Under the glaring lights of the game grid, eight cubes whirred in simultaneous motion. Two unlucky occupants stood on each angular platform, facing each other from opposite sides. These were the dreaded arenas of the disc wars, one of the more popular gladiatorial games that took place in the massive stadium outside of the city. The seats brimmed with thousands of glowing bodies, but to the captives inside the glass walls, the audience was nothing more than a dark sea of pulsating noise. They roared deafeningly as a large ship, horizontal in design and bathed in orange glow, sailed majestically into the amphitheater, settling above the games. Its vantage point was ideal; it was close enough to see everything in detail, to watch the games in luxury.
With the activation of the scoreboard, the games commenced. There were immediate casualties. A whirling disc of light smashed through one of the combatants. His scream echoed through the chamber as his body disintegrated into tiny pixels and melted into the floor. The arenas were intelligent; when a program derezzed, they broke apart and waited until another warrior was available to fight. It was an ever-changing game of elimination. When this happened, the cacophony of the crowd rose. They fed on the energy of the tournaments—it was a different kind of energy than what was needed for physical sustenance. Only one program in the vast audience was repulsed. She studied everything through a dark helmet of anonymity. No one paid her any attention.
This match was different than the previous one. The audience could sense a heightened fear and desperation that rippled through the combatants. There had been hushed whispers in the holding cells that he would fight soon; he whose presence on the grid was unmistakable. And he was there, on the fifth platform—dark, masked, graceful. Deadly. The crowd chanted his name with frenetic enthusiasm.
"Rinzler. Rinz-ler. Rinz-ler."
His burning orange circuitry was a source of excitement and stimulation to them. To the prisoners, it was a death sentence. He moved with innate precision and killed silently—there was no pageantry, no outward display of victory. Rinzler was always the final warrior standing. No others would survive the games today.
All eyes turned to the agile program as he vaulted his disc across his arena. It flew through the air at astonishing speed in an arc of crimson light, but missed its target, who felt a twinge of surprise at such a blunder.
Perhaps there was hope that—
—this thought was cut short as the red disc ricocheted against the wall and shattered him. It had been thrown at a calculated angle. There was an empty clank as the program's dead disc clattered to the floor, spinning for a moment before falling still. Rinzler walked over to it stoically, watching the last bits of his opponent disappear. He felt a twinge of satisfaction, but there was no need to rejoice in his survival. Unlike the others, he was not forced to fight; he chose it. Rather, Clu chose it. He simply followed his master's command. And he would never lose. Couldn't lose. At this thought Rinzler's lips curled into a smirk. He was unbeatable.
"Combatant nine – deresolution. Combatant five – victory." The constant narration was a source of annoyance and Rinzler had long since learned to ignore it.
As he waited for the next challenger, there was a strange sound above him, and Rinzler looked up to see somebody dash across the arena overhead. The broadcast warned of a violation. The escaped program was unsure of his path, and had trouble balancing on the moving framework of the grid. It was foolish to try to escape—few had ever tried, and none had succeeded—but this one seemed determined. Or desperate. Rinzler watched with mild curiosity, waiting for Clu to derezz him. But as he tried to leap to the next platform, the program slid on the smooth curvature and plummeted into Rinzler's own arena. Above them the last combatant fragmented into pieces, and the empty platforms merged into one around them. The walls darkened.
"Initiate final round. Combatant three verses Rinzler."
The youth muttered as he stood and stared at the dark figure before him, surprised to find that he was trapped again. Rinzler knew his master would be amused; it was ironic that in his attempt to escape, the program had landed—quite literally—in the face of certain death. Rinzler's own laugh came out as a purr as he drew his disc. It vibrated as its power ebbed through his hand. Holding a disc was a very natural feeling to him, like he was greeting a long-lost friend. When he fought with it, he felt a self-awareness that he didn't fully comprehend, as though it was something he had done for a very long time…but that was where his memory plunged into blackness. If he tried to follow these thoughts too far back, as he occasionally did, Rinzler's head ached, so he reveled in its security without trying to understand it.
There was a low hum as he split his disc into two, baiting his opponent to draw his own weapon. He did, and Rinzler saw that he held it poorly. There would be no challenge in this. He laughed again as the program tried to imitate his maneuver, unaware that his disc did not have the same capabilities. Poor fool. He leapt aside as one of the red discs sliced through the air and returned to its owner. As Rinzler wanted, it had knocked him down but failed to damage him. Sometimes he killed quickly, but more often he allowed tension to build; the crowd preferred it that way. And Clu would enjoy watching the rogue program struggle. The chant of the spectators swelled with anticipation. The youth threw his own disc and the black figure sprung from the ground, twisting to avoid it with ease. So pathetic. Rinzler wondered if he had ever fought before.
A soft chime played, a sound he knew well. He turned and sprinted to the far corner of the arena. The otherhadn't heard it, or noticed it. When the gravity of the cell reversed his opponent was flung violently to opposite wall, gasping as his body slammed into the ceiling. Rinzler vaulted from above and crashed through the glass, inches away from his prey. The time for play was over. Now in close vicinity, he saw the program's chest heave and eyes widen. They were an unusual color…very light, filled with complexity and fear. How strange that his face, and his presence, seemed distantly familiar. He did not recall meeting him in the past. But this observation was fleeting; Rinzler slashed violently with his discs, and was blocked. White sparks flew as metal hit metal. He was pleasantly surprised at the intensity with which the competitor fought. He sliced again, and the youth cried out in pain. Rinzler expected pixels to rain down…but the program was still there, in front of him. There was a sudden moment of confusion. He was certain he had made contact. Perhaps one of his depth sensors had malfunctioned. This would need immediate rectification after the game. The chime rang again and this time both fell. The now-battered program made hard contact with the floor, groaning in agony. As he stumbled to his feet, a dark form descended from above, arms outstretched, each grasping a deadly glowing disc. It was time. Rinzler saw terror in the face below him—the sudden understanding that death was imminent. This realization manifested itself in a horrified expression that he as a predator knew intimately. He had seen it in hundreds of faces.
Rinzler landed squarely on the program, pinning him to the ground. The body underneath him was weak now, with barely any strength to resist. The crowd was on its feet with sickening excitement and he felt their fervor pulse through him. Sharp electricity tingled through his body. He always felt this—this strange euphoria of victory that only occurred in the last moments before he took a life, and then it melted into dispassionate achievement. In the end, it meant nothing. It was his duty.
He drew his arm back to deliver a fatal blow, but the slightest movement caught his eye. Rinzler stared in disbelief as a thin trickle of blood fell from the program's shoulder and pooled on the glass.
He growled quietly in astonishment and a slow hiss escaped his lips. "User."
As he spoke a sudden floodtide of bewilderment washed over him. Strange, half-developed visions flew before his eyes, and for the first time in his memory, Rinzler felt a wild turmoil rise up in him. He was unsure whether to kill or help this…enemy? All users were enemies. Why did he question this? There was an almost physical pain in Rinzler's chest as what was known wrestled with the unknown. His vision swam and in an instant he felt as though he might be torn apart by this terrible chaos that screamed through his mind. And he let his arm fall back. This sudden act of mercy was not taken well by the crowd; their disappointment was palpable. Their cries faded and the unusual quiet quelled the storm that raged within him. His doubts, whatever they were, vanished, and Rinzler regained control. He pulled the user to his feet and clenched his arm tightly as he spun to face the ship. Did Clu know of this? Had it been a test of his skill?
Clu's voice rang loudly through the stadium. It was filled with curiosity. "Identify yourself… program."
So he had not known.
The user was defiant. Almost angry at the classification. "I'm not a program."
Rinzler saw the silhouette of his master standing at the helm of his vessel. When he spoke again, his voice had changed. It was lower, commanding. "Identify." It reverberated over the grid.
"My name is Sam Flynn."
Flynn. The name surged through Rinzler. What he had experienced before was nothing to the paralysis that gripped him now. Again he felt a powerful urge to both and kill and save the user who stood by him. Rinzler felt fury at this new indecision. He was programmed to execute commands without hesitation.
"Bring him to me," Clu's soft voice whispered, and that was enough to break through his disorientation. Rinzler did not know what would become of Sam Flynn. It was not his directive to question what was asked of him. In a single moment, the last traces of conflict fled and his mind became as it had been before: cold and unwaveringly obedient. Rinzler knew only what his master dictated, but somewhere deeply hidden, in a place still lost to his consciousness, he also knew that the game had changed.