Author's Note: we don't actually know much about Diavel in canon—not even his real name or age. He was there and gone in a single side story, in one episode of the anime. But there is something about him that I have always found intriguing—a complexity implied by the contrast between his charisma and leadership on one end of the scales, and his plot to thwart Kirito and take the Last Attack on the other. We may never know the truth.
What follows is my headcanon—and my attempt to tell an interesting new story in the Sword Art Online universe.
I hope you enjoy.
There were names, and then there were names. Kizawa Isayoshi hated his family name, and wrote it in hiragana whenever he could get away with it so that he didn't have to admit that it was written in kanji as "Demon-Swamp".
In his better moments, he realized that this was extremely childish. It wasn't as if the way Kizawa was written had any significance whatsoever. No one in his professional life had ever looked askance at it; indeed, no one since high school had ever made an issue of it at all. But the sting of the puerile mockery from his childhood classmates still lingered even all these years later; it made him self-conscious every time he pressed his inkan to an official document or signed his legal name by hand.
The injustice of it rankled. There was no reason he ought to feel shame; his father was a veteran of the JSDF, and he and and Isayoshi's grandfather before him had both been distinguished policemen in his hometown of Hiroshima. The family name was spoken with pride and respect there—by adults, at least. He'd felt no hesitation in following in their footsteps, although no one in the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department precinct where he worked recognized the name.
So when he received the great honor of being accepted into the closed beta test for Sword Art Online, he realized that he'd been given a unique opportunity to reclaim a portion of that name for himself—to stick a finger in the eye of every idiot from his childhood who'd ever taunted him by demanding to know whether his mother or father had been the devil that spawned him.
Diavel, he'd typed in Latin script after thinking it over. I will show them that the devil they mocked is actually a knight in shining armor.
That had been a little over two months ago. The beta test had been one of the most glorious times in his life. He had, in truth, feared losing his job over it; more than once he'd come to work bleary-eyed and exhausted after spending most of the night adventuring in the virtual world of Aincrad. Time seemed to disappear in that world, passing with the swiftness of a raging river that threatened to spirit him away to a place where he truly felt like he belonged.
And now it was gone.
The time was 5:47 PM on November 6th, 2022. For almost five hours, around ten thousand players had been immersed in the virtual world to which he longed to return, questing and leveling up and enjoying themselves. He was not among them. He'd long ago turned off the television, unable to bear the constant cheerful newscasters talking about this afternoon's launch of Sword Art Online and the masses of people rushing home from work or school to log in.
Isayoshi leaned back in his chair and stared bitterly at the bluish-gunmetal helmet sitting uselessly on his coffee table, occasionally returning his gaze to the piece of paper in his hands. It was creased with the semi-fractal haphazardness of something that had been crumpled, unfolded, and then crumpled again repeatedly, and by this point he'd read it enough times that he only had to catch a glimpse of the words for them to come to his mind unbidden.
…deeply regret the failure of the internal NIC in your NerveGear device…
...replacement to be shipped immediately, as it is still under warranty…
...estimated to arrive Monday, 14 November.
A week to get a replacement unit. A week. He'd had to pull every string he could reach in order to get this vacation, to the point where his father had even warned him against taking too much time off lest he jeopardize his career—and now it was going to all be for nothing. He wouldn't even be home to accept the delivery; the 14th was the day he had to return to work.
Isayoshi abruptly crumpled the hateful letter once more, and hurled it at his broken NerveGear.
As if his outburst had been a signal, his mobile phone rang.
The room seemed to blur, to swim around Isayoshi as if he was seeing it through the refractive properties of water. A wave of dizziness threatened to overtake him, and he felt the slender rectangle of his phone slip from his limp fingers, striking the tatami mat beneath his feet with a muted thump. The sound broke the spell; he scrambled immediately to pick the phone back up and bring it to his ear again. "I'm very sorry, Sergeant Naide, could you please repeat that?"
His superior's voice held little of its usual gruff humor—it was that as much as his words that drove home the gravity of the situation. "I hope you haven't been drinking your Sunday away, Kizawa, because we need everyone down at the station immediately—even junior detectives like yourself. All leave is canceled until further notice, and that goes for everyone."
"I understand, sir," Isayoshi said, regaining his composure. "But just now, you referred to a 'virtual reality game' turning out to be death trap… were you referring to Sword Art Online?"
There was a pause from the other end. When Naide spoke again, his voice had softened slightly. "Oh yeah, you were playing that a few months ago, weren't you? So that was why you wanted this vacation. Looks like you really dodged a bullet here, kid."
Isayoshi swallowed hard enough that he was certain the sound would carry over the connection. "It seems so, Sergeant," he said, voice hollow. "I'll be in immediately."
"You do that," Naide said with a note of satisfaction. "I've got a few more calls to make." The line went dead.
There wasn't time for a shower, but Isayoshi doubted anyone would be checking for personal hygiene under the circumstances. Before running to don his uniform, he flipped on the television that had been dormant for hours—if only to persuade himself that Naide hadn't been wrong about the game, that this was really happening.
Shortly after launch, the newscasters had been giddy, their programs filled with exuberant SAO players on their way home to make history. What he heard now was more reminiscent of the news following the tsunami that had struck Japan during his childhood; the voices ranged from grim to panicked, the interviews not of players but of grieving and desperate families, of talking heads purporting to be experts on the NerveGear's technology. When he passed the TV on his way to the coat closet, he caught a glimpse of a number on the ticker at the bottom of the screen: 382. That was the running tally of confirmed deaths, a number that defied any attempt to wrap his head around it. A fully-loaded 747 dropping into the sea with no survivors would have had a lower death toll, and this tragedy was only beginning. There were nearly ten thousand people still imprisoned inside the virtual world that he had once called home, ten thousand lives still at Kayaba Akihiko's mercy.
And but for a broken NerveGear, he would have been one of them.
Isayoshi shuddered, as if a shadow had fallen across the family grave… and passed him by.
The room was filled with the kind of noise that could only be produced by hundreds of people all trying to talk quietly at once, the sum total of their murmurs amounting to a cacophony. But when Chief Superintendent Aoda Fusaburou of the Tokyo MPD ascended to the podium, a wave of silence rippled across the assembled officers.
"At 1300 JST today, an Internet virtual reality game called Sword Art Online, published by Argus Software, opened to the public. The game uses a helmet-like device called a NerveGear to replace a user's senses, giving them the illusion of being in their own bodies within the game. While connected, they are in a coma-like state which leaves them unaware of and unable to interact with the real world.
"Approximately one hour ago, at 1730, the creator of Sword Art Online—Kayaba Akihiko—sent out a press release announcing that the users of Sword Art Online were now his hostages until someone beats the game, and that any attempt to free a hostage would result in the NerveGear device killing them. This press release was sent to the Commissioner-General of the NPA, the Chief Superintendent of each Prefectural Police HQ, to every major national media outlet, and on a variety of Internet social networks. Kayaba's demands are as follows."
Aoda was a seasoned public speaker; his eyes dropped briefly to his tablet before raising to regard the room once more, raising his voice slightly to carry over the muted sounds of dismay that began to build. "First: that no attempt be made to tamper with the NerveGear helmets used to connect a user to the game, or with the computer systems which run the game. Second: that the police take all measures necessary to prevent anyone else from tampering with same. Third: that the government undertake immediate measures to move all connected users to hospitals where their long-term condition can be monitored until the game is beaten."
Shock and dizziness once more threatened to wash over Isayoshi like a tidal wave and sweep him out of the room; the pace of his breathing quickened, and his hands formed into claws in his lap, fingertips digging into the fabric of his uniform trousers. Hostages. Trapped until the game was cleared. Killed by the NerveGear.
That could have been me.
That could have been me.
That could have been me.
The words hammered through his head in time with his pulse, which was almost loud enough to drown out even the screaming of his mind. He forced himself to refocus on the Chief's words, pulling his thoughts back from the abyss .
That could have been—
He squeezed his eyes shut once, tightly. When he opened them again, his vision had cleared.
"These attempts each ended in the execution of hostages," Aoda was saying, "whose names and addresses were then forwarded to us for verification. We have seized the corporate headquarters of Argus Software and are in the process of taking its employees into custody for questioning, but we cannot risk any further direct action at this time."
Aoda's eyes flickered to the left so briefly that only a cop might have noticed. "In the meantime, we have been asked to assist in the daunting task of tracking down every user of Sword Art Online and getting them moved to appropriate medical facilities. This is where all of you come in. Here to brief you on the task ahead is a representative from the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, Second Separated Advanced Network Division."
In the direction of Aoda's previous glance, a man in a suit stirred and separated himself from a group of higher-ranked policemen gathered near the room's side entrance. At face value, the man fit his job description: he had the look of a bureaucrat, slender of build with thin-rimmed glasses and slightly disheveled brown hair. Something in the way he carried himself belied that simple appearance and tickled a sense of familiarity within Isayoshi, but he pushed the thought to the back of his mind as the bureaucrat began speaking.
"Thank you all for coming. I am Kikuoka Seijirou, and I am part of a task force being formed to deal with what we are calling the Sword Art Online Incident. We will require close cooperation from every one of you, and these first hours are critical—so please listen carefully.
"The players of Sword Art Online are scattered throughout Japan, but the vast majority are concentrated here in the Kantou region. This makes the job of the Tokyo MPD particularly essential. We will be dividing you into teams, and we will make every effort to preserve any existing working partnerships you have with your colleagues. Each team will be responsible for a neighborhood in one of Tokyo's wards, and you will be supplied with a list of players who reside in your respective area. Your mission is to coordinate with emergency personnel and my team in order to safely remove these players from their homes and transport them to appropriate medical facilities."
When Kikuoka finished his briefing, Chief Aoda took a step forward and stood at his side, leaning in to speak. Their body language struck Isayoshi as interesting—it made Kikuoka look like the senior officer present, with Aoda as his subordinate. "This operation takes precedence over anything else that is on your plates right now. You have fifteen minutes to make any necessary calls or arrangements to inform your families and put your existing cases on hold. After that, you will give Kikuoka-san your total cooperation for the duration of this operation."
The pause thereafter was almost imperceptible; he did not ask if anyone had questions. "Dismissed."
The work of the next six hours was punishing even for a veteran cop. He ended up assigned to a list in Arakawa ward, an area about which he knew very little—a deficit which, thankfully, was mitigated by the fact that Sergeant Naide lived there and knew its streets as well as he did his own name.
According to the briefing, there was a clearly-defined routine to each name on the list. One person on the team was responsible for victim communications, calling each of the people on the list one by one and making initial contact with their families or roommates, where possible; on their team that role was filled by Sergeant Naide. Successful contacts were advised not to touch the victim or interfere with their network connection in any way, and were pushed to the back of the list once their status was known to be stable. For victims where no phone contact with anyone at the residence was successful, their names were prioritized first.
Working down their assigned list in order of priority, members of the MPD would ride in ambulances outfitted with a portable power supply, with two team members per ambulance. They were there primarily to deal with family members, gain entry to residences the EMTs couldn't open electronically, and provide security and physical assistance to the technician overseeing the safe handling of the NerveGear.
That was the plan. The reality was… less tidy.
There simply weren't enough technicians to go around. Each team needed to have one on-site to handle the disconnection of the NerveGear's physical cables and get it quickly connected to the portable power source which would keep the device from killing its user after two minutes without external power. What the plan hadn't accounted for was the fact that the same operation was required once they arrived at the hospital—which necessitated the technician traveling with the patient all the way to their room, leaving them unavailable to continue on with the ambulance. This oversight was eventually remedied by assigning two technicians to each hospital to handle the incoming patients so that a retrieval team could immediately return to the field—but that, in turn, left the retrieval teams short-handed, with many of them having no available technician at all.
"We might not need one, sir," Isayoshi said to Sergeant Naide when Kikuoka gave them the news.
Naide cupped a hand over the slender mic that curled around his jaw from the earpiece he wore as he glanced over his shoulder at Isayoshi, swaying from side to side with every bump the ambulance hit. "What do you m—oh." He lifted his hand away and touched a button on the earpiece. "Sir, I'm putting you on speaker. There's someone I want you to talk to."
The voice of the bureaucrat from the MIAC who'd briefed them earlier emerged from the earpiece, the sound tinny from the small speaker. "Please explain."
"Kikuoka-san," Isayoshi said. "This is Detective Kizawa of the MPD. Sergeant Naide is my immediate superior. I…" He hesitated. "I was a beta tester for Sword Art Online, sir. I know how to safely disconnect the NerveGear hardware."
There was a pause from the other end of the line. "How interesting. So you are saying that your experience would make assigning a technician to your team unnecessary, freeing one up for a team that needs them."
"That is correct, sir."
Kikuoka went silent again for just a few moments. "Their lives are in your hands, Detective Kizawa." There was an audible click, and Naide reached up and pressed a button on his earpiece; the single red light went dark.
Isayoshi thought he saw approval in Naide's eyes when his superior turned to look at him. "How long to the next address?" he said, raising his voice and calling out.
"We'll be on-site in about a minute," came the voice of the ambulance's driver from the front. "Have I mentioned that I hate this neighborhood and its narrow streets?"
"Only three times now," Naide shot back. "I wasn't the fucking city planner, kid; I just live here."
Both EMTs laughed, as did Isayoshi. The Sergeant rolled his eyes and turned a barely-tolerant look towards his junior partner on the team. "Everyone's a goddamned comedian," he grumbled good-naturedly. Then his tone and expression sobered. "You sure you got this, Kizawa?"
"It's not that difficult, sir," Isayoshi said confidently, grinning. "There's only two physical connections: the network cable, and the power cable. Network connection's a standard RJ-232 port, and the briefing said they can be offline for up to two hours before the Gear kills the hostage, so we're not worried about that. The power cable's proprietary, but there's no trick to it—we just have to have the portable PSU spun up and ready before we unplug them. We also have to be careful not to do anything that could make the Gear think we're tampering with it, but the EMTs will stabilize the victim's head and they know not to touch any buttons."
Naide waved his hand at the air. "I understood about one word in five of that, Kizawa. You convinced me, and you know what's at stake here."
"We're turning onto Ogubashi Street now!" The driver's announcement interrupted their exchange, and both policemen straightened in their seats and nodded to each other. Sergeant Naide briefly checked the safety on the revolver in his shoulder holster; as a junior detective, Isayoshi did not carry a firearm and had only ever fired one during the mandatory training. Guns made him very uncomfortable—he much preferred swords. The train of thought almost brought him back to reminiscencing about his time in the SAO beta, and with an effort of will he cleared his mind of distractions.
In Isayoshi's opinion, the narrow streets about which the driver had complained gave the neighborhood a certain charm—but he had to crane his neck to pick out the address, mounted on a wall high above street level. "Apartment 2B," Naide said as they ascended a steep set of stairs to the right-hand side of a stacked duplex. "Mayama Saori. Female, age 17. Her mother Chiyoko should still be here waiting for us, but she isn't answering her phone now."
"When was the first contact?" Isayoshi asked.
"Five hours ago," Nadia answered, rounding the corner at the top of the stairs and stopping before the marked door. Most of the lights were off. "I'll knock."
"It's one in the morning," Isayoshi pointed out. "She might've fallen asleep."
"Then I'll knock loudly."
"Mayama Chiyoko-san," Naide called out after the second unanswered knock. "This is Detective Sergeant Naide with the Tokyo Metropolitan Police. We're here to take custody of your daughter and safely move her to Ohtsuka Hospital. Please let us in."
Isayoshi exchanged uncomfortable looks with his Sergeant. He thumbed the lock button on his phone and glanced at it; they'd wasted several precious minutes already, and they still had a long list ahead of them.
Naide looked at the lock on the door. "No electronics," he said unhappily. That meant that the master key which the EMTs carried would be useless to them. "I'll have to pick it. Give me some light."
It wasn't standard procedure, but in this case it was better than kicking down the door of someone who hadn't done anything wrong. Naide knelt in front of the doorknob while Isayoshi held a flashlight steady on the lock; he took a small kit from one of his pockets and selected a set of picks. It was a skill Isayoshi admired, even though he wasn't much good at it himself—with the growing prevalence of electronic locks, most cops these days didn't see the value in investing a lot of time into mastering the skill of lockpicking. Older homes like these called the wisdom of that attitude into question.
When the last tumbler clicked into place, Naide gave the door a little push and put away his tools. "Let's go. We've wasted enough time." He raised his voice slightly. "Tokyo MPD; we're coming in."
No answer. A single lamp in the kitchen glowed dimly, but most of the rest of the lights in the apartment were off. From a room at the end of a short hallway, Isayoshi could see a warm, flickering light—as if from a candle or other flame. The two detectives glanced at each other again and nodded, Naide proceeding carefully down the hallway while Isayoshi checked the other room.
Isayoshi's hand found the wall switch, and the immediate surge of light revealed a neat, organized bedroom which clearly belonged to a woman. His eyes, making a practiced sweep of the room, went to the photos on the dresser—most of them featured a plump older woman with smile lines and short black hair; the young girl in some of the others was very clearly related to her. One of the photos—the only one with three people in it, and in which Saori appeared considerably younger—also featured a man in his 30s with the weathered features of someone who spent a lot of time outside. Isayoshi would've pegged him as a farmer or fisherman, or perhaps a construction worker. He was noticeably absent from any of the other photos, and there was no evidence that he lived here at all. Divorced or widowed, then.
Naide's voice didn't carry any hint of danger, but it was insistent all the same. Isayoshi quickly left the bedroom and held up a palm to the EMTs in a plea for them to wait there until he was sure it was safe. He jogged down the short hallway to the room where Naide had gone.
The room was dimly lit by a few candles; Isayoshi flicked the wall switch a few times and found, as he guessed Naide had, that it didn't control the small desk lamp on the left side of the room. A young girl who Isayoshi assumed must be Saori was lying on the bed with her hands folded across her belly; long dark hair flowed out from under the NerveGear helmet and entwined with the power and LAN cables. A pair of round glasses rested on the nightstand by the lamp.
Mayama Chiyoko was kneeling on the right side of the bed in seiza position, dressed in an evening yukata with a floral print. Her palms were pressed together before her in prayer, and her eyes were closed. It was difficult to tell in the candlelight, but her plump face looked puffy and flushed, as if she'd been crying. She must have been holding vigil here the entire night.
Naide, standing just inside the doorway, cleared his throat. "Mayama-san—"
"She's dead," the woman said in a soft whisper. Her head lowered, and her hands dropped limply to her lap.
"Shit," Isayoshi said without thinking.
Naide sighed, lowering himself to kneel beside her and putting a hand on her shoulder. "I'm sorry to hear that, ma'am. You didn't..." He trailed off there, clearly hesitant to suggest that she might've been responsible.
"I didn't touch her or that thing," Chiyoko said in an odd tone, head still bowed. "It was maybe half an hour ago; suddenly she just… she…" Her voice hitched.
Isayoshi gave Saori's still form a second glance. It had looked like a shadow from the candlelight at first, but now he noticed a thin trickle of dried blood from one of her nostrils; he also realized that her chest wasn't rising and falling at all. Her eyes were closed behind the NerveGear's visor, and if it weren't for the blood and the lack of any respiration, she might well have been asleep. He felt a sudden rush of rage at the person who'd done this—at the perp who'd already killed hundreds and taken thousands more hostage to whatever insane motive had compelled him to commit this crime. This girl had had her entire life ahead of her, and now…
Naide looked over his shoulder at Isayoshi, meeting his gaze. The Sergeant's expression was full of the kind of hardened sadness that someone in their line of work felt all too often. You either found a place to put it while you did your job, or it consumed you. "Go get the EMTs," he said quietly. "We'll want them to confirm her vitals at least."
Isayoshi nodded. Then his eyes widened. He couldn't see the woman's hands from his vantage point; Naide was in the way. But he saw her posture shift as she reached under the bed, and saw the look in her eyes when she opened them; something in his training took over then and used his voice. "Abunee—!"
The warning was almost in time. Naide reacted immediately, twisting to face the danger, but he was kneeling right beside the elder Mayama. He grunted once as she lunged at him; the grunt was accompanied by a thick, wet impact and the muted sound of metal hitting bone. As he toppled sideways, eyes wide with shock, Isayoshi saw the blade of a kitchen knife flash in the dim light. She plunged it into Naide's chest once more before Isayoshi managed to tackle her, slamming her wrist to the floor and applying pressure to the backs of her last two knuckles until the long knife twisted free of her hand.
"She's dead!" Chiyoko screamed, thrashing beneath him and trying to free her arm. Tears flew from her eyes as she shrieked. "You were supposed to be here hours ago! You killed my daughter!"
All reason seemed to have left her when her daughter died, and she was a lot stronger than he would've thought. Struggling to immobilize the frenzied woman alone, Isayoshi yelled for the paramedics. Naide's dress shirt bore a pair of rapidly-spreading crimson blooms, and blood was bubbling out of his mouth as he tried to speak while writhing weakly on the floor. His wide eyes were fixed on Isayoshi and the Mayama woman in disbelief.
Chiyoko lurched beneath his weight again, and Isayoshi turned most of his attention back to her as the pair of EMTs came running into the room. "Two stab wounds in the chest, kitchen knife!" He rolled her over and pinned her arms behind her, extending one leg to kick the knife out of reach.
"Let me go!" Chiyoko screamed again. "I'll kill you all!"
"No you won't," Isayoshi said through gritted teeth, walling off his own emotions into a private place for now. "The person who killed your daughter was Kayaba Akihiko—the man who turned that device into a death trap. Please stop struggling. This won't help her."
"You should've been here hours ago," she repeated, sobbing face-down into the tatami mat. "She was all I had left! If you'd gotten here earlier…"
"It wouldn't have mattered, Mayama-san," Isayoshi said as gently as he could, trying to calm her without allowing her to move. He couldn't bring himself to look at what the paramedics were doing. "It wouldn't have mattered. Whatever happened that killed her… it would've killed her at the hospital, too."
"You should've been here," she said again, the words barely intelligible through her sobs. She's checked out, Isayoshi thought grimly. She wasn't listening to him, but all that desperate strength seemed to have left her. He wasn't about to take the chance of assuming that this meant it was safe to let go—not after what had just happened. He carefully forced his voice into neutrality. "Mayama Chiyoko, you're under arrest for the assault and attempted murder of a—"
Something—a sound, some change in the commotion; he wasn't sure what—drew his attention back to where the EMTs were crouched beside Naide. His shirt had been ripped open, and their hands were covered with blood; more of it was still soaking into the straw of the tatami. They were no longer moving with any urgency, and one of them glanced at his watch. Naide's eyes were open, but they saw nothing.
Isayoshi's ears were ringing; he didn't hear what the paramedic with the watch said next. He didn't need to. With a heavy heart, he resumed the litany he'd been giving to the grief-stricken woman, turning away from the bloodied and still form of Detective Sergeant Naide Matsuhiro. His voice was no longer fully controlled. "—For the murder of a police officer in the line of duty."
Isayoshi looked up from the paperwork in which he'd submerged himself. The passage of two days and one very sleepless night had dulled the pain of Naide's death somewhat, but only enough for him to push it to the back of his mind while he worked. It still lurked there, ready to take advantage of any lapse in focus that allowed his mind to drift. He glanced at the empty coffee cup on his desk, then up at the man who'd offered more. "Thank you, sir," he said, reaching out to accept the steaming cup.
"You seemed to need it, Detective Kizawa." Kikuoka rolled out a chair from the desk of an officer who wasn't there at the moment, seating himself in it and looking at Isayoshi speculatively.
"Can I help you, sir?" Isayoshi said politely, unsure of what someone in Kikuoka's position wanted with him and not wanting to give offense. Although no one had said as much, he had the distinct feeling that he was being blamed for Naide's death—that disfavor, not compassion, was the reason why he'd been shifted to desk duty while nearly everyone else in his precinct was still working with Kikuoka's task force. He wasn't sure that he disagreed; he'd distracted Naide at a critical moment.
"It may be that you can," Kikuoka said, pushing his glasses back onto the bridge of his nose with two fingers. "I'm very sorry for the death of your partner, Detective. Grief can make people behave in very unexpected ways."
"It was my fault, sir," Isayoshi said, bowing in his seat. "And he was my superior. But thank you for your concern."
"Nonsense, Detective," Kikuoka said dismissively. "I read the report. It was not your hand that held the knife."
"You weren't there, sir," Isayoshi replied with deceptive calm. He wasn't sure what Kikuoka wanted, but he didn't feel like making small talk with the man—especially not about this subject. "Is there something I can do for you?"
Kikuoka's eyes traveled the length of the room. There were a few other officers who were working in the office at the moment, but none of them were anywhere nearby. Nevertheless, the man apparently felt there was a need to lower his voice. "I'm given to understand that you were supposed to be on vacation this week. I don't suppose that had anything to do with the launch of Sword Art Online?"
Isayoshi stiffened slightly. Sotto voce or not, this was not a conversation he wanted to have here, at his place of employment. "You know I was in the beta, sir. If you also know that I had leave scheduled for this week, I'm sure you've already put the two together."
"Indeed," Kikuoka said. "So why are you not now among Kayaba's ten thousand hostages?"
A few beats of silence greeted Kikuoka's uncomfortably sharp question. The bureaucrat answered it in kind. When the silence began to drag on, Isayoshi sighed and relented, even though he knew that was exactly what Kikuoka wanted—it was a technique he'd used himself when questioning suspects. "I'm not certain how this is relevant to your work, sir, but my NerveGear is broken. I won't be receiving the replacement until next Monday."
"Ah," Kikuoka said. "But for defective hardware, you might now be a victim yourself. It is interesting how tragedies often reveal themselves to be opportunities in disguise, isn't it?"
"I'm not sure I understand."
"Then allow me to be direct."
That would be a first, Isayoshi thought, but did not interrupt.
Kikuoka leaned back in his chair, smiling thinly at him. "You know, of course, that Kayaba has been in contact with the police. They received the same press release as the media on launch day, and he has been informing us whenever he kills a player as retribution for our efforts at thwarting him."
Isayoshi nodded. That much had been in the briefing.
"There have been… other communications as well."
That had not been in the briefing. Isayoshi's attention sharpened slightly.
"At 0847 today," Kikuoka explained, "Kayaba sent a message to Chief Superintendent Aoda—"
"Why are we not tracing these messages to their origin?" Isayoshi asked, interrupting. "Emails contain a record of where they came from and where they passed through on the way."
"I know," Kikuoka said, seemingly unperturbed at having his explanation disrupted. "The emails originate from the SAO servers at Argus headquarters. That fact tells us nothing of value other than that Kayaba, wherever he is, is one of ten thousand connections to those servers—which we already know. May I continue?"
Chastened, Isayoshi nodded his head and went silent.
"Splendid. This morning's message was unlike all of the others. In short, it appears that the majority of the players trapped within Sword Art Online are… at the risk of understatement, depressed. The death toll from suicide is such that Kayaba apparently felt compelled to inform us that players were choosing to take their own lives—that the deaths were not directly caused by him. With the exception of a very relative few, players are not seriously attempting to clear the game—they are either taking a wait-and-see approach on the assumption that the government will free them, or they are taking their own lives by depleting their hit points in some way. With no means of resurrection or respawning, this results in the player's real-life death. Kayaba seems to find the status quo intolerable."
"That makes two of us," Isayoshi said without a trace of irony. "If he really wants this to end, all he has to do is log everyone out and turn himself in."
"That, of course, will not happen. Kayaba has suggested an alternative."
"We're taking suggestions from terrorists?" Isayoshi said.
"We are," Kikuoka said, "when no other option presents itself. We cannot physically penetrate the SAO servers without risking the lives of every player in the game; Kayaba has already demonstrated that he will respond to such attempts by killing hostages. We cannot, at present, bypass the failsafes on the NerveGear devices in order to render them harmless—all attempts thus far have ended in the player's death. And we cannot, apparently, infiltrate the game itself with anyone who is not authorized to log in."
Something in the way that last point was phrased pricked Isayoshi's ears. "Your people just tried."
"And died," Kikuoka said bluntly. "We sent an infiltration team into Full Dive with a beta tester as a guide. They were all dead within minutes."
Isayoshi grimaced. "What does he want from us?"
"A leader," Kikuoka said. "Someone to play the part of the 'white knight', so to speak—to stop the suicides and rally the players to beat the first boss so that they might eventually clear the game. Someone who knows that that is precisely what he is there to do—someone who is already intimately familiar with the world of Aincrad. I surmise that he hoped such a person might emerge from the ranks of the beta testers on their own. None have."
No one became a police detective by being stupid or slow; Isayoshi didn't have any trouble putting two and two together and arriving at four. "You want me to do that. I have a beta account, and if I have Kayaba's permission to log in, he won't kill me the way he did your first team."
Kikuoka's smile became more genuine. "I knew you were the right choice for this."
Isayoshi glanced in the direction of the office where the chief of the precinct worked. Kikuoka correctly interpreted the look. "You need not worry about your superiors," he said. "I have already been assured by Chief Oritaka that your services are entirely at our disposal."
Isayoshi did not particularly care for the use of the word disposal in this context. "I will have to confirm that, sir. I have work to do."
"Yes, yes," Kikuoka said, waving a hand absently. "Needless to say, while you have official permission, you are not being ordered to do this. The duty is entirely voluntary on your part, and you will be paid double time for as long as you are part of the operation."
Kikuoka seemed to have a habit of saying things that invited more questions. Isayoshi gave the man a piercing look, which he withstood unflappably. "Sir," he began, "the beta test ran for a full month. In that time, we barely scratched the surface of the game. Even assuming that the clearing proceeds at the same pace it did in the beta, it would take almost a year to reach the top." A horrifying thought dawned on him suddenly. "The hospitals."
"Yes," Kikuoka said, choosing for some inexplicable reason to say the word in English. "We are proceeding under the assumption that in the absence of a miracle solution, the players of Sword Art Online will need to be sustained on life support for a minimum of six months to a year. Perhaps longer."
Isayoshi's entire body felt cold. "You won't be able to get me out once I dive," he said. It was not a question. "You're asking me to take a one-way trip until the game is cleared."
"That," Kikuoka said, "is why I am asking."
Why are hospitals always so cold? Isayoshi wondered as he was asked to disrobe. The chilly air raised goosebumps across his skin, the hairs on his arms sticking straight out when he removed his dress shirt. He glanced in the direction of the pretty young nurse who'd been assigned to monitor his vitals while he dove, hands hesitating at the buckle of his belt.
"There's nothing there I haven't seen before," the woman said archly, looking up from a biometric monitor as she flipped a series of switches and began warming up the machine.
Embarrassed, Isayoshi set his lips in a line and removed the belt, then hooked his thumbs under the waistband of his suit trousers and pulled them down. "I don't get why this is necessary," he protested.
The nurse gave him a look of open appraisal. "How long do you expect to be here, Detective?" she asked, handing him a hospital gown—one of the annoying kinds that had to be tied in the back; it hung loosely on him when he slipped his arms through the sleeves, and it had a deep neckline to allow access to his chest.
"At least—" He stopped, and nodded reluctantly. "A long time."
"I'm told at least six months," she said. "In that time, we'll need to be able to maintain your body, and that includes bathing you and making sure you don't develop bed sores. At least you're being given the opportunity to strip first—with most of the SAO patients so far, we've had to cut their clothes off of them."
"So a beautiful woman is going to be bathing me," Isayoshi quipped, trying to take the edge off of his nerves by responding to her ribbing in kind. "And I'm not even going to be awake for it?"
The nurse snorted. "I won't be here every day," she said. "I'm sure there will be some cute male nurses bathing you too, if that's your thing."
"I'll pass," Isayoshi said hastily. He paused again as he tried to get the robe tied at the small of his back.
"Here," she said, moving around behind him and fixing him in place with a firm hand pressing down on his shoulder. She pushed his other hand out of the way and quickly tied the robe with a practiced motion, then patted his back before stepping away. "All done. You look fabulous."
Isayoshi was spared the necessity of figuring out how to respond to that by Kikuoka's unceremonious entrance. "Is our white knight ready to go, Nurse Aki?"
"I just need to get him hooked up," she replied, pushing him towards the bed.
"That sounds great," he said as assumed a prone position on top of the sheets. "Do you have a sister?"
Nurse Aki's face went blank as she picked up a circular electrode pad connected to the biometric machine by a long wire, one eyebrow raising skeptically. The corner of her mouth quirked once as she squirted some kind of clear gel onto the pad, and without warning reached under his gown and stuck it to his chest.
He nearly jumped out of the gown. "Fuck that's cold!"
She put a hand flat on his chest and pushed him back down. Her hand was significantly warmer than the electrode she stuck onto him next. Then came another. When she was done, she gave him an amused look before turning back to the monitors and starting to calibrate them.
"Your steed," Kikuoka said, holding out a familiar bluish-gray helmet to Isayoshi.
Isayoshi rolled his eyes at the joke as he sat up and accepted the dangerous gift. He stared into the visor of the NerveGear in his hands for a few moments as if meeting the gaze of someone else who was wearing it.
This is it, he thought. As soon as I put this on and speak the words, there's no going back. This may be the last I see of the real world for a very long time.
His rent and utilities were debited from his bank account automatically, and he lived alone with no pets. His car was parked at the underground lot at the precinct. His job was secure—hell, from now on this was his job. Sergeant Naide was dead. He had nothing holding him back here, in the real world—nothing that ought to keep him from doing his duty.
All this time, I dreamed of what it would be like to live in Aincrad—a virtual world that seemed better than the real one. Ever since the end of the beta, I've been counting the days until I could go back. How many of the players now trapped felt the same way? How do they feel now, with the choice taken from them?
The question was rhetorical, of course. He knew how they felt. It was his job to replace that despair with hope and courage.
That thought seemed to crystallize something within him. Isayoshi lifted the NerveGear, turned it around in his hands, and settled it over his head. The cool, familiar embrace of the helmet enveloped him and muffled outside sounds; after he settled his head back to the pillow he felt a push against the side of his head and heard a pair of clicks as Nurse Aki plugged in the power and network cables.
"Good hunting, Kizawa Isayoshi-san," Kikuoka said from the opposite side of the bed. "We're all counting on you."
Isayoshi tried to nod, but the NerveGear made it difficult. "I won't fail," he answered aloud.
Staring up at the ceiling, he couldn't see Kikuoka, but the man's voice sounded pleased. "Your father would be proud if he knew."
There was nothing Isayoshi could say to that. Part of him wondered whether Kikuoka actually knew his father, or if he had simply read Isayoshi's file. He pushed the stray thought aside and glanced at the clock, one of the few indicators in the visor's uncluttered HUD. The digits read 3:53 PM.
"Link start," Isayoshi said calmly, forcing confidence into his voice. The rote words had the feeling of an incantation, a spell that would transport him to another world; after a moment's thought he realized that was more or less exactly what they were.
The world beneath him fell away, and false color rushed into his awareness.
No matter how many times he dropped into Full Dive, Isayoshi always experienced the briefest moment of panic and disorientation as he lost his awareness of his physical body like a snake shedding dead skin, replacing that awareness with momentary oblivion. Not the oblivious nothingness of unconsciousness—he was aware of his existence and could clearly tell that his thoughts were progressing consciously, but there was simply nothing else except his thoughts. No sight, no smell, no touch; not even the faint, pleasant pressure of the meal he'd been digesting remained in his awareness of self. Everything was gone, and there was something buried deep within the animal part of his humanity that quailed at this little death.
For just a moment.
Then a rush of color flared to life in his field of view, and beginning with Sight the NerveGear started to check off the various senses it was simulating, each accompanied by something to signify that they were all working: the icons representing this progress, the sounds of the interface, a feeling of presence and a brief but unidentifiable pleasant taste and aroma. All reassuring reminders that oblivion was only a transition, and that the NerveGear was now successfully connected.
That last detail was, given the circumstances, less reassuring now than it once had been. He put that aside and sighed with relief when he saw the prompt allowing him to load his beta character data; there was no time to waste on chargen and he rather liked the appearance he'd created for himself.
When this was done, the game's title screen grew in his sight, and he felt a rush of vertigo as he fell towards and through it, surging through a tunnel of blue light that resembled a wormhole in some sci-fi movie. The light intensified to an almost blinding level, and when it faded he found himself looking up at the clouds, feeling the realistic but unmistakably artificial pull of Aincrad's gravity on his avatar's body.
He was back. The joy that filled him then lasted only long enough for him to remember why he was back, and then died entirely when he brought his gaze level and saw where he was.
He wasn't in Aincrad. He was outside of it.
From the perspective of someone standing in the middle of one of its floors, Aincrad's sky was a false one—a projection on the ceiling that marked the beginning of the next floor above whichever one a player was on. If you looked closely, you could tell, especially if you looked to the horizon where the edge of the floor ended in the true open sky. Isayoshi—no, he had to start thinking of himself as his character name, Diavel—found himself in the middle of that vast open sky, with nothing beneath him but clouds. He wasn't falling; it felt like there was a surface under his feet.
In the distance, he could see the massive floating castle of Aincrad itself, a kilometers-high pine cone of blue steel strata that tapered towards the top and ended in a relatively tiny fortress which he guessed must be the 100th floor—a level that no one had ever come close to reaching in the beta.
"Welcome to Sword Art Online, Diavel-kun."
Diavel whirled, the blue of his character's hair briefly obscuring his vision as it lagged behind the rapid movement. His mouth went dry when he recognized the body that belonged to the voice.
"Kayaba… san." There was the tiniest of delays before he added the honorific; there was almost a question to it.
If Kayaba was offended, he didn't show it. His posture was as poor as it had been in the photos he'd seen; the man almost slouched, hands stuffed in the pockets of his white lab coat. But there was nothing relaxed or weak in his gaze, which was as intense as could be expected from a man who would commit the kind of audacious crime Kayaba had.
Diavel found his voice. "Why am I here?" It seemed unnecessary to explain what he meant.
Kayaba was sharp enough to understand. "I wanted to speak with you for a moment before sending you onward. To clarify your purpose, and the rules under which you are to operate."
Diavel nodded, a little of the cold fear leaching away from him bit by bit. "I was... told that I had your permission to join the game."
"If you didn't, you would never have passed the login screen. You may put to rest any fears you have that your government has lied to you or set you up to fail. I have allowed this for a very specific reason." When Diavel simply waited for him to go on, Kayaba did. "You know, of course, what was in the public announcement. The players of Sword Art Online cannot log out until the game is cleared. That now includes you. You have no special privileges or consideration; if your hit points reach zero, you will die as surely as anyone else."
Diavel swallowed. He'd known this going in, but it was still chilling to hear it from the mouth of his captor. "I understand."
"Good. Then understand this." Kayaba's eyes, which had fixed him squarely all this time, drifted off to Aincrad; it almost seemed as if he was looking at that topmost floor that was now the only way home. "I desire for this game to be cleared—it would be a waste of my efforts for them not to experience all that this world has to offer, all the way to the end if possible. But I will not make it easy. I cannot, as the Gamemaster of this world and its story, offer them mercy or hope." His eyes came back to Diavel then. "You can. That is why I permitted your government to send someone to lead and inspire the players, to spur them onward. That is why I have allowed your presence."
It seemed wrong, somehow, to offer gratitude to Kayaba for this slight display of permissiveness—after all, he was a terrorist who had effectively ripped ten thousand people away from their families, killed hundreds already, and perpetrated what the media was calling one of the worst crimes ever committed by a Japanese citizen.
But it also seemed wrong not to, and the gesture of humility cost him nothing. Diavel bowed then, lowering his eyes and swallowing again as he saw the vast spread of cloudy nothingness beneath him. "Thank you."
Kayaba made a slightly amused sound. "Don't thank me yet. You have a difficult task ahead of you. The game is only a few days old, but the psychological state of the player base is grim. Many have committed suicide, foolishly believing that this is a way out. Many more have died from their own carelessness, or from what they do not know. You, with your knowledge of the beta and what is happening on the outside, are in a unique position to help them. But there is a condition."
Diavel straightened himself, meeting Kayaba's eyes once again. "Which is?"
"It is imperative that the players remain immersed in this world. It is their only reality now, and I cannot allow them to know what is happening outside of it, or to know that their government has made any efforts on their behalf. They must understand that they are completely on their own—only then will they be able to fully commit themselves in the way that they must if they are to clear this game."
Kayaba's expression hardened then, and even despite knowing that the man meant him no immediate harm, Diavel took a step back. "Inspire them. Drive them onward. Do what you must to give them hope. But do not ever speak of the outside world, of who sent you here, or of the fact that you logged in late. If you speak of these things to anyone…"
"I understand," Diavel said at once, forcing indecision from his voice. He'd known he might have to give his life when he agreed to do this; he could make his peace with the possibility if it meant giving hope to others—if it meant saving even one other life. "If I do, my life is forfeit."
"No," Kayaba said. "Theirs is. Break the immersion for any player, and you will have killed them just as surely as if you'd unplugged them. The integrity of this world must never be compromised, and I will do whatever I must to quarantine any contamination from the outside world... and sanitize it."
Diavel was still reeling from this, mouth open in shock, when blue light surrounded him once more.