“’Sword Art Online’?” Akira said to his friend as she held up two VR NerveGear helmets.
“Yeah! Come on, Akira, you’ve gotta check this out, it’s being launched today!” Joyce said excitedly as she practically bounced from where she was sitting on her bed with a very large smile. Akira Costar was a young, Caucasian man in his late teens with bright green eyes and blood red, scruffy hair. He was wearing black jeans and trainers and a dark red buttoned shirt. Joyce Beam was a young, Caucasian woman only a year or so younger than Akira with blond hair that was tied into two pigtails and bright blue eyes. She was wearing a bright yellow top and a light blue miniskirt. She remained barefooted. It was her room, after all.
“You know I’m not interested in games, Joyce.” Akira said as he crossed his arms.
“Oh, come on, Akira! It’s gonna be the most amazing VR MMO game ever! The beta testers kept saying how great it’s gonna be!” Joyce exclaimed with excitement, her smile still intact. Akira ran his hand through his hair as he gave a small sigh.
“Then, why are you telling me all of this?” Akira asked.
“Akira, you’ve been my bestie since longer than I can remember. I waited for soooooo long to get one of the ten thousand copies. Now, I can game-share with you. I checked and we can totally do it! I wanna share this with you.” Joyce said as she put the helmets down, stood from her bed and walked up to Akira. They looked into each other’s eyes with no change of expression until Akira closed his eyes, sighed and let a small smile grace his lips.
“I never was able to say ‘no’ to you for very long. I’ll be with you for the launch, then I’ll log out.” Akira said, his smile remaining. Joyce literally jumped for joy as she ran back to the bed and picked up the helmets.
“Put it on~.” Joyce said in a sing-song voice. Akira took one of the helmets from Joyce, following which she quickly placed the other one on her head, leading Akira to do the same.
“We’ve gotta follow the instructions to make our profiles and characters first. Then we can start playing!” Joyce said excitedly. Akira rolled his eyes playfully, before both of them began the calibration procedure.
Akira appeared in some kind of plaza in a flash of light. He looked down at his maroon fabric clothing with light leather armour that was the predetermined choice from the character creation. He also to long, white beard the reached his chest. It reminded him of the depictions of Merlin that he saw as a child, so he modelled his temporary character after the wizard. He looked at his HUD and saw his health bar, level which was at ‘1’ and his username. Joyce told him that he could just use an abbreviation of his name for his username. Kirastar. That was the name he used for the username. Looking like a withered, old druid, Kirastar moved his character’s head and body. He was in some kind of town with more avatars appearing in flashes of light.
“Akira, that you?” A female voice called out behind him. Kirastar turned to see a voluptuous, female avatar looking straight at him. She had long, flowing brunette hair, green eyes and stood slightly taller that Kirastar’s avatar. She was wearing the same garments as Kirastar, but hers were blue instead of red. Ignoring the… generous proportions the avatar had, Kirastar looked at the woman’s username. It read ‘JoyJoy’. Kirastar internally sighed at the avatar’s name and appearance.
‘Of course. Just the thing Joyce would do.’ Kirastar thought before turned fully and replied.
“Only if that’s you, Joyce.” Kirastar replied in an old, weak voice that his avatar allowed. JoyJoy was happy to have found Kirastar so quickly, but quickly pouted at the look of his avatar.
“Why’d you pick to look like that? Now people are gonna think you’re my dad.” JoyJoy said with a pout.
“I thought you liked older men.” Kirastar teased, as players began to enter the plaza by foot, implying that they were there longer.
“Jerk.” JoyJoy replied moodily. More and more players were appearing in the area until it was packed with hundreds, maybe a thousand or so. Kirastar and JoyJoy looked around in confusion.
“Some kind of… event or something?” Kirastar asked unsure of how the game worked.
“This early? I wouldn’t think so.” JoyJoy said with suspicion in her tone. They both looked around until they looked up to see a large, red ‘warning’ sign in the sky. Suddenly, the sign began to multiply with the words ‘System Announcement’ on each of the new ones, until they covered the entire visible sky. The newly red sky then began to bleed and the substance that was bleed congealed into a single, floating, robed humanoid form. The being extended its arms and began to speak.
“Attention, players. I welcome you to my world. My name is Akihiko Kayaba. And as of this moment, I am in control of this world.” Kayaba announced. At his words, Kirastar’s and JoyJoy’s hands met each other’s without them realising but neither of them caring. A few indistinct mumbles came from the crowd before Kayaba continued.
“I'm sure most of you have already noticed an item missing from your main menus -- the log out button. Let me assure you, this is not a defect in the game. I repeat, this is not a defect. This is how Sword Art Online was designed to be.” Kayaba explained. In a panic, JoyJoy flicked her finger and her menu popped up. After a few frantic swipes and clicks, she stared in horror at a button that had been left blank. Kirastar gazed at the button in horrified silence before slowly turning his head back to Kayaba.
“You cannot log yourselves out of SAO, and no one from the outside will be able to shut down or remove the "NerveGear" from your head. If anyone attempts to do so, a transmitter inside the NerveGear will discharge a microwave signal into your skull, destroying your brain and ending your life.” Kayaba continued. Everyone froze. JoyJoy turned to Kirastar.
“Akira, you’re smart, he’s kidding, right?” JoyJoy asked, on the verge of tears, internally praying that he was. Kirastar slowly turned his head towards her with a look of dread on his face.
“…If human flesh is subjected to strong enough microwaves, it will begin to deteriorate within seconds. If the NerveGear operates using microwaves, it could barbecue our brains in our own skulls.” Kirastar replied, not sugar-coating the response. JoyJoy started to shake as her grip on Kirastar’s hand tightened and her gaze went back up to Kayaba.
“Despite my warning, the families and friends of some of the players have attempted removing the NerveGear, an unfortunate decision, to say the least. As a result, the game now has two hundred thirteen less players than when it began. They've been deleted from both Aincrad and the real world.” Kayaba said, completely unsympathetically. Kirastar and JoyJoy shared a look of horror. Everyone in the crowd was showing more and more panic as the speech was wearing on.
“As you can see, international media outlets have round-the-clock coverage of everything, including the deaths. At this point, it's safe to assume the likelihood of a NerveGear being removed is minimal at best. I hope this brings you a little comfort as you try to clear the game. It's important to remember the following: There is no longer any way to revive someone within the game. If your HP drops to zero, your avatar will be deleted from the system... forever. And the NerveGear will simultaneously destroy your brain.
“There is only one way for a player to escape now -- you must clear the game. Right now, you're gathered on Floor One, the lowest level of Aincrad. If you can get through the dungeon and defeat the boss, you may advance to the next floor. Defeat the boss on Floor 100, and you will clear the game.” Kayaba explained. The screens that Kayaba was showing confirmed it. People were dying. People were dead, because of Sword Art Online. Kirastar and JoyJoy were holding each other now, completely terrified.
“We have to beat an MMORPG? WHO BEATS AN MMORPG?!” JoyJoy screamed, the panic getting to her.
“Last but not least, I've placed a little present in the item storage of every player. Please have a look.” Kayaba said. Kirastar and JoyJoy looked at each other nervously before JoyJoy opened her menu and Kirastar copied her action, opening his. They checked their inventories and saw a single item that they didn’t recognise.
“’Mirror’?” Kirastar asked rhetorically to no one in particular as he selected the item, causing a small hand mirror to appear in his hand. Suddenly, every player present suddenly erupted in a burst of light, causing many players to scream. As the light subsided, Kirastar opened his eyes and turned to see not JoyJoy, but a spitting image of Joyce standing in front of him.
“Joyce? You look like you again!” Kirastar exclaimed in confusion. Joyce looked back to Kirastar before flinching in surprise.
“I’m not the only one, Akira!” Joyce exclaimed in the same tone. Akira rubbed his face to find the beard he picked for his character absent and looked up to see his regular, scruffy, red hair. Akira turned his head back to see Joyce, her face making a pout, her hands on her modestly sized breasts.
“My big boobs are gone…” Joyce said in a depressed tone. Akira’s eye twitched before responding.
“Is THAT really what you’re thinking about right now?!” Akira asked loudly, surprising Joyce.
“Oh, right! Right! Priorities. Right.” Joyce said awkwardly before they instantly wrapped their arms around each other again as they looked back to Kayaba, their fear returning.
“Right now, you are probably wondering why. Why would Akihiko Kayaba, developer of Sword Art Online and NerveGear, do this? Ultimately, my goal was a simple one. The reason I created Sword Art Online was to control the fate of a world of my design.” Kayaba said.
“What the hell does he mean? That he could kill us all, just like that? Who’d want that?!” Akira exclaimed, pulling Joyce closer, Joyce not protesting once.
“As you can see, I have achieved my goal. This marks the end of the tutorial and the official launch of Sword Art Online. Players, I wish you the best of luck.” Kayaba said, before he began glitching and faded away, the sky returning to normal instantly after he was gone. Still in shock, Joyce didn’t notice Akira pulling her by the hand. She didn’t register all of the players shouting and shoving. She only started to recover when they were both sitting down in a field looking at the virtual sunset.
“…Akira?” Joyce asked, her voice cracking as tear began to appear in her eyes.
“…Yeah?” Akira asked in a quiet voice, clearly trying to hold back emotion.
“…Are… Are we gonna die?” Joyce asked desperately, her tears streaming down her face. Akira immediately embraced her, allowing her to sob.
“…I don’t know.” Akira’s answer increased Joyce’s sobbing. They remained in their spot for minutes on end, waiting for the tears to stop. When Joyce had no more tears to shed, she leaned back to look Akira in the eye.
“…If we’re gonna live through this… we’re gonna have to work together, okay? I’ve got experience with games like these. You can just stick with me, got it?” Joyce didn’t sound too confident, but one thing did fill her with genuine courage and reassurance of what she said. The moment she said those words, Akira’s eyes lit up, with or without his knowledge, showing his relief. He trusted her. She knew in that moment that he was glad that he could rely on her and that he trusted her. Even with his life, apparently.
“So… what’s first?” Akira asked, inexperienced of the layout of SAO.
“Well, in the panic, players might pick this place clean of all it’s worth. If we move on, we might be able to get some good items before anyone else.” Joyce said as she stood, Akira following suit.
“Alright. Shall we go… JoyJoy?” Akira asked teasingly with a smile. The smile was weak and didn’t have too much happiness behind it, but it was enough to get Joyce to return it in equal measure.
“We shall, Kirastar.” Joyce said, letting the tease slide as they began to head towards the next town.
Back in the real world, Akira’s and Joyce’s bodies were yet to be found. It was only a matter of time as law enforcement and paramedics were going door to door, searching for SAO victims. Until they came, the bodies remained undisturbed, lying next to each other.
And a single tear rolling down Joyce’s cheek.