A blaring alarm burst into Tess’s dreams, jolting her awake. She tried to remember what her dream or nightmare had been because she remembered it involving The Dark Hand, but she came up short. The words that he had spoken to her lingered in her mind as she searched for the source of the sound.
It stopped soon after and a voice came over the loudspeaker in her room that she didn’t even know she had. It was the same voice as in the simulation.
“You have one hour before Dr. Young will come and bring you to our testing room. Make sure you eat a full breakfast, as to not distract you during the simulations. You will find your blue jump suit in the bathroom. Please wear it at all times outside of the game.”
Tess waited for more, but there was silence.
After fixing up her sleeping area, she headed to the kitchen and found a box of cereal in the cabinets. The fridge was fully stocked with milk and other beverages, so she sat down at the kitchen table and ate breakfast. After she finished eating, she headed to the bathroom to find her jump suit.
It was blue, like the voice had said, but after she put it on she noticed that her name was stitched over the right pocket. She also noticed that the right sleeve was shorter than the left and she could button it closed. After taking a moment to decide, she snapped the buttons closed.
As she brushed out her hair, she tried to avoid her reflection in the mirror.
Li entered a room about a half hour later and brought her into a new simulation room. He called it the practice room, but it looked like the nicest, most advanced game room Tess had ever been in. It was filled with intense-looking game pods that Tess was eager to try. In the middle of the room, however, there was a big machine that looked like one she had been in when she was in the hospital after her accident.
“Is that a scanner?” Tess asked, as Dr. Young accessed the screen on the side of it.
“We just need to check for any abnormalities. It will also take your measurements, so our game developers can build your pod suit. The pod suit will be able to track you in the game and make sure your vital signs are where they’re supposed to be,” he explained. He turned to her and put his hands behind his back. “It will only take a moment.”
Tess took a deep breath and let Dr. Young help her into the device. If she was claustrophobic at all, she probably wouldn’t have been able to handle it. As Li moved to the side of the scanner to adjust it, she thought about whether or not anyone else had been inside it before her. She thought about Nate and if he had ever decided to come.
“Please stay perfectly still until I tell you otherwise,” Li said, in a gentle voice. “If it’ll make you feel more comfortable, you can close your eyes.”
“Okay,” Tess replied with a hollow voice.
She didn’t take Dr. Young’s advice and watched the red light scan over her entire body while staying as still as possible. He was right. It didn’t take long at all. After about five minutes, he slid her out and loomed over her.
“Not too bad, right?” He asked.
Tess agreed as he helped her down. She waited patiently while he checked the screen on the scanner.
“Well,” Li said. He clapped his hands together and smiled. “Are you ready to get to the fun part?”
This time Dr. Young didn’t bring her back to the room with the dentist chair. Instead he led her over to one of the game pods she was used to operating back home. She slid into the seat of the enclosed black cube and waited for the screen in front of her to boot up. Li knelt down next to her and kept his eyes on the screen until a prompt popped up.
Do you want to begin character creation?
Tess eyed Li, but he kept looking ahead. When she reached to hit one of the buttons to continue she realized there weren’t any.
“This will respond to your voice, so you’ll have to talk to it. I’ll leave you to it.”
“Wait,” Tess called. Li turned back to her. “What are the rules?”
“The system will let you know,” he replied. He looked at her one more time before leaving her alone. The lights in the room dimmed.
Tess sighed. “Let’s get started then.”
The system responded immediately and brought her to the next screen. She saw herself, the way she was dressed now in her jumpsuit.
She heard the same voice from the simulation the day before.
“We will begin with appearance,” the voice said. Tess watched as her avatar was stripped of its clothes, except for underwear. “What would you like to do?”
Tess shifted in her seat.
“What would you like to wear in the game? Remember, whatever you choose will feel real, so try to pick lightweight materials. Also, for some levels we will change your attire for you depending on the conditions.”
Tess quickly remembered the kids she had seen on the beach growing up; the surfers that walked around in their wetsuits all day.
“A wetsuit…except more flexible. Not as stiff. All black.”
Tess watched as the outfit appeared on her avatar, which zipped all the way up to her neck. It fit nicely and she could watch herself bend and stretch in it.
“Good choice, Tess. What else?”
“Brown boots. Ones that will be good for the outdoors.”
Her avatar changed again, this time equipped with boots that laced up to her shins. She watched her avatar jog in place. She looked her missing hand, but quickly focused on something else.
“I want my hair to be blue,” Tess said, with a grin. “Is that a good idea?”
“It might make you stick out a bit,” the voice replied.
Her avatar’s hair turned blue, a dark blue that reminded her of the ocean. The same color as the flashing lights on the games inside the bars.
“I’ll keep it.”
“And your scar?” The voice asked.
Tess stared at herself for a moment. She hadn’t thought about changing it, especially since it would do nothing to help her odds. After a long pause, she shook her head.
“Keep it,” Tess said.
Another prompt opened next to her avatar. It was a touch screen list she could scroll through.
“You have 50 points to choose your powers for the game. It’s all up to you, so choose wisely.”
Tess used her finger to scan through the list, passing by enticing powers like brief invisibility and the ability to hover five feet off the ground, until she found something that interested her.
“What does this mean?” Tess asked. “Odds calculator?”
It was only 20 points.
“This will let you know your odds of success and failure. If you decide to take a particular course of action, the odds calculator will let you know the percentage of it working out. It will let you know your odds.”
“Has anyone chosen this?”
“I cannot tell you what the other players have done during their character design.”
Tess thought it would a good advantage to have, especially when she was sure the other participants would pick more physical powers. It might help her out more than anything else and she’d still have 30 points left.
“I’ll take it,” Tess said.
She kept scrolling through the list until she found something that read ’Super body strength.’
The voice spoke when she stopped scrolling.
“You can give yourself super human strength, which won’t be that strong, or you can concentrate it on one part of your body. I was hoping you would choose this.”
“Why?” Tess asked.
“You can use it on your hand.”
Tess watched as her avatar returned with both working hands, except her right hand that had been previously missing, was now made of thick metal. It looked like a big powerful glove had been bolted to her.
“Show me what it does.”
Her avatar slammed its metal hand into the floor, completely cracking it down the middle. It stood back up and waved at her with it. Then an apple was thrown at it and her avatar caught it gracefully and then took a bite.
“Not only will you have super strength in your hand, but you’ll also be able to use it like a normal hand. It will be able to delicately pick up items and hold them without crushing them.” The voice paused. “What do you think?”
“Yes,” Tess said, barely containing herself. “I want to keep it.”
“It’s 20 points. Do you want to find something else for ten points?”
“What else is there?”
“There isn’t much for 10 points, but I would suggest using them for building a spawning pack. You can choose three items from this list that will spawn near you at the beginning of a level.”
Tess nodded and scrolled through the new list. There were only five items; a pocket knife, matches, a flashlight, twine, and binoculars. Tess picked the pocket knife, binoculars, and flashlight.
“That’s all your points, Tess. Let me know if you approve.”
Tess looked over her avatar and watched as it walked around for her. It was strange seeing herself this way, but she felt confident in her choices. She was getting excited to compete.
“I approve,” Tess said.
Once she spoke those words, the machine powered itself down and the screen went black.
Tess felt her heartbeat quicken as she tried to imagine what the game would be like. Her excitement faded when Li helped her out of the game pod. His expression was serious as he pointed to the open door across the room.
“The Creator wants to see you now.”