Chapter 1: RTW

November 6th, 2022
12:53 PM JST

Consider the life cycle of a virtual raindrop.

It begins with Time: a daemon, a metronome, a multithreaded loop of code that tracks elapsed intervals in sub-picoseconds and triggers checks or events based on those intervals, governing the pace of everything. Time allows for the perception of linear events by players and a cycle of seasons to affect the World; the proper order of things becomes definable. The weather setting that results from those seasons triggers a change in perceived humidity or temperature brought by the weather, and might—if the conditions were right—trigger a simulation of rain.

The high-level system regulating all of this doesn't need to be aware—no, that's the wrong word; such things are not truly aware. The system does not require visibility into the state of every simulated raindrop, or the precise amount of life or durability remaining in any given world object. The system has systems that operate below it in the hierarchy (they each with their own dependent subsystems) which have dedicated procedures or even other systems below them for regulating events at that level. The raindrop is spawned by the Weather system based on signals from the Climate system that are determined in part by the passage of Time. Once spawned, the raindrop is a game object—more properly, it is a child object of a Precipitation entity defining a contiguous area affected by rain (or hail, or snow) of a given intensity. Those "raindrop" child objects are processed in a batch job executed a million times per second by the Physics engine, which moves them in accordance with gravity and wind and checks for collision with any other game object. When the raindrop strikes a surface, it is handed off to a different subsystem which produces sound and applies moisture to the impact surface; when striking a player—a person—it is first passed to a more complex and computationally expensive system which simulates all of the interactions with that player's senses.

Akihiko Kayaba had created such a thing, and in the crisp calm that followed the final test of the weather simulation the awe of it filled him with a kind of glorious, exhilarated joy. It was beyond elegant, beyond merely stable.

It was beautiful.

To be sure, it was a certain kind of beauty that could only be found in the mathematical perfection of a complex system: the procedural dance of subroutines as they evaluated observed states and measured rulesets against each other. It was a ballet of automated processes and daemons that were designed to not only maintain equilibrium based on a sophisticated set of metrics, but to accept the margin of error resulting from any imbalances or random elements and incorporate them into the whole.

A random person off the street might look upon the same simulation and nod in ignorance of what went into creating it, appreciating the aesthetic value alone. But in order to truly appreciate the beauty of the system Kayaba had created, you had to understand it well enough to know why it was beautiful.

He sat cross-legged on a cushion of nothing in the middle of the sky, dozens of monitoring windows arrayed in the air around him. Those windows hung there, unsupported, like razor-thin rectangles of light that changed or moved based on his needs. He could just as easily have carved out an arbitrary void within the game world and used that as a virtual workstation, but he liked looking down upon his creation from the clouds, as might a watchful deity eager to see how his creations fared. It was purely symbolic—from five kilometers above the floating castle of Aincrad, there was no way to see any individual person even if any players had been yet logged in—but symbols were important, too.

That was true even if he was the only person around to understand the symbol. And in this world of his own creation, was there anyone whose understanding—or will—mattered more?

The overwhelming array of graphs, metrics and configuration values contained in his array of display windows weren't the only data available to Kayaba—if he'd wanted, he could've summoned a three-dimensional abstraction of the entire Cardinal system that drove the simulation of Aincrad, drilling down to increasing levels of granularity as needed and making any necessary adjustments. But he'd been doing precisely that for days in the lead-up to the opening day of Sword Art Online; at this moment Cardinal was as perfect as it was going to be. There would be bugs—there were always bugs—but he expected them to be minor, and he would be on hand 24/7 to deal with them as they came up.

At that moment, Kayaba was more interested in the clock. The purple digits hung there in the air, overlaid onto the foreground plane of his vision shared by his player HUD.

His eyes made a practiced circuit of all the windows, lingering briefly on the active session statistics: there were currently more than four thousand players who were already in Full Dive, pinging the front door of the system and waiting for the SAO login servers to begin accepting their credentials. That was a good omen; with only ten thousand copies sold in the first printing, it meant that over a third of them were so eager to join the game that they were willing to sit in the sensory nothingness of an inactive link just to get in the very second it opened.

A blinking light caught Kayaba's peripheral vision as the soft chime of SAO's UI sounded; a slight movement of his hand rotated the displays around him so that he didn't have to turn his head. Focusing on the alert accepted the incoming message.

"Chief, this is Akamatsu from the Argus NOC."

"This is Kayaba. I trust all is well?"

The voice of the network engineer on the other end was cool, professional. "Yes, Chief. We're currently L-minus 5 minutes, and the board is green. We've transitioned full control of the simulation to Cardinal, and are standing by to spin up the login servers."

"How long will it take to bring them fully online?" Kayaba could've had the answer quickly enough at his fingertips, but it was always good to get verification from a real person.

"One minute, twelve seconds during yesterday's dress rehearsal—but our firewall is already getting hammered by thousands of login attempts and there's some concern that the servers will fall over once we turn them on and open the floodgates."

Kayaba sighed, and then—as always, even now after all this time—felt a little absurd for doing so. Although his avatar, like all other player avatars in SAO, didn't require oxygen, respiration could be a form of communication as well—and the emotion simulation system allowed players the sensation of doing so in response to their mental state or the nerve impulses to proactively inhale or exhale. Not for the first time he considered toning down the sensitivity of that system or allowing it to be toggled off; it made it very difficult to keep a poker face.

"We have a firewall for a reason, Akamatsu. Go ahead and spin up the login servers, but keep the firewall closed."

"Yes, Chief. But the initial load—"

Kayaba interrupted with a flash of annoyance. "It should take the average player less than ten seconds to log in, depending on their network connection. At that point Cardinal will hand off their connection to the Chargen system and they will no longer produce load on the login servers. At L-minus five seconds, I want you to open the firewall but keep logins disabled until Launch. For the first ten seconds, increase available sessions by 100 per second, with priority given to imported beta test accounts. At L-plus ten, allow in another thousand. If the servers are holding at L-plus twenty, stop throttling. If not, continue to throttle as necessary."

Then he paused. The next part was already in the play-by-play for launch day, but it was too important not to repeat. "After that, you will leave the login servers to me."

Kayaba didn't listen to anything beyond the acknowledgment before closing the connection. Three more minutes. The work of years—the work of a lifetime, really—was two minutes and fifty-seven seconds away from being realized.

No, Kayaba thought suddenly, correcting himself in mid-thought again. That's not true. Sword Art Online, the game, is just over two and a half minutes away from launching.

It would be another four hours before the real game began. That was the realization of his dream.

It was not accurate to say that Akihiko Kayaba never had regrets or second thoughts about his plan. He was too intelligent not to. From the very first time his intentions for the game crystallized, they had revolved around an exhaustive analysis of just how feasible it was—not only to make it happen, but to get away with it.

The answer, in the end, depended on how you defined "getting away with it".

Kayaba was under no illusions that he would ever be a free man in the physical world, ever again. It was, in point of fact, one of his least concerns—one way or another, he had no intention of ever leaving Aincrad. The only thing the physical world had ever offered him was the opportunity to create this world, the real world of Aincrad that had dominated his visions and dreams since childhood. The mere fact that the Nerve Gear worked at all was proof of something that he'd realized long ago: that perception was reality. A person's physical body could waste away, atrophied by inactivity and wracked by discomfort—but as long as that input was blocked off and the person's senses told them that they were in a virtual world that they could experience with all of those senses, that world was their reality. It would only cease to be reality if some aspect of the physical world—the death of the organic body, perhaps—interfered with their experience of the virtual world.

No, getting away with it, in this case, meant thwarting all of the attempts that would undoubtedly be made to undo his plans. It meant ensuring that the game would go on until someone met the conditions that he, Akihiko Kayaba, set forth—ending only then, and not before.

And it was certain that such attempts would be made. Physical intrusion attempts against the Nerve Gear or against the SAO servers themselves; attempts to hack the game or spoof the Nerve Gear devices into thinking they were connected when they weren't. All of these things Kayaba could think of off the top of his head in seconds; it was a certainty that a professional hacker—or, more likely, a cyber-terrorism task force—would think of them, and more as well. If nothing else, there were Internet groups that liked nothing more than a gauntlet thrown at their feet, a declaration of you can't hack this.

As brilliant as he was, Kayaba did not kid himself: anything could be hacked, given sufficient time and resources. Someone could—with enough experimentation—figure out a way to disable the Nerve Gear without triggering the virtual dead man's switch. Anyone with official clearance seeking to thwart him would have full physical access to the SAO servers; it would be impossible to seal off all methods they might use to access the system and interfere with Cardinal.

The trick, then, was to discourage them from trying. To make the consequences of even the slightest failure so dire that allowing the status quo to continue would be preferable. To eliminate loopholes, and make interference too risky to attempt. A demonstration would be in order; many wouldn't believe the threat at first.

Fortunately, I suspect human nature will result in a completely spontaneous demonstration. I need do nothing except allow it to happen.

"Argus NOC here," came the voice over the open channel. "We are at L-minus five; NetOps has opened the firewall."

As the count reached zero, Kayaba watched while the load spiked and then leveled off on the login servers, a hundred connections filling up in milliseconds. The load graph ratcheted up once per second as the throttled player connections surged, and then climbed towards the top of the graph at ten seconds after launch. He nodded, satisfied; server stability was holding. There would be some slowdown initially, but the latency was acceptable.

And after today, the login servers wouldn't matter. He would be retasking them for other purposes.

Several of the windows surrounding him were the output from invisible virtual "cameras" placed at arbitrary points in the game world; at the moment all of them were focused on the central plaza where all players should spawn at the beginning. In each of these views, Kayaba could see a series of blue flashes as players completed the character generation process and appeared in the game world. A quick glance at the respective loads on the login servers and Chargen subsystem confirmed his earlier suspicions: giving beta testers priority for login slots had been a smart move. Most of them imported their beta character data and quickly moved on, freeing up more resources so that the Chargen system wouldn't be overloaded at first.

Here and there, he zoomed in on players to watch their reactions. He recognized some of the beta testers immediately on sight; for others, it was not difficult to tell who had experience moving in this environment and who didn't. There was an acclimation process and it was different for every person, but almost everyone had at least a short period of disorientation and clumsiness while they adjusted. The beta testers, for the most part, moved as naturally as they would have in their own skins.

And everyone was happy. Awe-struck, amazed, shocked, stunned; eyes wide with childlike wonder. Occasionally he would highlight a player to hear what they were saying, and more often than not it was some kind of exclamation to those near them about just how real everything was. It filled him with pride at his accomplishment.

For many of them, he knew, the joy would be short-lived. The world—both this one and the physical world outside—would change irrevocably in a handful of hours. Some would adapt, some would not. Many would die, not all of them through any fault of their own. But although he might make adjustments here and there, Kayaba was determined to allow the emergent qualities of this game world—and those within it—to manifest themselves with minimal GM interference.

Which didn't mean there weren't still issues to deal with. "Chief, we've got a problem."

Kayaba's attention returned immediately to the communication line from the network operations center. "Tell me."

"We've got a few bug reports so far, which is to be expected, but I'm concerned about this one complaining that there's no logout button on their menu. The player says they just logged in briefly before work to check out the game, and now they can't get out. This could be bad PR if we don't solve it quickly and it hits social media."

So soon? Kayaba had expected this, but not for at least another hour—who'd want to get out of the game minutes after logging in? He focused on the bug tracker window, and grimaced. There were at least two such complaints. "You're supposed to be monitoring network integrity, Akamatsu. Leave the bug tracking and public relations to me. I'll investigate the logout issue."

It was the first such complaint, but he knew it wouldn't be the last. The logout button had been disabled by design from the very beginning—it was, in fact, more accurate to say that no such button existed in the production version of SAO. The code simply wasn't there, and so couldn't be reactivated even if the system glitched or someone hacked it.

This was an intended feature—one which the outside world, sooner or later, would notice. The player who was late for work might not have someone watching out for them, but others would. Spouses or kids who wouldn't come out for dinner when they were expected. There were warnings on the Nerve Gear packaging about the possible dangers of removing the device while it was actively transmitting, but not everyone would read them—or believe them. And some might simply cut the network connection. Therefore, his plan called for the key intervention to occur at 5:30 PM. He would've preferred sooner, but he needed to ensure that as many players as possible had time to login.

Kayaba's gaze found the clock in his HUD: L-plus ten minutes. Everything was holding stable.

It was time for the first phase. And right on cue, Cardinal spoke to him.

To be accurate, it wasn't Cardinal that spoke. Cardinal, per se, did not have a voice; it was simply the name given to the vast network of dependent systems that regulated the world of Aincrad. But like all systems, Cardinal needed a way to communicate data to its operators, and those operators needed to refer to it as something. And so when it was necessary, it used the system message announcer, a disembodied female voice that was based on voiceprint samples recorded from the wife of one of the SAO art directors.

Kayaba found the voice pleasant. Most of the time, when a player heard it, they would be hearing the results of his decisions. In this case, it was a reminder he'd set for himself.

"You wished to be informed when this system reached 75% of login capacity. There are currently 7,842 players logged into the game world."

"Thank you, Cardinal," Kayaba said, although the acknowledgement wasn't truly necessary. Cardinal could draw on the same natural language processing systems that governed NPC interactions, but it didn't really care whether or not he responded to it. But it amused him to think of Cardinal as yet another entity in this game tasked to serve him; he could, if desired, override nearly any aspect of the system's normal functioning.

Which was one reason why he'd asked for that reminder. "Initiate Phase One. Start by sequestering all GM accounts in their own void space and stripping their admin credentials." They're going to start getting suspicious and I don't want any more bug reports coming in.

The afterthought had barely finished before Cardinal answered. "Done. Phase One initiated. Please confirm each milestone before execution."

A few strokes on the virtual keyboard before him confirmed that all of the SAO GMs on hand for launch day had been teleported to a void space where they couldn't communicate or otherwise interfere. "Excellent. What is the status of MHCP001?"

"Dormant," came the quick reply. "As you requested, this system has instructed MHCP001 to suppress its player interaction protocols. It will monitor passively but take no actions until autonomy is authorized."

Kayaba had been on the fence about that particular detail right up until the end. MHCP001—or "Yui" as it would refer to itself during player interactions—was one of the last elements of artificial life he'd designed for SAO, and one of which he was extremely proud. It pained him to see all that effort wasted, but MHCP001 was a dangerous loophole that he didn't dare leave open. It required admin credentials in order to perform its role, but allowing an entity with GM powers to interact with players—particularly an entity with an existential purpose of making those players happy—was begging for his plans to be hindered by unintended consequences.

With 10,000 players and the entire outside world that would be arrayed against him, there were already more than enough random factors in the success of SAO. Kayaba was not about to leave anything to chance that didn't have to be. So while he still struggled with the necessity of disabling MHCP001, the middle ground compromise he'd reached with himself was to simply prohibit it from interacting with players. At least allowing it to still monitor the mental health of the player base—albeit non-interactively—could potentially provide Kayaba with useful data.

And at any rate, it was done now. "Cardinal, give me a session count."

"There are currently 8,160 players logged into the game world."

Kayaba nodded. That matched what he saw on one of his dashboards. "Inform me when we reach 9,000."

"Acknowledged. Next milestone is Nerve Gear firmware package 2.01. Update now?"

That, there, was the life-or-death question. The power output and frequency range of the Nerve Gear was factory-limited by a firmware setting—theoretically, the device was capable of producing enough of the right kind of signals to do instant and permanent damage to the human brain, but to comply with consumer safety regulations the firmware restricted all output signals to a narrow limit of ranges and intensities.

But firmware lived in that middle ground between the immutable characteristics of hardware and the ephemeral changeability of software. It could be altered.

Within seconds of delivering that update, every single Nerve Gear connected to the game would become a death trap. If a character reached zero hit points, or if any of the tampering conditions were tripped, it would kill the player. Once updated, the firmware would be burned into a read-only state—it would be a change as irrevocable as the deaths that would result.

The press release packages were ready. A single word or press of a button would deliver them, all at once, to the police and a selected sampling of major media outfits. Those would have to go out as soon as the update did.

Early in the planning for SAO, it had been tempting to have death as a consequence from the beginning. No dramatic announcement, no grace period, no tutorial—just let players figure out on their own, organically, that when someone died they didn't come back. The psychological elements of that approach would've been fascinating to observe; it would've been very interesting to see how long it took for the truth to sink in. But as soon as the real-world deaths started, players would stop logging in. Kayaba didn't expect to get a player in SAO for every one of the ten thousand copies sold, but he wanted it as close as possible. That meant leaving the bait on the hook for a few more hours yet.

And aside from all that, beyond his own need for the occasion to be marked by the proper drama and ceremony, there was one other fatal flaw in the death-from-the-beginning approach. A fundamental tenet of good game design was that character death should be the result of a foreseeable, avoidable player mistake. With the lives of the actual players on the line, it wasn't just unfair to kill them without giving them warning that their lives were now at stake—it was bad design.

No, Kayaba decided. Not yet. "Stand by on the firmware update. At precisely 5:30 PM JST, execute the World Event 01 package against all currently logged in players—and against all GM accounts except mine. Stagger the teleports at 200 per second, keep partied players close to each other at the destination, and deliver the firmware update to each player as they are teleported."

"Acknowledged," said Cardinal in its digitized mezzo-soprano. "No further milestones remain before 5:30 PM."

This time, Kayaba did not respond. He saved his active window layout and swept them all closed with a two-handed wave that ended with both hands clapped in front of him, as if summoning a spirit from the virtual wind that whipped past him this high above Aincrad. With a pinch-and-drag motion, he opened the SAO system menu and withdrew a thin silver mirror from his inventory, contemplating his reflection.

His avatar here in his private pocket of sky was a nearly perfect reproduction of his real self: a thin man with pale skin and a pinched expression, his angular features topped by a head of sandy brown hair. A long white lab coat wrapped around standard office attire: tie, slacks, dress shirt, all of which were rendered with remarkable clarity and realism using SAO's fabric simulation routines.

This isn't me, Kayaba thought. Not anymore. Perhaps never again. He tapped the mirror to bring up its status menu. It was identical to an item that would be spawned in the inventories of each player as part of the World Event package, but his GM credentials gave him an additional option that the players wouldn't have: Avatar Select. His finger hovered over the option; even though he could change this at any time, setting it still felt like a one-way trip.

Then, in a moment of decision, Kayaba stabbed his finger down at the option on the mirror's pop-up window, and made a secondary selection. A blue flash surrounded him, and when the light faded away the smile that he saw in the mirror was no longer Akihiko Kayaba's. The silver-gray hair had a kind of dignity and gravitas that Kayaba himself could never muster, and his features were smoother, his build stronger and more youthful. Instead of his lab attire, he wore a simple white tunic secured at his waist with a leather belt.

Dismissing the mirror back into his inventory, he took a few moments to spawn and equip some basic starting equipment, every action taking him closer to becoming the person he would be from here on out. A sword and shield, of course; although SAO had no job or class system, the persona he intended to take on would be a kind of paladin—someone who would inspire others to follow.

Now I look like the hero I'll be to them, he thought, lips twisting into a smile. No, not a hero—more like the benefactor who nurtures the heroes and gives them direction during the early parts of the game, only to betray them at a dramatic moment near the end. A proper RPG plot, if a little predictable. But if there's anyone genre-savvy enough to figure it out, they'll be expecting it from an NPC, not another player.

"Well, Cardinal?" He turned in place as he stood on a firm, flat floor of sky-stuff, arms spread. It was a dance that a god might perform as he held court high above the world. "What do you think?"

There was a pause that would've been imperceptible to anyone not used to interacting with Cardinal. "This system is not programmed to offer opinions of player avatars. Do you require assistance?"

One of the downsides of interacting with Cardinal was that the voice didn't come from anywhere in particular—it was a sound that was simply there, everywhere at once, to those with authorization to hear it. It made it hard to glare if you didn't like what it had said.

"No," said Heathcliff, gazing with longing down at the floating castle far below. "I'm going to go play my game now."