(Tara Behzad concluding from In This Starless Night)
She traced her way around the island, heard the screams and shouts and cries. So many people, all so afraid. But she knew that already, didn't she? She'd seen it firsthand from the moment she woke up, and she'd been seeing it for a long time besides. Her and Raynor, trawling through their shared secret obsessions, watching these kids just a little older than they were fight and fuck and kill and die.
It had happened five times before.
Sometime like this...how could it happen, again and again? But of course she knew the answer, because slavery had stretched on for centuries, and men and women still allowed genocides to happen to their neighbors as long as they were spared the headman's axe. Men and women are creatures of profound apathy, after all. Who can blame them? Thinking and deciding for yourself, that is an awful weight. Far better to have someone telling you where to go, and threatening punishment if you disobey. If you are a horse following a coachman's orders, the destination is not your responsibility, even if you ride into an ambush or disaster. If you are a free creature, making your own choices, then you have no one to blame but yourself.
Was that why her mother was so fucked up? Was she just looking for the escape that would let her pretend these weren't her mistakes?
She stopped every so often to check her map, with its bloody pentagram. She was following the route she'd mapped in her own blood, because why not? She'd had to adjust it a little bit to reflect her other stops over the past few days, the places where she'd actually stopped for the night when her tired body could go no further. Now her pentagram was wonky and uneven, but it was the work she'd set herself on doing, the work that would give meaning to her last few hours, the work that might just let her die happy.
At every stop, she left new names and a new fire. She followed her old familiar routine: find her scrap of driftwood, inscribe it, hold it right, left, forwards, backwards, and up into the sky.
Alex Tarquin, Who Could Not Be Larger Than This Cage
Lizzie Luz, Who Laughed in the Face of Death
And while she ran (or stumbled, really: she'd pushed herself too far on too little food, and she was burned and her ribs hurt and she was so light-headed), she thought. She thought about a lot of things. About God, and humanity, and souls, and violence, and sex, and love. About all the things that she had done, and would never do. She thought about dying, and how it would feel. She thought about pain, and how much there would be, even after she was gone.
Or would she be gone? Because in spite of everything, Tara Behzad believed in the immortal soul.
Neither of her parents were at-all-religious: Kamal had been rebelling against his devout parents, Alaine's parents had been something Tara couldn't remember and that Alaine pretty much never talked about, and Barney was a well-reasoned atheist who always felt uncomfortable with the notion of putting his faith in a higher power. Raynor was even more devoutly atheist than Barney, and insisted they were all just glorified meat. It was an occasional, enjoyable argument with him.
But Tara believed in souls. This intelligence, this awareness, this need to hear stories, this need to understand people, this need to understand herself, and to invent new selves where her understanding fell short...there had to be something more at play than biology. Perhaps that played its role in making her seek out disaster accounts: in the extreme lengths people would go in the face of catastrophe, she found something more than horror. She found evidence of something beyond the meat.
Hazel Jung, Who Seemed in Control Even as the World Burned
Leslie Price, Who Was Tall and Gorgeous and Didn't Know it
Or perhaps she believed in souls because it justified her own behavior, the extremes she forced herself to, the masochistic slicing of razors and biting of flesh, the arm that itched with healing flesh from the burn, the ribs that still ached where she hurt them with a rock, the skin that shuddered and crawled and goosebumped as wet clothes clung tight to her through the pounding rain.
People have souls. That means their bodies are tools, to be used as they choose. You care for the tool. You keep it maintained, so it will not break at an inconvenient moment. But you do not obey the tool. You do not allow the tool to dictate the terms of its use.
Junko Kurosawa, Who Wanted to Go Down Fighting
Jasper Burtame, Who Was So Afraid
But her tool was protesting awfully hard now. It ached, down to its marrow. Its stomach felt sunken and hollow. She hurt, from her fall, and her fire, and her own brutal attack. She was so cold, and so weary. She would hurt still more, before the night was over.
She would have liked to move with confidence. She would have liked to move with purpose. She wanted to look like the image of a woman who knew what she was doing. But that would have been a lie, wouldn't it? And there was no more time for lies.
It was night, and the wind was howling, and rain had soaked her to the bones. She was tired. Body and soul were exhausted, and there was still so much more to do.
Her rough pentagram was finished. By the time she returned to the helipad, night had drawn a heavy curtain over the island, and she almost tripped over the corpse of the bloody, broken figure at the base of this place, another proof of the horrors this world inflicted on the unfit. She trailed hands along his body, felt the intact collar on his neck, but could not make out his face. She lifted her head up to the sky to see that the stars blinked here and there behind the heavy stormclouds, still dark with the threat of rain. She watched the flickering stars warily, pitiless lights on high as apathetic as any of the viewers at home. As apathetic as she had been, watching the footage, trying to make sense of the stories, trying to understand...
Trying to understand the man who killed and killed as he protested the game, the man whose hands were too drenched in blood to ever seem the hero.
Trying to understand the man who'd fought so hard and kept his own strange honor, even in victory.
Trying to understand the psychos who played when there were genuine escapees on the island, people fighting for freedom.
Trying to understand how those psychos could still exist when STAR came rescuing again, how they could justify their savagery when they'd been left behind for it.
Trying to understand a killer who'd carved his way across the island, and who had chosen mercy at the end, mercy for brash young woman who'd struck him with a snowglobe in the heat of a kiss.
Trying to understand how a man could believe in God and believe he was a sinner and still keep sinning, but of course that wasn't hard, she understood that too well, she knew what she did to her body was wrong, that in some ways it made her just as damaged and defective as her mother, but it's a break that's healed wrong, it has been for too long, the finger joints are crooked and her soul limps and staggers and doesn't look quite right, but the healing would be agony and she's learned to live with the pain, so maybe you can just fuck right the hell off if you expect me to change.
She did not allow her rambling thoughts to slow her down. The helipad wasn't really at the center of the pentagram, but it wasn't quite beyond the bounds either, and besides it was a rough misshapen thing, just as rough and misshapen as her, so she wouldn't worry about it too much. She kept dragging wood and grass and paper and cardboard and anything else she could find, building the outlines of the grand bonfire even as her muscles ached and her body quivered and her breath rasped in her throat. The pyre was only half-built when she had to rest at last, and she hated herself for it, hated herself even while she was thinking that this wasn't her body's fault, it was hers, she'd pushed it this far, she'd demanded too much, but the end was in sight, so why not just a little water? Why not a little food?
So she sat, and nibbled on her ration bar, and sipped at her bottle of water. Pacing herself so she wouldn't be sicked, as she looked at the merciless stars, and looked at the pyre she was slowly building. Behind her, the helicopter creaked in the wind, one more ominous sound in a cold island night full of them. Every sound, every movement, every half-heard cry and gust of wind, every rustling bush. All these nightmares, crafted just for them. No, that wasn't fair. That gave the AT too much credit. All they'd done was give them permission. The collar around their neck was leverage, giving them permission. Giving them impunity to say, "It wasn't my fault. I just wanted to survive."
As though survival was some high and lofty virtue. As though it permitted you to sacrifice yourself.
Self. There was that word again. She'd laughed at Lizzie when she'd claimed there was some fundamental truth defining them. She'd reminded her that all they'd done through their whole lives was play roles, trying on their new selves and hoping they found the ones that fit. So why did Tara keep coming back to it? Why did she keep using that word?
It came back to souls, didn't it? Because if you had a soul--something absolute and intangible, an aspect of yourself that wasn't meat or mind or nature but intrinsic to you, you had to have a self, right? And maybe that's what people were really looking for, when they changed their selves and tried on their roles. Maybe they were trying to find the one that fit their soul, and all the damage it had taken along the way.
She sat for a little while, after she'd finished her food and water, her arms and legs quivering with the sweet smoky exhaustion of extraordinary exercise. But she wasn't done yet. The pyre wasn't built.
She rose creakily to her feet, stumbled off into the night to find more material for the fire, searching through what was damp to find the stuff she could still use, looking throughout the warehouse and the storehouse and outlying areas for any more flammable material. She was modeling it loosely on one she and Raynor had built for some half-remembered video project, something about wizards who were sacrificing their enemies to a fire god or...shit, she couldn't remember anymore. But it had been thick with smoke, she remembered that much. Thick enough that she'd coughed up grey mucus that night.
That was what she wanted now. A proper fucking bonfire. A funeral pyre, to end this ritual, this invocation of some nameless god, or of the ghosts of players past and present trapped in this awful game.
Tara Behzad has always believed in souls. The question that's bugging her now is: does she believe in God? And if she does, what kind of God does she believe in? It's the problem of theodicy, which Barney had used to justify his atheism to Tara. God cannot be omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent and allow a universe like theirs to exist--a universe where great evil can exist. It's a three-legged stool, and understanding of God is just out of reach. The only way to reach it is to shorten one of the legs, but that means you have an ugly stool.
So, if you believe in God, you have to face three important questions: how powerful is She? How much does She know? How good can She be, if Survival of the Fittest can happen so many times? If madmen shoot-up schools and children are forced to kill by the command of cruel and distant masters and slavery lasts for centuries and six million souls are shoveled into the hungry flames of the Holocaust?
It was late now, and Tara was tired. Her eyelids were heavy, and her throat was parched, and her lips felt cracked. She was faintly dizzy, and her arms and legs were quivering, but she stumbled up the rickety stairs again with one more armload, and at last she finished her pyramidal pyre of driftwood, leaves, grass, paper, cardboard, plywood, and countless other pieces of old scrap, and laid the stuff to feed the fire in easy reach. She was so close now. It was almost over. Almost. Almost...
Her head dipped forwards, and the sudden movement jerked her back to consciousness. Shit, that was bad. Falling asleep without even noticing. Not yet. Come on, Tara, not yet. Are you powerless? Are you a victim? Who are you?
Who are you?
That's the real question, isn't it? The one you're never gonna get a chance to answer, even if you make it out of this place alive. And you were never planning on walking away, were you? You knew you were gonna die. Maybe you always-
And Tara was laughing.
She was cackling like a witch by her sacrificial pyre, she was howling with laughter, because that was such a stupid, maudlin thought. No, she hadn't known she was going to die. She'd had dreams, and ambitions. She was gonna head west and try to hack it as a make-up artist, attach herself to some indie projects and get enough cred, she was gonna live and create and never stop and sleep with who she wanted and run as she liked and she was gonna start wearing tanktops and showing off her self-inflicted scars and grinning because it was her fucking body and she'd do what she fucking wanted. She'd never considered suicide. It was off the table. She was the product of a million different idle chances, boredom and loneliness and love and who new what fucking else stretching back to the dawn of fucking humanity.
She hadn't been made to die. She had been put here, by the same stupid fuckers who'd put the collar around her neck.
She grabbed the largest plank, and fished the nail polish out again. Almost all gone now, used up over five different pyres. But that was alright. She just needed to do it one more time.
Tara Behzad, Who Wanted to Die Happy
She lay her name in the center of the pyre she'd built, and drew her lighter. She set an old manila folder ablaze at its heart, and then sat back, and watched the fire spread in fits and starts, fighting the moist air, fighting the damp and cold, fighting even the threat of storm and rain from high above.
Storm, huh? She couldn't decide if that was a good sign, or not. A storm god building fire in the thick of a storm, with her head thick with memories and ghosts and the dim echoes of another storm god from long ago, who'd believed it was over when he'd died, who'd died an optimist, who'd died loving someone else, who'd died loved by someone else.
Or maybe it was neither good nor bad. Maybe it was just God, making the best of a bad situation.
But the rain had not returned, and the fire was burning, stronger with every moment, and the damp was helping her a little because this blaze would leave a column of smoke stretching high into the air, sure proof for any and all. Tara Behzad might burn herself away to ash, but there would be some memory left behind, of bright fire and smoke towers and the toxic sweet scent of burning nail polish and plastic. The helicopter, tarnished and rusty, gleamed with the ghost of its old glory in the bright flames.
She watched the fire for a long time, adding to it occasionally, watching the eastern horizon, watching as the night gradually began to fade away, as the first hint of twilight dawn brightened the black.
She laid back as the fire burned, lifting the chill from her bones. She smiled up into the grey-black sky, shifting slightly this way and that, feeling the collar on her neck, not pressing quite so tight. She almost felt free.
She closed her eyes, and felt the itching of her arm, the aching of her body. So much meat, a defective tool that never quite matched the needs of her self and soul. Her grip tightened on the rock.
You can do this. You can do this. You can do this.
Of course she could. She was Tara Behzad. She was in control. Now, at the end, more than ever.
The fire burned, and she was warm. Warm even as she lifted the rock and brought it smashing down into her face.
She flinched at the last moment--she couldn't help herself, knowing the pain was coming. Hot embers glowed beneath her cheek, but that would do no good, so she struck again, forcing her neck to stay still, so that her nose took the brunt of the hit. But it wasn't enough, not nearly enough, so she hit again, and again, until it gave way with an agonizing crack and she was left, sobbing and quivering with blood streaming down her face.
"Die happy," she repeated under her breath. "Die happy. Please..."
No time for rest, no time left, so she lifted the rock with her weak arms and hit again, along her jaw, and she hit again and again and again, and when her arm could take no more she turned and hammered her face into the concrete, up and down, over and over, until her face was just a mess of scrapes and blood and bone pressing against bone, and she rolled onto her back and there was no more stone on her hand and the fire was still burning, she was still burning, and she wouldn't stop until she was ash or all was flame.
She slammed the back of her head against the helipad, again and again and again, until she was too woozy to lift her head anymore. She stared up at the infinite navy blue of a pre-dawn stormy sky, and her head swam and her thoughts drifted, because she understood something about theodicy, something about god and free will, good and evil and apathy, something about Survival of the Fittest, but it was so hard to think.
And the fire was still burning without, but within it was flickering away, her body failing, her breath coming in uneven gasps through her broken nose and fractured jaw, still cold, still hungry, still thirsty, still hurting, still dying...
"Welcome to another beautiful morning here on our island."
Beautiful morning, yes indeed. Every day above the ground's a good one. And you've found quite a good place to die aboveground, haven't you, Tara?
"We have a good mix of new and familiar faces for you today. Always good to see more people taking the initiative."
Initiative? Wait, that was important. Initiative. There was something she was supposed to be doing. Something she'd waiting for, with her fires and her running and her self-denial. Something she'd been counting on. It was important. This was important. Why did she hurt? Why did her thoughts feel so weak? Why...
Tara Behzad are you gonna sit there and die Tara Behzad is this how you end Tara Behzad who is in control here Taranis Behzad the accidents of your life have to have led you here don't you dare give up don't you dare don't you dare
Her eyes flickered open. Her blood was crusty, but still damp in places. Her cheek felt hot and swollen, but the other injuries were still fresh. How long had she been out? Half an hour? Was it head injuries? Sleep deprivation and exhaustion? Both?
"It shows in the results as well. They're alive while some of you, not so much."
Talking to the dead, Danya? Join the club. Join the...
Shit. The Announcements. The Announcements!
Tara's hands snapped to her collar, and she twisted.
So there's the problem of theodicy. Particularly as it pertains to this moment.
How can God be omnipotent, omnibenevolent, and omniscient, and still allow something like SotF to exist?
This is apparently a criticial problem, but Tara has always thought the answer is rather obvious. First, you start with a simple requirement: define omnibenevolent. How can God be all-loving? And I don't mean, 'How can God be all-loving and allow this to happen?' I mean, 'What is the definition of omnibenevolent.'
And the answer is the same as with any parent once the kid's out of your house. You give them your rules, and you give them your advice, and you hope they do the best they can with the tools they've got.
Maybe it's nonsensical to Tara because she has the very definition of shitty parents, so she doesn't have some gold standard to impose upon her theoretical deity. What she wants is advice. An author who crafts a character, and turns her loose into an ongoing narrative, and hopes she's able to make the best she can of a complex situation. And maybe that author's everywhere, giving the best advice She can, and hoping people follow suit. Because free-will matters. Because making your own choices, and facing their consequences, matters.
So. Tara Behzad. Masochist with control issues, too self-aware not to know how fucked up she is. She's not as healthy as she should be, and never has been. But she's got some savings tucked away, and she's ready to bolt west with her diploma in hand. She's still talking to Raynor, trying to lure him after her. Maybe someday. Maybe not. Late at night she watches old SotF footage. She's deleted almost every torrent she'd ever downloaded, save one.
And then one day she's in the game, and there's a man dying in front of her, and all Tara's pretenses of self-control are just that: pretense. She's smart enough to know she's been through harder shit than most of her classmates, and smart enough to know they've all been through shit and all have their own demons, and smart enough to know that none of that fucking matters because they've got fucking bombs around their necks and they've got their marching orders: kill or be killed. They're dogs on leashes, to perform as their masters please.
And then she opens her bag, and she has flashbangs inside, and the pieces start clicking together. She feels crazy, but then, hearing the voice of God is always grounds for ending up in an Asylum (and thank God the AT took care of that for her, ha!) and there's crazier gonna be turned loose in this place, because there's crazier on every corner, crazy all inside them, and Tara Behzad, by chance and accident and interest, has all the pieces line up in front of her.
The name of the torrent she could never bring herself to delete? The Raidon/Asuka edit. An insane, spliced-together reel of hundreds of hours of one mad boy who believed in God and believed killing was wrong and believed that because the kids had escaped this game could never happen again, a boy who was so wrong. And found what little Mizore Soryu had written after the fact, and that was what really got her into SotF, when all was said and done, because she'd never imagined the intense and marvelous extremity that such souls could achieve in this place. And that led her to other accounts--Simon, Brendan, Garrett, Cisco, Bounce, Sarah, Anna, Alice, and more, and more, and more, trawling through forums and old downloads, getting her computer infected with viruses three times, but these people loomed in her head and she supplemented them with more and more, from SotF and elsewhere, until there was a whole god damn pantheon of human beings who had demonstrated that it was possible to survive and endure through impossible circumstances.
There are flashbangs in her bag, and the memory of another honest storm god, and suddenly Tara Behzad, who has always believed in the immortal soul, thinks she sees the will of God.
Here's the facts: SotF exists. It has happened six times now. It will not end until its perpetrators are extinguished from the fucking earth. The death knell never sounded. They never saw the hell they deserved to burn in. No one can find them. No one can stop them. Their collars are wrapped tight around their necks. There's no escape.
Except of course, that's not true. They've escaped twice before, at least. Maybe more. The rumors are unclear here, though speculation abounds on certain dark corners of the internet. But twice for sure. Twice, the plans have gone awry. They can be beaten. That doesn't mean Tara Behzad's the one to do it.
But she hopes. She hopes because the pieces line up.
She knows if she's in their game they'll be looking for certain behaviors. She gives them what they want. She runs, and argues, and hurts herself, and doesn't drink, and doesn't eat, and barely sleeps. She develops an obsession with this pentagram and her makeshift funeral pyres. Finally, her task completed, she hurts herself in one wild burst of self-flagellation, and fades into oblivion as dawn breaks on the 4th Day.
That's a fine narrative. A story for them to believe, a self for her to wear. Performance of a fucking lifetime, probably because not all of it's performance. Fake garden with real frogs. Or is it a real garden, but seen from the wrong place?
Because Tara has been running, and starving, and hurting, because those are all what they expect, but also because Tara is no longer dangerously underweight. Because there is some give to her, some fat to let fade away, and three days of effort, three days of punishment, are enough to take that edge off. Because everything Tara has done will make suicide and self-abuse look so much less suspect, for this moment, right here. Because she waited until close to dawn when dawn's light doesn't mean the Announcements but it means they're close, because it's May and the sun rises early and Announcements are at the same fucking time every day, and she's learned that from her time here and she's learned that from previous versions and she knows a couple things. Because she's given the bored and hollow staff watching those camera feeds explanations to satisfy their curiosity, and there can't be that many of them because if this organization was too large it would have been found by now, and she knows it takes a lot to make these fucking collars detonate, and she knows that during Announcements there's got to be a lot of other business, and she knows and she knows and...
And of course, she doesn't know. She doesn't know a damn thing. But she hopes. She hopes with such fervor, such intensity, such will and passion and fury that it almost feels like knowing.
Because Tara Behzad does know SotF, and has seen what has succeeded and failed in versions past.
Because the collars don't detonate when your life signs stop, or when you're being choked, or when you fall off a cliff and get choked by ivy, or when you're getting beaten to death, because the fuckers are resilient as long as you don't go poking around inside them.
Because who would be fucking psychotic enough to try and just pull their fucking collar over their heads?
Because Tara Behzad is broken in just the right ways to push herself to lose the weight to hurt herself to smash her jaw her nose her head in the hopes that such a small thing might be the razor thin margin between victory and defeat.
Because she hurt her ribs with a stone but also studied the swelling and she knows about how long it might take, and so she's waited until dawn because then Announcements won't be far behind.
Because she started her fires and hurt herself and made this seem like the climax of her arc and maybe it is but she's betting, she's hoping, she's praying that it's not the climax they were expecting and that it won't be noticed until it's too late.
Because there can be only so many staffers on duty right now and none of them have any reason to see her as anything remarkable and even if they do who has the patience to watch an unconscious woman bleed for however the fuck long it's been since she finished bashing the back of her head against the concrete?
Because it's time for the Announcements, and their boss is speaking, and there are final arrangements to make, and Tara's hoping that last small fact may give her just the breathing space she needs.
Because at this moment she needs to have the vision of Naoko Raidon, the passion of Mizore Soryu, the brilliance of Liz Polanski, the courage of Ethan Kent, the audacity of Gavin Hunter, the genius of Lucy O'Donnell, the persistence of Jack O'Connor, and the sheer fucking balls of Maxie Dasai. Because this is her boulder and she doesn't have 127 hours and she doesn't have a knife but when she has, what she has to have, what she believes she has, is the will of fucking God on her fucking side and just this once, just this once, it has to be enough.
So the Announcements drone on, and Tara, in one move against all the myriad aches and pains of her body, snaps her hands to her collar, tucks her jaw and bucks and writhes and rolls, grinding the metal against grinding bone, moves so gravity and weight and mass and injury and leverage are in her favor, and all without a fucking squeak, without so much a sob, with only the faintest trembling wheeze, her eyes bulging, her heart bounding, sweat dripping down to mingle with the blood on her face and in her dark hair, betting, hoping, praying that she is right, that this will work, that all the pieces will line of just so, that someone won't have gotten enough sleep, will be looking at the wrong camera, will be looking and won't notice that the injured bitch is trying to slip her leash and make a run for it.
It has to work. It has to.
Please God let it work.
TARA BEHZAD: ?