Tess wasn’t sure when she actually fell asleep that night, but she leapt out of bed when a loud banging erupted at her door. Dr. Tucker didn’t wait long before he unlocked the door himself.
“You’re not up yet?” Dr. Tucker asked, shaking his head. “Not a good start.”
“My alarm! I…” Tess fumbled to steady herself as she searched around the room. “Did someone…”
She stopped talking when she realized the Dr. Tucker wasn’t listening to her. He was already in the kitchen fixing her some coffee and breakfast. Tess hurried to the bathroom to get changed into her pod suit.
“You need to be mentally prepared,” Dr. Tucker called to her.
“Can’t do that with you yapping,” Tess shouted back.
Tess worked on tying up her black hair into a ponytail. She splashed some cold water on her face to snap out of her confusion. He was right. She needed to focus.
Dr. Tucker had her breakfast waiting for her as she reentered the room. As she ate, he looked over her pod.
“Any other rules?” Tess asked.
“When it’s time to enter your pod, an alarm will go off, so prepare yourself. It will be very hard the first time.”
He checked his watch and then started talking faster, ignoring her question. Tess felt like her head was spinning.
“It’s Monday, so the cleaners won’t be in until Friday. Your room will only be cleaned on Fridays…if you make it through the week. Do you remember how to work your pod?” Tess nodded, but Dr. Tucker explained it again. “The pod close button is next to your left hand, you got that? Don’t forget to put on your googles and turn on the sleeping agent. Remember, you only have ten seconds before it knocks you out.”
As Dr. Tucker finished up, the alarm started blaring. Tess stood up in a panic.
“It’s almost 9? How did I sleep so late? What didn’t you come sooner?” Tess shouted. She searched for her googles, but didn’t know where to look. When she glared at Dr. Tucker she saw he was holding them in his hand and smiling. “What’s so funny?”
“Good luck, Miss Galvin. I hope you make it until the end.”
Tess hurried over to him and yanked the googles from his hand. She struggled to get them on without getting the rubber straps caught in her hair.
“What do you have against me?” Tess asked.
The awful alarm made it almost impossible to concentrate on anything. She focused on pulling the pod door open as Dr. Tucker continued to watch her.
“I just don’t like liars,” Dr. Tucker explained. “You’re not being honest with me.
“And you’re not either.”
When he didn’t respond, Tess groaned and stepped inside the pod. She started to lie down, but propped herself up on her elbows to glance back at Dr. Tucker. To her surprise, he was already gone. But she didn’t have time to worry about him or what he said. She couldn’t let it get to her.
In the darkness of the pod, Tess struggled to find the close button. After fumbling around for a few seconds, she finally found it. A blue light turned on above her head. She reached up to press the button and felt a cool mist hit her skin. The sleeping agent.
The alarm started to fade as she struggled to keep her eyes open. She fought to position her arms in the right place before the exhaustion took over. Her breathing felt heavy and her body felt like a thousand pounds.
Then there was darkness.
Tess slowly opened her eyes and immediately tried to focus on anything. Her vision was blurry and she felt hot. The air was so heavy she could feel droplets of water forming on her skin.
Finally, she saw something.
This is my father’s house. There are many rooms.
It was sign above the door, but where was she? Tess forced herself up and glanced down at her body. Everything she had designed before the game was now real. She flexed her right hand, which was made of strong metal, and smiled wide. The tightness in her face around her scar was still there, but she didn’t care. She felt strong.
When Tess glanced down, she saw she wasn’t wearing the outfit she had picked out during character design. She had on brown cargo shorts and a gray tank top, along with hiking boots and a safari hat. She pulled off the hat and let it drop to the ground.
Tess cautiously stepped out of the small empty room she was in and shielded her eyes from the sunlight. She immediately saw she was standing in mud and was surrounded by very old looking plant life.
As she started to explore past the wildlife, her eyes focused on a few words that had popped up on the path before her.
She heard the familiar woman’s voice she knew from when she designed her character.
“Please check your level objectives. If you need to check your vitals at any time during the game, simply say vitals. Also, don’t forget your spawning pack.”
Tess wasn’t completely sure what was going on, but she saw a blinking green light near the ground. When she reached out to touch it, a larger screen was projected in front of her with more text to read. She couldn’t help but be amazed by the whole thing. Never World was unlike any game she had ever played. Even in her fog of confusion and slight terror, she knew it was truly revolutionary.
Your first course of action will be to collect your egg that will be shown on your map. Do not collect anyone else’s egg, as you will only be able to take yours. Once all eggs have been collected, contestant will be open for elimination. Once a contestant is eliminated, the level will end, and that contestant will be out of the game.
Tess swiped to the right of her screen and saw the map where her egg was located. It seemed to be all the way across the island. She minimized the screen and focused on figuring out where she was first. She’d have to figure out the rest when she was sure she was safe.
She broke through the seemingly never-ending plant life and breathed in the hot, humid air. The area around her was still muddy, but much more barren and empty than it was in the brush. Up ahead, she could see a building that looked like it might offer some sort of protection while she figured things out.
She found her pack near the side of the path and dug through it. She found a flashlight, a knife, and her binoculars. After tucking everything back inside and slinging it over her shoulder, she took a quick look around.
She realized that she was in some sort of old world and that began to unnerve her. She wiped her sweat with her forearm and reached out to access her map.
The building ahead was called The Compound and was massive.
As she walked through the mud, Tess did her best to keep her guard up. Clearly, she had to get her egg first before anyone could eliminate her, but did that mean no one could attack her until then? If she got her egg quickly, she could figure out a strategy and maybe that would be an advantage. But what would happen if she was last?
Tess looked down when she heard something crunch under her feet. She lifted her shoe up slowly and saw a crushed egg. It looked like whatever was inside has already hatched out. She took a deep breath and continued forward toward The Compound.
When she reached the building, which was about a half mile walk, Tess glanced up at the gigantic metal structure. Prehistoric plants were climbing up the sides, reaching toward the oppressive sun that continued to bare down on her. She had no idea she could feel so hot and lethargic in a video game, but she just had to deal with it. She just had to remind herself that it wasn’t real.
She paused for a moment before entering to dig into her pack and pulled out her flashlight. She tucked switched it on and tucker it under her arm as she attempted to ease the door open with her left hand.
It wouldn’t budge.
She eyed a few more broken eggs near the door and then glanced down at her new hand. She clenched it into a fist as best as she could and slammed it into the door. Nothing happened for a moment.
She stepped back when she heard the door start to groan. It fell toward her and slammed into the ground at her feet. The noise echoed in all directions.
Tess cringed. She had no choice but to try to find someplace to hide in The Compound. She stepped over the fallen door and hurried into the long hallway.
The red safety lights that lined the hallway led Tess’s way as she explored the area. The light from her flashlight revealed mud that had already been trekked onto the metal floor, so she tried to keep quiet. She didn’t encounter anything more suspicious than that until she heard something clanging onto the floor in the room to her right.
As she slowly entered, she saw that it was an industrial sized kitchen stocked with pots and pans, along with an abundance of metal counter space. Out from behind one of the ovens, she saw a boot.
“Hello?” Tess probed. She paused when her voice echoed throughout the room. “I know I shouldn’t be trying to make an alliance, but we can’t eliminate each other until we have our eggs. I just…I don’t want to be alone.”
The figure shifted, but didn’t get up. She clicked off her flashlight and waited.
“I’m not hiding…I’m just checking out my new powers. I’m trying to get used to it,” the voice explained. It was a voice she recognized. “Are you Tess?”
“Yes,” she replied. Tess searched for the light switch and found it next to the door. When she hit it, the lights buzzed on and hummed quietly. She watched as the boy rose and stared at her, keeping his fists clenched at his sides. “You’re Anton?”
She stepped forward, but he tensed up. Anton was the pale, blonde boy she had seen in the wheelchair. He was the boy that now had Dr. Young as his programmer.
“How do I know I can trust you?”
Tess raised her hands defensively.
I’ll let you look into my pack and we can’t do anything to each other yet, anyway,” Tess replied.
Anton nodded and walked closer to one of the metal counters. She noticed he was walking weird, like someone who had just finished jumping on a trampoline.
“New legs,” Anton said, with a slight smile. “Takes some getting used to.”
Tess smiled back and raised her right hand.
“I know what you mean.”
“Oh, that’s right,” Anton said. “What’s it like?”
“I don’t want to get used to it because I’ll miss it.”
“But if you win, you can keep it,” Anton replied.
Tess stayed silent as she watched Anton walk back to retrieve his own pack. He placed it on the counter and started to pull out some supplies. He had a knife and a few bottles of water.
“You got your own pack?” Tess asked. “Water?”
“We have to keep our vitals up no matter what. If we’re without food and water for too long, out characters will get weaker. What do you have?”
She opened his pack to show him and watched as he shifted through it. He handed it back to her after a few moments.
Tess wondered why it felt like everyone had been prepped much more extensively than she had been. Anton already seemed to know the rules of Never World, but she felt lost.
“I found it in one of these rooms. I think loot spawns randomly on this map. You just have to be quick.”
Tess peeked out into the hallway as Anton repacked his bag to check to see if they were alone.
“Do you think we should move?” Tess asked.
“We?” Anton questioned with a teasing smile. He paused as he slung the backpack over his shoulder. “You look good, by the way. Excellent character design. I like that you kept the scar. It makes you look tough.”
Tess reached up to touch her face.
“Do you want me to leave?” She asked.
After a long moment, Anton shook his head.
“I guess I’d rather not be alone and it’s clear you don’t want to be either.” He pushed back his blonde hair and motioned toward the door. “Let’s work together until we have to start fighting.”
As they continued down the hallway, Anton started to walk faster, making sure to stay at least ten feet ahead of Tess. She noticed he was holding his knife at his side.
Tess stopped for a moment and activated her screen. She remembered her powers to figure out odds, but she didn’t know where to find it or how to use it. After a few moments of standing still, Anton turned around.
“What are you doing?”
“Hold on. I’m just…” she trailed off, finally able to access it. “I can calculate odds of whatever choices we make.”
Anton raised an eyebrow.
“Is that the power you picked?”
Tess saw 100% show up at the bottom of her screen. She closed her prompts and noticed that it was still sitting there.
“I guess you need to choose between two options in order for it to calculate your odds,” Tess said, mostly to herself. “We’ll see how it works later.”
“Just be alert,” Anton warned. He pointed in front of them, where there was a closed door. “Any idea if we should enter there?”
Tess’s screen still said 100%. She shrugged.
“I don’t think it works like that.”
“Stay here, then,” Anton said, as he opened the door.
Tess tried to peer inside, but Anton was gone too fast. The door closed behind him and Tess was alone in the hallway.
Just as she turned to watch behind them, Anton tapped her on the shoulder. Tess suppressed a scream.
“What?” She asked, swinging around. Anton was smiling. “What did you even do?”
He was out of breath and sweating.
“I checked the room.” He grabbed lightly onto her arm. “Come on, it’s safe.”
“How would you know?” Tess argued, pulling away.
She followed Anton into the next room, which turned out to be a large conference room overrun with plants and vines. She watched as Anton found an empty space underneath one of the blacked out windows and sat down with his pack. He stretched out his legs and began to massage his calves.
“I can run super-fast, but it doesn’t last long. It takes me some time to recover,” Anton replied. He glanced up at her and waited until she reluctantly sat down next to him. “It didn’t work as well as I thought it would.”
Anton handed her the water from his pack, so Tess checked her vitals. It was already saying she needed to rehydrate. She only took a couple sips before handing it back to him.
“When do you think we should go after our eggs?” Tess asked.
She watched as he started to poke at the empty air in front of him and knew he was accessing his map. He glanced up at her after a few minutes had passed by.
“I think since we’re so close together, I can see where your egg is. That might be a good way to tell if we’re close to someone else, too.”
“You’re good at this,” Tess said.
“It looks like it’s about a 4 hour walk to the other side of the island. All the eggs are pretty close to each other, so we’ll have to be careful.” He paused. “I wonder if anyone already has theirs yet.”
After another minute he shook his head.
“No, the leaderboard is empty right now. They’ll let us know when each contestant gets their egg.”
Tess found herself thinking about what Nate was doing, but she tried not to linger on it for too long. They weren’t partners and it didn’t seem like they’d have any sort of alliance with each other. She had to focus on what was going on in that moment. She had to push away the dark thought that maybe he wanted her to join because she’d be easy to eliminate.
“So…where are you from?” Tess asked. “Are you from the city?”
He nodded and drank from the water bottle, keeping his eyes on her.
“Ended up in a home when I was seventeen and luckily I only had to stay there for a year. I struggled for a few years until I turned twenty-one. I was working a job on a manufacturing line because I didn’t have to use my legs. A few days later they accused me of stealing and that’s when I was put in jail and contacted about this show,” Anton explained. “It was my only option. It’s still my only option.”
“What will you do if you don’t win?”
“They’ll pay off my fines, so I guess I can try to find something else,” Anton said. “I don’t want to think about it.”
“I know,” Tess replied.
He glanced at her curiously, looking slightly embarrassed.
“I just need the money. The Creator talked to me when I was locked up and told me I could make enough money to fix everything,” Tess said.
Anton sat up quickly.
“The Creator? You’ve met him?”
“A couple times,” Tess said. “Why?”
“Tess…I don’t even know what he looks like. I didn’t even think he was real. What did he want to talk to you about?”
Just then, they heard a couple voices out in the hallway. Anton put a finger up to his lips and hurried toward the door, which was slightly ajar. After peering out for a moment, Anton pulled the door shut as quietly as he could. He kept silent and pointed toward the closet nearly engulfed by the vines. There was only room for one person, so Anton ushered her inside.
“Sit down and stay quiet if they come in here,” Anton whispered. “I’ll find another place to hide.”
Anton was gone before she could finish her sentence. She eased the door shut and sat down on the cold floor.
A long time passed before she heard the voices again. They were much closer than they were before. She heard the door to the conference room open and then slam shut. Tess pressed her back against the back of the closet.
“Do you think anyone is around here?” A voice asked.
“Doesn’t matter…no one can kill us yet.” Another answered. “We can hang out here for a while.”
Tess heard a few things drop to the floor, probably whatever they were carrying, and then footsteps close to where she was hiding.
“You think we should try to team up with anyone else?”
Tess nearly bolted from the closet when she recognized Nate’s voice, but she stopped herself. There’s nothing that led her to believe that he would be excited to see her or even want her around.
“You were friends with that girl, weren’t you?” Came a reply. Tess knew it was the other boy, Scott. “The cute one.”
Tess felt her cheeks turn red.
“Gal?” Scott probed. “Who’s that?”
“Tess…I met her before we started. Saw her outside of the police station,” Nate explained. She heard him groan. “God. What I wouldn’t do for a cigarette.”
“You think she would work with us?”
“Scott, why are you asking about her? Can we focus on getting our egg. Besides, she’s like eighteen years old.”
“I’m nineteen. I’m sorry that you're an old man,” Scott shot back. “I just need something to think about besides you.”
“You’re thinking about me?”
Tess heard laughter as they moved to the other side of the room.
“You think she’s working with someone else?” Scott asked after a few moments of complete silence. “Like Robert?”
“Stop it. Help me figure out this map,” Nate replied.
Tess had no idea what was preventing her from revealing herself to them, besides the fact that she was already teamed up with Anton. As much as she desperately wanted to join their team, a four person team didn’t make much sense and she wasn’t sure if Anton would be down for it. The fact that he was still hiding led her to believe that he wasn’t all up for adding on more people.
Still, she didn’t mind eavesdropping for the time being.
“What about Robert though?” Scott said. “He seems pretty aggressive…he already has his egg.”
While he was talking, Tess checked the scoreboards. Scott was right. Robert was the only person ranked so far. She considered running out of the closet and trying to find Anton, but the percentage on her screen dropped to a 0% probability. If she tried to leave now, there was no way she’d go undetected. It also seemed there was no way she’d get away, whatever that meant.
“I think we should be careful and take our time. Look, our eggs aren’t too far away. We can get yours in about an hour,” came Nate’s voice. “Is that what you want to do?”
“Okay, but let’s take a break for a little while. Do we know what’s out there yet?”
“I’m not sure,” Nate replied. “It’s not your level?”
“Maybe it’s Robert’s.”
“That would explain how he knew what to do so quickly.”
Tess tried to stay as still as possible as the two boys continued to talk, but the walls were starting to feel like they were closing in on her. She was pretty sure an hour had passed by before anything happened.
When she was sure nothing would be disrupting her in her hiding space for a while, she brought up her main screen and set herself up for pod reentry. She closed her eyes and waited until she was back in her room.
She had a quick meal and a drink to rehydrate herself and was back in the game about twenty minutes later. The nauseating dizzy feeling stayed with her for another few minutes afterwards. Dr. Tucker was right about it being difficult to adjust to the game.
After an hour had passed, she finally started to hear some chatter in the hallway.
Tess jumped when she heard the door burst open to the conference room. A deep, but familiar voice echoed throughout the large space.
“How are you enjoying level one?” A male’s voice asked. It was Robert. She heard a metal clicking sound. “Drop your weapons.”
“You can’t kill us yet,” Nate warned.
“But I can damage and weaken you. You won’t stand a chance,” Robert replied.
There was an odd silence, so Tess carefully stood up in the small closet. She leaned closer to the door so she could hear what was going on.
Tess heard a loud thump followed by lots of shouts and cursing. She began to feel smell smoke.
“Get out of here!” She heard Nate yell.
Unable to wait any longer, Tess burst open the door with her metal fist. As she started to run out, she took a moment to take in the chaos around her.
A massive fire was already tearing up the room and Robert was running out of the conference room. She saw Nate helping Scott up, but they seemed too preoccupied to notice she was there. As she inched her way toward the door, she felt a gust of wind blow up her hair. Scott looked over at her and his expression quickly turned to shock. He nudged Nate and they both looked up at her right before someone else grabbed her.
A second later, she found herself out the hallway.
“How did I…” Tess glanced around, but Anton grabbed her hand and began to pull.
“Come on!” He shouted.
She ran blindly, trying to keep up with Anton after he let go of her hand. They ran for a good ten minutes before Anton finally stopped. He placed his hands on his knees in an attempt to catch his breath.
“You okay?” He asked, eyeing her up and down. “I didn’t want to hurt you, I just needed to find a way for us to get out.”
“I’m fine,” Tess replied. He handed her some water and she took a couple sips. “Who knows how long I would have been stuck there.”
“I think Robert would have found you,” Anton replied.
Tess surveyed the area and saw that it was getting muddier. She also saw footprints leading into the thick brush, so clearly someone had been there before them. She felt like they were falling behind.
She brought up the scoreboards and saw that three other contestants had gotten their eggs—Sonya, Larsen, and Eleanor.
“Maybe we should split up to find our eggs,” Tess suggested. Anton looked surprised. “I just…I feel like I’m not getting off to a good start. I’m afraid I’ll look…”
“Weak,” he replied. There was a strange sadness in his voice. “I understand.”
“I’ll try to find you after,” Tess added. “I want to work together.”
Anton smiled and ran a hand through his messy hair.
“Sure thing, Tess,” Anton replied. “I’ll find you in a few hours.”
Tess brought up her map and found the path to take to retrieve her egg. When she turned back around, Anton was gone.
Tess had about a three hour walk until she’d make it to her egg, so she tried to keep off the path as much as possible. For a while, she was walking adjacent to other footprints, but they suddenly veered off to the left. She didn’t have time to investigate.
After about an hour of walking, Tess checked the scoreboards again. She saw that both Nate and Scott had their eggs, so she began to feel a little panicked. She just couldn’t be last. She couldn’t already a target. She couldn’t lose it all in the first level.
Tess quickened her pace as the sky began to darken. Her boots were sucked into the mud as light rain began to fall.
The light rain continued for the rest of the walk to her egg. She checked her map again and realized she was only about a mile away. Tess smiled and pushed her wet hair out of her face. She only had to push herself a little bit farther and then she could figure out her next move, then she could try to find Anton.
Tess caught sight of a couple more broken eggs at the edge of the path. She knelt down to pick one up and tried to analyze what was hatching all over the place.
“You haven’t figured it out yet?”
She swung around and dropped the egg shells. Robert was standing across from her with his pistol raised. He was bigger than she expected, so clearly he had done something to increase his size.
“Why’d you follow me?” Tess asked, her voice shaking slightly.
“You’re working with that little twerp, Anton. Maybe I can kill two birds with one stone.”
“You can only eliminate one person,” Tess argued.
“And maybe I pick you.” Robert straightened his pistol. “I guess I can decide later.”
Tess watched helplessly as Robert pulled the trigger. Instinctively, she raised her left hand and heard a loud clinking noise. When she glanced down, she saw the bullet was crushed and lying in the mud.
She looked back at her metal hand and saw that it was undamaged.
Tess and Robert both stared at each other, unsure of what to do, before Tess started to run. Robert caught up fast and grabbed onto the back of her shirt. He slammed her down on the ground, so that she was on her back in the thick mud. Robert grinned as he loomed over her.
There was a loud whoosh Tess couldn’t place. The grin from Robert’s face faded and Tess saw that the tip of an arrow had gone through Robert’s shoulder. Someone had shot him from behind. Without looking back, Tess pushed herself up and ran as fast as she could. The rain started to feel like needles when the thunder and lightning started.
Tess heard shouting behind her, but she needed to find a place to hide. Red lights started flashing on the edges of her vision and she heard a voice echo through the area around her.
Five minutes remaining. Five minutes until reentry.
She couldn’t see much through the pounding rain and it was becoming harder and harder to keep her balance in the slippery mud, but Tess spotted a few massive trees clustered together in the distance. After exploring for a few moments, Tess found a hollowed out tree and forced herself into the tiny nook. She pulled her knees into her body and wrapped herself up in a tight hug.
She was out of the rain, but she couldn’t stop shaking. She started to peer out to check if everything was safe, until the noises started.
The ground started to rumble and Tess could hear raspy breathing noises. She pressed her back against the inside of the nook and tried to sit as still as possible. She found it harder and harder to sit still as the rumbling got louder. After a few seconds, she couldn’t keep herself from falling over.
From her spot inside the tree, Tess watched as a gigantic reptilian-like clawed foot stepped right in front of the entrance. The impact of the creature pushed mud up all around her. Tess had to stop herself from yelling out.
The creature continued past her hiding spot and shifted the ground every time it took another step. Tess sat frozen, even long after she could feel or hear the footsteps.
Prepare for pod reentry.
Tess closed her eyes and tried to block it all out. She felt a pulling sensation come from the center of her chest and her eyes shot back open. She was in complete darkness.
“No!” Tess yelled, slamming her fist into something hard.