That night Tess could barely sleep. She kept seeing Li in her dreams. She just couldn’t figure out why he had been reassigned and what she had done wrong. It made her feel lonely knowing that the one person she had even slightly bonded with would be taken away from her only days before the competition. Maybe it didn’t matter. Maybe it wouldn’t make a difference.
Still, it all felt very sudden and unfair.
Tess’s alarm went off the next morning and she quickly showered and dressed in her blue jumpsuit. She had a bowl of cereal and then waited until someone came to fetch her. No one came until the afternoon.
When Dr. Tucker arrived, he was ready to get down to business. Not that Li hadn’t been that way, but Tess didn’t feel like she could talk to him at all. He was like a robot.
“Follow me, Tess,” Dr. Tucker said, standing at the door. He seemed careful not to take a step inside. “Hurry.”
“What are we doing?” Tess asked.
“No questions yet,” Dr. Tucker replied.
Tess nodded and shoved her hand into her jumpsuit pocket. She would have liked to argue with Dr. Tucker, but it just didn’t seem worth it. Besides, she was almost positive she’d be interested in anything he had to show her.
He waited until she walked passed him and then made sure the door was closed behind them. Tess followed him to the end of the long hallway until he turned to face her. He kept his hand behind his back.
“This is where all the player dorm rooms are located. Since you already know what they look like, I don’t think I need to explain this to you much further. You will be sleeping in your dorm for the majority of your time here. You will have more free time once Never World goes live, but for right now we like to keep you all isolated.”
Tess tested her luck again.
“How come I’ve never seen anyone?” She paused, trying to carefully plan her next question. “What are their schedules like? Are they doing this stuff in a different order?”
“You will not see any of your competitors until the day before the competition. We want to ensure that no one has an unfair advantage,” Dr. Tucker replied.
She nodded. It was clear that Dr. Tucker was not going to give her much more than the bare minimum.
When she didn’t say anything, Dr. Tucker motioned for her to follow him down the next hallway. He pointed to the game room, which she had been in the previous day with Li. The door was closed this time and Dr. Tucker made no attempt to take her inside.
“Are all the doors sound proof?” Tess asked.
Dr. Tucker ignored her question.
“As you know, this is the game room. You will be allowed to spend time here during designated practice hours. This will all depend on how long it takes to complete a level. It will all become clear once the competition begins.”
He took her to the gym, which she had been to, and explained the rules. Everything was very similar and seemed to depend on how long the levels would take. Tess wasn’t sure how much free time she would actually have based on what he was telling her. It was all still very unclear.
Finally, Dr. Tucker led her to the big cafeteria. She eyed the long tables and an electronic board that was secured to the wall across from them.
“That’s the scoreboard,” Dr. Tucker explained. “You’ll be able to see highlights from the previous level and who did what during the game.”
“We will all be eating together?”
“Not today, but soon,” he said. He clapped his hands together in an attempt to be cheerful, but it all felt forced. “I’ll give you a short break to sample some of our food. It’s pretty good.”
“Yes,” he said, raising an eyebrow. “Then we’ll continue our tour.”
Tess nodded and headed over to one of the conveyer belts. As she waited, Dr. Tucker left the room. Right after, a tray slid out and stopped directly in front of her. Even though this was how they were fed at the group home, the food already looked and smelled ten times better. She grabbed the tray and brought it over to the table farthest away from the locked door.
She couldn’t help but devour all the delicious food. It was better than anything she had ever tasted, which wasn’t saying much, but it still made her happier to be in the competition. When she was finished, she noticed some stray empty trays around the room. Obviously other players had been in the cafeteria to eat. A particularly messy tray, however, made her get closer to investigate.
The person who had eaten from that tray had clearly only been there a little while before her because she saw a fading print from the heat of their hand. From the size of it, it looked like a man’s. As she analyzed the area closer, there was something written out on the table. It looked like it was gravy.
Hope you made it.
Tess suppressed a smile. Somehow, she knew the message was for her. It sounded crazy, but it had to be Nate.
She was interrupted when someone reached around her to grab the empty tray. When she swung around she saw it was a cleaning lady holding a spray bottle filled with blue liquid.
“You done eating?” She asked.
“Yes, thank you.”
The cleaning lady eyed Tess when she saw the message.
“Do you mind not playing with your food next time?” Tess opened her mouth to explain, but the lady pointed toward the door. “Your programmer is waiting for you.”
She looked up and saw Dr. Tucker waiting for her. When she turned back the mess was already cleaned up and the handprint was gone. She hurried to follow Dr. Tucker back into the hallway.
“We have another training session today before you get your free time,” Dr. Tucker explained. “We’re going to head back to your room and I’m going to run your pod orientation. This is all very important, so please make sure you focus.”
Tess was unclear what gave Dr. Tucker the idea that she couldn’t focus, but she tried to brush his comment off. She hadn’t known Li very well, but she did know he had more confidence in her than her current programmer. It was becoming discouraging.
She followed him quickly back to her room and he closed the door behind them. Tess saw that her pod suit was lying on top of the pod. She held it out to look at it, but Dr. Tucker took it from her and placed it on the floor next to him.
“You won’t need to wear that until the competition begins. I will help you log into Never World the first time, but after that you’ll have to do it yourself,” he explained. “It’s not too hard.”
He hit a red button on the sleek black pod that took up most of the middle of the room. There was a hissing sound as the top half opened just enough for her to slide inside. She wondered if it had been calibrated for her size already.
Tess peered inside, but didn’t attempt to enter it. She saw a pair of googles on top of a smooth surface that looked like it was in the shape of her body. Dr. Tucker paid no attention to her as he opened up a small hatch near the red button and pressed some numbers on the inside panel. A soft blue light suddenly illuminated the pod.
“The suit will automatically connect you to the game once the pod is sealed. A low dose sleeping agent will put you out when you press this button on the inside,” Dr. Tucker said. He pointed to a blue button near the top, where her head would be. “After a while it will become easier to connect to the game and you won’t need the sleeping agent. Your body will have to become adjusted, which won’t take long.”
“What are the googles for?” Tess asked.
“Once inside the game, you’ll be able to access your menu. In the past we used to have to build big helmets in order to store all the information for virtual reality. Now we can get by with googles. The pod makes the game feel real…but you’ll see for yourself.” He laughed. “I can’t give away all our secrets.”
“Is it easy to use?”
“Yes,” Dr. Tucker said kneeling down next to her. “You put on your pod suit and googles, lay down inside, hit the pod close button, and turn on the sleeping agent. Once that fills that pod, you’ll have about ten seconds before it knocks you out.”
He pointed to another red button on the inside that would be next to her left hand.
“And that’s the pod close button?” Tess asked.
“Yes. You go it?” He asked.
“I think so.”
Dr. Tucker stood up and placed his hands on his hips, looking satisfied with himself.
“I’ll be here the first day, so there shouldn’t be a problem. If you ever need my help again, you can ask for me.”
“Got it,” Tess replied.
He headed to the door and held it open as he stared back at her. It seemed like he wanted to say something, but couldn’t find the words. He cleared his throat.
“Tomorrow will be a long day, so make sure you get some rest. You’ll be building your level and attending your interviews,” he explained. She stepped closer so she could see past him. She heard someone talking farther down the hallway. “As long as you—”
The talking got louder until it turned into shouting. A boy was being dragged past her door by two programmers. He looked tall and strong, with olive skin and dark black hair. She couldn’t quite see his face, but he was wearing an identical blue jump suit that meant he was a competitor.
“I’m done with your lies!” He shouted as they struggled to get him to his room. “I know what you’re up to! I know what this is all about!”
“You still want to win, don’t you?” One of the programmers shouted back.
Dr. Tucker looked at her, wide eyed. “Get inside.”
He grabbed her by the shoulder and shoved her back, letting the door slam shut. She placed her ear against the door to see if she could hear anything, but there was nothing.
Something about the fight both startled and energized her at the same time. On one hand, she knew there were actually other people going through the same thing she was. On the other hand, it meant there was something strange going on with Never World.
Whatever the case, she knew she’d have to find out more and she knew there was someone else willing to find out more.