One month and two thousand deaths after the launch of SAO, the woman who called herself Verdana on the Internet thought she had enough information to proceed.

To be fair, the deaths weren't her doing—they were what she was trying to prevent. Every one of those lost souls could be laid at the feet of Akihiko Kayaba, genius and madman—the man responsible for imprisoning the minds of ten thousand people within a virtual reality game called Sword Art Online. It was his design that caused the interface device called the Nerve Gear to kill the user whenever something happened to them within the game or if anyone on the outside tampered with the device.

One month had passed, and the police were no closer to finding Kayaba or saving anyone from the game. Two thousand people had died—the worst mass murder ever perpetrated by a Japanese citizen—and yet those on the outside could only stand by and wait for their friends and family to die or wake up.

Verdana was done waiting.

The white light of text against a black background was the only meaningful illumination in the room, casting the woman's angular features into sharp relief and giving them a sinister cast. As the text scrolled, the light became a flicker which gave the appearance of cold magical torchlight, shadows fading in and out around her high cheekbones and long angular jaw. Her eyes, narrowed in concentration, scanned back and forth between two monitors as she watched data packets flow past the sniffer that she'd installed in the hospital network.

It was the most complex protocol she'd ever analyzed, and it had taken her a week of collecting data to be certain that she understood it well enough to do what she wanted to do. A proof of concept, nothing more—a way to demonstrate to herself that her theory was sound. And if it wasn't, well… that's what a proof of concept was for in the first place. Even failure would give her useful data.

She didn't have her own Nerve Gear, but for the purposes of this test she didn't need one—she had no intention of doing anything as foolish as trying to actually join the game. What she had instead was a second PC that was sitting open on her desk, the guts exposed and adorned with a number of soldered or alligator-clipped connections to breadboards and modules sitting carefully on anti-static mats. She uploaded her latest code to the machine she'd kludged together, and then firewalled it off from the rest of her home network.

Closing her eyes for a moment and taking a deep breath, her fingers hovered in indecision over the keyboard, a single typed command waiting for confirmation. Despite her confidence, despite the precautions she'd taken in routing her connection through several proxy servers, there was still the chance that she wouldn't get a second attempt if the first one failed, that even the act of attempting to penetrate SAO's firewall would result in any security holes being closed. Worse still, if her attempt was traced back to her, Kayaba might well decide to punish the attempt in a far more… personal way. She was taking a horrible risk.

But not so horrible, she thought, as the risk of further inaction.

When she opened her eyes again, she exhaled smoothly as a martial artist might when flowing into a technique, and her finger descended on the Enter key.

Status messages and network packets scrolled across her screens far more quickly than she could read them; they were being logged for later analysis. The human-readable part was taking place on a small window which showed a black background and a single blinking cursor, that tiny horizontal flashing line the only activity for several seconds until three glorious words appeared before her:

Connection established.


She was still staring at those three words when the police broke down her door and arrested her.

The police took her hardware, paying special attention to the homebrew spoofing device she'd built. They took all of her external storage as well, and ransacked her office for evidence. She was grateful at least that no one in her family had been home when she was arrested; the fact that it was happening was bad enough, but being humiliated in front of them would've been worse.

They kept her isolated for the better part of a day and a half—long enough for her to begin to panic. The only people she saw were the cops who brought her meals, and they weren't answering questions. Would the police tell her family what she'd done? How were they coping with her disappearance? Why hadn't anyone come to visit her? For that matter, why hadn't anyone questioned her or charged her with a crime? They were supposed to do at least that much within the first 48 hours, and every passing hour filled her with dread of just what kind of case they were building against her.

It was getting on towards late evening of the next day when someone finally came to her. The lights came on in the small cell where she was being kept, and as she blinked sleep from her eyes she was handcuffed and led into a brightly-lit room only slightly larger than her cell, containing nothing but a simple square table and a chair on each side. Both the table and the chairs were bolted to the floor; Verdana wondered briefly just what they expected a slender Japanese office lady to do to a trained police officer.

The man who entered shortly thereafter was not a police officer—at least, he didn't look like her idea of one. If anything he looked a little like her supervisor at work; he was about as slender as she was, had a similar shade of brown hair in an ordinary business cut, and wore slim rectangular glasses that perched on the edge of his nose. He cleared his throat as he sat down opposite her and unloaded an armful of file folders, at least one of which was marked with both her real name and her usual online pseudonym.

"You've been rather busy," he said with a smile.

Verdana said nothing, and simply looked back at him, which provoked a sigh from the man.

"I cannot say I blame you for what you tried to do. You must be despairing of seeing any progress from the police or the government at this point, and worry that any day now you might find out that—"

"Don't even say it," Verdana said quickly, her nails digging into the palms of her hands. "Please. I can't even think about it."

The bespectacled man nodded as if he understood, and opened one of his folders, retrieving a photograph. He slid it across the table; it was the PC that she'd modified in order to try to spoof her way into the SAO servers. "This is quite an impressive feat you accomplished, Miss—I'm sorry, I should introduce myself. I'm Seijurou Kikuoka. I work for the task force that's been formed to deal with the SAO incident and take care of its victims; among other things we helped coordinate getting all of the… players… moved to hospital facilities in those first days. You may call me Kikuoka. How would you prefer that I address you?"

She thought for a moment. "You already know everything about me, and I'm in your custody. Call me what you like."

Kikuoka nodded again. "Very well. I think I shall call you by the name you're known within certain… disreputable online communities, Verdana-san. It's a very nice choice—did you name yourself after your favorite font?"

"Not quite," Verdana said, wondering if fun was being had at her expense. She raised her eyes to meet Kikuoka's, and he looked back at her unblinkingly. It was highly disconcerting. "What are the charges against me?"

"Ahh," Kikuoka said. "Straight to the point, I see. I'm afraid the charges are quite serious—not only did you break a number of laws when installing a packet sniffer in a government facility—namely, a hospital—your intrusion attempt against the SAO servers was itself a crime, no matter the circumstances. But those crimes are exacerbated by the risk your actions posed to every single person trapped within SAO."

"I don't understand. What risk? I didn't touch any of the patients or their Nerve Gears. I wouldn't have ever done such a thing!"

Kikuoka leaned forward a little, looking at Verdana over the rim of his glasses. "What I'm about to tell you is not a secret, but there are details you would not necessarily know. In the first week of the game, there were several attempts by the police and our task force to penetrate the game's security. We would have been negligent in our duty not to try. Each of those attempts ended with Kayaba killing players held hostage in his control, and after a certain point we would have been negligent if we didn't try to stop anyone else from following in our own footsteps."

Verdana's nails began to draw blood as her knuckles went as white as her face. Kikuoka inclined his head towards her. "You see the problem. We publicly asked that no one risk the lives of those in the game by attempting to hack it, but there is only so much we can do—there are groups of hackers which love this sort of challenge. I'm sure you even know some of them. So we have been cooperating with the governments of various countries to track down and prosecute anyone who tries to hack into SAO. You are hardly the first, and you sadly will not be the last."

Every word filled Verdana with a sense of growing resignation. Her career was over, and her family would be shamed. She could hardly deny anything that she'd done; the only thing to do was accept responsibility for her crimes and face the punishment. Eyes beginning to well up with tears, she swallowed once and spoke. "I understand. You've made your point, and I won't fight the charges."

Kikuoka cleared his throat again. "Actually… I had hoped we might discuss an alternative outcome to this."

Verdana blinked in surprise. "I… what do you mean, alternative?"

"Well, you see, you are different from those we've prosecuted thus far in one very important way, Verdana-san. A way which presents us with a unique opportunity, which is why you are here talking to me and not a police detective."

"What way is that?"

Kikuoka's smile was radiant. "Why, the fact that you succeeded."

The deal that Kikuoka offered her was simple: as long as she was helping his task force to find a solution to the SAO hostage crisis, she would not be prosecuted for her crimes. As far as anyone outside of his team would know, she remained in jail and was being held in isolation pending trial; even her family could not know the truth as long as Kayaba remained in a position to execute players in retaliation for hacking attempts. Her career was almost certainly ruined; her name dropped from the masthead of the company where she worked. The safety of the player base depended on the Japanese government's ability to maintain a zero-tolerance policy towards tampering with the SAO servers.

That was the story for public consumption. In reality, she became the latest member of a small team dedicated to finding a way to rescue almost eight thousand surviving hostages from their virtual prison without unacceptably risking their lives.

Her first job was to learn everything there was to know about the Nerve Gear hardware.

"The Nerve Gear incorporates a number of anti-tampering countermeasures," said a man who had introduced himself as Fuzeki. As he spoke, he used a stylus to gesture towards a technical diagram projected against a large white wall at the end of a dark conference room. It looked like a laser pointer, but rather than producing a laser beam, it seemed to control the cursor on the display, which he used to occasionally drill down into different parts of the Nerve Gear. A disassembled unit sat on the table in front of her, parts of which she occasionally picked up and examined to supplement the lecture.

"The battery and all of the core electronics are suspended within a pressurized, liquid-cooled chamber. Any physical intrusion into this chamber will trip one of several failsafe sensors which monitor the pressure level and the presence of several key chemicals within the solution which react to oxygen. The only way to penetrate the unit without tripping these failsafes is to do so within an oxygen-free environment with an atmospheric pressure sufficient to equalize that found inside the unit. Both of these conditions are, needless to say, inimical to human life, making any hypothetical extraction process extremely difficult, time-consuming and resource-intensive."

"But not impossible," Verdana said. "You can adjust a person gradually to a high-pressure environment, and give them an oxygen mask."

Fuzeki grinned. "You're sharp. We thought of that. But so did that bastard." That bastard, Verdana had quickly learned, was the usual internal jargon used broadly by Kikuoka's team to refer to Akihiko Kayaba. It was a bandwagon she was more than happy to join, all things considered.

As Fuzeki's lecture went on, she began to despair more and more of there being any point to being where she was, spending any more time on a hopeless situation. A few minutes later, she interrupted again. "Okay, I get the point," she said. "Rescue via physical intrusion of the Nerve Gear is possible but impractical, and the SAO servers themselves have similar countermeasures. We could do it, but it would risk the lives of everyone in the game, and even if we were successful we might only be able to save a handful of people this way before Kayaba caught on."

"That's about the size of it," Fuzeki said. "And although this hasn't really made the news, there's been a dramatic slowdown in the rate of deaths in the last few weeks. We don't know what's happening in there, but from where we're sitting it looks like that first month was all the newbies doing what newbies do, and now the survivors are probably learning from their deaths and starting to get a handle on things."

"We hope," Verdana said, taking a sip of her tea.

"We hope," Fuzeki agreed. "But that has an unfortunate downside: a lessening of the sense of urgency and the government's willingness to take risks. If we were still suffering something close to a hundred casualties every day the way we were in the beginning, I think there'd be a lot more pressure to get something done quickly, or else there'd be no one left within a few more months. Now it's down to five, ten, maybe twenty people a day at most. It's bad, but it's not…"

"It's not two thousand people in one month," Verdana said bitterly, drawing a nod from her teacher and new colleague.

"This is personal to you," Fuzeki said. It wasn't really a question so much as an observation.

Verdana nodded without elaborating.

"Me too," Fuzeki said, sitting down for a minute and taking a bite of melon pan from a dish of pastries in the center of the table. "My niece is trapped in there, although thank God she's still alive. I don't know what I'd do if one day she just…" He shook himself. "Yeah. You'll find that's not uncommon. Namiko, the network engineer you met on the first day—she lost her brother. I'm telling you this so that you know to never, ever ask her about it or her family—not unless you want her to completely lose her shit."

Verdana swallowed and gave another nod. "In that case, please do me the same courtesy. I'm… barely keeping it together as is."

"In that case, why don't we get back to work? So obviously a hardware solution is out. What attack vectors does that leave for penetrating SAO's security?"

"Roughly speaking? Application, network."

Fuzeki grunted approval, to which Verdana tried not to take offense—it was a fairly rudimentary question, and she wondered if it was one he would've asked a male colleague. He knew she was smart and qualified, or she wouldn't be here, but he still felt the need to explain basic concepts that he ought to know were unnecessary, and it was starting to irritate her. So she smiled at him and followed up her simple answer.

"A software solution would involve altering either the firmware or the client software. You can't get at the firmware without either physical intrusion or knowing how to deliver an update to the Nerve Gear in an authenticated way that it treats as a legitimate update."

"And we can't even do that much," Fuzeki put in, pacing around the table and picking up a small chip from the arrangement of disassembled parts. "We've analyzed the Nerve Gears of dead players and compared them to a factory unit. They're perfectly safe when they come from the manufacturer, because their output intensity and range are firmware-limited to harmless levels. The change that makes the Nerve Gear into a death trap is a firmware update that gets applied when you connect to the SAO servers. The update burns the firmware into a read-only state and it won't accept changes afterward."

"Could we modify a Nerve Gear to prevent the firmware from being updated, and then use it to connect?"

"Possibly," Fuzeki said. "A better idea would be to have a set of them manufactured from scratch in the original factory, but with changes that let us control the firmware externally. We're working on that, but I suspect that if the SAO servers fail to apply the update, it won't even let us connect."

"So firmware is out," Verdana said, reaching across the table and tapping another part. "Then there's the client. The drive bay that takes the SAO software cartridge isn't protected by the same anti-tampering seals as the electronics—it couldn't be. Can't we take someone offline—taking advantage of the two-hour grace period—eject the cartridge, and replace it with a hacked copy of the client?"

"Possibly," Fuzeki said as he reached over and plucked the game cartridge from the table. "The firmware update considers ejecting the cartridge a form of tampering, but we could possibly find a way around that. The trick would be decrypting the code, making a useful change to the client, then re-encrypting it—all while ensuring the change wouldn't be detected by any kind of checksum or other verification measures used by the server."

Verdana was silent for a few moments as she digested all of this. Her eyes flickered from part to part laid out on the table before her, but it was mostly an aid to her thinking; she was barely processing what she was seeing.

"Well, then it seems like there's only one remaining vector of attack."

Fuzeki gestured towards her. "And that is?"

"What I tried to do in the first place: figure out how to spoof a valid client connection without the original hardware."

Fuzeki grinned broadly, sitting down at the head of the table. The projection painted colors across the left side of his body and cast a long shadow against the wall as he gave her a thumbs-up. "Now you're catching on."

As it turned out, she wasn't the first person to have this idea. Once the difficulties and drawbacks of a physical intrusion-based approach to liberating a player from the Nerve Gear became obvious, it hadn't taken more than a few days for Kikuoka's team to settle on the idea of spoofing the SAO servers in some way—it was, to anyone with the right knowledge who thought about it for more than a few minutes, the only obvious answer, and it was one they'd reached nearly a month prior.

The question was how. And that, Verdana learned, was the main reason she had been brought in.

"You were the first person to crack SAO's client-server protocol," Kikuoka said at their first team meeting since her joining. "You were able to imitate a client at least far enough to get a text-based login screen. You probably wouldn't have been able to get much further, but that's not the point—you knocked on the front door, and got an answer."

"For all the good it does us," Fuzeki said as he leaned back in his chair.

"Oh, I wouldn't say it's entirely useless even at this point," Kikuoka said, popping a piece of candy into his mouth as he swept through several screens of data on his tablet. "It's allowed us a bit of a window, at least, into what's happening in the game. If nothing else we've been able to pull string data out of the packets we're capturing from various players, which lets us infer things like player names and their communications with each other. It's very slow going, but we're starting to develop a limited picture of the state of things."

No one at the table seemed to know what to say or how to react to this revelation. Kikuoka raised both eyebrows. "Well, as we suspected, the casualty rate in the first month was largely due to new players not knowing what they were up against—that and, I'm afraid, a rather alarming number of suicides. It took them that month in order to clear the first challenge—the first boss, as it's called—and now, armed with that experience and confidence, they've progressed a little more rapidly."

"So they might actually win their way free of the game after all?" Namiko asked.

"Perhaps," Kikuoka said mildly. "But even at their current rate of success, it would be the work of another few years at a minimum. No matter what measures we take, that span of time will take a toll on a person's body—there's no telling how long we'll be able to reliably sustain over seven thousand people on life support. Nor, I'm afraid, is the continued political will to do so by any means certain. They might have decades. Or they might have quite a bit less."

Kikuoka had a convoluted way of speaking at times, but Verdana got the point just fine. There was no telling how long the Japanese government would be willing or able to maintain the expense and effort of medical care for so many thousands, and there was no telling how long their bodies would last in even the best-case scenario.

"Are you saying that everyone in SAO has a time limit on their lives?" Verdana asked, looking up from her laptop.

Kikuoka gave her a sad smile as he turned to look at her. "My dear, that has always been so. The Sword of Damocles hangs over every single person in that death game, and whether the cord is cut by their Nerve Gear or by nature itself, that sword will still fall."

Again there was silence around the table. Everyone knew which team members had family or friends still trapped within Sword Art Online, and nobody wanted to look at those teammates just then. Kikuoka ate another candy and looked around at each of them. "We know this to be so. The question now is: what are we to do about it?"

That question occupied Verdana's mind for the better part of the months that followed. She barely saw Kikuoka during that time, save for at a weekly meeting that he attended by teleconference. And after that last meeting, she was just as happy not to spend too much time in the same room with him. There was something… off about the man. Something distinctly unpleasant that surfaced occasionally through his pleasant exterior and made her wonder if there was a part of his soul missing.

She wondered the same thing about herself. It had been a long time since she had seen the outside world, and she wasn't allowed visitors. As near as she could tell she was the only member of the team with such restrictions; the others were government employees or outside contractors. She desperately missed her family—they were allowed to correspond by mail, but the letters were heavily censored and she quickly gained a feel for what kinds of subjects she could safely talk about. There weren't all that many of those. She got to a point where it was safer not to think about them at all, and that almost hurt more when she realized it.

At times, Verdana considered jail rather than continuing on this course. At least as a convicted criminal she'd be allowed visitors, and while she didn't really have a deep understanding of inmates' rights and limitations, she was fairly certain that she'd have more freedom than she did as Kikuoka's pawn—as his prisoner, really, if you wanted to be direct about it. She might be able to see her family again.

But that certainty was not absolute, and she had a sinking suspicion that Kikuoka had a lot more pull than he seemed to—and that now that she was useful to him, she wouldn't necessarily find that the grass on the other side of the cell door was any greener. At least this path—potentially—had an end in sight that would allow her to return to the family she loved and the career she'd left behind.

So she buried herself in her new work, and tried not to think about what was happening—either inside the death game, or in the real world which at the moment didn't feel a whole lot more forgiving.

It was April when the emergency call came.

As one of the only two team members who lived on-site aside from security personnel, Verdana was among the first to respond. She splashed water on her face, threw on a yukata, and rushed to the conference room where she found Kikuoka already setting out food and pouring tea. He was maddeningly resistant to her pleas for information until everyone arrived, and once the team had seated themselves he took his place at the head of the table and cleared his throat.

"Late last night, more than fifty players lost their lives in the span of a few hours. We are still analyzing in-game message traffic, but at this point it is apparent that the clearing groups faced a boss and suffered grievous casualties."

"Who died?" Verdana demanded, the question echoed by a few others at the table.

"I have here a preliminary list from several hospitals…" Kikuoka trailed off as Verdana shot to her feet and snatched the tablet from his hands, eyes scanning down the list and looking for a familiar name. The list was in typical gojuuon order by surname; she breathed a sigh of relief almost immediately and sank back into her chair.

"Verdana-san, I would very much like my tablet back."

"Oh." She sheepishly looked down as she slid the device across the table to Kikuoka.

"To ward off any other such responses," Kikuoka said with an understanding expression, "please note that I have already checked the list for the names of anyone known to any of you. Your friends and family are alive."

"Then why call us all in here at four in the morning?" Fuzeki asked.

"Because shortly after this occurred, I received a call from… from my immediate superior. It has been communicated to me that the status quo is growing unacceptable, and that this latest tragedy is merely the last straw, if you will."

Fuzeki folded his arms across his barrel chest. "In other words, your boss wants us to do something sooner rather than later."

"That is precisely the situation. I want each of you to submit your current working theories for infiltration and rescue plans to me by noon today. I will review them and we will go over them this evening and commit to a course of action. Questions?"

Namiko raised her hand and spoke after a nod of acknowledgement from Kikuoka. "What if we don't have a workable plan?"

"Then I trust you will help me understand what I'm paying you for, if not to develop one." Kikuoka's words drew a sharp flinch from Namiko despite his mild tone.

It was just as well that he dismissed them all shortly thereafter. The tea that Verdana had drunk to wake herself up was only doing half the job, and the other half was accomplished by a hot shower that gave her time to compose herself and order her thoughts.

She was very close to being able to test the SAO client on a fully software-emulated imitation of the Nerve Gear hardware—not even the cartridge reader was hardware; the client was a software image of the original game cart. Thus far she'd only been able to validate her emulation against some of the simpler, local-only games that predated SAO; they ran fine. The first stage of testing the client would require her to emulate the remote server as well, and while that wasn't nearly as complex as emulating the Nerve Gear hardware, it involved a huge number of unknowns and thousands of hours of network packet analysis.

Worse still, that test itself would be far from authoritative. In order for the test of her emulated hardware against the emulated server to be valid, she'd first have to validate the integrity of her test server emulation using an unmodified Nerve Gear running a clean copy of the client. If she was able to get the same hardware and software used by the trapped players to acknowledge her emulated server as a valid remote connection, then she could trust the results of testing her client against it—

Verdana froze in place, water cascading down her body as she stared blankly at the tiled walls. Her mouth hung half-open as she retraced her thoughts, certain that she was on to something.

It could work. Theoretically. It would require a considerable amount of coordination and resources… but it could work.

If Kikuoka was willing to hear out this crazy plan.

"We've been going about this all wrong," Verdana said as she loaded the first slide in her presentation.

"Do tell," Fuzeki quipped dryly.

"I will," Verdana replied with a smile. "All of our research has been directed at two different vectors of attack: rescuing a player from the Nerve Gear hardware, and infiltrating the SAO servers. To the first, we already have a strong candidate for a method to rescue someone from a trapped Nerve Gear. Unfortunately, the process required to do this safely is complex and time-consuming, and requires specific skill sets and facilities which limit the number of people we can rescue simultaneously. Sooner or later, that bastard is going to realize what's happening—it'll be virtually impossible to keep the rescues completely under wraps until everyone is out, and long before then he's going to notice that all of his players are disappearing." She swallowed, her voice wavering slightly as she went on. "Anyone left inside when that happens is at his mercy, and I wouldn't bet money on how much restraint he'll show in punishing us for what we're doing."

"We know all this," Namiko said. "We went over the whole Nerve Gear rescue plot in detail during Fuzeki's presentation."

"I realize that," Verdana said as she clicked to the next slide. "I'm building on that. Bear with me here. So we know that the only way to guarantee that bastard can't send some kind of remote kill message the way he did to the first infiltration team is to take all of the players offline during any rescue attempt. The problem is that even in our best-case estimate, we can extract—at most—a little over a hundred players before we have to restore their network connectivity. If we don't let them log back on, the Nerve Gear will time out and kill them anyway. And once they do log back on, they're hostages again."

"You have a solution to this." Kikuoka's expression seemed to hint at some insight into where she was going; the beginning of a smile was tugging at one corner of his mouth.

Verdana nodded and advanced the slide deck, showing a data flow diagram. "Let me restate the problem. Is it fair to say that if we could disconnect everyone from the SAO servers without worrying about the Nerve Gear's two-hour idle timeout, we could safely take all the time we needed to extract all of the players without fear of that bastard killing hostages?"

"Sure," Fuzeki replied. "It's also fair to say that if I pulled the kind of paycheck Kikuoka here does, I wouldn't be living in a 12-jou apartment."

"I can assure you that my salary is hardly as impressive as you believe it to be," Kikuoka remarked evenly. "Please allow Verdana-san to finish her pitch."

Verdana tilted her head slightly to Kikuoka and continued. "I've been analyzing all the traffic we've captured between the players and the SAO servers, and I think I've identified a weakness we can exploit. Whenever a player is connected to SAO, the data exchanged between client and server includes a packet of encrypted data which we weren't able to understand until we reverse-engineered the SAO client software. It's a public key hash derived from the player's Master ID on the server and the current system time. The public key is embedded in the client software, which enables it to decrypt this hash. The private key is presumably known only to the SAO server. This is the basis for how the Nerve Gear determines whether or not it's connected to SAO."

"Then we're probably screwed," put in Edokawa, the expert cryptologist of their team. "I'm sure I don't need to tell you that all the public key lets us do is read these keep-alive packets. We can't encrypt our own fake packets and spoof them without the private key."

Verdana smiled and pointed the remote at her laptop, cueing up the next slide. "Mmm… yes and no. Until a user enters their account credentials and authenticates, the server has no way of knowing their Master ID. But it still sends these keep-alive messages from the moment they connect. I managed to do a packet capture recently when a player was temporarily disconnected, and I decrypted the keep-alive messages that were sent before the player authenticated. The system encodes Guest as their Master ID until it has the player's credentials to work with, in order to prevent a player from being terminated while they're waiting for authentication."

She could almost see lights going on in the heads of the people around the table. Kikuoka himself was leaning back in his chair with a thoughtful expression, eyes fixed on her over the rims of his thin glasses. "You see where I'm going with this?"

"A man-in-the-middle attack," said Namiko immediately.

Verdana nodded. "You got it. I can set up a server that will emulate the SAO session protocol and spoof clients into thinking they're connected to the logon server. Namiko, you coordinate a routing change at all hospital facilities which redirects all SAO client traffic to our spoofing server, and disallow all outbound traffic other than from that spoofing server. The spoofing server will connect to the real SAO servers and establish a logon session which continually forwards the current keep-alive packet with the Guest ID back to any players connected to the spoofing server. As long as a player's Nerve Gear keeps receiving those keep-alive messages, that player should be safe for as long as it takes to extract everyone."

"What about that bastard?" asked Fuzeki.

Verdana allowed herself a wicked grin. "That's the beauty of this. Wherever he is, he has to be connecting to SAO remotely—he's certainly not on-site. When we flip the switch to make the routing change take effect, and cut off all the players in hospitals from the SAO servers, there should only be two client connections hitting those servers: our spoofing server, and that bastard himself. We can quickly identify his session, firewall him off so that he can't reestablish a connection to stop him from remotely administering the game, and hopefully—if we're lucky—trace him back to his point of origin."

When nobody spoke for close to a minute, Verdana looked from person to person before finally settling on Kikuoka—really, the only person in this room whose opinion mattered, when it came down to it. He sat forward and spoke up when their eyes met. "What do you need in order to make this happen?"

Verdana hesitated, hating herself for what she had to say next. "To begin with, we need to validate that the server spoofing works on one person before we try it on everyone."

It was easy enough to guess at the source of the team's discomfort as they shifted in their seats. What Verdana had just said could be summarized in five far simpler words: We need a guinea pig. A guinea pig which, no matter who they chose, would inevitably be someone's brother or sister, mother or father, son or daughter.

"Understood," said Kikuoka finally. "I'll begin filtering our player database in order to look for candidates with no known next of kin or personal contacts. Undoubtedly there will be a number of individuals—"

"You can't do that!" Namiko said heatedly, her face reddening.

"I beg your pardon?"

The diminutive woman stood, raising herself to her full height of 160 centimeters. It was not as impressive as she might have hoped. "Whether you know their next of kin or not, whether anyone has claimed them or not, everyone trapped in this game is someone to somebody. You have no right to decide whose life to experiment with!"

Kikuoka was unmoved. "Everything we do here is a risk—including and especially this audacious plan. Verdana-san is correct; we need to ensure that this plan will work before we attempt a rescue against every player in the game—the consequences for failure do not bear thinking about. There is a two-hour grace period; disconnecting a single person for a short time poses very little risk."

Namiko's eyes were wet; tears began to roll down her reddened cheeks. "And what if you're wrong?"

"Then I accept responsibility for my failure." Kikuoka hesitated before going on. "Is your distress about the merits of this plan, or is this more about your brother? I assure you, we—"

He didn't get to finish. Kikuoka leaned slightly to the side as Namiko's smartphone flew at him, bouncing off his shoulder and clattering against the wall and floor behind him with an unpleasantly broken sound. She gave a wordless cry and fled from the room.

"What was that all about?" Verdana asked into the sudden uncomfortable silence.

Fuzeki threw a venomous look at Kikuoka and then turned to reply to Verdana in a quiet voice. "I told you Namiko lost her brother to the game." She nodded. "What I didn't tell you was how."

"Fuzeki," warned Edokawa, "this isn't your story—"

"She's my friend, and Verdana needs to know what's going on here." Looking back across the table, he went on. "Namiko went over to visit her brother on the evening the game launched, and she hadn't heard the news yet. She didn't get an answer at the door, so she let herself in and found him wearing the Nerve Gear." He paused, as if looking for a delicate way to say what came next.

"When he didn't respond to her, she took it off."

The third knock was the one that got a response. "Go away."

Verdana leaned her head against the door, the bangs on either side of her face falling forward until the touched the hardwood. "It's me, Namiko. Can we talk?"

"What is there to talk about?"

Waiting a few moments before responding brought Namiko to the door in a way that an explanation probably wouldn't have. She opened it just a crack, wide enough for Verdana to see how awful her face was from what must have been a very long breakdown.

It must have shown in Verdana's expression. Namiko's smile was the faintest thing imaginable, there and gone in an instant. "I look terrible, don't I?"

"Only a little bit terrible," Verdana admitted as she stepped to the open side of the door. "I'm sorry. Kikuoka was being an asshole. I don't think he understands how to relate to human beings."

Namiko pulled the door the rest of the way open in a silent invitation, and shut it behind them. She was the other resident of the small facility where they worked, and the tiny room was obviously inhabited by someone who worked in the IT field and didn't have particularly good housekeeping habits—the single futon that served as a bed was strewn with unkempt sheets and a large pillow, and technical books were stacked unevenly or left sitting open face-down, presumably to mark a page. Most of them were large enough to qualify as a home defense weapon.

There were also a considerable number of crumpled tissues in front of the futon.

"Pardon the mess," Namiko said, waving at the air as she sat back heavily. "What was it you wanted to say?"

Verdana sank to the floor on the opposite side of the low coffee table, facing the other woman. "I don't want to execute this plan without you. Kikuoka will just bring in another network engineer if you won't do it, and I'd rather have you."


"I've worked with you for what, about five months now?" she said. "I know you. I trust you. And most importantly, I know I can trust your priorities."

Namiko leaned over until she was almost lying down sideways on the futon, propped up on her elbow. "I don't understand."

"If it's you working on this, I know you'll do everything you can to protect the people we're supposed to be rescuing. You won't take unnecessary risks or leave anything to chance. If Kikuoka gets someone else, it'll be someone he picked—someone whose priorities are going to be whatever Kikuoka says they are. I don't trust him. I do trust you."

Namiko looked back at her intently, her puffy eyes alert for deception. Whatever she saw must have mollified her somewhat; she nodded. "Alright. I'll help you. But I won't go forward if Kikuoka starts picking strangers to experiment on."

"That won't be necessary. If it helps, I'm absolutely certain that this first test we're going to perform is safe. We won't be interrupting their connection for more than a minute, and it's only to ensure that their Nerve Gear accepts the connection from the spoofing server."

"How can you say that, though? The whole point of doing the test is that you don't know for sure what's going to happen. Would you still be so confident if it was someone you loved as your test subject?"

"Yes," Verdana said tightly. "Because that 'test subject' is my son."

Four days later, Verdana was sitting in a hospital room with her laptop, waiting for the right time to begin and replaying in her head the conversation she'd had with Kikuoka.

"Are you certain about this, Verdana-san? Your own son?"

"This will work," she'd said to him with unwavering certainty. "I have one hundred percent confidence. Even so, I can't in good conscience have you pick some random stranger's relative for this test."

"I assure you, the choice would not be random—"

"But I want something in return."

Kikuoka had sat there silently, eyebrows raised.

"When the time comes to carry out the extraction plan, promise me that you'll get him out first. Promise me, Kikuoka."

Kikuoka had promised. And now Verdana was committed.

As Namiko finished a few last-minute tweaks to the scripts she was going to run to make the necessary routing changes, Verdana gazed down at her son's still form, only the rise and fall of his chest and the steady beep of the ECG monitor attesting to the fact that he was alive. Power and network cables ran from the cursed Nerve Gear helmet that encased his head, dangling over the side of the bed; they were as much a part of his life support as the IV in his arm. He seemed so small and fragile like that.

If all went well, he wouldn't be that way for much longer.

"He's asleep now," announced the nurse. There wasn't a whole lot they could tell with certainty about what was going on in the game, but with all the monitors they were hooked up to, it wasn't difficult to tell when a player was "awake" and when they were "asleep". They'd chosen this time of night for a reason—if a player was asleep, it was highly unlikely that they were in a dangerous situation or unsafe area where pulling their network connection could leave them—or their friends—vulnerable.

Verdana nodded and touched the Mute button on her chat client. "He's out. We're ready to proceed."

"Acknowledged," came Kikuoka's voice over the speaker. "You have a GO order."

Not for the first time, Verdana wondered whether or not Kikuoka had a military background. There was something about the way he carried himself, the words that he used from time to time. She shook her head to push stray thoughts away, and concentrated on what she was doing. Leaning over the bed, she gently kissed what little of her son's face was exposed under the VR helmet, and took a deep breath.

It was time. A single command was all it took to kick off the scripted sequence of config changes and program executions.

"Nisekon01 is online," Verdana said, using the arbitrary hostname she'd chosen for the spoofing server. "Go ahead and reroute his traffic, Namiko."

"Applying… done."

Verdana nervously glanced off to the side, where a doctor and several nurses waited with a crash cart. By now she knew all too well how little good that would do if anything went wrong… if this didn't work as expected.

It will work, she thought fiercely. It must work.

The monitor of her laptop was filled with a number of carefully-arranged status windows, each displaying metrics or logging messages from a different part of Nisekon01's program stack. What was shown there would've meant nothing to anyone outside of her team, and very little even to the others—this server, this emulation of the SAO front end, was her creation.

But to her, those windows gave her clear visibility into everything that was happening under the surface in this operation. As soon as Namiko executed her script, a change in the firewall rules at the hospital redirected traffic over a specific port coming from this room back to Nisekon01. When it detected the new connection, Nisekon01 would establish a login session with the SAO servers and begin feeding the authentic keep-alive messages back to her son's Nerve Gear, using them to impersonate the SAO logon server.

It was a matter of seconds before she knew the outcome. A new window popped up on her screen, announcing that a set of data captured from the traffic being sent by the Nerve Gear matched a predefined pattern: in this case, the submission of logon credentials.

Verdana looked more closely, carefully analyzing the traffic being exchanged between her son's Nerve Gear and Nisekon01. The conclusion was unmistakable: the Nerve Gear had established a connection to the spoofing server and was communicating with it using the SAO session protocol. The keep-alive forwarded from the real SAO login server was working.

Two minutes passed. The only sound in the room was the hum of equipment and the steady beeping of the monitors.

"There it is," Verdana said. "Timeout. Namiko, undo the firewall changes."

"On it." The changes were reversed almost before she finished speaking. Verdana watched the packet sniffer to make sure that the Nerve Gear reconnected successfully to SAO, and let out a breath she hadn't realized she was holding.

"What happened?" Kikuoka asked over the VOIP connection.

"The SAO login server waited two minutes for authentication to complete, then timed out the session when it didn't. I expected that might happen. Give me five minutes to rewrite Nisekon; I think I know a way to get around this."

"How?" asked Namiko.

"Instead of a single session, I'll have Nisekon establish two overlapping sessions at any given time. Before one times out, the next will connect; Nisekon will transition seamlessly to the new session so that it can continue forwarding the keep-alive packet."

"Are you sure you want to keep trying today?" Namiko said. "One brief interruption to his connection isn't likely to raise any eyebrows. Doing it again so soon might make that bastard suspicious."

Verdana struggled with the necessity of waiting any longer than she had to… but she knew Namiko was right. The stakes were too high to take unnecessary chances and rush things.

Just a little bit longer, she silently promised. I'll get you out of there.

It was another month, though, before they could make any kind of rescue attempt. Kikuoka seemed to have broad latitude to act on his own, but what they were planning involved considerable risk to thousands of people who had no way of consenting to that risk, and every person they involved in the plan increased the likelihood of some element coming to the attention of Kayaba—assuming that he was keeping an eye on police and hospital traffic, an assumption which to Verdana seemed quite safe to make.

They tested the spoofing server twice more in that month's time, spreading out the attempts and performing them in the dead of night in order to keep the temporary disconnections from becoming suspicious. The second test, a week and a half after the first, validated Verdana's changes to the spoofing server, successfully sustaining the Nerve Gear's connection for ten minutes before they declared the test a success and allowed it to reconnect to SAO.

The third test kept the Nerve Gear spoofed for just over an hour. Both were done under the cover story of moving the patient to a different room in order to troubleshoot a bad network connection; real work orders were filed at the hospital and this work was actually performed by a legitimate outside contractor that had no knowledge of their plan.

The final hurdle was to validate that Nisekon could sustain a Nerve Gear past the two-hour "grace period" given to disconnected players. If two hours passed and the Nerve Gear's timeout did not kill the user, it would be definitive proof that the Nerve Gear would accept a connection to the spoofing server as a valid one for the purposes of keeping a player alive.

There was one significant problem with performing this test.

"Look, that bastard is smart," Fuzeki said as he walked sideways down the hallway, hands moving animatedly. "Smarter than I think anyone really gives him credit for. Think about it from where he's sitting. A player gets disconnected. Okay, it happens—that's why the grace period is there. Bastard doesn't want his hostages getting killed by lag or an ISP outage. But he knows that if a player's gone for more than two hours, that's it—the Nerve Gear's gonna kill 'em. What do you suppose happens if someone gets logged off for longer than that, and then somehow logs back on alive?"

Verdana grimaced as she stepped through the door Fuzeki stopped and held open for her. "Big red flag telling him that something is fishy," she admitted.

"Right. That means once we take someone offline for that long, that's it—we can't let them log back in. And you still need to keep your spoofing server connected to the SAO login server in order to sustain his spoofed connection. The longer Nisekon keeps re-opening those sessions and holding them open without authenticating, the more suspicious it's going to look."

With a sigh, Verdana stopped and leaned back against the wall of the hallway, the knot of her ponytail uncomfortable against the back of her head. "In other words, what you're telling me is that we need to initiate the rescue operation the moment we're sure that we can cut someone off from SAO longer than two hours."

"And not just his rescue operation," Fuzeki said, leaning against the opposite wall and facing her with his arms crossed. Neither of them needed to elaborate on who Fuzeki was referring to. "The whole shebang. We won't be able to just pull him out—there'll be no hiding the kind of activity it'll require. We get the extraction team moving, we simultaneously deploy the routing change to every hospital with SAO patients, and we have Namiko standing by so she can get into the Argus firewall to identify, trace and cut off that bastard's connection before he can try anything."

Verdana swallowed bile and turned her head aside, biting her lip.

"It's killing you, isn't it?" Fuzeki's usually casual tones were subdued, more gentle as he asked.

"It's not just him," she said, tilting her head so that her hair would conceal the wetness in her eyes. "Every day we wait is another day I can't be with the rest of my family. They write, but not much of what I write back makes it through to them. I can't talk about what I'm doing, where I am… as far as they know, I'm still in prison. I can't even tell them why they can't come visit me."

Fuzeki's expression was tight. "That's harsh."

Verdana nodded and swallowed her grief again. "Most of the time I can't let myself think about it. About what's happening to them, about what they must think of me… I have to focus on what we're doing here. On getting him out. Getting everyone out."

"You'll be a hero, you know," he said with an attempt at a smile. "If this works, we'll all be heroes. The SAO Case Victims Rescue Force would actually live up to its name."

"If this works," she said, momentarily indulging in the kind of bitter pessimism she never allowed herself. It was a very slippery slope that led into that pit. "If it doesn't, we'll be something else entirely."

"He's up late tonight," Fuzeki remarked.

Verdana nodded wordlessly as she watched the monitors tracking the patient's biometrics and brain activity. It was after 2:00 AM, and he was still awake. As she watched, she wondered what he was doing inside the game world that kept him up that late. Was he trapped out in some wilderness or deep within a dungeon, forced to keep himself alert until he found safety? Or was he among friends, perhaps celebrating a huge victory?

They'd been sniffing all of his traffic, doing string dumps to look for in-game mail, but there was nothing suggesting a reason for tonight's inconvenient nocturnal activity. It wasn't the end of the world, she supposed—if he stayed up much longer, they could always try again the next day. But the cover story for their work would only hold for so long.

"There it is," the nurse said. Verdana wondered why it had been the same one attending them the last few times. "He's going into a REM state."

Kikuoka's voice came from Verdana's laptop. "Thank you, Nurse Aki. Operation Saisei is GO."

That was Namiko's cue. The spoofing server was already online and running; the sharp sound of several keystrokes followed by the flatter sound of the Enter key heralded the network engineer's change to the hospital firewall. "All traffic from this Nerve Gear's MAC address rerouted to Nisekon02."

Verdana confirmed the change in her own monitoring windows, watching the boy's connection drop briefly before attempting to reconnect and being successfully redirected. That was the easy part. The hard part was the two hours of waiting yet to come.

What made it difficult wasn't just the still-lingering uncertainty of whether or not the Nerve Gear would truly accept the spoofed connection for the purposes of not killing its user. Their plan hinged on keeping Kayaba unaware of the attempt until it was too late. If he was awake even at this hour and watching for intrusion attempts, or if he was aware of the open connections from the last test and had any kind of alert set to notify him, they might not even make it to the two-hour threshold. He could simply act to block that connection in some way, or—worse—deduce that it was an attempt at infiltrating SAO's security and punish them by snuffing out the lives of more players.

One of those lives could very well be that of her son. She tried not to think about that possibility as she carefully watched the traffic flow past, minutes ticking by as the monotonous sameness of the open session began to make her eyes cross. All of them had adjusted their sleep schedules over the last several days so that they would be as alert as possible during the operation, but that didn't make it any easier to stare at windows full of scrolling monotype text for hours.

As the two-hour mark approached with no change in the patient's state and no communication from Kayaba, the nervous uncertainty of whether or not their attempt would be exposed began to be replaced by the anticipation of what would happen when the Nerve Gear reached its supposed lethal timeout threshold. Every bit of evidence thus far suggested that the device was treating the open login session as a valid connection to the SAO servers, but until they actually passed that threshold they wouldn't know whether or not this was all for nothing.

I might lose him today, Verdana thought as she briefly clenched her hands into fists above her keyboard. And if I do, I'll have killed him just as surely as Namiko killed her brother.

"One hour fifty-five," Fuzeki announced unnecessarily. They were all watching the timer, treating it as the arbiter of life and death that it actually was.

"Almost time," Kikuoka said over the speaker. "I suggest you imbibe any caffeine you need now. Stretch your legs for a moment, and get ready. No matter how this goes, none of us will have a moment to rest for some time."

It was good advice, and Verdana took it. She carefully set her laptop on the hospital bed and stood up, stretching her arms high above her head and looking around. Nurse Aki was sitting on the other side of the bed, her face a mask of preternatural calm. Fuzeki was in a visitor's chair on the opposite corner of the room, his own laptop sitting on the table beside him as he wheeled both of his arms alternately to loosen the joints. He gave her a half-smile and a thumbs-up. When Verdana's eyes slid to the side and met Namiko's, she saw there some of her own worries reflected back at her, embraced in an expression of compassion. The two women shared a moment of mutual understanding, followed by faint smiles.

As she had a month prior, Verdana leaned over the bed and gave the sleeping boy a brief kiss, then rested her head on his chest for a moment. She could hear his slow, even heartbeat, and she closed her eyes briefly to listen to it for a little bit longer before sitting up and composing herself.

"Just a little bit longer, Kazuto," she said quietly, taking his hand in hers. "We're coming for you. I don't think you can hear me in there, just… just know that I love you, and we're going to get you out."

When she looked up and blinked the tears from her eyes, she saw Nurse Aki looking back at her, a reassuring smile replacing the woman's look of patient serenity. "He'll be fine, Kirigaya-san. Just do what you came here to do."

Verdana started slightly to hear herself addressed by her real name. It had been months since anyone had called her that; everyone on the team knew her by the name that she'd used as an online pseudonym, the name by which Kikuoka always referred to her. It took a moment of confusion before she realized that of course the nurse would know—she'd been attending Kazuto all this time and had his medical chart in front of her.

Her eyes shot over to her teammates, who were wearing equally surprised expressions. Of course she'd never told them her real identity—even if they would've recognized her name as the editor of a major tech magazine, it had never really been relevant to her work with Kikuoka's team. And perhaps a part of her had felt that continuing to use a pseudonym would let her firewall off this awful period of time from her real life the way that they hoped to firewall off Kayaba from SAO.

"Please," she said, addressing nobody in particular. "Just call me Midori."

Namiko smiled and nodded. Fuzeki glanced down briefly before looking back up at her. "One fifty-nine."

Filled with a collection of emotions which defied any attempt to identify them in isolation, Midori Kirigaya sat back down and pulled her open laptop back to perch on her legs. Each second now seemed to be an eternity, each one a countdown to what could be the end of Kazuto's life.

Please, she thought silently. Whatever gods are out there, whatever spirits are watching over him, please let my son—my adopted son—live.

One hour, fifty-nine minutes and forty-eight seconds. Adrenaline filled her in a fight-or flight reaction as the numbers began to blur before her, the scrolling walls of text in the packet captures and status windows beginning to merge into meaningless white light.

"Time," Fuzeki said sharply as the second hour of the spoofed connection came.

Midori wasn't certain what she should be expecting. Would the Nerve Gear make a sound if it killed him? Would there be a smell of burned flesh as it microwaved his brain? The monitors in the room would flatline, for certain, and perhaps he would convulse one last time—

She squeezed her eyes shut to kill the runaway train of thought, her overactive imagination getting the best of her. Blinking them clear, she looked over at Kazuto's still body, at the trio of status lights on the rim of the Nerve Gear helmet. POW, WAN and BLK—representing Power, Wide Area Network and Brain Link, respectively.

POW was still green. That much was expected; it would remain that way until they unplugged the external power source. WAN, too, was green, but that didn't necessarily indicate a connection to the SAO servers—just network connectivity in general. BLK was blue, and Midori tried to remember if it had always been that way, or if it had changed and she hadn't noticed.

But the biometric monitors in the room were still beeping steadily. And when she looked down at the status windows on her screen, she saw that the session time was 2:00:25, and the Nerve Gear was still behaving as if it was connected. Nurse Aki had one of Kazuto's wrists in her hand and was taking his vitals.

"We're at 2:01," came Kikuoka's voice over Midori's laptop speakers. "Status?"

Nurse Aki met her eyes and nodded. Midori's voice shook as she spoke. "He's alive. The connection is holding."

There was the briefest pause.

"Namiko!" Kikuoka barked. "Propagate the routing change across all of the hospital networks. Extraction team, go, go!"

Midori shot to her feet with her laptop tucked half-open under one arm as a doctor and several other people she didn't recognize burst into the room and began preparing Kazuto's bed for transfer. She started to follow, but was stopped by gentle pressure on her arm from Nurse Aki.

"You can't do anything for him now," Fuzeki said as he stood. "They're taking him to a hyperbaric chamber where they'll do the extraction. He's going to be in there for hours, both for the procedure itself and for the decompression time that'll be necessary."

"And I need you now," Namiko said urgently from her seat. "I'm busy with the Argus firewall and I think I've identified that bastard's connection—it's the only one left that isn't coming from Nisekon02. The IP I've traced it back to is a proxy, and I need you to get into it."

Trembling with nervous energy, Midori sat back down and opened the message from Namiko, copying the information she needed from it and turning her fingers into a blur as they danced over the keyboard. "It's an anonymous proxy, part of a SoftBank Telecom subnet… leased to—"

"Everyone, listen to me," Kikuoka said sharply, interrupting her train of thought. "Turn on the TV now."

Nurse Aki reached up and flipped the switch on the TV hanging on the wall opposite where the bed had been. There was a breaking story on NHK, and as the newscaster ended their lead-in, a distressingly familiar computer-altered voice began speaking.

"I am Akihiko Kayaba, the creator of Sword Art Online. At 4:27 AM Japan Standard Time, foolish individuals within your government conspired to disconnect every single one of the remaining seven thousand, four hundred and ninety-eight players from my game. They have done this despite my warnings of what will happen should there be any further interference, and if these players remain offline for more than two hours—"

"Cut him off now!" Kikuoka snapped.

Midori heard the rapid-fire tapping of keys, and moments later Namiko spoke with a satisfied undertone to her voice. "I've blocked any incoming connections that aren't from our spoofing server. He can rant all he wants now, but he can't get back in."

After a few seconds, Kayaba's voice on the television broadcast trailed off in mid-sentence before resuming. "And now it seems that these same individuals are continuing with even more foolish actions, actions which threaten the lives of all of your loved ones. There will be consequences for this. These players now have one hour and forty-six minutes of life remaining to them, and some of them will pay the price for what has happened. How many of them are still alive at the end of this day depends on how quickly your government ceases this insanity and restores all connectivity to the Sword Art Online servers. If you wish for any of them to ever wake up again, I suggest you use whatever measures are necessary to make your opinions known to them."

"This is useful," Kikuoka remarked, his voice much calmer now that the necessary actions had been taken. "Notice that his threat hinges on the lethal consequences of the two-hour disconnection threshold built into the Nerve Gear. What does that tell you?"

"He doesn't know that we've successfully spoofed the SAO connection," Fuzeki said.

"Precisely," Kikuoka said. "He also, whether he intended to or not, revealed that our identification of his connection and the termination of it were accurate and successful. He's reacting now, and he is not in control of the situation. It's causing him to make mistakes he might not otherwise make."

"What about that last bit?" Fuzeki said. "Sounded a hell of a lot to me like he was telling everyone with a family member trapped in SAO to storm the castles. We might want some physical security."

"Indeed. I wouldn't worry about that, as I have made arrangements for—"

"I can't get in," Midori said, interrupting. "I've isolated the proxy he was using and identified who owns it, but the front-end security is tight and I can't find any holes. Maybe given enough time—"

"That will be sufficient," Kikuoka said. "Send me all of the information you have and I will engage resources capable of taking physical possession of the servers behind that proxy. The server logs will tell us what we need to know."

Midori wasn't sure she wanted to think about what that meant—it sounded suspiciously like it involved a lot of kicking down of doors by people who took great pleasure in doing so. Yet again she wondered just who Kikuoka really was and who he really worked for. "How do you know he isn't connecting through multiple proxies?"

"Latency," Namiko said without looking up. "The more hops he has to go through, the more delay it introduces in the connection. He's not going to want to deal with lag in a VR game, certainly not if he needs to be able to respond to problems quickly."

Fuzeki nodded. "I'm betting he was counting on the combination of the anonymous proxy and the principle of security through obscurity—of being simply another anonymous connection to the game. He probably never expected that anyone would be willing to take the risk of disconnecting every other player in order to make his own connection stand out."

Midori took a deep breath, letting it out slowly to try and bleed off tension. When she held out her hands in front of her, they were shaking and she couldn't make them stop. "Now what?"

"Now," Kikuoka said, sounding very pleased indeed, "we wait."

As always, the waiting ended up being the hardest part. Once the adrenaline rush from all of the action wore off, Midori felt herself beginning to crash, and only the fact that the hospital room was cold helped keep her from needing to doze off. With Kayaba cut off from the SAO servers and the spoofing server holding stable, there was very little to do except set up monitoring to alert her if anything on the server changed. Freed from the need to act or to constantly watch for changes in status, she insisted on being allowed to see Kazuto.

"There's not much to see," Fuzeki cautioned as they walked down the sterile, brightly-lit hallways towards a different wing of the hospital. "He's in a hyperbaric chamber right now. Do you know what that is?"

"Not exactly," Midori admitted. "I remember you talking about it in the pitch you gave for the extraction technique. Something to do with deep-sea diving, I think?"

"Mmm… some of them, yes, but not in this context. It's basically a big metal enclosure we can put someone in and increase the atmospheric pressure. By now they've equalized the pressure inside the chamber with what's inside the sealed part of the Nerve Gear, and they've got him on an oxygen mask so that they can get rid of all the oxygen in the chamber."

"How long until he's awake?"

Fuzeki shrugged. "If everything goes according to plan, it'll take about forty minutes to carefully drill through the outer shell of the Nerve Gear to where the battery is without tripping the failsafes. Severing the connection from the battery should immediately power off the entire device and make it safe to remove. You sure you want to go there now? There's really not going to be much of anything to see until the procedure's done."

Midori hesitated, stopping and looking back down in the direction they came. Then it occurred to her: for the first time in almost six months, she was free. She wasn't a prisoner under Kikuoka's supervision, she was in a public place, and there was no point to any further secrecy—for better or for worse, they were committed to this course of action, and they had made an enemy of Kayaba.

She licked lips that suddenly felt very dry, and turned to Fuzeki. "Maybe you're right. Listen, I… could I borrow your phone?"

"My phone?" Fuzeki said, scratching his head as he fished in his pocket and withdrew a battered old glassy rectangle with a metal backing. "Sure, but… why now?"

Midori simply looked back at him. Her expression must have spoken volumes, for he held it out without another word.

It actually took her a moment—it had been a long time since she'd had to think about her own home phone number. Three warbling ringtones later, she heard an answer from a sleepy voice that she hadn't been sure she'd ever hear again.

"Moshi moshi?"

"Sugu?" Midori said, her own voice shaking almost as much as her hands.

"MOM? Oh my god, mom, where are you? They're letting you use a phone now? H-hang on just a minute, I'll go wake up dad—"

Tears rolled down Midori's face as she interrupted her daughter before she could drop the phone. "Wait! Please, don't go yet. I need to tell you something."

There were a few beats of silence on the other end. "This… this isn't about onii-chan, is it?" Midori could hear the fear beginning to creep into Suguha's voice, and couldn't blame her. A phone call at five in the morning from a mother she hadn't spoken to in half a year, a mother she thought was in prison…

"Yes," Midori said, and hurried onward before her daughter could assume the worst. "He's going to be coming home, Sugu… and so am I."

The glass was incredibly thick, and the portholes in which it was set reminded Midori somewhat of a spaceship or submarine. The specialized hyperbaric chamber itself could've been mistaken easily for a miniature sub of some kind; it was a metal cylinder four meters long and one and a half in diameter, with a series of round windows along either side which allowed those outside to observe the patient directly. At one end of the chamber was a bulging hatch which was currently sealed, and at the other end was a metal box which Fuzeki said contained a small airlock allowing objects to be passed between the inside and outside without compromising the pressure in the chamber. A long rail ran along the inner roof of the chamber, on which were mounted a number of robotic waldoes and surgical instruments.

Lying on the padded surface inside the chamber was Midori's son.

To be more accurate, he was her nephew, but ever since she and her husband had adopted him following the death of his parents, she'd always thought of him as a son anyway—the son she'd never had. The distinction certainly hadn't been worth mentioning to Kikuoka or any of his team, although the man almost certainly knew.

Kazuto's hair had grown to what seemed to be around shoulder length in the time he'd been in the game; it was messier than it ever had been, tangled and matted from six months growing under a helmet without being washed. Always pale, he was even moreso now, and the hand that pressed up against the window was bone-thin. His black eyes looked back at her as she raised her own hand and matched it to his on the other side of the window.

"How long?" he asked, his voice raw from disuse.

"It's 27 May, 2023," Midori said through the speaker mounted on the side. "A bit over six months, almost seven really."

Kazuto's nod was miniscule, as if moving his head even that much was an effort. "Everyone else?"

"Safe," she said. "We have a way of spoofing the Nerve Gear into thinking it's online. Kayaba is cut off from SAO, and he can't hurt them now."

A small smile cracked his face. "We?"

It took a moment for Midori to realize what she'd implied through her choice of words. When she did, she returned his smile with a secret one of her own. "It's a long story, Kazuto. I'll tell you later, once you're home." She then tried to steer the subject away from what she'd been doing while he was gone. "Minetaka's on his way here with your sister now—you'll be able to see them soon."

"My cousin."

"Your sister," Midori said earnestly. "She doesn't know yet. Please don't let this be how she finds out."

There was another tiny nod of his head. "There's people… I'll want to find. Friends."

Midori was a little bit surprised despite herself. Kazuto had always been a loner; he had people he interacted with online, but no real friends. It seemed that she wasn't the only one to have gone through a life-altering experience in the last half-year; she wondered if they would recognize the people they used to be.

She glanced at Fuzeki, who nodded before being distracted by the ringtone of his phone. As he stepped away to answer it, she gave her son another gentle smile of reassurance.

"There'll be plenty of time for that. Just rest for now… you'll need to spend some time in here while you go through the decompression process. We'll have you out as soon as we can."

"What?" Fuzeki's outburst was just a few decibels shy of being a shout, which drew dark looks from the doctors and technicians in the room. Midori jumped in surprise, and saw him jogging quickly over to her with the phone still pressed to his ear.

"Got it, we'll be right there." He grabbed Midori's arm. "Visiting time's over, we gotta go."

"I'll come see you again soon," Midori promised Kazuto as she let herself be led away, pulling her arm free and falling into step with Fuzeki, who accelerated quickly as they pushed through the double doors leading out into the hallway. "What's wrong?"

"That was Kikuoka," Fuzeki said as they ran. "Every SAO player in Kobe University Hospital just flatlined."

Two hundred and ninety-four dead.

Faces that only minutes prior were flush with jubilation were now ashen and grim. Namiko looked as if she wanted to vomit, and Fuzeki was trembling with something that might have been either rage or fear—or some combination of both. Midori's own feelings were a jumble, and she couldn't have said which of the foregoing were closest to what she felt.

"What you just heard was the message Kayaba broadcast only minutes ago," came Kikuoka's voice over the speaker. "To sum up: until every surviving player is reconnected to SAO and the Argus firewall is reopened, he will continue killing them—one hospital at a time, once per hour. Any actions taken against him directly will result in the same consequence."

"How?" asked Fuzeki, his voice strained. His niece was still alive, apparently—but Kayaba now held a gun to her head, metaphorically. "They're all on private networks behind a firewall. They have no direct connectivity to any server other than ours. How can he still be killing them?"

"If we knew," Kikuoka said with an infuriatingly mild tone, "we would have a chance to stop him. Thoughts?"

"He has to be getting past the firewalls somehow," Namiko said without raising her eyes from her laptop. "He's targeting an entire hospital at a time—that's a very specific, limited target, both from a geographic and network perspective. The only way I can think of for him to do it like that is from behind the firewall, where he can hit all of the connected devices at once."

"You're right," Midori said. "Was there anything useful in the server logs from Kobe?"

"Not that I'm seeing," Namiko said, frowning. "The logs are completely clean—not even a trace of intrusion."

"That bastard is a genius at covering his tracks," Fuzeki said. "Can't say I'm surprised."

"I am," Namiko said with a furrowed brow. "Even if he was able to gain enough elevated permissions to sanitize the logs somehow to conceal where he connected from and what actions he took, he still should've left other traces—session counts, an increase in network throughput, any number of metrics on one server or another that he wouldn't be able to falsify in realtime."

"Can we cut them off from the net entirely?" asked Kikuoka.

Midori shook her head, even though Kikuoka wasn't there to see it. "Not without severing their connection to the spoofing server. And that puts us right back where we started."

Kikuoka sighed. "We have less than an hour until the next hostages will be killed. You have forty-six minutes to identify his attack vector and neutralize it."

Something in what Kikuoka said struck an uncomfortable note within Midori. "What about after that?"

"After that," Kikuoka said with clear regret in his tone, "I have been instructed by my superiors to reinstate the connectivity of all players to SAO before he can kill any more of them."

"You can't be serious!" Fuzeki said, his voice rising.

"I am quite so," Kikuoka said in response. "I do understand your distress, but I need to ask you to please hold yourself together and look at the big picture here. We are charged with ensuring the safety of every victim of Kayaba's crimes. If we cannot prevent him from killing his hostages, we have no choice but to accede to his demands."

"The hell we do," Fuzeki said. "We can start getting them out."

"That process is already under way. But surely you understand that at most we will be able to extract a few dozen players before we must surrender the rest? The facilities required—"

"I developed the process," said Fuzeki through clenched teeth. "I damn well know it better than you. I'm not just gonna sit here and let you put Sawako back in that death game. Get her out of that thing!"

"I'm afraid I can't do that. We have clearance to finish extracting the players for whom the extraction is already in process, but we cannot risk any further retribution by beginning it on any others."


Kikuoka spoke sharply. "Fuzeki-san, listen to me very carefully. You have forty-three minutes left to find a solution that will rescue not only your niece, but everyone else in the game. You are wasting that time arguing with me."

Midori reached over and touched Fuzeki's arm lightly, which he shrugged off. "Please, Fuzeki. We don't have a lot of time."

"Says the lady whose kid is already safe," Fuzeki said bitterly before getting up and walking out of the room.

Namiko and Midori exchanged a look when the door slid shut behind their colleague. Kikuoka sighed again. "He will return. Just give him a few minutes. In the meantime, the two of you have the most essential skills at this stage—I will stop distracting you and leave you to your work."

Sure enough, Fuzeki returned about ten minutes later, looking considerably chastened. "I'm sorry," he mumbled as he sat down and re-opened his laptop. "That was kinda shitty of me, and I've blown a lot of time."

Midori looked up from her own screen and gave him a smile, brushing a few stray locks of hair out of her face. "Don't worry about it," she said quietly. "We're all on edge, our circadian rhythms are messed up, and you've got plenty of reason to be upset at the idea of putting everyone back in SAO. You're back now, and that's what's important."

Fuzeki nodded solemnly, hands perched above the keyboard. "Alright, what've you got?"

"A whole lot of nothing so far," Namiko said, her voice laced with frustration. "That bastard might as well be a ghost, for all I can find in the logs of every router and firewall leading into Kobe University. It's like he wasn't even there."

"An inside job?" Midori said with a sudden sense of apprehension.

"Doubtful," Fuzeki said immediately. "That would imply he's got someone working for him in every hospital where SAO players are being kept. There's been no indication in all these months that this was anyone's work but his."

"He wouldn't need someone in every hospital," said Namiko. "Just enough of them to make it look like he had total control, or a way in that couldn't be detected. An hour between executions—that's plenty of time for someone to travel quite a distance. Two or three people could stagger their work and make it look random and spread out."

"Fuzeki's right, though," Midori said. "Everyone at Argus was cleared of having any knowledge of that bastard's plan. He has no known acquaintances, no one he's close to." She sighed, squeezing her eyes shut and rubbing her temples. "It's an interesting theory, but it's probably a dead end."

"Well, I'm open to ideas," Namiko said with a glance at the wall. "We've got about half an hour."

"Aliens?" Fuzeki ventured. When both women leveled wicked glares at him, he raised his hands in supplication. "Sorry, thought a little humor would help."

Namiko rolled her eyes. "Just for that, I'm making you scrub the incoming landline call logs for the hospital." She typed a few lines and added a mouse click to forward a message over to him. "Here, enjoy."

"You're killing me with generosity," Fuzeki complained. But he immediately focused his attention on his machine and got to work.

That was how it went for most of the next twenty minutes—painstaking digital forensics of the most boring kind, the sort of eye-straining work that condemned so many longtime tech workers to nearsightedness.

"Little less than eight minutes until the deadline," Fuzeki called out.

"Crap," Namiko said, setting aside her laptop and standing up. "I'm sorry, I've been trying to hold it, but if I don't pee right now there's going to be a very unpleasant accident. I'll be as quick as I can."

"Go," Midori said. After going through one pregnancy, she had developed a great deal of sympathy for other women's bladder crises. "I've got the cell phone logs you just sent."

"Back in a flash," Namiko said, dashing to the door and fidgeting for the second it took to slide open before running out into the hallway.

"Bring me some coffee!" Midori shouted before the door could shut.

Fuzeki snickered, but Midori was already scanning the open document, eyes traveling down the rows of numbers that threatened to blur and become indistinct. After having been awake through the entire night with an already-disrupted sleep schedule, she was fading rapidly, and only sheer willpower was keeping her eyes open at that point. So when she saw what she thought was a discrepancy in the logs, at first she thought she'd skipped lines or otherwise gotten her eyes crossed up.

Blinking, she shook her head and looked more closely. "Okay, this is weird."


"I'm looking at the cell phone records for the Kobe University medical campus. I'll have to ask Namiko when she gets back if there were any gaps in the data, but from what I've got… it looks like there were no mobile calls placed for several minutes before the deaths occurred, and for at least a minute afterwards."

Fuzeki frowned. "I'm not sure what that means."

"Neither am I, but it's something—wait." A cold feeling washed over Midori's body, like a wave of ice water had just been dumped over her head. "Fuzeki," she said suddenly. "The Nerve Gear is basically a low-power microwave transceiver, right?"

"Low-power compared to a microwave oven, anyway," he said. "Hell of a lot stronger than your average cell phone—oh." His eyes widened.

"Kayaba isn't hacking into the firewalls at all," she said, voice gone dead. "He's hacking into the cell towers at the hospital and using them to transmit a signal to the nearby Nerve Gears."

Fuzeki's face was white.

Midori spared barely a moment to meet his eyes, the full import of what she'd just discovered only beginning to fully sink in. Then she dropped her gaze back to her screen and began typing furiously. "I've got to get a message to Kikuoka—"

At first, Midori didn't understand what had happened. One moment she was composing an instant message to Kikuoka, the next she was lying on the cold hospital floor with her ears ringing and a coppery taste in her mouth. As the haze of pain began to clear from her vision, she saw her laptop about a meter away on the floor, and began to crawl towards it.

She felt strong hands seize her ankles and yank her back, and as she twisted to look for her assailant, she saw Fuzeki standing over her. His own laptop was closed and sitting on the chair beside them; there was blood on the edge of it. When she reached up to touch the throbbing side of her head, her fingers came away wet.

"Fuzeki, what—"

"I'm sorry," he said, his voice heavy with grief as he held her legs firmly in his hands, immobilizing her. She tried kicking, but couldn't get any leverage. "Stop it. I'm not going to hurt you any more, but I had to stop you from getting that message out."

"Why? Please, let me go, we can save everyone—"

"He'll kill her," Fuzeki said, cutting Midori off and grunting as she dug a heel into his ribs. "If we interfere any more, he's going to kill Sawako. But if I stop you, he'll log her out. Now stop struggling, damnit! This'll be over in a few minutes when Kikuoka's deadline passes."

"And then you'll go to jail," Midori said.

Fuzeki tried to shrug, almost losing his grip on Midori's legs. "It doesn't matter. She'll be safe."

Midori's hands balled into fists, and she glared viciously up at Fuzeki from where she lay. "And you'll be buying her life with the lives of thousands of others."

Fuzeki looked back at her, no regret in his eyes now. "Wouldn't you? If it was Kazuto, is there anything you wouldn't do to save him?"

There's no reaching him, she realized suddenly. And we're running out of time. "Somebody, help!" she screamed.

Fuzeki swung her by her legs, slamming her into one of the nearby chairs. Spots filled Midori's vision, and a wave of pain and dizziness flooded through her. Groaning, she tried to turn herself back over and pull herself towards her laptop, but her strength was leaving her and Fuzeki's grip was too strong, her own leverage too little. She looked up at the clock on the wall—a minute and a half until Kikuoka would have to log all the players back into SAO.

"Fuzeki, what in the mother of—"

The sound of the sliding door and Namiko's stunned voice pulled Midori out of the blackness that threatened to overtake her. "He's helping Kayaba!" she yelled, putting every bit of energy she could into her voice.

Fuzeki started to look over his shoulder. "Namiko, let me explain—"

She didn't. The next sound that came from Fuzeki's mouth was a howl of inhuman pain as Namiko hurled the steaming cup of coffee in her hand at him, splashing it across his head. The pressure on Midori's legs left immediately as his hands flew up to his face, and while he continued to scream, she took careful aim and planted the heel of her shoe between his legs with as much force as she could muster, giving herself a push away from him and scrabbling towards her laptop.

Midori didn't waste time getting up. As hospital security burst into the room, she finished tapping out the message to Kikuoka on her computer, then rolled onto her side with a groan. "Namiko, it's the cell towers," she managed to get out between breaths. "Can you look for any hospital where the cell traffic has suddenly dropped off?"

Namiko gave a curt explanation to the security guards, and as they dragged the still-moaning Fuzeki from the room she flipped open her laptop and began working. "On it. Can you get a line open to Kikuoka?"

Her chat client was already beeping at her. Midori pushed herself up onto her elbows and accepted the VOIP call.

"Verdana-san, what—"

"Shut up and listen," Midori said. "Kayaba is using the cell towers at the hospitals to transmit a kill command to the Nerve Gears. Namiko is trying to isolate where he's going to hit next. Fuzeki betrayed us. If you've got any favors you can call in, now's the time."

The stunned silence at the other end lasted only a moment. "Find out where he's hacking in from. I'll take it from there."

"Got it!" Namiko said loudly. "He's—oh shit, he's hitting us here!"

"Of course he is," Kikuoka said. "This is where his adversaries are; from his perspective it's logical that someone on the team might have family here. Trace the connection, but don't interrupt his session. Just turn off the tower's transmitter."

Midori was already one step ahead with the trace. "Working… routing through Gunma prefecture… source IP is on the SoftBank network, but it's not the proxy from before… looks like it's somewhere in Nagano prefecture."

As soon as she sent the data over to Kikuoka, the man made a pleased sound. "I think this will be sufficient. Now I want you to black out the communications in this hospital. Nothing goes in or out. I want him to think he's succeeded for as long as possible."

When the work was done, Midori shuddered and tried to push herself into a sitting position. A strong hand supported her when she felt ready to tip over, and she looked up to see Nurse Aki crouched beside her.

"You're hurt," she said. "Let me take a look at that."

"Is it over?" Midori asked, her voice almost a whisper.

"No," said Nurse Aki gently. "But it will be very soon."

Midori had just enough time to wonder how this nurse would know that before blackness claimed her.

The next day passed in a kind of blur for Midori. When she was able to ask questions again, Nurse Aki informed her that she had a moderate concussion—which she was lucky was no worse than that—and that they wanted to keep her overnight for observation. All inquiries about the search for Kayaba and the status of the trapped players were rebuffed by the nurse, but the woman's cheerful demeanor spoke volumes.

Kikuoka came in person to visit her shortly after lunch, and was much more forthcoming.

"First of all, I must apologize for what you endured from Fuzeki. He was my employee, and his actions are my responsibility."

"Why did he...?" Midori asked.

"Once Kayaba realized the scope of what was occurring, he must have begun investigating our team and closely monitoring this hospital. It would not have been difficult for him to learn that Fuzeki had a relative in SAO, and when he stormed out of the hospital room, Kayaba made contact with him and made him a deal. One which, it seems, he could not refuse."

"What will happen to him?"

"Oh, he'll be prosecuted, of course," Kikuoka said with that irritating calm of his. "But I imagine the circumstances will be taken under consideration."

Midori nodded thoughtfully, trying to put herself in Fuzeki's place. His words still burned in her ears. What might she have done, if it had been Sawako rather than Kazuto who was extracted first—and if Kayaba had then contacted her with that threat?

She didn't know, and it bothered her. "And Kayaba? What about him?"

"We found him," he said with a satisfied look. "He was apparently hiding in a cabin in the mountains, and there are signs that he wasn't the only one there. But by the time our people arrived on-site, he was already dead."

"Dead?" Midori tried to sit up, and then reached for the control at the side of her bed to raise the back for her.

Kikuoka nodded. "It's not clear why, but he had modified his own Nerve Gear to perform some kind of high-intensity scan. It killed him in the process."

"So he committed suicide in the end, rather than face justice."

A frown touched Kikuoka's slender face. "Perhaps. Or perhaps he was simply a victim of his own experiment. It's likely that we'll never know."

The only regret Midori could make herself feel over this news was that she wouldn't have the opportunity to look Kayaba in the eyes as he was pronounced guilty and led off to prison for the rest of his life. "And the SAO players?"

"Safe," Kikuoka assured her. "We still have to keep them connected, but the extraction process is going smoothly, and we are working on developing a more portable device and method for disabling the Nerve Gears now that we have a proven way to do it. We should be able to free everyone within a matter of weeks."

"Weeks." Midori shuddered. "That's a long time to sit in a hung connection, not knowing what's going on."

"Indeed," Kikuoka said. "Which brings me to my next point. There's been quite a bit of discussion about how to handle this, and we determined that now that Kayaba is dead, the best course of action would be to let everyone log back into the game rather than inflict the psychological trauma of sitting in sensory nothingness for weeks."

Midori's jaw dropped. "Are you insane?"

Kikuoka folded his hands in his lap. "No, but a great many players most assuredly would be if we hadn't done this. Fortunately, they now know what's happening and that help is coming—thanks to your son."

A spike of fear and rage lanced through Midori. "You didn't."

"Actually," Kikuoka said, "He volunteered. We can't create new player accounts, but he already has one. He said there were people he owed it to, friends and guildmates, and that as one of the top players he was in a unique position to spread the word to everyone that their nightmare would soon be over—and that they need no longer risk their lives clearing the game. Please understand—at this point, there is no danger to anyone unless they foolishly decide to actually continue playing the death game."

"Is he still in there?"

Kikuoka nodded. "But not for long. Part of the agreement was that we would extract him after 24 hours. He said that he owed that to you." He glanced at his smartphone. "We'll be bringing him out tomorrow morning, no matter what. I assure you, you have nothing to fear now."

Midori fixed Kikuoka with a steely gaze. "So help me, Kikuoka, if anything happens to him…"

"It won't. We owe you—and Kazuto—a great debt, Kirigaya-san." It was the first time that Kikuoka had ever called her by her proper family name, and Midori realized as he met her eyes that it was another way of impressing upon her how earnest he was. "You have my promise that he will come to no harm. And since you more than fulfilled your side of our agreement, you are free to do as you will. It is as if the charges against you never existed."

Kikuoka came to his feet and began to take his leave. "I must go now—there is still quite a bit of work to be done in order to free all of the trapped players and manage the aftermath. I will ensure that you can be in the room when the extraction process begins so that you are the first to greet Kazuto when the helmet comes off." He paused at the door and looked back over his shoulder. "Is there anything else I can do for you?"

Midori took a deep, calming breath, let it out, and then took another one. As little as she liked the idea of Kazuto being back in the game world with a Nerve Gear on his head after everything she went through to get him out, what Kikuoka said made sense: it would be far worse to keep thousands of people in black limbo, with no sensation of their own bodies and no understanding of what was happening to them, than to let them log back into SAO and stay put in a safe place until they could all be extracted. He'd be back in a day, and he wouldn't ever have to go in again.

She was free, and in less than a day Kazuto would be too. They could go home. And she could go back to—

Midori hesitated. "Now that you mention it, there is one thing you can give me."

Kikuoka turned to face her and bowed slightly. "Of course, Kirigaya-san. Name your request. If it is within my power to grant, I will do so."

A grin crooked at the corner of Midori's mouth. "I've been gone for six months, and I'm sure I've been long since fired from my old editor-in-chief position," she said. "I could use a job."

Kikuoka smiled. "Verdana-san, it seems that you already have one. I believe they owe you six months of back pay."

There was a brief silence as she processed the implications of Kikuoka's statement. She leaned back against the hospital bed and closed her eyes, sighing as one of her last remaining worries flowed out of her.

"In that case, just call me Midori."