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The Sheep Look Up; Exit Karen
Topic Started: Nov 7 2011, 01:00 AM (636 Views)
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I can trick them into thinking anything
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Once upon a time, there was a young man from a poor family who destroyed his life over a single silly decision. He worked in a little store, a 7-11, and he tried to be a hero to save three hundred and eighty-six dollars in the cash register. Maybe he'd spent too much time talking with his tougher classmates back in high school, when his family had still held out hope that he'd go on to do something important with his life. Maybe he just had a little too much machismo for his own good, though it had served him quite well when it came to dealing with girls. Maybe he just didn't believe that people actually got shot in robberies.

It didn't really matter. Thirty seconds later, he was lying on the ground in a pool of his own blood, screaming and crying and not really feeling anything. He did not manage to grab the robber, like he'd intended to. He did not manage to slam the cash register shut, like he'd intended to. He did not become a hero. He did not die, either, but that was mostly down to luck. As the robber fled the store, an old woman across the street realized that something was wrong, and she dug out her cell phone and called the police. They brought an ambulance with them, maybe a fire truck, too. He never knew for sure. In this part of town, though, an ambulance was usually a safe bet.

They took the young man to the hospital, and he never knew exactly what happened, only that the snippets he remembered, the jargon and the whispers, they included terms like "spinal damage" and "partial paralysis" and "if he's lucky". Often, in those times, he closed his eyes and prayed to be drugged. When he was medicated into a blurry haze, it was easier to forget what had gone wrong. It was easier to pretend he didn't know what was coming.

All good things, of course, came to an end. Before long, he was cogent again, and he found out that he had been fired, that he was not covered by worker's compensation, since he had acted against company policy. He'd known. It was impossible not to know. They'd been told in training, again and again, never to interfere with a robbery. Messing with someone with a gun was likely to result in harm. Paying extensive hospitalization bills was more expensive for the company than eating the loss of a portion of the day's revenue, a portion that was even covered by insurance. He'd know all this even as he acted. He'd just thought, somehow, that the rules didn't apply to him. He'd thought that maybe he'd be a hero.

Now, he was stuck in a bed in a hospital, and his family was stuck with the bills. It wasn't cheap, either. He'd needed surgery. That had saved his life. He'd needed drugs. Those had kept him from going crazy from the pain. He'd needed a long, long period in a bed on an IV drip. That had helped him recover, as much as he was ever going to.

The gunshot, after all, had hit him somewhere pretty serious.

The damage could have been worse. He could have lost the use of all of his limbs permanently. He could have had a major blood vessel severed. As it was, he was only paralyzed from the waist down, was only undergoing expensive physical therapy to regain proper use of his arms and hands. He had a lot to be thankful for, everyone said. He didn't really believe them.

His whole family came to visit, as often as they could. They spent a lot of time talking to him, asking him if he was alright, telling him how thankful they were that he'd survived. His mother and his father tried very hard to hide how furious they were with him. They tried very hard to keep from their voices all hint of the degree to which he was a failure and a disappointment. They never once said that he'd messed up. They never once blamed him for nearly flunking out of the private schools they'd spent so much money sending him to. They never once blamed him for ending up working a minimum wage job at a convenience store, where he wasn't even managing enough money to move out of the house. They never once blamed him for spending too much time goofing off and joking around and chasing girls. They never once blamed him for being an idiot, for getting shot. They never once blamed him for the fact that they had to move, had to leave the house they had rented ever since he was a kid, had to stay in a little apartment, with only three bedrooms for the seven of them. They never once blamed him for the fact that all his younger siblings had to start working, not just to make up for the loss of income his crippling had provided, but also to start to make a dent in his medical bills. They never once blamed him for his siblings getting picked on and teased at school over the incident. They never once blamed him for their inability to declare bankruptcy, due to the difficulties that would pose in getting credit to cover his continuing expenses.

They never blamed him out loud, but he knew what went on in their heads. He saw the way Aunt Elizabeth whispered to them sometimes. He knew what she was saying. He knew that she was telling them that she'd been right, that they'd wasted their time and money on him, that if only they'd listened, maybe one of their children could have actually amounted to something.

The visits never lasted that long. In all likelihood, they couldn't stand being near him. It was probably traumatic on several levels. His little brothers were a bit too young to really focus on things properly. It wasn't good for them to see him like this, not when they'd idolized him for so long, not when they couldn't quite comprehend that he would never get all better. His parents could only control their anger for a certain span of time. Staying beyond that was cruel to everyone. His aunt thought he was worthless. He couldn't blame her.

Only his sister stayed.

Every day after school, after work or soccer practice, if they were occurring, she made her way to the hospital and she sat at the foot of his bed, reading or doing homework. Sometimes, he was asleep, and woke up to see her there, scribbling something on a piece of paper or turning the page of one of the science fiction stories she was always buried in. All his other visitors were always full of questions, but his sister just sat there, reading, never speaking before he broke the silence. Once he opened his mouth and asked a question or made a comment, she would pause for a second, then finish the line she was reading, carefully place her bookmark into her novel, set it beside her on the bed, and turn to look at him.

At first, he thought she was mocking him with her presence, exulting in the fact that he was stuck in bed while she was mobile. He had not always been a good brother. For years, she was the easiest target, the safest to tease. She was always good for a laugh, be it from jumping out from behind the door to scare her or from hiding her books or from singing songs about her and her cooties. He'd grown out of that years ago, but he'd also pretty much stopped interacting with her in any serious capacity. She was a quiet girl. She kept to herself, and only really seemed to enjoy interacting with Aunt Elizabeth. He'd left them to each other. It was easier that way.

This was why he was surprised when he eventually figured out that she was visiting because she cared. She never said as much. She never explained herself at all, never really displayed much interest in opening up to him. When he inquired about her day, she deflected his questions with terse, minimal responses, then turned the questions back around on him. She seemed to prefer to listen, or, when he had nothing to say, to simply sit and read and be there. He found he didn't mind. After a while, he could even admit to himself that he liked her presence.

When they let him go back home, when he moved into the new apartment and saw just how small and cramped it was, with three bedrooms (one for him and his parents, one for his brothers, one for his sister and Aunt Elizabeth) and a combined kitchen and dining room and two restrooms and one central room with a couch and a television and nothing else, when he realized how infrequently his family was home, because they were all out trying to keep their lives from falling further apart, he nearly gave up hope. He spent most of the days alone, lying in bed or learning how to navigate the apartment in his new wheelchair. Sometimes, he would go on excursions, but never far. His family had only one car, now. It was an old sedan, without enough room to carry all of them at once. It was not well equipped to carry him and his chair.

Still, every day, after school or work, his family would come home, and he'd realize how much he cared about all of them. He tried, again and again, to apologize to them, to tell them how badly he had screwed up, to beg for forgiveness. They all told him he had nothing to worry about, that it hadn't been his fault. They all lied to make him feel better—except, of course, his sister. She shrugged and flipped the pages of her novels.

She was the only one he truly felt had forgiven him.

Sometimes, in the mornings, he would find her sprawled asleep on the couch, with the lights and the television still on, sometimes in her pajamas, sometimes still in her clothes from the day before. He wondered how long she'd been like this. He often worried about her, but she never opened up to anyone except his aunt, and he never figured out what the two women shared. Still, his sister would come home every day, and if he was alone in his room and it wasn't too late, she would often come and sit at the foot of his bed and read or do her homework, and listen if he wanted to talk.

One day, she didn't come home. It didn't take long to figure out what had happened. They were notified in due order. It didn't take long for them all to come to their own conclusions. On the day of the first broadcast, nobody was watching the television. Life went on. His parents and his brothers were off at work. Aunt Elizabeth had been staying with him, but as the hour had approached she had mumbled something under her breath, then told him she was going off to get drunk. He had been alone in the house, with the silent television and a pile of clothes and science fiction novels he hadn't quite figured out whether he could bear to donate, when the phone rang.

He knew instantly what had happened. It had been inevitable. The show ate the weak and quiet alive. He'd hoped it wouldn't happen so soon, but maybe it was better this way. Maybe it was better than things being drawn out. He placed the novel he had been glancing over back on the stack, registering for the first time the gas mask, the script on the cover (The Sheep Look Up), the battered and worn spine. He wheeled over to the phone, and he picked it up, and he braced himself.

Nothing could have prepared him. When he hung up, ten minutes later, when the screaming from the person he'd never heard of had faded from his ears, when he pulled the cord from the wall and went to the door and engaged the deadbolt, he was operating entirely without thought.

The whole time he was wondering if he'd ever really known her at all.

Waking, she had no idea why she was covered in blood.

((Karen Ruiz continued from And Yet So Far))

Karen was still lying on the ground. Something was on top of her. She blinked, but the world was doubled. Was she dead? No, too much pain for that. She was trapped under something. Why was she on the ground? Blinking, doubling, light. Her head was spinning. She felt horribly ill. The stump of a neck was dripping blood on her chest. She screamed. The echoes hurt her ears.

This wasn't right. Something had happened. It was Jhamel. The last thing she could remember was him pointing his gun at her. They'd had their conversation. A voice had come from her collar, had told her she had her ten, that she would live. It had told Jhamel... something. Then, Karen woke up. The world was bright. She was trapped under a body, Jhamel's body? There was blood everywhere.

She managed to roll Jhamel off of her, to turn over onto her belly, to push herself to her hands and knees and crawl a few feet before throwing up. The burn of stomach acid and partially-digested beef jerky just made her heave more. Everything reeked, of death and blood and vomit. Had Jhamel tried to kill her? Had she killed him? No, nothing she had was that powerful, and she'd been underneath him. Her right hand stung. Looking at it, she saw it twice, each right hand sporting a nasty gash. Blood. She was bleeding again, not just from her hand. Her shoulders were damp. Hadn't she bandaged them? What had happened? Breathing was difficult. Everything felt like a bruise. She had to think. People could be coming to kill her.

Concussion. That was it. She'd been concussed, somehow. She knew about brain trauma, at least a little. She'd been on the soccer team. Once, a long time ago, one of her teammates had gotten hit full in the face by the ball, had fallen and had cracked her head on the field. Karen had been closest when the incident occurred, third to reach the girl's side. What she had described was a lot like how Karen felt. This wasn't permanent, was it? She didn't want to live the rest of her life brain damaged. She didn't want to lose everything now, when she was so close. It wasn't fair. She'd done everything right.

Her gun. Her gun was gone. The Glock, that was still in her backpack, which she was still wearing, but the other gun had vanished. Karen tried to stand, but couldn't do it. She tipped over, landed on her side. The world was too bright. Everything hurt too much.

She wondered if she was dying.

That was a sobering thought, that she could get so far and still fall short. She tried to think, tried to figure some way to have avoided this, to have ended everything differently, but there was nothing. No, she could have fired as soon as she saw Jhamel, could have gunned him down despite it being pointless. Had she actually been bloodthirsty, had she actually been killing for the joy of killing, she wouldn't be hurting.

Karen's vision went dim for a second, and she thought it was all over. She didn't pray for forgiveness, didn't wish she'd kept her humanity. She just thought about how, if she could do it all over again, she would still have killed, would still have fought, would have done worse things if she had to, just for one tiny chance at surviving. She knew she'd have done anything, just to return to a world that was more than violence.

The nausea passed. The world was still doubled, but the images were closer together. Karen realized that she had a cane strapped to her pack, so she pulled it free. It had been Kathy's cane. Slowly, shakily, using it as a support, Karen managed to push herself to her feet. She wobbled, but she stayed upright. There was a ringing in her ears. She was seized by a sudden fury, a desire to destroy something, an urge to scream and swear at the world, and it terrified her. She took deep breaths, and it passed.

Something was wrong with her.

It wasn't easy to hobble a hundred feet from Jhamel's body, but she managed it, making her way to the other side of the little slope they'd been on. Once she could no longer see or smell what had happened, she slumped to the ground and pulled her pack off. Her vision was clearing a little, but she was still unsteady. She wasn't sure she'd be able to get up again. She was crying. How long had she been crying?

From her backpack, she withdrew the gun, the mobster gun. She'd never fired it at anyone. She would now, if she had cause to, but with her vision betraying her she knew she'd never hit anything. It might keep people away, though. That was all she wanted. She needed to be alone, to be away from everyone. She was scared. Anyone who found her could kill her. They would kill her. Maybe they'd even be right. Maybe Karen just didn't understand morality. Maybe she deserved every bit of pain she was feeling. Maybe she deserved more.

Somehow, the walkie talkie was in her hands. It was dark now. Had she blacked out? She was pressing the button. There was something important she had to say.

"Vincent," she said. Her words were slurred. She didn't sound like herself. "Don't die before the announcement."

Gloating? No, not gloating. A warning, perhaps, or an almost-friendly piece of advice. She didn't hate Vincent. She didn't hate anyone. She was all out of emotions. She felt sick. She just wanted to go.

And that was what was supposed to happen, wasn't it? She'd done it. She'd done everything they'd told her to, had succeeded in every way, and now they just had to live up to their part of the bargain.

The walkie talkie was gone, fallen from Karen's hand. She watched it bounce and slide down the hill, out of sight. No way to tell if there had been a response.

If she died, then it would have been a warning. That made more sense.

She closed her eyes, just for a moment. So close. She was so close. She could still move. She wasn't dying. She was hurting, but as long as they came through, as long as they kept their promise, she wouldn't die. That was all that mattered right now. Whatever had passed before, whatever the reason for her injuries and bruises, she could puzzle it out later. It would be recorded. It was immaterial.

She just had to hold together, just for a little while longer.

Then she could get away from the pain.
Current characters:

The Program: V3 Prologue:
Mina Mashall - Digital Voice Recorder - Making a good impression - "I didn't know you felt so strongly about me."
Erik Bell - Jericho .941 - Having lunch - "May I?"

Assorted flora and fauna

EW4: Jewel Evans - Chatterbox Communicator Headsets (0/5) - Online - ELIMINATED - "Scars are just reminders to be better next time."

Past characters:

If you want an honest assessment of your character's storyline, feel free to PM me and I'll whip one up as soon as I am able.

Thanks to Bear/Frogue/Kotorikun/Ryuki for the avatar art.
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Paint me like one of your Sith girls
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Jared Clayton was barely audible above the sound of the helicopter's rotors, but the element of steel his voice held was unmistakable. White-knuckled grip squeezing on his uplink almost hard enough to crack the casing, other hand bunched in a tight fist... this was the most rattled anybody had seen him in years. More than ever, the scars across his face stood out lividly.

The pilot was genuinely afraid as he reported back that this was as fast as they could go.

Jared let out a snarl and said nothing.

He should've hit the button sooner, blown that idiot Jhamel to hell before he even had the chance to beat Karen up. The power had been in his hands and he'd delayed stupidly - what happened to that killer instinct!? The executives would have complained about it, and no doubt there would have been some angry bookmakers on his back... but looking at the situation now, that seemed like a worthwhile trade-off.

His concern ran beyond the superficial. It even went past the simple fact that Karen was part of his team. Jared had been doing his best since the beginning to make sure that his people made it out alive, in spite of the many headaches they'd given him. Because it had been his job, because he knew what they were going through. He wanted them to survive, and with Karen, it wasn't just about bragging rights or the prestige or the pay-offs, it was about the fact she'd earned her way off there. She'd taken the scenario of the island, and in the same way that Jared had, she'd taken the choice to survive.

And in her own unique way, she'd won.

And now it was looking as if that might have been snatched away from her. Jared couldn't let that happen. Not after everything the girl had been through.

He could see the island below him now. Briefly, he spared a thought for what those below him must be thinking as the helicopter passed overhead. That was blown away in the wind though. His attention was focused on the phone, on the blood-soaked, battered and beaten girl that the feed was broadcasting to him.

"Come on. Come on..."


The chopper touched down. Jared's feet touched the ground just a heartbeat after those of the armed bodyguards accompanying him. With only a flak jacket to distinguish him from anybody else on the street, the jean and t-shirt combination of Jared was a marked contrast to the fully-outfitted soldiers that flanked him as he hurried towards the girl who he had only seen from the other side of screens up until that moment.

His phone dropped from nerveless fingers as he knelt alongside her, checking for signs of life. Breathing a sigh of relief as he saw that she was still breathing. Bruised and bloody, but alive. She'd need medical attention, but so far as Jared's inexpert eye could see, she'd be okay.

"It's alright, Karen. It's over. We're getting you out of here."

The soldiers carefully scooped Karen up off the ground, taking care to support her body as much as possible, bearing her towards the idling helicopter.

"You won."
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I can trick them into thinking anything
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The sound was distant, at first, a whirring and rattling in the air, a disruption of the normalcy Karen had come to know over the past few minutes. Everything had been silent. Peaceful, almost. It had been a welcome reprieve from everything else, even if she couldn't see right, even if breathing hurt, even if everything was a confused mess in her head. Had Vincent said anything so loudly the sound had echoed up from below? She couldn't say. She couldn't say much of anything, but the sound was getting louder. It was very cold, or maybe she was just shaking.

For a time, she thought that perhaps they had lied to her. After all, hadn't that been her working theory the whole time, that this was nothing more than lies upon lies? Hadn't that been her justification for going after her team? There was no reason for them to lie sometimes and yet keep what could be a very unpopular promise. There was a good chance that, no matter what Jhamel said, the world hated her. There was a good chance the people watching—those people she'd really been angry at the few times she'd been angry, the ones who really deserved to suffer—were hoping she'd die. If that was the case, if all the ones in charge cared about were ratings and if the ratings were better if she was dead, well, they'd just leave her here. They'd leave her and she'd die and if she didn't die someone else would come and kill her for revenge.

But no. Someone was coming. Someone had to be.

Her head hurt. Her ribs hurt. Her shoulders hurt. She could feel the blood on her arms. She had no idea how badly she was injured, no idea whether she'd been crippled for life. That would be awful, to manage to live only to spend the rest of her days reliant on other people. She just wanted to be alone, to go somewhere far away and never let anyone see her ever again, to put behind her society and everything it brought with it. She wanted to curl up in bed with a book and read until she fell asleep.

There was wind, now, kicked up by something, blowing her hair into her face, and there were voices she couldn't quite distinguish, and there were people coming. Not students. She could tell that much. The voices were wrong, and there were too many of them. She let her grip on the gun loosen (and when had she picked the gun up again?), let the weapon fall from her grasp. She wouldn't be needing it anymore.

And then, there was a man leaning over her, a man with a scarred face who she vaguely recognized from somewhere, and he was telling her it was fine. He was telling her that they were taking her away, that it was all over now, and she could have cried, but she didn't. She didn't struggle as someone lifted her, as they carried her towards what she now saw must have been the source of the noise. The doubling was distracting, the headache made concentration nearly impossible, but there was a helicopter, and they were taking her there. Being carried hurt, pressed on her bruises and dug her pack into her back, but she didn't complain, didn't struggle. She would live, and some day the pain wouldn't matter.

The man told her she'd won, and she managed a bit of a smile, a bit of a laugh.

No way. She'd done it. She'd survived. She'd murdered her way to a pass to freedom. She hadn't won, not in any meaningful way. Killing ten people wasn't winning. It wasn't something to be celebrated. She'd done what she had to, no more, no less. That was what she kept telling herself, as they set her down in the helicopter, treating her gently, carefully, as if she might fall apart if they breathed on her wrong. She was content to just lie there. Nothing mattered anymore. There was nothing to be afraid of, not now, not for the next few hours, at least. It wasn't over, of course. Her life, as she'd always known it, was gone forever. There was no going back, not after what had happened.

That could wait, though. For now, as the helicopter lifted off again, she could finally calm down, could finally close her eyes without wondering if she'd open them to the sight of the barrel of a gun, could finally allow her muscles to loosen, could finally let the pain and the bruising and the full weight of everything wash over her and carry her off to sleep.

For Karen, it was over. Whatever happened now, whoever lived and died, it didn't matter in the slightest.

She'd made it.


First period. English class. It was, in a way, a haven. Whatever happened, however tired she was, Karen was always in her seat on time. This was the only class where she didn't take a corner chair. She wasn't in the front, no, but she did have her little desk, off to the side, midway to the back, against a window. She was reading, or, to be more precise, rereading. It was rare that she felt the need to look over a book again, but she hadn't touched Asimov in years. It was disappointing, in a way. I, Robot had been nearly legendary in her memory, but now it was a good idea hampered by cliché characters in the first half and poor grammar throughout.

This was a part of why Karen so rarely revisited her old favorites.

As she reached the end of one of the stories, she glanced up at the clock in the corner of the room. Five minutes past start: strange. English class was rarely delayed. She was already in school mode, her gloves stuffed into the pockets of her coat, which she'd hung over the back of her chair. The coat got her a little attention in the hallways, she'd discovered in the couple weeks since she'd purchased it, but only the impersonal sort, and the second she took it off she was as anonymous as always.

She wondered what was going on, what was the cause of the teacher's tardiness. The other students were whispering, muttering too each other, giggling and shifting nervously. Karen had always had good hearing, so it wasn't too hard to catch snippets of their conversation.

School. Season. SOTF-TV. Chosen.

The words were familiar, inescapable, but the context was new. It wasn't hard to piece together. Karen was familiar with the show. Everyone was. She didn't watch it, though. Her late night television was limited to old science fiction and horror flicks, and to the news. Still, the news brought her enough about the death contest, about the kids forced to fight and kill. She knew that only one survived every time. She knew that many of them came home wrecks, and that some came home unchanged, and that was what terrified her more. She knew that there was nothing to do if you got chosen. There was no appeals process, no form of legal recourse, just a one-way trip to a deathmatch.

She knew the odds of being chosen were infinitesimally small. Even if the rumors were true, even if their school had been chosen, there were four grades represented, and hundreds of students in each of them. There were dozens of gangsters and thugs and delinquents, all of whom would probably make for fascinating viewing. There was no reason to pick the quiet girl on the sidelines, and so there was no reason to worry, but her heart sped up anyways. She turned back to her book and read the same sentence a dozen times without absorbing its meaning.

The teacher came into the room. She looked a little bit frazzled, a little bit nervous. That wasn't a good sign.

"Class," she said, "I have an announcement to make.

"We have a few guests today. I hope you'll pay attention and treat them with respect."

A man in a suit, flanked by two larger men in full riot gear, stepped into the classroom. Karen felt herself beginning to sweat. She avoided eye contact, staring at the cover of her book. It was true, then. Their school, no, their class had been chosen.

"Good morning, Detroit Central," the man in the suit said. "You're lucky enough to have been selected for this season of SOTF-TV. Some of you are going to be famous. The rest of you, well, maybe you'll be able to say you sat next to a star in high school. Isn't it exciting?"

The class didn't sound excited, and the man's voice lacked any hint of enthusiasm, genuine or forged. Karen could hear people shifting, shuffling their belongings, murmuring quietly to each other. She could hear the teacher toying with the stapler on her desk, like she often did when she was nervous. She could hear the man in the suit say, very quietly, to one of the guards, "Only one in this room?"


"Right." He cleared his throat. Karen instinctively looked up at him.

"Karen Ruiz, please come with us," he said. "The rest of you may continue as normal. We won't be asking for you in any of your other classes."

She didn't move, didn't even blink. She couldn't think, couldn't process it. This was wrong. This was a mistake. They couldn't mean her. She was nobody. She was the quiet one. She'd tried so hard, been so safe. She'd never so much as been robbed. The only reason anyone even knew her name was because of what had happened to Francis. Someone was playing a joke on her.

The man frowned, glanced at his paper again.

"Karen Ruiz."

She didn't move. Five or six students, the ones who paid enough attention to know her name, had turned to look at her. Slowly, others caught on and also turned to stare. The man in the suit followed their eyes to her. He glanced at the teacher and coughed a little. She nodded to him.

"Come on," he said. "We don't have all day."

Karen finally stood, turning to tuck her book into her backpack and beginning to hoist it onto her back, but she was interrupted.

"You won't need that." A pause. Then, in an almost-kind tone, "We'll make sure all your belongings are returned to your family."

She set the pack back down, and instead lifted her coat from the chair. She slowly slipped into it, then dug her gloves out of the pockets and pulled them on. It was autumn in Detroit, and the air was chilly. Karen had been chosen to die.

"Come along," the man said, and she did, without a word of protest. There was nothing to say. As she moved towards the hall, as she reached the door, she was suddenly halted by a nervous cough. Turning, she saw a girl, a chubby little white girl whose name she couldn't even begin to guess, staring straight at her.

"Good luck," the girl said. One of the men in the gear grabbed Karen by the arm and pulled her into the hall. Once they were moving again, he released her arm. She walked alongside them. She didn't resist. There was no point. There was nothing she could do. There was no way to run, nowhere to hide. One wrong move, and they'd probably gun her down and pick someone else to fill her slot.

Maybe that wouldn't be such a bad thing. Maybe it was better to die that way, a quick burst of pain and then nothingness, rather than the torture inherent in spending days being hunted. As they walked, other groups herded other classmates into the procession. Karen looked at them, tried to read their expressions, tried to understand what she saw on their faces, but there was nothing recognizable. Instead, she found herself labeling them, branding them with their potential crimes—this is the boy who will slit your belly open, that's the girl who'll shoot you in the head, look, it's the guy who'll get off on cutting your fingers apart—hoping like she never had before that there would be an opportunity to run, a rescue, a way to opt out for the ones not crazy enough to want this, something, anything to save her life. She didn't want to die, didn't want to suffer. She just wanted to go home and cry into her pillow and wake up the next morning and come back to school like nothing had happened. She just wanted life to be normal.

They were herded into cars and whisked away.

Somewhere in there, Karen was drugged, or maybe it was all just too traumatic and she blacked out.

When she awoke, or maybe just when her memories started again, she was strapped to a chair. Her wrists itched. There were people all around her, people she knew and people she didn't. There were people behind her, too, screaming and cheering. They were being watched. They were entertainment already. He eyes felt a little stretched, like she'd been crying, or maybe they'd just been irritated by something. She couldn't remember for sure. This was it, then. This was the last time she would ever see adults. That was a strange realization.

And then, it started. There was a man, and he was speaking to them. He was cordial, polite. It was too much. Karen screamed, just once, but loud, releasing everything that had built up inside her during the time since they'd called her name. Nobody seemed to notice. The briefing continued. She found herself calm enough to listen, to hear, to make careful note of everything they said.

After all, there was still hope. She wasn't quite ready to admit defeat, to accept her death. She wasn't ready to die. Seventeen years, seventeen years of life, of family and books and school, all come to what? No, she wasn't going to write herself off. Unlikely people had won before, like that boy with the scarred face, though she thought he had perhaps killed a lot of people in doing so. That wasn't the right way to go about things, as his scars showed. She could just wait. All she had to do to live was to not die for long enough.

The briefing was telling her things she already knew. Kill or be killed. Only, this time, there were teams.


Her attention became even more focused.

And, as the man explained things, as he told them how this season would be different, it all came clear to Karen. Teams. Understood. Lies, but understood. Bandannas. Strange. Playing off of Detroit's reputation? And who were the others, because they were split into two groups and she recognized none of the kids from the other. She could see almost everyone. She was, as always except in English class, seated at the back. She could see a few smiles out there, mostly on the boys, and she shivered, but she didn't cry, and she didn't scream again.

They were told that they would be gassed. Again, maybe? It was irrelevant in the end. With her wrists bound, there was nothing she could do. She tested the binding, found it held tight. She had an itch in the small of her back, where sweat was collecting. It was hot. This was not the right time to be wearing gloves and a heavy coat.

Someone was a loner, no team assigned. Maybe the loner was the lucky one. At least their situation was unambiguous. Karen wondered if that was what she had pulled. It would, in a way, suit her.

There would be announcements, too, every twelve hours. The announcements would list the dead and the killers.

The killers were going to be listed.

Karen blinked. That was an odd choice. It discouraged killing, in one way, because of the stigma attached to murder. The killers would be revealed to all. On the other hand, it would also say who was dangerous, who was worth hiding from. It would let everyone who knew the others know who to avoid.

It was, all things considered, not a good time to be bad with names. Karen knew Kathy and Brenda and Alicia and Brennan and Vincent and Odile. She'd seen them all on her way here. She knew most of the other faces. She had no names to connect to them. Did they have a name for her, or was she just that girl in the big coat who sits in the corner and reads the paperbacks?

And then, the kicker: ten kills brought freedom, the ultimate reward.

Karen could have laughed. They had it all worked out, didn't they? They'd picked a nearly-impossible goal, to spur people into killing. They would announce the names of everyone who took the bait, to show that even people everyone had known all through school could be corrupted. They would count on teams to lead to associations and transmitted allegiances and grudges.

It would all work perfectly. Karen had no doubts about that. The smiles had told her all she needed to know. It would be nothing but blood and pain and death and torn muscles and shattered bones from now on. That was her life for the rest of her life. She was shaking, as much as she could while strapped to the chair. She was realizing just how unprepared for this she was. Death, that was a distant thought, a future concern, the vague specter that kept her constantly chasing a notion as undefined as safety. It was something to face with as much dignity as possible when she was ninety, maybe surrounded by grandchildren or (more likely) more distant relatives. It wasn't for now, for before she was even old enough to vote.

Too bad. Death was coming for all of them. It didn't matter that she didn't want to live a never-ending battle. It didn't matter that she didn't want to live amidst carnage and pain. Nothing mattered anymore.

Nothing mattered, except that Karen didn't want to die. No, more than that, she wasn't going to die. She would get equipment. She couldn't know what to do until she saw what she had. She could try, though, could try her best, could try to maybe be the right person to end up being welcomed home by her parents once more. All she had to do was avoid dying. There was no more obligation than that. The man even said it: be smart, and they might survive. Karen was smart, right?

As he announced the beginning, as the glass whirred and the gas hissed, Karen shut her eyes and held her breath and hid in the darkness of her mind, and hoped and wished but didn't pray that the light would never come again, that she could just linger here in her thoughts until the end of time and never be forced to deal with this, never be forced to fight or flee, never be forced to see the pain and chaos, because no matter what, no matter if she lived or died, the world could never be right again.

All too soon, she found herself awakening in a rain forest.

((Karen Ruiz continued in But She Locked the Door and Threw Away the Key))
Current characters:

The Program: V3 Prologue:
Mina Mashall - Digital Voice Recorder - Making a good impression - "I didn't know you felt so strongly about me."
Erik Bell - Jericho .941 - Having lunch - "May I?"

Assorted flora and fauna

EW4: Jewel Evans - Chatterbox Communicator Headsets (0/5) - Online - ELIMINATED - "Scars are just reminders to be better next time."

Past characters:

If you want an honest assessment of your character's storyline, feel free to PM me and I'll whip one up as soon as I am able.

Thanks to Bear/Frogue/Kotorikun/Ryuki for the avatar art.
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