Author's Pre-notes: This story was a sci-fi experiment submitted to the AE Stories contest alternately titled as The Imperial Knight. As of November 15th, the piece has not been published on the community portal/chronicles and has yet to be reviewed by the judge panel.

In general, this story is an alternate universe where the apocalyptic future in Gun Gale arc (barren wastelands + starships) was actually realized, although elements from the other SAO arcs were used as well. There are no original characters in this story. Sinon (Asada Shino) is the captain of a fleet cruiser, retaining her silent and cool personality as a deadly sniper. Kirito (Kirigaya Kazuto) is the commanding officer of a covert ops squad, who remains true to his title as the black swordsman. Seriously, this pairing needs way more love.

I intended for this story to be a one-shot as I had another story named Yggdrasil in the works. Its future depends on the readers/your initial reaction and response. Hope you enjoy reading this as much as I had fun writing it.


Integrity Knight


Asada Shino sat on the captain's chair in the rather empty bridge, while nonchalantly flipping through the pages of a pretty fascinating book. Its words described of a place where the sapphire oceans reflected the gentle rays of the sun, and the fertile lands sheltered the peaceful lifestyles of the people. It was the home planet of her parents and the legacy of the many generations before them, though she herself had no memories of such a paradise. It was lost a long time ago to the consuming fires of war.

A legendary campaign took place, extinguishing all life in the galaxy at its end. Data archives indicated that the remnants of the Integrity Fleet managed to pitifully evacuate ten outpost ships. The refugees who were only a few million in number were confined to stasis chambers, due to size and resource constraints. To prevent mental decay, a part of the fleet's computer network was partitioned to create a virtual world as a temporary realm for them to live in. It was essentially an extravagant dream before the chaos and suffering, which would never end until the fated day the fleet finishes its mission. It was their duty to arrive safely at a free colony of the empire.

As an infant, she too was implanted with a Nerve gear chip and locked into the virtual world. Each of the five senses was manipulated to a perfect degree that she couldn't tell the differences between fantasy and reality. It seemed like a normal, privileged life to grow up in a home where all one's needs were easily met. It was fun to make friends with children her age and explore the tamed wilderness to the crime free cities. It was fulfilling to attend the military academy that her widowed mother chose for her. Little did she know half of her teachers and classmates were products of artificial intelligence. Even though the quality of education was excellent, there was an unusual amount of indoctrination to faithfully serve the empire with all their might.

All of her hard work as a cadet eventually paid off. One of the most memorable days was her very own knighting ceremony under the crown. As an Integrity Knight, she was assigned to a military base close to her hometown. She was a gifted tactician and a master with the antique PGM Hecate II sniper rifle retrofitted to fire ion particle bolts. Over the years, she dealt with pirates harassing the local spaceports, planned rescues in times of natural disasters, and quelled civil unrest with conspiracists who believed that their world was false. It was ironic when she found out in the end that they were right.

She was forcefully ejected from the virtual world, heralding her prestigious promotion to Captain, though it was a complete and utter shock to her. Even though she felt somewhat out of place, it was her duty to receive command of the starship, HMS Archer, a cruiser class vessel. The last senior officer died of a rare disease, a case unheard of in this era. Almost every single person was genetically modified at birth in a research lab to live a disease free life and have an aesthetically pleasing appearance.

In fact, the miracles of modern medicine has made it possible for humans to achieve biological immortality, where in theory, a person could live forever if they managed to avoid severe trauma. Her own body was a model example, since she ceased to age after her 21st birthday. She realized that the state of the universe was truly pathetic, where it was possible to live in their physical prime forever, yet easily die to the laser blast of a riffle or the thermonuclear explosion of a missile. Just how much was her life really worth?

"Captain Shino," a monotone voice echoed from one of the computer terminals. It was a notification from her personal AI adjutant. "Incoming transmission from the Fleet Admiral. Status, priority one."

"I see," she muttered silently. The call did arrive on time as expected. "Patch me through."

The Nerve gear chip had an added feature which made such conference meetings very convenient. Integrated reality, not to be confused with virtual reality, was a process where sight and hearing were partially manipulated. Hence, it was possible for her to perceive and communicate with a caller several light years away. It was definitely a step up from the outdated hologram terminals, which was oversized and fixed into one place.

"Good morning," greeted the newly materialized figure of Admiral Kayaba Akihiko. He was dressed in a regal uniform that was highly decorated with awards. "Is everyone here?"

"Yes sir," replied vice-admiral Koujiro Rinko who wore an impassive expression. The once empty bridge was seemingly transformed into an amphitheater exclusively for officers. "All captains are present and accounted for."

"Then without further ado, let's begin the meeting," the man said in a charismatic tone. "As you are all well aware, the Integrity Fleet will soon arrive at the latest checkpoint. It is a well-developed base located in an isolated asteroid field. The inhabitants are under the flag of an allied nation and have promised to help resupply us with much needed resources. In addition, they are granting us access to their jump gate, which would greatly expedite our mission. I want a status report from the fleet commanders. Lady Asuna, if you would get the ball rolling?"

"Understood," replied a beautiful woman in an equally stunning red and white dress. It was unconventional, but traditionally required from members of the royal family pursuing a military career. "Our fleet carriers are in need of minor repairs. The only serious case is HMS Lancer, as our inspection teams missed a damaged side-bus on their routine pass. Also, HMS Assassin is having problems syncing its fighters to our battle net and will most likely require replacement hardware. That is all."

"Thank you Lady Asuna," said a rugged looking man bearing the uniform of the Royal Marines patched with a holo-tag labeled Klein. He then stood up, while quickly refreshing the main briefing screen with new data. "I would like to report that most of our units suffered minor damage in the last skirmish against suspicious ships claiming who bore the Laughing Coffin insignia. The few units that did suffer major casualties were merged into other more intact groups. I recommend holding back on use of boarding shuttles, since our frigate class ships are low on ordinance and cannot provide adequate covering fire as required of standard procedure- Unless Vice Admiral Andrew Mills is willing to lend us some ships."

"I apologize, but we are in the same boat Colonel Tsuboi Ryōtarō," replied a tall, muscular giant with an intimidating tone. Despite his appearance, she found her superior to have a mild, gentle nature. "I cannot afford to lend you any of my precious subordinates. The plasma weaponry on our destroyers, cruisers and heavy cruisers are only at half strength. We should just hold off on any engagements until we arrive at the asteroid base."

"Is that really possible?" Asked one of the captains. The question seemed to create restless murmurs amongst a worried audience. "Just hear me out. We all know that the Integrity Fleet has been traveling for several decades now. Our lack of contact with the empire means that we have virtually zero intelligence on issues regarding diplomacy. For all we know, our destination could be already occupied, or worse, the base's inhabitants may even be our enemies. We should reevaluate our approach vectors."

"Are you insane?" Another captain stood up in anger. His clenched fists were shaking, almost as if he was resisting the urge to throw a punch at the intangible figure before him. "Our empire has been allied with this nation for more than a millennia. I have friends on that base and you have the spine to suggest that they are all traitors. Screw you. They would never do such a-"

"That's enough Captain Kibaou," the admiral quickly cut in. His stern tone somehow overpowered the short tempered man in an instant. "Captain Kirigaya, your concerns have been considered, though I can do little to turn this fleet around. Without those supplies, many of our passengers will die."

There was an awkward moment of spine shuddering silence. The possibility of betrayal was something that everyone wanted to deny. It was a fear fully realized at the last checkpoint, which resulted in the fleet almost losing an outpost ship. That was a time when she was still living in the virtual world and the server administrators had to generate a natural disaster to cover up the deaths due to damaged stasis cells. Well, it wasn't like they could afford to sit and wait.

"Then I suggest we take some precautionary measures," she finally spoke up, which caused all eyes to focus on her. "I agree with Captain Kirigaya. Even one engagement can bring our mission to critical failure. This meeting shows that we are lacking the firepower to contest a well-fortified asteroid base. Even if we were in possession of everything needed to carry out a direct assault, the outpost ships would still be put at risk. We would have to divide our forces to guard our people, which would severely cripple any possible offensive."

"Oh really?" The admiral's brow raised in interest, his voice almost seemingly impressed. "Have you read the reports from our scouts Captain Shino? The base lacks scanners, is patrolled by a lone dreadnaught and is encircled by a single layer of planetary rings."

"With all due respect sir, the casualties for both sides will be too large," she replied coldly, well aware that she was being tested. "Besides, a larger mobile fleet could warp in at any time from a neighboring region as enemy reinforcements, which would spell utter disaster for us."

"Amusing," The man gave a rare smile, which caused even the stoic vice-admirals to step back in shock. "Alright then, let us hear your plan."

ooo

A full week passed since the meeting.

The Integrity Fleet already reached its destination long ago, hidden far away from the asteroid base. Only HMS Archer approached its daunting defenses alone. Members of her crew who were with their families in the virtual world only days ago were now at their battle stations. It was almost like a suicide run, yet every man and woman was given the choice to freely stay behind without consequence. Instead, everyone had volunteered to come along with such strong resolve.

"Quite the group you've gathered here," whistled Captain Kirigaya as he passed through the bulkhead blast doors. Even personnel from other starships requested to be a part of the operation. "This takes me back to our cadet days. You would always create these crazy plans and I will always come in to save the day when things go wrong."

"I'm pretty sure that you were always the one in need of a rescue," she replied while bearing a sly smile. At the corner of her eye, she noted that the man did look good in the midnight black covert ops suit. "And who cares if my plans were crazy if they work out for the best?"

"I think the phrase, 'prepare for the worst and hope for the best' is most applicable here," he chuckled as his palm rested upon her head. It was one of her pet peeves, but she was willing to let it go today. "Hey Asada? Have you ever wondered what would happen to us after the mission was completed?"

"I've actually never thought about it before," she replied with a curious cat like expression. "I suppose that our destination is naturally a habitable planet, otherwise the empire would have to commit to a terraforming project. It would probably be just as beautiful as world described in the book you bought me. It's possible that society there would be modeled after the virtual life we are used to. After an honorable discharge, we can maybe get civilian jobs, buy a nice house, raise a large family-"

"Wha- What?" Kirigaya Kazuto stammered out. He then glared at the eavesdroppers who were smiling in amusement, some even giggling uncontrollably. "That last part. You just said-"

"Ah," she put a hand over her mouth. Her cheeks felt warm, no doubt that they were a bright shade of red. Relationships in the military were considered to be very unprofessional. "Y- You must have misheard."

"I've learned to listen to your quiet voice and- I wouldn't mind a life like that," he whispered silently. A brief moment passed before he released quite a heavy sigh. "Listen Asada. I may be a little paranoid and it's highly unlikely that the enemy has reached an isolated base sitting on a worthless chunk of rock. But just in case we do confirm the worst, let's just turn around and rendezvous with the fleet."

"I can't do that," she whispered back, while hoping to maintain the good morale of the crew. "My plan is a long shot, yet many lives would be saved if it works."

"I knew you would say something like that," he replied with a tone of regret. "You're so stubborn like always."

"I know."

"Captain Shino," her personal AI chimed in with such perfect timing. "You are being hailed on an encrypted frequency from the asteroid base's command center."

"Open the channel."

"Attention unknown vessel," a voice said in a foreign language, which was translated in real time by the starship's computers. "This is a restricted area. Please identify yourself."

"This is Captain Asada Shino of the HMS Archer," she answered calmly under the strangers piercing gaze. "Our cruiser has arrived on schedule as specified by the diplomats from our empire, identification code alpha, epsilon, two, zero, one, two. We are here to resupply and use your jump gate."

"Please stand by while we verify," the man's face was still unreadable. She could hear some incoherent words in the background. "Directive confirmed. This is Logistics Commander Sugou Nobuyuki of Centauri Prime. We offer our condolences for your home planet. Tell me, are there any more starships with you?"

"No. Our ship has not encountered any other survivors," she feigned a look of sadness. Now was the moment of truth. "Commander Nobuyuki. Permission to dock at one of your shipyards for repairs?"

"Denied."

"What?" Her heart sank at that single word. "Please explain yourself."

"As of today at twenty-one hundred hours, your ship is in direct violation of five major state laws," he replied with a loathsome expression filled with sick, twisted pleasure. It was as if commander was staring at a tasty snack. "Power down your shields and prepare to be boarded. Your cruiser is now my property."

"We are allies," she exclaimed with anger. "At the very least, allow us to return to neutral space."

"Denied," Commander Nobuyuki repeated in annoyance. "We were allies, but not anymore. I'm not a patient man. Power down your shields and I can maybe guarantee your lives. Otherwise, I would have to make do with selling the debris of your starship as less valuable scrap metal."

"I refuse."

"Very well," the man spat. "For the record, you are not the first of your empire's fleet to suffer the same fate. Have a good day."

"Dreadnaught at twelve o'clock, distance 50. They're charging their weapons," Kazuto stated calmly as everyone else on the bridge rushed into action at their terminals. "Our conversation would have to wait. My guess is that we're sticking to the plan."

"Of course," she replied as a loud warning alarm blared overhead, her fingers accurately typing a long list of numbers on her own virtual console. "Helmsman. Take the ship to these coordinates. Evasive maneuvers."

"Aye aye ma'am."

It was a classic textbook example of a one-sided fight. Dreadnaught class ships were worth fifty cruiser class ships in invested resources. Even the strongest reinforced armor of a heavy cruiser class would melt like a hot knife through butter against a dreadnaught's massive photon weaponry. It was then that the enemy's port side lined with many canons fired a timed barrage. The spherical energies packed with immeasurable concussive force lit up the darkness of the void like a yellow sun's solar flare. At this distance, travel time was instantaneous. But it wasn't over. HMS Archer found refuge within the asteroid belt.

"Being pelted by high velocity space rocks or melted by photon cannons," Kazuto muttered to himself at the absurdity of the situation. He was hanging to a bolted desk for dear life, since the ship riveted against what could only be described as sonic depth charge explosions. "Asada! Planetary rings, distance 60. Our ship is being locked on."

"I got it," she replied, her heart racing. Her eyes were glued to an atomic wrist watch. Timing here was important to the ship's survival. "Initiate an emergency blow on my mark."

Planetary rings were in essence, massive stationary orbital platforms commonly encircling well populated planets or highly valuable moons. Such defenses put ground armies, oceanic navies; entire installations fitted with missile silos and turrets the size of cities to shame. It would cause massive losses for any opponent committed to a siege, and the main reason she insisted for the Integrity Fleet to stay far back. Its main gun alone outclassed all the guns of a dreadnaught class combined. No amount of obstacles would shield her cruiser from this attack.

"Mark."

At that moment, the antimatter reactor on HMS Archer expended a considerable amount of energy. Just like an underwater submarine from ancient times, the cruiser shifted upwards and dodged the cohesive beam of energy at the very last second. Space and time seemed to twist as the laws of physics were seemingly violated. Any mass caught within the attack simply ceased to exist. That was too close.

"Talk about overkill," said Kazuto as he pointed to the newly lit tactical plots." Five carriers warping in at three o'clock, distance 200. There's a salvo of missiles and a fighter drop heading towards our location. Time to intercept, forty-two seconds."

"I want point-defense up now," she replied as her fingers inputted the new tactical data into operations plan. "There are fifty missiles followed by three hundred starfighters."

Military-grade missiles of this era were practically the size of a standard residential apartment building. The kinetic force and heat from a thermonuclear explosion was not something easily resisted by shield technology, though large capital ships such as the battleship class were exceptions. To a smaller ship, it was simply a matter of how many missiles a captain could shoot down before they entered terminal attack range.

Decoys, electronic counter measures and a volley of coordinated plasma fire caused a brilliant display of lights as many fighters and missiles died within visual range. Due to the presence of dummy missiles, point defense crews had to disable their auto-targeting systems and manually fire at the actual targets. Despite valiant efforts, HMS Archer did not have enough to stop it all and three missiles collided against its hull. The bridge shook violently from the energy feedback emitted from the failing shield generators. Generator redundancy snapped up the emergency shields, which eventually failed as well.

"Not yet," she gritted her teeth in frustration. Her plan needed more time. "This is Captain Shino to engineering. Give me a damage report."

"Shields down, hull integrity compromised," the voice on the intercom replied with obvious distress. "Fires on all decks except on those that are venting atmosphere. Main reactor is approaching critical meltdown and needs to be jettisoned. HMS Archer is dead in the water ma'am."

"Do we still have weapons?"

"Our plasma batteries are offline," ensign Shinkawa Kyouji replied. "However, plasma torpedoes from tubes five to thirty are ready to be fired."

"Relay the battle report back to the Integrity Fleet," she whispered, deeply saddened that the ship entrusted to her was about to go down. At the very least, she was able to prevent a surprise ambush for the rest of her comrades who stayed behind. "Concentrate all fire on the nearest carrier. I'll take care of the rest."

"Asada," Kazuto sighed as he watched the remaining fighters close in. It was over. "You've done enough. It's okay now. You need to-"

"Not yet!"

HMS Archer fired its weapons once more in an act of defiance. Unlike missiles, burning red plasma traveled faster and could not be intercepted. The tradeoff was that these torpedoes lacked a homing system. Even so, a few well-placed shots melted away a carrier's shields. One last lucky torpedo found its mark on the exposed bridge and instantly vaporized it. Upon closer inspection, one could see escape pods being launched due to confusion amongst its crew. The enemy vessel was damaged enough to be considered mission killed.

However, this act did not stop the enemy starfighters who swarmed in like wasps. Laser fire was poured into HMS Archer's broken hull and this time, there were no shields to stop it. One pulse even penetrated through the bridge, its force tossing those nearby around. A direct hit to the reactor caused a blinding explosion that sheared the ship in two, which was followed by a crushing gravity implosion. Lights flickered and alarms were cut off mid-tone in the wreckage due to loss of power.

Finally, one last beam from the planetary ring enveloped the world around her. There was a loud roar and a flash of red, then there was nothingness.

ooo

"Ugh-" Kazuto groaned in pain. It felt like a sledgehammer was swung down onto his head. "Asada...?"

He pushed open the door of his stasis cell and stumbled out. It was all thanks to Asada's plan, that he was still very much alive. At this very moment, he was physically aboard HMS Saber, a frigate class vessel. The clever use of the Nerve gear chip implants allowed him to possess a proxy avatar aboard HMS Archer. However, due to the precision required to perform tasks like remote piloting a starship, proxy avatars sent back a massive amount of sensory data.

The last explosion from the antimatter reactor was probably responsible for all his pain receptors violently firing off. Asada must have disconnected him from his proxy avatar at the very last moment, even though he could have initiated the logout process himself. He was worried that the girl would value the crew's safety above her own and being the last one to disconnect. If Asada's proxy avatar was hit by the planetary ring's photon beam, the feedback may bear consequences of fatal mental decay.

"Oh no," he dashed to her stasis cell and pulled the emergency release lever. The limp form of Asada Shino fell into his arms. "Come on. Please wake up."

"Kazuto?" Her eyelids fluttered, but the dilated pupils lacked any focus. She then giggled weakly. "Heh heh. I made sure everyone was disconnected, but I ran out of time for myself. The captain must go down with the ship right?"

"Idiot," he breathed out in relief, since she was conscious. Still, some uncertainty gripped his heart. "Don't talk. Come on, let's get you to the medical bay."

"No. Stop," she mumbled. "I can get there myself. You have to get yourself to the main hangar. You're the unstoppable commanding officer of the flawless stealth forces. It's ultimately your call to initiate phase two of the plan. Better hurry up, there is not much time left to make a decision."

He froze.

Phase two was to take advantage of the chaos caused by HMS Archer. There was a high chance of easily landing HMS Saber undetected on the asteroid base, due to its lack of scanners. He was to lead a team into the enemy's command center and sabotage its battle net. Accomplishing this objective would allow the Integrity Fleet to have an easier time pillaging the enemy. The possibility of eliminating the cowardly Sugou Nobuyuki was just an added bonus.

On the other hand, the confirmation that the asteroid base was hostile was an accomplishment in itself. The Integrity Fleet would have the necessary time to prepare a proper assault. Only HMS Archer was lost today, though her crew was preserved. He really did not want to see Asada die to the effects of mental decay. The advanced hospitals found on the outpost ships would guarantee her wellbeing. All he had to do was simply order HMS Saber's recall.

It was an Integrity Knight's duty versus his personal desires. If Asada was in his position, which would she choose? What would she really want?

"All right," he replied after what seemed like an agonizing eternity. His hands upon reflex reached for his beloved photon sabre. "Commencing phase two."


November 15, 2012


Author's Post-notes: HMS is an abbreviation for 'Her Majesty's Ship'. The names Saber, Archer, Lancer, Assassin reference a very famous series, which some of you can already guess.

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