When Tess realized her right side felt different than it did just a moment ago, she understood where she was. Still, she wanted to get out as soon as possible.
She continued to pound on the top of the pod, but it wouldn’t budge. In her panic, she couldn’t find the button to open it. Eventually, the pod door creaked open and Tess jumped out as quickly as she could. She ripped off the goggles and tossed them aside, in an attempt to focus on the room around her.
After the room stopped spinning, Tess tried to take a couple deep breaths, but they all felt short and shallow. A knock at the door startled her.
“You awake?” Dr. Tucker called.
He didn’t wait for her to answer before bursting in.
“Did you think I was sleeping?” Tess snapped back. Dr. Tucker smirked. “Why didn’t you tell me anything I needed to know before I entered Never World?”
“Whoa, whoa…calm down. I told you precisely what you needed to know.” He paused. “I do have a question though. Why didn’t you team up with Nate and Scott? Seems like you’d have a better chance with them.”
Tess ignored him and headed to the bathroom. She wanted to take off her sweaty pod suit and take a shower. She also needed to pee really badly.
As she was in the shower, she could still hear Dr. Tucker talking to her through the door.
“Your pod suit is designed to hold urine and feces,” he said. She could hear the amusement in his voice. “You don’t have to hold it. There will be a new suit for you tomorrow morning.”
“Thanks. Got it,” Tess replied bitterly.
She finished up and changed into her blue jumpsuit. In an attempt to avoid Dr. Tucker, she spent a little while combing her hair. When she left the bathroom, he was waiting in the kitchen, sitting at a stool.
“You can go to dinner if you want. It’s in ten minutes,” he said. “It might be a good opportunity to talk strategy.”
“Since when do you care if I do well?” Tess asked.
“Well…I get a little bonus if you win and you’re doing worse than I thought you would. You should try to talk to those two boys and see what you can get going,” he suggested.
“I’m working with Anton.”
“Anton doesn’t stand a chance.”
“Don’t say that. You’ve been no help up to this point and I have no desire to win for you,” Tess argued.
“But your father…” Tess stayed quiet as he pulled a letter from his jacket pocket. “Go to dinner and I’ll give it to you sooner.”
“What do you mean?”
“Winners of this level get letters from their loved ones, if they have them. I’ll give you yours early,” he explained.
Tess tied up her wet hair in a ponytail and nodded toward the door.
“Great,” Dr. Tucker said with a smile.
A few minutes later, Tess followed him to the cafeteria. It was something that she was interested in doing anyway because she really wanted to talk to Anton and see how everyone else was fairing. She also wondered who else would show up, since it seemed to be optional.
Dr. Tucker held the door open for her and ushered her into the cafeteria. He let the door slam behind her, so everyone looked up.
Tess noticed the mood had gone down considerably since the meet and greet. Only Scott, Nate, Anton, Sonya, and Eleanor were in attendance. Eleanor, Sonya, and Anton were eating alone, but Scott and Nate were having their own conversation on the other end of the cafeteria. They both stopped talking and watched her as she crossed the room to grab a tray. She couldn’t read their expressions.
Once she got her food, she walked back over to Anton and sat across from him. He looked up at her and smiled.
“Hey, Tess. You found me,” he said in a low voice.
“I did,” she replied. “Did you get your egg yet?”
“Almost,” he replied. “I had to hide when the lights started flashing, but I’m right there. You?”
“Do you know what’s out there?” Tess asked. “Did you see anything?”
“I heard some noises, but I haven’t come across anything yet.”
“Anton, I think there’s dinosaurs. I almost got crushed by one,” Tess said.
“Dinosaurs!” Anton shouted. The rest of the contestants looked their way. She saw Scott smiling. He lowered his voice. “Do you think Robert knows that dinosaurs and people didn’t exist at the same time?”
Tess suppressed a laugh.
“What should we do?”
“Well, where are you?”
“I’m in a tree. In the nook of a tree,” Tess explained. “I’ll try to stay by my egg if you want to find me there.”
“I’ll find you there,” Anton replied. He watched her for a moment, eyeing where the metal hand had once been. “Is it weird?”
“I guess it’s just what I’m used to, but it does make me want to go back in the game,” Tess said. “How about you?”
“It’s great being able to walk again,” Anton said quietly. “I can’t deny that.”
“It’s a strange feeling.”
Anton and Tess ate in silence for a few moments until Anton motioned to the other contestants.
“So, what’s the deal with those other guys?” Anton probed. “How well do you know them?”
Tess looked down at her plate.
“I met Nate after I had been arrested. He sort of convinced me to do this, but I don’t know him that well. I don’t know Scott at all,” Tess admitted.
“They seem to like you,” Anton said. She tried to detect sarcasm, but his comment seemed genuine. “Why didn’t you go with them?”
“Because we’re a team,” Tess said, reaching out to touch his arm. “And I think we can do well.”
Anton smiled, but he didn’t say anything for a while as they ate.
“You can do this, you know,” Anton finally said. “You can win this.”
“Why would you think that? I haven’t exactly proven myself. I’ve been saved two times already,” Tess said.
Anton looked deep in thought.
“Yeah, Robert attacked me, but then someone shot an arrow through his shoulder—” Tess was interrupted by the cafeteria door sounding like it had been kicked open.
She shuddered when she saw Robert had walked in. He glanced around the room and locked eyes on her for a moment. Anton turned to follow her gaze.
Robert looked at each and every contestant there as he strolled to pick up a tray. Tess realized that she was clutching the edge of the table. He smiled over at Nate and Scott and then found his own table. Tess breathed a sigh of relief, along with everyone else in the room, when he began to eat silently.
They didn’t say anything for a while, afraid that he would hear them.
“He’s going to be a big target,” Anton whispered. He put his fork down on his tray and pushed it to the side. “People are going to want to take him out.”
“Or they’ll want to take out the weakest first,” Tess replied. “Me.”
“Don’t say that,” Anton said.
He grabbed both their trays and started over to the garbage cans. While he was gone, Tess saw Sonya glancing in her direction. She smiled slightly and headed over to where Tess was sitting.
“How you doing, little Tess?” Sonya asked, taking a seat. “Never World hasn’t been treating you so well, huh?”
Tess couldn’t help but smile. She eyed Anton, but he was talking to Dr. Young.
“I guess not,” Tess said. “It’s only the first day.”
“I know,” Sonya replied. She traced a scratch mark on the table with her finger. “I would hate to see you go this round. Just keep trying.”
She looked up at Tess.
“I will,” Tess said.
It was strange to have people care about her, even if they did need to beat her in the end. She also wasn’t sure why Sonya cared at all.
“I get to write up a blog post before we reenter Never World tomorrow,” Sonya explained. “I guess they want me to keep my audience interested.”
“That’s good you get to see a little bit of the outside world.”
“I don’t get to see much. I don’t even know what’s going on out there,” Sonya said. She laughed a little bit. “This is the most I’ve had to interact with real life people in a while.”
“How are you liking it?”
Sonya watched Tess curiously.
“I’ve just never had friends.”
Tess thought of Cameron back home and how she was dealing with everything. It must be strange for her to see Tess on television and not be able to talk to her. They usually tried to talk every day.
The cafeteria doors opened again and this time Bethany entered. She didn’t take any time to look or talk to anyone else besides Robert. A moment later, she was ushering him out the door.
“What’s that about?” Tess asked.
“They’re showing some highlights of the game tonight, so I’m sure they want some commentary from Robert,” Sonya said. Tess was impressed by how perceptive she was. “Got any alliances of your own?”
“Should I tell you that?”
“I guess not.” Sonya peered over at Eleanor. “I’d like to work with her…just gotta find my chance. Maybe I’ll say something nice about her in my write-up.”
“I hope it works out for you,” Tess replied.
Tess could tell Sonya was analyzing her to figure out if she was being sarcastic and then realized Tess was being genuine.
“If we cross paths in the game, I’ll make sure to go easy on you,” Sonya said.
“And I’ll go easy on you,” Tess added.
“You got it, Tess.”
She watched as Sonya returned to seat and hunched over her computer.
Dr. Tucker came to fetch her a few moments later. Anton waved goodbye and Dr. Young gave her the slightest of smiles. She wanted to talk to him, but there just wasn’t time. She was sure Dr. Tucker would stop the communication anyway.
As Dr. Tucker stepped into the hallway, someone grabbed the door and held it open for her. She glanced up and saw Scott looking at her. He winked at her.
Tess hurried to catch up with Dr. Tucker. He held the door open for her when they reached her room, but didn’t step inside.
“My letter,” Tess reminded him.
He rolled his eyes and then pulled the letter from his pocket, handing it over to her.
“Maybe you should focus more on the game instead of what’s going on at home,” Dr. Tucker said. “Hope you figured out a strategy.”
Before Tess could answer, Dr Tucker let the door slam shut. Tess hurried to the kitchen table and tore open her letter. She turned it over, but the same thing was on each side.
There was nothing.
Furious, Tess headed to her door and pounded on it until her fist felt sore. No one came. She collapsed on her bed and tried to relax her breathing. She was angry, but she had to calm down. For some reason, Dr. Tucker was messing with her.
Tess pulled out her notes and tried to jot down a few more things about each contestant. She included what she knew about their powers and who was trying to team up with who. If she was going to do well, she’d have to be more prepared.
Dr. Young stopped by and told her turn on the television and they watched as some of the game highlights began to roll. Tess was not happy with herself and what she saw because she was coming off as very pathetic. They even showed how she had hid out and how terrified she looked right before she was brought back to the pod. She was about to turn it off until Robert’s interview came on.
“I’m glad I’m doing so well, but I didn’t think I’d have trouble,” Robert said. “Right now, it’s a cake walk. I’m just waiting for my time to strike.”
Tess hoped he would reveal a little bit more about what he planned to do, but he wasn’t as stupid as she thought.
“I thought I’d go after the strongest first, but no one’s really standing out yet, so I think I’m gunning for the weakest. Might as well make it more exciting later for the viewers,” Robert said.
Tess scoffed, but she was truly scared of him. She had to find a way to stay out of his way for now.
“Who do you think is the weakest?” Bethany asked with a smile plastered on his face.
Robert paused for a moment.
“Little Tess Galvin,” he replied. “She won’t make it to the next round.”
After the interview, Tess and Dr. Young sat in silence for a little while. As much as Robert wanted to see her gone, she had to find a way to protect herself. She had to stay hidden until someone else was eliminated first. She just had to outlast one other person.
But then what about the next levels?
“This is only the beginning,” Li said, glancing over at her. “You’ll do better tomorrow.”
“How is Anton?” Tess asked. She knew that Dr. Young was now working with him. “Do you help him, too?”
“I help him as much as I can.”
“Do you help me more?” Li didn’t look at her. “But why?”
“I can’t talk about it now,” Li said. “Do you want my help or not?”
“I do.” Tess paused. “Maybe one day you can explain it to me.”
“Maybe one day.”
After Li left Tess tried to sleep, but she was plagued with worry. Tomorrow, she’d be right back where she was and she’d have to move fast. Eventually, she drifted asleep, but was awoken by a blaring alarm at 8 a.m. Tess forced herself out of bed.
She briefly wondered why the alarm would go off that morning and not the previous morning, but she didn’t have much time to worry about it. She tried to eat a light breakfast, but she could barely keep it down.
That morning Dr. Tucker didn’t come to help her out, which Tess preferred. When the alarms to get into her pod started going off, Tess got herself inside and prepped for reentry with ease. A moment later, she was back in the game.
When she opened her eyes she was back inside the tree and it was still pouring outside. Tess let her body relax and focused on what she should do next.
Since it seemed like the rain wasn’t going to die down anytime soon, Tess peeked her head out of the nook of the tree and took a look around.
“Okay,” Tess mumbled to herself. “Be brave.”
She stepped outside, feeling better wielding her knife, but ducked immediately when a crack of thunder ripped through the air. She was almost ankle deep in mud, but she had to keep going. She had to get her egg.
Tess brought up her map and quickly found the path she had to take. Unfortunately, following the route to her egg involved going deeper into a jungle.
A red light started flashing on Tess’s screen, so she brought up her menu. The scoreboard revealed that everyone had their eggs except for her. She had to go as quickly as possible.
As Tess walked, she started to notice some rustling noises behind her. She swung around and held up the knife, but she didn’t see anyone. It was too hard to see what was going on through the storm.
“Tess!” She heard a muffled yell. Tess stepped back in the trees. “Wait up!”
A rough hand grabbed her shoulder and swung her around. She was face to face with Anton.
“Tess, you need to go!” He shouted, above the roar of the wind. “You need to hide out for a while.”
“But I’m so close,” Tess said, trying to pull away. He yanked her back. “You don’t understand. Everyone is waiting for you. They’re going to kill you when you get your egg. You’re the easiest one to find right now because you need your egg.”
“Then what’s the difference? They’re just going to wait out for me anyway,” Tess argued. She tried to push her wet hair out of her face, but the rain was just whipping against her constantly. “I can’t wait.”
“Please…wait,” Anton begged. “He’s waiting for you. Robert is waiting.”
Tess felt torn. She was so close, but Anton was right. Everyone was gunning for her because of what Robert said. They were all expecting her to be the first one gone and now he had all the power.
“What am I going to do?”
“People will find other targets if you lay low for a while. I’ll figure out a way to draw them away,” he said.
Anton started to go, but Tess called out to him.
“Why are you doing this?” Tess asked.
Anton paused, unable to get anything out at first.
“I don’t know…I just…I don’t think you deserve to go home. You need it,” he said. “And I like you.”
“You need it too,” she argued.
“Why are you here?”
“I asked why you’re here. Why do you want?” Anton repeated. His eyes were so intense she couldn’t look away. “Why do you want to do?”
“I want to help my father. I want to save his life,” she replied.
“Exactly,” Anton replied. He looked down at the ground and then back up at her. “I don’t have family. I have no one. You need this, so don’t give up. Promise me you won’t give up.”
“I won’t!” Tess shouted.
“Okay,” Anton said, with a smile. “Now go.”
Tess hurried out of the jungle and explored off the path a little bit. She walked about a mile until she found another wooded area to hide in.
It didn’t sound like anyone was following her and the rain was still pretty heavy, so she tried not to worry about anyone following her footprints. She did, on the other hand, worry about Anton. She didn’t want him to put himself in danger because of her. She didn’t want him to get eliminated protecting her. She couldn’t let it happen.
She just wasn’t sure if she had any reason to believe she could make it past this level. What chance did she have at the rest of the competition?
After hiking through the wooded area a bit, she saw a structure up ahead that caught her attention. It looked like a treehouse, with a small ladder leading up to the top. If anyone was going to find her, they’d have to know she was there. She just hoped no one had explored that area previously.
Tess climbed into the treehouse and sat down on the rotted, splintered wood. Very far off, she heard gunshots.
Feeling safe enough, Tess logged out of her pod and found something to eat in her room. As she sat and ate, she noticed that her door was propped open a bit.
She wandered slowly out into the hallway and saw Li waiting in front of another door across the hall. He pressed a finger on his lips and then made his way over to her. He checked his bulky watch as he entered her room and closed the door.
“Want to enter the system again?” He asked.
“Do I have time?”
“I’m keeping an eye on your map. You’ll be fine.”
Tess agreed and got back in her pod. She found herself back in the white nothingness again. She decided to focus on something else.
She looked next to her and saw Anton standing there. He smiled at her and pointed to the distance. There was a small cabin in the woods, surrounded by wildflowers. She followed him as he started to run toward it.
Tess paused for a moment to stare up at the sky. The sun was shining down and she could feel the warmth on his skin. It felt nice.
When she looked to find Anton again, he had fallen to the ground. As she got closer she saw he was clutching his legs. He was screaming in pain, but she couldn’t hear him. She couldn’t hear anything.
The ground opened up and swallowed him whole. The world started to fall apart again and the ground started sucking her in. She tried to grab onto anything, but she woke up back in her pod.
“That was longer this time,” Li said. “How was it?”
“You’re getting better.”
“What is better? This all seems awful.”
“You’re playing out your fears and finding a place to put your anxiety,” Li explained. “It’s a good thing.”
Tess nodded, still unsure. She laid back down in her pod and sighed.
“I guess I should be getting back.”
“Good luck, Tess.”
She wasn’t sure how long she sat by herself, but her body felt sore by the time she stood up again. The rain had died down and there was very little thunder. It sounded like the storm was getting farther away.
Tess wandered down the ladder again to explore the area for something to drink. She kept her knife by her side just in case.
As she walked up to one of the streams about a half mile past the treehouse, she heard some rustling in the bushes. She eyed a few broken eggs near the shore. Tess carefully approached the water and used her hand to cup some up so she could drink it.
She kept her eyes on a bushes as a creature poked it’s head out. It was a small dinosaur, perhaps one that wasn’t so dangerous. Tess started to approach it, but when she did, skin expanded from its head making it look much bigger. It hissed.
“Sorry,” Tess said, backing up. “I guess everything’s dangerous.”
Obviously, Robert’s world was a nightmare.
The creature watched her as she slowly backed away. Once she realized it was going to follow her, she took off back toward the treehouse. She climbed inside and watched the activity below from the edge. A few other dinosaurs of that kind had gathered to stare up at her.
They sat there the whole day until Tess’s pod alarm started to go off. She moved back into the treehouse and waited to awaken in her pod.
Tess felt a little nauseous when she stepped out of her pod. Dr. Tucker knocked on her door, but she hurried to the bathroom in case she needed to puke.
“It takes some time to get used to,” Dr. Tucker explained from outside the bathroom. “It’s just unlike anything you’ve ever experienced.”
“Can you leave me alone?” Tess asked.
When she reentered the main room, he continued to follow her.
“Don’t you want to win?”
“I just want to figure this out on my own,” Tess replied. “You’re not helping.”
“Dinner is in ten minutes.”
Tess sat down at the stool in her kitchen and placed her head on the cool marble.
“I’m eating here. I don’t need to see anyone.”
“But you need to get some help. You need to try to convince Robert to leave you alone.”
“I don’t need to do anything. I don’t need to beg,” Tess argued. “It will just make things worse.”
“I think you’re making a big mistake.”
When Tess didn’t answer, Dr. Tucker started checking over her pod. He opened a hatch on the side and started pressing buttons. He finished in about a minute and closed the hatch back up.
“Are you done?” Tess asked.
“I don’t think you should—”
“Are you done?” Tess repeated, interrupting him.
Dr. Tucker made his way swiftly toward the door. He left without saying another word.
Tess moved to her bed, feeling exhausted. She had to figure out how to stay alive and she had to figure it out fast.
She had to get her egg tomorrow and fight back.
She had to give herself a chance.