Ram wasn't in the Encom server grid when the Master Control Program was uploaded. He'd still been hard at work in another system, puzzling out the nuances of statistics and projections on the front lines of the actuarial division of LuxStar Insurance.
He'd heard stories from other programs, those who had been among the first whose functions had been appropriated and locked, about what the MCP had been before.
Before the Master Control Program became Master Control, he'd just been Ches, a strategy calculator with a knack for algorithms and pattern recognition, was the story passed around the pit compound. He'd been a kindly program, older in appearance than most of them, with frizzled hair in a transitory stage between hex-000 and hex-FFF, wrinkles lining his weathered face. He rarely ventured beyond Alpha sector, but his doors were always open for any programs who wanted to test their logic circuits and relax a while with a chat and a glass of energy. He was good friends and brother to many of the I/O tower guardians.
Then something had happened. Ches had disappeared one day, without a word, and when he'd returned, he'd been different. He'd been colder, more assertive. He put himself in the seat of power, and no one questioned it, because he had the right access codes and administrative permissions bestowed upon him by the Users, and in those days, everyone knew the command of a User was Law Above Laws.
When the first programs were rounded up, no one fought back.
When communications with neighbouring sectors dwindled and died, no one thought it a sign of just how wrong things were going.
When the Reds marched through the streets of his home system, Ram hadn't paid them mind. Why should he? They weren't here for him. What possible threat could he, an actuary, pose to the MCP?
He'd been too wrapped up in the upgrades User-R_Kleinberg7 was writing for him to realise he was the only one left.
Maybe if he had spoken out sooner, he wouldn't be here now.
The cycle that Tron arrived was entirely uneventful, up to a point.
The MCP hadn't yet started dividing them into individual cells. There wasn't a need for it; no one had the strength or courage in their programming to stand up to the guards and win. So the captive programs were allowed a modicum of freedom to wander around the small containment area of the pit compound. Cut off from the I/O towers and left to the poison of their own thoughts, many programs had shifted alliances, blue circuits fading to green, twisting to red, as they abandoned the hope in their Users and joined the MCP. The rest of them, those loyal and fanatic enough to remain believers, wasted away on polluted, thin energy rations. Doing nothing, following no directives but to huddle together and take what comfort from their companions as they could find as they waited in fear of who would be taken to the Games Grid next, never to return. They were like bytes, Ram thought darkly, milling around in clumps, penned in and waiting for the gridbugs to sneak in and tear them to voxels.
He looked down at his own circuits. Though he hated to admit it, captivity was taking its toll on him as well. There was a hint of green around the edges of his armour lights. He shut his eyes tight, straightening his back and taking steady, deep breaths. "All that is visible must grow beyond itself, into the invisible realm. All that is visible…" Into the invisible, into the light of the Users. They were still out there. They had to be.
He opened his eyes. The green had faded, but his circuits still shone weakly turquoise. It was getting harder and harder to keep his faith. Doubts and worries had a tendency to settle in a program's memory banks in this place. If the Users were out there, why hadn't R_Kleinberg7 stopped them from taking him? Why hadn't he freed them yet? What if Ram had been forgotten? Or worse, forsaken? Why, why, why?
The force field at the complex gates flickered and shut off with an electric whine, drawing Ram's attention. There was a noise, like a scuffle. Then a guard's angry shout, and a savage snarl of defiance, followed by a familiar yelp as whatever new prisoner they were hauling in was undoubtedly smacked with a charged lightstaff.
A program was shoved through ahead of two guards, balance lost. He landed on his hands and one knee, and for a moment his head was bowed, identifier concealed. One of the guards dared to move closer, bringing his foot up and back to kick the program's torso.
Ram had never seen anyone move that fast.
In the time it took him to blink, the new conscript had moved, snatching the guard's foot mid-kick, and undocked his Identity Disk with his hand as he twisted fluidly from a crouch. The guard toppled over, and the whirring edge of the stranger's charged disk came down. The guard's scream echoed in Ram's auditory system even as he crumbled to pixels.
Ram knew he was gaping in awestruck horror, but he couldn't tear his eyes away.
The newcomer turned to meet the other guard head-on, but was intercepted, a ragged cry torn from his throat as the lightstaff connected with his back, sending him to his hands and knees again. He didn't rise this time. The lone guard stomped out, and the force field was restored.
The program groaned and climbed to his feet, turning to survey the room.
Audible gasps and a shockwave of murmurs passed through the crowd. When the stranger turned to face Ram, Ram understood why.
The program was tall, lithe, with a fierce expression of determination that seemed his default setting. His circuits blazed a pure and uncompromised blue, patterned in intricate detail across his armour. His User must have been an exceptional creator to write a program so complex. But Ram's eyes were drawn to the identifier. It was prominently placed in the centre of his chest, a marking that displayed his primary function in the system.
Now Ram knew why the others had begun whispering, and the core processor in his chest felt as though it were sinking. The newcomer was security, independent security. Even if the Memory Guards of this system were on the MCP's side, there was always hope for help from the outside. If the MCP had been able to capture him, then what hope was left?
The actuary watched the security monitor pace in measured circles, back and forth in front of the gates in a predatory stroll. His disk still whirred with a charge in his hand, and an odd, rumbling growl was just barely audible to Ram's auditory sensors whenever his path took him closer to Ram's position. After watching this for half a nano, he just couldn't take it any longer.
"Hey," he barked, waving a hand at the monitor, "stop that, will ya? You're making me dizzy and trust me, you do not want to see me re-enact my last trip on a Solar Sailer. Energy purge everywhere, not pretty."
The security program stopped short and levelled a glare at Ram, the rumbling growl hitching up a notch. The actuary gulped - perhaps antagonising the deadly firewall wasn't his best idea to date - but pressed boldly onward.
"They're not going to deactivate that barrier anytime soon, and you can't slash your way through it. Believe me, I've seen it tried. C'mon, you're just wasting your energy like that. Put it away, man."
The rumble faded. The monitor was frowning at him now. Slowly, the glow of his Identity Disk died, and the program reached back to dock it.
"That's it," Ram said cheerfully, and patted the ground next to him. "Pull up a patch of floor, get comfy."
The glare returned in force. Ram gulped again. "Or not, your choice…"
The program gave a short growl and stalked towards the compound wall nearest the gate. The few programs that had been lingering there during the activity quickly scattered for safer climes. The monitor felt along the wall for a moment, looking for weak spots, and finding none, leaned against it, eyes fixated upon the compound gate.
"Cheerful," Ram remarked in a mutter, sighing and leaning back against the wall, arms folded across his chest.
Ram found himself watching the unnamed security program more and more as the microcycles ticked by. There was precious little else to do, really, and he was far more interesting than any of the other beaten-down conscripts.
The monitor never spoke to anyone, simply ignored the few braver functions that approached, and glared at any who were braver yet to attempt conversation.
Ram still didn't know his designation.
To the actuary's amusement, the guards had stopped coming by regularly to take programs away. With a growling firewall lurking at the compound gate, it was probably a far less attractive proposition to attempt to open the door.
That didn't deter them completely, however. They only had to wait for him to run low on energy, or move to a further section of the compound during his bouts of restless pacing, before they deactivated the force field and snatched whatever hapless program happened to be closest.
"Dunno why he even keeps trying," someone nearby muttered sourly, ignoring his companion's warning hiss of "shut up St3v!" Ram vaguely recognised him: one of the newer programs, a data-pusher if he remembered correctly, but whose circuits had already turned almost completely green. "Frag knows the Users aren't gonna help us. What use is fighting back in here? His User's forgotten him just like the rest of us-"
Ram barely registered the flash of blue; the loudmouth gave a startled squawk as the subject of his conversation slammed him into the wall, pinning him with an arm across the back of his captive's neck. The assailant's lips curled back in what was a frankly terrifying expression, somewhere between a snarl and a derisive smirk.
"I know that it's probably difficult for you to understand this," the security program purred, and frag, that was a voice that sank straight into Ram's processors and melted a few critical systems. "I'm sure you've been here a while, and that's bound to cause a few memory glitches. But I do not take kindly to programs casting blatantly negative aspersions on the Users. Especially," he shoved the program harder against the wall, voice dropping into a growl, "my User."
The program gave a terrified squeak.
Ram realised he was gaping again, and shut his mouth quickly. The monitor released his captive with a disgusted look, ignoring the program's sudden loss of motor functions and subsequent collapse to the floor, and turned to glare at the audience he'd attracted.
"Listen up, because I am only going to say this once," the monitor declared, back taut and eyes bright, exuding a presence of authority. "Since I was brought here, I have been watching, and listening, to you snivelling conscripts as you sit here, content to march to your deresolutions, losing your beliefs and values and allowing your cores, the very code that makes you who you are, crumble into voxels, and frankly, I am ashamed to be counted among your number. You are letting the M. C. P. win." Several programs shrank back from his glare, a round of low murmurs spreading through the crowd. "Can none of you think for yourselves? Does no program here have the will to stand and fight?"
"We're not programmed to fight," someone piped up, though Ram couldn't be sure who. The monitor turned to stare in the direction of the voice.
"Whether you're programmed to fight or not doesn't matter. The Users didn't write us to lie down and stop functioning at the command of some over-compensating dictator. They wrote us to do their will by their command. This is meant to be a free system, for all programs. Does no one have the courage to push the boundaries of their programming, to stand up and say No?"
There was silence from the crowd. The security monitor scowled, and undocked his disk from his back. (Several closer programs took a step back at this; probably a smart move, considering the monitor's lethality. Ram would later wonder why he hadn't moved as well.) He straightened up and raised his disk in the air, the concentric rings flashing with power.
"My designation is Tron, JA-307020," he stated, "and I am a free program. I will not be broken. I will not give up. I know my User is waiting for me. I am going to get out of here. I will take down the MCP. And I. Fight. For the Users."
A ripple of sound moved through the compound, one that Ram felt almost tangibly as a shiver of unfamiliar excitement trembled through his systems. There was a strange tightness in his chest that felt as though something were straining to burst free, and he felt his lips curve into a broad grin. It was hope, he realised. He risked a glance down at his circuits; they were blazingly, beautifully blue.
Tron lowered his disk and docked it, walking back over to his post near the door and ignoring the rest of their fellow conscripts as he sat. Glancing at the others as they muttered amongst themselves, Ram hesitantly followed. He paused, a few steps away, rocking back and forth on his heels. After a moment, Tron turned to look at him sternly.
Ram stared back, studying the monitor's face. "Do you really think the Users are waiting for us?" he asked quietly.
"With every line of my code," Tron replied strongly. Ram worried his lip between his teeth, then took a seat beside the security program, leaning forward.
"I want to help," he said fervently. "I want to fight back. I'm only an actuarial program, but what you said, about pushing the boundaries of our programming…I want to learn how." he gazed hopefully up at the taller program. "Please."
Tron studied the nervous actuary silently for what seemed to Ram to be an age. Finally, he nodded, giving him a small, approving smile.
"What's your name, program?"
He felt a wave of relief fill his processors. "I'm Ram-RK78206."
"Good to meet you, Ram," he said, and held out a hand. "I'm Tron."
The smile that crossed Ram's lips as he clasped Tron's hand in his own was his biggest and brightest yet.