Tron dropped to his knees at the same moment as Alan, and Beck came to a stop shortly after. The beta bounded in front of them both while Tron laid trembling hands on Alan's shoulders. Distantly, Tron detected the aggressive footfalls from dozens of sentries.
The game had changed. They had maybe one micro, tops, before things got violent. Even if they could rezz their light cycles in time, Alan was in no shape to ride, and that was assuming the sentries wouldn't take chase on their own cycles.
There was no running now.
"Ow..." Alan mumbled.
That single, plaintive cry brought Tron back to the present.
Users above, Tron scolded himself, before the irony of his oath hit him like a brick. The only User that mattered was the one in front of him right now, and he couldn't manage to protect even that. Glitch, he wasn't sure who to be more cross with—Alan or himself. Of all the bit-brained...
With fumbling fingers, Tron touched the fresh indent in Alan's armour. Alan's helmet automatically unfolded as he gasped for air. He moved the hand aside, teeth gritted irritably.
"It's not bad," he grunted.
Tron wasn't so sure about that, but at least there wasn't much bleeding. The wound looked like it couldn't decide if it wanted to be a burn or a cut. It also looked very, very painful.
A kind of cold fury seized Tron by the core and caused his circuits to crackle. The sound of an approaching sentry only served to intensify that fury. At a smattering of blood, the sentry blundered to an abrupt halt, quivered, and lined his gaze with Alan's exposed face. He cried, "The fugitive!", but was forced back by the blaze of Beck's disc.
Just as the first sentry fell, three of his comrades showed up, with more on the way. It sounded like Beck was holding his own, at least for the time being. No program could last long against such odds, though. Not alone. Tron rose to help but was stopped by Alan's hand on his.
The User's steel-blue eyes seemed to drill into Tron's very core. Every component of Tron's code sang in notes that only he could hear. For just a nano, he could recall older cycles in the Encom system, back when Alan-[One]'s call was as constant as the beams from I/O towers. It was comforting. Invigorating. Inspiring. Energy seeped through Tron's arm like a rill. It ebbed up his shoulder, settled in his chest, then spread to the rest of his extremities.
Tron wasn't sure how he knew, but somehow, he could tell that Alan was doing the transfer on purpose this time.
A weight dropped in Tron's hand, and when he looked down, there was a disc sitting there, identical to his own. It glowed eagerly in his grip. Again, Tron met Alan's gaze. An unspoken understanding passed between them.
Without much conviction, Alan said, "I want that back."
Tron nodded, stood, and undocked his own disc. They ignited in the same instant and seemed to purr in harmony. Lifting them, he faced his attackers, and the one ally keeping them at bay. Maybe it was the two discs, but Tron felt twice as strong, twice as brave, and twice as determined.
They'd pay the price for harming his User.
Circuits thrumming, he raced into the ruction.
He collided with a wiry sentry first. Their discs clashed in a shower of sparks that seared Tron's eyeballs. Half-blind, Tron disarmed the sentry with his second disc, then tossed said disc at yet another sentry. The first sentry threw a clumsy punch, but Tron twisted the arm behind his back and booted him in the rear. He went flying, and Tron moved onto another, not a nano wasted.
Tron fought through a haze. His functions had been relegated to a list of basic commands and actions—things like jump, duck, punch, kick, flip, and so forth. He was a maelstrom of movement, of staccato punches, high-tempo pounces, and dancing discs. Beck was always in the background, hewing down programs out of the corner of Tron's eye. Although he wasn't as lethal as his mentor, he was no less aggressive.
With each foe that fell there were another two to take its place. Tron was undaunted. Every victory gave him impetus for the next. He engaged simultaneously in close combat and long-range battery, with one disc used for melee, and the other for throwing. The disc returned faithfully to his hand, regardless of whether it was Alan's or Tron's. No one was safe from his reach.
After a while, the guards lost interest in the stationary User and focused instead on the program thrashing their collective circuits. Tron underwent the distinct sensation of being herded and found himself surrounded. He readied his stance and lifted his discs challengingly. There was no room for fear.
Two programs ran at Tron from either direction. He sidestepped lithely, tripping them both with a swipe of his leg before being forced to duck under a disc. He retaliated with a toss of his own. While his foes were distracted, he ran at the nearest guard, intending to plow a hole through the ring of programs.
No escape route? Fine. He'd make one.
He rammed into the guard shoulder-first and heard code crunch beneath his elbow. The guard's functions shut down in a wave from his helmet to his boots. At last, he collapsed into a pile of twitching limbs. Nanos later, Tron recoiled from a glancing blow to the shoulder. He rounded on another guard and elbowed him in the neck, just under the rim of his helmet. A pitiful warbling came from the program's throat as he collapsed.
Tron could feel the fight reaching a crescendo, now. Whenever he tried to advance he became further fenced in. It was increasingly hard to maneuver. Fists, staffs, and discs seemed to be all around him, and wherever he turned, red lines dominated his field of vision.
Someone kneed him in the gut, leaving him wheezing from inflamed scars. Through a film of phosphene he saw a disc slice into focus. He caught the disc between his own, but was unable to stop himself from falling backwards. A bulky sentry wrestled him to the ground and more programs promptly piled on top. Crushed, Tron could only struggle as the disc's heated edge drew ever-nearer. Then, just as it began to chisel into his helmet, some of the weight vanished.
Beck had come to his aid by tackling the programs on top. He threw one program's body into another's and sent them both sprawling. Tron dispatched the rest with a few swings of his discs. They scurried out of range like disturbed codeworms. One of them reeled back, clutching a stump of bleeding code.
Tron's vision began to blur as his mind shut down. Faceless enemies seemed to encircle him on all fronts, and it was all he could do to keep fighting. He operated on an endless cycle of jump, duck, punch, throw... It felt like it might never end—
—Until it did, and he felt a final hand on his shoulder. Tron's own hand lashed out like a bolt of lighting. He grabbed the program, pulled him over his shoulder, and pinned him with one palm, the flat-end of a disc buzzing against his chest.
Rapid-fire pings rattled around Tron's helmet and a voice pierced through his processes, high and panicky.
"Tron! TRON! It's over!"
The program's helmet peeled back from a familiar face.
There was a placating smile plastered on his face that fell mostly flat, and Tron could feel the undulations in his chest. Something stirred in Tron, like the sting of a gridbug, and he stepped back.
"You knew it was me, right?" Beck asked, nervous as he scrambled to his feet.
Tron refrained from answering. He gave Beck a quick once-over, just to be certain he was in one piece, before stalking off. He did a slow circuit around the carnage, scanning continuously for signs of life. All the guards were either unconscious, or in rare cases, derezzed. Tron counted at least a couple of program-shaped masses, outlined by cubes. There weren't many, but they were there. He edged around a mound of voxels, the code of his gut twisting into knots.
Something was missing from this morbid scene. Or rather, someone.
"Just gonna give me the silent treatment, huh? I see how it is. I'm OK, by the way. 'Can't say the same for some of these guys, but-"
"Where is Alan," Tron interrupted.
He watched Beck long enough to see him blanch, then resumed his frantic search. Even though Tron was overheating, he couldn't seem to get enough air.
"Alan?" he called, choking on nothing. "Alan-One? Alan!"
"Don't shout so loud." The User poked his head out from behind a data receptacle.
A wall of relief slammed down on Tron. Without being conscious of it, his legs began to move. He sprinted in a straight line while Beck trod sorrowfully around each orange voxel. They came to where the User was curled up and stood like skittish sentinels.
He must've crawled off during all the commotion. Smart.
Gingerly, Alan shifted his legs under his body, almost self-conscious in the movement. For a being so powerful, he was awfully small in this position. Tron clasped his hand and helped him up, holding both discs in his left. There was a moment of confusion before the right discs were returned to the appropriate owners' docks. Beck patted Alan on the back, still pale and jumpy.
"Don't scare us like that, Al," he said.
Alan made a face, as if debating the wisdom of answering to "Al". "Sorry. Didn't want to get in the way."
As glad as Tron was to see Alan, he also had to eye his new injury with distaste. They would have to patch that properly back at the lair.
"Are you alright?" Tron asked.
Alan gave a sort of stiff shrug. His eyes were clouded and he breathed through his teeth.
"Like I said, it's not bad. I'm just- really tired of having deadly discs thrown at me."
A frown flitted beneath Tron's helmet at Alan's answer.
The disc hadn't been thrown at him. Tron had been the target, and if Alan had just stayed his course, none of this would've happened. This wasn't the first time this had happened, either. If he hadn't interfered with those bandits, if he hadn't made such a spectacle, then things might've turned out differently from the start.
"I can take care take of myself, you know," Tron told him, as gently as he could manage.
Alan cast his eyes across the slew of bodies and cubes. "In hindsight, I can see that."
Tron continued as if Alan hadn't spoken. "You didn't need to do that back there."
"I did, actually."
"It's my job to protect you, not the other way around."
Affronted, and perhaps a little accusatory, Tron rose to his full height. "What, you don't think I'm capable of protecting myself?"
Alan dropped his head meekly, neck almost disappearing into hunched shoulders. "No- no that's not it- It just... felt right at the time," he said.
"Explain," persisted Tron. Acid coated the word.
Though this particular conversation felt far from complete, Tron willed himself to let it go. He took a breath to allay the anger in his chest. All evidence to the contrary, he wasn't that mad at Alan. Not really. More than anything, he was mad at Clu, mad at those guards, mad at himself.
And more than a little afraid, besides.
He couldn't lose anyone else. Not again.
Tron was supposed to fight for the Users. It was more than his programming. It was his chosen purpose, an interpretation of directive, his calling—and one that he was more than capable of fulfilling. Flynn had understood that—why couldn't Alan?
And when all was said and done, the fact remained: Tron was expendable, Alan was not.
"Later it is," Tron said at last.
He pulled out his baton and bounced it in his palm. There was more that he wanted to say, and not enough time to say it. His injured pride wouldn't let him forget earlier, when Alan had put himself in the path of a disc, for him. The moment kept replaying itself in his mind, over and over, like a loop.
"I did have that disc," Tron said to no one.
"He did have that, y'know," Beck echoed helpfully. There was an exaggerated broodiness to the sentence that stood out like a sore thumb. It occurred to Tron that not only was he being imitated, but he was being mocked.
Tron cast him a petulant look. It burned through the shield of his visor and made the beta cough timorously. After a full ten nanos, Tron broke the glare and rezzed his light cycle into being.
"We should go before more show up."
"You're the boss," trilled Beck without a trace of argument. The remark was forced, somehow, and Tron guessed that Beck was more affected by the fight than he was letting on.
That, too, would have to be addressed later.
Tron straddled the vehicle and shifted forward, Alan following with obvious effort. Once Beck had done the same with his own bike, the journey began anew.
They drove uneventfully through the depths of Argon, past dwindling buildings, and into the tunnels that laid on the city's outskirts. Only once they were safely inside did Tron allow his helmet to open. That portion of the drive was just as eerie as it was entrancing. The echoes of their engines lulled Tron into a sort of cautious calm, and the lights passing under his wheels were like the tick of a system clock. Just as time began to lose some of its meaning, the tunnel opened up, and they emerged in the Outlands.
Tron had never been more grateful to see the snowy wastes.
They plunged into the darkness away from Argon's lights. Everything was colder here, removed from the dense energy of the city. It wasn't quite a dead-zone, but it was close. Unsurprisingly by now, Tron's proximity to Alan kept him fairly warm.
Mindful of his passenger, Tron expertly evaded any bumps, crags, and slick patches. Over the course of a few micros, he noticed a change in Alan's breathing. He could still feel it, but it was slower, more shallow, similar to when Alan had been unconscious. Moreover, his head kept nodding against Tron's shoulder.
"Alan?" Tron probed. He had to raise his voice over the rumble of the light bike.
"You still with me?"
"...Yeah." He yawned, straining to say even that.
"Good. This is no time for a nap."
Alan gave himself a little shake and straightened in the seat, while Tron turned his attention to the treacherous peaks ahead. Far off, the jagged point of the Spire speared above the rest. Beck and Tron aimed their bikes at the landmark and drove at full-throttle, ice pixels trailing behind them.