Just as Tess was thinking about getting ready for bed, there was a single knock at her door. She couldn’t do anything considering she had no way to unlock it for a visitor, so she knocked back.
A moment later, Dr. Young stepped through the door and quickly closed it behind her. Tess gaped at him, unsure of what do say.
“I can leave if you want me to,” he started. “I think you’ll want to hear what I have to say.”
She stepped back toward the kitchen counter.
“Where did you go?” She asked. “Did you want to be reassigned?”
“No…no of course not,” Dr. Young said, looking down. “But I still want to help you. I want to make sure you’re getting a fair chance.”
“You don’t think Dr. Tucker is giving me a fair chance?”
“I didn’t say that—”
“Because I don’t,” Tess interrupted.
Li smiled and motioned toward the pod.
“I can’t tell you the specifics, but I would like to keep training you as long as I can. I’ll make sure no one knows about it.”
Tess followed him to the pod as he started to open it. He lifted the side panel and started inputting some numbers.
“Why would you want to help me?”
“I’ve never seen anyone take to Never World so quickly. I find it fascinating. It’s for my studies. You can say no at any time.”
“I’d like to do it,” Tess replied. “I wouldn’t turn down your help.”
Li nodded. He closed the side panel and stepped aside.
“You want to try out a few things?”
He helped Tess put on her goggles and step inside the pod. Once she lied down, she heard Li’s voice again.
“You can put yourself in the system at any time and create your own world, just like we did in testing. This will help you in the game.”
“How?” Tess asked.
“I know it might not make sense now, but it will later. I promise.” Tess watched as Li reached over her to press the red button near her side. “Now close your eyes.”
When she opened her eyes again it felt like no time had passed at all. But she was surrounded by nothingness. She immediately thought up a house so she didn’t have to feel so disoriented. It was her father’s house on the beach. She imagined the waves crashing not too far away and could smell the salty air.
Just as she started to relax, she felt the house start to shake. She watched the walls crumbling and come crashing down into a white abyss. She tried to grab onto the floorboards as the ground opened up, but she couldn’t catch the edge. Her fingertips grazed the wood as she fell.
Tess woke up in the pod screaming and ripped off her goggles. Dr. Young placed his hands on her shoulders as she sat up. Unable to tell where she was at first, Tess couldn’t help but panic.
“It will get easier,” Dr. Young said.
“What does this have to do with the game?” Tess asked, wiping the sweat from her brow.
“It all has to do with the game,” Dr. Young said. He patted her back and started toward the door. “We’ll try again soon.”
She watched as he left the room.
Tess turned on the stars before going to sleep, but she couldn’t keep her eyes open for long. She was, in a strange way, getting used to her new home. It was temporary, but it was comfortable and it was quiet. The last thing she focused on before falling asleep was the bright moon filled with dark craters. She traced a few words in the air with her fingers as the stars faded into the background. Hope you made it.
No alarm seemed to be set for the next morning, so Tess was woken up by Dr. Tucker banging on her door. He waited in the hallway as she quickly changed into her jumpsuit and tied her hair up. Apparently there was no time for breakfast. Dr. Tucker explained what was happening as he led her to their next destination.
“We like to perform this next test when your mind is still foggy. It helps get the best results,” Dr. Tucker said.
Tess stifled a yawn.
“And what test is this?”
“We’re going to get information from you so we can create your level. It might not make much sense now, but it will when you’re in Never World.”
“I have to say I’m getting a little sick of hearing that,” Tess said.
She thought she saw Dr. Tucker smile, but it was hard to tell. It was gone when he peered back at her again.
“No one can have an unfair advantage. This is how it is for everyone,” he said in an even tone. “Are you ready?”
He brought her to the same room where she had her body scan. This time the machine had been turned into a seat with wires leading into the floor. Despite Never World’s obviously advanced technology, it looked unsafe. Still, Tess sat down when Dr. Tucker motioned to it.
He opened up a hatch on the side of the machine and pulled out wires with suction cups at the ends. They were fairly small, much smaller than the electrodes Dr. Young had used when she was first brought in. He told her to sit back in the chair and started attaching them to her temples. Once she was ready, he walked over to the wall ahead of her and pulled down a screen. She could suddenly see the scan of her brain projected in front of her. It was all white and gray.
“Is that my brain?” Tess asked.
“Yes,” Dr. Tucker said, pressing a few buttons on the side of the machine. They all beeped loudly and irritated her. “We need to figure out your level for the game…if we get there.”
Tess didn’t asked what he meant because he probably thought she’d be eliminated in the first round. To be honest, Tess wasn’t sure what would happen. She wasn’t sure how she’d compare to the other competitors.
He stepped in front of her holding his clipboard.
“Please close your eyes and answer these questions. We don’t want any outside stimulation to mess with these results. Do you want a blindfold?”
Tess closed her eyes and shook her head.
“Okay, Tess.” He paused for a moment. Tess fought to keep her eyes shut and wondered if she should have asked for the blindfold. “Please start off by talking about your family.”
“Um…okay,” Tess said, clearing her throat. “I have my father. He lives near the boardwalk. He’s why I’m here.”
“And your mother?”
“Answer the questions out loud.”
“I don’t know,” Tess said, sharply. “My father never told me. I think she died.”
“What do you do for fun?” He asked.
Tess held back a laugh.
“I didn’t have much time for fun,” Tess replied.
“There has to be something you like to do.”
Tess shifted in her seat. She never really thought about what she liked to do because it had never been an option for her to focus on what she wanted. It had been a long time since she had been able to do anything for herself.
“I used to fence when I was young…before the accident,” Tess explained. “I obviously can’t do that anymore. I was right handed.”
“That must have been hard,” Dr. Tucker said. She could hear how uninterested his reply was and it annoyed her. Why was he even bothering asking her personal stuff if he didn’t care. Why should she care? “Anything else?”
“I like watching films. The make believe stuff is the best. I sometimes catch them at the museums, but they’re all old,” Tess said. “I like reading about it.”
Dr. Tucker paused for a moment and she heard the scribble of his pen.
“Now we need to talk about your accident,” he said. “How did it happen?”
“I don’t remember much, but my father was with me. That’s when his health went downhill. It was a car accident.” Tess found herself lost in a memory and her body relaxed. “I woke up in the hospital and my father had to move to rehab. He never fully recovered.”
“Everything was different after that. My father went into a deep depression and wouldn’t talk about it. It was like he was scared.”
“And what do you hope comes from winning this competition?”
“I just want him to be happy.”
“And what about you?” Dr. Tucker asked.
Tess paused for a moment.
“I want to be happy, too.”
“What about your hand?”
Tess opened her eyes and stared at Dr. Tucker. The projection behind him showed her brain lighting up a whole bunch of different colors. It was fireworks.
“What do you think?” Tess asked.
“You want it back.”
“I want my family back and I’ll do whatever it takes. I want to stay out of jail. I want to have enough money, so I don’t have to worry about this anymore. The Creator said money solves everything.”
“Close your eyes, Tess. We’re almost done.”
“Ready,” she said.
“I’m obligated to ask you questions about The Dark Hand,” Dr. Tucker said. “Did you speak to him in that pharmacy?”
“What did he whisper to you?”
“Nothing,” Tess said. “He didn’t say anything.”
Tess refused to let herself think about The Dark Hand at all. She was scared it would get her in trouble.
Dr. Tucker scribbled furiously. She felt like he was writing forever before he finally spoke again.
“I think we have all the information we need, Tess. We’ll have a short break before the interview,” he said.
“That’s it?” Tess asked, opening her eyes. Dr. Tucker started taking off the electrodes. He helped her up.
“We were able to access a lot. More than you’d think.”
There was something in his tone that worried Tess.
She waited by the machine until Dr. Tucker finished shutting down the machine. He glanced at her briefly before making his way to the door.
“I’ll be back in a few minutes to take you to your interview. A few people will be coming by to fix you up.”
Dr. Tucker left and a few moments later a couple of women came in to brush her hair and put some blush on her cheeks. They fixed the collar on her jumpsuit, which apparently hadn’t be adjusted right, and finished by misting her hair with fruity smelling hair spray. Tess was just glad they didn’t do anything drastic. Without a word, or any eye contact, they were back out into the hallway.
She waited patiently until Dr. Tucker fetched her and brought her to an adjacent room. It was all white with a black stool in front of some expensive looking cameras. Lights were pointed at the stool from almost every angle. She began to feel hot and sweaty almost immediately.
“Sit down, Tess,” Dr. Tucker said. “You’ll be asked a series of questions. Just answer them as professionally as you can. Please do not dwell on an answer for too long. This will be televised.”
As Dr. Tucker started to leave, Tess called out to him.
“Wait…who is going to interview me?”
“No one. No one cares about you yet.” He pointed to the screen underneath the camera. “The teleprompter will ask you them.”
Tess sat down on the stool as Dr. Tucker left. The screen was blank, so she was finding herself a bit confused.
All of a sudden, the camera buzzed to life and she saw a green light flashing from it. The first question came up on the teleprompter.
How has your experience been so far?
“Um…” Tess started. She stopped, realizing that her interview would sound awful. She cleared her throat and tried again. “My experience so far has been pretty good. I’m just interested in what’s in store for the competition. I’m excited to see Never World.”
The next question scrolled up.
Who are you playing for?
“My Dad,” Tess answered quickly. “I want to get him out of the rehabilitation home.”
What’s it like dealing with your disability?
Tess stared at the camera for a moment.
“I don’t really think about it as a disability. I don’t think about it often. It’s just part of my life now. Everyone else is bringing it up.”
If you win, what do you think it will be like to live without a disability?
Tess did her best to hide her annoyance.
“I already know what it’s like. It’s easier,” Tess said.
What are your strengths in this competition?
Tess wasn’t sure where her fakeness came from, but it started pouring out of her. She tried to think of exactly what she needed to say and said it.
“I think I’m observant. I know that doesn’t sound like much of a strength, but I hope I can figure out what my competitors are going to do next. I don’t know much about Never World yet, but I hope there’s strategy involved.”
What do you think your competitors will be like?
“I’m not sure. I don’t plan on getting to know them very well,” Tess said. She knew that wasn’t true because she was extremely interested in who would be with her in Never World. She just wanted to seem tougher than she was. “I just want to beat them.”
Tess was asked a few more questions about her personal life, about her dad and friends back home, but that was it. They luckily didn’t go into her being from a group home or possibly going to jail. Maybe that would look bad for them.
Are you ready to meet your competitors tomorrow?
“Am I what?” Tess asked, inching forward in her seat.
Tess waited, but the voice didn’t speak again.
“Hello?” Tess called.
A few moments later, the door opened. Dr. Tucker clapped his hands together.
“That should make a nice little interview,” he said. “Are you ready to see yourself on television?”
“Not really,” Tess admitted. “Did the others have their interviews?”
Dr. Tucker motioned for her to stand up.
“You know I can’t answer those questions.”
"I mean I think you could tell me what’s going on with everyone else—”
Dr. Tucker put a hand up to stop her from speaking. He took a step forward, so that she could smell his stale cologne. His youthful face suddenly looked older and hardened.
“Listen up, Miss Galvin. I am not your friend while you’re here. I am not here to support you. I’m here to make sure you are ready to enter Never World, so you better listen up.” He paused and took another step closer. “Don’t talk to me about anything. Don’t ask me questions you know I can’t answer. Think things through before they come out of your mouth.”
He cleared his throat and stepped back toward the door.
“And you know what Tess? I know you can’t afford to be kicked out of this competition. You think you have choices, but you don’t. Now shut up and follow me back to your room.”
Tess’s face felt hot as she forced herself to follow Dr. Tucker out the room. She clenched her fist at her side and concentrated on his echoing footsteps. When she got to her hallway, her hand felt numb.
Dr. Tucker opened the door for her and forced a fake, menacing smile.
“Is there anything else I can do for you?” Tess stepped in her room, keeping her back turned to him. She just couldn’t look at him. She couldn’t let him see the anger and frustration on her face. “I would work on growing some thicker skin if I were you, Tess. You’re never going to survive.”
Tess waited until she was alone to let out a loud scream. She tried not to let her anger last long, but she found herself pacing her room for another half hour. She felt like something was crawling up inside her—anger she hadn’t felt since right after her accident.
She did, however, go to sleep that night feeling much more determined than ever before.