The room is an error.
It has the attributes of an arena suite, but it is not in the arena. He doesn't recognize the view, or the silence. It's a copy/paste job, misplaced and wasteful. Clu wouldn't put up with this.
Clu wouldn't allow blue-lit workers into a suite either. There are nine of them, confused and timid. They pass questions to each other and accept rumors as answers. They are as wasteful as the room.
They should be afraid. They're locked in with him.
They don't seem to know this.
He looks down. He blinks to refresh the image. No change. He, too, is a blue-lit worker.
Of course he is. He's been demoted, fallen as low and far away from Clu as it gets. This is his punishment.
One of the programs is pacing the entire length of the window. He would terminate her but he has no disc, not a single one. He lost them. He is surprised he was not found fit for deresolution but he calculates that this is for the best: the system doesn't lose its resources, and he doesn't get away with failure.
"I can't see the city from here," she says.
He can't sense Clu in the system. Shouldn't that worry her more?
"I heard that we're the only ones left," another program says. "They have searches going through the city and the outlands, but they only retrieved maybe twenty hexes' worth."
"Who's they?" he says. It hurts to talk.
"The Users," the program says. "I heard there are two of them."
"I heard there are four," another pipes up. "One is Flynn," he adds in a whisper.
"That's false," the restless program says. He is almost grateful for her noise now, because Flynn is a keyword that triggers clashes in his processes and throws up random data. He doesn't need this now; he has failed enough.
"The User is an instance of Flynn," she says, "but he is not the Creator."
He is tired all of a sudden, the way he gets when he spends more rounds in the games than his charge allows. Tired and old. "Child," he says. "Flynn's child." The term emerges from internal memory, its presence there disproportionate to its relevance. So he too is wasteful.
"Either way." But at least she's stopped pacing. The suite's only door is open, with nothing but a search program standing outside. Escape is easy. None of those null-units even try. Good; he'll be faster on his own.
Then he looks at the search.
False. This is not a program he's seen before, which means she's new. Which means the rumor-crunchers are correct and there are new Users on the system. He can't decide if this upsets or reassures him. His inability to decide upsets him though, and slows him down. In the time he wasted trying to identify the search, one of the workers left and the door is shut again.
"And then there were nine," another worker says. First time she's spoken. He doubts she's aware of this, but she just pointed out that they are stacked in tens instead of hexes. Users’ rules, all over again. To verify he checks his uniform and there it is, an index tag. 11-2.
He scans his cellmates for any comparable data and sees 11-8 on the one that spoke, 11-5 sitting closer to the window, and 11-6 huddled by the door. If 11-1 was the one that left, it’s he who’s next.
The restless program resumes her loop. "I wish they left these rooms open. We did nothing illegal."
"I heard it's not us, it's the resources," says 11-6, the one who also heard about the two new Users. "They can't query us in batches so -"
"Of course they can, they're Users," says the one who corrected him earlier. "They can do anything."
He stares at them, and on the inside he starts to laugh. Then he's laughing on the outside. It hurts worse than talking, but he doesn’t care.
"What?" says the reverent, indignant program. "Think you know better?"
He stops but not immediately, lets the reverb drop to a growl. Let them know. It pleases him, the way their faces change as their ticker tape minds work through the input. It doesn't matter that he has no disc, that he wears a default shell that renders him further nameless. He is what he is, and what he is is a weapon.
"How the mighty have fallen," says 11-8, the lone voice of resistance in a sea of fear. In truth she sounds resigned, like she's given up fighting, but he has some measure of respect for her. Less so for the others. He meets her stare and smiles; her bravado evaporates. Probably nothing more than a thesaurus.
They're all the same after all.
The room is quiet again, but also tense in a way that feels more like the arena. He finds this comforting. When the search shows up again he is almost reluctant to go, but he is bound by his index tag and if he knows anything it's to respect his place.
He salutes his cellmates as if they were fellow gladiators, and follows her out.
He follows in the correct protocol: pace matching hers, head bowed, silent. She is purposeful too and asks no questions. Maybe there is hope after all for these Users.
It doesn't take them long to reach their destination. There is no-one else around; no guards along the way, no sounds of life on the outside. There's just another door copied from somewhere else and as it opens she pushes him gently in, to signal she returned her result.
He doesn't appreciate it. He's about to let her know but then She speaks from the heart of the room, the true Her, the User. He knows she's a User. She doesn't need to bleed or cry to prove it, it's in the way she waves him over while her eyes scan a scattering of data panels. No program would need the stats on system power if they were studying internal memory dumps.
The way the panels read, the city has shut down. The User doesn't care, or doesn't even know. "Come on in," she says, still waving blindly. "Sit down, relax, I don't bite. Or de-rezz, whatever it is you guys are so afraid of."
He is not afraid.
He communicates this with a short, low growl. It gets him nothing but a "yikes", completely unconcerned since she's still focused on her displays. He wishes he had a blade on him. He wants to strike her down, remove her from the system, show her who he is; wants to drop down to his knees and pray to her for all she's done. Wants to tell her he loves her, and never wanted to leave.
He wants to crash.
He sits down.
Her console is a copy of Clu's intelligence ones but, for no reason that he can see, large enough to seat six. It is not a perfect, closed circle; a passageway breaks it, as if she doesn't know how to load Herself into it. This doesn't surprise him. The edits he's seen so far are brutal, the work of distant minds. Users, all over again. He's seen this before; he's in a loop, a nightmare —
"All right," she says, closing some of her panels down. "I'll be right with you. I'm Dr Baines, by the way, and I'm a User. But don't let that alarm you, okay? I'm just here to– oh holy Moses."
She's a full seat's width further away now, eyes wide and a hand pressed to her chest. Shock. He approves; fear is the appropriate response. Then she's laughing. "That's incredible."
Disturbingly, she peers closer. He wills his armor to close around him but he has no armor worth a glitch. He could attack her as-is but he can't, so he might as well be crashing. "Wow," she says. "You got that deer-in-the-headlights look down pat too. That's amazing."
Then she notices, and her hand hovers over the 'damage' slide. "Can you talk, buster?"
He can. He knows he can. All he has to do is return true, say "yes", whichever she wants. But even though her disc is resting and she has no hold on his functions, none that he can detect, he feels locked. It's the image of her at that console, white coat and blue lights; it's in the tilt of her head, the smile: half encouraging and half amused.
He can almost retrieve her name. Y. Yor. "You're beautiful," he says. It's just as valid.
her eyes widen further, frame shakes with surprised laughter. She blinks. "O-kay," she says. "That’s new." 'Damage' is judged to be 'slight', and her hand goes to her headset. "You have to get back here," she instructs when it connects. It must be another User she is talking to, but his reasoning stops there. "No, you do. I have one of yours here with me."
She's tapping at the panels, oblivious to his presence. "What do you mean, how do I know? Come here and take a look. Unless Kevin had some reason to construct a full digital copy of you, that’s the only explanation I’ve got. You ever lend him a program?"
She's giving him a keen, unwavering regard now even though her mind is clearly elsewhere. The response on the other end is taking a while. She listens.
"Right," she says eventually. “See that you talk to them both, then get your ass down here.”
End of line.