Location Query: Part Three

by Tenshi

The city had the air of a warzone. Programs did not walk boldly or alone down the streets, but stole along in small groups with their lights concealed. None of them knew what was going on, though Ram had tried to find out. Without occupation, the programs were at a loss. For cycles they had lived without outside commands from a User, taking their orders instead from CLU. In idleness, the system's order fell apart. It would be one thing if either CLU or Flynn had remained to guide them, to silence dissent and unite his followers. But the splintered factions of the Grid had neither Dictator nor Maker, and not even the effervescent light of Castor, their master of Games. Many tried to fill the vacancy, none lasted. Programs rose to power in the space of a millicycle and were struck down before its end. Life on the Grid became a quest for energy and information and safety, in that order. For the first time in thousands of cycles, the great arena on the edge of the city was dark.

As a result, it made an excellent base. In the wreckage of a fallen game platform Alan and Ram had formed a kind of shelter, out of the sight of the few recognizers still hovering above the streets. There was no way of knowing if the recognizers were piloted by enemies or allies; the colors of their lights were no longer a foolproof heraldry and they were better off avoiding everyone. Ram said (and Alan quickly agreed) that to announce the presence of a new User on the system would only complicate their quest. Widespread order on the Grid would have to wait until Flynn's return. Meanwhile, both the Grid's residents and Alan's team would have to fend for themselves.

Which is exactly what Ram had spent the last microcycle doing.

"Refreshments," he announced, as he stepped back into their makeshift refuge, tossing a handful of glowing blue vials down on top of the fragment of stadium seating Alan was using as a workspace. "Which is just what I need right now." Ram popped off a tube's cap with his thumb, and downed the contents. His throat worked as he swallowed, as though he was human, but his lights intensified at the surge of new energy, like a program. Alan shook his head in amazement. "How's he coming along?" Ram asked, wiping the back of his glove over his mouth. "Still compiling?"

"Yes," Alan said. "I gave him plenty of code to chew on." He was sitting at the foot of the bed where they'd brought Tron (where Ram had brought Tron, to be honest; Alan's back was not up to the task of lugging his own body weight across a hostile landscape). It wasn't even really a bed, only a bit of bulkhead. Alan had given the Program his coat for a blanket, something that got a quizzical look from Ram. Maybe it wasn't logical, Alan thought, to try and keep a program warm and dry, but it made him feel better. Wrapped up in his maker's tattered coat, his eyes closed as he compiled for reboot, it was difficult to say Tron was anything other than a perfectly ordinary young man taking a nap. Except he wasn't. He had Alan's own face as it had looked the hour his code went live, and his entire existence rested in the blue disk in Alan's hands.

"I've done the best I can." Alan swept his fingers over the disk, and an oscillating model of Tron's code spun under his touch. "Like downloading a thousand service patches all at once." He had repaired all the damage he could find, but there were Grid-specific gaps that would need Flynn's expertise to fix. "I think this is the last of it," he said, and snapped the identity disk back into place on Tron's back. "Now he just needs to boot up."

"Well, that gives us time to work on you," Ram said, going back to the doorway. When he returned, it was with an armload of strange components, sine curves of rigid black armor, blunt batons with unmarked buttons, and a large tile of what looked like glass.

"What's all this?" Alan asked, pulling his suspenders back up over his shoulders, and doing what he could with his tie. After the battle with the worms, it was pretty much a lost cause.

"I hacked into the arena armory," Ram said. "I was hoping they'd have a reconfigure platform in there, and we're in luck. Let's have a go here..." He put the tile on the floor, and once attached to the grid, it lit up. A pair of footprints clearly marked a place to stand.

"Reconfigure platform?" Alan echoed.

"You can't go around looking like that," Ram explained, fidgeting with a few icons along the borders of the tile. "You've got User written all over you. Lemme see, lemme see..." A small, three-dimensional model spun before him, and with every flick of Ram's fingers, it displayed a new style of attire. Some of them were simple black suits like Tron's, others displayed a certain 80's street aesthetic interpreted in Grid terms, a handful were downright racy. Alan entertained a brief horror at the thought of wearing a light-up body condom showing off all of his business, but Ram finally settled on a simpler combination of a long coat and sturdy boots over a basic trousers and turtleneck kind of light array.

"There we go," Ram said. "Get on."

With a moment's hesitation, Alan did as he was told. A ring of light rose up from around the disk, and the data that made up his simulation of clothing shuffled itself around into a new pattern. It was with no small amount of delight that Alan looked down at his sleeves and saw thin light-work patterns of concentric rings shining back up at him. No doubt about it, as a guy whose sole outlet of sartorial rebellion was his choice of tie, his Grid-clothes were downright cool.

"That sure beats going to the mall," Alan said, impressed.

"It'll do. Won't get you an identity disk, though." Ram frowned. "And without one, you'll make yourself a target."

"We have a spare, don't we?" Alan slipped the vials of energy into his newly-formed coat pockets, where they snapped into place in a tidy row like icons on a desktop. "Tron had two, and I don't want to put Rinzler's back on him."

"You'd put it on yourself, instead?" Ram retorted, aghast. "You'd risk corrupting your code, like he did! It would need to be erased by a User before it was safe to--"

Alan arched an eyebrow at him.

"Oh," Ram said, sheepish. "Sorry. I forgot."

"And a moment ago you were just saying my User fashions were too outré for the Grid," Alan teased, picking up the disk from the work table. It showed no sign of life as he turned it over. What was it like, to download yourself into pure data? Flynn had done it regularly, but there were a number of things Flynn did regularly that Alan thought it better to avoid (sake bombs and chili cheese fries, for a start). But this was Flynn's Grid, and Flynn's rules. With his teeth gritted, Alan put the blank disk behind his back, and braced himself. The device clicked into place with minimal effort, and Alan felt an electric pulse shoot through him from fingers to toes. It was not an unpleasant sensation, but it was fleeting. In its place it left a comforting weight between his shoulder-blades.

"Did it work?" he asked, and looked over at Ram, who nodded confirmation.

"As sweet an overwrite as I ever saw, and nothing a Program could do for himself," Ram sighed. One side of his mouth quirked up in an embarrassed smile. "I'm not used to hanging around with Users. I'm gonna have to reformat my entire interface before I say anything else stupid."

"Don't worry about it," Alan said, gingerly prodding the disk attached to his back. In the reflective wall of their shelter, he could see a broken ring of white light nestled there. "I like your format just the way it is."

Until that moment, Alan had never even considered the possibility that a program might blush. He didn't know what else it could be, as the tone of Ram's lights intensified with a little frisson of purple light all over his circuits. Ram stammered something and then he made himself very busy with the bits of body armor he'd salvaged.

Did I just hit on him? Alan wondered, and shook his head in disbelief. I'd better watch it before I get myself into some real trouble.

His ruminations were interrupted by a soft noise from the corner of the shelter. Tron was waking up.

"I--uh," Ram began, getting up, "I'm gonna go and do a quick recon around the area." He was out the door before Alan had a chance to question him, and out of hearing by the time Alan understood enough to say thanks.

Tron's eyelids were flickering as Alan sat down beside him. Alan pondered the younger version of his own face, and the similarity did not bother him as much as he thought it would have. In fact, he found it strangely compelling. It had been a long time since that had been the face that greeted him in the mirror every morning, and on Tron, it was commanded by independent thoughts and emotions. It was not unlike having a twin, he supposed, or for a program to know another program made by the same User. Ram had mentioned in passing how he interacted fairly often with Ram-2, a program designed to manage Roy's finances and hopelessly convoluted income tax forms.

"Isn't it strange for you?" Alan had asked, as they traversed the Outlands to the City. "To look so much like another Program?"

"Why should it be?" Ram had answered, hefting Tron's unconscious weight on his shoulder. "We share some basic code and we share a User, but that doesn't make him me. That's how it is for programs."Ram paused, looking at the still-distant city. "But in all this Grid, only one program looks like Flynn. If he could make them all different, why didn't he?"

"Because CLU was important," Alan had said. "More important to Flynn than any other program he'd written." Like CLU, and like all of Roy's Rams, and the Program waking up beside Alan, there was something private and powerful about minting a creation in your own image. It made them more than mere objects. It made them avatars, it made them an extension of the self, it made them all the possibility that their Users no longer had. Alan put the back of his hand against Tron's cheek. In a way, it made them their children.

At the touch of Alan's hand, Tron's eyes opened. For a long time he said nothing, staring up at the face of his personal god. His lips parted, and in little more than a whisper he asked, "...Have I been erased?"

Alan shook his head. "You're not dead, Tron. Just a little defragmented. Nothing a good coding session won't fix. How do you feel?"

Tron did not answer at first. He curled his hands into fists, uncurled them again. A quick glance around their surroundings, and a grim understanding settled on his face. "More functional than I've been in cycles, I expect," Tron said, and sat up. Alan's coat slid away from his lights, and he looked down at himself in surprise. "It's been a long time since I saw this array," he murmured, "...a long time." He fixed his gaze on Alan, unblinking. "Something has happened to Flynn, to the Grid," he said, "or you would not be here."

"I came here to find him," Alan said. "And to find you."

Tron pressed the heel of one hand to his eyes, as though trying to block out a memory that was physically painful. "I--I've failed my directive, Alan-1. I'm not worthy of your coding or your care. You'd be right to de-rezz me right here."

"I will do no such thing," Alan retorted. "It was your directive that saved Flynn and Sam from CLU at the portal. Sam told me so."

"But I--" Tron began, urgently.

"No, Tron," Alan countered. "As far as I'm concerned you have nothing to be ashamed of."

Chastised, Tron hung his head, his dark hair a screen over his eyes. "Forgive me, my User," he said. "But I disagree."

Alan put a hand on Tron's shoulder. "I don't recall writing you to be argumentative," he said, smiling. When Tron still did not respond, Alan tightened his grip. "Tron," he said. "You were the first program I ever wrote entirely on my own. You were the best of everything I could do at the time. Every hope I had, every dream, I put it into your code. I was never so proud of anything in my entire life." Alan swallowed. "I'm still proud of you."

Tron's head came up, and Alan no longer thought of the Program's face as like his own. Surely he had never worn such an expression of gratitude and adoration, of such trust and love. He knew he certainly didn't deserve to be on the receiving end of it. Tron reached out for his User's shoulder as well, and like him, he was left-handed. For a moment he looked as though he would speak, perhaps some comment on their different appearances, perhaps a renewal of his fealty. Whatever it was, Alan never heard it. Tron's hexagonal pupils flicked sideways to focus on something over his User's shoulder, and the hand on Alan's shoulder suddenly became a grip as unrelenting as steel. Tron yanked Alan forward, bringing them both into the air as he vaulted up off the bed. His body curled protectively around Alan's as their shelter exploded into a whirling blizzard of de-rezzed fragments.

The landing was hard, and Tron bore the brunt of it, both of them rolling over and over on the sleek surface of the arena floor. Alan felt the air leave his lungs in a rush, and spent two long seconds trying to get it back in them again, wondering what such a physical, biological sensation translated to in Grid terms. "What happened?" he said, when he could manage.

"CLU's loyalists," Tron snarled, as the sinister frame of a recognizer blotted out the sky above them, hovering improbably over the remains of their shelter. He pulled his User to his feet. "Let's go!"

"We can't leave Ram!"

Tron was actually startled enough to stumble. "Who?"

A neon red streak flashed between them, turned, and skidded to a halt on its two powerful wheels. The lightcycle's driver lifted his head, helmet sliding back to reveal Ram's face. "You're not leaving me anywhere!" he shouted, and tossed Tron one of the black batons he'd salvaged. "Last one downtown is a redundant script!" He revved his bike and peeled off, trailing a crimson wall behind.

"Hold on to me, Alan-1," Tron said, and snapped the baton apart in his hands. Alan barely had time to get his hands on Tron's shoulders before they were both enfolded in a gold-edged curve of speed, tucked into a cradle between wheels that had never experienced the first whiff of friction or drag. They shot forward faster than a bullet, faster than light, and Alan felt like he'd left his insides behind him. They were halfway across the arena before the slow-moving recognizer managed to turn, struggling to follow its swift prey.

In an instant, Tron had caught up to Ram's bike trail, already fading now as it vanished through a segment of broken wall and left the arena's unique rules.

"I'm sorry, Alan-1," Tron said, sandwiched underneath his User in the driving position, and apparently unbothered by the close quarters. "I'm sure you would prefer your own vehicle."

"Are you kidding?" Alan gasped, still not quite recovered from their escape. "I don't even like driving a car."

Tron tilted his head up in something like disbelief. "Really? As my User, I thought..."

"Tron," Alan said, gently, "sometimes Users hope their creations can do what they themselves cannot. To be more than the original."

Tron chewed this over as they crested a steep ramp, and he was still considering it as they hovered in the air a moment before the wheels met the surface of the grid once more. When Alan felt it was safe to open his eyes again, they were speeding over a bridge that seemed to have no end.

"In that case, you can ride with me when you're here," Tron replied, sounding at last like the program Alan had written him to be: confident, assured. His lights hummed brightly, and Alan was startled to see his glow in unison. It was a curious thing to have emotions his displayed so openly, and to feel them as they coursed like electric current through another.

"Thanks," Alan said, and put his forehead down on Tron's identity-disk. Ruefully, he added, "I have to admit though, I never thought I'd be riding bitch on my own program's lightcycle."

Tron's laugh was lost in the sound of the lightcycle as they tore off towards the city lights.


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