This is for the Tron female character ficathon over on tumblr. Prompt: Mara is feeling smothered by Zed and ignored by Beck. She figures she needs to widen her horizons socially and decides to spend the night out on the town.


Data Plain and Awful

Processing. Data streams slipping, buzzing next to her ear. This lightbike was running its tests, balancing mounted to the wall by a thin filament of light but spinning its wheels. Mara's finger hovered over the switch for propulsion, as she wondered what would happen if she flipped it right now and sent energy cutting out from the bike. Walls sheered in half, programs looking up and screaming.

Mara sighed and pressed her forehead down on the bike. The surface was cool and cold. Smooth like everything. Running scenarios like this, she needed to cool down herself. No use getting angry. No time on the job -

Although she had time. She had just this one bike. She could take some time off, have a few milicycles to herself at least-

"Mara! Hey Mara!"

"Zed?"

"How are you doing?"

Mara straightened up, feeling the smooth surface leave her skin feeling clean and flat. She hesitated over what to say to Zed for a moment, possibilities and verbal constructs ping-ponging around inside her head.

"I...I'm actually just leaving. Tell Able I'm taking a few milis, would you? And this bike will need to be taken off the testing track in...oh, just shortly. I'm sure you can do that?" She talked faster as she got into the flow of it, knowing he would do what she asked because he liked her. A bit of a mean move: she'd have to make up for it somehow later, but it would work.

"Yeah, sure." His confidence faded when he realized she was walking away from him. "I think?"

It was in just the next few steps that she realized maybe she did want someone to tag along. Zed wasn't bad for that, he just...wasn't quiet, and she was running quiet processes right now. She wanted to feel alone with someone else, just to talk.

She went looking for Beck.

She found him in the locker room, looking at something in his locker that she couldn't see. "I'm going out tonight. Do you...want to tag along?"

He shut the door and looked at her. He was always so serious. That was why he would work for this, to be in the same mood as her. "Not tonight."

"Are you doing something?"

"I...uh..."

"You're making excuses again."

She felt free to talk to him this way. She was pretty sure he wasn't going out with a girl - and if he was, Mara wouldn't have minded but the whole place would know. The mechanics all talked. They learned things and retained them, accessing memories to run dramatic possibilities. Beck always sounded like he was hiding something, though - or afraid, afraid that he would fail some test no one was setting him. Maybe he had joined a cult.

"Did you join a cult? Or, or maybe a gang."

Beck chuckled. He sounded...older than the rest of them. His laughs were calculated. "Yes. I've joined a gang."

Mara appreciated good sarcasm. "Thanks for being so forthcoming." That didn't mean she wasn't disappointed.

He didn't reply.

She saw Zed look at her and wave again on the way out. He was so hopeless, brave in a way, but not a pixel of shame in his body. He probably ran the same ideas again and again, always landing on one - it's worth it to ask her.

It was endearing but annoying.

She headed out to catch a train.

The city was crowded. She hadn't thought that this many programs would be changing shifts, but she merged into the crowd easily. (The idea of agoraphobia was alien to programs. It required physical space, smells, pheromones. Mara had none of these.)

The Grid-voice talked at her as she stepped over the tiny gap between the onyx-black of the walkway and the dark gray sheen of the train. "Please be careful when entering the train. Keep all hands and feet inside the vehicle."

She sat down and wondered where she was going. Downtown, surely - this was the downtown line. Maybe 0001001, which usually had low-key corners. She could ask Moog whether he was free.

"Please be careful when entering the train." It was common knowledge/assumption/programming that the Grid was not a person, not a single entity. One couldn't sit down with her for tea. When Mara tried to viz a face to go with the name it wasn't really a face at all: more like a cloud, more like a feeling. She looked idly at the faces around her: masks, black-clad shoulders, skin in shades of brown and tan. Blue and white and green.

And red. People began to scrunch together as a program in red entered the train at the far side of the car and two others crowded in behind her. The train hissed as it moved off from the station, and language was a hiss just above that, people repeating fears and rumors. "It's a perfection check."

A thin program a few seats down from Mara stood up, hunched over, with his cloak swirling around him and a panicked expression on his pale face. Others looked up at him blankly. Mara saw him panic. "Some, somebody help me!" He whispered. Programs stared ahead in silence, listening to the whirring of the train. Black shoulders almost identical, heads nodding. He lurched toward her, holding something in his pocket. People looked away, even if he bumped into their shoulders. He collided with her and drew the thing out: a tangle of code, like a bit but not as solid, flashing ugly green and purple.

Mara drew back. "What is that?"

"It's imperfect," the program said. "It doesn't matter."

She was shocked to see him display it so blatantly. It was refreshing, in a way to get away from Zed's neediness and whatever Beck was hiding and see something so plain and awful. She whispered, "Why?"

The crowd surged as another guard entered the car. Mara could feel the press of people and wished that she was back staring at the lightcycle and running tests.

The runaway looked back and forth at faces and shoulders turning away, no one wanting to get involved. Insect-black shapes of suits and masks.

She reached out to the other program's shoulder, pulled him so that their faces were a few inches apart. "That thing? Get rid of it."

"I bought it!"

"Why?"

His eyes darted and rolled and he bent farther down. He was tall: trying to hide behind others wasn't working for him.

"Just to have something imperfect?"

"It's mine," he said. "Even though it's broken."

She felt it toll in her.

"Stay here," she said, and pushed him toward the wall. She wasn't tall enough to hide him but some other programs around her might be. He pressed his face against the wall of the train as if willing himself to fall through it, and she saw the thin green light of the Grid pass under his hands. Was the train talking to him? Sending him some last pocket of data-words?

She pushed her hand down on his shoulder. He had tucked the bit away and looked like any other commuter - avoiding eye contact, yes, but many were afraid. Many were looking away - who knows what sins they had committed and thought too small to notice. She felt him breathing beside her.

A guard slowed to look at her and she straightened up, pushing a curl of hair away from the front of her face so she could meet the flat bands of black that indicated eyes under the guard's mask. The guard tapped her disk against her leg, the red light glinting and rotating of its own accord. Mara looked from the disk to the mask and back, not daring to look at what the program next to her was doing. She could still feel his arm pressed against hers.

The guard dipped her chin at Mara and moved on, keeping her disk in her hand as she moved down the aisle and glaring into other pairs of seats.

Mara sat back. She hadn't known how far she had leaned forward, but it was a relief to press her shoulders back against the seat.

Another guard reached a thick arm from behind her and grabbed the top of the rebel program's head.

Mara saw the other guards turn toward her and citizens avert their eyes as she was shoved out of the way and the perpetrator was grabbed by his forearms and pulled away, the press of programs closing back in around the guards' broad backs. Suits scraped against each other.

The guard's voices also tolled as they explained to him his violation. They pushed him down the aisle as he yelled and looked back at her.

Everyone else shrank back, relieved that it wasn't them, that their secrets were safe and their memories unexamined. How many had snuck imperfections?

A barely recognizable pattern in her consciousness noted that the criminal didn't look a thing like Bodhi.

Mara sat down, fighting to keep her breath steady. She felt unreal. The space between her seat and the wall didn't look big enough to hide someone.

The train car filled with chatter as soon as the guards left.

Mara imagined riding the bike in the shop through a crowd of red lights.

She rode the train until it stopped in the center of Argon City and most of the programs got out. She alit with a vague memory of her intent to go to the club but without any of the since of direction with which she had departed. As she crossed the platform she heard the Grid's voice fade. "Please be careful when entering the train."

Mara listened to it go, almost too far away to hear. But then the voice popped up again, closer: and a little line of light in the wall beat with the rhythm of the voice. She stopped, as close to the all as she had been to the program who had been taken away, and looked at the light.

The Grid said, "Unathorized revision. O-o-override. Clu-2."

The line went jagged like teeth and disappeared. Mara wondered whether it meant that Clu had overridden the Grid or the other way around. For a moment, she was alone with the afterimages of a sharp-toothed smile.

Mara wondered how she could channel her revulsion. She ran visions of tires screeching, throwing up sparks. She ran visions of dancing. Talking to the Grid and a man who was dragged away a moment later weren't exactly parts of what she expected for a nice night on the town.

She wondered if Moog was free tonight.