The next morning, Tess waited patiently by the door until she was allowed to leave her room. When the red bulb finally lit up, Tess hurried to the cafeteria. She pressed down on the lump in her arm as her eyes searched the room.
She found Nate and Scott at the far side of the cafeteria looking somber.
She sat down with them, tray-less, and placed her right arm on the table.
“Chips,” she said.
“I’m not very hungry,” Nate replied.
“No,” Tess said. “I knew some other kids who had been caught committing a crime and they were let out of jail, but they had been implanted with these chips that would self-destruct if they tried to commit another crime. I didn’t believe it at first, but one time this kid just dropped dead next to me while we were stealing. It’s real.”
“That’s illegal,” Nate said, waving a dismissive hand.
Scott raised an eyebrow.
“Do you think that matters?”
“I don’t know,” Nate said bitterly. “I wasn’t in trouble as much as you guys, I suppose.”
“What’s your problem?” Scott asked, nudging Nate with his elbow.
“What do you think?” Nate hissed. “I know I said I didn’t care if I died. I never wanted to die. I never hated myself.”
Tess remained silent.
I never hated myself.
Tess looked down at where her hand used to be. She thought about whether or not it had ever made her hate herself. She had just learned to readjust. She had been angry. She had wished it never happened, but Nate was right—she never wanted to die and she never hated herself. She wanted to keep living.
“What’s the reason for all this?” Tess asked. “And why didn’t you guys show up last night?”
“We had interviews with Bethany. She wanted to focus on our friendship,” Scott said. “And what’s the reason for what?”
“Why are they trying to kill us?”
“Do you mean why are they killing us?” Nate corrected her. “It’s only a matter of time.”
“Well, we’re all not exactly people who are celebrated at home,” Scott said. He looked deep in thought. “No one would miss us.”
“People would notice eventually when the show is over. They’d want to see us,” Tess said.
“They’d want to see the winner,” Nate corrected. “People have short attention spans. The show will be renewed and they’ll be focused on the next competitors. A sorry sack of losers just like us. Maybe they’re trying to wipe everyone out.”
Tess looked at her missing hand again. Scott’s eye. Nate’s illness.
“Maybe they are,” Tess said.
They all sat in silence.
“Do you think…” Nate started. He let himself trail off and looked down at the table. “How could they get away with it?”
“Who would ask questions?” Scott finally said.
Tess tapped on the table and made sure Scott and Nate were looking at her. She used her finger to trace letters out, so they could read them
We need to get out.
Nate and Scott exchanged glances. After a few long moments, Nate nodded at her. They tried to eat.
On the way back to her room, Tess noticed the guards looking at her. She wasn’t sure if they had always been so vigilant, but everything felt much more intense. She suddenly felt like they were reading her mind. It was nothing more than paranoia, but they had a lot to be paranoid about.
Tess wasn’t let out of her room again until the night before the next level. She found Nate and Scott at dinner, but no one had much to say. They didn’t know what to expect and they didn’t want to make anyone suspicious.
Right before she left, Nate held onto her arm.
“Don’t panic,” he said. “We’ll be okay. I’ll make sure we’re okay.”
Scott didn’t say anything.
Tess tried to get a good night’s sleep, but it was impossible to avoid nightmares. Fearing imminent death, she couldn’t imagine any of her friends falling asleep easily. Was it true? Were they just imagining things?
If they were, why did Robert seem to know about it?
When Tess woke up the next morning, she got changed, and ate as much breakfast as she could stomach. Once the lights started flashing, she entered her pod and waited.
Tess opened her eyes and immediately realized she was underwater. She wasn’t sure what was up or down, but she kicked as hard as she could until there was some light. She just had to reach it. She had to keep going until she could break through the surface.
Just as Tess felt like she was going to lose consciousness, she felt cold, salty air on her face. She took a deep breath and struggled to stay afloat. She looked around and saw that land was a short swim away.
Tess tried to figure out what was happening as she swam. A sandy beach was up ahead, but she didn’t see anyone else. It appeared to be a deserted island.
It scared her that she wouldn’t be able to easily find Nate and Scott, but she had to figure out what was happening on her own without panicking. Tess swam as fast as she could until she collapsed on land. Her cheek rested against the soft sand.
After a few minutes, Tess lifted herself up and glanced around. She saw the tree line in the distance. There only appeared to one island, so she’d have to be careful. The other contestants would be hiding around somewhere.
She accessed her map and went to her objectives list. Her screen faded away and a map materialized at her feet. It was a treasure map.
“Perfect,” Tess muttered.
She picked it up and ran her fingers over the worn paper. As a kid, she would have loved this level, but now she just hated being alone and she hated not knowing what was going to happen next. She also hated knowing that if she failed, she would die. She tried to concentrate.
Tess tied her wet hair up into a bun and started walking carefully toward the trees. Her map showed nothing. There was no way to track anyone and she wasn’t sure what she would even do with her powers at that moment. She just had to try to find her treasure.
She followed the map for a few hours before finding her first clue. It wasn’t as straightforward as she thought it would be and it would be much more challenging than she was ready for. And she wasn’t sure what she would find when she actually solved it.
The first clue led her to a large cave near the center of the island. She was sweating by the time she reached it and she felt thirsty. There was nothing to drink, so she didn’t bother.
Tess saw a figure up ahead, dressed in all green, and kneeling down in the sand. He turned to her as she approached, but keep his weapon at his side. It was a long spear.
“Larsen?” Tess asked.
He nodded. As she got closer, she saw his skin was smooth and his blonde hair stuck out from underneath his hood. His expression remained serious.
“Do you want something?” Larsen asked. “Where are your friends?”
Larsen stood up and started toward the cave. He kept her back to her as they walked.
“That bearded kid and the one with the eye patch.”
“I don’t know where they are,” Tess admitted.
“So, what do you want?” Larsen asked.
Unwilling to continue running to keep up with Larsen, Tess stopped in her tracks.
“Okay, well…good luck,” Tess said.
She turned keep following the path, but she heard the Larsen had stopped walking. He cleared his throat.
“Good luck for what?”
“Um…for winning,” Tess said.
Larsen raised an eyebrow. He stood where he was.
“Do you realize we’re in a competition?” Larsen asked.
“And why are you following me?”
Tess pointed to the path they were on and then pulled out her map.
“I need to be on the same path as you to find my treasure,” Tess said. “If that’s okay.”
Larsen shrugged, looking embarrassed.
“I can’t tell you no,” he said.
They walked in silence for what felt like a mile. After a while, he paused and knelt down, motioning for Tess to join him on the ground. She had to place a hand on his shoulder to steady herself, but he didn’t seem to notice. Or he didn’t show that he noticed.
He helped Tess up after he was sure the coast was clear and then kept walking.
“How have you been doing so far?” Tess asked. He didn’t say anything. “I don’t think I’ve seen you in any of the levels.”
“I try to keep to myself. It seems to be working.”
“I can see that.”
“You were by yourself at first, weren’t you?” Larsen asked.
Tess thought of Anton. She didn’t want to, but she couldn’t help it. Larsen looked at her when she didn’t answer.
“I was working with Anton Gogel,” Tess said.
“Oh…well, at least he’s out of this competition.”
“At least there’s that.”
She felt a tear run down her cheek. She wasn’t sure where it came from and she didn’t remember being conscious of the fact that she was crying. She wiped it away with her sleeve and tried to keep her face away from Larsen for a while.
The thought of Anton and the chip in his arm frightened her. She couldn’t get the picture out of her head of him lying dead in his pod, without any warning. Not that having a warning would make it better, but he had no idea he would die. He had no idea that those would be his last moments.
Tess wondered if it was better that way. Not to know.
She pushed those thoughts away.
“I got to talk to Anton before we started the competition. He seemed like a nice kid. I wouldn’t have been friends with him or anything, but I’m not friends with many people,” Larsen said quietly. “I’m also nearly a decade older than him.”
“I see,” Tess said.
“Someone has to win, right?”
“Who do you think it will be?”
“Hopefully me. Hopefully not Robert.”
Tess laughed. Larsen smiled.
They walked in silence for a little longer until the path split. Tess had to go left and Larsen had to go right. Larsen shrugged.
“I guess this is it,” Larsen said.
“I guess so.”
Larsen started to walk away, but paused to turn back around.
“You know this doesn’t mean I won’t kill you,” Larsen warned. “We’re not friends and I won’t just be eliminated if you’re in trouble. I just wanted you to know that.”
“I just want you to know that I won’t kill you. I don’t think I have it in me.”
Larsen looked stunned and even a little bit annoyed.
“Why wouldn’t you?”
“I just couldn’t.”
“So…are you saying you’re just going to give up?”
“I’m not saying that.”
Larsen nodded. She could tell he didn’t understand what she was talking about, but it didn’t matter. Maybe he thought she was lying.
“See ya, Tess,” he said.
He walked backwards for a couple steps before turning around to follow his map. Tess stared after him for a moment before doing the same.
She felt significantly lonelier than she had ever felt once Larsen was gone. She knew it had to be that way because there were only so many of them left, but she honestly didn’t want to see anyone else eliminated. She didn’t want to see anyone die. She wanted to run after Larsen and tell him, but she didn’t. What would happen to her if she did?
What would happen to her father?
That alone forced her to continue. Tess followed her map until she found the entrance to a new cave. It was pitch black inside, but next to it was a torch and a box of matches. She took a few moments to get it lit and then stepped inside the cave. She felt an urgency to find her treasure and learn what she should do next.
The inside of the cave was a bit of a maze and it took Tess almost all day to figure out, break included. She felt exhausted by the time she reached a small dirt-filled room that was at the center of the maze. There was a shovel leaning against the cave wall that she assumed would be used for digging up the treasure. She had no idea where the treasure was in the room, so she took a seat.
She would get started tomorrow.
That night Tess’s red light never turned on, so she made some food in her room and looked over her father’s letter. The more she read it, the angrier she felt. Why would The Creator think that she wouldn’t recognize that it wasn’t her own father’s handwriting? Or did he know that she would. Was he trying to scare her?
Tess placed it back on the kitchen counter and turned on the television. They were just replaying the interviews, but they cut out those who had been eliminated. When hers came on again, she turned off the television. She felt so different than when she had started that she felt like she was watching an alien. She should have never gotten involved. She wondered if The Creator would have ever let that happen.
She thought about her meeting with The Dark Hand in the pharmacy. She thought about his words. He put her in danger and he knew it at the time. Apparently it was important enough for him to say something to her. She wondered for a moment if she should tell Scott and bring him in on her secret.
She pushed that out of her head. It would only put him in more danger and she wasn’t thinking clearly.
Tess entered the chatroom and waited. She was waiting for over an hour before Scott showed up. She felt relieved when she realized she wasn’t alone.
“We need to do something,” he said immediately. He looked out of breath, almost like someone who had been crying. “I need to fight back.”
“I know,” Tess said. She looked at him. “I need to tell you something.”
“What is it?”
“Dr. Young was meeting with me for a while, but then he stopped. He was coaching me a bit…I’m not sure why.”
“And you can trust him?” Scott asked.
“I think so.”
He paused and looked away. There was a look of concern on his face, but she didn’t know why.
“Why are you telling me this?”
“Because I want to know more about The Creator and I think you know where to find more information,” Tess said.
Scott smiled at her.
“You want to learn the system?”
“As much as you can teach me. You obviously know something about it.”
Scott sat down on the couch and brought up a screen in front of them. It was full of code that Tess didn’t recognize.
They spent a few hours going over it before exhaustion set in. Tess knew she had enough to explore the system and get the information she needed. Before leaving, Scott had something else to add.
“Nate told me he asked to withdraw from the competition and they denied his request,” Scott said. “We’re not allowed to leave.”
“Oh,” Tess said.
She knew she wasn’t doing much to quell Scott’s fears, but she was scared too. It also terrified her that Nate had tried to leave. Scott seemed to read her mind.
“He wasn’t actually going to. He just wanted to see if they would let him. I probably would have told him to go though. Maybe he could help from the outside.”
“I guess he could.”
Tess figured at that moment it was settled. They needed to find a way out of Never World and they needed to do it fast.
They needed to find someplace where they could be safe again.