Tess, Nate, and Scott all sat in the rain in an uncomfortable silence. She rubbed her hands along her arms in order to warm herself up, which she found strange because she shouldn’t be cold at all. The pod was making her feel cold and confusing her senses.
“You think this is it?” Scott asked. He had his bow tucked under his arm and he was running his hand along the beautifully carved wood. “You think this will end soon?”
“Do you think this is exciting for anyone?” Nate asked.
“Your guess is just as good as mine, my friend,” Scott said. Tess was pretty sure she saw him blush, realizing his error. It was too soon to jump back into the friend thing. Nate didn’t seem to mind. “I guess we’ll find out during the highlights.”
Tess groaned. “I hated watching that.”
“Why?” Scott asked, moving in closer to hear her. “You did fine.”
“I guess you can say that.”
He looked like he wanted to say more, but there was some shouting very far away. Tess brought up her scoreboard, but nothing had changed. Nate pointed up near the hills, which were still a good distance away.
“We should try for there and see what’s going on,” Nate said. He shrugged. “It’s something to do, I guess.”
Tess found herself worried about their lack of enthusiasm, but they were all just tired. Still, tired would get one of them eliminated. She checked out the hill with her binoculars and it all looked clear.
They walked and reached the hill a few hours later, with Tess making sure to stay vigilant amongst her lifeless team, and slowly climbed to the top. She took a seat in-between Nate and Scott and they peered out over the trees. There wasn’t much they could see, but Tess felt safer. It would be somewhat impossible for anyone to sneak up on them and she could use her binoculars to keep an eye on things.
“I think we can wait it out here,” Nate said. He paused and stared into the space in front of him. “Dammit. What is Eleanor doing? Can we get this show on the road?”
Scott stood up suddenly and avoided eye contact.
“I’m going to take a quick look around. I’ll be back in a bit,” Scott said.
Nate nodded, looking distracted, and Tess watched him as he walked back down the hill. It left a bad feeling in the pit of her stomach.
Tess let Nate lie down in the grass as she kept a lookout. Sleeping in the game would do nothing for him in real life, but she knew it helped him pass the time. They were safe with Scott keeping watch, where ever he was.
A few more hours passed and the sun was beginning to set. Tess shook Nate awake and he nearly jumped out of his skin.
“What?” Nate asked, looking around frantically.
“Scott hasn’t come back and it’s getting dark,” Tess said. She stood up and Nate joined her. There wasn’t much to see. “Should we look for him?”
Tess checked the scoreboard again just to make sure he wasn’t in any immediate danger. It was the same.
“What’s going on out there?” Tess asked.
As Nate headed to the other side of the hill, Tess accessed her powers and tried to figure out something she could do with them. She saw that she had a 60% chance of success if she went after Robert herself, but that didn’t make her feel much better.
She thought for a moment and found out a way to figure out Scott’s chances of survival. She hadn’t noticed there was a way to adjust it to reflect the members of her team. She waited for the results.
Tess had trouble breathing as she waited for it to recalculate, but the number remained the same.
Scott only had a 15% chance of survival.
She took off down the hill and back into the tree line. She thought she heard Nate yelling after her, in fact she was sure she did, but she kept going anyway. Scott was going to be eliminated.
She brought her map back up and saw that she was able to track both him and Nate. Clearly, the game had recognized that they were working together. He was back at the cabin they started out at.
It took her a while to get back there, and it was almost completely dark, but she slowed down as she approached the cabin. There wasn’t much time left in the day’s game. Maybe she could get to Scott before anything happened and they could make new plans during dinner. However, she saw Robert up ahead nearing the cabin.
Tess snuck around to the back and saw Scott standing there through the window. She tried to motion for him to get down, but he looked surprised.
“Hey!” She heard Robert yell. She moved around to the side of the house in an attempt to stop Robert, but he wasn’t even looking at the cabin. He had his gun raised and pointed to the path ahead of him. “Sorry.”
Tess turned away as Robert pulled the trigger. A body slumped to the ground and her screen alerted her that Eleanor was on the scoreboard.
“Robert?” Eleanor’s voice called. She stepped out of the tree line with a club at her side. She looked confused. “I was almost there. Why did you do that? I spent so long—”
Tess flinched as Robert pulled the trigger again and Eleanor stared back at him with her eyes wide. She pressed a hand over her bleeding stomach, but it didn’t matter. There was no way to save her.
She looked up at Robert.
“What did I do?” She asked. “We were working together.”
Tess jumped when she felt a hand on her shoulder. Scott was next to her.
“I don’t need anyone holding me down,” Robert replied.
Scott reached down to hold her hand as the game started to fade away. Even though she knew it wasn’t real, it felt real. The warmth from his skin was soothing.
Tess felt cold when she opened her eyes. The level was over, but she didn’t feel much relief. It was just going to get harder and more intense.
After a few long moments of sitting on the floor, Tess forced herself up to shower and change for dinner. As she put on her jumpsuit, her fingers grazed the inside of her right arm and she felt a strange lump. When she pressed down on it, it seemed to disappear back into her skin. A couple seconds later she could feel it again and the whole process repeated.
Holding back her nausea, Tess was able to figure out that it was a small square object. At first she thought something was seriously wrong with her, but then she realized it had to have been put there at one point or another. Maybe it was from her accident, but she couldn’t convince herself that it was.
Tess wanted some time to think about it, but Dr. Tucker was at the door. Her mind felt foggy as he led her to the cafeteria. He was speaking to her and smiling, but she couldn’t focus on what he was saying.
Scott was waiting at the door when she arrived. Thankfully, he was the only one there. It seemed like everyone else was too preoccupied or scared to eat dinner in the cafeteria.
“Hey,” Scott said, leaning back on the heels of his boots. “Everything okay?”
Tess looked up at him, feeling dazed. He led her to the table and they sat down next to each other.
Right before Scott could answer, Nate walked through the door and grabbed a tray of food. He also looked preoccupied, but not as deeply troubled as Tess. He joined them and eyed the empty spaces in front of them where their trays should be.
Tess and Scott shook their heads.
“I’m not very hungry,” Tess replied.
“That was wild, wasn’t it?” Nate asked, taking bite of his sandwich. He looked up at Tess, suddenly realizing that he was angry. “Don’t run off like that, Tess. I thought you were a goner.”
“I thought Scott was a goner,” Tess said. She didn’t have the energy to argue. “Robert was right there.”
“I guess I’ll see it all tonight on the highlights.”
Tess looked down at the table.
“There’s something you won’t see on the highlights. I think something’s very wrong,”
Nate looked around before leaning in. The only people around were a couple of guards by the door and a few cleaners. They didn’t seem to be paying attention.
“What is it?” He asked.
“I think we’re being tracked…or something else is going on. I haven’t really figured it out yet, but something feels wrong.”
“Explain,” Scott urged.
“After Anton was eliminated they were cleaning his room out right after it happened and they said they only clean on Fridays and that always bugged me, you know?” Scott and Nate exchanged glances. “They wouldn’t let me talk to Anton afterwards, which make sense, but I don’t see why I couldn’t just say goodbye or at least leave a note or something like that—”
“Gal,” Nate interrupted. “Where is this going?”
“I don’t think people are making it out of this alive,” Tess said.
Nate and Scott remained silent as Tess waited for a response.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” Nate asked.
“No, Nate. I’m not okay,” she replied. “Did you hear what I said?”
“I did, but there’s not much evidence to support that wild accusation. Just because they wouldn’t let you see Anton after he was eliminated and you have a bad feeling doesn’t mean something is wrong. I mean I know this whole thing is wrong and weird, but I think you’re cracking bit.”
Tess stood up and sighed. Dr. Tucker was waiting for her by the door.
“Just check your right arm,” Tess said. “And then meet me tonight.”
“You think we need to meet tonight?” Nate asked. “We have a few days to relax.”
“You’ll want to. Meet me at 8,” she said.
Tess was brought back to her room and took a seat on one of the kitchen stools. She clicked on the television and waited for the highlights to turn on. About twenty minutes later, the special started airing and Bethany Armbrandt started talking about the remaining contestants. They did a recap of the level and Tess realized that much of the attention had been put on her, Nate, and Scott.
It wasn’t looking too good.
Somehow they had turned Robert into the hero. Tess wasn’t sure when it had happened, but they made it look like Scott, Nate, and Tess had been stalking Robert the whole time. They made it look like Robert had been forced to kill Eleanor, and had even cut out his last words before the level ended.
Tess turned the television off and started pacing around the room. It made her furious, but she didn’t know who to complain to. She just had to wait till 8. She had to hope that someone believed her that something awful was happening. Maybe she even needed someone to convince her that she wasn’t crazy.
At 8 p.m. Tess headed to the chatroom and saw that Nate and Scott were already waiting for her. They were both sitting on the couch and had their hands on their knees. They stood up when she arrived.
“What is this?” Nate asked, immediately pointing to his arm. “Who put this there and why didn’t they tell us they were putting some sort of…equipment in my arm.”
“In our arms,” Scott added. He ran a hand through his dark hair. “What does this mean?”
“It could mean anything,” Tess said, trying to be the levelheaded one. Nate and Scott looked like they were about to break down. “We don’t know yet.”
“And when will we know?” Nate asked. “If they lied to us about this what else are they lying to us about?”
“They could be lying about a lot,” Scott said.
“Yeah, you would know,” Nate jabbed. He looked up at Scott and forced a smile. “Sorry.”
They all sat back down on the couch and stared ahead for a few moments. She felt Scott inch a little closer, his thigh pressed against hers. It felt like he was shaking.
“Do you think…” Nate started. He wiped the sweat off his forehead. “Do you think they’re going to kill us?”
He cut Scott off.
“Don’t act like you haven’t thought of it,” Nate added. “Don’t act like that’s not why you’re so freaked out. You said it yourself, Gal.”
“Okay, so it was a thought,” Scott said. “After how they approached me to begin with I guess it’s more than a thought. It’s a possibility.”
Tess thought of her dad. She was overcome with fear, not about the danger she was possibly in, but how he might be in danger. What was happening with him? Why hadn’t she heard from him? Had he been arrested? She turned to the boys.
“What if we talk about it on air? They audience wouldn’t be able to ignore something like that. They’d have to check up on us…or call the police. They wouldn’t want us to die, would they?”
Tess looked at Nate, but he didn’t say anything. Scott turned away.
“They’d just edit it out. You saw how they made Robert look. They want the viewers to stop caring about us,” Scott said. “Or stop caring about me. They must know I’m no longer on their side. This won’t be good for me.”
“It won’t be good for any of us,” Nate said.
“I know…that’s not what I meant. They don’t care about me. They want something from Tess and I was supposed to get it.”
“You should lie,” Tess blurted out.
Nate and Scott both turned to her, looking surprised.
“Lie about what?” Scott asked.
“Tell The Creator I told you what The Dark Hand said to me. Make something up and then maybe he’ll leave you alone.”
“Or then maybe he won’t need you anymore, either,” Nate said.
Scott thought for a moment and then groaned.
“I’m not really sure. I’m not sure what we should do.”
“Maybe you should at least talk to him,” Tess said. She shuddered at the thought of another chat with that man. “It could help clear things up.”
“What are the chances of The Creator admitting to attempting to kill us all? Why would he stop it if we knew anything at all about it?” Scott said. Tess was scared by how worried he looked. She thought of Anton and fought back tears. Was Anton dead? How did they kill him? “Maybe I should act like I’m still trying to get information from you. Are you comfortable with faking a conversation about The Dark Hand?”
“If it will help,” Tess replied.
Scott shook his head.
“It might be too obvious.”
“Okay, okay,” Nate said, raising his hands up. “Let’s calm down for tonight. I think we’re letting our imaginations run wild. Why don’t we sleep on it and talk tomorrow. We can meet in the gym.”
“How do we know it’s safe?” Tess asked.
“We don’t, but we can pass notes,” Nate replied.
Scott’s silence told them that he didn’t exactly agree, but he didn’t disagree either. She wasn’t sure what he was thinking.
“So, tomorrow then,” Tess reiterated.
They all nodded.
When Tess returned to her pod, she saw that something had been slipped under her door. A piece of white paper with something printed on it. She picked it up and brought it over to the kitchen counter.
Dr. Tucker will take you to a meeting with me at 9 a.m. tomorrow morning. There are a few things we need to discuss concerning Never World. Looking forward to speaking with you.