Tess’s eyes shot open when she arrived in the new level. She was alone. And it was cold.
There was a buzzing sound in her ears, so she sat up in an attempt to make it stop. It just got worse. Tess took a look outside a window and could only see blue.
Where was she?
Wake up contestants and man your aircrafts. You don’t have much time before you crash. Get going.
Tess recognized the woman’s voice from training and the first level, but what she was saying frightened her. She was going to crash? Man your aircrafts?
She pushed herself up and saw she was wearing an outfit similar to her jump suit—a pilot’s suit. Tess pushed back the curtain in front of her and found the cockpit.
She was headed right for the side of a mountain.
“Uhh…” Tess muttered.
She looked at the controls, but everything was foreign to her. She sat down and accessed her screen. There were instructions on how to turn on her flight manuals and once they were set, the screen told her what to do. She could now clearly see what she should be doing.
Tess pulled down on the stick in front of her and the plane started to move up. She held her breath as she waited to see if she would make it. Part of her wished she would just crash into the mountain so she wouldn’t have to fight any more, but she fought back. She couldn’t think like that.
“Got it, got it.”
She let herself breath again once she cleared the mountain. Past that, there was an endless blue sky with no obstacles in sight.
Unsure of what to do, Tess fiddled around with the instruments in the plane, but nothing seemed to do anything. She tried to figure out which was to go. There was nothing to point her in any sort of direction.
She spent another few minutes flying around, directionless.
“Hello?” Tess turned around to find the source of the voice, but there was no one with her. “Can you hear me?”
“Yes…wait.” Tess realized she was talking to herself. She found a flashing yellow button above her and pressed it. “Hello?”
Scott’s voice came on over the intercom.
“You figured things out fast,” Tess said. “Where are you?”
“Find your map,” Scott said.
Tess tapped into her screen and found Scott’s plane. He was already near Nate and they were only a few miles to the left.
“Found Nate already, huh?” Tess mentioned.
She heard Scott laugh.
“I guess we’re inseparable, Tess,” Scott said. “Now come here and join the fun. Let’s end this level.”
“Sounds good to me,” Tess said.
She heard the radio switch off and Tess put in her coordinates. It was sort of peaceful flying alone with no one else in sight, but she knew it couldn’t last.
Tess saw Scott’s plane, which was a bright yellow color, followed by Nate’s red plane. She couldn’t see either of them, but it was nice to be around them. She felt better.
“What should we do?” Tess asked.
“Huh?” Came Scott’s voice.
“What should we do?” Tess repeated.
“Over,” Nate replied.
“You’re supposed to say over or over and out,” Scott said. “Talk professionally, Gal.”
Tess groaned. She checked the map and saw that a couple other planes were approaching—Sonya and Robert. Eli and Morgan appeared to be hanging back. She wondered if they were in the same plane and if theirs looked any different.
“What should we do about Robert?” Nate asked. They were moving forward, but they didn’t have any clear direction. “Maybe we should learn how to use our weapons.”
Tess looked around, but the plane seemed too old to have any advanced weapons. She couldn’t find anything.
“There aren’t any,” Tess said.
“Excuse me?” Scott asked.
“Yeah…I mean that doesn’t make sense. There has to be some way to—” Nate cut himself off and didn’t speak for a moment. “This is a race.”
“A race?” Tess felt her breath catch in her throat. “When does it start?”
“Now,” Scott said.
Tess watched helplessly as Robert and Sonya darted past them, in the direction the twins were in. As it stood at that moment, the three of them were last. If they couldn’t catch up, one of them would be eliminated.
“Go!” Nate shouted through the radio.
Tess took off after him, with Scott right on her tail. They needed to catch up.
As she pushed forward, Tess checked her map. The twins were way ahead, but they still had a while to go before they reached the finish line. Robert and Sonya were close, but something had to slow them down if they wanted to catch up. Tess felt like she was going to vomit.
A few moments later, she realized they were gaining on Robert and Sonya. In fact, it seemed like they both had stopped altogether. She instinctively slowed her plane down, feeling suspicious. Maybe it was a trap.
“Let’s not come up right behind them,” Nate announced.
They all followed each other, taking a western route, and encountered the same problem as Robert and Sonya.
There were little white spheres floating before them, as far as the eye could see. Tess saw there was enough room to fit her plane through, but it would require some very difficult maneuvering. She saw that Robert had already begun to move again.
“What happens if we touch one of those?” Tess asked.
“I guess we can see,” Scott said.
Before Tess could protest, Scott moved his plane forward. Its nose touched one of the spheres and his plane was shot backwards at least a few yards. She assumed any interaction with them would bring them back to the start of the awful maze. Tess took a deep breath and moved forward. Robert wasn’t too far ahead, so this was their chance to catch up.
Tess moved slowly, but she knew they couldn’t afford to keep going as slowly as they were. Tess wondered for a moment if Larsen had designed this level and how he would have performed. He didn’t deserve to die. None of them did.
She looked down at her metal right hand and noticed an awful feeling in the pit of her stomach. She didn’t want it anymore. She wanted to feel like herself again.
“Tess?” Scott’s voice filled the cockpit. “You okay?”
Tess was sitting still in the middle of the spheres and Scott and Nate were a good distance ahead.
“Sorry…I’m fine,” Tess replied.
She pushed herself to catch up.
By the time they reached the end, Robert and Sonya had already taken off. The twins had already finished the level, having had a significant lead. They were safe.
The three of them took off at full speed. Tess could see Robert and Sonya ahead of her, but they had slowed down again. With no obstacles in sight, Tess kept going at full speed. As she passed by Robert, she heard his voice over her radio.
“Tess, you’re gonna wanna watch this.”
Letting her curiosity get the best of her, Tess slowed down a bit. She saw the side of Sonya’s plane had already been damaged. She couldn’t move.
Robert circled around Sonya’s plane, doubled back, and then flew straight at her at full speed. Since Sonya had no place to go, the impact was immense. Tess watched helplessly as shards of Sonya’s plane exploded through the air. Robert came right through, mostly unscathed, and started toward the finish line.
Tess was shaking as she hurried to follow her friends. Robert slowed down at one point to fly beside her as an attempt to make her nervous. She heard him laughing over her radio as he finished the level.
When Tess woke up in her pod, she reached underneath the padding to find the key to her room. Since the light was still red, she considered using it, but she knew Scott and Nate weren’t ready. She worried that hesitating would cost them their lives.
Tess slipped the key back in her pocket and waited until the light finally turned red. She found Scott out in the hallway and he grabbed onto her hand tightly.
When they entered the cafeteria, Nate was the only one inside. The twins joined a few moments later and sat across the room from them. Nate looked on edge.
“It’s looking pretty empty in here, huh?” Nate said.
“We need—” Scott started, but Nate interrupted.
“You should talk to everyone, Tess. You should tell them what’s going on.”
“I can’t,” Tess started. “I mean, you’ve met Robert…right?”
“You can,” Nate argued. “Maybe he’ll change his mind if there’s a chance he might die.”
“Did you see what he did to Sonya?”
“No,” Nate said, raising an eyebrow. “She just didn’t finish. She came in last.”
“Nate, Robert damaged her plane so she would lose,” Tess explained. “I saw it…”
Scott and Nate exchanged worried glances.
Robert came in just as they were finishing up eating. Tess saw a fury come over Nate unlike anything she had ever seen. He first tried to lunge at Robert, but Scott and Tess were quick enough to hold him back. Robert’s laughing didn’t help things. Nate struggled harder and broke free of their grasp. He tacked Robert to the ground and wailed on him until the guards pulled Nate away.
Tess watched helplessly as he was dragged off into the hallway screaming.
Robert picked himself up and smiled at Tess and Scott. The twins were watching.
“Looks like we’re alone,” Robert said, motioning to the door. The guards had left to deal with Nate. “Are you feeling as strong as your friend, Scott?”
Tess stepped in between them before Scott could make a move.
“We’re trying to help you,” Tess hissed.
“Help me?” Robert said. “How could you possible help me? There’s no way I’m going to lose this competition.”
“The Creator is killing us,” Tess explained frantically. She took a step forward. “No one is going to win, Robert. Everyone that was eliminated in the game is dead.”
Robert laughed and looked at Scott, challenging him.
“If I win, the public will want to see more of me,” Robert said. “If I win, I don’t die.”
Robert shoved Tess so hard that she hit the floor. Scott started forward, in the same sort of rage that Nate was in. But she couldn’t lose him too. If the guards came back, they’d take him away. Scott saw her fear and backed up. He pointed a shaking finger at Robert.
“Don’t you ever try to hurt her again,” Scott said through clenched teeth. “And if you die in this game, you deserve it. We’re going to be long gone before that happens.”
When the guards came back in, Robert smiled again and headed out into the hallway.
“This is useless. Let’s go,” Scott said.
Tess looked back at the twins and told Scott she’d meet him in the gym. She headed over to where they were sitting and sat across from them. They watched her, but didn’t say anything.
“Are you free to talk?” Tess asked.
Eli and Morgan exchanged glances and then turned back to Tess.
“Before we begin I think it’s important that you stop talking to us like we’re the same person,” Eli said. “And stop looking at us like we are the same person.”
Tess opened her mouth to speak, but Morgan started.
“Since you haven’t taken the chance to know us before this moment, I’m guessing you want something from us. As much as you think we’re going to lay down and die, I need to tell you that’s not going to happen.”
“I’m sorry,” Tess said, trying to gather her thoughts. They were right. She had never thought of them as separate competitors. “I’ve never met conjoined twins before.”
“And I’ve never met someone without a right hand, but I don’t look at you like a freak,” Eli said.
Tess kept her head down.
Morgan reached out and lifted Tess’s chin up. They were both smiling.
“We like to be left alone,” Morgan said. “And we never are.”
“I know,” Tess said. “There’s no reason for you to trust me, but there’s something awful going on here and we all need to get out. If we continue in Never World, we’ll die.”
Eli and Morgan continued to stare at her. It felt like forever before they finally said something.
“We have our own plan,” Eli replied.
“So…you know?” Tess asked, suddenly feeling like they weren’t so alone. “What are you going to do? How are you going to get away?”
“No one said anything about getting away,” Morgan added.
Tess couldn’t think of anything to say. She was too confused.
“Sonya was very fond of you,” Eli said. “We only trust you because she did. She became a good friend of ours.”
“She did?” Tess asked.
Tess tried to keep the image of Sonya’s plane being blown to bits, but it was impossible. She couldn’t get upset now. She had to keep a clear head.
“Take care, Tess.”
Taking that as their dismissal of her, Tess stopped up to leave. She turned back before walking away.
“I’ll try to help.”
They both nodded, but didn’t say anything else.