Tess felt sick to her stomach when they reentered the game the next day. Now that they had made plans, or thought about making plans to escape, she knew they had to be extra careful. She just hoped that being extra careful didn’t somehow put them in more danger.
She spent the whole day alone digging in the cave. It wasn’t that hard on her hands, since she had a metal one, but it still took a long time. She finally dug up a big case near the center room and struggled to pull it out of the ground. Her name immediately popped up on the scoreboard underneath Sonya and Larsen. Before she even opened it, she was given her next objective.
As long as you have your treasure with you, you will be free to eliminate a competitor. In this level, it does not matter if you haven’t found your treasure yet, you will still be up for elimination.
Tess knelt down and pulled open the heavy, oversized chest. There was only a single gold coin inside. She shoved it in her pocket and pulled the empty chest to the side of the room.
Exhausted, she took a seat on top of one of the dirt piles and allowed herself time to relax. She wasn’t exactly excited about the fact that she could eliminate someone if she wanted to, considering that eliminating someone would make her a murderer. She wiped the sweat off her forehead with the back of her arm and waited.
During her break, Tess spent some time searching through the system. She found an article way back about how The Creator was revolutionizing virtual reality, but she couldn’t find anything negative about him. No one knew his true identity.
She did find out, however, that Never World systems were set to be sold everywhere after the game ended. Preorders were through the roof and builders would be sent out to set up home systems. With a payment plan, anyone could afford it. They were targeting everyone.
When she was back in the game, she found Scott on her map. He was about a mile outside the cave, but she saw he appeared to be in the middle of the ocean. She switched to Nate and saw he was deeper in the cave, but his path couldn’t be accessed from where she was. At least they were safe.
Since everyone else was also on the map, she saw that the closest person to her was Larsen. He wasn’t moving either. If everyone could see where she was, she knew she couldn’t stay in one place for very long. Still, she was fine waiting until the next day.
That night at dinner, Tess met up with Scott and Nate. All the other contestants were in attendance, but no one was actually saying anything to each other. Nate looked up from his food to give her a small smile, but it took a while to get anything out of him.
“We’re gonna get out of here,” Scott whispered. From under his sleeve, he pulled out a metal key. He secretly slid it over to her and she immediately shoved it into her front pocket. “I was given this when I was told to spy on you. I think The Creator forgot I had it or doesn’t think I’d do anything with it.”
“Are you sure?” Tess asked.
“I’m not, but it’s all we have right now,” Scott said.
There was something strange going on with Nate. He looked down and he wasn’t saying a word. Tess hoped he wasn’t giving up. She couldn’t let him.
“Nate,” Tess said, reaching across the table to place her hand on his. His head shot up like he was waking from a dream. “Are you okay?”
He looked at her for a moment before glancing back down at his tray.
“Should I be okay?”
Scott leaned over to him.
“Don’t give up on us,” he said.
Nate looked up again and stared directly at Tess.
“I told you to do this,” he said. “I don’t know what to do.”
“It’s not your fault,” Tess reassured. “We’ll get out together.”
Nate nodded, but she wasn’t sure anything had really gotten through. They finished eating dinner and Tess held on as tightly to the key as she possibly could as she walked back to her room. When she got inside, she hid it underneath one of the cushions in the pod. She figured the cleaners could never really get to the inside of the pod because they usually cleaned while she was in the game. There was no way anyone could get at it without her knowing.
That night there was an interview with the twins. She guessed that The Creator had no idea they would make it past the first level, so they were getting their own primetime special. Bethany Armbrandt sat down with them, with a smile plastered on her face, and asked Eli and Morgan a bunch of questions. Tess had to admit she was captivated. Whoever worked on the show was great at making the viewers feel connected to the contestants. Tess wondered what everyone thought about her.
“What do you think your chances of winning are?” Bethany asked.
“I know a lot of people count us out because of our condition, but we’re a lot faster and a lot smarter than the other competitors in the game,” Eli said. He looked at Morgan for reassurance. “We know each other very well, so we don’t have to think about what to do. We can just do it.”
They showed some footage of Eli and Morgan in the game, which Tess had never seen before. They seemed to have double the powers of everyone else and didn’t appear to struggle with any of the levels so far.
Eli and Morgan ran fast and were doing the work of two competitors at one time. Tess couldn’t help but think about the issues they would have if one of them was eliminated. She wondered if The Creator had thought about that as well.
Bethany asked the right question.
“What will you do when one of you is eliminated?” She asked. Eli and Morgan exchanged unreadable glances. “Will you cheer the other one on?”
“It won’t get to that point,” Morgan replied.
Her answer was cryptic and caught Bethany off guard, but she smiled brightly at the camera.
“I like the confidence!” Bethany said. “Very well. I hope you both do great in the competition and I’m looking forward to seeing more.”
The special went on to show a few more of their highlights and then it was over. Tess turned off the lights and collapsed into bed. She reached over to switch on the starry night sky and stared at it, in an attempt to pretend that she was somewhere else. So much was happening and she couldn’t make sense of it. It didn’t even feel real.
The moment she let it feel real was when she knew she would start to panic. She knew it she panicked, she would be lost.
The next morning, Tess got ready and headed back into the game when it was time. She made sure her coin was on her before she decided to go find Scott. He was the closest one to her and she wanted to find out what he was doing in the middle of the ocean.
She was beyond surprised when she finally saw him, which was a few minutes before she actually reached shore.
Scott was manning a gigantic ship by himself. He was waving at her like a maniac and she waited for him to get closer to the beach before diving into the chilly water. Scott threw down a rope ladder for her and watched her climb up.
“This is my level!” Scott shouted. He loomed over her as she collapsed on the deck, panting. His head blocked out the sun. He pointed to his eye patch. “Figured I could play that part.”
“How are you steering this thing?”
Scott reached down to pull her up and patted her gently on the back.
“It’s not as hard as being in charge of an actual ship,” Scott said. He smiled when she glared at him. “The perks of living in a virtual reality world.”
“The many perks,” Tess said bitterly.
She made her way to helm and placed her hands on the massive wheel. The world seemed endless and they were floating farther away from land. She didn’t mind.
He stood next to her, his skin illuminated by the sun. He looked happier than she had ever seen him.
“I’m glad you’re here.”
Tess couldn’t help but crack a smile.
“Me too.” She paused, eyeing him quickly. “Did you wait for me?”
“I…well, yes,” Scott said. “We’re supposed to protect each other. I couldn’t do it without you, Gal.”
Tess remained silent for a while, taking in the gorgeous view. Despite everything going on, she had to enjoy it. It was peaceful. It was nice being alone with Scott for a little bit.
“Did you get your treasure?”
“No,” Scott said, with a smirk.
“I’m not going to eliminate anyone,” Scott said.
“But you’ll…” Tess let her words trail off because she knew they were being listened to. Scott was really saying that he wouldn’t kill anyone. And that meant he had no chance. “You have to.”
“Maybe.” Scott said. “But let’s not worry about that now. Let’s try to enjoy ourselves for the day.”
“Sounds good to me.”
The farther out they sailed, the clearer the water became. It was so still that Scott dropped the anchor and they climbed down for a swim. In the real world, Tess would have hated seeing all the fish swimming below her, but here she knew they wouldn’t hurt her. She watched Scott swim down and surface back up with a handful of warm sand.
“Did you go swimming as a kid?” Scott asked before letting some of the water come into his mouth. He spit it out like a fountain. “It was my favorite thing to do.”
“The ocean always sort of freaked me out,” Tess admitted.
Scott smiled and dove back down under the water. Tess nearly screamed as he grabbed at her feet. He resurfaced and started laughing.
“Don’t like all the creatures?” He smiled again and Tess smiled back. “Hey…what do you want to do after this? After Never World?”
Tess thought it was a strange question to ask considering there might not be an after Never World situation, but she knew he meant if they escaped.
“I don’t like to think that far ahead,” Tess said.
“I thought I was the only one.”
Tess and Scott spent the rest of the afternoon swimming around and exploring the strange ocean before heading back to the ship. As they relaxed on the deck, Tess checked her map to make sure everything was okay. No one was anywhere near them and Nate appeared to be safe.
Scott headed down below deck and returned with a couple cups of water. They both laid on their backs and watched the clouds roll by. It was nice and warm and Tess couldn’t remember the last time she had let herself relax like that. She turned her head to look at Scott, but he continued to stare up at the sky.
“Is this the point in our day where we argue over what shapes the clouds are making?” Scott asked. “I’m new to this.”
“New to what?”
“Having fun,” Scott said.
“Only if we skip over the part where you ask me about my hand and I ask you how you lost your eyesight. How many times can we really have that conversation in our lives?”
“One day I might ask,” Scott said. “But not today.”
Tess looked back up at the sky, but she felt Scott’s hand on hers. She interlocked her fingers with his and closed her eyes. Maybe if she closed her eyes the moment would last longer.
“You’re not going to die,” Scott whispered.
Tess kept her eyes closed and wished it to be true. No one could possibly know that, but she had to believe that somehow they could make it happen.
Eventually, Tess sat up and watched the setting sun. She check on Nate, who seemed to still be fine, but all the contestants were starting to wander closer together. Everyone had uncovered their treasure except for Scott.
Tess noticed that the levels kept getting shorter. She thought maybe everyone just wanted to see it over with or they were becoming more experienced. Either way, they’d have to make an escape sooner rather than later. They couldn’t wait for one of them to be lost.
As the night started to come to an end, Tess asked Scott to start back to shore. They saw Robert had secured a ship, so they were no longer safe out in the middle of the sea. Also, Nate was alone.
Tess turned back to see Scott steering the ship. He was looking out into the distance at the beautiful orange sky. She couldn’t help but watch him as he concentrated on getting them back.
That night, Tess skipped dinner and waited for them in the chatroom, but neither of them showed up. She was feeling more exhausted than usual, so she opted to sleep instead of waiting for them any longer. She would find Nate the next day anyway. She also had to trust that Scott and Nate had communicated in some way that night.
The next morning, Scott continued sailing them back to shore. As she climbed down on the sandy beach, she took a look around to see that everything was safe. No one was in sight.
“Do you hear that?” Scott asked.
Tess stopped in place and listened. There was the sound of gunfire not too far away. It sounded old, like a musket of some sort. She checked her map.
Larsen and Nate were close by and were right on top of each other. Tess eyed Scott in a panic and they took off in that direction. Nate was in trouble.
As Tess entered the tree line, she ran into something hard and fell to the ground. Sonya also ended up on the ground across from her. A knife was in between them, which had fallen from Sonya’s grasp.
Neither she nor Sonya made a move for it.
“Tess?” She heard Scott yell.
Tess eyed Sonya and pushed herself off the ground. Since Sonya didn’t make any move for her weapon or appear to want to threaten Tess in any way, Tess took off toward the sound of Scott’s voice.
She ran through the twisted vines that had crawled up from the forest floor and made no attempt to duck as branches whipped across her face. There was shouting. It sounded like Nate.
She saw them up in the clearing and saw that Scott was running up from an adjacent path. He looked at her and then saw Nate and Larsen. Larsen was reaching for a sword that was fastened to his hip. Both of their guns were lying on the ground, useless.
Nate stumbled and fell just as Robert appeared across from them. He smiled and pointed at Tess. He was coming after her.
Everything was a blur as the pod sirens started blaring. The level was over, but who was dead? She tried to get a grasp on reality as Never World started to fade away. She tried to say something, but she couldn’t scream. She reached her hand out.