November 8th, 2022
1:37 PM JST

For the first evening and the day that followed, Kayaba had avoided groups entirely—venturing out only as a solo player. There was more than one reason for this. The vast majority of the ten thousand players he'd imprisoned within Sword Art Online seemed to be paralyzed by fear; through the GM interface in his game menu he could tell that more than seven thousand of them had not even left the Starting City since the tutorial, and those that had were swarming the area immediately around the city even after they leveled up.

Kayaba reasoned that he should set an example if he wanted others to follow, and pushed slowly north past the contested mobs in the overcrowded fields around the city, seeking quieter hunting grounds. He made no secret of this and took his time; he wanted to be seen. Human psychology did the rest: players who noticed his direction of travel assumed that he'd discovered something interesting in there, and took the risk of expanding their hunting area and confronting the slightly more dangerous mobs there.

But the main reason he avoided groups and sought out the less populated areas was the more important one, for now: he needed to be able to respond quickly to any system issues that arose. There were bugs to be addressed, and as he'd expected there were attempts at physically accessing the SAO servers. These were protected by anti-tampering failsafes similar to the ones in use on the Nerve Gear, and the consequences were similar: each time the failsafe was tripped, Cardinal would select an isolated solo player at random and terminate them while broadcasting a notification of this fact to local law enforcement.

The police must have gotten the message; the attempts at physical intrusion only happened twice. Kayaba was relieved—the countermeasures were distasteful from a design standpoint, and every player that died from external tampering was one less person to play and clear the game.

When the World Event package activated during the tutorial, part of the package deployment involved disabling the login servers—or to be more precise, disabling the Chargen system that would allow someone to generate a new character. Eventually he planned to repurpose them as new worker nodes for the Aincrad simulation; as players opened more floors the system would require additional capacity to simulate more regions at once. But the need for that was probably months away, and in the meantime they were sitting idle.

It was less than 48 hours before the first unauthorized attempt at logging in. Kayaba was surprised it had taken even that long.

He'd been expecting this, but the timing was inconvenient. He was tanking for a small group near the shore of the eastern lake when a notification popped up in his peripheral vision, and it took several minutes to extricate himself from the party without arousing suspicion. As soon as he was out of sight within the treeline he sprang into action, opening his game menu and enabling GM mode—giving him access to the full array of information and powers he needed to deal with the situation.

Login server 1 had five connected sessions which were hanging in limbo, waiting to be passed off to the currently-disabled Chargen system. That in and of itself was curious—he'd expected the attempt, when it came, to be that of a single hacker.

"Cardinal," Kayaba said softly.

"Awaiting command."

"Identify the source of these connections."

There was the briefest of delays before the female voice representing Cardinal spoke again. "The specified addresses all belong to an IPv6 subnet reserved for use by the Japanese Self-Defense Force."

Kayaba snorted. The least they could've done was try to cover their tracks by diving from a non-government facility. He was already opening his mouth to tell Cardinal to deal with them when a thought struck him squarely between the eyes, stunning him momentarily with the realization of what he'd overlooked. "Cardinal, the initial alert said there were six login attempts. There are only five sessions waiting for chargen. Explain the discrepancy."

Cardinal's voice was infuriatingly calm, considering the gravity of the information it was conveying. "The sixth new user has already entered the game world."

Ice water shot through Kayaba's veins. It was remarkable how close it was to the feeling of a real adrenaline rush, considering that the simulation was merely responding to an increase in his heart rate. "How?"

He realized the answer almost immediately, but that didn't stop Cardinal from replying to the question he'd asked. "The specified user has imported pre-existing character data, and was therefore not required to go through chargen."

A beta tester.

It was a grievous oversight. Of course not all of the original beta testers had returned for the game's launch; some few undoubtedly had conflicting obligations, or perhaps had found the gameplay experience disorienting or unpleasant in some way. He'd dismissed them completely. Clearly that had been a mistake.

A few commands brought up a virtual "camera" window, showing the location of the unexpected visitor. As with any other new player, he'd spawned in the central plaza in the Starting City, and was still looking around in apparent confusion, with no one else immediately nearby. That was a stroke of luck—Kayaba had been afraid that he'd already interacted with other players; it was bad enough that his avatar's appearance was clearly customized—he had not, of course, been present when Kayaba reverted everyone to their real-life appearance during the tutorial.

The lengthy console commands necessary to do what he wanted to do would take too much time. "Cardinal," he snapped. "Teleport that player immediately to my personal workspace, deploy firmware package 2.01 to his Nerve Gear, and revert his avatar to his riaru appearance."

"Teleport complete," Cardinal answered. "Firmware update deploying. Avatar altered to match user's stored physical parameters." There was a brief pause, and then: "Firmware update complete."

"Well done," Kayaba replied unnecessarily. Now that the immediate threat was dealt with, he glanced at the dashboard window for the login server holding the five other sessions in limbo. "Deploy the firmware update to these five as well, but do not permit them to advance past chargen."

He didn't wait for Cardinal's acknowledgment. A single console command surrounded him in the blinding blue light of a teleportation effect, and when it faded he stood on an invisible solid surface in the air far above Aincrad—his retreat, his workspace, the place where he went to administer the game in peace and privacy when necessary. Clouds drifted through the open sky, the midday sun reflecting off the metallic upper surfaces of the floating castle and momentarily dazzling him when he looked in that direction.

Standing before him several meters away was a young Japanese man of perhaps twenty, unshaved scruff dotting his jawline and leading up to a thin pair of sideburns which almost disappeared beneath his mop of shaggy black hair. His average height and build didn't quite fill out the armored chestplate he wore. The man's eyes were wide with panic as he looked around him, widening further when he laid eyes on Kayaba's player avatar.

"Oh, thank God, another player! Where are we? What's happening?"

"I might ask you the same thing," Heathcliff replied, trying to keep the amusement out of his tone. "Who are you, and how did you get here?"

"I—I…" He hesitated, looking unsure. "I'm not supposed to say." When Heathcliff said nothing, the silence stretched onward until the man seemed to grow uncomfortable with it. "My name's Kojiro. I'm here to help."

"Help?" Heathcliff asked with a single raised eyebrow.

Kojiro nodded nervously, looking around again. They were the only living things visible in any direction; Aincrad itself was kilometers away and far below them. "I came in with… some friends. We're supposed to be helping get you out of here."

Heathcliff very nearly lost his composure then; only a smile betrayed the quiet laughter that had nearly emerged. "Are you now? Everyone in this game is trapped here. I don't see any friends, and I can't imagine how they could help if they were here."

The skepticism had the desired result. "They're from the military. I don't know who they are, really… a spec ops team of some kind, I think, picked because all of them already knew how to use a sword. I was… I was supposed to be their guide, since I already knew the game."

Both eyebrows went up this time. "You were a beta tester. Why didn't you login with everyone else, then?"

The bitterness on the other man's face was plain as day. He looked away, gazing down at Aincrad from where they stood. "My Nerve Gear's busted, and I couldn't afford another. The government contacted me—I guess they probably reached out to all the former testers who didn't join the game. They offered a lot of money to dive with their team, and I needed a job." Suddenly he glanced back towards Heathcliff. "Where are we, anyway? I was in the plaza—"

"I know."

Kojiro seemed about to say something, stopping with his mouth half-open before going on. "Who are you?"

Heathcliff smiled thinly, opening his game menu and withdrawing an item from his inventory. A few taps on the mirror and the resulting pop-up window returned him quickly to his real-life appearance, a form which practically any dedicated gamer ought to recognize on sight.

Kojiro did. He let out a low moan, and started to back away before seeming to realize that there wasn't any point. "Oh god, please… I didn't know. Look, I just needed the money. And I… I really wanted to see this world again. Please, I loved the beta, it was the best game I ever played."

"I'm glad to hear that," Kayaba said calmly as he returned the mirror to his inventory. "Unfortunately, you've presented me with a dilemma."

Kojiro was visibly trembling, and barely able to form the question. "What?"

Kayaba closed his eyes for a few moments in thought. When they opened again, he went immediately into his game menu and opened the GM command console. Five commands were all it took to end the lives of the alleged special operations team waiting for chargen. "The integrity of this closed world is of paramount importance to me. If you'd logged in on your own, your desire to return to this world outweighing your fear of death, I think I would've been inclined to reward your passion with a chance to make this your new reality."

A small sound came from Kojiro's throat as the import of those words sunk in, resignation and despair vying for control of his face. Sighing, Kayaba typed a sixth command in the window hovering before him, meeting the other player's eyes. "But you said it yourself: you came here to help get everyone out. And the players now living in this world must never, ever know that anyone ever attempted such a thing."

Kojiro's voice was weak as he sunk to his knees. "Then… this is…?"

"Game over," Kayaba said with regret, and pressed Enter.