The guy is unconscious when they drag him in. He's no small measure of dead weight to be hauling, either. He's solid, but strong solid, not fat solid, and looks like he put up one hell of a fight. There are blackened scorch marks all over him.

Kind of impressive, really. I know me; it would've taken half that many high-rez shocks to take me down. This guy is no actuarial program.


Well, in here, anyway.

So far as I can tell, though, surviving is as much about the will to do so as skill. Not that there isn't skill involved, but if you want to see another day more than the other guy, if you've got something to live for, then you're a hell of a lot more likely to make it through your first couple of matches despite the "standard, sub-standard" training.

Judging by how much misery this guy has apparently put himself through already, though, I don't think I'm reaching much in assuming that "something to live for" is the least of his problems.

I wonder what his name is . . . huh. He looks like he's got a history.

A lot of the guys who come through here, they don't have any armor to start out with. But he does. Most notably on his forearms. Sark's going to get a kick out of this one. That is, if he doesn't end up joining him.

Then again, for no reason whatsoever, I kind of get the feeling that the new guy would rather be dead join Sark. Just a feeling.

To my left, Prawnn is being ushered, complaining as usual, back into his own cell. He's been here since I arrived, captured in the same batch from yet another outside system. He's a noisy guy, but you make what friends in here that you can.

"How'd it go?" I ask, tearing my attention away from the still unconscious new guy. Prawnn shrugs, looking smug.

"I'm alive, aren't I? Not bad for accessory program, hah. It drives 'em nuts every time."

Weird fact about Prawnn: he's very proud of himself for pretty much everything he ever does, but no matter who prods him about it, he won't say what it is that he used to do. All he'll say is that he was an accessory program at "Cal Tech" without ever specifying what he was an accessory to.

Cal Tech, by the way, is a university. I couldn't tell you what that is, really, but alright. He didn't know what an insurance company was either. Or an Actuarial program.

I get that a lot.

"What about you?" he asks, leaning his enormous frame up against the wall cattycorner to where I'm standing so that he can see me through our adjoining force field and laze all at once. Strength is really Prawnn's thing, not speed, stamina, or agility. He does a lot of lazing, as a general rule, whenever he's not out in the games.

Of course, it's not like I can judge too harshly. We all get pretty languid in here. And as much as I like to play it cool, the truth is that I think the only reason I "practice" with my identity disc so much is because it make me feel just slightly better about my own bored lounging. On the plus side, though, I'm getting pretty good with it.

"I haven't gone out today," I shrug in answer to his question. He makes a noncommittal noise in reply, but his bushy eyebrows fall low over his eyes as he squints at me.

"Why are you standin' over there, Ram?"

I may be looking at Prawnn, but I'm still inches away from the force field between my cell and the new guy's.

"We've got another one."

Prawnn's face lights up. I don't really see why, though. Sure, its plenty interesting to have a new face around here, but that yet another free program has been taken in doesn't really seem like celebratory stuff to me. Still, like I said, you make what friends you can in here, so I'm not exactly going to get after him about it. Friends keep you sane . . . and they give you an ally in the lightcycle races and in the tanks, too.

I hate the tanks. "Space Paranoids" is the technical title for the game, but that it involves being chased around by recognizers that fly over my head where I can't see them is really all that registers with me. I think I hate recognizers even more than I hate the tanks themselves, actually . . .

Prawnn is craning his neck... I couldn't tell you why. I know for a fact, being in an identical cell to his, that you can't see two cells over if the guy is lying down.

"He's unconscious," I explain, trying to get him to cut it out. If Prawnn keeps straining like that, he's going to fall headfirst into the force field. Balance isn't exactly his strong point.

"No kidding?" he says, falling back and reclining against the wall again.

I nod.

"Looks like he's been shocked about 20 times."

Prawnn whistles, I shrug.

"He's got his own armor, too."

"He's a fighter, then."

"I guess so. We can ask him when he wakes up."

Then, all of the sudden, like he's been cued, the guy groans from behind me. I whirl around. This time, I can't really blame Prawnn for craning his neck and standing on his toes:

20 shocks . . . and he's already up? The guy is different. Big time.

He reaches up from the floor with one hand and tugs himself up by leaning on one of those hard rectangular blocks they call a bed, grimacing the whole way.

Some guys are scared when they come in here. Some are weakened. But this guy? He just looks mad. Vengeful, almost.

It doesn't really suit his face. I couldn't say why, but he strikes me as young, and he's got almost delicate features: an evenly sloping and prominent nose, thin lips, dark blue eyes that could probably be pretty welcoming if he weren't so peeved, like he is right now. I have to admit, though, it's not a gaze you can look away from, he's got an air of authority all his own.

"Let me guess," he says flatly as he pulls himself up and sees me, "I'm on the game grid."

"Nope," Prawnn says from behind me boisterously before I can reply, "the holding block for the game grid." I wince. The new guy is pretty clearly not in the mood for Prawnn's sense of humor, and he glares over my shoulder to the next cell down with narrowed eyes, as if he can't quite decide if he wants to acknowledge Prawnn's existence from this point out, before looking back to me.

"How long was I out?"

"Uhh..." I don't think this guy knows what fear is. Or how to take it easy. He's efficient, and so . . . blunt. No semantics. No small talk. No actual concern, just tactical interest.

"Not very long. A couple of nanos and however long it took them to drag you in here."

His expression sets into another mask of irritation when I say this, but his eyes are dull, anything but amused, almost... bored.

"Not very nice about that, are they?" he says, and finally, a half smile flicks up the very corner of his mouth. I grin back.

"Man, you could have the disc off my back if you showed me one thing they were nice about..." I laugh, "Oh, and, welcome to the cell block. I'm Ram."

"Tron," he says. And that's how it starts.