[>Riley Moon< returns, last seen in >the hallways of Aurora< with Kristian Sorensen and Timothy Abrams]
Looking back, the last couple of months seemed a blur. But that's always the way, stress and urgency mount up as finals draw close, only mitigated by the promise of the once-traditional, now-daring, senior trip. And to Disneyland, of all places; they were going all out in their declaration of "what the heck, it's been four years, let's make a big thing of returning to normality", flying the kids from corner to corner, all the way to California.
All in all, besides the looming threat of tests to be taken, Riley's late-spring and early-summer seemed mostly uneventful. She'd played an odd sort of game with some new friends at Elysium, she'd spent time with her old friends, snuck out and narrowly evaded trouble, started raiding with her guild again, all the normal stuff. She'd even managed to set some time aside to study and was (dare she state it and jinx it?) pretty confident in her chances.
But that was in the past. Soon enough, June came, and everything changed.
It had just been harmless fun, that's what they all believed at least. But in retrospect, she was still most definitely under 21, and so being found ambling back from a house party with half a bottle of cheap whiskey in her bag was never going to end well. The cops had called her parents, as well as gotten in touch with the school the next day, several stern-talking-tos were given, empty promises to change and to behave were made, and most importantly, Riley Moon was barred from attending the senior trip. She'd damaged the reputation of the school, they'd said. Let her the school down, her family down, and most importantly, herself down, they'd said. Riley had had to suppress a laugh at that point, remembering a childish joke about rebellious balloons. But the situation was hardly funny on the whole: she didn't get to go to California with everyone else, she did get to look really stupid in the eyes of the entire school, and she had to wait around at home until the others came back, so she could enjoy both disdain and, less enjoyably, the final exams. Joy of joys.
The wait didn't last long, however. It ended very abruptly, and in the worst possible way. The plane up and disappeared, leaving airline authorities to assume it had gone down or something. Her parents had held her close, thanked the fickle fates for sparing their only child, even if in a very roundabout way. Together the small family had mourned for the loss of Riley's peers, alongside the less fortunate parents and siblings who had lost not just friends, but family, to the tragedy. Several days compassionate leave were taken all around, as the community around Aurora High reeled from the loss.
For her part, Riley tried to busy herself with studying, hoping that she could recover a sense of normality by focusing on the mundane rather than the tragic. For those next few weeks between the disappearance and the return, she avoided contact with the other "survivors" who'd, for whatever reasons, also not been on the flight. She felt awful, having avoided catastrophe by... no, worse than by sheer luck, by misbehaviour, technically literal criminal activity, no matter how minor it was, she'd been saved from death because she was being punished. How could she face anyone else, knowing that?
No, instead, she found solace in anonymous ways. Her guild didn't even know she was from Seattle, and she didn't care to update them. Sticking to a regular raiding schedule did wonders for keeping everything feeling normal and, again, mundane. Places like Tumblr and 4chan likewise knew little enough about her private life that she could keep her distance from the all-pervasive pity. Riley didn't want to be pitied, she'd even prefer to be hated for her lucky escape than be pitied for what she'd supposedly lost. She'd lost friendships, but her life would go on, theirs wouldn't. It hurt, often she paused to dwell on it, and ended up curled up on her bed in tears more often than not, but she would survive. Parents had lost children, siblings had lost brothers and sisters, they deserved the pity, not the girl who'd lucked out and cheated death.
Life went on like this, until Independence Day. Interest in the tragedy faded fairly quickly, sure they were children, but horrible accidents happen all the time. It was just a cruel twist of fate, not a matter of prolonged national interest. Seattle at large was still wounded by the loss, but life inexorably went on. The school opened as normal, the surviving seniors continued to prepare for finals, finalise their plans for college. Grieving family members went back to work, normality was, by and large, restored. And then the news filtered into public knowledge.
Riley had been on 4chan's /tg/ at the time, arguing with someone over the relative merits of Yu-Gi-Oh and Magic the Gathering, when she'd spotted the new sticky thread, an announcement posted across each and every board. moot himself, confirming what had already been suspected with the images and videos that had been cropping up across the site over the last few hours. It wasn't a hoax, the images were reality; Survival of the Fittest had, well, survived, and Aurora's seniors weren't dead.
It didn't take long for the word to spread across the net, to make its way to national news and be broadcast across the nation, and then around the world, letting the grim truth be told. Everyone had been wrong, the enigmatic terrorists weren't beaten.
But such grand revelations were lost on the individuals most personally affected by it. Riley didn't much care what this news meant for the coming election, or for the national security of the United States, for the credibility of the administration or anything else. She didn't know how to feel, truth be told, but she certainly wasn't feeling anything for such faraway concerns as politics or society at large. Her friends and peers were alive, that was cause for elation. Anyone that had died in the process she'd already presumed dead, but to replace the fates of her teachers, even the ones she hadn't much liked, with execution by brutal terrorists... that was a sobering thought. She couldn't help but picture what she'd heard, and it made her feel sick. And moreover, the being alive part was most certainly temporary.
And she knew that because, precisely four years ago, the younger Riley (that her present-day incarnation liked to forget having ever been) had been an avid follower of the macabre spectacle. She tried to excuse it by claiming she hadn't really processed it as being real, or that it had already happened, and it would happen no matter what one person did, that a single conscientious objector wouldn't change anything, but the truth was that her younger self just hadn't really cared. And that was why the realisation that her classmates were about the share the same fate, and that she, by all rights, should be there alongside them, made Riley Moon absolutely loathe herself. Not just for cheering on those that were essentially murderers, heroic or otherwise, but for her complicity in it all. Oh yes, she'd read the scathing words of V4's survivor, and they tore at her just as intended. And they posed an important question; did she have any right to watch this fifth incarnation, to gawk as though a better at a cockfight, as caged beings were forced to fight to the death for the sake of entertainment? Well, putting it like that, no, she didn't. And truly, for the atrocity to go on, they needed an audience; short of the students collectively deciding to sit down and let themselves be killed after a day of peace, the only way to stop it was to ignore it. The terrorists' point, after all, was that people would tear each other apart with enough provocation, and that others would quietly sit by and watch. If the victims couldn't prove the first wrong, then everyone else had to counter the latter instead.
And of course, that wouldn't happen. Because, deep down, Riley was pretty much certain that for all their evils, the people behind Survival of the Fittest were spot on in their claims. The students would gradually fall into savagery, and the nation would stand there and watch it happen. They'd demand action, expect someone to go out there and save them, but in the end, they wouldn't do anything, or change anything. They'd just watch and let it happen, cry at the tragedies, cheer at the heroics, and subconsciously love the great entertainment. True emotion, true visceral action, true life. The greatest show on Earth.
What a sickening thought.
Riley turned off her computer, fell onto her bed, and tried to think.
On that first evening after the news began to filter in, Riley had no idea how to react. Hours passed, hard to say how many. Internal conflict can do terrible things to one's perception of time. To Riley, it felt almost like dropping in and out of consciousness the morning after a late night; seemingly awake and aware, but what seem like seconds between glances at the clock are often hours.
Unsurprisingly, she hadn't yet been bothered by her parents, besides a brief exchange of greetings when her mother, Kari, returned home from work. Evidently, neither of them had yet heard the news, and it would be Riley's grim task to spread the word. Well, that, or let them find out when the story hit the news and feign surprise.
No, seemed wrong to keep them in the dark about something so close to home. They'd want to know, they deserved to, having been acquaintances of several of Riley's friends and teachers at the very least. Well, she couldn't say for certain that they'd want to know, but she herself certainly would. So at about seven PM, still undecided as to whether she actually wanted to follow the "game" or not, the lucky survivor made her way down to break the news. Her parents were sitting together in the lounge, making light conversation over cups of coffee, her father cradling a laptop in his lap, her mother half-watching some cooking program on the TV - the picture of idyllic family life, it'd be hard to guess that they were still mourning the supposed deaths of hundreds of local children, and harder still to let them in on the much darker truth.
"Mom, dad, I..."
Pause. Deep breath. Quizzical looks from both. Curious, with a slight edge of concern, having detected the unease in her voice.
Riley wanted to stop already, to say it was nothing, or make something up. Any dramatic revelation, false or true, would be easier to admit/fabricate than the one she truly meant to give.
"I need to, uh... there's something you should know, that is..."
She dragged it out as much as she could, savouring the precious few seconds where she could say words that amounted to nothing, even if it was just letting the timer tick down before dropping the proverbial bomb.
"The senior trip, they, uh... fuck, I..."
By this point, Riley's father was folding up his laptop and her mother was already getting up, moving over to embrace her clearly-troubled daughter. Riley shook her head, as if trying to shake something loose inside of her mind.
"How do I even... look, they aren't dead."
Silence would've fallen, if not for the TV still on in the background. Mother and father alike froze where they were, staring at their child with wide eyes. Not dead? But if that isn't good news easily delivered, what could possibly...? Emboldened by having broached the subject, even in the vaguest of terms, Riley managed to continue.
"They were kidnapped, they, they're on an island somewhere, they..."
Her voice faltered, dropping to a whisper, as if subconsciously she thought that saying it more quietly would make it less horrific.
"It's back... Survival of the Fittest is back."
Over the course of the next few hours, awkward silence prevailed. Short snippets of conversation broke out every so often, mostly involving small details; how Riley had heard, how each of the three of them were feeling, what they could and would do, what it all meant. The trio gathered together to watch as the first "Breaking News" broadcast aired, and the truth of the Aurora seniors' fate was confirmed. Shortly thereafter, Riley retreated to her bedroom, once more to ponder the immediate future.
It was roughly four in the morning when she came to a decision. Riley hated herself for the selfishness of it, but she couldn't deny the desire to know what had become of her friends, to know for sure, to the tiniest detail, what would happen to them. She had toyed with the idea of trying to get into contact with Kimberly Nguyen; having made the effort to make her feelings known nationwide, it stood to reason she was trying to combat the program in some way, maybe she was even in touch with the vigilantes that had rescued the other survivors. But no, they'd abandoned those that had killed, Riley was pretty sure she'd killed at least two other students on her way to "victory". And besides, what could she do? Emotional attachment to the events was, if anything, a liability, and the only real qualification Riley had to offer was high-school-level photojournalism; if STAR needed someone to do that, they'd already have somebody much better.
So at four AM, with sleep being so far from her mind as to be a distant memory, Riley booted her computer back up, and set about discerning the fate of the first person to come to mind; a new friend, all things considered, but who had become pretty close over the last few months, through Karen Idel's (who was herself second on Riley's list) game at Elysium and sporadic contact at school. More than that, however, she was quite aware of how awkwardly smitten with her he'd seemed to be, and figured he'd probably like the idea of Riley watching over him. She'd hardly reciprocated the attraction, but given the circumstances, it seemed right to her.
And so she found herself viewing the events ostensibly a scant few hours ago, though most likely several weeks - better not to think of it like that, rooting for someone retroactively seemed worthless - in a field of wheat. Odd setting, but it's not as though the terrorists could tailor-make a more dramatically appropriate island, no matter how high their budget.
[Riley Moon ==> Still here, in another, future thread.]