Race Against The Clock
Part of the Ram, Expanded series
Beta: infiniteviking, tanks4thememory
Summary: An unexpected loss of power to the Game Grid brings the opportunity for freedom, and now it's a race against the clock, and the forces of the MCP, to reach the I/O tower and Alan-One.
Warnings: minor accidental self-harm.
A/N: Five Elites instead of three because I do what I want and I wanted more action. This is an AU, it doesn't matter.
Ram sighed as he fidgeted in place, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. He couldn't help it; he was bored. He had been positioned by the sentries in the waiting area on the lightcycle activation pads 20 nanocycles ago, and then just left to stand there.
Ram didn't like sitting still. He was by nature a multi-task operator. Something about sitting still just made him…uneasy.
So he fidgeted. He hummed. He whistled for all of five picocycles before Tron shot him a warning look. His fingers itched to grab his disk just to have something to do. Unfortunately, the others in the room – namely, the Sentries standing guard at the door and the five red-circuited Elites that were standing on similar pads along the opposite wall – probably wouldn't be impressed with how smoothly he could walk his disk through his knuckles and spin it on its rim by a single fingertip.
Ram sighed again, intentionally louder, internally smirking at the irritated twitch the nearest Sentry made.
~How many times do you calculate I can do that before he snaps?~ He sent side-long to Tron, who was standing at the ready on the pad to his left.
~Probably more than you can do it before I snap first,~ the security program replied tersely.
Ram ducked his head sheepishly and pinged a quiet /sorry. He hadn't meant to rile his friend as well. Tron had been on-edge ever since they'd both been marched from their temporary cells to this specially-scheduled games challenge. The MCP was playing some new game, and the security program was disturbed by what that might mean. Even Ram was unsettled, and he normally passed off anything the MCP did as acts of insanity from a program a few ones and zeros shy of a functional Boolean search. It was less stressful than constantly fretting.
As it was, this match was far overdue to start. Ram checked his internal chronometers; system downtime had begun 10 nanocycles ago.
~Maybe we've been forgotten,~ he suggested hopefully, along with a info-ping of the current timestamp, glancing at the sentries that guarded them. /execute-ESC-run? ~We could take 'em.~
/negative, was the response, and Tron motioned his head to the transport pad on his left. It was lit around the edge, activated despite being empty. ~They're waiting for a third player.~
Ram sobered up at this, looking worriedly at the empty transport pad. Quietly he activated his actuarial functions, processors whirring over the odds and risk analyses.
It was a safe calculation that whoever the third member of their team was, it would be someone new. Master Control's latest attitude towards radical dissidents featured treating them just as poorly as any normal Basic, counting on the lack of fanfare surrounding the better warriors to keep rumours and figureheads of the revolution from gaining status among the resistance. Ram didn't know any conscripts in the games that had drawn the attention of the MCP enough to warrant special treatment…aside from himself and Tron.
The newness of their third member would also throw a blind set of numbers into his strategy engines. Ram knew how to work with Tron; he knew what manoeuvres and tricks the security program preferred, and could calculate his own actions accordingly. It was a database that had been built over microcycles of practice and experience. He didn't have that sort of back-data for the newer conscript, whoever they turned out to be.
When the force shield to the waiting area finally deactivated and their third teammate was escorted in, Ram tensed in disappointment. The program was still clad in a novice tunic. Well, that confirmed his hypothesis about whether the mystery player was a new conscript or not.
His eyes widened in surprise when the program was shoved past him and the actuary recognised his face. A grin tugged his lips up. "Flynn! You made it! You…won." His elation dropped off as he saw the expression on the other program's face, turning into concern.
Flynn, who had glanced up in surprise at hearing a friendly voice, had that shell-shocked, grim look Ram had seen many times, on the faces of User-believers who had been forced to derezz their own. Obviously, Flynn's first Jai Alai game hadn't gone well – or had gone too well, depending on how one looked at it. The program flashed Ram a dim smile as the guards ushered him in further, but he stopped dead when his gaze landed on Tron.
His eyes grew wide and his circuitry dimmed in shock. This reaction was normal; plenty of programs had heard of Tron, or at least knew the distinctive identity mark on sight. The name he uttered next was decidedly not.
Tron immediately stiffened, shooting the program a sharp glare. He had already been eying Flynn suspiciously as soon as Ram had revealed his designation. That Flynn knew a name Tron hadn't uttered to anyone but Ram – and Ram would never betray that confidence – clearly disturbed him.
"Where did you hear that name?" he demanded.
Flynn seemed thrown for a moment, fumbling for a response. "Well, isn't that –"
"The name of my User, yes," Tron finished for him, narrowing his eyes. "Where did you hear it?"
Flynn's eyes darted quickly between Tron and Ram, and – just as Tron's glare shifted from 'suspicious program'-intense to 'possible malware threat' – he blurted out, "I'm a program from a User that – that knows Alan."
Both programs stared at him. Tron was first to recover, and reacted like the security program he was; he pinged Flynn with a forceful /statedesignation-function-purpose-complyimmediately. Ram winced; he'd felt that ping all the way from where he was standing.
"He was disorientated in transport, Tron," he reminded the security program. ~I know you said you'd test him, but that was a bit much, wasn't it?~
Just as before, when he hadn't heard Ram in the cells, Flynn didn't even acknowledge he'd been pinged; he merely glanced with irritation at the guards as he was shoved forward and onto the empty transport pad. His expression wasn't nervous anymore, but determined and calculating. "Yeah," he muttered out of the side of his mouth, "but I'm remembering all kinds of stuff. Like how my User wants me to go after the MCP."
Clenching his jaw, the security program looked forward. "My User wants that too."
"I know." Those words pulled Tron's attention sharply back to Flynn, sizing him up with an evaluating stare. Flynn looked back this time, unfazed by the system monitor's penetrating gaze.
"I hope you can ride," the monitor finally said, returning his gaze forward.
Turning to face forward as well, Ram almost missed Flynn's anxious, mumbled response.
"I hope so too."
The actuary winced minutely, and added another set of precautionary variables to his strategy engine.
Then the pad was glowing beneath his feet, and the tingling sensation of transport whisked them all onto the lightcycle grid.
The lightcycle grid was a stark, empty space, surrounded on all sides by walls that would have towered over a Recognizer if one chose to land in the centre of the arena. On opposite sides of the field, the two teams materialized on their transport pads, surrounded by a restraining field that would drop once the match began. Ram tensed in anticipation, eyes fixed ahead. Beside him, Tron did the same; the security program was poised in a ready, limber stance. Flynn, though wearing a nervous expression, also held himself on the mark.
The countdown indicator hovering above the grid cycled down. Five picocycles. Four. Three. Two. One.
The siren blared. The match began. The barrier surrounding each of their transport pads vanished, and three lightcycle batons rezzed into existence before each conscript, hovering aloft at mid-chest height.
Like Tron, Ram moved almost immediately after the barrier faded, snatching his designated baton from mid-air as it rezzed and leaping forward in two strides as the bike formed around him. Launch speed was crucial in Lightcycles; the first side to claim the field often held the upper hand throughout the match. The back wheel on his bike gave an electronic whine as it hit the floor, activating the bike's jet wall as a fiery blaze of red, and the actuary sped forward.
He pulled up alongside the system monitor's bike, which was the standard game-default orange hue. The fact that his own bike armour always switched to the system-OS default red was a glitch in Ram's programming, and it no longer threw either him or Tron to see Ram astride a bike sporting the MCP's chosen colours. It was, however, a surprise to see a yellow bike pull up on Tron's opposite side.
Apparently, Flynn wasn't just another conscript; yellow signified a program written outside the Encom system, one with code unfamiliar enough to override the lightcycle's base colour designation. It was usually reserved for hackers and infiltrators.
"This is Gold-1 to Gold-2 and 3," Tron's voice came over the comm. system. "Split up; take 'em one on one."
/affirmative, Ram pinged, and peeled his bike off to the right, cornering sharply to follow the grid lines of the arena, as the bikes were programmed to do. Flynn had done the same picocycles faster, splitting off along an earlier intersection and zooming off to the left. And Tron had continued on his pathway, playing a dangerous game of 'who-flinches-first' with the Blue Team Leader.
At the last moment before a head-on collision seemed inevitable, both orange and blue riders turned in, battling for dominance as they raced side-by-side across the arena grid. Tron pulled ahead, and made a sharp turn inward, attempting to cut the blue rider off; his opponent was quick to compensate and echoed the movement, too fast for the standard manoeuvre to work. Tron's bike swerved sharply away from the blue rider, made a short perpendicular line away from the other's course, and then turned again and shot forward, overtaking the blue rider with a burst of speed. Now in the lead, he swerved in front of the Elite, creating a wake of orange alongside a previously-laid blue jet wall that left the Elite only a narrow corridor to turn into or risk derezzing.
Unfortunately for the blue rider, that corridor was a dead end. Tron and his opponent shot towards the dark arena wall at speed, and with a smirk, Tron peeled hard to the left scant millimetres from impact, shooting off along the arena's perimeter.
The blue rider gave a cry of denial, but he was blocked off on both sides, and had nowhere to turn. His bike slammed into the wall, derezzing with such a tremendous release of energy that the wall itself cracked. The jet walls that had been laid down by the derezzed Elite faded almost immediately, now that they had lost their power source.
The impact of the blue rider's demise shook the entire arena floor. Ram's bike wobbled as the grid lines flickered, the rigid protocols to keep the bikes stuck to pre-programmed courses momentarily glitching. They were back online within picocycles, however, and Ram used the opportunity to pull ahead of the Elite he had been leading on a complicated series of twists and turns. The Elite thus far had been able to keep up, but the momentary glitch had distracted him, and he slammed into the red-lit barrier that cut in front of him, derezzing in a splash of pixels.
Two down, three to go.
Ram turned down a clear path, keeping a watchful eye out, but the remaining three Elites seemed to be preoccupied with his teammates. Flynn was doing better than Ram had expected; the yellow bike almost seemed to be taunting the blue lightcycle that kept trying to cut him off. Flynn's reflexes were too fast; every turn the blue rider made, Flynn was right alongside. The blue rider probably had the illusion he was in control, but from Ram's position, the actuary could clearly see the strategy Flynn was using. Slowly but surely, Flynn boxed the blue rider in, forcing him onto the course he wanted – and then he did something absolutely crazy: he followed his opponent into the maze Ram's previous battle had created.
Ram's core tightened sharply; he had seen too many opponents derezz in his complex mazes to have any hope Flynn would make it out. Was he about to be responsible for his own teammate's demise?
But no; luck seemed to be with the yellow-clad conscript, for Flynn was rocketing out of the maze moments later, sans-blue rider. A picocycle later, a splash of blue and the deactivation of another set of blue jet walls signalled the end of their third opponent.
"Whoo, man, that was intense!"Flynn exclaimed with a laugh.
"You're glitched in the head, you know that?" Ram replied, laughing as well with relief.
"I'm going again," was the unexpected reply, and Ram, shocked, swore in binary as Flynn shot off in pursuit of one of the two remaining blue riders. "He-eeere kitty-kitty."
~He really is glitched,~ the actuary muttered, and then swerved hard to avoid a collision with a blue wall that had sprung up from nowhere while he'd been distracted. The rider at its head began turning in sharp shifts, trying to cut Ram into pieces. It soon took all of Ram's predictive functions to keep up with the rapid direction-changes.
~Frag it; Tron, could use some help!~
~Ram, stay all the way over, I'm coming to you!~
~Gotcha,~ Ram peeled away from his course with two whip-fast turns, then swerved out into open arena space and shot forward, gaining the lead on his pursuer, and they were soon battling neck and neck.
Out of the corner of his eye, Ram spotted a glimpse of Flynn exiting the maze a second time, and marvelled for a picocycle at the program's sheer dumb luck. Unfortunately, he hadn't shaken his opponent this time; the Elite had been too good, and had kept up with Flynn the entire time. The pair of them now raced towards the arena wall, where a blue line and one of Tron's orange lines still formed a narrow corridor – a corridor Flynn was heading for at break-neck speed.
"This is it, come on, come on…" Flynn muttered over the comm. showing no sign of intent to stop. This apparently suicidal move was unexpected by his pursuer; the blue rider, expecting Flynn to turn in front of him before he reached the edge of the blue barrier, was completely unprepared to turn away himself, and slammed into his own jet wall, derezzing in a shower of glimmering pixels.
"Flynn!" Ram yelled over the comm. Flynn, still speeding towards the wall, only laughed.
"Gold-3 to Gold-2 and 1, I'm getting out of here right now and you guys are invited!"
Ram flinched, expecting to see a burst of gold light that signalled the end of the program's life. To his astonishment, however, as the derezzed blue rider's jet wall disintegrated, he could see a gaping hole in the wall through which Flynn's yellow bike disappeared, jet walls fading in his absence.
~Users' will,~ Ram breathed. The MCP's power hoarding must have been greater than previously imagined. Either that or that Elite's death had been more explosive than usual. Impacts with the walls weren't uncommon in Lightcycles, but there had been so little power supplied to this section, the damage hadn't been automatically repaired. There was a way out.
There was a way out!
"Got it!" the actuary exclaimed, suddenly energised, and glanced over at Tron, who had pulled up beside him, riding on the other side of the hapless blue rider wedged between them.
~Ready?~ Tron said, and Ram could hear the excitement in his voice.
~Ready!~ And with matching grins, they gunned their lightcycles forward towards the wall, leaving the blue rider in their dust.
It was a little-known cheat that two bikes could occupy the same grid line if they rode perfectly parallel, and few could pull it off without accidentally derezzing on the other's jet wall. Ram's course was blocked by a previously-laid wall, and Tron's path ahead held the final existing blue barrier, but he trusted Tron's reflexes, and grinned with exhilaration. As one, red and orange bikes made a light-speed shift, pulling their bikes from their individual grid-lines and onto the same centre path, the sides almost touching.
"So long, sucker!" Ram crowed as the narrow box left no room for their final opponent. As the remaining blue jet wall faded out with the Elite's demise, clearing the way for Tron, the two bikes roared towards the crack. Overhead, sirens began blaring as the escape attempt was noticed, and a warning issued over the open communications broadcast.
"WARRIORS MUST STAY WITHIN THEIR UNITS. REPEAT: ALL WARRIORS MUST STAY WITHIN THEIR UNITS. WARNING. WARNING."
The two conscripts ignored the warnings, nearly to the gap. A Recognizer was dispatched, roaring down from the sky and hovering between them and freedom. Ram urged his bike faster, as the Reco's pincer-like legs shifted and pulled together to form a pile-driver.
The Reco slammed its massive feet down, making the entire arena tremble, and sealed off the exit…a mere hairsbreadth after Ram and Tron slipped through.
The conduit that had been opened by the Elite's derezzing had formed a jagged vertical chasm that had been channelled through the whole of the outer wall of the Gaming Complex, and it was along this tunnel that the two lightcycles sped, racing to catch up with their third ally. They could still hear the warning being broadcast, although the command line had changed, and was growing fainter the further they distanced themselves from the arena.
"WARNING: VIDEO GAME WARRIORS ESCAPING GAME GRID – THIS IS AN ILLEGAL EXIT. ALL WARRIORS MUST RETURN TO GAME GRID…"
"Greetings, programs!" Flynn cheered when Ram and Tron finally caught up to him, edging his lightcycle over to the side. "Either of you know where we're going?"
/negative, Ram pinged automatically, before he thunked himself on the helmet with a fist for forgetting Flynn's glitch and repeated himself vocally. "Not me. This sector's totally unfamiliar; I've never been outside the Gaming Complex since I was nabbed. Tron?"
"Luckily for us, yes; I know the way." The orange lightcycle pulled into the lead as the conduit narrowed, forcing them to ride single-file. A second, jagged, zig-zag notch in the structural code was their way out; Tron slowed down for a moment, checking for an ambush, then accelerated and took a left, zipping off down a massive corridor.
Flynn and Ram followed; the latter took up the rear of the convoy as they sped along, keeping a sharp eye out for enemy riders. As they exited the corridor out into a wide-open area, the surface on either side of the road littered with uniform, square depressions. Ram nervously wondered what could've made those craters.
Then he spotted something on his peripherals that made his circuits run cold.
"Gold-2 to Gold-1 and 3; those demons are coming down! Two Recos on our backs!" he transmitted, increasing the pace of his bike. Ahead of him, Tron and Flynn increased speed as well, heading for a hanger bay at the end of the pock-marked field.
Overhead, the Recognizers swung around a watchtower and swooped down in pursuit of the fugitives, their engines buzzing loud enough to rattle Ram's teeth. He shot through the hanger doors without a picocycle to spare. The complex shook with the force of two impacts as one of the Recos, unable to stop in time, slammed into the hanger wall and rebounded into its close-following ally.
Ram's relief was short-lived when he realised where they had ended up. The thrum of the lightcycles echoed off the cavernous complex, the noise almost too loud in the otherwise silent room. Two rows of massive, inactive tank programs looming on either side of the narrow gap, their dark bulks an ominous presence.
"Should never have written all those tank programs," Flynn muttered, inexplicably, apparently unaware his comm was on.
Suddenly, the circuitry on one of the behemoths lit up, and the tank began rolling forward, determined to cut them off. Tron zipped forward, close enough to avoid the obstacle easily. Flynn had to swerve slightly to avoid it. Ram was alarmed to discover he'd fallen far enough behind that he had to swerve sharply left to avoid it – and then again to the right, narrowly missing getting derezzed under the treads of a second activated tank.
For the first time in a long while he felt nervous astride the machine he rode. Lightcycles were easy to control, once he'd learned how, when they were following pre-programmed guidance subroutines in a match. All the rider had to do was indicate a turn, and keep it relatively steady; the subroutines prevented the bikes from any unnecessary veering and spills, unless pushed too far.
Off the game grids, the subroutines weren't there, so every swooping swerve and turn Ram made felt as though he were about to tip onto his side and crash. He clenched his jaw and wrestled the bike back under control, making for the exit, following the yellow-lit panels of Flynn's bike.
Behind him, there was the electric whine of a charge building up, and the wall of the next corridor exploded into pieces, raining down over their cycles in a shower of molten structural pixels. The cannon fire left a gaping wound in the side of the building, uniform and square with cracks radiating outward, and Ram's earlier question was answered: they had driven across a target sim.
Well, wasn't that just encouraging.
Several more tank blasts struck the sides of the corridor they now raced down, but they were leaving the rigid uniformity of the Game Grid Complex, and the terrain had turned more to their favour: twists and turns that required a defter hand to navigate than the bulky military transports. Just ahead of Ram, Flynn was showing an incredible recklessness as he slewed his lightcycle narrowly around the obstacles at high speed.
As they exited the last corridor of the Complex and headed into the main system, Tron suddenly braked, his cycle skidding sideways to narrowly avoid driving over the edge of a wide landing; in alarm, Ram did the same, skidding to a halt almost as close to the edge. Shaken by the narrow brush with deresolution, the actuary revved his bike back up, and peeled out, taking the lead.
As they skirted along the ledges that followed the canyon walls, desperate to put distance between them and their pursuers, Ram risked a glance over his shoulder. He laughed slightly; burdened by their size and the laws of physics, the tanks had encountered the same braking problem the three fugitives had faced, with far nastier results.
One tank had skidded to a halt on the edge of the landing, a full third of its treads hanging out over empty space, with a sheer drop to the canyon floor awaiting should it even twitch wrong. Unfortunately for the programs inside, that wrong move arrived; a second tank, just as slow to halt forward movement, nudged the back edge of its perilously-placed ally. The slight shift in weight overbalanced the craft, and it went plummeting over the edge, derezzing at the bottom of the canyon in a fiery explosion of pixels.
In the chaotic distraction, the three programs made their escape along the curving ledge, disappearing into the shelter of a division set in the vast sweep of wall.
The road into the hub of the division became a steady downgrade, and Ram led the way into the murky darkness, their path illuminated mostly by the light of their bike circuit arrays. The lower levels were a maze of twists and turns, completely devoid of program life – though not completely lifeless. Ram spotted a few patches of data-growth clinging to the walls as he rode past, glowing collection disks soaking up the energy given off by nearby power conduits.
The floor dipped once more, leading them into a cul-de-sac that was partitioned off around the edge of the flat road. It had obviously been the end point of a construction/expansion project that had been abandoned; the walls of the cavern that surrounded them weren't the smooth, polished surfaces of a system in use. Instead, they were rough-cut, the data still raw and unrefined from the outland terrain it had been carved out of. The intricate geometric planes gave off a soft, effusing glow that pervaded the cavern, a sign that power still flowed freely in this section of the Encom system, providing just enough light to see by.
The three lightcycles pulled into the curve of the cul-de-sac and deactivated, one by one. Warily, Ram looked back up the ramp they'd come down, clipping his lightcycle baton to his thigh. With the end of the conduit, they could ride no further; the terrain was just too rough for the bike programming to comprehend.
"Oh man; on the other side of the screen, it all looked so easy," Flynn said, panting. Ram was breathing pretty heavily too; the energy rush that the pursuit had triggered was still running high.
He didn't quite know what Flynn had meant by 'the other side of the screen,' but he focused on the games language with a grin and clapped the other program on the shoulder. "You sure made it look easy, Flynn; for a program that's data-blind, you ride pretty well. Those were some crazy-glitched stunts you pulled with the maze."
Too winded to respond, Flynn just let his head drop, shaking it with a breathless laugh. Ram echoed the sound.
He turned away to meet Tron's gaze; the security monitor motioned to the ramp they had come down. -confirm.
Ram nodded with an /affirmative and scrambled back up the incline, hugging the wall as he reached the crest. Once there, he canted his head, listening intently for any sign of pursuit. The familiar drone of engines and the rumble of the tank convoy were, for a moment, audible, but very faint; he listened harder, until the rumble had faded. Even factoring in the echo of the tunnels, it was obvious the convoy had moved on.
With a grin, he turned and, choosing expediency over decorum, slid down the ramp on his backside. He hit the ground and rolled, bouncing to his feet and giving Tron a cheeky salute.
"No sign of the Reds, Tron. We're all clear; they must've gone right past us."
Tron nodded, and for a moment, his grim expression lightened into relief. "We made it." Then his face fell back into a frown and he added, "…this far."
Ram's grin wilted and he gave the monitor an incredulous look. "You are such a negative Bit."
"Bits are inherently neutral," Tron replied smartly. "We should keep moving. Once he finds out where we've disappeared to, Sark will dispatch cycle patrols to follow." He glanced down the smaller tunnels and crevices that extended past the developed area. "We'll have to go on foot from here. The lightcycles aren't built for the outlands."
"Technically they're not built for anything but Game Grids," Ram pointed out, peering over the edge of the cul-de-sac's fencing to find a safe way down into the rougher landscape. There was a slope that came almost to the lip of the road, with a small drop to reach it. Ram plopped down and dangled his legs over the edge, calculating the distance and the best way to drop without injuring themselves. "I think I found a spot we can get down."
"Let's go then," Tron said, and moved to join him.
"Hold on a second."
Both programs turned to look at Flynn. The third member of their group had not said a word since Ram had complimented his lightcycle skills, and now stood apprehensively apart from the other two programs. His expression was wary and guarded.
"What is it, Flynn? We can't stick around here too long; they might pick up our trail."
"Yeah, I know, I just –" Flynn paced a few steps back and forth, chewing on the tip of his thumb, before pinning Ram with a doubtful look. "I didn't want to bring it up before, because I like you, Ram, and I didn't want to point fingers…" He hesitated for a moment. "But something's bugging me, and I'd like a clarification."
Ram tilted his head, puzzled, but pulled back from the edge of the road and stood up, brushing pixel dust off his legs. "Sure, Flynn, what's up?"
Flynn sighed and snapped his fingers. "Okay, man. Here's the thing. I thought the bikes rezzed different colours because that was how the game allocated individual player identities. Except, none of the blue players were alternately coloured, so I'm guessing all our bikes were meant to be the same."
"You're right," Ram agreed, wondering where Flynn was going with this. "The gold-team bikes are all supposed to be orange."
"Exactly. So, why would our bikes be different? Why was Tron's lightcycle the only one with 'normal' colours?" Flynn looked between them expectantly, and when no response was immediately forthcoming, added, "I could maybe accept it if the bikes had changed back to default when we got off the Game Grid. But the colours stayed the same. Yellow, orange…" he gestured to himself, then to Tron, and finally levelled a suspicious look at Ram. "Red."
Ah. Ram's circuits dimmed slightly in embarrassment.
"Care to explain why your bike just happens to be the same colour the MCP's buddies like to wear?" Flynn gestured to his own circuitry.
"It's not what you think," Ram said defensively, clasping his hands in a nervous posture.
Flynn crossed his arms over his chest, circuit array pulsing with a flare of power. "And just what am I thinking, Ram?"
"It's not – I'm not a spy or anything. …Well, okay, yes, I have infiltrator bits in my lines if you want to get technical, but that's just semantics. The code is only half-compiled anyways and it really doesn't have any bearing on – look, the point is, I'm not working for Master Control."
"I never said you were." Flynn's gaze became shrewd. "But forgive me here if I'm a little paranoid about this. The only programs I've seen with red circuits have been the jack-booted thugs that dragged me into this mess. I only want an explanation."
"Well, I don't feel like giving you one," Ram said stubbornly, feeling a sudden surge of indignation rise as his circuits brightened.
"You're not exactly filling me with confidence by refusing," Flynn pointed out, anger creeping into his expression. "And I don't want to risk hiking out into unfamiliar territory with a program who may or may not be on the same side as the wanna-be stormtroopers trying to kill us."
"That's enough," Tron barked, stepping forward to come between the two programs, unlit disk in his hand, backed up by a /endconflict-standdown. "Flynn, back off. I know Ram. He isn't a threat to either of us. More to the point, I've known him for cycles longer than I've known you. If you want to stand here debating his loyalties, then I have no compunctions about leaving you behind." In pieces, if necessary, went the unsaid threat.
Flynn opened his mouth to object, but was silenced by the security monitor's glare. He wasn't quiet for long though, and stubbornly pointed out, "And I suppose the bike colour doesn't bother you, Tron? You're a firewall; I would've thought you'd be chomping on this bit right ahead of me."
"No, it doesn't," Tron growled, circuits flaring intensely. "I happen to know the reason for the colour alteration. And Ram is right; it isn't any of your business."
"Tron…" Ram mumbled, a little overwhelmed by the security program's protectiveness, tensed at the possibility the two would come to blows over him. Tron looked about three nanocycles from igniting his disk, waiting for Flynn to twitch wrong. Flynn probably shouldn't have called him a firewall anyways; the term was slang, and only Ram seemed to be able to get away with it without sparking ire. "Tron, it's –" /calmdown. "If it'll stop this argument, I'll tell him."
Tron relaxed slightly, backing off a step, but his gaze spoke plainly; he wouldn't hesitate to act if Ram needed him. Ram sighed, and turned to Flynn. The other program had lost some of his anger, his previous paranoia ebbing away. "It's just…it's not something one admits to in public. Tron only knows because he was the one who pointed it out to me at first. It's…it's a programming quirk."
"A glitch?" Flynn frowned. Ram shook his head.
"No, it's…glitches can be repaired, given time and enough energy. Quirks are written into a program's base code. Only a User could rewrite that. And anyone who has one…it's…not necessarily seen as a good thing."
The look Flynn gave him was momentarily puzzled, before shifting to something else, something…worse.
Ram felt his circuitry dim, turning a darker shade of violet-blue in humiliation. He had never felt ashamed of the oddities his code possessed before, but somehow the sympathetic stare that had replaced Flynn's suspicious gaze gnawed at his logic circuits. He plastered on a smile and began babbling, eager to get the explanation over with and smooth over the ache that was clenching at his core processors.
"It doesn't really affect my operations; actually, it's pretty handy, if you think about the implications. But it could be seen as a weakness, or a cheat; something manipulatable, so it's not really something I like to advertise –" Ram cut himself off, sighed, and started again. "All gold-team lightcycles, ridden by programs written in this system, turn orange. The lightcycles can't read my incomplete compile though, so they always default to system OS colours. That's the quirk."
"And the system OS default is red," Flynn finished and looked suddenly weary, scrubbing a hand over his face. "God, it's so simple. I'm sorry Ram. I didn't mean –"
"Hey, it's no problem." Ram smiled, though it felt brittle. "I mean, I don't hold it against you that your bike is yellow. To the MCP, that's almost as bad as blue; yellow is for hackers, you know; programs written in other systems, here without proper permissions." His tone turned briefly mischievous. "What does that say about you?"
Flynn laughed blearily, looking thoroughly chastised. "I'm not sure you'd believe me if I told you."
"I won't ask, then," Ram replied smartly, because it wasn't his place to ask, and he had more courtesy than to presume to demand answers in return.
"Now that that's settled, can we get back to being fugitives now?" Tron asked, exasperated and irritated as he docked his disk.
"Yeah, man. Sorry." Flynn clapped a hand on Ram's shoulder; the actuary managed not to flinch. "Forgive my stupidity?"
"Forgiven," Ram nodded, and the other program grinned lazily and sauntered over to the edge of the road, dropping down into the gully.
Tron looked over at Ram, who hadn't moved, and spoke softly. "Ram. Ram. Ram."
The actuary didn't appear to hear him; his expression had become distant, the smile gone from his lips.
Tron sighed and approached him, reaching out to clasp the actuary's hands in his own gloved palms. ~Ram. Stop.~
Ram jerked slightly, looking up at the monitor with confusion. Then he looked down at his hands, cradled in Tron's broader palms. In an entirely subconscious reflex, Ram had been worrying his thumb over the discoloured scarring that crossed his palm – remnants of the shoddy healing that had patched over the damage his disk had done during the uprising. The scar was a slightly darker gray than the rest of his armour, not immediately noticeable unless one looked hard, but the spot Ram had been rubbing had begun turning shades of damage-red again under the abuse.
He curled the fingers of his good hand in on themselves and looked away; his gaze fixed on the four squares centred on Tron's chest, rather than meeting his eyes. "How long…?"
~A while,~ Tron answered, gently running his fingers over the irritation and soothing it back to gray with a healing pulse of energy. He kept Ram's hands after, stroking a thumb over the more delicate circuits that lined the back of his hand, projecting /comfort. ~You started when he brought up the MCP.~
Ram closed his eyes, making a quiet noise of frustration. Even now, over 200 microcycles since the failed revolution, the memory files still plagued him. Being accused of working for that bit-face had obviously struck a circuit, if he was doing things on autopilot. ~I thought I was past that.~
Warm arms wrapped themselves around his shoulders and he leaned into Tron's embrace as the security monitor held him still. The contact was all too brief. It was Ram who pulled away first, reluctantly; they had an escape to finish, after all. He gave Tron a thankful smile; the monitor grinned back, wide and warm and somewhat silly.
"Guys?" Flynn's voice reached them, distant and tinny from the bottom of the drop-off. "What's the hold up? Everything all right up there?"
~That program is asking for a forced shut-down,~ Tron rumbled, the goofy smile dropping into a more familiar frown. ~Or a boot to the head.~
Ram giggled and nudged his arm, heading for the edge of the road. "C'mon, Tron. Let's go kick the MCP in the subroutines."
Tron rolled his eyes and smirked, following the actuary. Ram dropped to the floor and manoeuvred himself over the edge backwards, secured by Tron's grip on his wrists as he dangled precariously in midair, before dropping the rest of the short distance to land on the slope that lead into the gully. Dusting himself off, he glanced back for Tron, who lowered himself down a few moments later, landing in a graceful crouch.
"Show-off," Ram teased, and fell into step behind the monitor as they headed down the slope to catch up with Flynn.
The further they travelled along the network of natural tunnels, the harder it became to traverse the undeveloped surface. They soon left the borders of the sector they had entered from and entered a dead zone; a sector siphoned to its limits by the MCP, so drained of power that the glow of the tunnel walls had dimmed to the barest of light. There was so little energy here, not even data-growth could take root, let alone feed three exhausted programs. There was an eerie silence over the whole area that was unnatural, and unsettling. Even an empty sector should have hummed with the flow of energy in its conduits.
The trio walked in silence for most of their journey, not even risking the occasional ping or whisper of binary. To do so would have used power they could not afford to spare. Oddly, out of any of them, it was Flynn who seemed the most unaffected. He seemed eager to make up for his earlier accusations, sticking by Ram's side and helping the actuary out whenever needed.
Ram didn't complain about the treatment. His power levels were low, and he was smaller than either of his friends; he had to work twice as hard to keep up with Tron's longer stride and Flynn's dogged perseverance. He knew his limits, and so tolerated Flynn's hovering like a worried Bit, grabbing the hands that were offered to help haul himself over larger obstacles and leaning on the other program when he occasionally stumbled over the uneven terrain.
Tron lead the way, his disk out and casting light on the walls ahead. It was a risky drain of energy, but it kept them from bashing blindly into the occasional low-hanging protrusion. Now, though, Tron stopped, and lowered his disk, letting the power die.
Ram was about to ask why, but quickly realised the answer. With the light of Tron's disk gone, the tunnel should have been plunged into near-blackness, with only their dim circuitry to cast any shadows. Instead, there was a faint glow shining down onto the facets of the silicon walls. It wasn't power in the system, like the cavern they had first entered, but rather a light source from the outside. Somewhere up ahead, there was a way out of the labyrinth.
Tron quickened his pace, moving into the light and peering upwards through the gloom.
"There's a ledge that looks like it opens up over the surface," he reported, as Ram and Flynn worked to catch up. "We might be able to get our bearings and figure out where we're going next."
"We're right behind you, Tron," Ram encouraged. The security program nodded and began to climb. The incline was not sheer, but it was still quite steep. He reached the top quickly, and even from his location lower on the slope, Ram could see the sudden grin that spread across Tron's face.
"What is it? What do you see?" Flynn called up.
"I was right," was Tron's only reply. Flynn shared a glance with Ram and increased his climbing rate, hauling himself onto the narrow ledge.
Ram was last in the procession, and having a harder time with the ascent. His boots kept slipping on the slick surface, and he very nearly felt his core processors freeze when his soles lost traction near the top. He scrambled for purchase for a moment before strong hands grabbed his armour and Flynn hauled him up the last few centimetres with an amused "Come on, you little bugger."
"Thanks," Ram panted, settling on hand and knee, and looked out at the system grid.
The stark, lifeless landscape of the powerless, undeveloped sector that stretched below them looked no less bleak than the tunnels had been, but that wasn't what captured Ram's attention. In the distance, he could see the lit towers and structures of another, populated sector that still functioned. After cycles of nothing but gray walls and game grids, the geometric spires twinkling against the dark sky were a beacon to the weary travellers. And in the centre of it all, the sector's Input/Output tower stretched upwards towards the infinite realm of the Users, its transmission beam shining a dull, inactive red.
"Look at that," he murmured, overwhelmed.
"Wow," Flynn muttered, awestruck at the sight.
The three programs were quiet for a reverent moment.
"So, uh," Flynn finally said, breaking the silence, "What say we pay a visit to the ol' Master Control, huh?"
"What?" Ram turned his head to fix the novice conscript with a look of shock. "You mean, right this picocycle?"
"Uh, yeah?" Flynn's face fell into a dubious expression. "Wasn't that the plan?"
"There's only three of us!"
Flynn hand-waved the obvious hazards of the idea with a shrug. "Well, if you know of anybody with an army for rent, that's fine. All I know is, my User told me to take that sucker out – or I'm never getting out of here," he added in a softer, worried mutter, looking up towards the sky.
"Going up against the MCP now would be like marching into Sark's control room and committing self-deletion," Ram said firmly, "after stripping off our armour and offering him an interf – okay, I'm going to stop that run-process, before I give myself logic glitches." The actuary grimaced in disgust. He looked across the ledge at Tron, who had thus-far been silent. "Tron, tell this bit-brain – …Tron?"
The security program's eyes were closed, his hand resting over the centre square of his ident-symbol. His brow was furrowed in concentration, but he looked more peaceful than Ram had ever seen him.
Ram sat forward with a concerned tilt of the head. "What is it?" he asked, hushed.
Tron opened his eyes, staring with fierce determination towards the I/O tower. "Alan-One," he muttered, and looked at his companions. "We can't get to the MCP without the help of my User. I can feel his summons, calling me, but it's faint. I have to get to that Input/Output tower."
Ram couldn't believe what he was hearing. "Did nobody hear me when I said it was suicide?" he demanded, but the monitor's fervour had infected Flynn, and the novice was nodding enthusiastically.
"Yeah, get in touch with Alan, maybe he can–"
Both programs jumped in shock at the piercing whistle, turning to stare at Ram, who lowered his fingers from his mouth and looked momentarily sheepish.
"Sorry. I was worried you two were going to go haring off and try to fly or something." He folded his arms across his chest. "This is nuts, I hope you two realise."
Tron managed to look chastised for a moment. The pull of his User's summons had been a balm on his processors and he had almost forgotten the situation at hand, so eager had he been to reach Alan-One.
"Ram's right," he said, glancing at Flynn. "Going up against the MCP on our own is by all probabilities suicidal and would most likely result in deresolution."
"However," he added, looked at Ram. "Flynn is right as well. We don't have an army to pit against his forces. Any program with the strength and power levels to fight is fighting on the side of Master Control. And any program who still believes in a free system is either imprisoned, or will have so little power, they'll be unable to think, let alone join our cause." His stern expression softened as he looked back out to the I/O beam. "It's up to us alone."
Ram sighed, scrubbing a hand over his face, and gave in. "Can we at least formulate a proper plan before we head out across that?" He pointed an accusing finger at the darkness that separated them from the active sector. "I calculate that's at least a microcycle's walk across the surface of a dead zone. By the time we reach the other side we'll need to find energy, and fast, or else we'll all crash and everything will have been for nothing. And what if the Tower Guardian isn't too receptive to User-believers?"
"No," Tron shook his head, looking back at Ram. "I know this sector; Dumont is an older Guardian. He has great respect for the Users and despises Master Control; I don't calculate he would turn us away. However," he grimaced slightly, "he's also stubborn, and may not let us pass."
"Why not?" Flynn questioned curiously. "I mean, if he's against the MCP…?"
The monitor looked back out at the I/O beacon and frowned. "Out of the many I/O structures in this system, the MCP has left this tower active, for some reason. Dumont might not want to risk his position of amnesty for the lives of a few programs, even on the off-chance our idea is crazy enough to work."
Tron had a point there. Ram frowned and leaned back against the wall, drumming his fingers on his arm as he ran his risk analysers over the situation.
Flynn, who was looking completely lost, frowned. "How well do you know this Dumont guy, Tron? Have you met him before?"
The monitor nodded. "Once. When I was first compiled by Alan-One, I received my beta directives in this sector. Yori introduced us." He paused, and tilted his head thoughtfully. "Now there's an idea…" He looked at Ram. "I don't know Dumont well, but Yori does. Her work on the ROM-LAZR project required communications on a frequent basis."
"This is Yori's sector?" Ram leaned forward, intrigued. "Would she help us, do you think?"
"If we can locate her, yes," Tron said, nodding with confidence. "But I don't know if she's still working in the same district. The last time I saw her, it was just before I was arrested." And that had been cycles ago.
"Great, so we find this Yori gal first." Flynn rubbed his palms together and grinned. "Sounds like a good plan."
"That still leaves how we're gonna get there," Ram pointed out. "It's easy to get disorientated in the outlands. What if we wind up veering off and run out our reserve energy before we reach the other side?"
"We'll keep the tower as our landmark," Tron replied, but he leaned forward and peered across the dark landscape. "I don't think we'll need to stay in the outlands the entire time. See that sector there?" He pointed to a section of skyline to the right. While not as bright as Yori's sector, it was still lit up, indicating it was somewhat functional. It was also closer to them than the brighter sector, and they could see the distant specks of red-lit Recognizers patrolling the sky.
"That's high clearance memory storage," the monitor reported. "It's heavily patrolled, but the area between it and Yori's sector isn't as guarded. If we skirt around that portion, we can reconnect to the system in those canyons and use our lightcycles the rest of the way."
Ram eyed the patrolling Recognizers warily, but felt a glimmer of hope. It could work, but...he ran a quick calculation, just to be sure, and frowned.
"Doing that, the odds of getting caught would be better than 86.71359024 percent," he warned, tapping his fingers on his knee. Then he gave his companions a wry grin. "But I like a challenge."
"Now, how do we get from here," Ram pointed to their ledge, "to down there?"
All three of them leaned over the edge, taking in the sheer drop that lay between them and the dead landscape.
"That," Flynn said, looking decidedly nauseous, "is a very good question."
"And you call me a negative Bit," Tron muttered.