It was fairly late into the current shift, close to the start of a fresh downtime, and Ram was brooding.
He’d derezzed another User-believer in Disk Wars that microcycle, and it had shuffled thoughts of the nameless program from the lightcycle grid to the forefront of his memories. His processors ached, his limbs felt numb, and he was low on energy. In the darkened cell at Ram’s back, Tron was just as exhausted, the security program leaning up against the wall with head bowed. Conversation was at a minimum.
Lost among his own thoughts, Ram was silent, idly spinning his disk as he watched the guards appear at the door of the neighbouring cell, which was empty. They were escorting another new program, though from the relaxed way they held their lightstaffs, the two Reds obviously didn’t think much of their prisoner’s abilities.
“Hey, really, you’re gonna make my User, Mr. Henderson, very angry. He’s a full branch manager, you know.” Like many new programs, the conscript seemed determined to wheedle his way out of his situation. Unaffected, the guards simply smirked.
“Great – another religious nut,” one said, and his buddy shoved the appalled program into the cell. Chuckling, the Reds walked away. Ram waited until the echoing sound of their footsteps had faded before he sat up and took a closer look at his new neighbour.
The new conscript looked panicked and baffled by the guards’ reactions, the circuits under his novice tunic muted almost gray with fear. He was stockier than other programs, though Ram knew appearance didn’t mean everything in terms of skill. But Ram didn’t hold much hope that this newbie would survive long enough to shed that tunic. The odds were depressingly low.
The nameless rider drifted back through his thoughts. He would always regret not learning that program’s designation before he’d deresolved.
Maybe he owed it to the rider’s memory not to let that happen again. A program deserved to be remembered by more than his User.
“I’d say ‘welcome’, friend, but not here. Not like this,” he said, smiling a little when the program turned around in shock. The program’s eyes widened, then his tense posture relaxed slightly, and he moved closer to the barrier.
“Don’t,” Ram warned, as the newcomer stepped a little too close. “Those force fields pack a punch.”
The program stepped back, circuits dimming, and swallowed. “Thanks for the warning.” He looked frustrated and reached up to scratch under his helmet, clearly unused to its presence. “Geez. I don’t even know what I’m doing here. ”
Ram uncoiled from the floor and let his disk hang from his fingertips as he moved closer, leaning an arm against the support strut dividing them. “Do you believe in the Users?”
His neighbour blinked and gave Ram a scandalised look. “Of course I do. If I don’t have a User, then who wrote me? It’s not like programs can just materialise out of thin air.”
Ram smirked and ducked his head. “Ha, that would be something. But no – belief: that’s what you’re doing here. Master Control Program’s been snapping up all us programs who believe. If he thinks you’re useful, he absorbs all your functions so he gets bigger. If not, he sends you down here to get the bits blasted out of you on the Game Grids.”
The newcomer looked horrified. “That’s…that’s crazy! How could one program gain so much power?”
“He’s been doing it a while now. It used to be newbies got sent straight to a compound, but then there were some uprisings and attempts to revolt, and now you get a whole cell all to yourself.” Ram smiled, bittersweet and dry. “Lucky you.”
His new companion’s expression cycled through several emotions before settling on dazed, shocked dismay. He sat on the edge of his cot, shoulders slumped. He looked on the verge of a lock-up; if that happened, he’d never make it through training.
Ram balked for a moment. This was the decision-gate; he could let things rest there, go back to anonymity and silence, or he could repair some of what Sark had broken in his spirit.
He licked his lips, canted his head slightly, and asked gently, “…what’s your name?”
“Crom,” the program said, still sounding a bit lost.
“I’m Ram,” the actuary replied with a nod, hesitating; should he clue Crom in on what was coming, or let him hope for a while? Truth won out over peace of mind. “For what it’s worth, they won’t send you out there completely in the dark. Have you gotten Sark’s speech yet?”
Crom shook his head, puzzled.
“Ah, well, they’ll probably be back for you soon. You’ll have to sit through a nano-hex of him preaching about how you should ‘renounce your superstitious, hysterical beliefs in the Users and join the all-mighty ranks of the MCP.’ Load of trash-bits, if you ask me.” Ram made a face. Crom smiled slightly, amused despite his worry.
“After that, you’ll be given an Identity Disk – one of these,” Ram held his up for display, letting a bit of power illuminate the concentric rings on its surface, “if you don’t have one already. If you don’t convert, you’ll be stuck with Sark’s ‘standard, sub-standard’ training regimens. It’s pretty much just shoving info packets into your databanks until your logic circuits fry, and then throwing you into a couple of non-lethal rounds to familiarize you to the different games.”
“If you do renounce the Users, well…” the actuary whistled a lilting note, making a swooping motion with his disk, and let the power fade. “Probably wouldn’t make much difference. A User-believer that converts just to save his own shell is still a believer at core.”
He let that sink in for a picocycle, and smiled in what he hoped was a reassuring manner, but probably wasn’t, going by Crom’s nervous expression. “I hope you make it.”
Crom laughed weakly, sinking onto the edge of the bench in his cell. “Yeah, I don’t think so. I’m just a compound interest program. I’ll probably get derezzed in the first match; I’m no gladiator.”
“Hey, being a CIP is probably a bigger advantage than you might think. I’m only an actuary,” Ram said with a shrug, and grinned when Crom gave him a startled look. “Knowing how to calculate odds and angles and statistics comes in handy. If you survive training, I’ll show you a few tricks.”
For the first time, Crom looked relieved, and smiled.
“Hey, so, what’s been going on in the other sectors? I’ve been stuck in here over 200 microcycles now.” Ram jabbed his thumb in the direction of his cot. He’d started taking his frustrations at Sark and the MCP out on the wall above the bench, and there were several neat, tidy rows of binary ones scratched into the silicone, collected in little groups, each mark counting a microcycle he’d been isolated in that cell. Crom’s face fell upon seeing them; he’d obviously been worried about derezzing in the games, not wasting away in captivity.
“I don’t know much about the other sectors in this system, I’m afraid. I was pulled out of a neighbouring system that works closely with this system’s accounting functions. The MCP has his tendrils in everything these cycles; its murder trying to get anything accomplished. You can’t even travel around your own microcircuits without permission from ‘Master Control Program.’” Crom scoffed, some of the indignity returning to his voice. “I mean, hauling me down here to play video games? Who does he calculate he is?”
Ram’s hopeful look faded. “So, you don’t know anything?” He asked, sadly. Crom shook his head.
“No specific details, not really. But it’s a bit strange; when I was being hauled over here on the Solar Sailer, I noticed a few sectors were darker than they should be. I’m not sure why. Could be power drain, or just the MCP shutting down sectors that were empty or unimportant…I’m sorry,” he added apologetically, as Ram’s expression became stunned and worried.
“No, it’s alright; just unexpected.” Ram frowned, drumming his fingers against the surface of his disk as he considered the implications. Which sectors had been going dark? Why? A system was only completely efficient if all the sectors were live and working. If the MCP was shutting them down somehow, was that a way to control dissidents, or was it because no one left alive remained there?
Crom was still talking. Ram’s head jerked up as he caught the tail end of a remark. “Sorry, what did you say?”
“I said I wish Tron was still around,” Crom repeated, shoulders slumped for a moment. “Even the fellas in my system knew about Tron. Boy, did you ever see him in action? One-hundred percent independent! The MCP couldn’t tell him what to do. Wow. If I had twelve percent of his skill –”
“Wait, wait, hold up. You’re telling me Tron is…gone?” Ram’s eyebrows twitched, confused about whether they should furrow themselves in confusion or arch upward in amusement. Crom looked uncertain.
“He hasn’t been seen around his usual sectors in cycles. Everyone says he was derezzed, but there’ve been whispers –”
He broke off at Ram’s derisive snort, blinking in confusion. “What’s wrong? What did I say?”
Ram only turned to look across his cell. “Hey Tron, you’ve got yourself a fan here. Let ‘im know you’re not dead, will ya?”
Behind him, Crom spluttered in shock as Tron lifted his head to meet their eyes. The CIP gasped in disbelief, and his tone was dismayed as he exclaimed, “Oh, my User – Tron! They’ve got you in here too?”
“Not for long, friend,” Tron replied vehemently. Crom’s shoulders lifted from the dejected slump they’d taken, hope in his eyes. “The MCP’s microcycles are numbered.”
Crom opened his mouth to say something, only to be interrupted by the knock of a lightstaff against the force field. A Guard waited at the doorway, scowling at the distracted program. ~You, come with me.~
Crom looked instantly nervous. Ram offered him a reassuring smile. “Hey – remember what I said. It’s not that bad.” Crom nodded nervously. Ram watched them march off down the hall, and fired off a parting shot. “And hey, Crom; it’s all just calculations!”
“What made you finally start talking to him?” Tron’s query was quiet, once Ram had resettled back on the floor next to the divider between them.
Ram shrugged and sighed, tipping his head back to meet Tron’s gaze. “Just…felt it was right.” He rolled his eyes at the look the security program gave him. “I know, I know. Don’t say it. It felt good. I know the odds of seeing him again are astronomical, but…it doesn’t hurt as much knowing.”
“About time you got your circuits recalibrated,” Tron said, folding his arms across his chest. “I was starting to miss the chipper calculator I met in the compound.”
Ram smirked and gave the barrier between them a knock with his disk. “And what about you, Mister ‘the MCP’s microcycles are numbered’?” He quoted, affecting a gruff, growly accent. “What’s with the sudden imparting of inspirational taglines to newbies? You’re usually just as quiet as I was.”
There was silence for a few nanocycles before Tron deigned to answer. “You made an effort,” he finally said. “I was proud of you.”
“So…speaking up was your way of showing that?” Ram asked quietly, swallowing against the sudden lump in his throat. He smirked slightly, and affected a flattered expression, clutching his chest. “Gee, Tron, you’ll make my circuits fry with these sudden random acts of emotion.”
“Oh… /endfunction-vocalsubroutine,” Tron huffed, his brooding scowl firmly back in place. Ram couldn’t help but giggle. He was still snickering when the Memory Guards came to escort him to his last match for the current uptime.
His good mood lasted through the lightcycle round; it had been one-on-one, and feeling a bit devious, he’d used his disk to take out the other rider’s back tire, derezzing the bike and leaving the program (mostly) unharmed. He’d winked at the baffled-looking, red-circuited Elite warrior as he was escorted off the game grid, grinning; no doubt the Elite would be shutting down that night worrying about why a notorious blue-circuited renegade opposing the MCP would spare his life.
Ram knew he would probably catch it from Sark for that stunt, but he didn’t care. He felt better. It was like a weight had lifted off his shoulders, even if it was just a fraction of the totality.
And considering that up until then he had been quiet, meek, and depressed, the wide smile he wore now seemed to be making his escort very, very nervous.
He marked that up as a bonus, and whistled an upbeat tune as he walked down the corridor.