A/N: Enjoy this long chapter. But before you do, I want to make something clear. Some of you may have noticed similarities between the way I portray the Fundamentalist Militia and Islamic extremists in the real world. Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, etc. did serve as a major source of inspiration for the Militia, but the Militia's religious beliefs have nothing to do with Islam. In fact, the beliefs of al-Qaeda and Taliban have nothing to do with Islam. I just don't want people getting the idea that I'm trying to make a religious statement with this story.

Also, I have realized that "G-Takusu" should be spelled "G-Tacs". Apologies; when I drew up the story the SAO wiki referred to him as "G-Takusu". For consistency's sake I'll keep his name the same.

Disclaimer: I do not own Sword Art Online. I also don't own Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and Medal of Honor: European Assault, on which parts of this chapter are based.


Chapter 10: Dead or Alive

A rustling sound.

The NazBol turned. Probably just a critter. Still, he ambled slowly over to the side of the building, keeping his rifle at the ready. No Alliance scum would get anywhere near al-Asad, not tonight, not on this alert's soldier's watc-

Shhhink. And down he went.

Argo sheathed her knife, giving Kirito a pointed look. And that, Kii-bou, is how you knife.

Kirito rolled his eyes before slowly leading the eight-person Spec Ops team forward. They had spent the past few hours sneaking through the woods to get to the village where al-Asad was located. The village consisted of several widely-spaced buildings, including a farmhouse on the far end. They weren't sure which building housed al-Asad, so they would be searching each building one by one. While Kirito, Argo, Liz, and Snow crept into the first house, the other four Spec Ops troops took up positions surrounding it.

There didn't appear to be anybody on the first floor, but as he approached the stairs, Kirito heard snores from above. He pointed to the second floor. Argo nodded, indicating to Snow that she should stay on the first floor while the she herself, Kirito, and Liz tip-toed upstairs. The second floor contained several rooms – judging by the snores, most were bedrooms. Argo gave the others a meaningful look. This is it. Stealth ends here. After each positioning themselves at a door, the three players kicked open the doors.

Kirito quickly scanned the room, ready to fire. A NazBol literally jumped out of bed, shouting in alarm. Kirito hesitated a moment before shooting him. Even as the enemy flopped to the floor, the boy scowled. The idea of killing NazBols in their beds weighed heavily on his conscience. He felt even worse when he spotted a teddy bear on the floor under the bed. Oh my god, did this guy actually have a teddy bear?... Wait… This is civilian housing, and there are old bloodstains on the walls… Suddenly Kirito didn't feel quite as guilty.

"This room's clear!" Argo's shout returned his focus to the mission. After making sure that his room was empty, Kirito shuffled back out into the hall. He saw Liz bust open the door at the end of the hall and stick in her shotgun, but after a moment she turned back. "Just a bathroom."

By this time, the village was clearly aware of their presence. The four Spec Ops troops who had waited outside began firing, presumably at enemies emerging from other buildings. Kirito looked expectantly at Argo, waiting for the order to head back downstairs and move on to the next house. She simply raised an eyebrow. Oh, right, Kirito remembered, I'm co-leader now. Turning, he ran down the stairs. Snow was keeping an eye on the windows.

"He's not here. Next house," said Kirito, instinctively ducking as a windowpane shattered somewhere in the house.

"Next house!" Snow called to other team members. The team started jogging, firing behind them as they went. They came within a few yards of the front door when a mob of NazBols showed themselves in the windows. The hailstorm of fire caught the players off guard. They dived to the ground. The tall grass provided some cover, but now the Spec Ops team was in the uncomfortable situation of being stuck between two masses of enemies. If they didn't act quickly, they would be surrounded.

Kirito picked off some of the NazBols in the windows with his silenced Garand, but more popped up. He heard a feminine grunt to his right; a small object sailed towards the house and right through a bottom-floor window. A moment later, an explosion rocked the house, downing many of the NazBols.

"Boo-yeah!" he heard Liz cry. Kirito grinned.

Another NazBol appeared in the doorway, firing randomly into the grass. Kirito took some minor damage, but before he could take him out, the NazBol abruptly dropped his rifle and fell. Argo emerged, reloading, from the grass ahead of him and ran up to the door, tossing a stun grenade inside. The remaining NazBols on the first floor cried out in alarm at the disorienting explosion. Argo moved inside, silenced M4 cutting down enemies with no sound that could be heard over all the other gunfire. Then he heard her shout. "First floor clear! Get in here!"

Kirito, Liz and two of the other team members hurried inside, with Snow and the remaining two covering them. Once everyone was inside, Argo led the charge upstairs. A minute later, the second house had also been cleared. Still no sign of al-Asad.

With my luck, we'll have circled the village before he find him, Kirito thought gloomily. Or worse – he'll have escaped. Nonetheless, he and the others pushed forward.

Neither of the next two buildings yielded their target either. One was even empty! Thankfully, there weren't too many buildings in the village. All that was left was the farm up the hill. The team ran up the slope, zigzagging to avoid bullets as tens of NazBols converged behind them. At the crest of the hill they met a few more NazBols, but the farm itself appeared empty. Taking no chances, half the team crouched in the rows of crops and slowly advanced, watching the windows and doors, while the other half crept backward, picking off NazBols coming over the top of the hill.

When they reached the farmhouse, Argo barked out orders. "Liz, Quinn, search the farmhouse. Kirito, Mac, search the barn. Everyone else take up defensive positions!"

Kirito and the player named Mac approached the closed doors of a smallish red barn. Mac tried opening the doors, but evidently they were locked. He kicked the door while Kirito covered him. The huge door refused to give. Kirito narrowed his eyes. "Wait. Kick it again." Mac obliged. Thump! The player winced, shaking his foot. Kirito, though, looked encouraged. "There's something heavy blocking it. This could be it."

"This better be it," Mac muttered.

Jogging around the barn, Kirito looked in vain for some sort of opening. In his search, he almost stepped on a pitchfork. He vaguely wondered if a pitchfork could be used as a weapon. Probably. But then he noticed something next to the pitchfork – and got an idea.

"Mac, help me with this!" The two Spec Ops troops picked up a ladder and set it against the barn. Kirito climbed up first, putting a foot on the roof. "Maybe there's an opening up h-" A chunk of the rickety old roof gave in under his weight, sending him plummeting feet first. "-eeee-oooofffff…"

A ceiling beam halted Kirito's progress before he could go very far. He had landed on his crotch. The boy grasped himself in horror. M-my… my… self-esteem... uhhhh- But then he remembered that he couldn't feel pain. In his head he could hear Klein cracking up.

Recalling the urgency of the situation, Kirito cursed to himself, his eyes casting wildly around below him for any sign of the enemy. All he saw were some more farm tools, a pile of hay, several animal stalls, a gigantic crate blocking the barn doors, and his Garand, which had fallen to the floor.

Relieved and discouraged at the same time, Kirito shimmied backwards a bit, pulled one leg over, and dropped onto one of the stall's walls. From there he jumped to the ground, followed by Mac. Bending to pick up his weapon, Kirito scanned the barn again, making sure he hadn't missed anything. Was al-Asad even here? His eyes settled on the pile of hay. Hmmm. He raised his rifle and stepped forward -

Only to trip and fall flat on his face. Something on the hay-strewn floor had caught his foot. As Mac passed him to check the hay pile, Kirito got up and examined the object. A handle…? Heart jumping, he cleared off the hay and dirt around the handle. Before him lay an apparent trapdoor.

"I think this is it." No sooner had Kirito completed his sentence than a bullet came whizzing through the wooden trapdoor and into his stomach. Thinking quickly, he barrel rolled. A second and then a third bullet hit the barn walls, one missing Mac's head by inches.

"You all right?" The trooper asked Kirito after ducking and aiming his rifle at the trapdoor.

"Yeah, I'm good," gasped Kirito as he stood, letting his health regenerate.

Just then, someone banged on the barn doors. "Kirito, Mac!" Argo hollered. "The NazBols are gone for now, but reinforcements are sure to come. You in there?"

"Yep," he called back. "We think al-Asad's underground. The door's blocked - use the ladder on the back side to get in."

A minute later, the Spec Ops team was in position. Edmunds, one of the four new faces, prepared to lift the trapdoor, while the others stood to the side, out of the line of fire. Snow knelt in front of Edmunds, ready to throw a flashbang down into the basement. Argo gave the nod. "Do it!" she hissed.

Snow pulled the pin on the flashbang. Edmunds yanked the trapdoor open. Snow threw, diving to the ground, shutting her eyes, and covering her ears after.

The loud BANG was immediately followed by three cries of dismay. Kirito rushed in, followed by Argo.

Kirito swiftly took out the two NazBols in the little bunker. The third man, dressed in black robes, had dropped his gold-plated Desert Eagle pistol and was clutching his skull, grimacing in pain. Instantly Kirito recognized him from the briefing photos. Al-Asad, leader of the defeated Fundamentalist Militia.

Argo tackled him to the ground and with Kirito's help had him in handcuffs before the virtual bad guy could do much more than curse in his bizarre language.

A few minutes later, al-Asad seemed to be coming to his senses. His captors had handcuffed him to a chair and placed him in the center of the little room. With the crate blocking the barn doors having been moved, Mac and Edmunds had closed the trapdoor and were keeping watch outside. The other six stood behind al-Asad's chair. The only light source came from a lantern flickering in the corner.

Argo sighed inwardly. Well, time to get some unpleasant business over with. I hope Kii-bou doesn't think too poorly of me.

But we when she made to step forward, Kirito held out his hand. "I'll do it," he muttered, staring at the prisoner's back. Argo looked on, stunned, as the former Black Swordsman slowly made his way around the chair until he faced al-Asad with a cold stare. The Militia leader stared right back. In the flickering light his face looked aged. This was a man with a bloody burden, and he knew it. But this was not a burden he felt uncomfortable carrying. Of that, Kirito was sure. The fact that he was an NPC made little difference at the moment.

After a minute, Kirito spoke. "Do you speak our language?"

No reaction.

"I think you do. I think you can understand what I'm saying."

No reaction.

"Let me be frank. We need information. Anything you know about your friends, the National Bolsheviks."

An eyebrow twitch.

"You are no doubt aware of the general ideology of the Alliance for Earth. We believe in freedom and justice. We oppose hatred and needless violence. But don't get me wrong." Kirito's neutral expression never changed. "Thousands of lives are at stake. If necessary, I will torture you. I will treat you to some of the hell you have treated innocent people with. I won't like it. I'll probably have nightmares about it for the rest of my life. But I will do it."

Al-Asad sat, making no motion to interrupt.

"But you don't really care, do you?" Kirito sighed softly. "Maybe just a bit. You don't like experiencing pain any more than the next person. But torture won't make you talk, and it certainly won't make you sorry for what you've done. Am I right?"

Silence.

"You're done here. You could care less if people die after you do. Death is a familiar thing to you. It's also familiar to your comrades who hunted you down and brought you here, stuck you on a fishing pole, and sat back for a nap."

A barely audible exhale through the nose. Kirito gave al-Asad a sideways look, his face almost pensive in a detached sort of way. He paused.

"… You hated them, didn't you?"

At first, al-Asad gave no sign that he had understood what Kirito said. But the corners of his mouth hinted at a sneer.

"You hated the NazBols. Treating the Militia like a puppet, a proxy force. Funding you so they didn't have to fight as much as they would if they were alone. Encouraging you to treat civilians any way you wanted, as if they didn't care what the hell you did, as long as you supported them. Maybe even calling you 'brothers' once or twice in a patronizing tone."

More silence.

"But they aren't your brothers. They don't understand what it means to serve a greater purpose. They turn their backs on your religion. Sure, they beat women and execute the unclean, but when you get right down to it, they're just infidels like the rest of us."

A slow sigh.

Kirito stepped closer, folding his arms. "You may think your job is done, but it isn't. You still have a choice in front of you. Either you help your enemies or you help your allies. I'm not going to pretend it doesn't make a difference to me; it makes a great deal of difference to me. To all of us. The question is: does it make a difference to you?"

Kirito waited. Al-Asad never broke his gaze.

"Well?"

At long last, Al-Asad gave a deep sigh, closing his eyes for a moment. When he opened them, traces of flames danced behind his cold eyes. "You are smart, Alliance scum," he said in heavily accented Japanese. "But one day soon you will learn the hard way that your idea of 'right' and 'wrong' are not God's idea of 'right' and 'wrong.'"

Kirito raised an eyebrow. "Which 'God'?"

Al-Asad spat. His saliva splattered a little to the right of Kirito's nose. Kirito didn't blink, nor did he make any move to wipe the spit off.

After another moment, al-Asad gave a soft, humorless laugh. "You are foolish to think the NazBols would share military plans with me."

"But…?" Kirito prompted.

This time, al-Asad didn't laugh, but the sneer returned. "But… I am not as unaware as my dear 'comrades' suppose I am," he continued. "And Heinrich is not as smart as he thinks he is." He gave no indication that mentioning a name was a mistake. "Without the Fundamentalist Militia, some… unusual assets may need to present themselves to him." He sat back and closed his eyes. "That is all I will say, infidel."

Kirito continued to stare at the man, not because he thought he might have more to say after all, but simply because he found him fascinating. In a twisted sort of way. Like a certain other madman…

Just then, a knock sounded on the trapdoor. Mac's voice came muffled through the wood. "More NazBols converging on our position!"

Kirito straightened, turning to look at the others. The two other Spec Ops troops looked impressed. Liz looked worried. Argo still looked stunned, though her eyebrows had come back down. Snow… he couldn't tell, but it wasn't her usual cold mask.

After a moment, Argo shook her head. "We've got to get out of here. What should we do with… him?"

Kirito glanced back at the Militia leader who stared straight ahead, sneer gone, eyes cold as always.

"He'd definitely slow us down," continued Argo.

Kirito took out his M1911. Liz made an involuntary noise in her throat. He walked up to the handcuffed man and held the pistol to his head. Al-Asad continued to stare straight ahead. This time Liz's noise was voluntary. She stepped toward him. "Kirito, no -"

Argo held her back by the shoulder. Turning in confusion and dread, Liz read her eyes. He knows what he's doing.

Kirito raised his arm a few centimeters and fired.

The bullet hit the wall, grazing al-Asad's cap. In the silence that followed, Kirito spoke softly: "In your speeches you talked a lot about the power to kill. I have the power to kill you, but instead I'm choosing a different power, greater than the power to kill. Think about that while you wait for your reward."

With that, Kirito turned and hurried out of the little basement.


"Mac, Edmunds!" called Argo as she jogged out of the barn. "SitRep!"

"There's a ton coming up the hill," answered Edmunds while reloading, "but that's nothing compared to the mob that's probably coming up behind us."

"Right." Without skipping a beat, Argo knelt behind a barrel and opened fire at the NazBols approaching from across the field. "We've got to push. Throw smokes!"

Those players who were equipped with smoke grenades threw a few. In a few seconds, a wall of charcoal-gray smoke formed a wall in front of the NazBols. The Spec Ops team darted forward, watching for NazBols adventurous enough to charge through the smokescreen. When they reached the end of the farm field and the edge of the hill, the team continued, giving the surprised NazBols coming up the hill no time to aim. "Left!" Argo called out; the team darted to their left, going around the village instead of through it. On the one hand, most of the NazBols had been waiting for them in the village, meaning the players ran right by them. On the other, the players were now running with a pack of NazBols right on their heels.

"More smokes!" yelled Kirito as bullets nipped at his shoulders. A few more smoke grenades were thrown, allowing some precious seconds. When the smoke cleared, they were nowhere in sight. The bulk of the NazBols ran straight ahead into the forest; a few others stayed behind to make sure the players weren't hiding.

Meanwhile, Kirito and the others had taken another left and were galloping southward. The edge of NazBol territory lay west, but Argo wanted to put some distance between her team and the horde.

After a few minutes, Argo raised an arm. "Hold up!" she whispered hoarsely, trying not to be any louder than necessary. The eight players stopped and lay in the foliage, catching their breaths. Kirito turned to face two of the others. "Perkins, Quinn," he whispered, "see if they followed us."

The two troops in question seemed surprised that Kirito was giving them an order, but they obeyed nonetheless. After a minute, they returned, shaking their heads.

"Good," Argo sighed. "We're still too far into enemy territory for the Air Force's comfort, so we'll have to go west for a while before I can call in air support. I think I can see buildings ahead; let's go, but keep it quiet."

The team started walking east through the trees, guns at the ready. After a few minutes, they arrived at a clearing with the buildings Argo had spotted. It looked like another village, though there was something different from the last village besides the fact that it wasn't on a hill. What that difference, was, Kirito couldn't immediately tell.

A light turned on in a second story window of the nearest house. Seconds later, it shut off again. Kirito strained his ears; he could pick up a child's whine, but like the light, it cut off almost as soon as it began. Muffled voices, soft yet urgent, floated down from the window. After a moment, a figure rushed up to the windows and drew the curtains.

"Civilians," breathed Liz. That was the difference. The village containing al-Asad had been taken over completely by the NazBols, and by the bloodstains on the walls, the villagers hadn't been notified in advance. But at least some civilians still lived in this village.

"Let's try to go around," Argo whispered. The eight players walked north along the village border for a while, but the forest seemed to end on a continuous north-south line. Trying the same thing going south confirmed that they would either have to spend possibly hours trying to find more trees for cover on their trek westward, go north and risk running into the NazBols who had been chasing them, or slink their way through the village.

Argo glanced at Kirito. "What do you think?"

For an answer, Kirito darted to the wall of the nearest house. After checking around the corner, he waved the others on. Slowly, they made their way through the village. No civilians were out and about, and only a few NazBols patrolled the streets.

Eventually, they reached a point where the houses stopped. Ahead lay a field with many bushes, split by a road. The road continued for about half a mile before buildings reappeared. To Kirito, the field looked enticing. With no one around and with bushes for cover just in case, it would likely give the players a break from the high-tension sneaking they had been doing for the last half hour. Almost there –

A door opened somewhere to their left. The team dived for cover. Lying prone, Kirito watched as several figures filed out of a backyard door a few houses down. It was hard to see details, but he counted three figures with weapons and one without. The one without was shorter and slower than the others –perhaps an elderly man. The NazBols began talking, asking questions from the sound of it. The elderly man replied in a shaky voice, making two of the NazBols laugh. The other asked another question, stepping closer to the old man and causing the latter to back up, almost tripping. One of the laughing NazBols snickered while he and his companion got behind the old man. Meanwhile the third NazBol kept stepping forward, and the old man kept stepping back until the two behind him made it clear that he had no more room to back up.

Kirito's eyebrows narrowed. He couldn't understand what they were saying, but he could easily guess where this was going. But if they took out the NazBols, they risked alerting the area to their presence.

The NazBol raised his voice. He definitely sounded angry now. Kirito could see the poor old man shaking even in the dark and from several hundred feet away.

Frowning, Kirito raised his Garand. At this distance, he could easily take out the advancing NazBol, but the other two were in the shadow of the house. Even if he did manage to pick off all three before they could shout or fire their guns, there was no guarantee the old man wouldn't cry out in fear.

The interrogator reached for something in his belt…

Kirito bit his lip…

Suddenly, the interrogator froze, arching his back. He dropped to the ground without a sound. His comrades soon followed, and this time Kirito heard the soft thmp-thmp of a silenced weapon. The old man staggered backward; Kirito was sure he was about to give them away. Then a shape rose from behind a garden bush. It was Argo. She had snuck past Kirito towards the yard without him noticing. She raised both hands, with her M4 pointed away from the old man. She didn't say anything, but Kirito got the sense that she was trying to give the civilian a non-verbal message: it's alright. For a moment, the old man stood there in half-stagger. Then he straightened slowly, staring at the three new bodies in his backyard. Argo waved toward the house: we'll take care of those, just go back inside. After another moment, the man obeyed, looking back only to close the door. Argo then turned back to the rest of the team: I could use some help here.

Shaking his head, Kirito hastened to join the others in removing the bodies from the yard. They hid them among a thick block of trees. As they crept back towards the road, Kirito watched Argo. She didn't even hesitate, did she? I could learn a thing or two from her. As if she heard him, the former "Rat" of Aincrad sent him a smile and a wink.

But the team's relief didn't last long. They had almost made it across the bushy field and into the next patch of settlement when the unmistakable sound of chopper blades faded in from the distance. Freezing, Kirito and the others tried to pinpoint the sound, but the chop-chop echoed across the field and bounced off the trees on either side. One thing was clear: the sound was getting louder.

All at once, each of the eight players dove for the nearest bush. Kirito tried to actually climb inside his bush, but this particular piece of shrubbery was very thick. By the time the helicopter was almost upon them, Kirito had only managed to hide half of himself.

He was facing forward, and apparently the chopper was somewhere behind him and to his left. He felt, rather than saw, the chopper halt, hovering. He imagined a searchlight combing the field. His ears told him the helicopter was getting closer and closer. The bush began to rustle. It must be nearly on top of me, he thought. Slowly, he retracted the arm that was still outside the bush and stuck it in awkwardly. At the same time, he tried to shift his right leg as close to the bush as possible. Then, the searchlight he had imagined became real – he could see it out of the corner of his eye. It was rushing towards him. He froze not a millisecond before the searchlight reached him. The hair on the back of his neck stood up. Kirito hoped very much that he had gotten far enough into the bush so that his head and back weren't visible.

To his great relief, the spotlight passed over him. He peered through the bush's branches as the spotlight continued up the field. But then his heart went into overdrive again. Liz's shotgun lay on the grass, just waiting to be spotted. Liz, damn you - ! At the last moment, a hand darted out from a nearby bush and grabbed the weapon before the spotlight reached it. Ah, Liz, bless you. But that was nothing compared to the scare Kirito got when he noticed one of the team members he didn't know that well lying completely out in the open.

Move move move move - ! Kirito thought furiously. The figure didn't move. The spotlight passed behind him, almost grazing a foot, and continued… then came back, just barely missing his head. As the spotlight swept the remainder of the field, Kirito silently thanked whoever was controlling the spotlight for getting sloppy with their back-and-forth pattern.

At this point, he could see the chopper itself: a Mil Mi-8 Hip utility helicopter with the NazBol Air Force logo. The helicopter hovered at the end of the road for a bit, sweeping its light over the field one more time. After a moment, it finally flew away.

Kirito sighed before extricating himself from the bush. This was easier said than done, though. He ended up tumbling backwards and landing on his rear, covered in needles. Dusting himself off, he caught Liz grinning cheekily at him. Oh, well, like you can talk, missy…

He and the others soon reached the end of the field and entered the next settlement. Kirito felt grateful that the helicopter hadn't spent much time searching this area. As he and the others prepared to sneak across the first north-south road, however, he realized why.


Holy s***, thought Liz, this place is crawling with NazBols. Down the road to their left and right marched NazBols. A pickup truck with a figure standing in the back rolled towards them at a leisurely pace, and another vehicle – heavy and armored, judging by the sound – could be heard on the other side of the row of houses in front of them.

She and Argo glanced at each other. This is not going to be easy, both girls thought.

The team had to wait almost fifteen minutes before they even got an opportunity to cross the road. When they did, they wasted no time in continuing along the neat suburban-style lawns, bending low to minimize the chance of being seen from a window. Soon they reached the next north-south road. Thankfully, this one appeared to be considerably less guarded than the first. Same thing with the third and fourth roads. But as they were crossing that fourth road, a set of headlights flashed into view to their right. Those who were still in the road hurried for the nearest side; that meant that Mac and Snow, who happened to be bringing up the rear, were stuck on the other side of the road. Fortunately, the lawns on both sides contained little gardens which provided a moderate amount of cover. If the NazBols in the truck passed by without pointing a flashlight at the lawns, they would be fine…

The truck drew nearer. It was one of those pick-up trucks with a machine gun in the back – a "technical" was what Argo had called it during training. Liz unconsciously gripped her shotgun tighter. Come on, come on, nothing to see here… Then the machine gunner shouted something. Oh no… The truck was slowing. It pulled over right in front of them. Grrrrrrrrr-

The driver got out, leaving the engine and headlights on. The machine gunner hopped off. The two men began discussing. It sounded like the gunner was asking for something; the driver sounded annoyed. Their argument led them to the back of the truck. Liz rolled her eyes. Stupid NazBols, don't you know you should never leave your keys in the ignition when you're distracted? Some elite Alliance troopers might just come along and decide to go for a ride. It's basic training, come on!

"We should totally steal it," she whispered, grinning to herself.

Kirito snorted softly in appreciation, but Argo gave her an odd look. Liz held up a hand. "Only jok-"

"You're right, we should," Argo cut in.

Liz gaped. Kirito snorted again, but when Argo began to edge forward, he inhaled, creating an odd noise that Liz found cute.

"Argo, are you crazy?!" he hissed. Meanwhile, his co-commander edged out even further.

Argo kept her eyes on the arguing NazBols. "Maybe," she replied matter-of-factly. "But it may just be our ticket out of here. In case you didn't notice, we've got at least ten more streets to cross, and the ones up ahead look pretty packed with NazBols."

Kirito opened his mouth, closed it, then opened it again. "But how would we do it?"

It seemed Argo already had a plan. "There's no one else on the street at the moment. We take them both out now. One of us drives, one takes the passenger seat, the other six lie in the truck bed. No machine gunner. We don't have time to change uniforms with the NazBols – in fact," she paused, "I'm not even sure we can do that –"

"Or would want to do that…" commented Liz, making a face at the idea.

"- so one of us standing in the back would be too risky. In the front seats, though, we should be okay, as long as we keep the light off in there. Ready?"

"Wait!" hissed Kirito. "As co-commander, don't I get a say in th-"

"Go!" Argo moved further out into the yard, firing her silenced Mini-Uzi. She had chosen her moment perfectly; the NazBols, in the midst of exchanging a cigar, were lined up so that they both fell to a single spray. Without waiting to see if anyone had heard, Argo ran up to the bodies. Liz saw Snow and Quinn emerge from the garden on the other side. She took that as her cue that yes, this was indeed happening. Kirito made himself useful by helping the others hide the bodies under some bushes. But he hadn't finished questioning the wisdom of the plan yet.

"What if the other NazBols try to talk to us?" he whispered.

"Then we floor it," replied Argo easily. "I'm driving, by the way."

"I call shotgun!" Liz hissed, waving her shotgun and giggling softly in spite of herself. "You boys have fun back there with Snow!"

Kirito realized that he'd have to share the truck bed with the four other men and Snow. He turned to the latter. "I-"

"I'm thrilled too," she muttered.

Seconds later, the truck pulled away and continued down the street.

Still seeing no enemies in the immediate area, Liz sighed as Argo turned a corner. She was actually beginning to enjoy herself. She had just hijacked a truck – well, Argo had, really – and now they were trying to drive through an enemy that outnumbered them by at least ten to one. Heh, reminds me of that game the boys in school always talk about – Great Thieving Afro, or something like that…

She grew more serious, however, as Argo continued to make her way west. The patrolling NazBols began reappearing, with more and more to be seen on each street. Argo tried to avoid passing them as much as she could. The first two times they passed NazBols on the sidewalks, the NazBols were walking in the opposite direction, meaning that they'd have to look back to see the six players lying in the truck bed. Liz craned her head around each time to make sure they didn't. She was also worried that a truck without a gunner might look suspicious, but she eventually spotted another truck without a gunner down the road a bit. So far, so good –

And then, of course, they turned onto a street with NazBols standing on both sidewalks. The enemies were smoking, drinking, chatting a bit. They'd all have to turn their backs to the road as the team's stolen truck rolled by in order not to see the truck bed. Argo also realized this and slowed down, but turning around would be just as risky, so she returned to normal speed.

"Cheers," she muttered to Liz as they approached the NazBols, some of whom held wine glasses and were toasting obnoxiously.

Liz held her breath. Any second now, they'd have to take off – but wait, they couldn't even do that, not with the others loose in the back! She sat up straight and sat as still as possible, as if that would help.

After what seemed like an hour, the truck began passing the NazBols on the sidewalks.

Liz continued to hold her breath, thinking to herself desperately: These aren't the players you're looking for. Move along.

And move along they did. Liz was so shocked that she almost forgot to breathe. Her gasp for air was met with a "sh!" from Argo. How did the NazBols not see the others? Was it really that dark out? Were they really that drunk? She craned her neck to see the back. Instead of seeing six uncomfortably packed Spec Ops troops, she saw a softly fluttering black tarp. The color reminded her of Kirito and she wondered idly if Kirito had been the one to save the day. Thank god for Kirito and his long, black objects…

…!? She barely managed to make her subsequent guffaw of hilarity and squeal of embarrassment sound like a sneeze, which earned her another "sh!" from Argo. They continued driving for another minute or two before the end of the town came into view. The road continued on, disappearing around a bend in the woods ahead. A pair of NazBols lounged in a driveway to their left; Liz could hear voices over a walkie-talkie. The NazBols didn't look up when they passed them, nor did they appear to be paying much attention to the radio chatter. But a few seconds after the truck had cleared the driveway, the chatter suddenly increased in volume. Someone was shouting. The NazBols jerked their heads up at the change in tone. One of the words they heard must have been particularly important, because after a few seconds, they jumped up and grabbed their rifles.

Argo groaned. "Don't tell me they found the bodies already?!"

One of the NazBols started running the way the Spec Ops team had come, while the other called to someone in the house. More NazBols emerged from inside and split, some running into town, others setting up positions in the road.

Liz gritted her teeth. "I think so. But they seem to be ignoring us… maybe they think we're heading east to look for us?"

Argo took a second to decipher Liz's words before nodding. "Let's hope so. In any case… roll back the window," she added, indicating the window between the cab and the truck bed. Once Liz obliged, Argo raised her voice just slightly. "Kii-bou, pull up the tailgate and hang on! I'm floorin' it!"

There was a scrambling in the back, a moment, and then an "okay!" from Kirito. Argo watched the NazBols in the rear-view mirror. None of them were looking this way. She accelerated softly into the woods. As she rounded a bend in the road, bringing the town out of sight, Kirito sighed. "This isn't so bad. I thought you said you were going to fl-" After straightening out the wheels, Argo floored it.

In their first minute speeding through the woods, there were six instances in which Liz was absolutely convinced that the six others in back would come flying out and wrap themselves around a tree. "Argo-chan, you're going to kill them! They don't have seatbelts!"
"That's why I told them to hold on," replied Argo, spinning the wheel and skidding the truck around a corner.

Groaning, Liz turned around in her seat to see how the other passengers were doing. Packed in there as they were, they looked like a can of sardines – very seasick sardines. Even Snow's face was getting a little green.

A few minutes later, Argo slowed to a stop. "End of the road," she announced. "I'll radio for air support, but it'll be a while before they get here."

Kirito, Mac, Quinn, Perkins, and Edmunds began inching out of the truck bed, groaning and clutching their stomachs. Snow righted herself, stepped out, turned, walked, stumbled a bit, and continued walking until she was nose-to-nose with Argo. "Permission to kill you?"

"Denied, for now." Argo smiled guiltily. Then she turned serious. "Come on, guys, it won't be long before they figure out where we went."

Argo's words proved all too true. They had almost reached the end of the woods when their ears picked up a telltale chop-chop. The trees provided ample cover, but this time the Mi-8 passed over them without stopping. It hovered above a solitary farm ahead. Liz saw a line being dropped from the helicopter's rear. NazBols began sliding down.

"Crap," muttered Argo. "They know we're somewhere around here. Let's go before they can set up an ambush!" The team sprinted through the last of the trees and emerged into a large clearing. In front of them lay a greenhouse, and beyond that, a barn and a farmhouse. They made the mistake of going through the greenhouse. By then the NazBolss had seen them and opened fire. The glass panes of the greenhouse shattered all around them. "Find cover!" yelled Kirito. The best they could do was to go prone among the dead and dying plants.

Well, Liz thought to herself as bullets whizzed above her head, the plants look unattended, so at least we know we won't be killing any civilians if we blow up the NazBols. Now, if only we had a way to blow up the NazBols… "Argo, do you think that air support is here yet?"

Argo had managed to crawl forward enough to be shielded from NazBol view by the two-foot stone base of the greenhouse wall. "I don't think so!" she yelled back, extending a hand and pulling Perkins towards her.

Kirito grunted as he slowly accumulated damage. "Do we have any more smoke grenades?"

No one spoke.

"Okay, how about we use flashbangs or stun grenades? Or just regular grenades?"

Snow shook her head. "We'd have to stand up to throw them far enough. Too risky at the moment."

A bullet went right through Liz's left hand. Her hand was still completely functional, and the damage wasn't that much, but from the barrage of bullets, she didn't have that much health to spare. The former blacksmith and mace warrior shut her eyes, trying to think of something. Come on, Liz, you're stronger than this. You can't let your team down, especially not Kirito. What would Asuna say?

An image of Liz's missing friend floated into her mind, somehow making herself heard over the firefight. "What would I say?" asked the mental Asuna. "I'd say, shoot them."

Mental Liz deadpanned, causing mental Asuna to hastily add, "I mean, it doesn't look like there's much more you can do. Have one of you pop up, fire, then pop down while someone else takes their place. Really quickly. Like whack-a-mole! Except you're the moles."

Liz blinked. And then grinned.

"Listen, everybody! We have to return fire, but one at a time! Don't give them time to pinpoint you!"

Kirito and Argo stared at Liz with a mixture of surprise and admiration, but before they could respond, Snow was already peering over the stone portion of the wall and firing short, two-round bursts from her StG-44. From her position, Liz could see three NazBols drop one by one. Kirito went next, followed by Mac, and soon the players had a swift little rhythm going. Liz contributed with her Desert Eagle as best she could. The NazBols, having pinned the Spec Ops team down in the greenhouse, hadn't bothered to take much cover. As more and more of them went down, they realized their mistake and retreated slightly, getting behind walls and farm equipment.

Liz saw the opportunity. "Now! Let's get out of here!"

With the NazBols focused on finding cover, the team was able to exit the greenhouse and throw some grenades. Then they ran up to farm towards the farm buildings. From there, it was easy pickings for the Spec Ops team.

Once the final NazBol had been eliminated, the team gathered in the barn. Before any of them could congratulate each other, however, bullets began peppering the walls around them.

"What the –" Kirito slapped his face. "The helicopter! Of course!"

Indeed, the Mi-8 was still around. As it circled the barn building, Liz caught a glimpse of a machine gunner firing out an open side door. Kirito and the others tried picking off the gunner, but the helicopter kept shifting slightly. "How are we going to take this thing down?" Kirito asked with clenched teeth.

"Search the barn," Argo replied, bending to examine various objects on the floor. "See if there's anything we can use!"

Liz obeyed hastily, going to check in a chest towards the back. The chest was empty, but behind the chest was a long green tube with some sort of model number printed on it.

"What's this? 'FIM-82'… is it an RPG?"

Argo wheeled around. "'FIM-82'? That's even better – a Stinger heat-seeking missile! Perfect! Just fire it at the helicopter."

"Um, okay." Liz glanced at Argo. "But why me? You sound familiar with it?"

Argo suddenly looked a bit sheepish. "I've… never actually trained with one. You'd be as good as any of us!"

"Someone please just do it!" cried Kirito, still trying to snipe the machine gunner. "The chopper's flying in circles around us now!"

Liz hefted the Stinger awkwardly. Come on, she thought to herself, it's just another big gun. I'm good with big guns. She stepped toward the open barn doors and aimed. At first, the Stinger gave no indication that it wasn't an ordinary bazooka-type rocket launcher. But when the helicopter flew into the sights, the device started beeping. As Liz followed the chopper, the beeping rate increased. Her finger hovered over the trigger. But then the chopper passed out of view again. Liz wondered what would have happened if she had tried to fire the missile through the wall. Probably nothing good. When the chopper came around again, Liz was ready. The beeping sped up until a different sound played continuously. She pulled the trigger.

BWWWOOOOOOOSSHHHHHHH. The rocket left her ears ringing as it sped towards the enemy helicopter. The chopper swerved, trying to shake the missile, but it was too late. The missile impacted the main body, blasting away most of one side. The rest of the chopper half-spiraled, half-dropped to Earth, the chop-chop sound twisting and contorting itself in the agony of death before yielding to a a resounding crasssshhhh.

"Nice one, Liz!" Still somewhat disoriented from the launch, Liz registered a hand on her shoulder. She turned to see Kirito grinning at her. "You've really saved our asses today!"

Returning the grin, Liz tried to hug him, but she was still holding the Stinger. The tube bonked Kirito on the head. "Ohmygodsorry," Liz squealed, dropping the weapon and embracing Kirito's wounded head. Despite the unintentional damage to her crush's skull, she was still quite pleased with herself. I saved Kirito's ass! I must remember to thank Asuna for that whack-a-mole thing…

Kirito, held tightly against Liz's bosom, blinked several times. Eh… Asuna's going to kill me…

Meanwhile, Argo was having a personal crisis. She stood there, staring at Kirito and Liz and the position they were in. I'm okay with this, she kept telling herself, I'm okay with this. It's just Kirito. Kii-bou. The hero who had most of the girls in SAO pining after him. But not me. I'm Argo the Rat. I don't do that icky stuff. Yeah. Just keep hugging like that, you two. Nice and tight… inhale each other's scent… I frankly couldn't care le- OH COME ON LET THE BOY BREATHE!

"Ahem." Startled, a blushing Liz released a blushing Kirito. Argo stood before them with just a hint of impatience on her face. "We need to get going."

"Right!" agreed Kirito readily. Leading the rest of them out of the barn, he smiled optimistically. "The worst is probably over, right?"

Five minutes down the road, the team ran into an armored patrol. The BMP-2 infantry fighting vehicle and its escort squad were hidden behind a particularly large bush. That they even got away from it was pure luck. At the time of the ambush, Kirito happened to be in full-concentration mode. The first NazBol to jump out of hiding with a bloodthirsty warcry met with Kirito's swift reflexes. The sudden and unexpected downing of their comrade likely shocked the NazBols, giving the Spec Ops team time to run. They slid down a ridge that was too tall and steep for the BMP to drive over. The NazBols were fast catching up, though.

"Try to find some thicker woods where the BMP doesn't have room to follow us!" Argo gasped as they ran.

Liz risked a backwards glance. The BMP's turret was aimed right at her. Diving, she barely missed the stream of rounds from the vehicle's autocannon. She knew she couldn't afford to stop, so she shoulder rolled out of the dive, making sure to come up to the side of the ongoing rounds. The fire decimated a nearby tree, shattering her in splinters. They were in trouble. They needed help.

And then Argo's radio sounded. "Alpha Team, be advised, this is Spooky. AC-130 gunship entering your airspace at this time. Ready to flip some s***, over."


"You seeing this, Kagemune?"

"Yep," the player in question called back to the co-pilot. "That's a lot of hostiles."

"Yep. But Intel says some areas still have civilians, so remember, watch your fire."

"I know, I know." Kagemune sat in front of three thermal-imaging screens depicting the ground below from the perspective of each of the AC-130U Spooky's guns. Due to the game's relatively simplified aircraft gameplay, he'd be operating all three weapons during this mission. Apart from helicopter transport, the Alliance for Earth's Air Force didn't see much action. In fact, this was the first time the AC-130 had been sent into battle. The Alliance had only bought it a week or two earlier through the complex reward system that came with liberating territory from the NazBols. Kagemune was excited… but also a bit nervous. Well, at least I'm not responsible for flying this thing. Compared to flight training at HQ, this should be a cinch, right?

"Alright crew, we're going in. Making contact with Alpha Team on the ground."

The pilot radioed the Spec Ops team. The reply came back almost immediately. "Enemy vehicle! Behind us!"

"Whoa!" Hearing the urgency in the team member's voice, Kagemune rushed to do his job. Normally, vehicles could be taken care of with the 40mm Bofors gun, which served as the "medium" gun of the three, but since from the sound of it the vehicle was too close to Alliance troops, he'd have to use the 25mm autocannon. Finding the BMP, he aimed a bit in front of the moving vehicle and fired a burst. After a moment of continuous fire, the BMP exploded, knocking down many of the NazBols running along with it. Those who got back up didn't last long under additional 25mm fire.

Kagemune heard a whistle from the cockpit. "Yeah, that's it!" He allowed himself a grin as he watched the Spec Ops team slow down to catch their breaths.

"T-Thanks for that," the lead Spec Ops trooper radioed back, gasping. "How does it look up ahead?"

Kagume switched to the 105mm howitzer's zoomed-out view to get a better look. "No one out in the open for a while," he replied through his mouthpiece, "but they could be hiding in the village that you're approaching. We generally can't fire on houses unless we get clearance from Intel."

"Roger that, Spooky. We're moving up."

"Copy, Alpha."

The eight figures on the ground continued west, soon entering the village Kagemune had described. Seven of them would wait while one of them darted past the houses on either side of the road. Once the houses appeared safe, the others would advance. This continued for about two minutes until a storm of bullets erupted from one of the houses. The Spec Ops trooper in front took some damage before diving for cover while the team returned fire. Just as quickly, though, NazBols in a second house began shooting at the front trooper.

The radio crackled. "Spooky, Snow's in trouble! Can you do something about those buildings?"

Kagemune looked closely. The first building was definitely a house, but the second one looked more like a command post. "I can take the one on the right," he spoke as he aimed the 40mm and fired at the second building. Most of it disappeared in a cloud of fire and smoke. Meanwhile, some of the team had run forward to help the front runner and distract the NazBols in the house. The others approached more slowly, shooting at any NazBol to appear in a window or door. Once the fire from the house had stopped, the team moved on.

"Alpha, you've got empty space ahead of you," Kagemune informed them. "It'll mean less cover, but we'll be able to help out more."

"Roger that. Leaving the village."

Kagamune spent the next few minutes mostly on the 40mm. As the Spec Ops team made their way towards friendly territory, tens of NazBols and a few vehicles tried to intercept them. Usually, they wouldn't get very close before the 40mm took care of them. Those NazBols who did were quickly gunned down by the Spec Ops team. At one point, the wave of NazBols was so large that Kagemune decided to use the 105mm. The plane shook as the howitzer roared. Seconds later, the tiny figures that we charging at the Spec Ops team were replaced by a massive ball of heat on the screen. He noticed that a few of the Spec Ops troopers almost lost their balance from the explosion.

"Spooky, how are we doing? Are we –" A new voice broke in abruptly. "Are we there yet?!"

The first voice returned. "Liz-chan, you know better… but yes, how close are we to the front lines?"

The pilot answered. "Only another mile or two. But there's a small enemy base behind that hill you're climbing. Even if you go around it, you'll probably have to slow down enough to take cover."

"Roger that. We'll stick close to the trees as we move up."

As the team approached the base, the vehicles parked inside began to move. There were trucks, infantry fighting vehicles, and even a few tanks. Machine gun fire broke out from the lookout towers. The players on the ground took cover behind some trees while Kagemune sprayed the towers. Then NazBols started popping up on the walls of the base. Kagemune took out many with the 25mm, but he was surprised to see a number of NazBols falling to the team's bullets. Those guys are pretty good, he thought. Heh, I guess that's why they're Spec Ops. Hey wait a minute… he frowned at the screen. What's that one player doing? He's moving towards the walls. Cocky bastard, he's gonna get – Before Kagemune could finish his thought, he spotted the smoke tail of an RPG speeding towards the trooper. He watched helplessly as the rocket impacted the ground only a few feet in front of the player, sending him flying. Oh s***.

The other members of the team responded immediately by sharpshooting the NazBol responsible, but they became pinned down. NazBol activity on the walls seemed to be surging. Meanwhile, the gates of the base began to open for the line of vehicles preparing to rush the team. The stricken player wasn't moving.

The team radioed in. "Why can't you level the place?!" shouted the leader in frustration.

"I'd love to," explained Kagemune, feeling very useless and guilty, "but Intel says the NazBols are keeping civilians in that place to deter attacks. I can only use the 40mm on vehicles and I can't use the 105mm at all!"

The figure operating the radio slammed a fist into the ground. "Roger that," she replied. "And to think I actually thought we wouldn't lose anyone this miss- eh?"

One of the players had broken off from the others and was making a mad dash towards his downed comrade. The leader evidently still had her finger on the radio button, for Kagemune was able to hear her scream, "Kirito! No! It's too late for Mac. I need you alive!"

"Kirito!" screamed another of the players, also female. "Don't risk it! You can't possibly –"

But perhaps it was possible. "Kirito" was already closing in on "Mac". He ducked and weaved, somehow managing to reach Mac in one piece. He paid no mind to the Panzer IV that was now rolling towards him as he scooped up the limp body in one arm and used the other to fire at the NazBols on the walls. Kagemune helped by destroying the Panzer and a few other vehicles with the 40mm, but the AC-130's gunner doubted that the brave player named Kirito would make it back to the others. Surely most of his health was gone, surely the red-specked visual effect and the deafening sound of blood pumping that came with low health were disorienting him. Yet the boy never slowed down. Kagemune might have imagined it, but he could have sworn he saw Kirito jump, extra body and all, off a small ridge to avoid another RPG, the rocket hissing underneath him. The rest of the team ran to meet Kirito. One of them tackled Kirito as if overjoyed to see him alive; perhaps this was a practical maneuver, because yet another RPG hissed over them a moment later. Another – the one with the radio, Kagemune recognized – stood over Kirito, firing at the NazBols until she ran out of ammo. At that moment, another surge of NazBols appeared on the walls, so Kagemune wasn't able to pay attention to the team. Finally, as the players were passing the base on its south side, the waves stopped. Kagemune took care of the last vehicles before glancing at the players. To his disbelief, there were eight figures up. One, presumably the one who nearly got blown up, had to be supported by another two, but still… his health hadn't completely disappeared.

The team continued with no further NazBol harassment for a few minutes before the co-pilot informed them that they had entered Alliance territory and that jeeps would be there momentarily to take them to the nearest outpost.

"Thanks a bunch, Spooky!" the lead trooper radioed. Kagemune could hear cheers in the background; the figures appeared to be celebrating. "Alpha out."

"Good job, Kagemune," called the pilot as the AC-130 made for home.

The co-pilot chuckled. "This is gonna make one helluva gameplay video when I get back to the real world!"

Kagemune grinned at the co-pilot's impudence. He continued to watch the Spec Ops team on the screen as the plane flew further and further away. Well, first mission in the AC-130? Success. Though that Spec Ops team did the hard work. That Kirito, he's really someth-

Kagemune froze. He had heard that name before. In fact, in a different game, he had encountered a player named Kirito more than once. That Kirito had also surprised him with his talent. Could it be…? Probably not… But then again, Eugene and his brother Mordred, two other players he knew from Alfheim Online, were also trapped in this game…

Hmmm…

As the sun began to rise in the east, the AC-130 flew off into the remaining night sky, leaving behind some very exhausted and very much alive Spec Ops troops.


A/N: As always, feedback is appreciated!