The sun was barely up when Tess decided to leave. She left a quick note for her father, grabbed her backpack, and walked along the desolate boardwalk. It was filled with trash from the previous night, but a few early morning workers were out with their sweepers.
The walk downtown was refreshing and strangely liberating for Tess. She knew she wouldn’t have to worry about going to jail and she’d be separated from all of it for at least a couple months. She couldn’t help being a bit excited.
The game show headquarters were located in that abandoned building that was named on the back of The Creator’s business card. It used to be called Tower Heights, but they had been renamed to Never World HQ. A brand new sign had been placed out front. Tess wasn’t sure when all the renovations had happened, but the place looked brand new.
She stopped in front of the tall building and stared at the massive wooden doors. There weren’t any handles to open them.
After a few moments of standing around awkwardly, she noticed a small doorbell to the right of the door, underneath the building number. She reached out and pressed it hard.
The doors creaked open a few seconds later and a long, seemingly endless hallway was revealed to her. Once she stepped onto the wooden floor, the doors closed slowly behind her. It took another couple seconds before a nicely dressed woman came out from one of the archways, leading into other rooms. She smiled at Tess warmly and clapped her hands in front of her.
“I was told I should be expecting you!” The woman said, placing a hand on Tess’s back. “Are you ready to check in?”
Tess peered down the hallway. There were sounds of people, but she couldn’t see anyone. Everything seemed to be going on behind closed doors.
“Check in?” Tess said, bringing her attention back to the woman. She was smiling.
“Oh, yes. You need to begin the check in process. We need to evaluate you for the game,” she said. “Once it begins, you must stay here. You will not have contact with the outside world until after the game is over.”
Tess nodded. She figured that would happen, considering she’d be on a television show.
“Okay, sure,” Tess replied, her voice breaking a bit. She felt nervous all of a sudden. Everything was so final at that moment. “Where will I stay?”
“You’ll have a private room once the game begins, where you’ll find your pod and everything else you’ll need for however many weeks it takes. But right now we need to begin your evaluations,” she paused. “I’m Bethany Armbrandt. I’m the host of the show.”
“The host?” Tess asked. Bethany put on hand on her back and started leading her down the long hallway. “Will you be in the game?”
She eyed the doors lining the hallways and wondered what was going on behind them. She didn’t ask.
“No!” Bethany laughed. “I’ll just be on before the episodes, doing your character profiles. I’ll barely be on the show.”
At the end of the hallway, Bethany opened a door to the right, which led to an equally long hallway with bright yellow lights. She counted the doors on the right.
“One, two, three, four, five, six, ah…here you are,” Bethany said. She pressed her hand against a metal plate where the doorknob should be. A red light scanned her hand and the door clicked open. Bethany pushed it open. “Do you need anything to drink?”
Tess ignored her and stepped inside. The room was fairly small, equipped with a dentist type chair, but there was more to it. On a side table was a blackened out helmet and a bunch of electrodes that attached to the chair.
She started to back up, but bumped into Bethany.
“After this, you’ll have orientation,” Bethany said. “You’ll get used to how the game is going to be run, the facility, and whatever other rules are important.”
“Will I get to meet the others?” Tess asked. Bethany motioned for her to sit down in the chair. “When can I see them?”
“Not yet,” Bethany said. “Not everyone has arrived.”
“Is Nate here?”
Bethany smiled and started backing up toward the door. Tess craned her neck to see her.
“I have to go. A programmer will be in briefly to get your started. Relax, Tess,” Bethany said. Her voice was strangely calming. “You’ll be fine.”
She left Tess alone and closed the door behind her.
Tess waited for a few moments in the chair before she started to get antsy. She moved to get up just as someone else entered the room. It was a young man in blue scrubs, holding a bottle of water and a clipboard.
“Tess Galvin,” he said. “Please get comfortable.”
He pulled over a rolling chair from next to the side table and sat down on it.
“You’re a programmer? What does that mean?” Tess asked.
He dug into his pocket and pulled out a wrapped packet of pills. Two small white ones.
“I’m Doctor Young. I’ll make sure everything in the game runs smoothly. It will be quite a shock to your system, but we’ll ease you into it.”
“Will this be like the game?” Tess asked, eyeing the pills.
“No. You’ll be more in a dream state during this. The game will be much different,” Dr. Young replied. “We’re just trying to get information from you. At the end you’ll be able to design your character and you’ll be in a simplified version of the game. In a safe zone.”
“Is this all safe?” she asked.
“And you’re sure?”
He suppressed a smile as he opened the packet of pills carefully and handed them over to Tess. She cupped them in her hand as he tried to hand over the water. His cheeks turned pink after he realized she had no free hand.
“It’s okay,” Tess said. She put the pills in her mouth and dry swallowed them. She grabbed the water and took a swig. “I’ve been able to figure things out.”
“Of course you have,” Dr. Young said. Tess searched for pity on his face, but she saw something different. Admiration. “Lay back, Tess.”
Tess followed his instructions and watched as he started attaching the electrodes to certain parts of her body—two on her temples, some on her arms, a couple more on different spots on her neck, and one on her forehead.
“You won’t have to be hooked up like this in the game. The technology is much better. This is just temporary,” Dr. Young said.
“It’s fine,” Tess lied.
She felt herself start to get sleepy and her limbs felt heavy. Her head felt like it weighed a hundred pounds.
“It will be over before you know it,” Dr. Young’s soothing voice came through, reminding her where she was. Her eye lids were heavy. “It’s not a bad experience.”
“You’ve been inside?”
“You sure ask a lot of questions,” Dr. Young said.
Moments later, Tess was completely out. At first it felt like she was in a haze, like nothing was real, and she wasn’t sure where she was. But then everything came on quickly like a dream and not much made sense.
She found herself in a white room, but she was still sitting in the dentist’s chair. There were no electrodes attached to face or arms, so she was free to move about the room. Tess stayed where she was and clutched onto the sides of the chair.
She heard a familiar beeping noise, like the sound when you collect coins in video games, and glanced up. There was a floating text bubble that read, What do you want to create, Tetsumi?
Tess stood up and looked at the room around her. It was no longer a room, but endless whiteness that had opened up around her. The chair was gone.
The coin sound was prompted again and the text bubble reset itself. What do you want to create, Tetsumi? scrolled back on the screen.
When Tess tried to reach for the bubble, her hand went right through it and the words were distorted for a moment. It reset itself again and changed to; Do you want me to activate voice recognition?
“Yes,” Tess said quickly. She would rather talk to someone, anyone. “Please.”
“Hello,” a pleasant female voice was in her ear. “Now do you want to create something, Tetsumi?”
“How do you know my name?” Tess asked. The whiteness surrounding her was starting to get to her.
“We have all your records. Would you like me to call you something else?”
She knew that when she was born her father had insisted on naming her Tetsumi, despite its outdated origins and the fact that it had typically been a boy's name. He wanted to name her after her great-grandfather.
“Tess, please,” she responded.
“I will save you preference in our records.” She heard the coin noise again. “Now, shall we begin?”
“What do you mean?” Tess asked. She began to feel more comfortable walking around, but there was really nothing to walk to. She reached down to touch the white floor, but it was hard as a rock.
“We need to test your abilities to navigate through Never World. This is the building stage to get you used to it. You can do whatever you want.”
“What kind of game is this?” Tess asked.
“An interactive one.”
“Okay,” Tess said. She paused for a moment, biting her lip. “I want to be in a field…a sunny field with poppies and green grass.”
Before she could even finish her sentence, the field she had imagined was all around her. She smiled, not really wanting to but unable to stop herself, and closed her eyes. As she angled her face up toward the sky, she could feel the warm rays of light on her pale skin. It was strange being able to feel something like that in a game. She figured her interviewer had heat lamps to simulate that feeling.
“You don’t have to tell me,” the voice said. “You just have to think it and concentrate. The game will adjust itself. There will be more solid rules when Never World is operational, but just get a feel for it.”
Tess opened her eyes and saw the field was still there. She glanced down at her hand and then lifted up her right arm.
“What about this?”
“It’s not a disability,” Tess snapped. The voice didn’t respond. “Can I change it?”
As Tess concentrated, her body began to feel different. Her fingers grazed the edge of her jeans, which was strange. How could she have feeling in those fingers again?
She lifted up her hand and marveled at it. She bent down to run her fingers through the grass and then reached to pick out a poppy.
“I have some advice,” the voice said suddenly.
Tess continued to hold the poppy in her hand, but nodded. It felt too nice to stop doing what she was doing.
“What is it?”
“In the game, I suggest building something better. You’ve survived with one hand for this long, so make it something more powerful.”
Tess dropped the flower and looked around her as the room started to change back to white. Her hand started to disappear and suddenly she couldn’t feel it anymore. There was no more sensation, nothing to even remember that it had been there moment before.
“Crush them with it.”