(This story arose out of some musing on the fact that the Arena and the Grid were still packed with programs after a thousand cycles of... well, you know. Either the population was enormous to begin with, or there was something else going on.)

loop while answer

It always started with this incredible rush. A dizzying disconnect, an unfathomable connection to everything, a sense of compression and being held tightly and shaped by an invisible hand. It was always cold when the hand withdrew, when the light faded and his circuits flickered with the surges of his new life, his body shaking as it adjusted to normal levels of energy. He always stumbled when the sentries prodded him away from the reentry point, no matter how much he tried to remember, to prepare for it.

And the name always came last.

Vint. He straightened his back and squinched his eyes closed, easing back into the feel of his default formatting, a relief after the useless conscript armor they always patched on before killing him. His name was Vint. And it was different this time.

"Move out. This way."

I know, I know.

His jacket was tight again, new, like him; every time he broke it in, it leveled off just a little differently. They were all shuffling into the corridor, all the losers together: some weeping, some panicking, mostly veterans, grim and resigned. A hand latched onto his arm, and he turned quickly in case someone he'd ended wanted to even the score, but it was only Landin, squeaky-clean little Landin who never would have been here if he hadn't stumbled onto their secret meeting nanocycles before the sentries raided it.

"Vint," gasped Landin, shaking in his oversized boots. "Did they just, out there - he got me, I was - why am I still alive?"

"Again," corrected Vint, blinking when Landin's confusion didn't recede. "Again, Landin. Got you again. Alive again." He leaned in, searching the other program's face for deceit or satire; he hadn't thought Landin capable of either one. They weren't there now, either. "It's really not correlating?"

"I - I don't understand."

Vint hadn't thought there was anyone left on the Grid who'd still had a working memory lock. Another Game should break it, though, if this one hadn't; the overrides, imposed to prevent civil unrest, always failed in the end. Incompatible memories were meant to be dumped, not locked away.

He sighed, and patted Landin's shoulder. "You will."

They were herded through the gate and packed in tight little groups along the hall, waiting for further processing. The facilities had never been designed to accommodate so many programs at once. The glut of sentries assigned here were hampered by the lack of space, threading past the former conscripts with glowers and painful shocks ready for anyone who stepped out of line, and Vint took the opportunity to explain things in a low voice whenever they were out of earshot.

"You'll get your disc returned at the door," he added as Landin finally noticed that everyone else's back was bare. "They scan it first: want to make sure there's nothing subversive on it." They made mistakes too. Once they'd given him the wrong one, and he'd spent half a dozen millicycles thinking he was Wilkes.

Landin frowned, and then actually did a double-take as the implications sunk in. "Vint, what I saw in the switch channel-"

"What you saw was just a couple of programs talking," Vint interrupted. Cerf and Raskin, like himself, would have dumped the actual conversation before the guards had touched them. It was why they'd been talking with discs in hand instead of synced and writing; they'd all been caught often enough to take such measures automatically. "I'm not worried."

"I'm sorry. If I hadn't-"

"They might have found us anyway. Landin..." He briefly gripped the other program's arm. "No one blames you."

"We died though." Landin was still haunted. "It's - do you remember? Dying? It felt-"

Like the rest of the system was coming to pieces along with them. Shattering; disassociating; falling apart.

"I remember," Vint interrupted. He caught Landin's eye, shook his head. "You don't want to calculate on it too much. It'll lock you up next time." If there was a next time - but he didn't dare run that scenario in here.

"Oh," whispered Landin, and Vint thought he was about to say something incredibly stupid like "oh, User," right here in the holding pit where all the sensors would pick it up, but he didn't, he just stumbled and shivered and he'd never make it through a series of Games he could actually remember without permanent damage and oh User Vint was sick to decompilation of losing friends.

They'd passed onto a narrow walkway leading toward the debrief area, tight blurred forcefields separating them from the incorrigibles, the ones who were too dangerous to release and too tough to break. Landin would never be on that side, never jostle for space between Pike and Urban and Aurora and the rest. Sometimes Vint hoped he'd make it there. Most of the time, seeing their eyes as one of them derezzed him, he was afraid to.

"This is it," he whispered to Landin as the gateway loomed ahead. "They'll give back your disc and tell you there was some kind of accident and you had to be reformatted. Just agree with them; it's simpler that way. And don't get in touch for a few millicycles. Just in case."

"What if-"

"It'll be all right." The words were innocuous, a simple plaintext that Vint had repeated less and less often over the cycles, but they felt strange this time. The guards led the next batch of programs through the gate, and he closed his eyes briefly as he realized it was because this time, somehow, he meant them.

Outside, he mulled that over, his quick glance around for hostile sentries purely automatic as he finally allowed himself to fully reexperience the battle he'd lost and the discordant voice of the User he'd been so briefly allied with. The User who'd almost reached him - who had reached him - before everything had stopped.

This time it was different.

Landin was nowhere to be seen, and the rest of the conscripts were scattering, headed off to take whatever rejuvenating measures felt called for after being rerezzed. As he turned, though, Raskin's hand fell on his shoulder and Vint gripped his arm in silent welcome. "You too, huh," said the other conscript, and that was expected, because the final rounds were always lethal. But there was something new and daring in Raskin's sharp features as he drew close to whisper into Vint's ear.

"The User. Did he make it?"

The Arena, lit but silent now that the spectators had been sent home, brooded over its emptiness behind them. Or maybe not quite empty - a couple of Recognizers thundered over, converging on the far side of the complex, out of sight. Perhaps something was happening. Perhaps they'd never know. But there was one sure place on the Grid where all information eventually converged, and - just their luck - it was the natural place to go after having a lightcycle fall on your head.

"Who knows," murmured Vint, but for the first time in almost a thousand cycles some of the shadows had left his eyes. "Come along, my friend. I suddenly feel like a pick-me-up. How about you?"

(Notes: The names of the programs here were gleaned from the scoreboards during Sam's Disc Wars and Lightcycle matches. Vint, credited as 'Young Man on Recognizer,' was the young program on the Recognizer who told Sam to be quiet if he wanted to live, and then got derezzed while fighting alongside him as Combatant 1 on Clu's lightcycle grid. Raskin, Wilkes, and Cerf, Combatants 2, 4, and 5 respectively, perished shortly before him. Pike was the first program Sam derezzed in Disc Wars, and Landin and the rest of the programs named in this fic were unseen combatants while that was going on; going by the scoreboard, Landin, like Pike, lost his first round, while Aurora and Urban won theirs. Nothing further is known.)