"So what's our game plan?" Beck asked.
"We make a run for the tunnels, but try not to look like we're running," Tron said.
The three of them had assembled near the entrance to Able's garage. Each had their helmets up, and Tron couldn't help reflecting on how similar Alan's helmet was to his. Come to think of it, so were his light lines. Alan's circuits were much simpler than Tron's preferred settings, but they reminded him of his stealth suit, with sprinkled lines defining his chest, arms, knees, and abdomen. The User leaned heavily against Tron's light cycle. Tron didn't trust him to ride solo, so for now, he would have to be a passenger.
Beck scratched a circuit on his wrist. His other hand tightened around a baton. "The tunnels? Won't that take longer?"
"So will sneaking past an occupation checkpoint," Tron maintained. "Consider this a shortcut."
"Well, when you put it that way..."
Tron wordlessly mounted his light cycle—a clear signal that he was done with debate. After a short effort, Alan got on behind him and wrapped his arms around Tron's front. The usual spark of energy passed between them before swiftly subsiding. Tron could feel the User's ragged breathing on his back and the shaking in his arms. A pang of concern juddered his core.
"Are you sure you can do this?" Tron questioned. The last thing he wanted was to smuggle Alan out of the city, only for him to fall off partway.
"Oh quit fussing. I'm fine. 'Feeling a bit better already," Alan puffed. His voice acquired a kind of far-off quality. Speculatively, he said, "I might be recovering faster from within the system. That, or it's a side effect of all that energy gunk. Lora would know. Who knew there would be health benefits to being zapped into a computer?"
"I'm happy for you, Al, but we need to stay focused," said Beck. He tossed his baton into the air and it came down in the form of a bike.
Neither Tron nor Alan commented on the "Al" thing.
Just before driving off, Tron spotted a blue-haired figure on the overhaul floor—Mara the mechanic, watching them leave. She shrank into a speck and disappeared. A pensive feeling alighted over Tron's processes before he shunted the sighting from his mind. There were more important things to worry about.
The way to the tunnels was long and winding, and they spent most of it dodging patrols or skirting around civilians. The roads were utterly packed with programs. Argon's citizens wandered the streets like strays. There were also plenty of soldiers, though they were more preoccupied with restoring order than pursuing Tron and Beck. Tesler's forces were in disarray, and Tron intended to take every advantage from that.
It'll be worse if Clu gets here, he thought more than once.
Still, they were moving too slow for Tron's tastes. Hopefully the going would go smoother once they reached the tunnels.
They passed over a bridge and sped up, encouraged by the lack of programs on the crossing. Unfortunately, the empty stretch was followed by what could only be described as a living roadblock. Tron's cycle screeched to a sideways stop, and Beck braked hard beside him. They sat astride their light cycles, at a loss on how to proceed.
The road ahead was clogged with errant programs. Most of them meandered and mingled in aimless currents, but others were motionless. Some stood like stationary fixtures, too shell-shocked to speak. A few of them knelt, addled with immaterial matters. Perhaps they simply needed the comfort of their fellow programs. For the moment, there were no guards or sentries on the premises.
Alan's whisper wafted over Tron's shoulder. "Do we go around?"
Tron didn't answer right away. He shifted his weight and fumbled with the cycle's controls. Now that they were stopped, something was wrong. Every piece of his programming was screaming, 'danger'.
They were being watched.
He sent out a series of rapid scans. They permeated the crowd like feelers, but yielded very little information. That wasn't surprising. Getting feedback from a gathering this big was tricky. On a whim, he scanned around the crowd, both in front and behind him, and was rewarded with a pattering of hits.
Troubled, Tron switched his attention to the surrounding buildings. He saw nothing. The danger was located outside the crowd, like a veil of malicious intent lurking just out of sight. Worse, it seemed to pen them in from all sides. A grumble crawled between Tron's lips. There were other routes they could take, but none of them as fast or direct, and with no guarantee of safety.
"No," Tron decided. "We go through."
It was a gamble, but a necessary one. They could just as easily run into trouble from either direction, and turning back now might make them a target. If they were lucky, they would lose whoever was watching them in the crowd. Safety in numbers, and all.
And if it came to a fight, then Tron could attend to any foe they came across.
Tron snapped the steering grips of his cycle back into a baton. Behind him, Alan let out a yelp as the bike disappeared. Beck followed Tron's example, and together, they advanced through the horde.
His audio input was besieged by voices. Like before, the lockdown appeared completely forgotten in the wake of system failure, and like before, Tron tried to sort through the conversations around him. They already had a name for it—'The Freeze'. Crass, but accurate. Programs convened in clusters to discuss theories, trade news, and search for missing friends. At times, it felt more like a congregation than a mob. Old litanies glided above Tron's head like relics from a bygone era.
"All that is visible must grow beyond itself, and extend..."
"First there's rumours from the Capital, then Argon goes into lockdown, and now this... Something's gone horribly wrong."
Halfway through the crowd, Alan brushed shoulders with a program. The contact only lasted for half a nano, but it was enough. The program's circuits brightened into spotlights. She gave a little start, spun on her heels, and stared after them like she'd seen a ghost. Tron's inner processors grinded together as they passed. He didn't relax until the program receded into the rest of the crowd. Sharing a look, Beck and Tron situated themselves on either side of Alan. They pushed ahead, more mindful than before.
"What was that about?" Alan asked.
Tron gestured helplessly. It was hard to put into words. "When you touch people, it can be a bit..."
"Energizing?" Beck supplied. "I've noticed it too. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't. Watch-" he slapped a hand on Alan's shoulder. Something smug entered his voice. "See? Didn't work."
Hidden by his helmet, Tron's eyes rolled to the sky.
"I'll take your word for it," Alan said dubiously. "So, don't touch anyone. Got it."
With Beck and Tron acting as escorts, the rest of the walk went without a hitch. Each step left Alan winded and Tron allowed him to lean on his shoulder. He put an arm around the User, like they were old chums instead of battered fugitives. It wouldn't do any good for their party to appear weak.
When they finally reached the other side, the military had arrived. Tron jostled his companions into a sheltered side street and crouched in wait. A regiment of sentries went streaming past to disperse the dissidents. Luckily, their own paltry trio went overlooked.
Alan lifted a staying hand. "Wait, wait-"
"What is it?" Tron asked sharply.
"I need a break." Without further ado, Alan sagged against a wall and slid to the ground. "Just a few seconds..."
"I'm a bit fuzzy on 'seconds', but maybe you oughta rest on the bike," Beck said before urging the User up again.
Tron was about to agree when he heard the scuff of feet. At that same moment, his proximity sensors went off.
Out of habit, Tron swore, "Alan-One."
"Come again?" Alan said, only to be shoved behind Tron.
They had been under watch after all.
Programs crawled out of corners like gridbugs. They stuck to the shadows, but their light lines gave them away. Tron counted one score, about twenty. Their circuits consisted of every colour on the Grid except red. Like Tron's group, they were helmeted.
A breath whistled through his teeth. He would've expected this in Purgos, but not here. How ironic, that their first obstacle would be regular old programs, and not soldiers. The cycle's events must've dragged out opportunistic looters as well as fanatics.
And Tron, Beck, and Alan looked the part of easy prey.
"Hand over the bikes, and maybe we'll let you leave with your discs," ordered one of the larger programs. Tron immediately identified him as the leader.
"No thanks, we need these," Beck said tersely.
A sniggering lackey stepped closer. "Where are you guys going in such a hurry?" she sneered.
Tron studied their foes even as they surrounded them. In this climate, conflict was highly likely, if not inevitable. They would just have to make the best of it if it came to blows. The would-be-crooks were bold, but undisciplined. Only a couple looked comfortable holding their discs. The rest were a mix of overly-cocky and overly-jumpy. Tron's nose wrinkled under his helmet. Maybe, if they held their ground, they could frighten them away.
"That's our business," Tron said, cold but unprovoking. "Just let us pass."
Someone else spoke up, "Sorry pals, but it's a tough world out there, what with the occupation looking over everyone's shoulders... Well, y'know how it is." They at least had the decency to sound remorseful.
"Last chance," the leader announced.
Tron drew his disc in answer.
Just like that, the tension snapped in half.
The leader rushed at him first. He jabbed at Tron's neck but was met with empty air. Just as Tron ducked, another hand shot out to grasp the enemy's wrist. Alan stood over them both like a glacier. The program tried to tug his arm away, but the User's grip was like ice. A myriad of cracks started to spiderweb from Alan's hand. The arm attached to the disc shattered, and Tron closed his eyes against the rain of voxels.
Tron counted one beat of stunned silence. Even Alan seemed startled, though he quickly recovered. Then, a howl tore out of the program's throat. The rest of his body followed his arm and the howl faded into nothing. A tide of cubes crested against Tron's and Alan's feet.
No one said a word.
"...What, did, you, DO?!" bellowed one of the goons.
"I deleted him," Alan said coolly. Only Tron noticed the discomfort in his posture.
Perhaps it'd been an accident, or perhaps Alan had hoped to spook the others off. As it was, though, the programs just got angrier.
"He must be one of those ISOs!"
Letting out one collective roar, the rest of the programs stampeded forward. Beck and Tron sprang into action. They fended the programs off with blurred discs and firm fists, shielding the User all the while.
The brawl was more exhilarating than it should've been. Tron was used to operating in perpetual pain. He'd learned how to limit himself and how to compensate for stiff joints. That knowledge still served him well, however unnecessary it was now. Everything felt fluid, freeing, like he'd been laden with weights before. His limbs were light and his disc moved effortlessly. It was almost enough to make him laugh.
From the back, Alan lobbed his disc with surprising speed and precision. It clanged across a program's helmet and knocked him clean out. When Tron glanced over, he saw a thin, sizzling line through the helmet's centre.
Beck whooped appreciatively. "Not bad, Us- uh, you! Where did you learn to throw a disc?"
"OK now you're just saying sounds instead of words."
As fast as the fight broke out, it ended. Tron and Beck kept the thugs at bay for a frenzied micro, when suddenly, they began to break ranks. One shouted, "Scatter!", and they scuttled back into hiding.
"Uh, good job team?" Beck said skeptically.
Tron shook his head. Something wasn't right. They'd ran in the wrong direction, and without warning, too. He stole a peek over his shoulder and tensed. A nimbus of orange was rolling straight towards them.
"They're not running from us," he realized.
Their little scuffle had attracted the wrong type of notice. The same regiment that they'd seen earlier was on its way back, lured by the sounds of fighting. Their footsteps pounded into the pavement and their discs buzzed in their hands. Tron grabbed Alan's wrist and bolted. They were followed by yells of, "Halt!", and, "Stop right there!".
One of the sentries must've thrown their disc, because Tron heard it hurtling for his head. It was quite the distance away, so he ignored it for the time being. All he needed was a chance to rezz his light cycle.
The disc travelled in a low arc. Tron tracked it by sound, anticipating... At the last nano, he pivoted. He lifted his own disc to deflect it—too late.
Alan had been faster. He leapt in front of Tron and took the disc head-on. It slashed across his shoulder and Tron saw a small spray of blood. Instantly, the User stumbled, and Tron skidded to a stop. His circuits turned to ice.
"Alan!" he exclaimed.