Tess felt her heart beat out of her chest. She wanted to talk to Scott or Nate, but there would be no time to see them before tomorrow morning. She was alone.
Did The Creator know about their secret meetings? Did he know they knew? But what did they even know?
She couldn’t let the idea that they could die in the competition settle in her mind. It would scare her too much. She had to focus on surviving from level to level. She had to figure out what to do next.
Tess could barely sleep that night and morning arrived much sooner than she wanted it to. She tried to dress without shaking, but it was impossible. Dr. Tucker came at 8:55 to hurry her along. He seemed nervous.
“Let’s go,” he snapped.
Tess followed close behind him as silently as she could. She felt like she might throw up and she didn’t want Dr. Tucker to make her even more nervous. She tried to fight through it.
As they walked she wondered what door Nate and Scott were behind. She wondered if they were awake. She wanted to stop to talk to them, but she knew she couldn’t.
They approached The Creator’s door and Dr. Tucker knocked a couple times. He stepped to the side and continued to look straight ahead. A few moments later, Dr. Tucker opened the door and motioned for Tess to step inside. She glanced at him, but he refused to make eye contact.
Tess slowly walked inside and heard the door shut behind her. The Creator was sitting at his chair by the fire. He turned to her and smiled.
“Please, join me,” he said.
She couldn’t find the strength to move at first, but she forced herself forward. She took a seat in the armchair across from him and dug her fingers into the cushion.
He looked at the fireplace for a moment before watching her again.
“Are you going to ask me about The Dark Hand again?” Tess asked.
She wasn’t sure if it was a smart move, but she had to break the silence. She couldn’t wait any longer.
He shook his head.
“Is that what you were afraid I would ask?”
“I’m not afraid.”
The Creator smiled.
“I can tell.”
Tess kept her mouth shut. She was being too transparent. She was acting like she had something to hide. She knew she needed to calm down.
“So, what’s all this about?” Tess asked.
The Creator folded his hands together and placed them on his lap. He seemed to be very meticulous, which made Tess feel uncomfortable.
“I wanted to see how you’re doing. You made it past the first two levels and I noticed you started to seem stressed out,” The Creator said. He raised an eyebrow. “You’re doing very well. You should be happy.”
“I am happy,” Tess said. She tried to think of how she could convince him, but she was falling short. She was in too much of a panic. “I’m just…I guess I’m just worried about my father. This has been the longest I’ve gone without speaking to him. I just want to know he’s alright.”
Tess had to believe he knew what she was getting at. She wanted to know her father was safe. She wanted to know she hadn’t jeopardized his safety.
“If you want I can have him write a letter. I can get it to you by this weekend,” The Creator suggested. He snapped his fingers and another man walked in, an assistant. He whispered in his ear and the man walked back out. Tess didn’t even get a chance to see his face. “It’s done, Miss Galvin.”
“Well…thank you,” Tess forced out. “I’m looking forward to hearing from him. Have you seen him?”
He shook his head.
“I don’t have time for that, but he’s being taken care of. He’s in a very nice facility.”
“From what you’ve heard.”
“From what I’ve heard,” The Creator said, with a slight smile. He paused. “Listen. There’s something else we need to discuss. It’s about one of your teammates.”
Tess held her breath.
“When we picked up Scott he was in a lot of trouble. He was a thief and a liar and he was making up tall tales about having rich parents and coming from a nice town outside of Chiyoko. The truth is Scott might not be who we thought he was. He might be more dangerous than we thought.”
“What are you talking about?” Tess asked, feeling irritated. She didn’t want to talk about Scott. The whole conversation was beginning to annoy her. “Why is he dangerous?”
“We did know he was working with The Dark Hand, but we thought he was just a lost soul unwilling to deal with reality. He’s just a kid! How were we supposed to know?” The Creator looked at Tess and paused. His eyes bore into hers. “It seems that he’s working to make Never World a disaster. He’s starting to tell other contestants that we brought him in to get information from the other players. I’ve already asked you questions out of precaution, but we got our answers, so there’s no use for us to employ a nineteen year old boy to do our dirty work.”
Tess nodded. She didn’t want to give away any information. She didn’t want to get suckered into making Scott their target. If that’s even what they wanted.
A thought flashed through her mind. What if they were telling the truth? What if there was something wrong with Scott? What if he did think he was still working for The Dark Hand?
What if he was lying to her?
“What do you think he’s trying to do?” Tess asked.
“I don’t know why he wants to lie, but he is lying. He wants to make this whole thing a disaster because it goes against everything The Dark Hand would have wanted. He’s trying to sabotage this whole thing and plant ideas in the other contestant’s heads. We obviously haven’t heard him saying anything like that to you or Nate, but we’ve seen him run off to find other players. Remember when he disappeared at the end of the last level? He went to speak to Robert. We had to cut out the whole thing so the audience wouldn’t see it. We had to restructure the whole storyline.”
“What did he say?”
The Creator shook his head in despair. Or feigned despair. She wasn’t sure.
“He wanted Robert to know he had his back. He told him that they needed to work together if they wanted to beat the system. I just want you to be careful. I don’t think you have any reason to worry, but you’re on the right track to winning. I hate to admit it, but I’m rooting for you.”
Tess forced a smile.
“That’s good to hear. I’ll be careful. Scott hasn’t given me any reason to worry. Thanks for letting me know,” Tess said.
“I guess that’s it, Miss Galvin. Are there any concerns you’d like to bring to my attention?”
Tess stood up and shrugged.
“I don’t think so.”
“Good, good. Hopefully we’ll be speaking soon. Take care.”
Tess stood there for a moment before realizing she had been dismissed. She backed up toward the door and jumped when one of the guards put a hand on her shoulder. She was brought back to her room and immediately took a seat down on her bed.
Dr. Young came by a little while later, but he seemed worried. She didn’t ask what was wrong.
“You ready to go back in?” Li asked.
“Yes,” Tess replied.
When she was back inside, the whiteness was something else. It was jungle.
She could see Scott in the distance, hacking away at some of the tall weeds. He turned back to smile at her, but then continued forward. She hurried to keep up.
“Scott!” Tess shouted. “Where are you going?”
She kept running, but she couldn’t get any closer. She watched as vines wrapped around his wrists and pulled him down to the ground. When she finally reached him, his body was nearly engulfed in vines. She reached out to grab his hand.
“Tess,” he mumbled. “Leave me alone.”
“What?” Tess said, digging through the vines.
She couldn’t see him.
“Let me die.”
Tess had a hard time speaking after she got back into her room. Li let her sit in silence, but she could tell he had a lot he wanted to say. He smiled at her weakly before leaving.
“We can’t do this anymore.”
“Why not?” Tess asked.
They both stood up, but didn’t move closer. She felt like there was a wall between them.
“It’s too dangerous now.”
Li left without saying another word. Tess suddenly felt very lonely. What did it mean that Dr. Young couldn’t visit anymore? Was he in trouble? If so, why didn’t he tell her?
She wanted to sleep, but she saw something new had been installed over her door. It was red light bulb. Instead of trying to figure out what it was, she opted for a shower instead. She wanted to meet Nate and Scott for lunch.
Around 12:30, Tess waited for Dr. Tucker to arrive, but he didn’t show up on time. Instead, the red bulb above the door started to flash. After staring at it for a few moments, Tess tried the door. It opened on its own.
Unsure of what to do, Tess pushed open the door a little further and peeked out into the hallway. She spotted Nate doing the same from across the hall and gave him a small wave. He waved back enthusiastically and stepped out into the middle of the hallway. He paused to look around.
“Are we in trouble?”
Tess pointed above her door.
“Did you see them install the light?” Tess asked.
Nate motioned for her to join him and she stepped out reluctantly.
“I was brought to run tests for Never World,” Nate said. “It was there when I got back.”
“Yeah it was there when I got from my meeting with…” When Tess trailed off, Nate eyed her suspiciously. “Let’s talk about it in the cafeteria.”
Tess was surprised to see that mostly everyone was in the cafeteria except for Scott. Both Robert and Sonya were sitting alone. Sonya had her computer, but she was staring off into the distance looking a bit green.
The twins were at the same table as Larsen, but they weren’t saying anything to each other. He had his head down and it looked like he was inhaling his food.
Tess took a seat while Nate grabbed them a couple trays. He sat across from her and tapped on the table impatiently.
“Okay, so where were you?” Nate asked.
“You just know when something’s wrong, don’t you?”
“You look worried.”
“I don’t know who’s listening.”
“Fair enough,” Nate said. “Maybe we can head to the gym later…and then plan a chat after that.”
“Where’s Scott?” Tess asked.
“I don’t know,” Nate admitted.
After lunch, Tess and Nate tested their luck and headed to the gym. She wasn’t sure why they were being allowed so much freedom, but it was nice. The gym door was unlocked, so they hung out inside. She just wished Scott was there so she could talk to him about what The Creator had said.
She glanced around the small gym area and tried to look for any signs that they were being listened to. There was no way to be sure.
“Maybe we can knock on his door?” Tess asked.
“Maybe we should wait until we can get a hold of him,” Nate said. “He’s probably tired.”
Tess grabbed his arm and pulled him closer.
“It’s really important that we see Scott is alright,” Tess whispered.
“Okay,” Nate said, staring at her for a moment. He seemed to understand. “I’ll check on him.”
Nate left her alone and she sat down on the soft foam mat in the middle of the room. A few minutes later the door opened again and someone stepped inside. It wasn’t Nate or Scott, however, it was Robert.
Tess placed her hand on the mat to lift herself up, but she didn’t go through with it. She sat there and stared at him.
“Tess,” he said. “Everything going well?”
Even from across the room he still seemed to tower over her. There was something strange about the way he was watching her. She felt uncomfortable.
“You killed Eleanor,” she spat out.
“I eliminated Eleanor,” Robert corrected. He smiled and placed his hands on his hips. “Now you don’t think…you don’t think Eleanor is actually dead, do you? You wouldn’t be dumb enough to think that I’m an actual murderer, right?”
“What are you saying, Robert?” Tess asked. She forced herself to stand. “Do you know something that we don’t?”
“I wouldn’t say that,” Robert said in a teasing voice. “I think you know. Just because they favor you doesn’t mean I’m going to back down. I knew you were a threat from the beginning.”
“A threat against what?”
“Never World is important for the greater good,” Robert explained. “If you knew that, you wouldn’t be trying to stop it.”
“Robert…I don’t know who you’re working for or why you’re doing this, but I’m not your enemy. If there’s something weird going on, we need to work together. We need to figure out what we can do,” Tess said.
Robert laughed and took a few steps forward. Tess stood her ground.
“I’ll win and I’ll make it out alive. That’s what I want. And I’m the only one who can do it,” Robert said.
Robert turned to leave, but Tess called out to him.
“When did you find out?” Tess asked.
“Much sooner than you did…which makes me the smartest, doesn’t it?”
Nate and Scott made their way inside just as Robert was on his way out. He shoved past them, leaving them looking dazed.
“Good conversation?” Scott asked, with a smirk.
“It’s not funny,” Tess said. “Are you okay?”
“Yes I’m fine, why?”
Scott looked at Nate for an explanation, but he just shrugged.
Tess sat back down and waited for them to join her. Nate kept staring at her with a concerned expression on his face, but Scott gave away nothing.
“I had a conversation with The Creator today.”
“A conversation?” Scott asked quickly. “Did you ask for a conversation with The Creator, Tess?”
“Excuse me? Do you think that’s something I would do?” Tess snapped.
Nate glanced between them, but didn’t say anything. Scott put his hands on his knees and kept his head low.
“No,” he said quietly. “It’s just strange that you would speak to him so soon after we found out all that awful information. Why would you go talk to him?”
“He asked for me,” Tess replied. “He talked about you mostly.”
“Keep your voice down,” Nate said.
Tess kept it to a whisper.
“He said you were dangerous. He insinuated that we shouldn’t trust you because you’re troubled and he can’t control you anymore. He said you went to talk to Robert…when you disappeared at the end of the last level.”
Scott scoffed. He stood up and started pacing in front of them. He ran a shaky hand through his hair while keeping his head low.
“And you believe him?” He said angrily. His voice was shaking. “Now you both doubt that I’m telling the truth? Don’t you see The Creator is trying to get you not to trust me because he knows I’m not on his side anymore? He wants you guys to cut me loose.”
“I just can’t believe after everything he’s done to us and how honest I’ve been with you that you’d consider I’m not on your side. He’s manipulating everyone. He wants to know what you’re hiding. He wants to—”
“Scott!” He stopped ranting and looked over at Tess, who was now standing. “I know.”
“I know he’s lying.”
“Oh,” Scott breathed.
Tess thought she saw a smile form in the corner of Scott’s mouth, but he quickly hid it.
“Well, I guess there’s nothing to talk about then,” Scott said, taking a seat. Tess joined him. “We just have to start protecting ourselves.”
“How?” Tess asked. “Robert knows. He says Never World is for the greater good.”
“He knows?” Scott asked.
The door creaked open and Sonya popped her head inside. She smiled awkwardly.
“A conversation for another time,” Nate muttered.
Sonya stepped in and let the door close behind her. She kept her hands clasped behind her back.
“Sorry if I’m interrupting,” Sonya said. “I can leave.”
“It’s fine,” Tess said quickly. Nate glared at her. “How’s everything going, Sonya?”
“Honestly I’m not sure how I’m still in this competition. I guess I shouldn’t be telling you guys that, but for some reason I’m not scared of you all. I’m sort of bummed Eleanor is gone.”
“Were you friends?” Scott asked.
“I wish!” Sonya said. She laughed again and glanced toward the door. Tess couldn’t tell if she wanted to run or join their little group. “Maybe I can look her up after this is all over. I’m sure we’ll be somewhat famous.”
“It feels like we’ll never be back home again,” Tess said.
“You said it, sister,” Sonya joked. There was something in Sonya’s eyes that told Tess she was feeling the pressure. She was scared, but Tess couldn’t tell why. Maybe she also had a hunch something was up. “I’ll make sure to mention you all on my blog. I guess I don’t hate you guys.”
“We don’t hate you either,” Tess said. She eyed Nate and Scott, who were both looking down at the mat. “We should get going. I’m sure you want to use this room, so we won’t get in your way.”
Sonya opened her mouth to say something, but she smiled instead.
“Okay, Tess. Good luck,” Sonya said. “I wish you the best.”
Tess stopped in front of her on the way out. Nate and Scott had already exited into the hallway. Tess placed a hand on her shoulder.
“I’ll stay about as safe as I can.”
Tess walked out of the room, feeling more confused and scared than she had ever felt in her life.
Scott, Nate, and Tess agreed to meet again later in the chatroom, but neither of them showed up at the agreed upon time. Tess waited in her pod for a little while before giving up and exiting into her room. She eyed the light above the door, but it was a no-go.
“Dammit,” Tess muttered.
She tried to keep her emotions under control when she thought of her friends. Had something happened to them? Were they meeting with The Creator? Would he try to turn them against her, just like she had done with Scott?
A small piece of white paper that had been slid under the door caught her attention. She picked it up and unfolded it carefully.
I hope you are well. I’ve been catching you on TV and I just wanted to let you know I’m so proud of you. They are taking good care of my here, so you shouldn’t worry. I can’t wait until you come home again. Keep fighting.
Tess dropped the note on the ground and placed a shaky hand over her mouth. There were two things she knew for sure.
Her father didn’t write that letter and there was a huge chance she would die in Never World.