The audience surged in excitement, anticipation crackling through them like electricity. Jarvis opened the speech with a cheerful disposition, rallying the thousands of programs awaiting the start of a very special light cycle duel. He beamed, clearly pleased with the energy resonating within the stadium, for it would reflect in the eyes of his Excellency.
Xana frowned, repulsed by the lengths the poor program went to for praise. She paced back and forth in the operations room within the Throne Ship. Though the exact words of his speech were indistinct from the interior, the ISO still heard the blunt joy and underlying tone of pride injected into each and every sentence. She shook her head, a half-smirk twisting her lips. It was maddening to her. Her very thoughts quivered with the apprehension that if she failed to execute this game with complete excellence, not only would she humiliate herself on a public scale, thus loosing the air of authority, but the entire scope of her essence would be tarnished—or worse. It struck her that some form of these fears resided within the chief administrator himself. Running a hand through her short hair, she scoffed at the realization that it was probably true. She caught but a few hints of the briefing being given to her by another program that looked just too much like Jarvis at the moment.
"Finally, a unit of four sentries will aid you," he said, hesitating with the rest of the information. Xana only waved a hand dismissively.
"I don't need them." She didn't require aid in taking out a pathetic group that'd barely put up a fight in the first place. Moreover, this was her installation ceremony; she alone wanted to be responsible for their deresolution. From a far corner of the room near the hallway, Rinzler's guttural growl did not seem to approve.
"Teams are required to be equal in number," he blurted and clutched his datapad, adding in a softer tone, "This is standard regulation."
She stopped abruptly, sullenly analyzing the crew worker. His visor hid his anxiety well, if there was any. Rather than snapping at the subordinate, the ISO looked to the command deck down the hall. Clu stood before the observational window, clad in his coat and helmet. He had made no indication as to whether or not the rules applied to Xana; this was part of the game, the game of her loyalty. Clu's words rang in her ears. She loomed over the crew worker; he tried to avert his gaze. She stood silent for another micro, just watching him squirm in discomfort. Outside, the massive audience surged as Jarvis concluded his speech by introducing the new enforcer. Not too far from the crew worker, the floor began segmenting itself, slowly descending as it separated into a yellow-lighted spiral staircase. That was her cue.
"Stay out of this." She broodingly threatened Rinzler and trudged away. Her helmet swiftly rezzed, encasing the entirety of her head. Streaks of red lit the sides of it, mimicking the black markings on her cheekbones.
As she made her way down the staircase, the roar of the crowd hit her immediately. Floodlights drenched the colossal stadium in a silver hue that would flush a pale red when crimson fireworks lit sky. She was well aware of the five pairs of eyes burning into her helmet. Her prisoners stood in a line opposite of the four sentries that awaited their lead. All combatants were now properly suited and equipped for the battle. Perhaps it was the mere hype of the event, but a grin tugged at her lips.
Striding up to the opposing team, she identified the center three to be her brethren. With Jarvis surveying, Xana reached out and rigidly grabbed the middle one, a former resident of the Bostrum Colony, by his left arm. She twisted it, so that he'd wince and turn slightly to the side. His teammates eyed her with revulsion as she used her other hand to tear at the newly-fitted suit before shoving the beta-class ISO back into line. The faint, glowing symbol on his skin was now visible through the slit in the fabric. She did the same with the other two, ripping just enough to leave their ISO gender markings in plain sight. The crowd bellowed again, though the tone was now one of contempt as they jeered and hollered wildly. Grimacing behind her visor, she raised a hand to her own left arm and pulled the material apart. Their disdain merged with astonishment.
With that, Xana turned heel and marched toward her awaiting team. "Clu had mentioned that, if all would play out in your favor tonight," Jarvis began, watching her sternly as she passed, "you'd be rewarded with an upgrade." She didn't appreciate the derision in his tone.
"Rest assured that I am a woman of my word, Jarvis." She acknowledged the sentries with a curt nod as she neared. "This battle won't soon be forgotten."
"Grid is live. Initiate light cycle battle."
Xana broke into a sprint; in turn, the sentries matched her speed, and in unison the team leapt with their batons in hand. Their five light cycles rezzed in a flash, landing heavily upon slick, sheer floor as they raced to one end of the stadium. Now straddled, she revved her vehicle and activated the light ribbon. Her team mimicked her actions and broke formation just as she made her way onto a downward ramp and disappeared into the sublevel of the arena. Their rivals were in formation on the far side of the arena, making a wide arch towards the center region, where most of the ramps were. She assumed that they would separate once in range of the ramps, to throw her team off. All the better, she thought, her fingertips tingling with determination as they gripped the handlebars. This is my kill.
She fixated on a blue ribbon overhead in the midlevel. Her opponents had split and a program was advancing towards an acutely curved ramp. If she was able to reach it before he'd get to the bottom, she'd easily trap him. She sped ahead, simultaneously keeping an eye on her first target. It was going to be close. As the ramp neared, with her target racing down it, Xana revved the throttle once more and leaned heavily to the left. Her light ribbon formed a wall at the base of the ramp, and though she couldn't see, it, she heard the terrible scream and crash of the program. The audience cheered as his name dimmed on the scoreboard. The enforcer flashed a grin.
The crash of another opponent overhead startled her. She watched the smoldering white light fade from the disintegrating data as she drove, and reluctantly looked to the scoreboard. Prior to the battle, she'd set her mind on plucking off the ISOs last, to send the crowds into a primal, merciless frenzy and give herself the self-satisfaction she'd been craving for. It seemed that her sentries wouldn't allow that to happen. Through gritted teeth, Xana hissed a slur and set off after the sentry. He'd taken what was rightfully hers. These criminals had tried to kill her before. She'd tracked them down. This event was declared in her honor. If a rule was the only thing giving them clearance to the battle, she was willing to break a few.
Chasing the sentry from below, she continued until she'd closed the distance between them. She spotted a ramp up ahead and noted that he was going to pass it on way or another. It only took a micro, but the ISO revved her cycle, sped up the ramp with enough force to become airborne, then slammed the vehicle onto her unsuspecting teammate. The spectators were taken slightly aback by the move; their cheering hushed to a faint murmur. The sentry shattered on impact, but his cycle took longer to derezz, and it threw her balance off. Part of why she'd been so nervous about the battle was that for all her abilities, she lacked greatly as a cyclist. She prayed that this would not be the moment in which her incompetence would show. The ISO panicked as the cycle swerved, and spotted the second program from the opposing team speed towards her. He turned sharply for his light ribbon to form right in Xana's path. She was trapped, with only heartbeats between fame and deresolution. To her own surprise, she reacted instantly. She summoned her strength, braking hard and withdrawing her energy from her baton. The light cycle quickly collapsed and sent the ISO flying over the blue light ribbon of her opponent. Still holding her baton mid-air, she flooded energy into it with alacrity. Her cycle rezzed once more and nimbly landed. The crowd voiced their astonishment. Now pursuing her assailant, she mechanically reached for her spare baton. She fell in with the blue-lighted program, her glower unwavering. With one hand, she reached for her spare baton and accelerated. The ISO pulled up beside him, pressed the butt of the baton to the startled program's upper torso and generated a sword. The blade effortlessly slid through his body, and the program was derezzing even before his cycle crashed into the arena wall. A flood of shock and thrill rippled through the spectators.
Her gaze was drawn back to the score board as she clicked her baton back into place. Five players remained alive; she, two sentries, and two ISOs were still in play. While she'd been tending to her own impulses, the ISOs had managed to eliminate a sentry. She searched the surface of the arena, only to spot her opponents' white and green light ribbons tracing away side by side in the sublevel. The sentry ahead of them charged onward, only to be caught between their light ribbons and derezz in a large burst of orange light. They were working together to conserve energy, and their lives—an admirable tactic, but nonetheless, a derivative one. She'd seen it too many times before when she herself had been amongst the crowds to be taken by surprise now. A sentry that had caught up with her hovered beside, as if awaiting her first move. His protocols forbid him from resisting when his team leader reached over and revved his throttle. His cycle swerved uncontrollably until it fell through a ramp opening and derezzed in the sublevel.
Xana swiftly calculated their distance and speed relative to her own, but before she could predict any of their moves, the ISOs split. She observed with mild amusement as one veered sharply and quickly passed underneath her on his way to the opposite end of the arena. Glaring after his green light ribbon, the new enforcer returned her attention back to the ISO before her. He was speeding up a coiled ramp, most likely unaware of her proximity. He swirled upwards, gaining momentum. She drew her baton once more. The ISO's cycle forcefully launched into the air and glided over his opponent. She thrust her arm heavenward, a sword present. In a flash of sparks, it wrecked havoc on the delicate mechanisms within the undercarriage of the vehicle. The cycle disintegrated, causing the stunned ISO to crash awkwardly onto the ground and slide a little ways away. Now, he was hopeless. His partner, the Bostrumite, was too far away to aid him, and Xana was already rounding on him. She aimed the tip of the blade at his back and accelerated, grinning as she saw him scramble to his feet and run. Her sword skewed the fleeing ISO and the stadium roared.
"Now," glittering white remnants of the ISO dripped off of her sword as it withdrew, "for the Bostrumite."
The last combatant sped away at full-speed with Xana hard on his trail. With her light cycle possessing twice the maximum speed capabilities of her opponent, it didn't take long before she'd gained on him. The audience grew louder, cheering her on as the new enforcer prepared for the final kill. She'd done it. Every deresolution effortlessly executed. She appeared invincible, immaculate to the world watching her. Perfect.
The Bostrumite glanced back at her. She grinned wildly, still drawing nearer. He held her gaze almost purposefully. One would think that in the final nanos of a program's life, he would betray his innermost feelings of fear or grief, pray to the Users for his death to be a swift one. Conversely, he bore a sort of sneering anger. He hated her for using them all as fodder, for arranging their execution into a show, for planning to kill him, the lower-caste ISO, last. Xana flinched, ignoring it. She dreamily regained her glory and charged.
Suddenly, the stadium filled with screams. Chilling shrieks of fear rose from the direction behind the last combatants and grew louder. Bursts of energy flanked her. The rear of her cycle was hit before she could compute anything. It derezzed immediately, sending her sprawling until she hit the floor. The crowds collectively reeled back, howling in horror. Pain dazed her receptors as fragmenting sections of the light cycle whisked past and collided with her, snapping off parts of her cracked and battered helmet. She wrenched the remainder off, disgusted with her failure, and staggered to her feet to look skyward. A light jet producing a cyan ribbon glided ahead of her. Frantic swarming within the palisades of the arena bemused her. She raised a hand to an eye and could only feel the flaking of deadened pixels. Something hurdled over the protective glass barrier; the flash of two new cycles confirmed it. They set off immediately, one darting off to the Bostrumite, the other warily trailing behind.
"Illegal combatants on the Grid. Illegal combatants on the Grid…" Their presence was yet another violation. Cringing, she drew her second baton, ready to generate her light cycle. Overhead, the jet was returning for a second strike.
The computer's monotone echo reached her. "What?" she seethed. Her anger faltered, glare widening. All at once, she realized what protocol implied would come next. Her circuits almost crashed with apprehension. "No, I can finish this myself…"
Beyond the oncoming jet, something was rising over the edge of the stadium's rim. The transparent floors shuddered with the approaching engines of a team of Black Guards lead by Rinzler. Xana glimpsed their fading light ribbons as they passed beneath her in the midlevel. "No," she snarled, rezzing her cycle and hurtling after them. "No!"
Her helmet would not regenerate; she cursed it as the jet dove. Shots lit up ahead. She snaked around them, narrowly missing each blast. Aerial assailant behind her, Xana could not tear her focus away from the flash of azure creeping over the stadium. An usurped recognizer hovered over the highest palisades, directly ahead of the Bostrumite. The ISO and his consorts advanced towards their transport with great speed. She could only make out a single figure aboard the craft, but his form was unmistakable.
Rinzler's team exited the midlevel together as they neared the escaping trio. As Xana crept ever closer, the program backing up their rear selflessly slowed to engage the guards. She watched as he tossed back grenades, each of which detonated upon contact with ground or guard. With two of the military programs scrapped, the remaining two closed in on the aggressor. Before anything could progress, Rinzler launched off of a ramp from the midlevel, appearing just to the side of his assistants, and veered towards the enemy with his light ribbon blazing. The program burst with energy, and the enforcer's team rushed toward their next targets. But Xana was pulling up behind, a cruel ache for reprisal in her single eye. Falling into pace beside one of the guards, she extended her arm to indicate the light jet gaining overhead. He nodded dutifully and slowed to switch vehicles, and ascended to confront the light jet. The ISO drew her blade. Despite it being a fatal flaw, the latter sentry beside her gave little notice because of her superiority over him and derezzed from the weapon plunging into his helmet.
Further on, the recognizer had landed at the end of the arena, awaiting its precious cargo as it skirted death. The Bostrumite had made it. He collapsed his light cycle and boarded the towering vehicle as its engines stirred. The program—his circuits exhibiting a familiar hue—that had traveled with him exchanged his cycle for a light jet to aid his airborne cohort. The Black Guard had already been dealt with, so the two jets assumed formation and dove for the enforcers. Their salvos was difficult for even Rinzler to evade, and with reluctance, he too took to the air to challenge the duo. Xana couldn't have been more grateful.
The hijacked recognizer began its slow ascent. In that instant, the enforcer withdrew her cycle and leapt, arms outstretched. She nimbly latched onto the edge of the lower deck as it rose to the top of the pylons. The engines thrust the vehicle higher, threatening to force her off. Gathering her strength, the ISO pulled her upper torso up over the ledge.
"You've come a long way, Xana."
Dread swept through her system. Dangling from the recognizer's deck, she wasn't in any position to defend herself, and there wasn't a doubt that the cloaked program before her wouldn't abuse the opportunity.
"Get away," she grunted, adjusting her grip as she extended an arm, baton in hand. To risk rezzing a sword at this point was rather undesirable. "Give me the Bostrumite."
"I'm afraid I can't do that," he answered through a grin, "But, Theo does have something to say to you…"
The reinforced toe of a boot connected with the burnt socket of her wounded eye. Crimson circuits flickering, she'd nearly fainted. "You craven, glitching…" The dithered Bostrumite's growls faded before he brought his foot down on her outstretched hand. The enforcer let out a strained shriek, bits of coding still crumbling out of the side of her face. "You're the bane of all ISOs."
She caught her breath as he stepped away. The coding within her hand obviously broken, she was even more vulnerable now. The cloaked program kneeled down beside her, his bright eyes searching her twisted visage.
"I've given you so many chances, but you've gone too far this time. Your actions may never be exonerated." There was something like regret in his voice, but as he took her baton, she grit her teeth. "You will be culled from the Grid, along with your superiors, in due time. The rebellion has only just begun."
"Graft…" Xana wheezed, her head whirling. He generated a dagger and brought it down on her uninjured arm. The blade broke through her coding, shattering it. "Graft!"
Her failing body tumbling through a dark sky, Xana's only concern was what Clu would think of her.