Fifth Photo: Taken by a Friend

This chapter does not have a corresponding image to go with it, yet!

Ooo-oOo-ooO

The wind swept along the barren rocks at the edge of the sea, ruffling the dark strands of hair that fell across Tron's forehead and into his eyes. Eyes shut, the former system monitor-turned-enforcer (turned-traitor, turned-system-monitor-again) embraced the cool sensation as it brushed against his cheeks. It had been far too may cycles since he had tasted the air; Clu had preferred Rinzler's helmet to remain on, not wanting the reminder of what he had done to his friend facing him each day.

In the wake of the Reintegration, Tron had rebooted alone, washed up on the shores of the Sea without his disks, his circuits once more shining blue. Low on power, he'd made his way to the city with difficulty. With his disks back in his possession, he proceeded to take back the Grid like an avenging angel. The system was his to protect once more, and he had much to answer to for Rinzler's crimes.

He'd found the box at the end of one microcycle, still hidden in the storage file beneath his bed. Clu had never found it, for all he had likely ransacked Tron's quarters after the coup.

He sat out at the edge of the Sea, the box by his side, the photographs illuminated in his fingers by the dim light of his circuitry. They were faded and yellowed, but he handled them like precious, fragile data-growth; they were all he had left of his friends.

Yori, who had integrated herself with the system to keep Clu from accessing the laser controls; her photo was the most worn, from all the cycles Tron had carried it in the old Encom system and on the new Grid, close to his core. Ironically, somewhere along the way, a crease had developed in Tron's half of the photo, bisecting a portion of his face that was a near match to the scarring that still discoloured his jaw and throat.

Alan-One, who Tron had never seen or heard from after transferring to Flynn's Grid; the only sign he had of knowing his User was still out there was a memory of the camera box on Clu's desk, and that had been thousands of cycles past. His was the second-most worn, the edges of his photo cracked and crinkled from where Tron had taken it out in times of uncertainty and asked for the User's advice from beyond the invisible realm. He had never received a reply, but that was all right; he had never expected one.

Flynn and Clu. Two sides of the same coin; their pictures were stored together, hardly touched. Why would Tron have needed Flynn's, with the User constantly there with him? And Tron had never seen Clu's photo before, though he remembered taking it. He stared at his old friend's countenance sadly, wishing he had seen the signs sooner. "What inspired such hatred in you for us, friend?" he muttered softly, brushing a lit fingertip over the angry scowl of Clu's face.

There was one photo missing from his collection. A photo he had never taken, because Ram had derezzed long before Flynn had brought the first camera to the Encom grid. He'd never been able to say goodbye to the program who had stuck by him for all those cycles under the MCP's tyranny. He wished he had gotten that chance.

He was so deeply absorbed in his memories that he didn't register the approach of boots on gravel until another program plopped down right beside Tron, flung an arm around his shoulders, and an overly cheerful voice said "Say Cheese!" A flash of light blinded Tron's optical sensors before he could react; the security program swore, dropping the photos as he closed his eyes and going for his disk on instinct.

The pressure on his shoulders and the presence at his side was gone before he'd lifted his arm an inch, and there was a soft scuffling noise a bit further away. Tron zeroed in on the sound; he didn't need his eyes to see, and raised his disk to cast.

"Whoa, hold on a nanocycle. Everything's fine; no need for disks. Put it away, will ya?"

The voice was calm and level, and infuriatingly familiar, but Tron couldn't place its owner straight away. Against all rational logic, the security monitor lowered his disk, breathing heavily. The tension was thick as remnants of Rinzler growled through Tron's damaged throat, punctuated by the metallic whir of his active disk and the silence of the sea.

"That's better. Gimme a picocycle, just gotta do something –" There was another rustle of movement, and then the quiet sound of tapping. Tron waited. Slowly, his optical circuits reset and began functioning normally, and he turned to look at the interloper who had ambushed him.

He blinked, and had to blink again, and then began running internal diagnostics on his sensors, because they were telling him Ram – RAM – was sitting on a rock near the edge of the cliff, swinging his legs over the ledge and using his thumbs to rapidly code a message onto the touch-screen of a small black device. Task complete, the actuary glanced up at Tron and grinned brightly, as though he'd only been gone picocycles rather than 30 User years. He set the small black device aside and held open his arms, beaming.

"Miss me?"

Tron was absolutely still, staring at him, logic processors running so hard it was starting to hurt. As the silence went on, Ram's smile faded into a look of concern, and he dropped his arms, studying Tron worriedly. "Tron?"

The use of his name shook Tron from his lock-up and he shook his head, pressing a hand to his temple and looking away. "You're not real." He scanned the ground for his lost photos, ignoring the way his logic circuits ached.

"Wow, way to make a program feel wanted," the hallucination remarked, sarcastic, though still with Ram's worried tone copied perfectly. "It really wasn't easy to get here, you know. There I was; trolling through a couple of fanfiction websites just for laughs, when I got this massive data-ping on my private comm. channel and realised someone had activated a major wi-fi signal with a really old Encom password series. I mean, we are talking ancient, here."

The hallucination seemed quite casual as he rambled, waving a hand in the air, though his eyes kept flicking to Tron, who was resolutely trying not to acknowledge the data-ghost his damaged memory circuits were conjuring up.

Tron squeezed his eyes shut; shutting off his disk and re-docking it, he ran another diagnostic scan and continued his search. Had they fluttered over the cliff into the sea?

The Not-Ram was still talking. "And that instantly gets me curious, because hardly anyone uses that sort of long-winded binary these days. So I skip across a few firewall gates that looked in serious need of some User-power, and lo and behold, I find myself in a park somewhere. An honest to glitching park, just like in the photos Roy uploads to me sometimes. Did you know you had a park here, Tron? It's pretty awesome."

"I'm hallucinating," Tron muttered faintly to himself, drawing his hands over his face and running a third set of diagnostics. They kept returning the same results: no errors found, systems normal. "Probably a looping glitch from Clu's obedience code that latched onto old memory files and now I'm seeing data-ghosts –"

Except if he was seeing data-ghosts, Ram would be dressed in the gladiatorial armour he'd worn the last time Tron had seen him. This Ram was clad in black, just like Tron. His circuits were more numerous than the security program's array, and sported both the wide lines common to Flynn's system as well as the more delicate nodes and threads of the old grid. There was a lightcycle baton of unfamiliar design clipped to his leg, and his forearms were protected by bracers, his shoulders by blocky padding, both reminiscent of the old system armour.

Tron spotted a corner of white in the dust and bent down, retrieving the images of Flynn and Clu. Where was Alan's picture, and Yori's? He found them a few picocycles later, to his relief, and rose to his feet, reverently dusting the glossy surfaces off and smoothing away faint scratches.

Not-Ram had gone oddly silent. When Tron's curiosity got the better of him, he risked a glance. The data-ghost was staring at the pictures clasped in Tron's hand, his own hand clenching and relaxing around the device he had been fiddling with.

Tron couldn't bear the hallucination's expression of sympathy and sad longing. He turned his head away, tucking the photos back under his armour as he reclaimed his seat. Safe, secure, protected, like he hadn't been able to do for the real thing.

The soft scrape of boots on gravel made Tron shut his eyes. The data-ghost hesitated, and then sat down beside the security program, and laid his hand on Tron's arm.

The signature of the energy pulse that gently flowed into the circuits there, and the ping of /hey-comfort-safety-you'reokay was achingly familiar. Tron shuddered, eyes flying open with a gasp, and he turned to meet the other program's gaze. Ram's expression was warm and hopeful, and a little bit nervous. "Does that feel like a data-ghost to you, Tron? C'mon. It's me."

~Ram?~

Ram nodded, his grin growing in relief, and opened his mouth. Whatever he was about to say became a breathless squeak as Tron reached out and crushed him to his chest, clinging tightly. Ram gave a sniffle and an emotional giggle and buried his nose in the curve of Tron's neck, hugging him just as hard.

Eventually, Ram lifted his head. "Not to ruin the moment or anything, but I need to breathe."

Tron relaxed his grip, but not completely, allowing the actuary to sit more comfortably by his side while still in the security of the system monitor's arms.

"How are you here?" he rasped, his damaged vocal subroutines strangling the words out amidst a grating rumble.

"Ouch. You should get that checked," Ram remarked, tilting his head in concern. He reached up a hand to tilt Tron's head slightly, studying the lingering scarring with a frown. A gentle finger caressed the edge of the worse damage, but Ram didn't say anything about it, yet. "And I told you; I piggybacked in on a wi-fi transport." He paused, blinked. "Wait; you mean, 'how am I not dead?'" Tron nodded numbly. "Well, that's quite a story."

And it was. Ram sat there beside Tron, waving his hands about in lavish enthusiasm as he described how he had been restored from backup safe in Roy's system, and how the User had spent ages repairing his code. But when Ram had been ready to upload, Flynn had disappeared without warning, and suddenly Roy had a new purpose.

He told Tron about the Flynn Lives movement, and how Roy had come back to Ram, further adding to his code and turning him into a seeker-hacker. He'd sent him out into the vast expanse of the internet, with a directive to to find any trace of Flynn's system. Roy had been certain that Flynn had disappeared into it, although he and Alan-One had never been able to locate Flynn's base of operations.

Ram had searched for User-years, thousands upon thousands of cycles, to no success – although some of the stories he had accumulated through his adventures made even Tron laugh. Still, he continued, forever sending back /search-in-progress pings to his User, until the signal that had drawn him here not long ago. A signal, Tron realised, that had broadcast at the same moment of Reintegration.

"Imagine my surprise when I asked a few programs where I was, and they told me I was in Tron City." Ram laughed and clapped a hand on Tron's shoulder, beaming happily. There were tears glittering in the corners of his eyes. "I've been here for microcycles trying to track you down. You're a hard program to tag, Tron."

It was the last piece of data Tron's systems could handle. The security program choked, feeling tears gather in his own eyes, and he grabbed Ram again, pulling him into the tightest hug he could muster. Ram's arms clasped around him equally firm, and the two of them laughed and cried in relief and joy.

Forgotten at Ram's side, the image Ram had taken with the digital camera patiently uploaded to the web. On the screen, Ram's ecstatic grin was an amusing contrast to Tron's startled, bewildered expression. After a moment, an alert popped up over the faces of the two programs.

'Msg Sent: ZackAttack at encomnet, from RAM-Fln89search: Objective complete.'