When Tess opened her eyes, which now felt heavy and somewhat itchy, Dr. Young loomed over her. She reached up to touch her head, but the helmet and all the electrodes had been removed. He gave her a curious smile and walked over to a computer screen that was facing away from Tess.
“You did well,” Dr. Young said. He moved from the computer to scribble something down on the clipboard. “Your mind really took to it.”
Tess forced herself to sit up and Dr. Young brought her over a glass of water.
“Um…Dr. Young, I—”
“You can call me Li,” he said. “I’m going to be your programmer when Never World goes live, so we might as well get familiar with each other.”
“Li,” Tess started. “What’s the game going to be like? I just didn’t understand that whole simulation. What kind of game is it?”
“You’ll have to wait for orientation. We’re not allowed to divulge any information on an individual basis…they’ll consider it an advantage.” He paused and took a seat on the edge of her chair. “The game is going to be revolutionary, Tess. You’ll be back here tomorrow so we can customize your character. Think long and hard about what you’d like to be in the game. How would you change yourself if you could?”
Dr. Young nodded when she didn’t reply and headed toward the door with his clipboard. He opened it and motioned for her to get up.
“Time to go?” Tess asked.
“I’ll take you to your room and explain a few things to you. They spared no expense.”
Tess followed him through the hallways, which was beginning to feel like a well-lit maze. Dr. Young slowed down as she eyed the closed doors as they passed.
“The first couple floors used to be a school. The hallways are pretty spacious since they took the lockers out. The rooms are big and everything’s in good condition. It was a private school, so everything was looked after.” He pointed to the ceiling. “The programmers and game runners are all on the third floor. It’s hard to navigate, but you’ll get used to it.”
Tess couldn’t deny that her new home for the next few weeks wasn’t too shabby. It was better than anything she had ever lived in, so she couldn’t complain. It was strange to know that she’d be well-fed and hopefully well-rested for at least a little bit.
They finally reached a hallway that ended with a brick wall. There were five doors on the left and five doors on the right, all spaced equally apart. As they walked closer Tess could see that the doors on the right were numbered 1-5 and the doors on the left continued at 6-9.
“You’ll be staying here with the other contestants, but you’ll each get your own rooms. You will not be allowed to leave your rooms once you’re in for the night, so you won’t be able to talk to each other outside of meal and recreation time. I doubt you’ll find it necessary to communicate anyway.”
“Why not?” Tess asked.
Dr. Young peered at her after resting his hand on door number seven.
“Because they’ll be your competition. You’re not here to make friends.”
Tess thought of Cameron for a moment when he mentioned friends. Cameron had been the only one she’s ever had, the only one willing to hang out with her after the accident.
“I’m used to it.”
Instead of looking sorry for her, Li laughed. He put a hand on her shoulder and pulled her forward gently. She watched as he pulled out a key from his pants pocket and put it in the lock on the metal door. She thought it was strange there would be such a secure door for a dorm room, but she didn’t say anything.
Dr. Young yanked the door open and revealed the large room.
Her new dorm was as big as an apartment would be in the city, except it was about ten times nicer. Tess hesitated before stepping inside; feeling like the whole thing was a joke. Li let the door close behind them.
Wood paneling covered the floor of the main room, where there was a leather pull-out couch against the far wall, a mounted television across from it, a small kitchen table with a couple wooden chair, and something else that was particularly strange—a massive black pod that took up most of the center of the room. Tess ignored it for a moment as she continued to glance around.
The living room and kitchen were only divided by a two foot wall, so she was able to look at everything without moving closer. She had a fridge, a sink, and a stove, along with cabinets that lined the wall above them. Off the left was a short hallway that led to the bathroom. The door was open and the lights were on, so she could see the toilet, sink, and tub.
There were no windows anywhere.
Li stepped near the pod and cleared his throat.
“You’ll have time to explore everything in a few. I just want to explain the pod,” he said. He kicked it gently. “It’s sealed for now. We’ll have it calibrated once we get your measurements. It’ll be adjusted to accommodate you and only you. It’s really a remarkable piece of technology.”
Tess stepped closer, almost afraid of it. She shuddered thinking about how she might have to be sealed inside.
“How does it work?” She asked.
“Once you’re inside, the pod will close itself and administer the correct dosage of medicine to keep your mind calm. After a day or two in the game, you won’t need the medicine anymore and you’ll be able to navigate the system without any problems. We use it as a precautionary measure at first.”
“But I didn’t freak out during the simulation,” Tess said.
“Never World is different…it’s very real. It will take some getting used to,” Dr. Young explained. “However, you’ll be able to remove yourself from the game when you want to, but that won’t help your odds of winning. When you leave the game, your avatar must remain where it is. You’ll be an easy target. If the game goes long, we’ll pause the game so all the contestants can get some rest.”
“Well, what about—”
Dr. Young put a hand up to stop her after he glanced at his watch.
“There really isn’t time to discuss anything further, Tess,” he said. “You’ll have a full orientation when all the contestants are ready. It should be in a few days.”
She wanted to ask about her father and if she could contact him, but Dr. Young left right after, letting the door seal behind him. Tess went to the door, but it was locked. It seemed like she would not be allowed to wander that night, which was fine with her. She was exhausted.
There was a clock projected over the kitchen cabinets that revealed it was nearly 8 p.m. She didn’t realize how much time she had been knocked out during the simulation. She wondered how much information they had gathered and how many tests they had run on her. It made her feel a bit uneasy.
Tess took a bath and dried her hair with a towel as she searched for some clothes to wear. The drawers in the bathroom had been stocked with clothes for her—mostly black, stretchy clothes that clung to her small frame. Despite their foreignness, Tess found them extremely comfortable.
She struggled to pull out the couch, realizing that it was almost impossible with only one hand and she should have asked Li for help, but she managed to do it on her own. She plopped down on the ready-made bed and searched for a remote for the television, but couldn’t find one. She gave up and analyzed the light switches on the wall next to her. There were two knobs, so she hit the one closest to her.
There was an odd flash of light, but nothing happened after that. Tess tried the next one.
She quickly realized that one was a light switch for the entire apartment and the other was a projector. The projections were actually built into the ceiling so they didn’t require any cumbersome equipment. Tess smiled as she tried to take in all the stars that filled the ceiling. The popped out brightly and she knew that all the constellations were correct from spending so much time at the projection room in the city.
As she started to drift off to sleep, Tess found most of the constellations she knew and named them in her head. Despite her isolation, she was still afraid of talking out loud.
Tess stopped fighting the urge to close her eyes and let the day’s exhaustion overtake her.
She had a feeling the next few weeks of her life were going to be even more exhausting.