Tess woke up when it was still dark outside.
She couldn’t tell from being in the room because there were no windows, but she somehow knew that it was too early to be awake. Something strange was going on.
At first Tess thought someone was in the room with her. She peeked her head out from underneath the covers and tried to scan the dark shadows for something significant. There was nothing.
She hit the light switch to turn on the stars and stared up at them for a little while. They were strangely comforting and they reminded her of the beach. And of course the beach reminded her of her father.
There was another single knock at her door and she knew it was Li. She hurried to knock back and he entered right away.
“Sorry if you were sleeping,” Li said. He was wearing a pair of plain blue pajamas. “I thought you’d like to come with me.”
“The game room.”
They quietly walked through the hallway and Li swiped into the game room. He switched on the lights and motioned toward one of the bigger machines near the back.
“Didn’t they see us on camera?” Tess asked.
“They’re disconnected for now. If someone comes in, just stay quiet. I’ll say I was testing the machines,” Li said.
He pulled out a notebook from one of the drawers and followed her over to the machine. She slipped inside the pod and held onto the controller in front of her. The screen was black.
“What type of game is this?”
“It’s a maze,” Li said. “It’s highly immersive.”
He brought over one of the game helmets sitting on a shelf and shoved it on Tess’s head. She instantly saw the maze ahead of her, which was just built of large hedges. She peered down and saw the grass beneath her feet.
Tess wasn’t sure how long she played, but she just couldn’t figure it out. It also seemed like the more she played, the thicker the hedges got. She was beginning to feel claustrophobic.
Li stopped her a while later and brought her back to her room.
“Any good findings?” Tess asked, as Li stood at her door.
“More than I could say,” Li said, smiling back.
They said goodnight and Tess tried to get comfortable in her room again. She couldn’t stop thinking about that frustrating maze and she kept seeing it when she closed her eyes.
Tess felt some uneasiness knowing that this would be her last day before entering Never World. Her interview also worried her because she couldn’t quite remember what she actually said. Then she remembered it didn’t really matter. Why should she care what strangers she had never met thought about her? They had never done anything for her before. She was on her own.
The uneasiness didn’t pass until Tess fell back asleep. When she woke up the second time, she made breakfast and changed into a clean jump suit. She wasn’t sure what the schedule was, so she spent some time watching television. It was a fairly watered down version of the news, with reporters she didn’t recognize, but it helped pass the time.
After a while, she closed her eyes and thought about the game. She was starting to feel her nervousness move to the pit of her stomach. Everything was becoming too real. Time felt like it was moving too fast. She suddenly wanted another day…or another week to prepare.
It wasn’t like much preparation was being done anyway. They weren’t allowed to enter the game until tomorrow, so there was no practice to help them improve themselves.
The day felt long and slow as it dragged on. Despite her wish to have more time, she just wanted something to do. It was a strange struggle between wanting time to pass and wanting the next day to never come.
Dr. Tucker came by a couple hours later to let her into the work out room. It felt good to get moving and drive out some of her stress and frustration. She tried to focus on making herself stronger. It was the only thing she could do to make it feel like she was getting something done.
Tess tested her luck as Dr. Tucker brought her back to her room.
“When will we see our interviews?”
He didn’t answer. He opened her door.
“Step inside your room, Miss Galvin,” he said.
“Later tonight?” She asked.
He eyed her.
“You’ll see them when you see them. I’m not authorized to tell you much more than that.”
“So what else are you authorized to tell me?” Tess asked. She purposely stood in the doorway so he couldn’t close her in. “You said you can’t tell me much more than that. What else is there?”
“The rest is up to my discretion and you’re really pushing my buttons right now,” he said. “Basically I can tell you what I want…and I don’t want to tell you anything.”
“Isn’t that unfair?”
“It’s not if it doesn’t have anything to do with the competition,” Dr. Tucker explained. He pointed inside his room and then glanced behind him nervously. His voice was unsteady when he spoke to her again. “Please get inside.”
Tess peered out into the hallway. She expected Dr. Tucker to push her, but he actually took a step back instead. His hand went to his shoulder, where he had a small black device attached. It looked like a radio.
“What are you going to do?”
“Call security,” he said, still tense. “You don’t want me to do that.”
Tess stepped back into her room and Dr. Tucker let go of the receiver. He gave her a harsh look and shut the door without another word.
It felt strange to have someone who clearly had more power than her be so afraid. Why had he been so scared? What could she possibly do to him? She wasn’t sure what sort of threat she posed at all.
Tess made some lunch and then tried to occupy herself by searching through all the spaces in the room. As she neared the television, she realized that a few new items had been placed in the room. There were a couple notebooks and an entire box of pens. She wasn’t sure what she would use them for, but it was nice to have something to do. She pulled over an end table and put it next to her bed, placing the notebooks and pens right on top.
After about a half hour of nothing happening, Tess dimmed the lights and laid back in her bed. She was feeling bored and sleepy, so the combination didn’t make a good mix. She quickly drifted off.
A noise interrupted her sleep and brought her back to reality. Her television had seemingly turned itself on and she heard a familiar voice. It was Bethany. She was wearing a slim-fitting pink dress and her big brown hair was full of luxurious curls. She placed her hands in her lap and smiled at the camera. Tess could tell from the edits that it was a prerecorded segment.
“Hello, I’m Bethany Armbrandt. You might recognize me as the former host of Rush Race and Turmoil in the Seas. I’m very proud to bring you an exclusive look at our new exciting venture, Never World,” she said with a big smile plastered on her face. “Ten contestants will compete to win the ultimate price—more money than they’ll know what to do with and complimentary corrective surgery for their array of disabilities.”
Tess couldn’t help but cringe. Clearly, her and the other contestants knew they were being taken advantage of, but why? Why did it have to be a competition full of people like her? What were they gaining? She figured it would make them look sympathetic to the needs of the poor.
Another man was shown on screen. He was wearing a nice suit and his hair was neatly parted to the side.
“Tell us more, Bethany.” He laughed. “Unless these people have been living under a rock for the past few months, I’m sure they’ve heard rumors about Never World. What’s so great about it?”
“Well, Brian, Never World will be the first interactive game of its kind. Contestants will be completely immersed in our new world. It feels real and technically it is real. We can create whatever we want.”
“How will the game run?” Brian prompted.
A handy chart came on the screen showing views the levels of the game. There were ten mystery levels in total designed by each contestant. It felt a little unfair to Tess because she really didn’t know what her level would be like. It wasn’t even a guarantee that she would reach it before being eliminated. She hoped hers was first so she could get some sort of advantage, but she wasn’t even sure if her level would even be an advantage for her.
“Each round or level, one contestant will be eliminated. Our winner will be determined by whoever has the resolve to make it to the end. There’s no time limit on the game…it can go on for however long it takes to complete,” Bethany explained. “It will be an exciting few weeks.”
“Sounds like it!” Brian added.
“Would you like to meet our contestants?” Bethany asked, facing a crowd no one else could see. There was cheering and clapping. “We’ll get to the interviews when we return.”
The screen went black and then a commercial came on. Tess was pretty used to the abundance of commercials when watching television, but this one was new. This was for Never World.
The commercial highlighted the pod system that Tess had in her room. Apparently it was available for sale at the end of the game and there were payment plans so anyone could access Never World. The Never World system and pod would also be subsidized by the government for poorer families who couldn’t afford it. Tess wasn’t sure what the catch was, but it seemed very generous. Maybe they would make money by having people logged in or advertisers in the game would be able to sell to more people. It was still great to see such amazing technology available to everyone.
Suddenly, Never World and The Creator didn’t seem so bad. Tess thought for a moment maybe they really did want to help underprivileged and second class citizens like herself. But, then again, how would a pod save them?
When the show returned, Tess grabbed her notebook and a pen to take notes. She wanted to make sure she knew her competitors. She figured this might be the only chance she would get.
The first interview was with Sonya, probably because she was the most recognizable to young viewers. Her blog and website were featured, along with a short segment about obesity. She never answered any questions about her weight, which made Tess believe that Sonya had refused to answer them.
Tess did learn, however, that Sonya was nineteen and seemed pretty tough. She wasn’t sure if Sonya was a huge threat, but clearly she’d have a lot of fans. Maybe fans had nothing to do with the game, but people would be rooting for her. She had a reason to fight and do well.
Tess immediately decided that she liked Sonya and she wouldn’t mind if she won. Maybe she’d try to find her in the game.
The next interview focused on a twenty-five year old woman named Eleanor Wieler. The strange thing about Eleanor was that she volunteered. Eleanor was a former beauty queen with a drug addiction, but Tess thought she was still looking pretty well. She had long black hair and had to be at least 6 feet tall.
“And you were in rehab for a while?” Bethany asked. “How brave.”
Eleanor put a hand on her heart and held back tears.
“I am fighting for my life every day. I’ve developed a heart condition and I’m out of money,” Eleanor explained. “I need to win this to live.”
Tess wondered if it was all true, but she had no way of finding out. She had no idea why they would let her into the game if she was lying or how she even knew about the game to begin with. She left Eleanor as a question mark.
She watched as Bethany introduced Nate. She knew he was older than the rest of the contestants featured so far, but he seemed much wiser and more mature than them. Even though she knew he was reading the questions from the teleprompter and Bethany’s side of the interview was edited in later, he still greeted the fake audience with a kind smile.
“Great to be here,” Nate said, waving to no one. He placed a hand over his brow, pretending to look out into the crowd. “Nice seeing you all. You look great.”
The camera cut to Bethany.
“You’re terminally ill, aren’t you?” She asked.
“Did you know that cancer can be treated in a few months,” Nate stated. “I know we haven’t thought about it because it’s been basically eradicated. I think…I’m pretty sure children get some sort of vaccination when they’re born now. I didn’t.”
Clearly, whoever was in charge cut out the rest of Nate’s response. They went right to a question about his strategy for the game. Nate rubbed at his short beard as he spoke.
“I haven’t planned anything yet.” He paused and smiled again. “I guess I’ll wing it.”
“You seem very diplomatic,” Bethany said, laughing.
The interview went on for a little while longer, but Tess didn’t take any notes. She just couldn’t bring herself to do it and couldn’t really pinpoint why. Even though she barely knew him, it felt like betrayal.
Tess’s interview was featured right after. She thought she looked stiff and awkward and had a hard time watching the whole thing. It was strange seeing how they pieced it together and even stranger witnessing the fake sympathetic gestures Bethany made throughout the whole thing.
She did notice, however, that her ’I just want to beat them’ line at the very end made her come off as very aggressive. Tess suppressed her smile. Maybe that would be a good thing.
The conjoined twins, Eli and Morgan Denning, were next. Bethany asked them if they felt like they had an advantage in the game, considering they wouldn’t be able to compete as separate players. Eli explained that they were still separate competitors and it would be difficult for them to make decisions.
They seemed tough and Tess thought it best not to count them out. She took some notes on how they interacted with each other and how they appeared to be completely in sync. It must be intense to have that sort of connection, both physical and emotional, with another person. Tess couldn’t imagine it.
“What will you do if you win?” Bethany asked, leaning forward.
The twins looked at each other.
“Be separate,” Morgan said.
“Be ourselves,” Eli added.
Bethany nodded dramatically.
After another commercial for the Never World pod, Nate’s friend was featured. His name was Scott Plummer and he was 19. She was immediately drawn in by his quiet and calm nature and his underlying strength. He was fairly tall and lanky, but Tess focused in on his clenched jaw.
He reached up to adjust his eye patch over his right eye. The elastic dug into his hair, making a few pieces of it stick up.
“How has your blindness affected your life,” Bethany asked.
Scott suppressed a smile and glanced down at the ground.
“I’m not blind…I can see,” Scott said. He pointed to his left eye. “I wouldn’t call that being blind, would you?”
The interview quickly cut to the next question because clearly Bethany didn’t see the interviews before filming on her end, so she had no rebuttal.
“What do you think your biggest obstacle will be,” Bethany probed.
Scott looked down again. A few moments later he looked right at the camera.
“I’m supposed to say something deep about myself, but my biggest obstacles will be my other competitors.” Scott paused. “I’m not trying to better myself. I’m trying to win.”
Tess found herself actually smiling that time. There was this weird notion that they all had to better themselves through this competition, but Tess didn’t necessarily feel incomplete. She just wanted her life back. She didn’t want to owe anything to anyone.
Scott’s interview didn’t go on for too much longer and he didn’t reveal a lot about himself. The program moved on to focus on twenty-eight year old Robert Heiss. He was huge with big muscles and he already somehow chilled Tess to the bone. She knew he could crush her with his gigantic hands.
He grinned when Bethany asked him about the competition.
“It’s going to be a blast,” he said. “I know I’m going to win. I’m strong and competitive. I also won’t waste my time with any stupid alliances. I can do it on my own.”
Tess didn’t doubt it. So far it seemed like he had the greatest shot at winning, but she couldn’t get down about it. She didn’t think Robert was very smart, so maybe she’d have an advantage. She wasn’t sure how smart she was either, but she had to be more intelligent than him.
Bethany spoke a little bit about his heart problem that could end his life at any moment. Apparently staying fit was a good way for him to ensure that nothing happened, but it was all still dicey. He needed an important operation as soon as possible.
The next boy, Anton Gogel, was the only she saw in the wheelchair. Bethany tried to uncomfortably talk about his life in a wheelchair, but Anton didn’t say much. He was very quiet and reserved, so the interview felt very forced. With nothing much to talk about, Bethany spoke about his wheelchair for a while and the interview ended shortly after.
“A young man with a very big heart,” Bethany concluded, with a smile.
Tess found it all very condescending.
The oldest contestant, at 30, was featured last. His name was Larsen Hassler and he was an army vet with PTSD. According to Bethany’s introduction, he had burns over 40% of his body. Most of his burns were hidden, but she could see some scarring on his face. His left eyebrow was missing and the skin was puckered on his cheek.
Larsen seemed to have a technical understanding of fighting that none of the other contestants had. She made sure to jot down a few details about him because he had a good chance at winning. At the end of everything, she had more notes than she knew what to do with. She felt silly and put them all away as Bethany concluded the program.
“Now that you’ve met all the competitors, you’re ready to enter Never World tomorrow morning. You’re all a part of this historic television and technological event that has the potential to eventually change our lives. The Creator of Never World is so proud to share this journey with you all and he plans on introducing everyone to the competition tomorrow.” Bethany paused, looking serious. “We wish to help everyone suffering with a disability or medical issue, so we will be donating half of our proceeds from the sale of the Never World pods to different charities and organizations. Our Creator believes in these issues from the bottom of his heart and he wants to share his wealth with the world. We want everyone to have the opportunity to live a happy and healthy life.”
A television schedule showed up on the screen next to Bethany. The premiere seemed to last all day.
“Never World will go live tomorrow morning at 7 a.m. The show will continue until there’s a winner for that level. Depending on when it ends, the next level will resume at the beginning of the upcoming week. Levels can take up to a week to complete. Competitors will be given breaks to rest and eat, so we will air special highlight programs during those times. Thank you so much for tuning in.”
Bethany smiled as the program faded out and the screen turned black. Tess took some time to tidy up her apartment and changed into some pajamas that had been left for her in the bathroom. She laid out her pod suit for the next day.
Tess headed back into the main room and fixed herself a bowl of cereal. She ate slowly, trying to chew each bite so she could actually keep it down. She felt nauseous.
When she looked over at the previously darkened television, she saw something had appeared on the screen. It read:
Tomorrow is the beginning of a great journey. The journey will be short for some of you.