It was a pair of very exhausted programs that stumbled into the compound yard at the end of the microcycle. A full shift of game rounds meant both were battered and bruised, and very much looking forward to collapsing somewhere relatively safe and undisturbed.
Tron grimaced as he eased himself down to the floor in their corner, tipping backwards to stretch out completely. Once fully supine, he gave a heavily relieved sigh, letting his whole body relax.
His repose was interrupted as Ram joined him; the actuarial program flopped unceremoniously to the floor, knocking the breath out of the system monitor as he sprawled across Tron’s stomach, his head buried in the crook of his arm.
“Ram,” Tron wheezed slightly, nudging his friend’s shoulder but not having the will to do much else. “Ram, get off, you’re heavy.”
/can’t-tired-sore. ~Leave me alone to die,~ was the garbled ping-binary response. Tron hefted another sigh from his chest and considered forcefully moving the actuary, but in the end all he did was pull a trapped arm free and let his hand rest back down on Ram’s head, idly scritching the nape of his neck. The actuary had discarded his helmet again; Tron slid fingers into the nearest curls and brushed circuitry, making Ram groan gratefully.
The prone conscript mumbled something that was lost to the floor of the compound yard.
“Can’t hear you, Ram.”
“I said, I’m gonna find the genius who gave Sark the idea for tournament matches and tie him up in a room full of angry Bits,” came the repeated reply, still muffled, but loud enough to make out most of the words.
“I’ll help,” Tron groaned, sounding just as exhausted as Ram felt.
Something had sparked a serious increase in games matches in recent microcycles, and without enough programs to put into play, Sark had instituted a tournament of sorts. For Tron and Ram, it meant multiple games played back to back, against multiple opponents, without rest in between. Winner of the most matches would earn their freedom, supposedly.
Ram didn’t think it was freedom that awaited the victor of the tournament, unless the freedom of deresolution counted. Alas, he and Tron were alone in their suspicions; as a result, the games had been extra brutal, with every program fighting with an extra fervour towards the Prize – even at the expense of turning on their own teammates.
“Y’know, someone actually shouted ‘there can be only one’ at me in Disk Wars today,” he muttered. “Why does it seem like we’re the only two programs with functioning logic circuits anymore?”
“Can’t blame ‘em entirely for wanting a chance to get free,” Tron pointed out wearily. “Not that it did much good – you’d think by now they’d all know better than to believe anything positive coming out of Sark’s big mouth.” He shifted under Ram and hissed in discomfort, cycling a few breaths more rapidly than usual.
Ram lifted his head, squinting at Tron through one bleary eye. “You all right, Tron?”
The security program was staring at the ceiling, a stoic grimace on his lips. “Yeah, just – ah…a few structural aches and lock-ups; I think I wrenched something in the last match. They’ll go away if I don’t move much; should be fine by next shift.”
“Why wait?” Ram propped himself up on an elbow. “I know a bit about defragging function lock-ups. Want me to give it a shot?”
Tron paused, considering this new tidbit of information. “Where would you learn how to do that?” He asked.
“You’d be surprised how many motor functions lock up processing insurance claims. It was a standard info-packet for everyone in my department.” The actuary grimaced stiffly as he pushed himself up on all fours and sat back, stretching his back with a grunt. ~Glitch it –~ “– could use a bit of defragging myself.”
Tron hesitated over the proposition, but he grimaced as a cramp spasmed through his calf, making up his mind for him. “Do me and I’ll do you?” he suggested wearily. “Gotta show me how though.”
“Deal,” Ram chuckled, nudging the other’s shoulder. “Roll over, firewall.”
“Suddenly I have a bad feeling about this,” the system monitor joked, complying with the command and grunting as he turned over and sprawled on his stomach. He felt Ram’s weight settle into place as the actuary straddled his back, and then fingers were stroking up his main dorsal circuits, digging into the structural pixels underneath. A low-level energy charge accompanied the steady pressure, feeding warmth into stalled node-clusters, and Tron groaned, letting his head drop onto his arm.
Ram shook his head and shifted a bit lower, working his fingers into the troublesome knots of tension that had tangled under Tron’s shell.
Touching another program’s circuit array with this kind of familiarity was usually reserved for mates and interfacing, but it was also mostly about intent. Rather than stimulation, which was the usual tactile-input response, Ram directed his attention to providing comfort. The fact that Tron’s gladiatorial armour was designed to dial down input was an irritating obstacle – it meant Ram had to focus harder to get through to the problem spots.
“This would be easier without armour,” he remarked, earning a pointed silence from his patient. “Yeah, yeah, I know – too dangerous to take it off. I’m just saying it’s easier; never thought I’d be against impact dampeners.”
“Mm,” Tron hummed, though it wasn’t clear if he was agreeing or disagreeing with the actuary’s statement. The security program was radiating /comfort-relaxed-happy, practically purring under Ram’s hands.
Ram was careful to document the specific nodes he touched as he moved from one to the next, filing it into an info-packet similar to the one he’d gotten. It wasn’t long before the worst of the lock-ups had been released, and he decamped from his position, sprawling back on his hands next to Tron.
“Can’t do much more with the armour in the way, alas,” he apologised. “Did I miss any trouble spots?”
It took a nano for Tron to rouse out of his stupor. When he did, he canted his head slightly as he ran a diagnostic, and then arched his back in a deep stretch, rump in the air, extending arms out in front of him along the floor with a delirious groan.
“Hmm,” he sighed happily, sitting up and resting back on his heels. “A few twinges, but nothing serious. That’s amazing, Ram.”
Ram beamed brightly and beckoned him in with a finger. “C’mon, your turn. I recorded everything I did; you just gotta follow the directions.”
Tron chuckled and leaned in to rest his forehead against Ram’s, pinging a quiet /thanks-friend at the same time Ram used the contact to transfer the info-packet over.
/welcome-anytime, Ram replied on the tail end of the last data and reached up to hook his fingers behind Tron’s neck, keeping the other program from pulling back, as he closed his eyes. /wait-don’tgoyet.
Tron waited patiently, threading his own fingers into the curls at the base of Ram’s skull and using the time to analyse the data he’d downloaded, until the actuary felt steady enough to pull back.
Ram’s occasional intense cravings for touch had at first been strange for the security program – and a little awkward, once Ram had told him about having half-compiled infiltration code. Once he’d established the tactile fixation was a side-effect of the code and not dangerous, Tron had relaxed about it, mostly. Now, it was almost commonplace for Ram to curl up beside Tron whenever they were in the compound, stealing what physical input he could between matches.
Ram gave a deep sigh and finally let Tron go, opening his eyes sheepishly. The security program smiled at him with amusement.
“You couldn’t wait five nanos for the defragging?” he teased, gesturing to indicate Ram should lie down. “You really are addicted.”
“There are levels,” Ram replied defensively, stretching out on his stomach and pillowing his head sideways on his arms to be able to watch Tron. “Defragging lock-ups isn’t the same as – oh, hnf –” /thatsthespot-yes-excellent.
Tron chuckled as Ram went limp with enjoyment, and dug his thumbs more firmly into the node-cluster near his right shoulder. It was surprisingly tangled, which had to be causing Ram some stiffness and discomfort.
“Wow, Ram, this is a mess. What did Sark have you doing, fighting gridbugs?”
“Jai Alai,” Ram groaned in response, hissing as the cluster spiked painfully for a moment before it smoothed out and the tension released. “Laughably easy, but the cesta glove loads extra stress on – hrf, a bit to the left, yeah – especially after multiple rounds. Almost couldn’t lift my arm when they switched me to Disk Wars.”
“You’re okay though, right?” Tron frowned, running an automatic diagnostic scan. “Not hiding injuries I should know about, right?”
“Yes, User,” Ram drawled, rolling his eyes and squirming under the tingling sensation of the scan. “Barely got a scratch, I promise – hey, cut it out; that tickles.”
“Oh yeah?” Tron jabbed his fingers into Ram’s sides mischievously. “How about that?” The actuary yelped in surprise and bucked away from him, rolling sharply to his hands and knees and glaring impishly at Tron.
“You wanna play it that way, huh?” Ram said, crouching.
Tron smirked in obvious challenge. /bringit.
A few nearby programs in the compound yard were treated to the sight of Ram launching himself at the taller program with a playful war cry, knocking Tron to the floor. The pair of them grappled for the upper hand until Tron managed to hook a leg around Ram’s knees and flipped him onto his back. Then he pinned his attacker to the floor and began tickling his circuitry, until the actuary was laughing hysterically.
“Never! – Augh! Ahahahaha-ack! He-eeelp! Uncle! Uncle! I give!”
The observers shook their heads at the antics, some looking on with envy; to think, that an actuary and a system monitor could find laughter even in a place like this.