Tess woke up in her pod and let herself out calmly. She took some time to fix up her hair and change out of her pod suit. It was time for dinner.
She was excited about meeting Nate and Scott for dinner, considering it was starting to feel like she had friends. Trusting your life with another person in that way was something Tess had never done before. Even if it was only a competition.
Dr. Tucker led her down to the cafeteria without saying a word. She liked it that way because it seemed like he had nothing to complain about regarding her performance. She wasn’t sure why she cared.
“Hey, Gal,” Nate said. They were one of the first ones there, so he was picking up his tray when she walked in. He handed it to her and grabbed an extra. “Long time no see.”
Tess envied Nate and Scott’s ability to remain upbeat despite everything going on. She wasn’t sure why she felt so serious about Never World, but she did. It just felt like there was so much riding on it.
“Ola,” Scott called after them as he jogged into the cafeteria. He quickly grabbed a tray and sat across from Tess at the table. Nate sat next to her. “How are you?”
Tess wasn’t sure how she hadn’t noticed before, but there was a slight accent to Scott’s voice when he spoke. He had probably gotten pretty good at hiding it. There was something comforting and familiar about him. He reminded her of where she grew up.
“Are you from Alana?” Tess asked, dismissing his question.
Scott looked up, surprised.
“That’s where my family lives,” he said. “I left, but they’re all still there.”
He smiled, suddenly realizing that she understood something about him most other kids wouldn’t. He didn’t say anything else about it.
“How should we best tackle this level?” Nate asked. He lowered his voice when Robert entered the room. He lumbered over to the trays and grabbed one for himself. He eyed them quickly before finding a table alone. Eleanor and Sonya filtered in soon after. “I guess he’s allowed back.”
“Unfortunately,” Scott groaned.
They watched as Robert ate, devouring his food like a wild animal. Finally, Nate snapped back to attention.
“You think we should go after our own doubles or do it one by one?”
“One by one,” Scott said quickly. He paused and glanced at Tess. There was a strange vibe between them now after Tess revealed something personal about him. She couldn’t put a finger on what had changed. “If that’s what you think is best.”
“I’d rather that we worked together,” Tess said. Nate tapped his fingers on the table. She already knew that was his sign when he was craving a cigarette. She put her hand on his to stop him. “You doing okay?”
“Sure, sure,” Nate said. He grabbed his tray. “I don’t want people seeing us spending too much time together. I’ll see you in the morning.”
Nate squeezed Tess’s hand and hurried to the door. They watched him go.
Scott eyed her and shrugged slightly.
“I don’t know everything about Nate—as close as we may seem,” he said. “There’s something else he’s stressing about.”
“You think he’ll be fine?”
“Ever since the end of the last round, he’s been on edge. Something about Anton getting eliminated really freaked him out. It’s all just part of the game.”
“It freaked me out too,” Tess mumbled.
They ate in silence for a few moments. She couldn’t think of anything to say to him even though there was so much she didn’t know about it. It was fine though because the silence wasn’t uncomfortable.
Scott placed his fork on his tray and watched her.
“Can I ask you something?” He finally said.
“Why didn’t you get rid of your scars on your avatar?”
Tess tried to figure out the right way to answer his question, but she just felt embarrassed. Did Scott think she was ugly? She hated how that was one of the first things that always crossed her mind. She was sick of feeling ugly.
“I don’t know who I am without them.” She paused. “I mean…I know I existed before them and I remember my life before all that, but…”
She trailed off, unsure of how to explain herself.
“I think I know what you mean,” Scott said. “You want to see my eye?”
Tess smiled. She didn’t really want to, but she found his enthusiasm charming. He took that as a yes.
Scott lifted his eye patch and she saw that his eye had been sewn shut. Who had done it hadn’t done a very good job, but he probably couldn’t afford to go to the doctor. Which was probably why he had been invited to the game.
“I don’t really know what to say to you,” Tess replied.
“I think you’ll actually like me by the end of this,” Scott said. “And…this game is really hard. It really gets to you. I think that’s the challenge.”
He popped his eye patch back on and grabbed his tray to leave. She watched him as he exited into the hallway. The door slamming shut made her jump.
When she was back in her room, she added to her notes and jotted down some facts about her teammates. She wasn’t sure if she would even do anything with them, but she wanted to remember. She wanted to remember that they were part of her life in some way.
The next morning, Tess felt cranky and over tired, but she forced herself to wake up and get ready to re-enter Never World. She was less nervous than she had ever been to go back, which was an improvement. She even felt a bit excited.
The pod brought her right back to the cabin with Nate and Scott. It was raining outside.
Nate picked himself up off the floor and his hand went to his sword. He checked out the window and then sat back down against the wall. Scott grabbed his bow and started thumbing the string with his fingers. He seemed distracted.
The bow suddenly reminded Tess of the first level. Robert had been shot through the shoulder with an arrow, but she had assumed it was Anton protecting her. Anton had been confused by it when she told him.
But why would’ve Scott protected her so early on and why had he been close by? She looked away when he noticed she was watching him. He could have just been in the right place at the right time. She wanted to thank him, but it felt weird bringing it up. He had never mentioned it to her.
“We’ll head out after this rain stops,” Nate said, closing his eyes.
Tess checked the scoreboard. It seemed like no one had killed their doubles yet, so there wasn’t an immediate rush.
“I’ll check around the cabin, then,” Tess said, feeling antsy.
No one protested, so she headed out into the rain. She wanted to feel useful.
Tess used her metal hand to shield her eyes from the rain. After checking around the perimeter for a few minutes, she headed back inside. She saw that Scott had been waiting near the window.
He moved back toward the table and looked over his bow. She felt the urge to bring it up again, since it was nagging at her, but she kept it under control. He raised an eyebrow.
“What should we do?” Scott asked. “Figure out if it’s a good idea if I go looking for my twin.”
She looked at the statistics.
“50/50. I guess it wouldn’t know what you’re going to do. The plan has to be solid,” Tess explained.
“Okay, so…” Nate bit his lip. “If I run through the forest screaming?”
“It dropped to 10 percent.”
“Really?” His eyes lit up. “That’s good, right?”
Scott put his bow down.
“That’s not good, Nate.”
“It’s better than nothing,” he muttered.
“Yes, you’re correct. 10 percent is better than 0,” Scott said.
Tess sat down across from Scott and motioned toward Nate.
“Well, what do you think? You’re supposed to be older and wiser. What should we do?”
“We should wait to move until tomorrow,” Nate said. No one questioned him. “I’m not that old.”
“And you’re not that wise,” Scott added.
Nate nodded in agreement and then crossed his arms over his chest, leaning back against the wall.
They waited another long day.
Tess met up for dinner later that night, but Scott wasn’t there. She sat down next to Nate. There were dark circles under his eyes.
“Not sleeping?” Tess asked, taking a bite of her sandwich.
She eyed the twins being helped inside so they could get their meal.
“Hmm?” Nate asked.
“Why do you look so awful?”
He nudged her with his shoulder and smiled.
“Haven’t been sleeping well,” Nate said. “Or at all.”
“Feeling weird about something. Can’t put my finger on it exactly,” He said. “There’s something strange.”
“About Never World?”
“About this whole thing. Do you feel it, too? I’ve tried to talk to Scott about it, but he started to get weird.”
“How are you talking to Scott?” Tess asked.
She seemed to have caught Nate off guard.
“I was with you guys the whole day. When do you get the chance to talk?”
“Well…” He paused and then lowered his voice. “We were going to tell you, but we were able to create a virtual chatroom in the system. We were meeting every night for a little while to talk some things out.”
Tess wanted to get angry, but her programmer was approaching.
“Get in your pod in about ten minutes from now. You’ll see what I mean.”
Tess glared at him as Dr. Tucker came up next to her. She stood up and followed him out of the room.
She paced around her room for a few minutes until finally climbing into her pod. She enclosed herself in darkness and wondered if it was all a joke. How could they have figured out a way to talk outside the game? Tess was just about to climb out, but the red button above her head started flashing. She hit it.
Tess opened her eyes and found herself in a small wood paneled room with only a couch. There were no doors and no windows.
Nate appeared and then Scott about a half-second later. They looked like their avatars.
“Is this allowed?” Tess asked.
“It’s completely untraceable,” Scott explained. “Sorry we didn’t tell you. We were just doing it before you were part of our team. We wanted to know you were going to stick with us first.”
Tess’s anger had melted away once she arrived in the room because she was so happy they had a place to hang out, without the stress of the game.
She gave Nate a hug.
He looked surprised when she pulled away.
“Is that why you’re tired?”
“I suppose so. And probably the nightmares.”
Scott plopped down on the couch and draped his legs over the side. He patted the seat next to him and Tess sat down, feeling completely relaxed. He smiled and she smiled back.
“Where were you at dinner?” Tess asked.
Scott immediately looked uncomfortable, but he tried to cover it up.
“I see you guys all day. There’s nothing new to share,” Scott joked. “I’m sick of you.”
“I like this,” Tess proclaimed. “Can I be invited every night?”
“Of course,” Nate said. He gave Scott a look she couldn’t place and yawned loudly. “I should get some rest.”
They said goodnight and Nate’s avatar disappeared.
Scott cleared his throat and sat up straight on the couch. He turned to her.
“This is what my childhood room looked like…well, minus all the furniture. Those damn wood paneled walls.” He shook his head and then laughed. “I sort of miss my old home.”
“When was the last time you saw it?” Tess asked.
“I don’t even know.” Scott seemed to snap back to reality and forced a smile. “I heard a rumor about you. I normally don’t listen to what nonsense anyone has to say, but I heard you saw The Dark Hand before he died.”
“Oh,” Tess said. “I did. The Creator asked me about it. I told him what happened.”
Scott rolled up his sleeve and revealed a question mark tattoo that she knew represented The Dark Hand’s underground movement.
“I know he wasn’t a traitor. I guess I was just looking for some sort of answer. When I heard he spoke to you, I just thought you’d have it.”
Tess was surprised by how dangerously close she was to telling him. It was gnawing at her.
“So you’re a follower?”
“I don’t really know what I am now,” Scott said. He shrugged. “I was young, but following The Dark Hand just felt right. This…not so much.”
“You think this will help change things? Never World?”
“Not sure,” Scott said. “The Dark Hand hated it.”
They sat in silence for a little while. There were a few times Tess opened her mouth to say something, but she knew all her secrets would spill out. She just wasn’t ready to tell them, no matter how inviting Scott felt.
He seemed to understand, but maybe he knew she was lying.
“I guess I should go. See you bright and early tomorrow,” Tess said. She stood there for a moment. “How do I leave again?”
“Just close your eyes and concentrate and you’ll be back in your pod. The same way we do it in the game.”
“Thanks,” Tess said.
Tess felt exhausted by the time she collapsed into bed. The next morning came fast and she found herself in the third day of the game. Luckily, Nate’s mood seemed to have improved.
About half way through the day he informed them that Sonya was now on the scoreboard, meaning she had been the first one to kill her double. She thought he would be upset about it, but he seemed giddy. She watched as Scott gathered up his bow and slung it over his shoulder.
“We’ll do some exploring today,” Scott said. “Give the audience at home something to get excited about. I’m sure they’re bored to tears.”
It was strange talking about the viewers since she hadn’t been thinking about them at all. To be honest, she forgot that people were watching her. She wondered for a moment if they noticed her taking long glances at Scott while he was looking out the window. She wondered what they thought about that.
It was hard enough for her to figure out how she felt about it herself.
“Well, I’m bored to tears,” Nate added. “If I had to spend one more moment trapped with you—”
Scott shushed him as they left the cabin and took a quick look around. He raised his fist to tell them to stop. Tess couldn’t help but smile. It felt silly to talk it so seriously, but it was serious. She had to get her head back in the game. She had to actually entertain the idea that she could win.
First, she had to prove herself.
“You think the twins designed this level?” Nate tried to whisper. He had a lot of trouble being quiet. “I mean, it would make sense. Right?”
Scott motioned for them to follow him and they started back down the path.
“I thought that was obvious,” Scott said. “Now shut up.”
They walked for a little while until Scott made them kneel down behind a large tree. When she got a chance, she peered around the trunk. Scott’s twin was in the clearing. Just as the real Scott was unpacking his bow, Tess got an alert that Robert had joined Eleanor on the scoreboard in the number two position. He had also killed his double.
The chances of Scott killing his twin if he headed out now were 85%.
“Go,” Tess urged. “You’re in the clear.”
“As long as you don’t do something to mess it up.”
Scott suppressed a smile and started to peek out from behind the tree. He turned back to her quickly.
“Tell the world my story if I die.”
“I sure will,” Nate replied for her. “Do us proud.”
Nate knelt down next to her as they watched Scott start toward his double.
“Little does he know I’ve already started writing a novel about him,” Nate added. “I love him. Look how handsome he is.”
Tess ignored him as Scott got closer. She wanted to move, but she was afraid it would affect his chances. Scott, however, stopped as he double noticed him and turned to face him. They were only a few feet away from each other.
“What’s wrong with him?” Tess asked. She started to get up, but Nate pulled her back down. “Why isn’t he firing his bow?”
“Give him a second.”
They watched Scott stare down his double, but no one did anything. All of a sudden, Scott collapsed to his knees and dropped his bow. He pressed his hands against the side of his head, shielding himself from something the rest of them couldn’t hear.
“Stop it!” Scott shouted.
His double stepped closer, dagger in hand.