Part of the Ram, Expanded series
Summary: There's a new program in the cells, Tron is being run ragged, Sark deserves a disk to the face, and Ram loves Jai Alai. Just another microcycle in the pit.
A/N: Enjoy the schmoop while it lasts, folks, angst is SOON. Some dialogue paraphrased from the novelisation.
"Video Game Unit #18. In here, program."
"Hey, who're you calling 'program,' program - oof!"
"New guy," Ram said glumly, barely glancing over his shoulder as the guards shoved a fresh conscript into the empty cell next to him. Crom had been transferred microcycles ago and had never returned; Ram hoped that this replacement didn't mean the compound interest program had been derezzed so soon, but it wouldn't have surprised him.
In the adjacent cell, Tron sighed quietly. When Ram looked up, the security program's head was tilted back, resting against the support strut nearest the barrier between their cells. His eyes were trained on the ceiling, tracking the movements of the guards almost on reflex, but his gaze was empty and unfocused.
"Another free program offline," Tron muttered. Ram cringed at the note of resigned anger and exhaustion in his friend's voice. They had been running Tron through games almost constantly for the past couple of microcycles without a chance to rest. This was the longest Ram had seen him off-grid in some time. And it wasn't just the games that were wearing Tron down; isolation and confinement too were taking their toll. Ram could spot the signs easily after so long captive himself. There was a strained look around Tron's eyes, a sign of processor ache as his systems tried to work around the functions that had been locked by the MCP. It was a feeling Ram knew all too well.
"You should try to sleep," he suggested, worry for his friend's functionality.
"Want to. Can't; another round in 20 nanocycles," Tron shut his eyes with a groan. "Sark seems especially determined to break me, this cycle."
"All the more reason to catch some shuteye. I'll keep watch, don't worry." Tron didn't open his eyes, but he rumbled noncommittally. Ram took it as acquiescence and hoped the monitor's silence was a sign he was trying to hibernate.
It seemed to be a futile gesture, however, for Tron's eyes were open again within picocycles, back to staring at the ceiling. The security program made a quiet, desperate noise that made Ram's core ache to smash his disk right into Sark's beaky nose. It would give Tron a break, at the least, and it would give Ram quite a bit of satisfaction. He savoured the thought for a moment, before he turned his attention to rousing Tron's spirits.
"Do you really think the Users are still there?" The question was one Ram had posed many times once they'd been isolated. It had become a routine, whenever one of them was feeling especially despondent about their situation. One would ask, and the other would nod and come up with a story. Usually it was Ram who asked, seeking comfort, and Tron's reply would be strong and determined. This time, though…
Tron sighed. "They'd better be," The bleakness in his tone made something cold and hard coil in the back of Ram's energy cells. "I don't want to bust out of here and find nothing but a lot of cold circuits waiting for me."
"Don't talk like that," Ram pleaded quietly. "Happy thoughts, remember?" Tron looked over at him through the barrier for a moment; then he nodded, rubbing the bridge of his nose with a weary sigh.
"I'm sorry, Ram, it's just been a long microcycle."
"It's been a long millicycle," Ram noted, a small, sad smile coaxing the corners of his lips up. Tron mirrored the gesture.
"Been a long cycle," came the next progression of their joke. Ram smiled and rested his temple against the same support strut, as close as he could get, and pinged across an emotion-zip of /hugs-thanks-keepontruckin' and a few other phrases about silver linings and cloudy skies that he'd picked up from insurance. The User-idioms made Tron roll his eyes and chuckle.
"Hey! Who are you guys?"
The unfamiliar voice drew both Ram and Tron's attention in time to watch the new guy walk into the barrier and immediately flinch back, swearing profusely. Tron hissed through his teeth and Ram winced sympathetically, a wry smirk on his lips. He pinged a last /newbies-hopeless-backlater to his friend, twirling his disk between his fingers as he turned his focus to their new neighbour.
"You wanna watch those force fields. There'll be plenty of chances to get hurt, don't worry about that."
The new program was still rubbing the place he'd been zapped with a grimace, as if the contact could sooth the electrostatic sting away. He looked up at Ram's remark.
"Figured that out for myself, thanks," he remarked sarcastically, inspecting his circuits a final time for damage and straightening up. Ram watched as he stared around his cell, then up through the ceiling, with an expression of wide-eyed awe, and the actuary frowned slightly. If he didn't know better, Ram might've almost thought the new guy had never seen circuits before, let alone a system grid.
The stranger looked back down and caught Ram's eye through the force field, and Ram tilted his head.
"Look," his neighbour began, hands on his hips and a note of disbelief and incredulity in his tone, "just so I can tell my friends what this dream was about – okay? -" and that made Ram blink in confusion, "where am I?"
Ram regarded the conscript with a peculiar stare. The program's posture and the way he held himself were odd; he'd never seen any program look so relaxed in the pit cells, especially a new arrival. And the pattern of his language subroutines was strange as well – he didn't speak like any program Ram had ever heard before. Yet at the same time, the words sounded almost familiar. Ram frowned, trying to access old memory files in search of an explanation, and turned his disk in his hands, pushing off the wall and ambling across his cell.
"You're a…" he paused, trying to be delicate, and licked his lips, letting himself rock sideways to rest his shoulder against the cell wall beside the barrier. "guest…of the Master Control Program."
The words didn't prompt the reaction Ram was expecting – the newbie looked confused, almost sceptical. Ram pressed onward, slightly concerned now that his new neighbour was showing signs of memory glitches. "They're gonna make you play video games."
That got him a laugh, and the program looked relieved, of all things. "Well hey, no sweat. I play video games better than anybody." He smiled and hooked his hands into his tunic belt, resuming a study of his cell.
Ram gave a disbelieving laugh and glanced over his shoulder at Tron, who had been listening in. /listentothisguy. Tron raised an eyebrow in response, and Ram shrugged, pinging /glitchedmaybe-rattledprocessor. Tron tilted his head and returned a /cocky-wontlast-shame.
A sharp rap on each of their cells' ceilings drew all three programs' eyes upwards and Ram sneered at the guard through the transparent shield.
~This one to indoctrination,~ the guard was ordering in binary, indicating the newcomer. ~Jai Alai,~ indicating Ram. Ram rolled his eyes; joy. Jai Alai was laughably easy for the actuary and held none of the excitement that came with lightcycles or - ~Disk Wars.~ The last was directed at Tron. Ram caught Tron's fingers in his own as they were shuffled out of the cells, using the brief contact to send a direct ping of /goodluck-knockemdead-comebacksafe. He got a brief squeeze in return, before they were marched off in different directions.
Behind him, Ram could hear the newer conscript finally start arguing with the guards, his protests of "There's been a mistake, I gotta see the guy in charge" growing fainter as he was led away. The guards' response was inaudible. Ram sighed.
Just another micro in the pit.