Tess watched the world dissolve around her. She couldn’t believe what she just saw. Two contestants gone at once?
She turned on the television, but it was just static. She waited until she was allowed to head out into the hallway and walked slowly to the cafeteria. Tess forced herself to eat something until Scott finally joined her, hurrying to her table.
“They jumped?” Scott asked. “Why would they do that? What did you say to them?”
“I told them the truth. I thought they weren’t listening or they didn’t believe me. Maybe they knew they wouldn’t be able to get away,” Tess said.
“We would have helped them.”
“Could we have?”
Scott didn’t say anything. He ran a hand through his hair and sat down at the table. He looked toward the door, but it didn’t seem like anyone else would be joining them.
“You know what this means, don’t you?” Scott asked.
“We need to make this work without Nate. Look, with us gone he’ll only have to beat Robert. He can do it.”
“That’s not an option.”
“It’s the only option,” Scott said. “We have to do it.”
“How do you know the game will go on?”
Tess wanted to argue, but she knew there was no point. Nate and Scott had already agreed on this and Tess had been given the previous level to figure something out. She just didn’t know it would end so soon.
“Are you sure he’ll be okay?”
“Nate can beat Robert. Robert is too impulsive. You saw how he went after us,” Scott said. “We need to go. Cameron is waiting.”
“Then we’ll go.”
Scott slid her something across the table and folded it into her hand. She slipped it into her pocket.
Tess and Scott headed back to their rooms and waited for what was going to happen next. As she waited, she pulled out what Scott had given her. It was a small folding pocket knife. At first she was confused, but she remembered that she had to find a way to remove the tracker in her arm. She hid it along with the key.
Expecting to be forced into the next level of the game right away, Tess was surprised when they had a full week off. She didn’t see or hear from Nate and Scott the whole time and couldn’t help but feel panicked about what was going on.
She spent some time looking up more information about The Creator, but there seemed to be some gigantic information blackout. It was like he didn’t even exist. She wondered if he was on to her snooping.
During the break, she also spotted Dr. Young in the gaming room as she gave the maze another shot. She had calmed herself down a bit and the hedges had started to slim down. After a while, she was able to see the path again. She knew she had no chance in solving it, but still she tried her hardest.
Finally, she came across a young girl in the maze. She had light brown skin and big blue eyes and she continued to stare at Tess.
“Hello?” Tess called. “Are you hurt?”
The girl was cradling her right hand, but Tess couldn’t see anything wrong with her. She wondered if the little girl had sprained something.
She didn’t say anything.
Tess took a few more steps closer and she was the girl had tears running down her face.
“What’s wrong?” Tess asked.
“My hand. It’s gone.”
“No it’s not,” Tess replied, forcing a smile. “It’s right there. I can see it.”
“What am I supposed to do without a hand? What chance do I have in this world?” the girl said.
Tess shook her head and raised her missing right hand.
“I’m doing fine. I can’t use my right hand.”
The girl just started crying more.
“And what chance do you have?” she shouted.
Tess logged out of the game and saw Dr. Young standing near the entrance of the room, watching her. She didn’t understand why he would want her to play such an awful game. It wasn’t doing much to make her feel better.
“I need your help,” Tess said. She made no attempt to move any closer. “Why can’t you help me? We’re going to die.”
Dr. Young didn’t say anything. He looked tired. He looked hopeless.
She watched as he backed up and left the room in silence. There was nothing he could do to help them now. Tess was certain they had to figure it all out on their own.
The night before the next level, Tess was able to watch another program Bethany had concocted. It showed the four remaining contestants highlights and featured an interview with Nate. She noticed how tired he looked and she wondered what they had been making him do.
“How do you feel about finally having to go up against your friends? It’s no secret you have an alliance with Scott and Tess.”
“Hopefully we can take out Robert first and we won’t have to worry about that just yet.”
“But you will eventually.”
“You’ll have to forgive me, Bethany,” Nate said, trying to muster some excitement. “I don’t want to jinx myself. I’m trying not to get too far ahead.”
“One day at a time!” Bethany said. “I understand. I wish you the best!”
The interview ended with an announcement that the new level would begin the next day. The ratings must have been outstanding because the program replayed again right after that.
She wondered how many people knew her face.
Tess entered the new level the next morning to a big surprise. It was her creation. She knew it right away.
She glanced down at herself and saw she was dressed up in lightweight metal armor. There was a horse neighing beside her and a dirt path leading to a small town up ahead. In the distance, there was a gigantic castle. She had grown up loving medieval literature and the game must have known that.
She took a moment to revel in it before she got moving. There was no map, so she just had to wing it.
There would only be three of them left, so Tess knew they had to leave within the next couple of days. She breathed in the crisp air realizing that it might be the last time she was in Never World. It could have been so much fun if there wasn’t so much terror hidden behind it.
The horse’s feet against the rocky road calmed her as they started toward the town.
Tess nearly fell off her horse when a cannon went off in the distance. She heard cheering, like a battle was going on, and saw the town was deserted. The sounds were getting louder and louder as she moved toward the castle. A new objective popped up on her screen.
Enter the castle and navigate the maze. One of you won’t survive until the next round. Anything goes.
She sighed. The castle was right ahead and a five minute countdown started on the corner of her screen. She got down from her horse and started walking toward the entrance. She didn’t have time to look for a separate entrance, so she hoped Robert wasn’t going to try to ambush her. She wasn’t quite ready to fight him yet.
Tess pulled open the heavy doors and stepped inside the torch lined hallway. She pulled one from off the wall and held it in her left hand, illuminating the path in front of her.
The door at the end of the hallway revealed a massive dining room with torches and candles everywhere. She placed her torch down and started toward the table that was filled with steaming hot food. She stopped when she saw someone sitting at the end, eating an apple.
It was Scott.
“Oh, thank God,” Tess said, placing a hand on her heart. “What are you doing in here?”
“Tess!” Scott said, standing up. He was also dressed in armor. “You look…really cool. Is this your level?”
“Yes,” Tess replied. “You look cool, too.”
“I figured I should just wait here. I think Robert knows he’s outnumbered. He might be playing it safe,” Scott replied.
“No Nate?” Tess asked.
“Haven’t seen him yet.”
Tess took a seat at the table and Scott sat down across from her. He watched her curiously.
“We might as well have a feast then,” Tess suggested. “Even if it’s not real.”
They dug in and ate in the dimly lit room. It was peaceful and nice and everything tasted delicious.
Scott threw down his napkin and sat back in his chair. He gazed at her with an unreadable expression on his face.
“This will all be over soon,” Scott said.
“It hasn’t been all bad.”
“I guess not,” Tess admitted.
Scott grinned at her and they sat the rest of the night in comfortable silence. When their time ran up, Tess was brought back into her pod. She was surprised when she saw Dr. Tucker waiting for her.
“Dr. Tucker?” Tess asked, lifting herself up.
“You’re very close, Tess,” he said.
“What are you doing here?”
He looked even worse than the last time she had seen him.
“I just wanted to see if you were staying the path. You’re so close to winning. You need to be willing to put your friendships aside.”
“Can you please get out?” Tess shouted. She looked at the door. The light was red. “You’re not supposed to be here.”
“I can’t let you do anything stupid because of a crush. Scott is still your competitor,” Dr. Tucker said.
Tess moved past him and started banging on her door. When no one came she pressed her back against the door.
“What are they doing to you?” Tess said.
“I think you know, Tess,” Dr. Tucker said. “I think you know what they’re doing to all of us. This is why you need to be smart. You can’t give in to emotions. You need to save us both.”
Tess opened her mouth to respond, but the door swung open behind her, and a guard caught her by the arm. One of them led her to the cafeteria, but she could still hear the screaming. She was ushered inside and the guard knelt down to look her in the eyes.
“Did he hurt you?” the guard asked.
“These programmers just get a little crazy sometimes. They’re not allowed out because we don’t want anyone else to get a hold of this technology. We should have figured out a better way, but this is our first time.”
The guard placed a hand on her shoulder.
“Get something to eat.”
She was left alone in the cafeteria.
Tess took the opportunity to actually fill up her stomach for once. The chef brought her a cheeseburger and some fries, along with a big bowl of ice cream. Everything tasted delicious, just like it had in Never World. The only difference was that it was real.
She was looking forward to experiencing things in the real world again.
As she walked back to her room, she noticed how empty the hallways were. They had always been that way, but she knew how many people were gone. All the other contestants and probably their programmers, and maybe countless others…all dead. It gave her the chills.
She saw Scott standing in front of this door, waiting. His hands were clasped together and his hair was a mess. He must have just gotten out of his pod.
Tess walked quickly to meet him and was overcome with a sudden urge to kiss him, which she acted upon. She wanted something else real. She wanted their interactions to be more than just something that happened in the game.
She placed her hand against the side of his face, feeling his smooth skin. He closed his eyes.
“That’s what I wanted to do,” Scott said, feigning disappointment. She laughed and he wrapped her up in a warm hug.
“It’ll be over soon,” Tess whispered in his ear.
“Sooner than you think.” He whispered back. “Tomorrow.”
She broke away from him so she could look at his face. He kissed her forehead and started backing up toward his door.
He winked at her before disappearing into his room.
Tess felt odd standing in the hallway alone, afraid that she wouldn’t get to touch Scott again, but she tried to push those feelings away. They’d be leaving the next day. They could figure out the rest later.
She stayed up all night, occasionally having to run to the bathroom to throw up due to nerves, but by the time morning hit, she had somehow gathered herself together. Tess made her bed and took a long shower, making sure to eat something plain for breakfast.
When they arrived back in the game, she found herself sitting across from Scott. He looked more serious than he had the previous day, but for good reason.
“Hey, Gal,” Scott said. “Good night’s sleep?”
“Sure,” Tess replied.
Scott grabbed two of the torches and handed one off to her.
“We stay close and we work together. If you hear something, don’t run off. Sound good?”
Tess nodded and he led the way. They walked slowly down another hallway, opening up the side doors as they went. There were several bedrooms, filled with big beautiful canopy beds, along with rooms filled with armor and other weapons. Tess found a nice sword to place in her scabbard. Scott, for some reason, opted for a wooden mace. He held it tightly in his free hand.
“Keep an eye on my left side. I would if I had one.”
Tess ignored his attempt at a joke and followed his instructions. She was sure the darkness was not good for his limited eyesight.
She waited as he paused before he turned the corner. He raised a hand up and looked back at her.
“Someone is down there,” Scott whispered. “There’s a big open room and—”
Scott’s eyes suddenly went wide and Tess heard a strange noise she couldn’t pinpoint. It sounded like something wet hitting the floor.
Scott dropped his weapons and his shaking hands went down to his stomach. Something was sticking all the way through—the tip of an arrow covered in dark red blood. It was pooling on the floor.
“Scott?” Tess asked, as he dropped to his knees. He clutched onto her arms tightly. “No…get up! No!”
Tess held back tears as she tried to take in what was happening. Scott opened his mouth to speak, but nothing came out. She peered around the edge and saw Robert standing there, with his bow in hand. He lowered it and looked at her, expressionless.
She crouched back down and placed her hand on the side of his face. His eyes were still open, but the level was coming to an end. The warning lights were flashing.
“Get out now,” Tess said. “You still have time. You’re still alive.”
With Scott’s last remaining energy, he opened his mouth and forced out his last words.
Tess helplessly watched as the world deteriorated around her. She shoved away the top of her pod and scrambled to the door. She couldn’t stop the tears from pouring down her face. Surprisingly, the light above the door indicated that she was allowed out.
She quickly found Scott’s room and tried the handle. It opened.
Tess stumbled to his pod and pulled it open. She grabbed him from underneath his arms and pulled him onto the cold floor, letting his limp body rest in her lap.
He was gone.