Chapter 4:

Operation: Checkmate

Voyage of Dreams [Collab]


The bright scenery created by the karaoke-chess system darkened. Haruka stopped singing, looking around and then at Iori.Bookmark here

"W-What is this?" Iori asked nervously.Bookmark here

"Maybe the system glitched out. Let's re-start it!" Nio suggested. But it wouldn't be so easy. "Huh? The system won't restart?"Bookmark here

"Even worse." Haruka sighed. "It won't shut down either." Bookmark here

Were they... trapped here?Bookmark here

Yes.

It seemed that was the correct answer for said question, after all.

This is a world that could be regarded as augmented or digital from those who dwell in higher layers of reality, yet we must understand that all reality is subjective depending on perspective, right? This universe is real to us and so we can simply define it as "reality."

That is why, the situation they were in was purely abnormal according to what they were seeing. Even if it was pitch black due to the karaoke-chess system darkening, they could feel inside their hearts their surroundings had completely changed.

Leo's breath came out in uneven rags even if his heartbeats were excited for this surprising sudden scenario. He had always wanted to break his mundane activities. However, this special case for some reason made him uncertain. And, ironically, that uncertainty was exciting and terrifying.

"W-What are we going to do now?" Iori stuttered. "Will we be trapped in here f-forever?"

"Haruka, you rented the room for three hours, right?" Rio gulped.

"Yeah, that means that if the AI System doesn't realize this incident, we'll be trapped for three hours until time is up and we are asked to leave." Haruka sighed, trying to make out her surroundings.

"But what if... the system is down as a whole?" Leo couldn't believe what he just said. "Hence why we can't shut it down nor restart it... The AI's would be out of service as well...."

"Y-You mean..." Nio clasped both of her hands.

"We have to somehow find a way to reach a generator.. or... or something." Leo continued. "Let's do this together, as a team...! An adventure awaits us, even if it's just powering up this thing... it's a fight for survival!"Bookmark here

“Ah! Look up there!”

Everyone followed Iori’s call for attention and pointed their gazes up.

Something had appeared on the pitch-black sky.

Nio grabbed her chin with her thumb and index finger as her gaze studied their new visitor. “Did time just fly? I think it was around quarter to seven when we first got here.”

What loomed over the group were digital numbers that read, “02:54.” It didn’t paint a pretty picture for them either that the numbers were a bright neon red.

“No, I think that’s a timer.” Rio said after a quick analysis on the possibilities. “For some reason, it’s incomplete. It’s got the hours and the minutes, but it's missing the seconds.”

“In that case, we better start moving!” Leo jumped off the green cloud he and Rio were on and entered the walls of the maze. The girls on the red cloud followed suit after watching the boys and to everyone’s relief, they were all able to regroup at an intersection near the maze’s entrance.

Their progress to navigate the maze, however, was hindered early by a white bishop that was too tall to climb over and too wide to go around.Bookmark here

Standing close to it, Haruka opened a holographic window and scrolled it. It looked mostly the same as before, except…

“Death metal’s been crossed out!” she cried after tapping her finger at the genre a few times only for it to give no response.

The others huddled near her to get a closer look at the list.

“Try picking another one,” Iori suggested out of a desire to help her idol even if just a little bit.

“Hmm… It’s no use,” Haruka sighed when even the uncrossed genres refused to respond to her. “Maybe it’s because I already had a turn that I can’t do a thing for now.”

“Let me try then,” Leo stretched an arm and tapped the last genre Haruka tried to pick. He was unable to read what it was thanks to Haruka's hand partially covering the letters.

Haruka gasped when the genre lit up with a ping. “Leo, do you realize what you just picked?”Bookmark here

Leo grinned when he read the highlighted option. “Anime theme songs!”

“But you can’t pick the show it’s from,” Nio said.

Leo gave a thumbs up. “I know ‘em all! Alright team, let’s go!”

“We’re on one team now?!” Iori whined. “This game makes no sense!”

“Well, it glitched,” Rio explained. “And there are only 5 of us, so we gotta fudge the rules, anyway!”

“THAT’S BESIDES THE POINT!!!” Iori shrieked, steaming up her glasses.

Leo adjusted his earpiece microphone and stepped up to the tall, white bishop piece. With a cocky grin, he put up his fists.

“Show me ya moves!”

“Leo,” Haruka said, “you’re singing, not fighting…”

“Oh yeah. Sing me ya moves!”

The theme song for ‘Cthulhu Maids’ started as the lyrics scrolled on a holographic screen, but Leo closed his eyes, having memorized the words long ago. Such passion was behind his voice! He easily overpowered the electronic white bishop, filling the darkened maze with his blazing otaku melodies.

Too bad he was tone deaf.

After the song, everyone else uncovered their ears. The holographic screen read “LOSER”.

“Hmm,” Leo was puzzled, “it really is glitching.”

“That’s not why you lost,” Rio muttered. “So, the bishop should advance a square for winning.”

“There are no squares here…” Iori grunted.

“But,” Haruka said, looking around, “nothing’s happening.”

“You know,” Nio said seriously, “There’s a rumor about this place.” Everyone turned to the blonde girl. “I heard people have disappeared from here.”

“That urban legend?” Rio laughed. “No way!”

“It’s crazy, I know,” Nio said. “Everyone on this vessel is accounted for. People can’t go missing. But still…I’ve never heard of a glitch like this.”

Just then, ringing filled Leo’s ears and he felt dizzy. Missing people? Sounds right. A voice came from his Data Disc, which only he could hear, making his skin crawl.

“The direction I’m pointing is your next destination. Head over there.”Bookmark here

Leo could barely understand what it meant. He shook his head, thinking that whether or not his own Data Disc was alive, but then the voice disappeared, leaving him alone and distraught.

"What was that...?" Leo said to himself, looking at his Data Disc.

But before he could realize what just happened, the other people began to scream out.

"The timer is running out! Somebody go and sing another song!"

Haruka shouted as she pointed at the bright red neon timer going down in seconds, rousing up the group to get nervous.

"What happens if the timer runs out?" Iori said, looking back at Haruka for confirmation.

"I don't know... but I really don't like the sound of people disappearing..."

Haruka said, moving her finger to her lip in deep thought.

"Then I'll go!" Nio shouted, moving up over to the holographic screen.

As Nio scrolled down the list, a certain song made her eyes widened. The other people noticed this and asked."

"W-What's wrong?" Haruka asked.

"Ah... well... I can sing this song, but..."

Nio started to sweat, her finger scrolling the screen actually shaking. The Haruka then shouted.

"If you can sing this, then go for it! We don't have much time!"

"Ghh..." Nio groaned. "Alright! I will!"

Having no choice, Nio picked the song, her heart beating in wrecked nerves.Bookmark here

Nio didn't think she'd be performing this song in front of other people this soon, but the group's fate lay in her hands.

She's been practicing this particular song, Blue Lagoon, in her own time because she really likes it, but has been too nervous to actually sing it.

As the looming white bishop stood before her, Nio could feel her usual confidence being chipped away by what could only be described as stage fright.

Rio walks up to her and pats her on the back, noticing his cousin's nervousness.

"You're a good singer, Nio, don't worry. There's nothing to be nervous about!"

"Yes there is! I haven't performed this in front of other people yet, this is different...our lives may even depend on this!"

"I mean yeah sure, but you're going to have to perform to a live audience at some point, so why not now?"

Nio takes a deep breath to stop herself from shaking so much and sighs.

"...Fine.

She takes a gulp of air, eyes ablaze with determination, and begins to sing. It was beautiful. Rio knew she could sing, but not THIS well.

At the final note of the song, the towering white bishop's holographic screen displays "WINNER", and the disintegrated into blue lights and code.

As the path to the rest of the maze becomes clear, the group begins to advance. Nio's still a bit nervous from her performance, despite it being the best one yet.

"The direction I'm pointing is your next destination. Head over there."

Once again, Leo's data disk is pointing the wrong way and commanding him to follow it, so loudly this time, that the entire group heard it.

"Hey, I don't know! It's been saying this since we got here."

Haruka grabs Leo's disk from above his head and stuffs it in her pocket.

"It's probably just bugged out like the system we're trapped in. Ignore it"

Even so, Leo feels that his data disk might be onto something, and is now faced with a choice...

Will he follow his gut and deviate from the group, or ignore the sudden impulse and go with everyone else?Bookmark here

Leo bit his lip and looked behind him.

Damn, that Haruka again. Just when his gut told him to go backwards, she had to go and ruin it.

"Come on! Hurry!"

A girl's voice called him from the distance.

"Tsk. Coming!"

<<Brrrsssrrr>>

Just as soon as Leo started running towards his comrades, a loud vibration started to come from the ceiling.

!?

A white rook piece was falling?

"What the-"

However, Leo had no way to protect himself, all he could do was to run and try to evade that thing, somehow.

The boy noticed that if he tried to run where the rest were, there was at least 80% chance he would become a pancake.

It was a gamble.

Leo smiled to himself, and ran forwards.

All or nothing.

-

<<Crasshhh>>

A huge loud noise came from behind the kids. It made them automatically stop their tracks and look behind.

"Crap. Leo?!" The blond boy yelled out.

But, nothing could be seen. The clouds of dust were covering the entire area behind.

"My god..." Iori whispered. Leo was annoying, but he didn't deserve this.

Before the girl could say anything else, Haruka quickly pulled out her Data Disc.

"Enough is Enough!"

Soon, her disc begun glowing and the area around it started to become distorted.

It looked as if blocks of reality were being chipped away.

But, before the command was finished, a screen popped out in front of her.

It was time to challenge the Rook.Bookmark here

"Guess it's time for another song," Rio said, scratching his cheek.
“But what about Leo?” Haruka shouted.

“We can’t really do anything with this in the way,” Rio answered, moving up towards the rook. As soon as he did, a screen showed up, showing more list of songs for them to sing.

“Alright, who’s next?”

Once Rio asked that, everyone turned silent and turned to each other. After a moment, one hand moved upwards.

“I think it’s me,” Iori said.

“Then, you choose a song.”

Rio said as Iori moved up towards the screen, the plethora of songs in front of her making her head spin.

She could just pick a song and get it over with, but she had to be careful. Because after all, Haruka was watching.

(I can’t pick anything that would embarrass me! I gotta pick a good song!)

Iori dug through the list of songs, trying to choose the perfect one for her to sing. It took a couple of minutes, but she managed to find one.

“Here!”

Iori chose the song, and soon the music began to play. It was a love song, something that she grew fond of a while ago.

“Ooh, this is nice…”

As soon as Iori started to sing, the connection between her voice and the soothing melody of the song brought everyone’s ears to melt.

It was suffice to say, she chose the perfect one to show off.
As soon as the song was done, the rook moved forward, getting everyone on edge.

“I-Is Leo…?”

Nio asked, becoming more nervous as everyone watched what was Leo’s result.Bookmark here

As everyone waited, footsteps resounded for everyone to hear. Out of the smoke that the rook caused, the lone boy walked forward, a few bits of dust marring his face as everyone widened their smile.

“Leo!” Haruka shouted, waving her hand at her friend.

“Whoo,” Leo shouted, rubbing the back of his head. “Man that was a total miss. I’m actually glad that happened.”

“H-How on earth were you able to get away from getting squashed like a pancake?!” Nio shouted, extending her arms wide.

“Well, when I noticed it coming, I used my Data Disc to give myself a little boost. But I’m talking about enough boost that got me to barely squeeze by before the damn thing landed. I literally almost died!”

Leo kept heaving breaths, eventually bending over to put his hands on his knees to get some bit of air in.

“T-This place really is out to get us!” Nio shouted, moving her head over to the other side as panic started to sink in.

“But we managed to survive so far!” Haruka shouted, pumping her fist in front of her.

“But…” Rio interrupted. “What caused all this? Even if it was a bug, don’t you think things got a little bit too real here?”

Everyone turned silent the moment Rio admitted something wrong with their situation. Everyone turned to one another, sweat beginning to cascade down their skin even if the cold air permeated to them.

“Oh, come on!” Leo shouted, as if to dispel the worries. “If there is somebody out here trying to get us, then we’re going to kick his ass!”

“I never said that there was somebody here,” Rio said, a smile beginning to rise.

“Somebody, something, some-something! Who cares?! We’re going to survive, no matter what the fuck happens!”

The moment he said that, the expressions on everyone’s faces returned to their ordinary color, and something warmed reached their hearts.

It was corny, but it was just what they needed.

“Then, let’s keep moving forward,” Haruka said, beginning to get into the groove.Bookmark here

The group reached a crossroads. At one fork in the road, there was a knight, waiting imposingly for them. But at the other fork, there was the queen. Queens were the hardest pieces to beat, and you needed to score a near perfect in order to do so.

"All right, what do you want to do?" Leo said, turning back to his comrades. "Do we play it safe and take the knight, or do you want to challenge the queen?"

"I-I think we should take the knight on first," Iori said. "The queen's tough...it might be better if we have a warmup battle."

"But if we go for the queen, that's the last piece standing before we challenge the king, so..." Haruka said, staring off into the distance.

Leo felt something move in his pocket. He reached in to pick up his data disc. It was still talking to him, and attempting to move in the direction of the queen.

"The direction I'm pointing is your next destination. Head there," it said.

"We should listen to it. Let's go," Leo said, starting to walk towards the queen.

"I already told you! Whoever bugged this place probably bugged it as well," Haruka protested. "And...I don't want you to get into another trap or something," she said. "That was too close a call."

"Then it's settled? We'll challenge the queen?" Rio asked.

"I guess so...Lead the way," Haruka said, sighing.

They took the right fork and started walking towards the queen. The path seemed to stretch out for yards and yards. Above them, the timer was ticking down. Iori glanced up nervously at it.

"All right. What songs do we have left in our repertoire?" Leo said, as the group approached the queen. In the darkness twisted by who knows what, it seemed like it was ten feet tall. "Well...we've done anisongs, death metal, love ballads, and an ancient Japanese folk song..." Finally his finger crossed the one genre on the list that he knew he could nail. He held his data disc out to amplify the sound and took a deep breath as the system counted him in.

Five...Six...Seven...Eight…Bookmark here

"I can show you the world, shiny, shimmery, splendid..."

Leo's voice filled the room. It was soothing and immediately everyone felt at ease. Iori blushed as she remembered the first time she saw that old movie with her friends, but she knew that someone would need to join in because this song was a duet.

Nio, Iori and Haruka looked at each other, wondering which of them should take the mike and join Leo against his challenge against the queen. Leo was getting ready to finish his first verse, and as they did, Nio pushed Haruka gently on the back.

"Go on! You do it!" she whispered.

Haruka hesitantly stepped over to the microphone that Leo was holding, and without missing a beat, picked up the song at just the right place. "A whole new world, a dazzling place I never knew..." she sang. Her voice rang out throughout the room.

"They go really well together, don't they?" Rio chuckled to Iori and Nio. Iori felt a pang of jealousy at Haruka, seeing how well she was singing with Leo.

Finally, the score flashed on the queen's screen: They had scored a perfect. The queen's hologram dissolved, and the scene changed into a giant throne room. The room was floored with black and white squares and the decor on the walls was all chess themed.

Usually, the king would be set on a high pedestal, surrounded by velvet curtains, but instead of the king piece, there was something else.

It was a throne.

And there was a person sitting in it.

A woman. And she was not wearing the uniform that any of the children wore, or the uniforms that any of their teachers wore. Her clothing was completely alien to all of them, but Leo thought he recognized it as some sort of military uniform.

The woman smiled at the children. "Took you bloody long enough," she said. Her hair was long and neon green, and her eyes were bright yellow, like a cat's. The most striking part about her was the fact that she was extremely skinny.

"How did you like your little test, children?"Bookmark here

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