When Tess opened her eyes, she was staring at a high ceiling with old wooden rafters. She sat up on her cot and saw there were a bunch of other cots in a circle around the room. All of the other remaining contestants were also awakening.
She eyed Nate, but he pressed a finger to his lips. It was smarter to not let everyone in on the fact that they were working together just yet. Scott, on the other hand, grinned at her. He looked about the same, except his eye patch looked much more heavy duty and he had a pod suit on that looked a lot like the one she had designed. His boots looked like they were good for running.
When she realized she was putting too much focus on what Scott was wearing, she turned away. Robert was watching her to her right and Eleanor was eyeing him to her left.
Tess noticed a clock above the door of the cabin. It was a little after 10 a.m.
Dressed in camo, and without burns, Larsen approached the door first. It wouldn’t open, so he sat back down.
“I guess we wait,” Sonya said, trying to make light of the situation.
No one answered.
Tess tried to analyze every one of her competitors as time went by. The twins, Eli and Morgan, were still attached, which she found a bit confusing, but they probably weren’t able to control separate avatars. Sonya looked mostly the same size, except her hair looked a bit straighter, and was also a bright green color.
She thought of her own blue hair and thought maybe she had made a poor choice, considering everyone would be able to see it if she needed to hide. With the map, she didn’t think it made much difference.
Robert’s voice cut through her thoughts.
“Why’d you keep your scar?” He asked. Clearly, he was analyzing her as well. “You had a choice, didn’t you?”
Tess kept quiet and stared at the clock.
“Nothing to say?” He continued. “And don’t you think it’s a little cliche to do the whole blue hair thing? What a poor design choice, Tess.”
She eyed Nate quickly and saw his hands were clenching the side of his cot. He looked like he was on the edge of jumping up. She prayed he wouldn’t.
“Why don’t you leave her alone?” Sonya called back. “She’s last.”
“And almost eliminated.” Robert added. “Why don’t we take her out now. I promise I won’t touch any of you this round. Then we’ll be able to play the game for real.”
“For real?” Scott chimed in. He tried to look as excited as possible. “Golly, sign me up! I can’t wait to get to the real game.”
Robert pointed a finger at him.
“I will be careful,” Scott shot back. “And I’ll be here until the end.”
Time ticked by as Robert continued to stare at her. After a while, everyone was on edge. The clock was about five minutes away from hitting 11 a.m. and still nothing had happened.
“Are we supposed to just kill each other in the room?” Eleanor asked.
Tess realized she looked even more beautiful inside the game as she did outside of it. She also remembered that Eleanor was the only one who had volunteered for the competition. She wasn’t sure if that made her more dangerous.
“Our objectives aren’t up yet,” Robert replied. It seemed like it was more of a warning to tell Eleanor to keep quiet, but she couldn’t be sure. “They’re trying to scare us.”
“It’s working,” Sonya said.
At 11 a.m. the door swung open by itself. Tess leaned forward to peer outside, but Robert bounded past her and disappeared. Eleanor was right on his heels.
Everyone else was much more reluctant to leave the room, but they slowly filtered out. Larsen went next, then the twins, then Sonya. Nate, Scott, and Tess were left alone.
Nate stood perfectly still, so Tess knew he was accessing his map. He finally looked at her.
“There’s a cabin about a mile from here. Let’s not talk until we get there,” he said. “You go first, Tess. We’ll be close behind.”
Tess ignored the nagging feeling that it was all a trap and headed out into the daylight. It was a densely wooded area, but there was a dirt path that lead toward the cabin Nate was talking about. She saw it on her map as well.
She found her pack a little bit down the path and hurried off.
She wasn’t sure how long it took her to get there, but she pushed through the brush near the end of the path and found the small, run-down cabin. She used her fist to break open the lock and stepped inside. It was dusty and full of cobwebs. She took a seat near the center of the room and waited.
Nate arrived a few moments later, taking a quick look around the cabin. He excused himself for a second to survey the outside area and returned with Scott in tow. As Nate and Scott busied themselves with searching through some of the cabinets, she tried to take in Nate’s avatar. He wore dark clothing, a thin black jacket, and he had a sword at his hip that ran down his leg. She wasn’t sure what his power was, but it didn’t seem like he had ever been in danger in the last round. There was a lot she had to find out about them.
Tess logged into her map and saw that it was gone. When she brought up her objectives, it only said one thing.
“To win you must kill yourself,” Scott said.
She turned to see him staring out at the empty space in front of him.
“What?” Nate asked. He stopped pulling some dusty bottles of water from above the old fridge and turned to them. “Are you sure?”
“That’s all it says,” Tess confirmed.
She watched as Scott pulled out a dagger from his belt loop and pressed it to the skin above his heart.
“That’s all it says,” Scott repeated, giving her a glance.
“Wait!” Tess shouted. He kept the dagger where it was, but held his pose. There was a strange tension in the room. “I’ll check the odds.”
“You’ll what?” Nate asked.
Tess ignored him as she brought up the odds on her screen. She waited a moment while they calculated. For a reason she couldn’t explain, she was holding her breath.
“There’s a zero percent chance you’ll survive,” Tess said. The statistic moved to the bottom of her eye-line and stayed there. Hopefully she was finally understanding how to best use her powers, but she knew it would take some time. “Don’t.”
She walked over to him and took the dagger away, placing it on the table next to them. Scott pulled out a chair for her and motioned for her to sit down. They all joined her.
“So, you can tell if something is going to work out?” Scott asked, leaning on the table. He then pointed to her metal hand. “And you can destroy stuff with that.”
“Yes,” Tess replied. “Why? What can you do?”
“Well,” Scott said. He motioned toward the door, where a bow was sitting. “I wanted that bow, so…well, it can shoot infinite arrows. Used all my design points on it.”
“Really?” Tess asked.
She looked at Nate, who was scratching at his beard. It was bit longer in the game. He motioned to the sword at his leg.
“It’s a super good sword,” Nate said. Scott leaned over the table to give him an enthusiastic high-five. “It was worth it.”
“Okay, so clearly you’re the best at designing avatars, but we have a solid team here,” Scott said. He ran a hand through his hair and sighed. “We survived the first round. We can do this. Let’s not start getting down on ourselves now.”
“What should we do then?” Tess asked. “If the answer isn’t to off ourselves, then what is it?”
“Maybe it’s a riddle,” Nate suggested.
They sat in silence for a few moments, but no one could think of what it could mean. They had no idea what to do next.
Nate checked the windows and sat down against the wall. Scott exchanged glances with him and suppressed a smile.
“Let’s just let it settle for a little then,” Scott said. He eyed Tess. “We should learn more about each other. We don’t know you very well. You don’t know us very well. Maybe it could help us work together.”
“That’s not true, Scott. I know Gal is a badass. I know that about her,” Nate replied wearily. He rested his head against the wall and yawned. “I know she’s going to win this thing.”
“Don’t you want to win?” Tess probed.
“If I win, then what? A few months or so of treatment? Who even knows if I’d make it past then,” Nate said. That was the first time she had heard him say anything about his cancer. “What would even happen after that?”
“You’d live,” Tess said. “No one’s died from cancer in years.”
“No one you hear about.”
Tess bit her lip. She didn’t know Nate very well, but she didn’t like hearing him talk like that. She wanted him to live. It saddened her to think of him just not existing one day soon. Maybe it was because she hadn’t had a new friend in years…if she could call him that.
“I wouldn’t fix my eye sight either,” Scott added. “Would you fix your hand?”
Tess shook her head. But maybe she would. She tried to tell herself that she wasn't broken, but why would she turn away technology that could help her?
“What’s the point of this then? What are we doing?” Tess asked.
“We’re fighting back,” Scott said simply.
“There’s nothing wrong with me. This is just my life,” Scott replied. He pointed to his eye patch. “This is me and I like it.”
“This is me, but I don’t like it. But I don’t want to change it either,” Tess said. She wasn’t sure what she was trying to say, but they both looked like they understood. “It’s not fair, but it’s my life. I guess I got used to not thinking about it. It’s everyone else that thinks about it.”
“Well…why did you join up?” Nate asked.
No one probed further. She wondered if they had families, but she didn’t ask. She originally pegged Nate to be a street cleaner when she first met him, due to the state of his hands. It looked like he worked with them on a daily basis.
She tried to understand why Nate would let himself die, but it didn’t seem like he had much to live for. She turned away from him.
“I know we’re fighting for something, I just haven’t figured it out yet,” Scott said confidently. He grinned. “Just give me a few days, Gal.”
They spent the next few hours sitting in the cabin, looking out for each other as they took breaks.
During her break, Tess went with Li to the game room to play more of the maze. It just kept getting more and more difficult until she had to stop due to frustration. He smiled at her as she handed the helmet back to him.
“It’s a ridiculous game,” Tess said.
“You can’t win,” Li replied.
“What?” Tess asked, starting back to her room. “Then why are you having me play it?”
“Because sometimes there’s no way to win. It tells you a lot about yourself.”
He followed her as she got back into her pod and strapped on her goggles.
“I don’t need to know anything else about myself.”
“That’s a bold statement, little girl,” he said. He paused, his expression turning more serious. “Sorry about Anton.”
“Yeah,” Tess replied. “Me too.”
Tess brought herself back into the game and they waited some more. It felt strange letting the day waste, but there was no use rushing into what they hadn’t figured out yet.
She watched as Scott moved to the window and knelt down so he could rest his arms and head on the ledge. After a few minutes, he stood up quickly, nearly jumping away from the glass. Nate and Tess shot up as well. Nate’s hand was on his sword, which she hadn’t seen out of its sheath yet.
“What?” Nate asked when Scott moved back toward the window.
“I think I know what we have to do,” Scott said.
Tess moved to his side and tried to figure out what he was looking at. It didn’t take long.
She saw him standing there under one of the trees. It was Scott. A perfect clone.
“We have to kill ourselves,” Tess replied.