Whenever Flynn creates a new program it’s a convergence of light and energy from an almost incomprehensible spectrum and a hum that Tron can’t actually hear but feels in his circuits. He can be anywhere on the Grid and he will always know when Flynn is at work thanks to that vibration, but up close the effect is far more intense.
This time Flynn wants him to see the result, and so Tron tries to pay attention to the program forming before him rather than being distracted by the buzz he feels. Each little detail is a hint at what is so important about this program. The frame, manifesting with narrow chest and shoulders, tells him this is not a new security program to help him patrol the Grid. The little scraps of data he can identify deal with statistical analysis and probability on a level that he cannot compute. As the program takes on a distinct form his first impression is ‘approachable.’ Tron’s best guess is some sort of assistance program, but that fails to explain the importance.
Then recognition finally snaps into place. This new program’s features are a perfect match for a memory he has kept filed away since coming to this new system.
“You should remember Ram, right?” Flynn asks, just as Tron’s memory provides the name. “I was only able to recover fragments from the old system, but I still wanted to restore him if I could.”
Tron takes a step forward, just barely keeping himself from reaching out and touching Ram before the program is fully formed. When Ram snaps into awareness of his surroundings he actually takes a step back from Tron in surprise.
“Wha? Wait. . .” Ram pats himself down, as if trying to make sure he is all there. “What happened? Tron?” His sudden confusion puts Tron off guard, having only seen Flynn’s new programs come into being already knowing their purpose or asking for one.
Tron nods, not knowing how to answer the inarticulate questions. He reaches out to intercept Ram’s hands long enough to still his flighty little motions. It almost looks as if Ram is trying to feel out where his own code ends and the space around him begins.
“Flynn is a User!” Ram blurts out, as if he has only just processed the information. “We met a real User!”
“That’s right,” Tron confirms. He glances around Ram to see Flynn, incapacitated with silent laughter at their mutual confusion. Obviously he is in no hurry to help.
“Were you derezzed too?” Suddenly Ram’s hands are clutching his, and Ram’s face is far closer to his own than he is used to any program getting. Only Flynn invades his personal space this way. “You can’t have been! Nothing could ever stop you, right?”
There is too much to tell Ram, so he starts with the User. “The Master Control Program couldn’t, not with Flynn on my side. And Flynn is the one who recovered you just now.”
That has the desired effect of making Ram look around for the User and giving Tron time to review the memories carried over from the old system. What Tron doesn’t expect is the way Ram abandons his hands in his eagerness to go greet Flynn.
Ram seems to adjust to being hugged by Flynn far more quickly than Tron ever did. He hugs Flynn back easily, and when Tron approaches, hand outstretched over Ram’s arm, he can practically feel the excited hum of Ram’s thoughts through his new streamlined bodysuit. He shies away from touching anywhere near Ram’s back, his identity disc, because that would be far too personal. Flynn said he only recovered fragments, but Ram seems whole to him.
It doesn’t take as long as Tron would have expected for Ram to absorb the information about this system. The next thing he knows Flynn is leading them off with some idea of plotting out relay towers, or something that Tron hasn’t been paying enough attention to. He’s a little more distracted by the fact that Ram’s arm is suddenly linked through his.
“You’re an upgrade of the original Tron,” Ram doesn’t even present it as a question. “Do you still have all of your memories?”
“Of course. When I was programmed for this system, all of my original memories were saved and copied over.” He remembers Ram, but it’s a memory from another life. He wonders if Ram feels the same distance, knowing he has been at least partially reprogrammed by Flynn to be here at all.
“See, we’ll set up a relay system in the middle of the sector, and then the flow of energy can be adjusted as things are built. Since you’re pretty much programmed to reduce randomness into statistical data, and you should only have my randomness to deal with for now, you can. . . Ram, are you listening?”
Flynn’s planning is background noise when Ram lets go of Tron and holds up one hand in a polite greeting.
“Greetings program,” he offers, in a tone that would probably sound more formal if not for the impression Tron gets that he is being teased. “I am Ram version two-point-oh, and I look forward to working beside you on this Grid.”
Tron puts his own hand up, almost touching their palms together. There is a user greeting for this sort of situation, but his processes are skipping and he can’t seem to retrieve it. Before he can collect himself Ram has turned to give all of his attention to their beloved User, leaving Tron with his hand outstretched for nothing.
It must be because he is retrieving such old memories that meeting Ram is affecting him in this way. At least, that is what Tron would like to think. He was always a little interested in Ram, noticing how he was stubborn in the way of all actuarial programs and abrupt in a way that is entirely his own. There was always a force field and his mission and the threat of impending deresolution hanging over them to restrain that interest.
Now Tron cannot seem to take his attention away from Ram. He suddenly wants to be the one to tell Ram all about the Grid and Flynn’s plans for the perfect system, even though that is for the User to tell and not him. When Ram glances back at him with a smile it wipes away everything he would have said anyway.
The Grid keeps growing in leaps and starts, expanding sector by sector outward from the edge of the Sea of Simulation.
Flynn isn’t on hand to greet every new program he creates anymore. He has Yori and her sister copies for that. They all excel in communications, transport, and the manipulation of data. Yori is the optimal choice to help new programs adjust smoothly to the Grid. Tron rarely sees her unless there’s a problem with some new program. At least he knows she is well. She loves her work and loves the User, as they all do.
Time is measured by Flynn’s appearances. When he’s on the Grid Tron stays on hand to accompany him, and for a few cycles after Flynn leaves he is kept busy seeking out any bugged programs before they can cause damage. Eventually his work settles to a lull as the Grid enters cycles where it simply maintains itself.
Most programs would rather see him going than coming, and he can understand their discomfort since his presence usually means that something has gone wrong. Ram is an anomaly in that way. He’s always happy to see Tron, no matter if it’s an emergency or a false alarm. When it’s time to move on, Ram always gives him an open invitation to come back any time.
With each quiet cycle, Tron considers answering Ram’s friendliness with a visit.
Ram has become a template for similar programs now managing every new sector. All of them share Ram’s skill for reducing the most complex data into direct equations, but none of the others are actually him. Only one contains the fragmented memories of the original Ram, and he is the only one who shows any particular interest in Tron.
Tron’s interest extends only to this one unique program. Even if it’s only an artefact because the two of them were restored from the same system, perhaps this mutual interest is something worth exploring.
When he accepts one of Ram’s offers he is hoping for the electric jolt of an epiphany. Instead what he receives is a tour of Ram’s sector in good company. Ram sees his sector in a different way than he’s ever thought about it. Flynn focuses on the structure he is building, letting the Grid and the programs that inhabit it grow from there. Tron has always focused on the programs themselves, and the various glitches and hazards that occur on and around that framework. Ram talks about the flow of energy through the Grid and the different needs that come with each cycle.
Ram knows his sector in all of its phases, more intimately than Tron ever could, but it is the only part of the Grid he knows. They are taking the scenic route from the energy bar Ram recommended back towards his work when Tron finishes thinking about this and offers to show Ram more of the Grid. He thinks Ram would get something out of seeing how the full Grid is laid out.
“Well, only if it’s with you.”
“The Grid is safe enough. You shouldn’t run into problems on your own.” Tron isn’t sure if he should be offended. Ram shouldn’t be that worried about venturing outside of his sector. He is a perfectly capable program and Tron deals with the worst threats as they come.
“I didn’t mean it like that. I would like to go with you.”
“Why not spend your time with a program more similar to yourself?” Tron only asks because he thinks he knows the answer. Because he fights for the User, and Ram is particularly devoted to Flynn. It takes Ram a little too long to answer, and he is already feeling preemptive irritation.
Ram smiles at him. “Because you have integrity. Not that other programs don’t, but the way I see you: you’re singular. You can’t be divided into anything but yourself. No matter what happens, you’re Tron.”
Tron is left not knowing what to say, because that has nothing to do with Flynn. He was warming up for conflict, and now he has to shut that instinct down again. The praise helps. It’s unexpectedly pleasing to hear what Ram thinks of him.
“Besides, I like you,” Ram adds, which only adds to the confused happiness whirring through Tron’s mind. “I’m glad you made time for me, rather than staying with other security programs all the time.”
It feels like Ram has turned his question back on him. He’s never followed this line of thought all the way to the necessary conclusion before. He wants Ram’s company specifically. He wants to know the little details of who Ram is, wants to go far beyond what they already share. The satisfaction in knowing Ram likes him tells him just how deep this goes.
“You’re singular too.” It never would have occurred to him, but it’s true. Ram is dedicated, sure of who he is and confident is what he does, but he has a playful element Tron appreciates. That combination is something he has never seen in another security program. No matter if one component of Ram or another happens to be duplicated, for him there is only one Ram.
Ram touches his elbow. When his only response is to look curiously down at where Ram is touching him and accept it, Ram’s hand actually wraps around his arm, fingers resting at the inside of his elbow.
“Do you like me too?” Ram asks, as if he can tap into Tron’s thoughts.
Tron stops short, but Ram is only smiling. He’s teasing. Actuarial programs aren’t supposed to tease, but when has Ram let that stop him?
For some reason Ram’s startled noise makes him smile. He lays his opposite hand over Ram’s to keep it from slipping off of his arm as he starts walking again, taking Ram with him.
He wonders if Ram is processing it the way he did, if Ram gets more out of that ‘yes’ than a single bit of data. Now that he has an answer it all condenses into a known quantity, the way he feels for Ram.
Whatever Ram is thinking, his conclusion is exactly what Tron wants to hear. “You should visit more often.”
“Since you’re usually late, perhaps you should arrange to meet me a few cycles after you think you can be here.”
Ram is being practical. The is no particular malice in his comment, but he still isn’t looking up at Tron. This happens when he’s kept waiting long enough that he decides to start on the next phase of one of his projects. They are out of sync again, with Tron left waiting this time.
Since Flynn created Clu, a program in his own image, the alternation between cycles of activity and rest has evened out. The Grid is constantly expanding now, and that means a constant steam of threats he needs to deal with. Tron has not yet adapted.
He should ask Ram to help him predict security threats with this new rate of activity, but there is a stubborn bit of pride that doesn’t want to admit his current results are sub-optimal. Ram expects better of him, as he should.
“I’ll make up for lost time.”
“Oh?” That is enough to make Ram pause. “How?” Ram’s slight smile says he already knows the answer. Has he already calculated the probability of each possible outcome?
Tron resorts to the one thing he knows Ram won’t have considered as a potential response. It’s a gesture half-remembered from another life. He cups one hand to the side of Ram’s face and touches his mouth to Ram’s.
Ram touches his mouth curiously when Tron draws back. “What was that?”
“It’s a User thing.” He knows that will have to please Ram. He’s so happy just meeting Flynn now and then. He loves the User fiercely, so why is he frowning?
“It’s not like you to borrow your actions from someone else.”
“What did you expect me to do, then?” Tron doesn’t like feeling out of his depth. He was programed to fight for the User and protect the Grid. Beyond that his instincts sometimes feel inadequate. Should he be more direct? He doesn’t want to approach Ram the way he would a fight.
“It doesn’t matter what I expect. I just wanted to see your reaction.”
His reaction, not modified by anyone else’s input, is to step behind Ram’s console, getting between him and his work, and run hands down his arms. He can feel Ram’s soft pulse under his palms. “I only have so much time before the next crisis. I want to spend it with you.”
Ram leans into him. His arms slip around Tron until there are fingertips brushing his identity disc in a familiar gesture of intimacy. “I was hoping for that.”
Tron returns the hug, his thumb rubbing along the curve of Ram’s identity disc in answer. Even if Ram is being difficult, just being with him is precious.
Ram tilts his head to touch their mouths together again. His lips move slightly against Tron’s, his curiosity adding a new element Tron hadn’t expected.
“So that’s a User thing?” Ram bumps his nose against Tron’s. His face is still so close. “I like it.”
If Ram likes the little gesture, Tron is definitely happy to keep doing it.
Very few programs know that one of the firewalls almost wiped out the first ISOs to approach the Grid. Tron shut it down long enough for Flynn to arrive, long enough for many, many more ISOs to approach safely. It’s still down even now. Tron goes out on more patrols to compensate, but nothing has happened so far.
Ram is one of the few. He’s meant to be finding something Flynn can use to teach the firewalls to accept them.
“The automated defenses have only been scanning for system versus non-system, so of course since the ISOs aren’t specifically tagged as belonging to the system it rejects them. And they don’t seem to have any simgle identical line of code which could be used as a tag.” Ram’s pragmatic explanation makes it clear why Flynn gave him this task. Many programs are slow in adapting to the ISOs. Ram welcomes them as naturally as he did interacting with a User.
Ram taps different points in his console, as if he thinks he can walk Tron through data that’s going by too fast to process. “So the idea is to pick out a collection of variables that together identify that ‘this is an ISO.’ But they’re so complex. It’s not like tracking programs of the same type. The same variables may be arranged differently in an individual and in some cases you have code which varies on the bit level but as far as I can tell essentially has the same function.”
He leans back into Tron, thoughtfully tapping his fingers on the edge of the console. Tron winds his arm a little tighter around Ram’s waist. His other hand lays lightly on Ram’s stomach. This is hardly a professional conversation, even if he wanted to know about Ram’s work, but he doesn’t care. He doesn’t see enough of Ram anymore. The security of the system is too important to compromise for anything, but he still wants to snatch a cycle or two in the comfort of Ram’s company.
“It would be easier if I could program it to calculate intent, the way you do. But I’ll find something eventually. I love being able to do something to help you.”
“For the User-”
“No, for you.” Ram turns just enough to give him a grin. “I’ve never worked on a security protocol before! I never thought there was something I could do for you, but I’m helping.”
He doesn’t mean to tighten his grip on Ram, to hug the other program back against himself until he feels the curve of Ram’s identity disc pressed intimately to his chest. It just seems to happen. Ram doesn’t need to help him to be an irreplaceable part of his life.
Ram huffs out a surprised breath that’s almost a laugh and turns into him. “As important as this is, I think I can take a break while you’re here.”
Clu is changing things all over the Grid, things that Tron doesn’t think need changing, and things that he never knew Clu had the authority to change. Shockwaves of unrest are passing through the system, unseen but felt beneath the surface, and every change he feels heightens Tron’s feelings of apprehension.
The final straw is when he goes to Ram’s office, one of the few places he expected to clear the unsettled feeling crawling along his circuits, and finds that Clu has taken it upon himself to repurpose even Ram. Tron feels an unpleasant jolt to see a program who can never be copied or replaced suddenly ‘streamlined’ to have almost all of the individuality ironed out of him.
Ram still recognizes him, but his response lacks the complexity of joy and interest that Tron has grown accustomed to.
“What happened to you?” Tron demands, even though he can practically see Clu’s dirty tracks all over this.
Ram actually flinches away from him. The program Tron ranks above any other, and he flinches like a guilty little virus. It’s all Tron can do not to leap over the console to get to Ram.
“I just had some damaged data removed because I wasn’t running optimally.” At least Ram has the courage to meet his eyes, but when he asks, “Am I infected with something?” He realizes Ram is thinking about the possibility of being derezzed. Tron has to set aside the unpleasant question of whether all programs regard him with this level of fear for now, because Ram is his first priority.
“I’m sure there is nothing wrong with you.” Tron approaches Ram and takes him by the shoulders, and at least Ram no longer looks afraid of him. He is sure he sees recognition in Ram’s face.
“Do you know who I am?”
“Chief security protocol; Tron.” The answer is disappointingly scripted.
“Just Tron to you. We knew each other even before you were recovered on this system. Do you remember that? Do you remember being here with me?”
Ram doesn’t even seem to comprehend the questions. He knows Tron by reputation, but it’s as if any memory of personally interacting with him has been deleted. Tron can’t stand for this, but the only backup of their time together exists in his own memories.
“I don’t understand what you want me to do.” Ram’s distress at not being able to provide satisfactory answers only serves to support the impression that his Ram is still there, his vital programming just waiting to be recovered.
“Let me give you a direct upload of the memories you’re missing.”
When Tron releases Ram and removes the identity disc from his back he’s aware of Ram’s eyes flicking to it and then back to his face.
“Will you trust me?”
Ram nods, but there’s an almost imperceptible hesitation when he moves to put his back to Tron and allow access to his own identity disc. Tron forces him around again with one hand and steps up to bring himself chest-to-chest with Ram.
“Tell me if you trust me.”
“I know you won’t harm me. I just don’t know how I know.” Ram tries to explain.
“You never did like not having all of the pieces of the equation.” Tron focuses on his fondness for Ram. His Ram must still be in there somehow.
He traces his free hand over the familiar curve of Ram’s identity disc, feeling the other program shiver against him at the contact. It’s like the nervous stutter of static, an uncontrollable reaction, but Ram still ducks his head in embarrassment.
Reversing Ram’s identity disc in its socket is the work of a moment, then Tron brings up his own disc to rest over Ram’s. It would be easier to link up from behind, but Tron wants to hold Ram close and safe for this.
He only means to give Ram a few examples of the memories they both share, enough to jog him into retrieving the rest on his own, but he has somehow misjudged just how many and how detailed they are. It isn’t only the time he shared with Ram, because he thinks of Ram all the time. He has thought of Ram often while on patrol or while carrying out his duties, until without realizing it a large portion of his memory has become linked to the thought of Ram.
The flow of information flickers across Ram’s eyes. Tron knows Ram cannot see him now, and he has no hand free for a reassuring gesture, so he leans forward to touch his cheek to Ram’s instead. He doesn’t see the first flickering signs of information overload. He doesn’t know until Ram spasms in his arms that something is wrong.
Conflict between Tron’s memory and whatever Clu has planted in Ram’s system is making him freeze up, and by the time Tron realizes what is happening there’s nothing to do but hold on and try to support him.
Ram doesn’t derez, but he goes rigid and then limp in what Tron recognizes as a forced reboot. Tron disconnects their discs, worried that the continued flow of information will cause further damage.
Tucking his own identity disc back where it belongs to have both hands free, Tron lifts Ram easily in his arms. He carries the insensible program out of the office without a backward glance. Tron doesn’t bother with the half-finished algorithm Ram was working on when he arrived, or even to check the distribution of energy within the sector. It isn’t part of his programming to deal with those details, and even if it was he still wouldn’t override his most important priority.
On the top floor of the relay tower is a small section that has become Ram’s private room. Tron has been here many times in the cycles when Ram is not at his duties and the Grid is safe without constant patrols. One wall is completely transparent, providing a view of most of the sector, all the way down to the Sea of Simulation at its edge. A sunken viewing platform runs along this wall, designed for comfort, and this is where Tron brings Ram to rest. This small space is so filled with fond memories that Tron cannot help cradling Ram tightly against him as he waits.
Before long Ram returns to awareness with a sudden jerk and a gasp. Tron tries to help him lay back to recover and is surprised by the sudden strength of Ram clinging to him. He cannot lay Ram down without forcing him off.
“No,” Ram gasps when Tron tries to remove him. “No, no, no.”
“Okay, I won’t make you let go,” Tron agrees.
The stress has reduced Ram’s processes all the way to binary. Tron is glad to have even that much from him. All he can do is support Ram until he recovers.
Tron puts both arms around Ram, tracing the circle of Ram’s identity disc over and over with his hands. He can feel the staticky fluttering in Ram’s circuits slowly evening out until those processes are a steady purr under his fingers.
“Tron?” Ram finally murmurs, lifting his head with an unsteady wobble.
Tron simply shifts his hand to support Ram’s head. Ram seems to be recovering, but Tron is too cautious to let go so easily.
“I didn’t think there would be that much conflict with the data,” Tron apologizes. “If you need to remove anything-”
That direct refusal is more than Tron had hoped for. “Do you remember me now?” He asks, though he is already sure he sees fond recognition in Ram’s face.
Ram’s response is to shift in his arms, pressing closer and aligning his body so that Tron can feel the slow pulse of Ram’s circuits against his. The sensation of Ram’s thoughts, his very being, flickering just beneath the surface, almost invites Tron to intimacy even beyond copying files into Ram’s memory. A slight nod serves to reenforce the silent confirmation that he remembers how close they are.
“I’m glad,” Tron sighs.
He wants very much to take the sign of affection as an invitation. He wants to stay here with Ram, to give and receive that wordless comfort for as many cycles as it takes for them to forget they were ever reduced to almost-strangers. If he could, Tron would at least linger to let them memorize one another yet again in the soft light from the Grid outside.
However, that soft light has been joined by a pale blue glow on the horizon. The beacon is lit. Flynn is arriving.
“Are you stable now?”
Ram must know the only reason Tron would put any distance between them now, because he looks back for the light of the beacon.
“I’ll survive,” he finally answers. “I was in the middle of work before. I should go back and finish.”
Tron can’t say what seems wrong to him. It’s all the logical reasons–Ram might relapse if he exerts himself, or he wants Ram somewhere that Clu won’t get at him a second time–but it’s also an untraceable dread. If something happens he wants Ram here, and safe.
Before Ram can ask, Tron continues with a promise. “I’ll bring the User back here to make sure nothing else is wrong. He has to fix Clu first, and probably a lot of other things, but when there’s a chance. . .” Tron pauses to trace his fingers fondly over the circuits glowing dimly down the line of Ram’s chest. “I will make sure you’re seen to as well.”
Ram accepts the promise with little more than a token protest that it must be too much trouble. That is all the reassurance Tron needs to leave him and return to his own duties. Flynn needs to be informed of what is happening to the Grid. It isn’t just Ram affected by Clu’s actions, but he is the last deciding piece. Tron can not sit back and watch any longer.
For perhaps the first time, Tron doesn’t stop to glance back before leaving Ram. The temptation to stay, even when he would help Ram more by acting, is too great.
“Stay safe,” Ram calls after him, as he always does when Tron leaves.
It never occurs to either of them that Tron might not return.
The memories Tron copied into him eventually work their way into Ram’s identity. There is something all the way down in his root code that wants nothing more than to have a piece of Tron as part of him. He is sure that Tron is right, that this must be right, and that soon enough the User will fix whatever bug was troubling his system before.
But Tron doesn’t bring him anything. Not their User, not a patch, not even a word. Tron never returns.
Other things are changing, and Ram doesn’t like it. When Tron left there were twenty-seven ISOs living in the same relay tower with him. Within a cycle only three remain, all of them penned in by squads of security programs threatening to bring down the entire tower.
This can’t be what Tron intended when he said something needed fixing. This can’t be the will of the User. Ram knows in a way that goes deeper than memory, old or new, that this is wrong.
Though he wants to wait for Tron, Ram must act. He smuggles the few surviving ISOs out of the tower through tunnels once intended for energy transfer. He thinks that is all he can do for them, he has never even been out of his home sector before, but as they flee deeper into the Grid he finds he knows hidden crevices in the system where they can take shelter. Even in places Ram knows he has never been before, he is sure of every turn as if the information is an intimate part of his programming.
It doesn’t take long for him to discover where this new skill comes from. The information Tron transferred to him doesn’t just include a few personal records. Tron knew every corner of the entire Grid as the master security program. Now that information is integrated into Ram’s identity disc, and he doesn’t think any stream of data has ever been more precious.
Tron might not be there, but he is still helping Ram to survive. Tron is there in the hiding places he provides for the hunted ISOs. He is there in the fighting information (poorly executed as Ram struggles to meld it with his own contradictory programming) that at least stalls security programs long enough for them to escape.
Every cycle seems to push Ram to the limits of his programming. Conflicting despair and hope strain at his circuits in ways he was not created to handle. The beacon in the sky goes out, and Ram hears so many fears that the User has left them to this mess. He always believes; somewhere there is Flynn, the User. Somehow the User will make everything right again.
Half a cycle since Ram dragged Quorra out of her intended death-trap, and she still hasn’t stopped shaking. From the batch of fugitive ISOs that had been rounded up for mass deletion, Ram had only been able to get one out before the security programs started destroying everything, derezzing programs and ISOs indiscriminately. Only Quorra has made it back safely with him.
Ram knows he shouldn’t have looked back, because Quorra had to look back too. She saw the unraveling of stray data that was suddenly all that was left of her friends, and she hasn’t stopped shaking since.
There are no words Ram knows to ease this level of loss. It’s too much for his circuits after a certain point, and the pain has to shut itself down to keep from overloading him. All he knows is that Quorra seems to lack this self-defending subroutine and there is no one but him to help her.
The first thing Ram thinks to do is to bring her some of the freshest energy available. Their current hiding place isn’t very close to a source, but he makes do with what he can find. Quorra can’t even grip the glass as she tries to drink, so Ram holds it for her. All that matters to him is that some of the energy ends up inside of Quorra and calms her shaking, even a little bit.
Before she can finish drinking, Quorra starts to make pained noises, and Ram has to move the energy away in fear that she’ll choke. He has more experience than he ever wanted with struggling sobs of pain like this, but he still doesn’t know how to make them stop.
“I can’t,” Quorra gasps, “I c-can’t. . . .”
“Take the rest of the energy, and then we’ll discuss what you can’t do,” Ram suggests.
Quorra shakes her head negative, even when Ram tries to console her by explaining, “I was programmed to find the most efficient solutions. For energy allotment, true, but sometimes it extrapolates. . . .”
“I can’t go on alone.”
“You’re not alone. There are seven ISOs just here that we know are safe, counting you.” Ram holds up his fingers as if visualizing the number will help her somehow.
“Seven. Only seven of us left, and everyone else all. . . .”
Even though her circuits are still glowing fitfully, something about Quorra’s eyes looks blank and dead, and it terrifies Ram because he feels he still understands very little about ISOs and he can’t tell if it might be a sign of something important shutting down.
“Seven is a good number,” he tries to reassure her. “It’s better than three. It’s much better than one.” Ram rubs her back with one hand, right above the hard curve of her identity disc, but nothing fixes the pain that radiates from her. It’s as if something has taken a chunk out of her code, but Ram can’t see where the damage is and even if he could he’s not the User and he can’t fix it himself.
After a few minutes Quorra takes the rest of the energy from him and drinks it down. Ram thinks this has to be a good thing. She needs energy to process everything. Once enough information is processed Ram is sure solutions will begin to appear. That’s what new information is for, isn’t it?
“Do you think the Creator decided to purge us from his system?”
“No!” Ram cries, because he has heard this too many times before and he refuses to even process the idea. “No, I’ve met Flynn. If he was here, this could never have happened. And I know Tron would never allow this to happen, not the way he protects the Grid.”
The thought of Tron almost makes Ram shut down, as it always does. He is sure terrible things like this could never happen if Tron were here to stop them, so it follows that Tron is no longer here. That thought process never stops tearing at his circuits. He has to wait for the distress of wanting to see Tron, and knowing he cannot, to shut itself off from the rest of his system before he can function again.
“The beacon shut down, right? So the User must not be here now to see what’s happening. Once he returns, I’m sure the User will fix everything. Until then we have to survive, and help as many others as we can.”
Quorra looks surprised by his vehemence, but at least she is no longer shaking with shock. Ram sees her lips form the name ‘Tron,’ but it’s a question he is unable to answer.
“You really believe that?”
“I do.” Ram’s circuits practically hum with his certainty.
“If there’s really only seven of us, from two-thousand and thirty-seven, we’ve hardly survived at all.” Quorra’s expression says that she’s not done thinking, so Ram doesn’t interrupt to argue when she pauses. “But it’s better than none. If they had their way, there would be none of us left, would there?”
Ram smiles, because Quorra has stopped shaking, and the dead look that frightened him is gone now. He is an eternal optimist, and even this little piece of good is much better than nothing.
“Seven is actually a very good number,” Ram says, trying to encourage her good spirits.
It’s good because of every ISO it represents as Ram lines them up in his head. The three he originally led out of their corner in his tower, plus the one they found hiding near the edge of that sector. Then there were the two Zuse was already with when they met up by chance, and finally Quorra brings them to seven.
“What’s so good about it?” Quorra wants to know.
“Well, if a bit spells it out it’s, ‘yes yes yes,’” Ram explains to start.
He tries to explain to her about liking prime numbers, because they are so much themselves. He doesn’t know how much sense any of it makes, but it is enough that she is calm. It is enough that they are both there to discuss small things, because it means they have somehow survived another cycle.
Zuse has a canny sense of how to hide in plain sight. He comes up with tricks that are far beyond Ram’s more straightforward programming which have served them all well. Ram trusts his judgement of when it is safer to move or stay put.
“We need to split up,” Zuse tells him, and Ram should know by now to trust the more experienced program’s planning, but the idea sounds too dangerous.
“But that would make it easier for them to pick us off.”
“No, it’s the opposite,” Zuse explains. “We’re too noticeable if we stay in a big group. We can’t hide seven ISOs all in one place.”
It has been difficult to find places to go to ground, and even more so to avoid security when they have to move. But worry still gnaws at Ram. He cares for the ISOs and Zuse and every program that has risked themselves to help. Isn’t there meant to be safety in numbers?
“How will we keep track of each other?”
“We won’t. It’s better if we can’t be tracked at all.”
Ram doesn’t like not knowing that the others are safe. He remembers that last look at Tron’s back, the sight of his identity disk glowing with purpose as he left to find the User. The familiar process of pain starts up and shuts down again. They could all walk away, for him to never see them again. He would never even know if they are alive or derezzed.
“You’ll have to trust me to keep them safe,” Zuse tells him.
He trusts Zuse. The ISOs are more important than his fear and grief.
“But where can we go if we split up? Do we go in opposite directions?” It’s easier to work than to think. Ram brings up the workings of the Grid in his memory, and tries to trace out parts of the map. “There was a sector still under construction here,” he blocks out a map in the air with his hands and traces a route three sectors back towards the Sea of Simulation. “This area might be abandoned, but then there could also be viruses that haven’t been dealt with. . .”
“How do you do that?”
Ram pauses in the middle of tracing out possible routes. The question itself is harmless but something inside him skips because he’s suddenly thinking of Tron’s memories guiding him.
“You worked in energy allotment, but when you plot our routes you aren’t just following the energy conduits, are you?” Zuse’s voice is steady as ever, curious without pushing.
Ram hesitates, but he doesn’t have a reason not to answer. “I have a map of the whole Grid. How else could we have survived this long?”
He has been using Tron’s knowledge of the Grid to guide them safely, but what will be left to guide Zuse and the ISOs he’s protecting once they part ways? He remembers his conversation with Quorra. Saving even one ISO is so important. He has to give them everything he can.
“I’ll copy it for you,” Ram offers, before Zuse can ask. It’s something reserved for those working directly with the User, all the most detailed and intimate workings of the Grid. It’s the most precious gift Tron could have given him, as if he knew how much Ram would need it. He is ready to share that if it might save them.
Of course he hasn’t offered to touch anyone’s identity disc since Tron left him in the relay tower. Ram suspects he handles it a little too firmly, trying to focus on copying everything Zuse will need without the tangle of memories clinging to it. This is necessary, not personal. He doesn’t want to share the intimate scraps of his and Tron’s thoughts.
When he’s finished and starts to back up, Zuse turns and puts an arm around him and makes him stay for a moment. Since they met Ram has thought there is a smooth authority about Zuse that makes it easy to pour all of your secrets into him. If Tron and Quorra are primes, perhaps Zuse is something like a perfect number, able to break down and build up again and become almost anything.
“Thank you.” Zuse murmurs, and it calms him. “I promise I’ll use it to protect them.”
Ram never regrets the action. When they part it is the last time he sees either Zuse, or Quorra, or any of the others in their group. Ram only hopes the information he shared is enough to save them.
It should be easier with only three ISOs to hide, but Ram quickly finds his internal map of the system isn’t everything. It doesn’t help him to know the new schedules of reprogrammed security patrols, for one thing.
Ram knows the little information he has on fighting is only really good for hit-and-run attacks, but he doesn’t have a choice this time. He stands his ground, yelling for the ISOs to run, to hurry while he buys them a few microcycles to escape.
Maybe it’s because that is what Tron would have done, to protect them until the very end, but Ram doesn’t think that well of himself. He isn’t Tron. He’s just out of options.
A disc whizzes by him and he hears one of the ISOs scream, and the way his system tries to shudder to a halt at the sickening sound makes him freeze at just the wrong moment.
Ram sees the disc coming, but he can’t seem to move. The edge of the disc is all he can see and the light from it is blinding him and then he can’t see anything through his left eye but darkness and the agony of damaged code shuts down rational thought.
All that Ram knows in the next millicycle is pain so great he thinks it will shut down his system entirely. He has no external senses, no sense of time or space, until his code stabilizes and the pain becomes a numbness.
Even when his senses are able to reboot, Ram doesn’t quite understand where he is or what is happening around him. The two surviving ISOs are gone, and he can only hope they have somehow escaped. He is on a transport with several other programs, many of them as dazed or damaged as he feels.
Everything looks flat and strange, and it takes Ram a moment to realize he has lost his depth perception. He raises one hand to the numbness on the left side of his face, only to have his fingers encounter first nothing, and then the jagged edges of his damaged code. He hasn’t been completely derezzed, but part of him thinks he really should be.
Ram might have been thrown into the deadly maw of a games arena once before, but for him now that fact is only a memory of a memory. He doesn’t think he will survive more than a single round, even with the memories of Tron’s fighting ability he still holds.
The only thing that makes Ram’s circuits run a little hotter is the thought of Tron. Tron gave those scraps of memory to him. In some tiny way, Tron is still with him. Until the User returns to set things right–and Ram never doubts that setting things right must include recreating Tron exactly as he was–the information Ram carries with him may be the only fragment of Tron remaining on the entire Grid.
Ram has to fight, because maybe then he will see Quorra and Zuse and the User again, because maybe the information he still carries will somehow save even one more ISO or program still struggling out there. More than anything, Ram has to survive because as long as he survives, Tron survives.
Because he cannot compute losing Tron entirely, Ram refuses to fail. Because he does not fail, he survives until the final round in the games set out before him.
Because he reaches the final round, Ram finds himself facing something he could never have imagined in all his cycles.
The chanting of the crowd gathered outside the floating arena is a roar of nonsense, because the name they are shouting is a lie. Even if his face is covered, Ram knows from the first lithe movement, the first effortless flick of his deadly disc, that this is Tron standing before him.
This is Tron with his circuits glowing red like a rewritten security protocol. This is Tron trying to destroy him. Ram almost dies for his careless pause as he tries to process this. Even though he is able to dodge, Tron’s first throw would have gone straight through his left eye if it wasn’t already missing.
Ram doesn’t know what to do. He can’t fight Tron, and Tron seems deaf to his cries when he calls the beloved security program’s name and begs to be recognized.
He has to do something. The scraps of intimate knowledge of Tron’s fighting skills aren’t something Ram can use effectively, but they let him read Tron’s movements. Ram knows from the angle of Tron’s body and wrist where he aims each flung disc to land. It’s all Ram’s exhausted processes can do just to calculate each blow, but it’s enough.
With perfect timing, Ram strikes the wall behind him with his own disc as he lunges out of the way, opening it just long enough for Tron’s flung disc to pass through instead of ricocheting off the wall. The disc tries to return to strike him in the back, only to hit the reformed wall and rebound, hit and rebound, scoring up the outside of the arena without reaching them. Ram ignores it once it can no longer damage him. Tron is still armed with a second, equally deadly, disc.
Tron doesn’t give him a chance to use his trick again, charging in to attack him at close range. This is something Ram isn’t prepared for and he stumbles back until Tron has him pinned against the arena wall. Before he can even try to escape Tron’s free hand is on his shoulder, shoving him into the wall. In his other hand, Tron’s second disc is raised for the final blow.
Ram throws up one hand in a struggle to shield himself and instead of immediate death he finds his hand sliced through, the tattered remains of it pinned to the wall by the disc. Ram can’t even process the pain of hemorrhaging code, and he can’t understand why he hasn’t been derezzed entirely by the blow.
When he tries to move, ripping what’s left of his hand free from the wall even as the damage spreads up his arm, Tron shifts just enough to avoid the disc still clutched in his hand.
It’s then that Ram knows for sure, he’s survived this long because there is something he still needs to do. May the User take my code and keep it, Ram prays to himself, because this is all there is left for him to do on the Grid.
“Take it.” Ram holds his identity disc out to Tron, who only orients the glossy, blank expanse of his helmet towards it. All Ram wants for himself is to see Tron one last time. He wants to see his own Tron and not this expressionless machine, but he doesn’t dare ask.
“Please! I have your memories,” Ram tries to explain. “You have to take them back. You’re Tron. You fight for the User. You have to-”
Ram can’t seem to hold himself upright any longer, but when he collapses Tron is there for him to fall into. He finds himself supported by something so much stronger than he thinks he’ll ever be, as Tron takes his identity disc in hand.
“Please,” Ram repeats, because there is nothing else left for him to say. Helplessness and hope reduce his voice to a whisper, but Tron has to hear. He has to know. “Be Tron again.”
Ram is sure that for an instant he sees Tron’s circuits flicker blue.
Tron doesn’t read the thoughts on his identity disc. He merely activates it, and slices through the vital parts of Ram’s code with a single blow, and Ram knows no more.