Warnings: graphic torture, language, and mentioned suicidal thoughts.
"I suppose you thought you were being very clever, program," Sark sneered from his position on the dais, looming over the decompiler.
The program strapped into its bindings huffed weakly, not even bothering to lift his head and give Sark the satisfaction of his full attention. He was too exhausted. In the wake of their failed rebellion, Ram had been certain he would be taken to the MCP himself, or derezzed immediately with great prejudice. Being brought to Sark, though, was in this moment the worse fate. He had no concept of how long he'd been under Sark's inquisition, but it felt like cycles.
Obviously, his silence wasn't what Command Program Sark wanted. The helmeted enforcer scowled and gestured to one of his null-unit enforcers. Immediately, a surge of electricity sizzled through the bindings. Ram's head slammed back against the rack, jaw clenched in agony as his circuits flickered crimson. Warnings and error messages flashed behind his eyelids, informing him of impending system failure.
He refused to scream. Screaming was what Sark wanted. And Ram was afraid that if he started screaming, he would never be able to stop.
"Did you actually think you could accomplish something, conscript? All your little rebellion achieved was the deresolution of your own allies. Sixty of your fellow believers: nothing more than dust and static. How does it feel, knowing you were the reason behind their deaths?"
"I dunno, Sark, how does it feel?" Ram rasped, tilting his head to fix a cocky stare on the Commander's blurry silhouette. Taunting him was a better proposition than letting himself dwell on things like casualty figures. "I think we gave as well as we got. How many of your guards did we derezz before you took us down, huh? How badly's the MCP gonna siphon your power cycles for that show of incompetence?"
Another surge of excruciating agony shocked through Ram's systems, tearing a gasp from his throat. He slumped in his bindings, panting heavily as it cut off.
"You insignificant glitch, you're nothing. You don't have the functions or skills to have pulled this off on your own. Tell me who helped you take out the generators. Was it Tron?"
"Go interface with a lightcycle baton."
"Tell me or I will derezz you pixel by pixel!"
~FUCK you and the User who wrote your shoddy code. ~ Oh, that was interesting. He'd never tried that particular User insult before, but Sark's circuits blazed incandescent with outrage. He'd obviously hit a nerve. Ram had a moment to smirk before the next round of torture, and then his world shrunk to a pinprick of sensation and that sensation was pain.
"Strike a nerve there, did I Sark?" he gasped, trembling in his bonds. "Better watch out the MCP doesn't find out you're still a believer. You'd be in the trash bin faster than you could compute two-plus-two."
"I could take you apart down to your binary roots right now, you impudent calculator."
"So why don't you?" Ram shot back, laughing with code-deep weariness. "There's nothing stopping you."
Sark's circuits flared again, and his face contorted into a snarling rictus. For a moment, Ram was certain he would follow through, slam his hand down on the controls and erase Ram from existence. But then, perhaps more unsettlingly, Sark relaxed and smirked down at the actuary.
"I could. But I have a better torment for you, conscript. You will tell me what I want to know, and I will allow you a quick death. Keep resisting, and I will run you in the games without rest until you die."
As threats went, it wasn't a very good one. Ram felt sure his continued existence was probably the MCP's orders. He would be in the games no matter what he chose. "Is that what you did with Tron?"
Sark sneered. "Do you admit that he rendered assistance to you in formatting your failed rebellion?"
Ram glared. "I'm not admitting null-bits. Where's Tron?"
"Your loyalty to that waste of processing speed is admirable, but useless."
"Better him than the MCP."
"How did you bypass the restrictions on your disk?"
"How do you stay upright?"
The question seemed to throw Sark for a picocycle. Ram took the opening greedily. "Who needs a helmet that big, anyways? I mean, are you overcompensating for something? What's with the horns? And the v-line clusters? It's practically pointing out you haven't gotten a decent interface in EVER. Or are your preferences so data-blind they need directions?"
"There once was a program named Sark, who thought only of making his mark…" Ram choked off a howl of agony as a burst of electricity interrupted his recital. He giggled breathlessly as it passed, licking cracked lips as he croaked, "'I'll get a helmet,' he said, 'that's too big for my head…'" Another jolt and he felt the bitter, copper taste of used energy wash across his tongue as he bit it in his convulsions. He spat, the glowing liquid splashing across the floor, and grinned up at Sark. "Now his processor's always in the dark."
When he'd told that limerick to Tron, once, Tron had given him a half-amused, half-disturbed look and told him in no plainer words, "That's horrible, Ram."
Ram had shrugged and grinned, replying, "Eh, it sounds better in binary."
Sark was no more enthused about it than Tron had been, and grimaced in anger as he jabbed the controls again, flooding Ram's processors into system overload. The last thing Ram was aware of was the crackle of energy, before things went blissfully black.
After that, Sark made good on his promise to run Ram into the ground. Ram lost track of how many matches he fought, one after another, each victory barely escaping with his life. He fought guards and Basics, Reds and other believers until they all bled together. The only respite he was given was during downtime, when the whole system rested.
He never returned to the communal pit compound. Isolation, Sark had decreed, would prevent him and other radical dissidents from influencing the more malleable programs' wills. The first microcycle after the decompiler, he'd woken up alone, in a partition cell that was hardly big enough to stretch out in, his injuries crudely repaired and several more of his functions locked down.
It wasn't true isolation. The individual cells were completely enclosed on all sides, even the ceiling, but the walls were divided by transparent force fields that delivered a painful shock and temporary circuit burns if one happened to bump into them.
There was a new face waiting in one neighbouring cell or the other every time Ram returned exhausted and worn down. If he'd been more his old self, he probably would've been more friendly towards them. As it was, he tried his best to ignore them and their concern for his ragged state. The odds were too high that they would be the next face he saw across from him in Disk Wars or Jai Alai to allow him the risk of getting closer.
If he didn't know their names or designations, it made it easier.
Slowly, microcycle by microcycle, Sark was keeping his word. Ram was breaking. His circuits never wavered from blue – no, he had absolute faith in User-R_Kleinberg7, no matter what they did to him now – but his spirit was as cracked and brittle as his armour after the worst of micros.
When he returned to his cell the next downtime, he didn't even bother to look at his new neighbours before he collapsed on the shelf his jailers laughingly called a cot. With his disk hanging limply from outstretched fingers, he tucked his legs up to his chest and buried his face in his knees, exhaling a ragged sigh.
Ram's head shot up at the astonished, profoundly relieved exclamation. He had to blink several times, because it looked like Tron was staring at him through the force field of the cell to his right. He shook his head, knocked his temple with a fist in case some visual sensor had glitched and was feeding him data ghosts, and looked again.
Tron was still there, smiling wider than Ram had ever seen, and something tight clenched in Ram's chest. The actuary uncoiled from the cot and managed to stagger over to the wall, leaning heavily on the support strut as he visibly trembled, aching to reach out and touch, to make sure Tron was really there.
"Users, TRON. They told me they derezzed you; delete it, I thought you were dead, what did they do to you, how are you - why are you - Tron, geez, Users' will, I thought you-"
"Reports of my deresolution are highly inaccurate," Tron replied. "I was a guest of the MCP for a while, but it turns out he'd rather break me in the games than derezz me. A quick death would be too good for me, apparently."
Ram laughed, shakily, and sank to the floor, covering his mouth with his hands as his giggles turned desperate. His self-control was already seriously fragile, and the giggles became hitching, half-sobbed gasps as he fought to keep from turning hysterical. Tron sank down to the floor beside him, deeply concerned.
"Frag, Tron, I thought you were dead. They took you away and then Sark got his slimy claws in me and I swear, I have never wanted to sink my disk into someone and feel more pleasure doing it, and all I could think of was that stupid limerick–"
"The one about Sark's helmet? You actually recited that piece of trash?"
Ram nodded, hiccupping. "Yeah. And man, was he ever glitched about it. I also told him to…to go interface with a lightcycle baton."
That earned him a laugh from Tron, but Ram was still shaking, pressing his fists against his mouth. "They wanted me to tell them how I took out the generators. They thought I couldn't have acted alone; they wanted names. But I didn't give anyone up."
"And don't think I won't be chewing you out for that stunt later, you redacted malware. What were you thinking, throwing that much power into your disk? I was afraid you'd derezz right in my arms."
Ram giggled helplessly until his voice broke and became a sob. "I'm sorry Tron. I don't know what I was thinking, I just…I had to do something. Just wish I'd done it sooner. The MCP might not have been able to stop us if I had."
"No, no, don't. It was a good plan. I should've guessed you'd be the perfect program for the job; you're hard-wired to talk people into taking the right steps to secure their own futures." Tron sounded proud for a moment before his tone darkened. "We just didn't have all the variables."
Variables such as the numbers of the MCP's forces, numbers that were disturbing to both of them. Ram made a quiet, hopeless noise and hugged his arms around himself. Tron pressed a hand to the wall between them, encouraging, "we'll find some other way to get out of here, Ram, I promise. We just have to wait for the right opportunity."
Ram shuddered, leaning his head against the support column, and his tone shifted into quiet desperation. "Tron, I don't think I can take much more of this."
It earned him a look of alarm from the other program, but he could only stare at the far wall of his cell. "Every time I step out of a game and come back to this cell, the idea of putting my own disk through my chest seems like a better idea than going back out, not knowing what I'll face. Not knowing whether it'll be one of them, or one of us. I'm not as good as you; I only win by the space of a nanosecond, and then I come back and there's a new face in the cell next to mine that I just know I'll see in the arena the next microcycle. It's killing me, faster than any instant derezz. I can't…I just…I'm sorry." He buried his face in his arms, not wanting to see the desolation on his companion's features at his admission.
~Do you really believe the Users are still there?~
The question startled Ram, especially the formal binary it came in. He looked up to meet Tron's gaze, confused and sad. "What? Of course, I – I still believe – I haven't changed my circuits…"
/irrelevant Tron pinged, looking frustrated. ~Do you really believe the Users are still there?~ There was an odd urgency in his tone.
~Yes,~ Ram returned firmly, frowning.
~Tell me about them.~
Ram's eyes widened at the request. This felt like Tron was asking for more than just the silly tales they had traded in the compound. He stared at Tron, searching the other's face for some sign of corruption or glitching. There was none; Tron stared back, patient and waiting.
Ram licked his lips. ~The Users…the Users, Alan-One and R_Kleinberg7, had found the location of the MCP's server. But their plan was in jeopardy, for the MCP had employed other Users to guard him. Fortunately, Alan-One and R_Kleinberg7 were smarter than the guards. They only needed to wait for downtime, when it would be easy to slip by unnoticed…~
Ram spoke, his voice hoarse and shaking, long into the downtime, crafting tales of their Users as Tron listened. Every so often, Tron would take up the dialogue, when Ram's voice gave out and he could not stop the tremors of his taxed systems. Ram would lean against the wall, listening to Tron's smooth timbre and quietly accepting the emotion-zip pings of /comfort-warmth-safety-calm, until he could relax enough to stop shaking and take up the story again.
It was the first time, and would not be the last, that they did this. As each microcycle passed and each downtime found Ram and Tron still alive and together, the question became routine. They would ask it to seek comfort from the other; to draw each-other out of depression when the cycles became too harsh. It was a way to cope with their situation that kept their spirits strong.
Despite this, however, Ram still distanced himself from the other programs that made the rounds in the empty cell next to his. From his favoured spot sitting against the support column next to the barrier between his and Tron's rooms, he would watch in silence, observing the new conscripts as they rallied, wept, shouted curses at their jailers. Then there were those who lingered in the middle of the cell, dazed and confused, unable to calculate the simple facts that they were prisoners now, and no longer able to perform their functions and duties.
Ram would watch, and wonder if he'd seen them before; if they would be his next opponent. His next victim.
He let his disk spin idly from his hands as the latest conscript was forced in. The newcomer had a novice tunic on over his armour – more and more of them did – and was somewhat out of shape, with a fearful expression. The odds of him surviving long enough to shed that tunic, Ram realised, were extremely low.
Unbidden, his mind wandered to an old memory file: the nameless program from the lightcycle grid, hexes of millicycles long gone. He'd forever regret not learning his designation before he de-resolved.
Maybe he owed it to his memory to make sure that didn't happen again.
"I'd say 'welcome,' friend, but not here. Not like this."
Continues in Systems Check, coming soon.