Subtilizer (The One Who Steals Souls)
Translation of Sword Art Online’s volume 15, chapter 14.
June ~ July AD 2026
A sniper with light blue hair.
The slender frame of the girl formed a strange harmony with the gigantic fifty caliber rifle.
I could not see her face as she laid in the prone position with her back to me. However, it must be as imposing as a lynx, adorned with beautiful features.
Her concentration was worthy of praise, aiming below without the slightest quiver, her right eye pressed against the scope and her index finger touching the trigger. I would love to continue gazing upon her from behind for a little more, but I had little time left too.
Leaving my concealed shelter, I began walking across the ruined building’s floor. Cautiously avoiding the pebbles, wood chips, and metal scraps, those small objects scattered about my feet, I drew near the girl’s back in perfect silence.
The girl’s back abruptly jerked.
Did she sense something that made neither noise nor vibration? That intuition was marvelous, but unfortunately, it was too late.
My extended right arm twisted around her slender neck as my left hand pinned her head down from the back.
They constricted her with quiet yet clear intent.
The «Army Combative» skill showed its results; the girl’s visible life–her HP bar–began falling rapidly. The sniper squirmed desperately, but in this VRMMO game, «Gun Gale Online», it was near impossible to escape from a successful rear choke, while barehanded without a significant difference in STR. That was no different from the real world, however.
I had predicted that this sniper with light blue hair, whom I had most looked forward to fighting… no, hunting down among the twenty-nine participants of this tournament named «Bullet of Bullets», would try sniping from above in this five-story building.
The problem was, the main street on this map was within range from both the fourth and fifth floors. I needed to swiftly decide which floor to ambush her on.
Logically, she would choose the fourth floor where she could prepare to snipe quicker. However, my intuition and judgement whispered to me the moment I saw the library on the fourth floor. My intuition told me that sniper was likely still a young student in the real world. My judgement told me a student might avoid a library that would bring up memories of real life.
That prediction was spot-on. The sniper with light blue hair wasted tens of seconds needlessly ascending that one floor and showed herself on the fifth floor’s warehouse.
And now, her transient life would dissolve like that of a butterfly that went astray into a spider’s web.
Aah, if only this was not a mere reduction of binary data in the virtual world, but the deprivation of an actual life and soul.
If only it was a live body squirming in my arm instead of an avatar.
«That moment» would truly be ever so sweet.
The sniper’s HP shown at the top-right of my vision cut through the five percent mark. But the girl continued struggling in desperation to escape from the choke.
Even as her enemy, I felt her stance precious, trying her best despite her certain defeat, neither letting out useless utterances nor turning limp in resignation.
While I embraced the girl tight, like a loved one, my mouth drew closer to her ear from behind and whispered.
–Your soul will be so sweet.
He slowly raised his eyelids.
It seemed he had fallen asleep unaware. The sofa of Italian make he brought in last week was apparently too soft. With his body still engulfed in the supple leather, he glanced at the smartwatch on his left wrist.
Getting up, he gently straightened up his back while walking closer to the glass wall in the south. As its entire surface was switchable glass and presently transparent, it permitted an unbroken view of the waterfront from this executive room on the forty-third floor.
The harbor quietly glittered in the illumination from the neighboring skyscrapers. Numerous large ships were moored at the long wharf.
These intimidating silhouettes with their sharp edges were not of luxurious cruisers. They were the warships of the Third Fleet under the United States Pacific Fleet.
San Diego, California’s second city, had long been its base. The economy circled around the gigantic naval base where over twenty-five thousand affiliated to the military resided.
However, new industry sectors experienced a boom in recent years. High-tech industries dealing with information, communication, bio-technology, and such.
And there were those corporations who fused military affairs with high technology as well. Primarily entrusted with security services and training by the military, large companies, and other related sectors, these so-called private military companies even deploy manpower to fight directly on the front lines.
Gabriel Miller, the chief technology officer of «Glowgen Defense Systems» that had its headquarters in Downtown San Diego, gazed down upon the port’s night view and revealed an unconscious smile.
The dream he saw in his short nap earlier was invigorating, however slight.
A dream of a full-dive game’s event that he had participated in days ago in this executive room.
Gabriel rarely dreamed, but whenever he did, it would be a detailed recount of some scene in his past.
The exhilarating sensations of that light blue haired sniper’s desperate struggle still remained in his arms. As if it was no dream, but reality…
No, that was off. That battle happened not in reality, but in the virtual world.
Full-dive technology was a marvelous invention. Praises to its inventor, Akihiko Kayaba. He would have been headhunted if he was still alive, even if it took millions of dollars. Even if he was the worst criminal of the century—no, precisely because he was such a person.
However, while the experiences brought about by the AmuSphere became increasingly lifelike, the inadequacy felt from the realization that they were fake became all that stronger. Like how one’s thirst could not be satiated with salt water, no matter how much one drank.
As the youngest among Glowgen DS’s staff and a major stockholder, Gabriel led his life without worries over his material needs. However, money could not fulfill that craving he held deep in his heart.
“…Your soul will be so sweet…”
He voiced out the words uttered in his dreams once more.
He wanted to whisper that in Japanese which he had been studying since three years ago. But they must have thought him American with that US tag on his HP bar and he had to avoid leaving them an impression stronger than necessary. There would be opportunities to speak at length eventually. He would leave his many questions for then.
Wiping off the faint smile that emerged on his lips without his notice, Gabriel touched the various touch sensors embedded on the window and increased its opacity. Upon which the darkened glass projected himself.
His loose, blonde hair was swept back, with his eyes blue. His 6 feet, 1 inch body was covered by a white dress shirt and dark grey slacks. His shoes were cordovan, custom-made. It was almost the very image of the white establishment, embarrassingly enough, but Gabriel saw no more reason for his appearance than a means for others to identify him. At the end of the day, the flesh is nothing more than a hull for the soul.
Almost all religions adopted some notion of the soul. Of course, Christianity advocated that the soul would be sent to heaven or hell upon death dependent on one’s actions in life. However, it was neither due to Protestantism nor Catholicism that Gabriel believed in the existence of the soul and sought it out.
It was a fact. One personally witnessed, visually.
That cluster of light, beautiful beyond compare, soaring from the girl’s forehead the moment she met her demise in his arms.
Gabriel Miller was born in the district of Pacific Palisades in the suburbs of Los Angeles, California, in March, 1998.
He had no siblings and he grew up engulfed in love from his affluent parents, both emotionally and financially. The mansion he lived in was grand and there was no end to his playgrounds, but what the young Gabriel loved most was his father’s collection storage.
His father, the owner and manager of Glowgen Securities, the predecessor of Glowgen Defense Systems, had the hobby of collecting insect specimens and countless glass cases lined the vast storage. Gabriel would seclude himself in there when he found time, viewing the multicolored insects with a magnifying glass in a hand and immersing himself in absentminded fantasies as he sat on the sofa in the middle of the room.
Curious, deep emotions assailed the young Gabriel at times when he was alone in that dim room with its high ceiling, surrounded by tens of thousands of mute insects.
Every one of these insects lived up until a certain moment. In the grasslands of Africa, the deserts of the Middle East, the jungles of South America, they energetically made their nests and hunted for food.
However, they were caught by a harvester at some point, treated with chemicals, and exchanged hands numerous times through commerce before neatly arranged in these glass cases at the Millers. In other words, while this room was a collection room of insect specimens, it was also a gigantic cemetery filled with tens of thousands of massacred corpses…
Gabriel lowered his eyelids and imagined what would happen if the insects around suddenly came back to life.
Their six legs would desperately scrape the air, their haptic perception and wings quivering. The myriad buzzes overlapping and surging towards Gabriel as parched ripples.
His eyelids flashed open. The legs of the green rhinoceros beetle fixed in the corner of the case before him seemed to move; he leapt off the sofa. He rushed over to the case, absorbed in the sight, but the insect was a lifeless specimen once more by the time he reached.
Its carapace, legs with sharp thorns growing over them, and compound eyes that resembled a miniscule mesh were emerald green and as glossy as metal. Gabriel pondered on exactly what once powered that delicate body, granting it mobility.
His father told him that insects lacked a brain like that of humans. He asked, how did they think then, and his father showed him a certain video.
It captured praying mantises in the act of mating. The small male had held down the plump female from her back, their reproductive organs joined. The female remained motionless for a moment, but then abruptly grasped the male’s upper body with her two scythes, crunched down on his head, and began feeding without any prior warning. The male persisted in his mating even while Gabriel watched on in shock, finally withdrawing his reproductive organ once his head had been utterly devoured. The female then shook her scythes and fled at once, as fast as she could.
Despite the complete lack of its head, the male praying mantis walked along the grass blade, up a branch, and mechanically continued its escape. His father spoke while pointing at the clip.
The nerves spread over the entire bodies of insects, including praying mantises, served a purpose similar to a brain. Hence, they could live for some time even after they lost their head which was no more than a sensory organ.
Gabriel spent the several days after he watched that video wondering exactly where praying mantises had their souls then. If they could live on even with their heads eaten, losing all of their legs should be of no particular issue. Then perhaps their abdomen? Or their chest? But even with their soft abdomen crushed or their chests pierced through by a pin, insects would continue struggling for a time, their legs squirming vigorously.
If they did not die immediately no matter which part of their body they lost, could it be that the praying mantis’s soul was faintly spread out through its entire body? Eight or nine years old then, Gabriel concluded so after numerous experiments conducted on the insects he caught around his home.
The soul, that mysterious power that moved these partially mechanical beings known as insects, stubbornly remained within them no matter which part of their body was demolished. But it would consider it a lost cause and surrender after a certain point, deserting its vessel.
Gabriel fervently desired to see that fleeing soul, and to capture it if possible. However, he couldn’t even see «that something» slipping out from the insects’ bodies, let alone capture it, no matter how hard he stared into the magnifying glass, no matter how carefully he carried out his experiments. His modest wish showed no results even after spending much time and zeal in the secret laboratory he made deep in the dense forest behind his mansion.
The young Gabriel instinctively knew his wish would not be agreeable to his parents. That was why he made no further questions in a similar vein to his father after that one praying mantis incident and made sure to divulge nothing about his experiments. But his desires seemed to heighten with his attempts to keep them under wrap.
Gabriel had a friend of the same age with whom he was on extremely good terms back then.
The girl was named Alicia Klingerman and the only daughter of the entrepreneurs living in the mansion erected on the adjacent plot of land. They attended the same elementary school and got along well, as did their families. She was shy and obedient, preferring to read books or watch videos at home than to play until muddy outside.
Naturally, Gabriel hid his secret experiments from Alicia and spoke nothing of insects and souls.
Nevertheless, he couldn’t stop thinking about it. Gabriel’s imagination pondered, time after time, where Alicia’s soul could be as he quietly peered into her face from the side while she smiled like an angel, absorbed in reading her novels.
Insects were different from humans. Humans could not live on without their heads. Thus, a human’s soul should be in their head… in their brain.
But Gabriel had already learnt that brain damage did not lead directly to loss of life via the internet on his father’s computer. There was a construction laborer who survived with a thick iron pipe piercing in from the chin and out the head; there was a doctor who tried to cure mental illness by ablating a portion of a patient’s brain.
So, was it somewhere in the brain? Gabriel wondered so as he looked at Alicia’s brow, fringed by her fluffy blonde hair. Alicia’s soul lay hidden beyond that smooth skin, beyond that hard skull, and beyond even those soft brain tissues.
He would definitely end up marrying Alicia, or so the Gabriel childishly envisioned. Then he might get the chance to see Alicia’s soul with his own eyes one day. Words couldn’t possibly describe how beautiful the soul of the angelic Alicia was.
Half of Gabriel’s wish was granted, sooner than he ever expected.
In September 2008, widespread bank failures pulled the trigger to the Global Financial Crisis.
The waves of recession swallowed even Pacific Palisades on the suburbs of Los Angeles. A great number of stately mansions were offered for sale and the number of high class automobiles driving down the streets visibly fell.
It was fortunate Glowgen Securities had solid administration and managed to restrain the effects to a minimum, but the corporation managed by the neighbors, the Klingermans, fell under heavy debt as their investments were in real estate. With their fortunes, including the mansion, gone by April the next year, they decided to depend on their kin who worked in agriculture and move to Kansas City far in the Midwest.
It saddened Gabriel. Intelligent beyond his years as a child aged ten, he understood he could not help Alicia as a ten-year-old child and could clearly imagine what severe circumstances she would face from now on.
A mansion guarded by flawless security, a skilled cook to prepare each day’s meals, and a school filled with affluent white children; these privileges would vanish from Alicia’s life forever, replaced by poverty and manual labor. And what Gabriel couldn’t stand most, was how Alicia’s soul, which should have been his one day, would be hurt by some unknown person and lose its brilliance.
So, he thought to kill her.
On the day Alicia said her farewells at school, Gabriel invited her to the forest behind his home after she got off the school bus home. Deftly dodging every security camera set up along the road and fences, he ensured no one was looking while he entered the forest and walked over fallen leaves to avoid leaving any tracks, guiding Alicia to his «secret laboratory» surrounded by thick scrubs.
Utterly unaware of the countless insects that had died there, Alicia immediately returned the gesture when Gabriel wrapped his arms around her slender form. With soft sobs, Alicia mentioned how she didn’t want to go anywhere else, how she wanted to live on in this district with Gabe forever.
Whispering that he would grant her that wish in his heart, Gabriel stuck his right hand into his shirt pocket and took out the tool he prepared in advance. What his father had used to deal with the insects: a four inch needle made from steel with a wooden grip.
Gently inserting the sharp point into Alicia’s left ear, he first held her right ear with his left hand before penetrating through to its base without the slightest hesitation.
Alicia blinked her two eyes, not comprehending what had happened, before her body underwent violent convulsions. Her open blue eyes abruptly lost their focus seconds later, and—
Gabriel saw that.
Something like a small cloud, glittering brightly, appeared from the middle of Alicia’s smooth forehead. That drifted, airily, as it approached Gabriel’s brow and entered, just like that, without any resistance whatsoever.
The fine sunlight of that spring afternoon that had engulfed his surroundings disappeared. It seemed as though rays of white light had descended through the branches of those tall trees; he could hear even faint chimes.
Tears poured from Gabriel’s eyes from the inexpressible exaltation. He was now looking upon Alicia’s soul… that was not all, he could see even what Alicia’s soul could, that was what Gabriel’s instincts told him.
The small, glittering cloud passed through Gabriel’s head in several seconds that felt like an eternity and continued on its ascent, as though guided by the light from the skies, before vanishing at last. The spring sunshine and the chirps from small birds returned to his surroundings.
Hugging onto Alicia’s body, with both its life and soul now absent, Gabriel pondered on whether that earlier experience was reality or a hallucination brought about by overwhelming stimulation. And knew that no matter which it was, he would spend the rest of his life in pursuit of what he had just seen.
He threw Alicia’s corpse into a deep pit that opened up at the roots of a giant oak spotted earlier. Next, after a careful inspection of his own body, he pinched up two strands of blonde hair stuck on himself and tossed those into the hole as well. The needle was washed clean before returned to his father’s toolbox.
Not even the local police’s earnest investigation found any clue to the Alicia Klingerman Disappearance Incident and the case eventually went cold.
Having awoken from his short and deep recollection, the twenty-eight years old Gabriel Miller took his sight off himself, reflected in the mirrored glass, and walked to his work desk by the wall in the west. The moment he sat on reclining chair made in Norway, a phone icon lit up on the thirty inch display panel embedded on the desk’s glass surface.
With a tap, it showed his female secretary’s face while her voice flowed out.
[Mister Miller, I apologize for disturbing your rest. COO Ferguson had requested for you to accompany him for dinner tomorrow. How shall I reply?]
“Tell him I have prior plans.”
Gabriel immediately replied and his usually collected secretary showed a somewhat troubled expression. The COO was the executive vice-president after all, the second-in-command at Glowgen DS. As one among the over ten officers, Gabriel could hardly afford to turn down this invitation for a meal—normally.
However, his secretary’s bewildered expression vanished before a second passed and her calm voice continued.
[Understood. I will do as you say.]
The call ended, and Gabriel sank deep into the chair with his legs crossed.
He could guess at what Ferguson wanted. It must have been to stop Gabriel from participating in that particular «operation» he had already scheduled.
But the COO must think otherwise inside. That old fox must be wishing for him to nonchalantly set off to some dangerous place to earn a spot on the KIA list. After all, Gabriel was the previous president’s own child and the majority shareholder.
Of course, Gabriel himself was aware of how foolish it would be for an officer to participate in an operation where live bullets flew about. Even if he did have prior experience, a CTO’s job was to plan out the entire operation from the safety of the main office without any need to expose himself to the dangers of the battlefield.
However, no matter the costs, he had to participate in this operation that had to be kept under complete and utter secrecy. After all, it was an issue related to what Gabriel had staked his life to seek out ever since that day he saw Alicia’s soul.
The operation’s client was not the Department of Defense regardless how they would benefit. It was the National Security Agency—the NSA—with whom they had few prior dealings with.
The two NSA agents who visited this room a month ago managed to surprise Gabriel, who could hardly claim to be emotional, numerous times.
Firstly, the operation was completely unlawful. After all, a combat team from Glowgen would board a navy submarine and launch an assault on a warship belonging to Japan, an allied nation. There was no need to concern themselves over any fatal casualties of that ship’s crew either.
And the objective of the operation was to steal a certain technology.
Upon hearing the details, Gabriel’s voice leaked out slightly, overwhelmed by surprise—or perhaps delight. It was fortunate the agents did not notice, however.
«Soul TransLation technology». A wondrous machine capable of deciphering humans’ souls developed by a small organization called «Rath» in the JSDF.
Gabriel had held a strong interest in the full-dive technology born in Japan for some time now in his pursuit of souls. That was why he fought with the players from Japan in Gun Gale Online and studied Japanese. He even obtained a set of the «demonic device», the Nerve Gear, that should have been disposed of without a single one remaining by spending several tens of thousands of dollars—of course, he didn’t intend to use it himself, however.
Gabriel expected development on full-dive technology to wane due to the commotion caused by that death game. However, they had quietly continued their research and finally drew near the secrets of the human soul.
The request from NSA felt like destiny to Gabriel.
Glowgen DS might be one of the larger private military companies around, but that was all they were; they could hardly decline the NSA who now held even more power than the CIA in the first place. The vote for the contract was passed with a lead of two in the emergency board meeting. To prevent information from leaking, it was decided that the combat team would consist of contract employees specializing in wet work with their own dark histories to cover up—
Gabriel volunteered himself as the operation commander.
Naturally, the fact that Gabriel was an officer in Glowgen was hidden from the combat team. Those people would likely betray the company at the drop of a hat if they knew, abducting Gabriel for a ransom.
Gabriel had to go even with such risks.
The NSA agents mentioned. That Rath had succeeded in not just deciphering the human soul, but also cloning it through STL technology. That if that artificial soul given the codename «A.L.I.C.E.» was completed and loaded onto Japanese unmanned weapons, it would destroy the military balance in East Asia.
He didn’t care if disputes arose in the Far East—or anywhere else in the world. But Gabriel was convinced the moment he heard the name Alice.
He would make that his own.
He would procure that small media storage device, known as the light cube, with that soul on board at all costs.
Leaning against the chair with its back down, he softly murmured the two names. A faint smile appeared on his lips without his notice.
The name of the company established by Gabriel’s father, Glowgen, was coined together with the meaning of «bringing forth light». It seemed his father had the light of happiness in mind, but what came to mind for Gabriel, his successor, was no other than that golden brilliance drifting out from the dying Alicia’s brow.
Bringing forth light. Or the soul, in other words.
It was fate, all of it.
Gabriel and the eleven in the combat team would fly to Guam a week later and invade Japanese waters on a nuclear submarine from a naval base there. Before the operation began, they would switch to a small submarine onboard and carry out an assault on the objective, the giant ocean research mother ship, «Ocean Turtle».
They might occupy it without shedding blood, or with casualties resulting on either side—or perhaps both, even. Still, Gabriel’s beliefs were unshaken. He knew he would get his hands on «Alice» and the STL technology. He just needed a simple copy of the light cube and documents from the NSA.
A little longer… it was just a little longer. He would grasp the true essence of the soul that eluded him despite his multiple experiments on other humans, since Alicia, in just a little longer.
He would be able to see that beautiful, gleaming cloud once again.
“……Your soul… will be so sweet……”
Gabriel whispered once more, this time in Japanese, and shut his eyelids.
Captain Dario Giuliani who commanded the Seawolf-class nuclear submarine, Jimmy Carter, was a submariner down to his bones, rising to his current position from cleaning the torpedo tubes. The first he rode was an antique Barbel-class diesel vessel where the stench of oil and noise followed along no matter where one went in her stiflingly cramp space.
In comparison, the Seawolf-class that cost more than any other submarine in the world was practically a Rolls-Royce. Giuliani had showered the ship and her crew with love ever since he was appointed as her captain in 2020. Through tough training, the high yield strength steel hull, her S6W reactor, and the hundred and forty crew members were bonded like a single being, capable of swimming as she liked in any ocean as long as it had the depth.
Jimmy Carter was practically Giuliani’s daughter. It was a pity he had to step down from active duty soon, forced to either work on land or an early retirement, but the successor he recommended, the executive officer, Guthrie, would definitely command the ship brilliantly.
As though to disgrace Giuliani’s last years, a single, curiously perilous order was handed down a mere ten days ago.
Jimmy Carter was a ship planned for support on special operations and possessed a variety of methods to cooperate with the SEALs. The
There were countless times she cruised deep in foreign waters with those from the SEALs aboard. But the objective was always for keeping the peace of the states or the world and those men on board definitely felt the same sense of duty as Giuliani’s subordinates as they went into the jaws of death.
However, as for that bunch who boarded from Guam two days ago—
Giuliani went to see the faces of his guests at the rear section only once, but that was enough for him to get on the verge of ordering his subordinates to kick them out into the deep sea. The tens of men lay down on the floor without any sense of order, some blared noise from their headphones while others made merry, gambling over card games; not to mention the empty cans of beer scattered everywhere. There were no proper seamen in that bunch. It was doubtful they were even from the military.
There was only one who seemed to have some notion of courtesy, that tall commanding officer who apologized to Giuliani for their disturbance in order.
However, that man with those shockingly blue eyes—
While holding the right hand he offered and meeting his eyes, Giuliani tasted a sensation he had forgotten for a long time.
That was from, yes, long before he entered the navy. He was swimming in the ocean at Miami, his homeland, when a giant great white raced straight past his side. He was fortunately unharmed, but Giuliani saw that shark’s eyes right before him. Those eyes devoured all light like a bottomless pit.
That same hollowness extended out deep within that man’s eyes…
“Captain, a reading from the bow sonar!”
The sudden noise from the sonar technician pulled Giuliani out from his thoughts.
“It’s the turbine from a reactor, we’re matching now… it matches, it’s definitely the target mega-float. Fifteen miles.”
Bringing his mind back, he quickly gave instructions from the combat command post, the captain’s seat.
“Right, keep this depth and drop her speed to fifteen knots.”
The order was echoed and he felt an instant of deceleration.
“Where’s that Aegis-equipped escort ship?”
“There’s a gas turbine sound confirmed three miles west-southwest of the target… matching done, it’s the JMSDF’s Nagato.
Giuliani stared hard at the two light points shown on the large display in front.
Putting aside from the Aegis-equipped warship, he heard the mega-float was an oceanic research ship without any arms. And the order this time was to let those armed thugs invade that. Not to mention how it was a ship from Japan, an allied nation. It hardly seemed like a legitimate operation with the approval of the President and Secretary of Defense.
The words from those men in black suits who brought the directive directly from the Pentagon resurfaced in Giuliani’s mind.
—Japan is conducting research on that mega-float for reigniting war on the states. There is no choice but to bury that research in order to maintain the friendship between our two countries.
Giuliani was no youngling capable of eating up their words at face value.
Still, he was already old enough to understand he had no choice but to obey those orders.
“Are our guests prepared?”
The executive officer standing at his side confirmed in a deep voice.
“They are standing by in the ASDS.”
“Alright… maintain this speed and bring her up to a hundred feet!”
Compressed air pushed the ocean water out from the ballast tank and the produced buoyancy lifted Jimmy Carter’s gigantic frame. The distance from the light points gently yet surely decreased.
Would there be casualties among the Japanese researchers? That seemed likely. He would probably carry the memory of cooperating in such an operation until his deathbed.
“Five miles to the objective!”
Shaking off his hesitation, Giuliani commanded with resolution.
“Release the ASDS!”
The faint vibrations his body felt conveyed the release of their baggage from the afterdeck.
“Release complete… ASDS self-propulsion initiated.”
The submarine with a pack of stray dogs and a single shark aboard accelerated in the blink of an eye and charged straight into the belly of that giant ocean turtle floating atop the ocean.
- Translation – Tap