“No!” Tess shouted as she woke up in her pod.
She reached for the hidden key, but thought better of it. She wasn’t thinking clearly and there wasn’t a good escape plan yet. She’d get caught and put Scott as risk.
Tess waited by the door for the red light to switch on, but she ended up waiting a long time. She tried to steady her breathing. She tried to think about anything besides Nate. Maybe it was too late for him. Maybe he was gone.
When the light finally changed, Tess hurried out into the hall. She found Nate’s room and started pounding on the door. No one answered.
She bolted for the cafeteria and pushed open the heavy doors. Nothing. The scoreboard revealed nothing—it hadn’t been changed yet.
When the cafeteria doors opened a moment later, Tess’s heart fell into her stomach. Nate ran to her and engulfed her in a tight hug. After a few moments, Nate knelt down on the floor and continued to hug her.
“It’s okay,” Nate whispered. “I won’t leave you.”
“I won’t leave you, either,” Tess said.
At that moment, Tess knew what it was like to have a sibling—an older brother. When they let go, Tess saw Scott standing at the door. He was smiling, relieved. His eyes were glassy.
Scott and Nate hugged each other while Tess grabbed as many trays as she could handle. She brought them back to their table.
They ate well for the first time in weeks.
Tess watched Sonya enter the cafeteria, see her, and then back right out. Nate looked at her for clarification, but Tess shrugged. They had a weird moment in the game, where neither of them attempted to kill each other, that she couldn’t explain. Maybe Sonya knew. Maybe most of them were aware they were in danger.
“What do we do?” Tess asked. “I have the—”
“Later,” Nate warned. “Meet at 9.”
Tess was concerned when Dr. Tucker came to fetch her from the cafeteria. She hadn’t seen him for a while and she hoped her days of being escorted around were over. She said goodbye to Nate and Scott and went to see what was happening.
Dr. Tucker didn’t speak to her until they were back in her room.
“Very good, Tess,” Dr. Tucker said. “I can see you making it until the end, I can really see it.”
Tess stepped up closer to Dr. Tucker. He was rambling and he looked like he hadn’t slept in days. He also wasn’t wearing his white coat.
“Is everything okay?”
“Can’t I say I’m proud? You do know the whole team thing is going to have to end soon, right? What are you going to do after that?”
“Where have you been?” Tess asked. She gathered up some of her dirty pod suits from the bathroom and shoved them in Dr. Tucker’s arms. “You might as well do something useful.”
He stopped her from walking around by stepping in front of her. Every move she tried to take he intercepted her path. She gave up.
“This is very important to me, Tetsumi. Very, very important,” Dr. Tucker said. “I’m going to need you to stay focused.”
Tess heard angry voices calling for Dr. Tucker outside. She glared at him and pointed to the door.
“Are you allowed to be here?”
Dr. Tucker took a deep breath and stepped out into the hallway. Tess was able to catch the door with her foot before he locked shut. She peered outside and saw Dr. Tucker get surrounded by three guards.
“I was just talking to her,” Dr. Tucker said, with his hands raised. “I didn’t say anything. I just wanted to wish her well.”
One of the guards grabbed him by the arm and he didn’t struggle. He just gave up and followed them. Tess shut her door when one of them turned around to check the hallway. She pressed her back against it and tried to let it all settle in.
Tess brought it up when she met with Nate and Scott later that night.
“Come to think of it, I haven’t seen my programmer in a while,” Scott said. He plopped down on the couch. “Maybe they die too…if we don’t make it. They might know too much.”
“How do they control them?” Tess asked.
Nate pointed to his arm.
“We’re going to have to dig them out,” he said.
“What?” Tess asked.
“The chips,” Nate said. “It’s the only way for us to escape. They won’t be able to kill us that way.”
“They’ll find other ways!” Tess protested. “I can’t do that!”
“You’re going to have to or I’ll do it for you,” Nate said.
“Okay, but let’s figure out what we’re going to do after that,” Scott said. “Can all three of us really get out of here?”
Tess sat down on the couch next to him. There was a deafening silence. It would be hard for all three of them to escape and find somewhere to go, but there was no other way. No one could be left behind.
“We start scouting out the building,” Nate said. “Try to find the best exit and the best time to do it.”
“I’ll look around as much as I can,” Tess promised.
“Me too,” Scott said. “We’re running out of time.”
“So…do you think we’ll have to fight in the next level?” Tess asked. The thought of entering Never World again made her feel sick. She wasn’t sure she could do it. “Can we get out before next week?”
“I’m not sure,” Scott said. “During a level might be the best time to get out. We could leave in the middle of it. Everyone will be preoccupied.”
“You don’t think they would realize we left the game?” Tess asked.
“I’m sure they would, but they’d also think we were just taking a break,” Nate said. “At first they would. By the time they figured it out, we’d be out of here.”
“We need something better,” Scott argued. “We have no idea what they know.”
“This is all we have for now,” Nate replied. “We’ll work on it quickly.”
Tess felt a little relieved that they were planning something, but she wanted it all to happen faster. She didn’t want to live in a nightmare anymore.
“I can probably find out if there are any cameras set up in the hallways,” Scott said. “I’ve been working on figuring out their system. I’m close to accessing The Creator’s messages.”
“Good, that’ll help,” Nate said.
“Well, we have a few days before the next level, so maybe we can figure it out,” Scott added.
After the discussion was over that night, Tess headed back to her room and watched the stars before falling asleep. Understandably, her sleep was riddled with nightmares. When she woke up the next morning, she felt more exhausted than ever.
Tess dressed and waited for the light to turn red. It didn’t change until dinner, but she wasn’t allowed to go to dinner. Bethany Armbrandt showed up to interview her. Tess tried to decline, but that wasn’t an option. Bethany cheerfully dragged Tess all the way to the interview room.
Tess sat in a chair across from Bethany and they were joined by a few cameramen. A single guard stood in front of the door.
“So, Tess,” Bethany started. “Sorry to ambush you like this. We’re just interviewing all the contestants that made it here so far. We’re especially interested in you.”
“Why’s that?” Tess asked.
“You’re got spunk!” Bethany said.
Tess had to fight back rolling her eyes. She didn’t, and she wouldn’t, put on a happy face. She wondered how much Bethany knew.
“I’m ready,” Tess said.
Bethany looked confused for a moment. She looked up at her cue cards over Tess’s shoulder and smiled.
“I guess we’re ready too,” Bethany said. She paused and tried to put on a more professional face. “How has your time been so far?”
Tess crossed her legs.
“Care to elaborate?” Bethany said.
“Everything so far has been fine,” Tess said.
Despite all the terror surrounding the competition, she was enjoying making Bethany squirm. She would not let Bethany get a good interview. She would not let viewers like her. She wouldn’t be someone else’s entertainment any longer.
“Okay,” Bethany said, her smile visibly fading. “Tess…how do you feel about the upcoming level? We’ve seen you team up with Nathan and Scott. Do you think you’ll be able to stick with them much longer?”
“I think I’ll be able to stick with them till the end,” Tess said.
Tess could see the panic on Bethany’s face. The annoyance. The pressure.
“We will stay together in Never World for as long as possible.”
“Are you saying you won’t try to eliminate either of them?”
“I won’t,” Tess said.
She was acting recklessly, but she didn’t care. She wasn’t thinking clearly. She clenched her fists.
“Alright,” Bethany said, pointing to the camera. “We’ll fill the air time with something else. Get that little brat out of here.”
Before Tess could say anything else, the guard grabbed her arm. He kept his grip tight, even though she didn’t struggle. She smiled at Bethany on the way out. Bethany glared at her.
As she walked back to her room with the guard, she heard loud footsteps coming after her. She turned to see Bethany headed in her direction.
“If you think The Creator is going to be happy about this, you’re mistaken. There will be punishments for not following the rules. He wants this to go well.”
Tess showed no fear.
“He will keep me safe,” Tess said.
Bethany opened her mouth to say something, but she looked frazzled. She backed up slowly and then stormed off back down the hallway. Tess heard a door slam.
Just like Scott said he planned to do, Tess kept an eye out for security cameras. There were a few on the corners of the hallways, but she didn’t see a red light that usually indicated they were filming. Maybe they were used to give the illusion that they were being watched. Or maybe someone was constantly watching them. Tess wasn’t sure.
She made a mental note in her head where they were located and jotted it down once she was inside in room. She hid the notes in her pod, close to the key.
Tess scanned the room for cameras, checking out every possible crevasse, but she didn’t see anything. As a professional thief back home, if it could be called that, she knew what to look out for. She somehow felt safer in her room than anywhere else. Maybe it was because she knew they didn’t need to watch in their room. They were locked in and there was nothing they could do about it.
For the next couple days, Tess couldn’t leave her room at all. Tess knew it was due to her behavior during the interview and how she had treated Bethany. She waited for Dr. Tucker to come to take her to The Creator, but that never happened.
Tess was able to meet up with Nate and Scott in the chatroom the night before the next level. They let her know that she wasn’t the only one who had been stuck in her room. Neither of them had been allowed out either. Maybe all the contestants were being subjected to the same thing.
“What have you been doing?” Tess asked.
“Trying to figure out what the next step should be,” Scott said. “It should be done this level. We need to get out soon.”
“We’ll scope it out first,” Nate said.
Tess felt intense relief when she realized that they could be leaving soon. Things were just going to get worse and they couldn’t risk losing each other.
“And when we get out?” Tess asked.
“I have that figured out,” Scott said.
“I just do. I know where to go.”
“Is this Dark Hand related?” Tess asked.
Scott looked down.
“We’ll be safe. I said I wouldn’t mention him anymore and I wish you would do that same.”
Tess had no idea why he would be so upset about her mentioning The Dark Hand, but she just had to trust him. She knew he wouldn’t suggest escaping unless that had that part figured out. She had to trust that they would be fine.
She slept a little better that night and woke up feeling oddly refreshed. Tess stretched out for a moment before heading to take a shower before the next level.
Before she even got halfway across the room, she saw a piece of paper had been shoved under the door. Tess sat down on the floor and unfolded the note. She quickly found out that it wasn’t a note—it was official instructions for the next level.
Your upcoming level in Never World will only last a day.
You’re on your own.