Tess yelled in frustration as she tried to get out of her pod. She could feel hot tears rolling down her cheek, but she didn’t remember crying.
“Dammit,” Tess cursed as she pushed the pod door open.
She was extremely grateful that Dr. Tucker wasn’t waiting for her. She didn’t think she could deal with him at that moment.
Tess sat down on the ground next to her pod and tried to fight her emotions. There was something strange about the way Anton had died…she felt like she had really seen his life end. If only there was a way to contact him before the game was over. She needed to talk to him. She needed his support.
“Keep it together,” Tess mumbled to herself. “It’s not real. It’s not real.”
She felt crazy, but she had to keep reassuring herself that Anton didn’t really die. He was fine and he was heading back home. He’d be fine, like he had said in the game.
She was able to take a shower and a short nap before Dr. Tucker came to get her. He had a smirk planted firmly on his face.
“I told you,” he said.
“Can you please shut up?” Tess begged. She was in no mood to talk to him. “What are you here for?”
Tess shook her head.
“No thanks. There’s no one there for me to talk to. I’m working alone,” Tess replied.
Dr. Tucker raised an eyebrow. He took a few steps closer to her and spoke to her very slowly, like someone would to a child.
“You are not going to make it alone. You need someone.”
“Then maybe I don’t deserve to win,” Tess said.
“You’re just going to let Robert scare you? You don’t want revenge?”
“I don’t want to have this conversation.”
“Go to dinner or else I’m staying here and eating with you,” Dr. Tucker threatened.
Tess was close to tears again, mostly due to frustration. She wanted to be left alone. She wanted to talk to her dad. She wanted to give up. What chance did she have anyway? How would she ever make it through the next level?
“Don’t you remember what Anton said to you?” Dr. Tucker asked. “You have a lot worth fighting for and you can’t give up. Don’t you have any self respect?”
Tess bit her lip.
“Did he lose for nothing?” He added.
Tess hated how much sense he was making. She didn’t really want to give up, she just wanted a moment to grieve her friend. His loss felt real. Still, she had to get serious. She had to figure out a strategy because she wouldn’t last long without one.
She had to eliminate Robert.
“Just…don’t worry about me,” Tess said.
“And you barely used you odds power,” he said, ignoring her request. “That would give you such a huge advantage if you used it right. How could you forget about it?”
Tess was about to snap, but she knew she couldn’t. He was right.
“Will there be highlights tonight?”
“Yes,” Dr. Tucker said. “And they’ll be making you look pretty pathetic…everyone will know how weak you are.”
She was used to looking weak, but she wouldn’t let it happen anymore. She was just buying into what everyone had been telling her for years. She was worthless and she needed to depend on everyone else for survival. She had to stop pitying herself.
“Well?” Tess said, pointing to the door. “Dinner, then?”
Dr. Tucker smiled.
There was something strange about how Dr. Tucker was motivating her, considering he seemed to want her to fail. He was hard to figure out, but maybe he didn’t want her to lose after all. Maybe he knew exactly what would keep her fighting.
She didn’t like his tactics.
Tess followed him into the hallway, feeling determined. She wasn’t sure who would show up, but she knew there was a huge possibility Robert would be there. As they left her room, Tess stopped him.
“Can I say goodbye to Anton?”
“No,” Dr. Tucker said. “He’s going home. They don’t allow it.”
He started walking again, but Tess stood still. She looked up at the corner of the ceiling and eyed the surveillance camera. She decided not to push her luck with Dr. Tucker, no matter how much she wanted to talk to Anton. He had just started to show his support.
When she entered the cafeteria, she felt a sudden wave of panic. Everyone was there and everyone was staring at her. It was silent.
Dr. Tucker gave her a pat on the back and exited the cafeteria, leaving her alone to face them. She walked slowly to pick up her tray and eyed the scoreboard. She was on the bottom. She didn’t even bother looking at the other scores because it didn’t matter. She had to climb up to the top and she couldn’t focus on who was in her way.
Robert literally got in her way as she tried to head toward an empty table. She tried to move past him, but he held onto her shoulder.
“Don’t touch me,” Tess said, pulling away.
Everyone was still watching.
She noticed a strange look in his eyes—an intense anger she had never seen before. It was strange for someone she barely knew to hate her so much. She didn’t understand why.
“Are you afraid?”
“Why are you targeting me? What did I do to you?”
Tess thought she saw a brief flash of panic, but she wasn’t sure why she would think that. Why would her questions make him nervous? There was no reason he had to be afraid of her.
Without warning, he pushed her down, causing her to slam into the ground and drop her tray to the floor. She watched as everything spilled all over. A split-second later, guards grabbed Robert and dragged him out of the cafeteria. He was screaming and trying to pull away, but the guards removed him quickly. The door slammed behind them, silencing his threats.
Tess stood there in shock until Nate approached her, pulled her up, and led her to his table. He pulled out her chair so she could sit down and then sat down across from her. He pushed his tray over to her so she could eat, but she didn’t feel hungry.
Nate tapped on the table, looking antsy.
“I just haven’t been able to smoke cigarettes. They don’t allow it,” Nate said. “Now’s a good time to quit, I guess.”
“What should I do about all this?” Tess asked.
Nate eyed her, but didn’t say anything. He scratched at his beard.
“I feel like I can’t even digest this food. It’s doing weird things to my stomach. Jesus…I just wish I could smoke. I wish they told me.” He laughed. “I probably wouldn’t have joined up.”
He looked away from her as Scott moved over to where they were sitting. She had no idea why they weren’t sitting together in the first place.
Scott grinned at her as he sat down. He adjusted the strap of his eyepatch behind his right ear and rolled up the sleeves of his sweatshirt.
“Did you like what I said?” Scott asked.
“What?” Tess replied.
“Did you like what I said in my interview?” Scott said. “I thought you’d like it. I thought it was pretty good.”
“It was good,” Nate added. He gave Scott a pat on the shoulder. “No one can deny it. They’ll try to deny it, but they can’t.”
Tess stared at them, unsure about what was going. Were they messing with her?
“Okay, listen,” Nate said noticing her frustration. He leaned forward and so did Scott. “Are you going to team up with us or what?”
Tess tried to analyze them to see if they were joking, but she couldn’t tell. She pointed to the scoreboard.
“Why would you want to team up with someone who’s last?”
“Robert is the strongest in the game and I think you can help us take him out. We can beat him,” Nate explained. “Besides…we like you, Gal. You shouldn’t get pushed around like that.”
Tess thought of Anton. She didn’t want to see someone go like that again. She didn’t want to be responsible for that happening to someone else. It was too weird and real. It scared her.
She opened her mouth to protest, but Scott interrupted her, anticipating her dismissal of the idea.
“Are you going to eat that muffin?” Scott asked. He pointed to her tray—Nate’s tray. When she didn’t answer he scooped it up and took a bite. “You should really eat more. I’m not saying this because I think my opinion matters, but…you’re looking a little pale. You should get something in your stomach. You look like you’re going to be sick.”
Tess grabbed back the muffin and picked off a few pieces to pop in her mouth. She eyed Scott.
“I’ll join you, but I don’t need you doing this to protect me. I don’t need your pity,” Tess said. “And don’t lie about why you’re doing it either.”
Scott nearly spit out his food. He exchanged incredulous glances with Nate.
“You think we pity you?” Scott said. “Nate told me he met you in JAIL and you rejected The Creator! I’m afraid of you. I don’t want you to be my enemy.”
Tess raised an eyebrow.
“I’m not stupid.”
“He’s being serious. Gal, just because you flubbed the first level doesn’t mean you can’t win this thing. It was your first time in Never World. I don’t know if you’ve looked in the mirror lately, but you’re a badass. You’re a modern day…”
It was clear Nate was racking his brain for a name, but Scott finished it for him.
“From which movie?” Nate asked.
“How many were there?”
“Who even knows how many remakes they’ve—”
“Excuse me?” Tess interrupted.
Nate waved a dismissive hand.
“Let’s get back on track here, I’d like to compare you to someone real who actually existed, but I’m having trouble thinking of anything right now,” Nate said. “The point is, I’d really like you to work with us because I trust you. I don’t know why I trust you, but I do. Don’t you feel the same way?”
Tess glanced at him and then Scott. She nodded.
“I want to team up.”
Nate and Scott both smiled.
“Now the game can actually begin,” Scott commented.
After a short conversation about strategy, Dr. Tucker arrived and escorted Tess back to her room. On her way back, she saw some cleaners clearing out Anton’s room. She thought it was strange because she had been told that the cleaners only came by on Fridays. Had Anton made such a mess that it needed to be done right away? Why couldn’t they wait until then?
It all drifted from her mind as she arrived back in her room and collapsed into bed. It had been a long few days and she just wanted to sleep. Dr. Tucker told her they wouldn’t be starting a new level until Monday, so she had plenty of time to rest up, get back into shape, and plan strategy with Nate and Scott.
The next morning, Tess headed to the gym for a workout and got to talk with Nate and Scott during both lunch and dinner. It didn’t last long, but they tried to think about what the next level would be like. She had also been informed that Robert was banned from the cafeteria for the rest of the week. She had secretly hoped that he had been sent home, but she didn’t see that happening.
Tess didn’t get to see the footage and TV spots from the first level until Saturday. She could barely get through, due to how weak she looked, and felt embarrassed. She had barely tried at all and it looked like she had no idea what was going on. That was true, but now everyone knew it.
On Sunday, she started scouring over her notes to find out what she knew about Robert and his avatar. Both Scott and Nate were able to tell her that he had superhuman strength in the game, but he still didn’t have much a strategy. They also weren’t sure whether or not he was working with someone. She jotted down Eleanor just in case.
She’d just have to wait until they could find out more.
Tess was able to sleep a little easier that night, even though she’d have to enter the next level in the morning. It felt good to have a couple people on her side.
As she loaded herself into her pod and the alarm went off, she thought of Anton. Was he upset that he lost? Would someone still offering him the help he needed? She desperately wanted to talk to him, but there was no way to do it until it was all over. She wanted to know if he’d be okay.
She’d just have to ignore the feeling in her gut that told her everything was wrong.