I finished shopping in Ikebukuro and jumped aboard an Express train on the Tobu Tojo Line for 32 minutes. The roundabout’s road surface at Kawagoe Station’s West Exit was not yet wet. According to the Weather app, there still seemed to be about 10 minutes before it’d start raining. I hurriedly ran to the municipal bike parking lot, pulled out my beloved vehicle, and hopped on.
The shortest route from the station to my house was through Kawagoe Ichibangai, also known as Koedo. There’s always been a lot of heavy traffic there, but the widening of the bike lane five or six years ago made it easier to ride. Desperately pedaling, racing against a rain cloud approaching from the south, I passed through Koedo and turned right. Just as I arrived at my house near a large shrine, the water droplets started coming down with considerable force. I hurriedly dismounted my MTB under the eaves of the house and jumped through the front door using a waterproof bag to shield myself from the rain. Then, before I could even say “I’m home” —.
【T/N: 川越一番街 (Kawagoe Ichibangai, literally “Kawagoe’s 1st Avenue”), also known as “Ichibangai Shopping Street,” is a roughly 400-meter-long street lined with traditional buildings in an area that locals call 小江戸 (Koedo, literally “Little Edo”). Kirito rides a mountain bike (MTB).】
“Welcome home! You’re late, Onii-chan!”
Suguha, who was wearing a jersey and waiting at the agarikamachi, exclaimed.
【T/N: The 上がり框 (agarikamachi, literally “rising frame”) is a step at the entrance to the living space of traditional Japanese houses.】
“I can’t help it, it takes me twice as long as you to commute to school…”
Continuing to argue until this point, I tilted my head.
“Eh…… didn’t we have this conversation yesterday, too?”
Suguha readily affirmed my sense of déjà vu. The same day shouldn’t be repeating…… but, just like yesterday, Suguha handed a towel to the malnourished me. I accepted it gratefully, and while wiping away the sweat and raindrops, I confirmed.
“Well, that means you should be making me dive in soon today as well…?”
“Of course! We can’t decide what to do with Kirito Town without you, Onii-chan.”
“……Wait, wait, I don’t remember naming the town that way!”
“People are already calling it that. Now, to your room you go…… Eh, what did you buy? Expensive sweets?”
Suguha’s attention was drawn to the bag with a department store’s logo on it that was hanging from my left hand. It looked like it contained high-quality sweets, but unfortunately, the contents were quite different.
“No, this is, um…”
Hearing my ambiguous response, Suguha seemed to have already guessed what it was.
“Ah, ah, I see. Wait… did you just get it today!? No matter how you look at it, that’s cutting it too close!”
“That’s how much thought I put into it…… Come on, over there you go. You’re going to dive from your room today.”
“Fiiine—. There are some rice balls in the kitchen.”
With a grin, Suguha trotted up the stairs. I walked over to the kitchen, thinking that I should decide early on a present for Suguha’s birthday next spring.
I changed into a comfortable outfit, scarfed down a rice ball filled with salmon and codfish that Suguha had prepared for me, used the restroom, laid down on my bed, and put the AmuSphere on.
It had been three days since the Unital Ring incident, and the countless mysteries were only deepening rather than being solved. Although there were so many ideas it was impossible to keep track of all of them flying around on social networking sites and bulletin boards, all of them were unfounded conjectures…… Argo said that on the way to Ginza. The only thing we could be sure of was that no other player had been able to reach the «Land Indicated by the Aurora» yet.
Of course, we were trying to get there, but the chances of us being the first were pretty slim. After all, most of my peers were students and working members of society who couldn’t log in from the morning until the evening on weekdays. Although we should at least be the farthest ahead out of all the ALO teams thanks to our advantage of having had our entire house fall 25 km from the «Stith Ruins», the ALO-converted players’ official starting point, in less than a week, the core gamers who could dive all day would catch up with us. In fact, we had been attacked by a group of PKers both last night and the night before that. Had their equipment and level been the same as ours, we would have been the ones to get wiped out.
That didn’t mean skipping school was an option. For now, I could only try my best while continuing to fulfill my true duties as a student.
I dimmed the lights in my room, closed my eyes, and muttered to myself.
The rainbow-colored radiance that spread across my vision erased the gravity that pushed my body against the bed, sending my consciousness soaring into the virtual world.
As soon as gravity returned, I opened both my eyes. It was the familiar log cabin ceiling…… I breathed a sigh of relief. We were worried about a potential third attack while we were at school, but our house seemed to be safe so far. If we were attacked, Alice or Yui, who were responsible for keeping watch, would’ve contacted us. We had resolved to run to the infirmary and dive in with our Augmas even if we were in class, but I wanted to avoid such a development if possible.
The metal armor I had been wearing since the first night clattered as I got up and looked around the living room of the log house. When I logged out early this morning, it was packed with my friends who had finally all joined me, but now there was no one. At least Leafa should have dived at about the same time as me.
“…Hey, Sugu… no, Leafa, where are you?”
While shouting, I walked to the front entrance and opened the thick door.
The circular courtyard, 15 meters in diameter and covering an area of about 180 square meters, was surrounded by tall stone walls and lined with several large production facilities. However, nobody was inside, and not only were there no signs of Yui and Alice, but the three dependable guardian beasts, Agah the Long-Billed Great Lizard, Kuro the Dark Panther, and Misha the Spiny Cave Bear, were nowhere to be found, either.
Suddenly feeling uneasy, I called out again.
The attempt was in vain as my voice was sucked into the bright red evening sky. Before logging out this morning, everyone was registered as mutual friends, so I should have been able to message everyone by opening the ring menu. But, what if the list was empty…… as I was gripped by childish anxiety, I couldn’t bring myself to move my right hand.
I descended to the ground from the porch and moved diagonally across the front yard to the south-side gate. I gently pushed open the wooden door that Asuna, Alice, and Silica had risked their lives to protect during last night’s attack.
Until yesterday, there was still a deep forest outside the log house, but the scenery had changed completely. We took advantage of the fact that the attackers had burned down the trees, and everyone built houses. The diameter of the «town», which Suguha called Kirito Town, a name that inevitably must be changed, was 60 meters. Roads arranged in an “X” divided the town into four equal parts in the north, south, east, and west. We planned to use the southern area as a business district, but since not a single shop had opened for business yet, it gave the impression of a ghost town. There were no signs of people on the circular road surrounding the log house, tentatively named «Inner Ring Road», nor on the temporarily named «4 o’clock Road» and «8 o’clock Road» that branched out from there to the southeast and southwest.
I sucked in a chestful of air to call out at full volume once more─at that time.
I caught my breath as I heard the faint distinction of a child’s laughter.
A chill ran down my back. There couldn’t be any children in this town. So… ghosts? Did the empty town attract ghost-type monsters?
I exhaled softly and listened carefully. Once again, a peal of high-pitched laughter reached my ears. It was not my imagination. The voice seemed to be coming from the east.
After bringing out the ring menu and equipping my «High-Quality Iron Long Sword» on my left waist, I walked east along the stone wall surrounding the log cabin. Soon, a large wooden building in front and to the right came into my view.
The eastern area had become the residence of the Pattel tribe, the group of murine-humanoid NPCs that followed Sinon here last night. The meeting place I was looking at now was built at the apex of the fan-shaped area, a square that doubled as a field was put in the center, and a row of cozy dwellings lined the far edge.
Again, I could hear the children frolicking. The sound was coming from inside the assembly hall…… no, from the square behind it. While imagining the worst-case scenario where all the Pattels, of which there were supposed to be 20, were annihilated by a ghost-type monster attack, I stepped onto the 4 o’clock Road in the southeast. It was still unpaved, so even iron-armored boots didn’t make much of a sound. I proceeded cautiously along the wall of the assembly hall and stealthily peered into the square.
A whisper leaked from my mouth.
The square, shaped like a cut-open baumkuchen, had merely been a bare area this morning, but now, the northern half had turned into a field, and a few Pattel people were tending to a crop resembling corn. In the southern half, which was still empty, Leafa, Silica, Alice, Asuna, and Yui stood side by side, watching over the giant four-legged Spiny Cave Bear, Misha. No, what they were smiling at was the five young Pattels straddling Misha’s back.
The children, who had shorter noses and smaller ears compared to the adults, laughed uproariously every time Misha took a slow step. In human terms, they were only as big as a one-year-old child, so if Misha, who was more than three meters long, was so inclined, she could devour them whole…… No, no, before that.
“…Hey, those kids…”
When I gently approached Leafa and whispered so, my sister turned around quickly and shouted.
“Ah, you finally came!”
Asuna and the others immediately noticed me and greeted me. After reflexively replying with an “usu,” I asked again.
“Hey, that little rat… or rather, that little Pattel, where did he come from? When we left the Giyol Flatlands’ wall dungeon yesterday, there were only adults, right?”
Then, while Leafa, Silica, and Asuna awkwardly averted their gazes, Alice said with an unconvincing expression.
“It seems like they were somehow born sometime last night.”
I parroted loudly and looked again at Misha’s back. The five children who were making a lot of noise were as small as peas compared to the bear, but they didn’t seem anything like infants, either.
“……Were there pregnant mothers in the group of Pattels who came with us……? Even if there were, how did these children grow so much in just half a day?”
This time, Yui promptly explained to me.
“Papa, I’ve been with the Pattel people all day, and those kids appeared all at once around 9:00 in the morning. It seems that the Pattel people knew this would happen, as they prepared beds for the right number of people in advance. When they appeared, all five of them were like this…”
Then, Yui spread her hands out to indicate they were about the size of a melon—.
“They were infants, but they all grew up to how they are now in just nine hours. They know how to talk now, albeit only in broken phrases.”
I couldn’t help but mutter to myself. If five babies could be born overnight and grow to that extent in half a day, then the town would be full of Pattels in a week.
Perhaps sensing my shudder, Yui continued her explanation.
“This is a guess based on limited data, but I think the number of NPCs in the Unital Ring world increases or decreases according to their living space and environment. Since Papa built the Pattel tribe’s houses with a capacity for over twenty people, they probably gave birth to meet that capacity.”
“I see… so that’s how it is.”
It was Asuna who responded.
“I was also surprised to see a child when I logged in and even more surprised when Yui told me she was born this morning. But, no matter how super-high-spec of a virtual world Unital Ring is, I didn’t think it’d…… emulate a reproductive system.”
Right then, Alice gained a serious expression—.
“In Underworld, it worked in pretty much the same way as the Real World.”
Neither Asuna, Silica, nor Leafa seemed able to comment on that. Reluctantly, I had to pick the conversation up from there.
【T/N: The original last sentence is やむなく俺が火中の栗を拾いに行く, literally, “Reluctantly, I had to go pull the chestnuts out of the fire.” The idiom, “pull chestnuts out of the fire,” is from a fable adapted by French fabulist Jean de La Fontaine under the title Le Singe et le Chat that appeared in the second collection of his Fables in 1679. It refers to being the dupe of someone else.】
“W-well, Underworld is an exception among the exceptions…”
Having said that, I recalled that there was one more exception. Sword Art Online. In that world, the act itself was possible if you unlocked the ethics code using a button hidden ridiculously deep within the settings menu. Of course, you couldn’t make babies… but what on earth was Kayaba Akihiko thinking when he implemented such a function?
Since there was no such feature in The Seed Package, it could be assumed that Unital Ring didn’t have such a function either… no, not necessarily.
“Even if the entire procedure is not recreated, since the game has built up such a world view, if NPCs can have children, then maybe players can as well…”
As soon as I muttered something like that half unconsciously.
“There’s no way…… you can’t do that!!”
Leafa slapped me on the back, and although there was no pain, I yelled, “Ouch!”
“W-What are you doing”
“It’s because Kirito-kun said something crazy! If players had kids, who would be put inside the child!?”
“Well, it’s… it’s like with NPCs, an AI……”
I couldn’t finish my words. Suddenly, a silvery spark of pain pierced the core of my head and made me unable to stand.
Alice quickly supported my right arm as I staggered and gasped. Leafa also opened her green eyes wide and looked into my face.
“Wh-what’s the matter, Onii-chan?”
“No… I’m fine, I just had a little headache.”
Hearing this, Silica said anxiously.
“Kirito-san, you haven’t been getting much sleep. How about logging out early today?”
The little dragon sitting on her head, Pina, also chirped quickly, “Kyuru…”
“Nah, I’m fine, I’m fine. It’s already gone.”
In fact, the pain had disappeared in an instant, and now, even when I shook my head vigorously—though my movements in the virtual world shouldn’t affect my real brain—it didn’t hurt. What was that? While wondering in astonishment, I shifted my gaze and somehow locked eyes with Asuna, who had a vague expression. Her hazel-colored eyes were directed at me, but they seemed to be looking past me, far into the distance.
I called her in a subdued voice, and after a blink, her eyes refocused.
“Ah… sorry, I zoned out for a bit.”
“We’re all the same when it comes to lack of sleep. If you get tired today, don’t force yourself; just log out earlier.”
“Yeah. Kirito-kun, too.”
But I had no intention of sleeping early. My gut feeling told me our efforts on the third day, which was today, would determine the survival of this town—and by extension, our survival.
Looking toward the center of the plaza at Misha, who continued to walk in a circle, I saw the little Pattel children on her back acting the same as ever and boisterously playing about. It was said that they grew from babies to their current maturity in just half a day, so would they continue to be adults in a few days, or would their growth hit the brakes somewhere? In any case, we had to protect the town for the sake of those children.
“So… where are Kuro and Agah?”
As I asked where the two remaining pets were, Silica replied while looking to the southwest.
“Liz-san and Sinon-san borrowed them to carry stones from the riverbed. I wish Misha could help too, but I can’t really tell the kids to stop…”
Apparently, pets in the Unital Ring world would accept orders, to some extent, from players who were registered as friends with their owners.
“Maybe I’ll go help out then…”
As I muttered, Asuna, Leafa, Alice, and Yui said, “me too.” We left the place to Silica, Misha’s owner, and moved toward the town’s southwest gate.
We stepped out onto Inner Ring Road and had walked just a few meters west when I heard multiple sets of footsteps. Lisbeth and Sinon emerged from 8 o’clock Road, with Kuro and Agah behind them. On the backs of the two animals were bags that Asuna seemed to have made.
“Thanks for helping.”
After I greeted them with that, Lisbeth responded with an “ōsu,” but Sinon kept her head lowered as if she were pondering something. I ran up to them and, while scratching Kuro’s neck, asked the gunner.
“Sinon, what’s wrong?”
“Eh…… ahh, hold on a sec……”
Sinon stopped, looked around at us, standing side by side, and said.
“It’s great and all that this Kirito Town has a lot of resources around it, but attackers are likely to exploit that.”
“Eh… what do you mean?”
“For example, if the Carpentry skill production menu included a trebuchet or a battering ram, they’d be able to make as many of them as they wanted out of the stones in the riverbed and the trees in the forest, right? Even if they didn’t go as far as that, it’s still possible that the attackers would create something like a tochka as their base…”
【T/N: A トーチカ (tōchika, from the Russian "tochka") is a pillbox.】
While repeating that, I looked at Asuna and the others.
As I understood it, the tochka was used with a large firearm that could fire continuously. If they had firearms on about the same level as Sinon’s musket, they shouldn’t be able to penetrate the town walls; we’d charge at them while they were reloading…… while thinking that, I suddenly realized.
“Ohh, maybe some of the GGO converts inherited huge machine guns.”
“Yeah. Though they’re too heavy to operate now, like the Hecate, I’m sure those weapons will be usable someday. We’d better think of some countermeasures before that happens.”
To be honest, I couldn’t really imagine it yet. Forget trebuchets and battering rams; just the scene of stone tochkas lined up outside the town with heavy machine guns sticking out from them was too unrealistic.
But to Sinon, such a scene must’ve appeared time and time again as part of the battles she had in GGO. Now that the Pattel people had migrated to this town and even had children, we couldn’t just abandon them. We had a responsibility to anticipate and prepare for every possible situation.
“……I got it. If we all wrack our brains together, I’m sure we can find a way to prevent the enemy from exploiting the resources outside. But, the first order of business we need to discuss today is……”
I paused here, looking at their faces in turn.
“What should we do about the town’s name?”
“Eh, it’s Kirito Town, right?”
After Sinon replied with that, Asuna and the others all nodded in agreement, but I hurriedly put out both my hands.
“Rejected, rejected! With such a name, our chance of being attacked would only increase!”
“Oh, so you finally realized that you’re a target?”
When I couldn’t immediately respond to Lisbeth’s remark, Leafa and Asuna chuckled, while Alice asked with a straight face, “What the hell have you been doing in the worlds outside of ALO?”
After returning to the log house, we joined Silica, who had finally been freed from the Pattel children, and sat down in the living room. The large table that Asuna was proud of had disappeared, and although I wanted to make a replacement, I would have to find a tree with a trunk at least one and a half meters thick. Unfortunately, the maximum diameter of the Meguri Pine and other tree species that grew around here was about 80 centimeters, which was not large enough to make a table for 12 people.
Luckily, the kitchen’s built-in furnace didn’t disappear, and Lisbeth had built a pot with her Blacksmith skill so I could boil water. Asuna brought in a pot that was already steaming and sprinkled some dark powder into it.
“…Asuna, what is that?”
Asuna answered Lisbeth’s question a little smugly.
“While I was waiting for Liz and the others last night, I picked leaves from various plants in the forest and roasted them in a pot. Then they became a powder like this, and I was able to acquire the Pharmacist skill. Well, only about half of it boiled down into a drink, and the rest of it turned into a dye.”
After repeating that, I finally realized it. Asuna’s hair, which should have been light blue as it was in ALFheim and when I left for the Giyol Flatlands, was now a bright chestnut color like when we were in Aincrad.
“…Did you dye your hair yourself?”
“You finally noticed.”
I posed another question for Asuna, who showed an expression of disbelief.
“What other dye colors do you have?”
“Um, a slightly darker tea color, a red bean color, and a dark gray, perhaps”
For a moment, I thought about changing my hair color too, but honestly, none of them really appealed to me. While fiddling with her light brown hair, which looked a lot like Asuna’s, Silica said.
“I think pitch-black dyes are rare compared to dyes for flashy colors. Kirito-san, it would be a waste if you changed your hair color.”
While I groaned, Asuna lined up as many glazed china cups as there were people on the floor and poured the contents of the pot into them with a wooden ladle.
“I’ve made several kinds of tea, but the most popular one was made from this leaf.”
“We compared all of them.”
Presumably having already tasted them all, Alice interjected in this way, and next to her, Silica nodded her head.
The liquid in the cup that Asuna turned around and handed me was a dark black-purple color. When I caught a whiff of it, my sense of smell was stimulated by a sophisticated scent similar to that of tea or tea-like medicine. I didn’t have a good feeling about it, but how could I disrespect Asuna’s efforts?
As I sipped it slowly, I tasted a flavor like barley tea infused with red shiso, and a buff icon with a leaf symbol lit up to the right of my HP bar.
“…… It’s medicine, isn’t it!”
After I shouted, Alice and Silica nodded their heads.
【T/N: 麦茶 (mugi-cha, literally “barley tea”) is a staple across East Asian regions like China, Japan, and Korea. In traditional Chinese medicine, shiso infusions were used to treat persistent cough and stuffy nose symptoms. Shiso is also an essential part of modern Japanese and Korean cuisines.】
Although I was concerned about the buff’s effectiveness, I thanked Asuna and told her how I thought the tea didn’t taste bad at all. In the blink of an eye, it was seven in the evening, and Klein had logged in. Agil said he couldn’t join us until about ten o’clock, and since his day job was to run his cafe, it couldn’t be helped.
As soon as the meeting started, I brought up the official name of the town as a topic for discussion, but no one, myself included, could come up with a sufficient name to replace «Kirito Town», so finding one became our homework.
Next on the agenda was the plan for moving NPCs after the Pattel tribe. Our first candidate was the Basin tribe, who had already established friendly relations with Silica, Lisbeth, and Yui and were fairly close to our base. Our second candidate was the Ornith tribe, the birdmen whom Sinon met. It would be encouraging if the Ornithes, who used muskets, the most powerful means of ranged attacks under the current circumstances, would move in, but their town was far across the vast Giyol Flatlands. According to Sinon, powerful dinosaur-type monsters spawned on the other side of the great wall where we fought the magic-wielding frog «Goliathlana», and since crossing the plains was life-threatening, she could not guarantee that they would accept the invitation.
In that case, we should try finding the Basins first and gauge their intentions. As we came to that conclusion, Lisbeth became a candidate for serving as our representative in the negotiations. Yui and Asuna also offered to accompany her, which made me want to go with them as well, but there were still other important tasks to take care of.
The third item on the agenda was Sinon’s concern that “the abundant resources around the town would be exploited by the enemy,” and although everyone had many opinions regarding this, in the end, it was decided that we just had to be more vigilant. One option would be to collect the surrounding stones and wood to expand the stone walls that acted as our line of defense and assign guards inside. However, if the line was extended, more manpower would be needed to guard and defend it, ultimately leaving fewer people to collect materials. The purpose of creating a town in the first place was to discourage other players from attacking, so building it into a real town should be a higher priority than fortifying our defenses. For this reason, it was essential for someone skilled at gathering information to join our group.
After the meeting, I left the task of looking after Kirito Town (tentatively named) to Silica, Misha, Sinon, Klein, and Alice. Then, Kuro and I set off together for the Stith Ruins, where Argo and I were meeting up—was what was supposed to happen, but.
As I was about to exit the southwest gate.
“Kirito, I’ll go with you.”
As she said this, Alice, wearing a hooded cloak over her metal armor, came running up to me. Her cat ears, which were inherited from her ALO avatar, were tucked away in a pocket sewn into the hood and looked quite cute.
“Eh…… Alice? Why?”
“There’s not really a reason why. I just want to get out there once in a while, too.”
After replying with a pouty face, Alice changed her expression and added in a small voice.
“Besides, there’s something I need to tell you.”
If you saw her serious expression, you’d understand why I just couldn’t refuse her.
“……I see. But I’ll have to tell someone that you’re coming too…”
“I told Klein and Silica. Klein was smirking for some reason, though.”
Thinking to myself that I’d have to brace myself for the rampant misunderstandings later, I said.
“Well, then, let’s go. We’ll be going pretty fast, though.”
Right as Alice replied, Kuro also let out a low “ga-oo.”
Pushing the thick wooden gate open to leave, the two humans and a beast started running toward the river to the south.