacts with simple pre-programmed responses. So we talked about it on the server, and I followed her instructions and bought one and repainted it blue and white like she wanted, then I ripped out the computational guts and rigged it the way she spec'ed it with all new innards: Four top-of-the-line dual Xeon processors on a GTX server class micro-ATX mobo, a ton of extra memory, a petabyte of mini-SSD mass storage, two NVMe ports, then I plugged the SSD into one of the ports and stood back. And then..."

Suddenly something pushed the unlatched bedroom door open. It rolled into the room, a little hyperactive blue-white ball that rolled back and forth in barely contained excitement.

Before Kazuto could make the proper introductions it bounced itself right into Asuna's arms. As she tried to hold it without dropping it the eye swivelled around and met Asuna's stunned gaze.

"Mama!"


Six months later

"Kazuto, what is it?" Asuna continued to look at the small red object in amazement.

"Kayaba gave it to me. He called it the 'World Seed'."

"Hmm."


One year later

Kazuto was taking his University entrance exam at the SAO Returnees school. He had finished the math part of the test and had gone back to recheck one of the extra-credit AP math problems, a particularly difficult one involving integration by parts over a partial differential equation. He wasn't able to answer that one. He tried again, writing out the factors one by one, when he stopped on the third one. He couldn't quite remember the formula. He lifted the stylus and looked at the PDE integration problem again, trying to remember if it was a cross product (X) or a dot product. Which one was it?

Suddenly an 'X' appeared on his test tablet.

He looked up at the ceiling and hissed, "I said I didn't want any help!"

The test proctor, who was sitting at the front desk, looked up in Kazuto's direction and frowned sharply at him. Kazuto lowered his head back down sheepishly towards his test tablet and pretended to look at it.

The test proctor went back to reading his book. Kazuto whispered again more softly, "Yui, knock if off!"

The 'X' disappeared.

Kazuto sighed and went on to the history part of the exam. A few minutes later he received an unprompted reminder on his test tablet of the full name of the Tokugawa shogun who had started the Edo period.**

"Yui, just stop it!"


17 years later

The beach party was in full swung. Sachi was sunning herself next to Yui while the man-children played volleyball with their younger brethren.

Asuna waddled up. Sachi opened her eyes under her sunglasses and said, "Hey, you're blocking my sun."

The older Kirigaya mother frowned. "Sachi, it's simply not fair. How in the world do you maintain that bikini bod at age 34 with nine children?"

"Asuna, you know very well that only three of them are mine."

The rest of the Hayashi clan were adopted or were foster kids that were rescued from Japan's warehoused orphanages. Sachi herself was a well known fixture in her Diet member's offices as a lobbyist for the reform of Japan's scandalous system for taking care of unwanted children.

Asuna grinned, "Yes, well, you'd rescue every child in Japan if you could."

Sachi noted Asuna's distended belly. "Soon, right?"

"Any day now. Another boy."

"My my, his grandma will certainly be happy."

"Which one?"

"Hmm, both, I suppose."

Meanwhile, Kazuto was busy chasing his second oldest son. "Come back here with the ball!"

Asuna turned and faced the other girl who was laying on a beach towel under the bright sun.

She shook her head again. "Yui, you do not need a suntan."

The five year old girl sat up. "Yes I do!"

"Yui, your skin is a carbon-fiber polymer stretched over a molybdenum frame. It does not tan."

"Well, I don't care! I'm tanning with Aunt Sachi!" She laid back down again.

Sachi patted her arm. "Good girl." She laid back down herself.

Suguha ran past chasing Shinici, who had caught the ball from Kazuto's son and was now playing keep-away from his wife.

A long limo drove up on the road behind the beach gathering and stopped. A 46 year old woman in a black business suit climbed out of the back seat along with her imposing looking bodyguard. She walked quickly towards Asuna.

Kazuto spotted Griselda walking up and joined them. "Hey, what's up?"

The CEO of RECT Ltd looked at both of them with concern. "Asuna, Kazuto, we have a big problem." She then turned and looked at Sachi. "It involves you too." Sachi stood up and joined them. Keita walked over as well.

Kazuto asked, "A problem?"

Yuuko Yuuki*** said, "Yes. It involves your oldest son, Riku, and Sachi and Sora's oldest daughter, Rin."

Asuna said anxiously, "Riku and Rin? What happened to them?"

"You know of RECT's newest VRMMO game, the one we contracted with Nintendo, Mario Ultra Adventure?"

Kazuto said, "Uh, yeah?"

"Something happened. Your two oldest are trapped inside."

Kazuto groaned, "Oh crap."

He turned. "Yui, what do you think? Hey, Yui. Hello?" He walked over to where she was still laying on her bath towel. She wasn't moving.

Griselda knelt next to Yui's body and pulled out a scanning instrument. "She's not inside there anymore." She stood up. "She must have.."

Sachi did a facepalm. "Hoo boy, not again..."

Asuna clutched her husband's arm tightly. "You think they are all okay?"

Kazuto thought a moment, then he reassured her. "I'm sure they're all fine. After all, nobody died when we got stuck, so I don't think anything will happen to them now. Besides, Yui will make sure they are all safe."


Riku was clutching the goomba's head for dear life.

"Aaaahhhh!"

Rin was chasing after him on a flying turtle. "Riku you idiot, wait for me!"

And Yui laughed.

The End


A/N:

* See the web site cloakers dot org. Stingray cell towers are ubiquitous in Silicon Valley and in Washington D.C. where secrets are being stolen wholesale over the airwaves by foreign governments with seeming impunity. It is an open scandal why foreign powers are being allowed to run these phony cell towers where they eavesdrop on cell phone conversations by the millions. See the article Stingray Used Near White House [2018/06/05]. (You would think the FBI or some other federal agency would try to stop them. Dunno why they don't.)

** Ieyasu Tokugawa (1603)

*** In 2034, Yuuko Yamashita became the CEO of RECT Ltd. Several years earlier Takeshi had run off with a young woman that he had met during a business conference in Okinawa, and eventually Yuuko divorced the faithless jerk. As CEO, Yuuko Yamashita began to work closely with Asuna's older brother, Kouichirou Yuuki, in the day-to-day operations of the company. Over the years Yuuko and Kouichirou's close working relationship inevitably blossomed into something more, and eventually they were married. Kyouko had of course idolized Griselda as a vastly superior replacement for Sugou and was quite happy with the end result. (Unlike Sugou, Japan's arcane business ownership laws do not require adoption on the female side.) Griselda's real name is now Yuuko Yuuki (!). Her bodyguard is of course Shibata.