Part of the Ram, Expanded series
Summary: Ram took more damage than was shown, and Kevin tries to be a hero, but fails.
Warnings: Character injury/death. Massive tissue requirement. I went through a box just writing this.
A/N: For Expositionfairy, awesome beta and fellow obscurecharacterfeels sorrow vampire.
Kevin returned to awareness feeling like he'd been run over by a truck.
"A'gh, god." An extremely large truck, carrying a full trailer of lead bars. He groaned as he shifted, gingerly testing his extremities before pushing himself up.
Goddamn tanks. He really regretted writing so many of them. Them, and the Recognizers; not for the first time, Kevin regretted ever using the company computers to write his video games. If he hadn't, the MCP never would've gotten its slimy claws on his designs.
The path they had been traversing with their lightcycles had been blown to so many chunks of unrecognizable, impassable rubble. Of the cycles themselves, there was no sign; Kevin supposed they'd been derezzed or deactivated, like they had when he'd released the bar after their earlier harrowing escape. The User winced as he climbed to his feet, turning in a circle to get the layout of the land.
He froze when he spotted one of his companions, lying motionless among the debris.
"Ram!" He scrambled over, heaving pixilated stones off the program's inert body. "Ram!" The actuary conscript didn't look so good. There was a darkened pallor to his cheeks, and the circuits that had burned bright blue with the power at the spring earlier now shone dimly, flickering like a light bulb on a bad line.
The roar of an approaching tank shook Kevin from his examination. This wasn't the time or place to do triage. Wincing as his own pummelled muscles protested, he hooked his arms under Ram's and began to drag the unconscious program towards the shelter of the shadows. Squeezing both himself and his injured friend into a narrow crag, Flynn waited and watched, barely daring to breathe as the tank rolled menacingly past the scene of the crash, treads crushing chunks of landscape into gravel. The sight made the human shudder with mild horror; if he'd been a minute later to wake up, that could've been him and Ram.
The minutes ticked by agonizingly slow before the patrols moved on their way. Kevin released a long-held sigh of relief and glanced down at the program in his arms.
"Hang in there, Ram," he muttered. It worried him greatly that the program had yet to wake up, or reboot, or whatever it was that comatose programs needed to regain consciousness after being struck cold by cannon fire. He risked a glance out of their hidey-hole. No patrols, but it didn't mean they were free and clear. He needed to get them both somewhere safer. Decision made, he hefted Ram into a fireman's carry across his shoulders and set off.
'Safer' turned out to be a bunker of sorts, or at least something resembling a bunker, surrounded and half-buried in more rubble. Kevin perked up as he spotted it, stumbling slightly as he picked his way over the rocks. A low groan in his ear alerted him to Ram's slow return to consciousness.
"Just a bit further, Ram, just finding a place to rest," the User said, uncertain if his passenger was alert enough to hear him or not, and he climbed awkwardly up over the lip of the bunker's open wall. Inside, it seemed more like the flight deck off of some sci-fi star ship. Kevin slung Ram off his shoulders and carefully positioned him to rest on the sloped floor, collapsing beside him to catch his breath.
Ram gave a quiet moan; head shifting back and forth as he fought his way back to consciousness, and circuit-blue eyes flickered open. Kevin beamed down at him in relief.
"Hey, man, welcome back to the land of the living; I was worried for a second."
The corner of the program's mouth twitched in a small smile, then turned into a grimace. "What hit us?"
"Tank," Kevin growled. "Cannon fire caught the cliff, sent it crashing down on us. No idea where our lightcycles went."
Ram opened his eyes, bright with anxiety. "Tron?"
Kevin felt his heart sink. "Also no idea. He was ahead of us; he might've escaped the rock fall. I didn't see him or his bike when I woke up." Ram didn't look enthused by this response, and tried to sit up, looking as though he were about to insist they go find their missing counterpart. He didn't get far, barely an inch before he let out a strangled gasp and collapsed back, clutching his ribs. Did programs have ribs?
"Whoa, man, take it easy. I'm sure Tron's alright." Kevin laid a hand on the program's shoulder. "You, on the other hand, look like crap."
"What's…crap?" the actuary panted, looking puzzled as he caught his breath. The human blinked, then laughed sheepishly.
"Ah, it means you look like something fished out of a bit recycler. Can you do a self-diagnostic or something?"
Do a self-diagnosis. Sure, Ram could do that. He grimaced again as he let his eyes rest on the ceiling of the – Users, was this a Recognizer? He stared for a moment, glancing around.
"Why are we on a Recognizer command deck?"
"Is that what this is?" Flynn looked up and around as well, studying their shelter with curiosity. "Man, I didn't know. I thought it was a bunker of some sort. Must've crashed or something; the rest of the pieces are buried in rubble."
Ram couldn't help but laugh at that, and immediately regretted it. He groaned and clutched his torso. "Somehow, I'm not surprised." Flynn seemed like the kind of program to take shelter inside a copy of the very thing that was crash-bent on blasting them into so many bits. The actuary returned his gaze to the ceiling, turning his attention inward to his diagnostic routines. What they returned to his query was not good.
"Diagnosis…ah… power supplies showing a massive drain, but pinpoint sensors are offline." That was a chilling thought, he realized; if he hadn't charged up at the spring, he probably would've derezzed nanocycles ago. "Self-repair systems are damaged. Definitely got some structural pixels knocked loose." He moved a little and grimaced, feeling more than hearing the grind of broken torso blocks as they shifted beneath his shell. The sharp spike of pain deserved a heartfelt swear. "Ahgh, Users delete it."
"I could'a told you not to move with broken ribs," Flynn pointed out in an amused, yet very concerned tone.
"Funny." What were ribs? Ram winced as he returned to his diagnostics. He couldn't help his tone from growing bleaker as he read off the damage list. Concussion fractures to 60-percent of his armour. Broken structural pixels in his chest and leg. Unexplained power drain. Tactile sensors overloading – well, he didn't need his diagnostics to tell him that. The whole of his left side felt like someone was jabbing a charged lightstaff into it, and twisting for good measure.
Flynn's expression as he recited the query return was growing more and more grim. The other program got to his feet and started pacing the small length of the Reco's deck. As Ram finished the list, so did Flynn, stopping with his back turned and head bowed for a moment.
"That's not a good list, is it," he said more than asked. Ram didn't answer. He had no illusions of his chances; he was an actuary at core. The odds came to him as natural as processing energy.
The other program's circuits flared a brilliant white and he let out a frustrated cry of "Damnit!" slamming the side of his fist against the wall of the Recognizer's hull.
Which then lit up, circuits flashing with the same pure light as the energy pulsed out from Flynn's point of contact.
Ram's eyes went wide in shock. Flynn stumbled away from the wall, staring at his own hand like it had turned into a gridbug and bitten him. Around them, the Reco attempted its start-up sequence, and a low thrum began, accompanied by quiet beeping as instruments fed on the power that had been forced into them.
"What in the name of the Users…?" Ram wondered in awe, gaping at his companion. Flynn looked completely baffled and more than a little spooked as he sat down next to the actuary, but there was a considering gleam to his eyes as he flexed his digits and stared at the illuminated flight deck.
"I haven't the faintest idea, man." The Reco began to power down again, the brief surge of energy spent, leaving them both in the dark. In the shadows cast by their own circuits, Flynn looked thoughtful.
"I wonder…" he trailed off, tracing a few of the circuits on his palm, then looked at Ram. "Hey, trust me for a second? I want to try something."
Ram's brow furrowed, puzzled, but he shrugged and nodded slightly. "Sure, go right ahead." He wasn't sure what Flynn had in mind, but he'd grown to like his odd fellow conscript.
Flynn worried the tip of his tongue between his teeth for a moment, then reached out a hand and pressed it to Ram's chest. The program cut off a cry as the touch put pressure on already painful areas. Flynn grimaced. "Sorry Ram. Hang on just a little bit." His brow furrowed in concentration.
And then, oh. OH. Ram let out another gasp, as Flynn's circuits flared white again, and a surge of power pulsed through the actuary's pathways, washing over the sensory spikes and muting them almost to nonexistence. He felt as though he'd been dipped head-to-toe in warm, pure energy. His own circuits brightened and strengthened, shining brilliantly blue, just as they had when he'd drunk more than his fill from the pool they'd found. Energy discharge gathered at the edges of the actuary's eyes; it was better than anything he'd ever felt, even before he'd been caught by the MCP.
"F...Flynn…how…" he opened his eyes to meet the other program's gaze, only to find that Flynn didn't look as joyful as Ram felt. He was grimacing, actually, his hopeful look gradually turning more despondent. Eventually he had to stop, the light of his circuits dying to a dimmer glow as he breathed deeply from his exertion, hand still resting on Ram's chest.
"I'm sorry Ram. It won't take." The despair on his friend's face was heavy. Ram was about to ask what, but he could feel it; the energy Flynn had given him was already starting to drain away, sensors flaring again, circuits dimming as the power was lost, far too quickly. His storage cells weren't storing at all. "I think there's damage under the armour we can't see. Can you remove that stuff?"
"Well, yeah. You think an actuarial program needs this kind of stuff on downtime?" Ram chuckled, still a bit lightheaded. He tried lifting a hand, but the movement sent a slice of agony down his side and he sucked in a sharp breath. "Ow, okay, bad idea. You do it. Helmet off first, please; I'm sick of this thing."
"Sure thing." Flynn reached up to slide the bulky helmet off of the grid warrior's head. Ram sighed in relief as he gave his head a shake, feeling his curls bounce free against his head. The cool air felt good.
"Whoof, that's better. Those things are way too heavy. Useful, but a pain in the neck diodes." He gave a short laugh, then attempted to deactivate the locks on his chest armour, hissing as he moved.
"Don't worry man, I'll get it." Flynn leaned over him, pausing to study the program's face. Ram peered up at him curiously. After a minute, the strange program seemed to realize he was staring, and shook himself. "You've got circuits on your skin, dude. I didn't realize they were underneath the armour too."
This earned him a puzzled look. "Some of it is armour-only, but most of them the armour just reflects from our shells, while providing slightly less sensory input in combat so we don't overload our tactile receptors and derezz in 5 millicycles," Ram explained slowly. How could Flynn not know this? "I think it's the MCP's idea of a sadistic j-ooow."
"Sorry," Flynn grimaced. He'd accidently jostled a painful spot trying to deactivate an attach-point. Sighing, Ram directed him on the proper way to detach them. The shoulder pads went first, tossed aside, then Flynn set to work on the torso piece. Gingerly, he lifted it away – and the expression on his face turned to revolted horror.
"That bad, huh?" Ram said, weakly, trying for levity and failing. He couldn't see what Flynn could see – didn't want to, but he could guess. He'd seen enough programs injured in the Games, some of them by his own hand, to know what he probably looked like. The circuits on his skin would be brighter and redder the closer they got to the wound he knew he had, and the edges would probably be shedding pixels in earnest now that the armour was no longer keeping it relatively intact. A slow deresolution was never pretty.
Ram had made it a point to make all his kills clean, after that.
"That BAD? Ram, you've got a goddamned chunk ripped out of your side!" Flynn looked nauseous, discarding the forgotten armour and pressing a hand over the wound. It elicited a sharp noise of protest and agony from the actuary, which was soothed away as more of that unusual but delicious warmth began flowing around the damaged area. Ram closed his eyes.
"Ram? Ram, hey, stay with me buddy!" The program opened his eyes to Flynn's frantic countenance.
"It's alright, Flynn," he said, reaching up to pat the other Program's hand with a weak smile. "I'm just tired. I don't think whatever you're doing is working. But it feels a whole lot better than, y'know, stabbing agony. Thank you." Flynn sat back with a look of utter despair and self-loathing on his face.
"Save your energy. You're gonna need it later." Ram squeezed the hand beneath his fingers and sighed unevenly. "I always thought I'd go out in a blaze of glory in the Games. I guess the Users just have a different plan for me."
But Flynn was shaking his head vigorously now, looking frustrated. "No, man, no way. This is all the MCP's goddamn fault. This is…-the Users have nothing to do with this, man. We don't…they don't even…you talk like the Users are some all-powerful deity. They're not. We're not." He sighed, his shoulders slumping as he leaned against the wall. Ram stared at him. His outburst was understandable, considering the situation, but his words…
"You…you keep saying, 'we'." He pointed out quietly, confused. "What do you…do you mean…Flynn…are…are you a User?"
Flynn, head still bowed, nodded quietly and gave Ram a miserable smile. "Guilty as charged, man." While Ram was still in shock over that admission, he ran a hand over his face and sighed. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to…I wish we were all-powerful, or all-knowing. Maybe I'd be more than useless right now. But we're not." He sighed again and smiled sadly. "We're just like programs, really. We make mistakes. Most of us don't even know that all this…" he waved a hand at their surroundings, "…exists. I'm only here because of the high-and-mighty Master Control Program. And Lora's laser system. We were trying to hack in, get some proof that Dillinger stole my game designs. And Alan was trying to free Tron and shut down the MCP."
Ram listened, sure that his eyes could not grow any larger as the program – no, the User sitting next to him spoke of the outside world. Dillinger wasn't a name he knew, or Lora, but Alan…Alan was definitely familiar. Tron had spoken of him enough times in the cells.
"Alan-One…" he murmured, awestruck. "You know Tron's User?"
Flynn nodded. "Yeah. Alan Bradley. I used to work with him, till I got sacked."
Ram wasn't sure what 'sacked' meant, but a flare of nervous wonder blossomed as he asked, timidly, "Did you…know my User?"
Flynn tilted his head, frowning as he studied Ram's face for a moment. "I might. I'm a little bad with faces. What's your User's name?"
"R_Kleinberg7," Ram said, then shuddered quietly, clenching Flynn's hand as a subroutine glitch wracked his system with a tremor. Flynn gripped his hand as the tremor passed, looking thoughtful. After a moment, he shifted closer, lifting Ram's head with a murmured apology. Ram didn't mind; the leg that replaced the hard Recognizer floor was much more comfortable.
"Kleinberg, Kleinberg…R- Kleinberg…wait a sec. There's a Roy Kleinberg who sits the cubical next to Alan, I think. I've not met him personally, but I know of him. He writes good code. Adaptable, full of clever tricks." Flynn looked down at him, resting a hand in Ram's hair and gently stroking it. It felt nice. "Just when you think you know what one of his programs is gonna do, it surprises you."
Another shiver wracked Ram's frame. He licked his lips, suddenly very thirsty. Oh how he wished he were back at that energy spring. "I…I never got to finish the last task he gave me, before the recompile was interrupted." His brow furrowed slightly, a look of almost childish frustration crossing his features. "Head's a bit foggy. I…can't remember what it was. But I know it was very important."
"I'm sure he'd understand." Flynn's voice had gone funny. Something wet dripped down onto Ram's forehead, followed by the soft brush of a thumb. "Sorry. Didn't mean to cry on you."
"S'alright," Ram said sleepily, closing his eyes. Despite the pain in his side, he was starting to feel comfortably buoyant. Kinda like a Bit, bobbing around in the air, making silly Yes/No noises. He giggled, though it sounded more like a puff of air than a laugh. "M' glad I met you, Flynn. Wish I could've met him. Would he like me, you think?"
"He'd be thrilled with you," the User said, choking back tears as he gazed down at the program. "He'd be the proudest damn programmer in the world, I know it." His gaze flickered to Ram's torso. The harsh red lines radiating outward from the wound had spread like cracks over porcelain, bisecting the cool blue of the circuits that decorated Ram's chest.
"Could you tell him I'm sorry?"
"Sure, kid." There was nothing to be sorry for. "I'll tell him."
"What's the User world like?" Ram's voice was almost too quiet to pick up. Kevin's voice hitched as he breathed in, stroking his hand through the pale-coloured locks.
"It's…uh…well, it's big. There are a lot of people there. Not all of us are Users by your definition, I think, not like Roy and Alan and I. We call the Users who write programs like you, well, Programmers. Or Code Monkeys; it's a term of endearment." Ram made a soft noise of contentment and smiled. "There's grass, which is green and soft to walk on. And the sky is blue, a very light blue. But depending on the weather and time of day, it can be gray, or orange, or purple, or even black."
Ram's breathing had slowed. Kevin couldn't tear his eyes away as the cracks began multiplying exponentially, and his throat was dry and tight as he kept talking. "Then there's the sun. It's what keeps the User world alive. It shines in the sky during the day, making everything warm and bright. It's…radiant. Beautiful."
There was a low, barely audible sound as the program's blue circuits flickered weakly once, twice, then faded completely. Without power, the wound began rapidly destabilizing outwards, crumbling to pixels, turning to dust beneath Kevin's fingers before fading completely, absorbed back into the system.
Tears rolled in earnest down Kevin's cheeks, and he leaned back against the wall, breathing a harsh sob towards the darkened, empty space. "Goodbye Ram."
After a moment, he leaned his head forward and buried his head in his knees, grieving in silence for the program he'd hardly known, but had already come to view as a friend.
Much later, eyes red but mercifully dry, Kevin stood at the helm of the Recognizer's controls, glaring at them with grim intensity.
"Alright," he growled, "time for some real User Power."
His circuits flared white; he reached forward, grasping the controls. The wall circuits and instrument panels around him lit up, humming with power. The room jolted beneath his feet as the flight deck began to levitate from its gravesite, and with another push of power, he saw the rest of the Reco's damaged pieces rise to join the body.
Kevin smiled, setting his sights on the I/O tower. If Tron had survived and kept going, then that's where he'd be headed. And if he hadn't…well then, Kevin would just have to contact Bradley himself, somehow, and wreak the kind of terrific chaos only a User could bestow upon the MCP.
For Tron, and for Ram.