|Fanfic: "Through a Diamond Sky" Part 5 of 14|
on Monday, March, 05, 2012 1:26 AM
Kevin hadn't hurt this much since trying to channel a transit beam. Yeah, it saved their butts at the time, but the sheer amount of pain involved almost made him wish it had been fatal. Top it with a case of cotton mouth and ears ringing like he'd been sitting in front of the amps at a Led Zeppelin concert.
“Crap,” he muttered. It was the most coherent thought he could muster. Last thing he remembered was telling everyone to scatter. The stun bomb sailed through the air, and he caught the brunt of it – at least he hoped.
Aside from the soft glow of his circuit lines, the small room was dark and featureless, roughly the size of a cheap motel's bathroom. His prison cell at Master Control's Game Grid was better accommodations. His clothing was intact, his disk was missing (double crap), and some kind of collar was clamped around his neck. He felt it experimentally for unlocking mechanisms and couldn't find any.
User abilities were impressive, certainly, but they did require concentration, which was never his long suit. Fixing code to heal Programs, tinkering with his lightcycle settings, or transferring energy was pretty simple. Mimicking telekenesis, spreading out his consciousness across distances, bending the laws of virtual physics, and the rest of that Luke Skywalker shit – those required a degree of focus he was still working on.
No time like the present. He settled in cross-legged on the floor of the cell, took a couple deep breaths, and tried desperately to ignore his pounding head.
He focused on trying to “see” past the walls of his prison. The headache was not helping. The mental images behind his eyelids flickered and wobbled like a monitor about to blow a tube.
“Zero, one, one, two, three, five, eight, thirteen...” The whole meditation thing still new to him, and Sanskrit mantras didn't do jack for him. Numeric sequences made more sense, especially when trying to focus his thoughts on the Grid's inner workings.
He could sense the patterns of energy beneath him – a few dozen Resource Hogs and holding cells with an equal number of prisoners. But why keep prisoners? Why not de-rez them outright? He narrowed his focus, looking for a specific energy pattern. He'd done enough traveling with Tron to know his friend's pattern. He scowled and tried to focus in.
Only for the whole mental image to pop like a soap bubble. Damn it! Concentrate!
He sucked in another breath. “Zero, one, one, two, three, five, eight, thirteen, twenty-one, thirty-four...” He was up to seventy-five thousand, twenty-five before the image came back to him.
Tron's energy signature was distressingly weak, without enough power to stay conscious, and it was all Kevin could do not to panic at his friend's condition. He was in the same cell as Kanna and Herd, at least, but even the Isos looked drained and weak while the Hogs burned bright with energy.
It's like they're feeding on their prisoners. Kevin thought. Good luck to any of these guys dumb enough to try and take a bite out of him. One odd hiccup about the digitized anatomy he had now was the ability to store, channel, and expend at least a hundred times more power than a Program, and the worst effect he had from any of it was the need for a long nap.
Which he could sorely use right now. Along with a cold beer and a long, long talk with Jordan. This was rapidly becoming the worst day he'd had to date.
Now that he had a general idea of the place's layout, time to break down the door. He rose to his feet, shook off a brand new round of vertigo, and started feeling the walls. Counting in exponents of two, he centered himself enough to see the coding for the door.
The underlying structure was spaghetti code, full of redundant arrays and go-to sequences that were knotted back on each other. They must have assembled their camp from junk data. Even their structures were inefficient and more power-draining than they had to be. Kevin puffed out a breath in frustration. This was going to be like trying to untangle decade-old Christmas lights.
“Two, four, eight, sixteen, thirty-two...” he muttered again, fighting off a new wave of vertigo as he pulled up the underlying structure of the door in his mind, fiddling with them like a veteran thief with a lockpick.
The Baron was leader of the Resource Hog gang. He started as a low-level data pusher, trading in warez and false permissions. On Encom's mainframe, he would have been spotted and shut down, but he survived by being too low-level to get Master Control's attention, and then by embedding himself in a set of common music Programs to make the cross over to the Grid.
Once he got out to the Grid, he found a wide-open and lawless frontier to work with. That, and the fact the Illustrious Creator was working on removing many of the restrictions Basics had on their directives, opened the portal to both wonders and mischief. Baron was one who chose the latter. He liked power. He liked being able to soak up large amounts of memory and stretch out. Baron was a very large script now. He was nearly as broad as he was tall, slow moving, but with crushing strength that brought opponents down with a solid hit.
It was by that fist that he ruled this gang. They soaked up power and memory, they got stronger. When they got stronger, they could recruit from the ranks of bugged scripts and other minor pusher gangs in the city's outskirts. This sector made a good base of operations and they had it all to themselves until the damn Isos moved in.
His assistant Melodia started out as a music Program, singing her tracks in the clubs of the Entertainment Sector, but she craved greater upgrades, greater fame. A few cycles here and singing was forgotten. Power was all that mattered. he still spent her new cache of energy on her appearance - multi-colored hair and sleek armor over her Gridsuit. She had a walk like an Armory Siren; precise and alluring, but her face was scrunched with worry as she walked up to Baron's throne.
“Melodia, congratulations on taking out those invaders. We'll make sure they pay dearly for de-rerzzing a few of our own. Take it out of their shell.”
She was carrying the disks she confiscated from their prisoners. “Baron, these aren't ordinary prisoners. A pair of them are just common Isos, though the female has a strange energy reading I can't decipher. It's the other pair that is going to be an issue.”
“No, Boss” she said. “We'd be better off either letting them go or de-rezzing them straight away.”
Baron snorted. “What's the panic, Melodia? You're acting like we captured the Creator or something.”
Melodia cringed and handed over the disk. “We did.”
Baron looked it over with amusement. “Really now? Was hoping to get Administrator Clu's attention, but this...Oh, this is even better.”
“Are you glitched? He can send us all to the Void! He will send us all to the Void.”
Baron snorted. “Quit panicking. You got the drop on 'im, didn't ya? You fit him with a collar?”
“Like that'll stop him! Did you hear about what he was able to do against the last gang of Pushers? Knelt on the floor, concentrated for a nano, and I heard it was like a bomb went off! Or about that virus that tried to poison the Sea? One disk, right through his head, and instant de-rez. We. Got. Lucky.”
Baron seemed remarkably unruffled by the gravity of the situation. “Stroke of luck, m'dear, means we can negotiate directly with the elusive User and get what we want. Well, 'less it gets Tron's notice.”
“That's the other prisoner.” Melodia pinched the bridge of her nose. “We've got a collar on him, and while he was stunned, we put him on the drainer. He's pretty dim at the moment, but we could de-rez -”
“Nope,” Baron said. “Tron gets de-rezzed and we lose whatever leverage we have with Creator Flynn. You heard about the Old System, and how many scrapes they've been through together. Besides, I lived through Master Control's reign. If the Users are all that powerful, they've yet to show it in a way that impresses me.”
Melodia raised one green eyebrow. “So what do we do?”
“Let's see what the great and allegedly powerful Flynn's capable of on his own. He makes a run for it, we'll make sure we threaten Tron or one of the Isos he seems fond of. Under no circumstances, though, will Tron be kept in any shape to fight. Worst case, he's the only leverage we'll get.”
On the fourth attempt, the lock's code undid itself and Flynn ducked out of his cell. The maze of the Resource Hog base was like something out of Zork – twisty little passages all alike and pitch dark. Good thing there were no grues about.
Holding the mental image of the base's setup in his mind, he went straight for the holding cells. Sensing Tron in that enervated state was Not Good. Those Hogs were racking up reasons for him to evacuate the Isos, then format the whole sector. That wasn't an option from here, but he still had a few tricks up his sleeve.
One of the Hogs, a thick-built goon that could play for the Raiders, was standing just around the corner, back to the wall, and just out of regular sight. The only good news about these thugs was that they were a hell of a lot less organized than Sark's mooks. The guy may have been Dillinger on steroids, but he certainly kept discipline among his troops.
This might get tricky. One, two, three, five, seven...
Kevin was not a small man, certainly, but launching himself at the half-hibernating guard didn't do much other than knock the towering lug backward.
“Hey, what the -”
It knocked them off-balance, but not off their feet. It was too close of quarters for the lug to draw the pop-gun, so he settled for trying to grab Kevin. Kevin dodged out of the way, and smashed his elbow into the guy's solar plexus. Sparring in the tutorial areas against Clu and Tron definitely was more practical than most of a real-world gym, and computer nerds in high school and college either learned to fight or dug themselves out of the dumpsters. Kevin dug himself out once, and that was enough.
He dropped low and smashed his foot into the guard's knee, dropping him to the floor. Time for the finisher. Seeing the circuit line pattern, Kevin placed his palms square on the critical node on the Hog's chest, pulling energy inward. The first time he did this, it was against an unlucky straggler in Sark's entourage. Like most manifestations of his User abilities that first visit to the digital world, it was visceral, fueled by emotion and instinct. At that time, he had been fueled by anger at Master Control and grief over Ram.
This wasn't any different. He knew damn well what a brutal technique this was. However, Tron was in danger, these bloated scripts were hurting innocents, and they tried to kill him. Anger, fear, and the sheer danger of the situation surged through him, and Kevin's circuit lines went from white to the Hog's green as the thug dimmed out and decayed into static.
His appearance wasn't changed with the coloration of his circuitry, meaning he wasn't going to blend in with the mooks this time. Screw it. By now, these guys probably figured out who they were dealing with and they were going to find out why pissing off the User was a bad idea.
Free prisoners, get Tron, make these scripts sorry they'd ever been compiled. Sounded like a plan to him.
Kanna and Herd had been shoved into one of the cells on the far end of the block. There were over a dozen cells in this round room. Often there were three prisoners to a cell. They'd been fitted with the thick, uncomfortable collars, too.
Despite the lightrope binding his wrists during their forced march, Herd had reached over and squeezed Kanna's hand. Anything said out loud could be used against them, they realized, so the Isos stayed silent. They'd already lost Charn. They couldn't lose each other, too.
Kanna squeezed in reply.
After untying the ropes, the Hogs shoved them into the cell and raised the forcefield. Across from them, above them, around them were cages full of Isos.
“Herd, you recognize them, don't you?”
“Our settlement,” he said, rubbing his wrists. “They've been pulling them all here. But none of them so much as looked up when we were marched in.”
“Why have they taken prisoners? You'd think -”
“Don't say it, Kanna!”
“Say what? If all they wanted was to chase us out so that they could take the sector, then this doesn't make sense. There has to be a reason.” Her head dropped, causing her thick, black braid to fall over her shoulder. “The Basics hate us. The Champion might be an exception, and only because of his directives. It was shameful he had to get called in for what we should have handled on our own.”
“I'm not going to judge the majority of Basics for the actions of a few,” Herd said. “I'd like to think more of them are like Tron and I'd like to think he chose to help us.”
“Torin told me Basics can't choose, that they have their directives and can't surpass those. That's why Isos are different. We have to struggle. We have to choose.”
“Look me in the eye and tell me that. Or better – look Tron in the eye and tell him that!” Herd argued. “I saw him look at the damage to our fountain. He pulled me onto his cycle in the middle of a firefight at great risk to himself. Those aren't the act of a script carrying out directives.”
Kanna looked out to the cells and the weakened bodies of her fellow Isos. “I don't know what to think anymore, Herd. I went with Torin to the City. It's nothing overt, mostly. But you see it in their eyes. You see the bartender at the clubs serve everyone else a second round before acknowledging you've ordered a first. It's jokes they tell when they think you're out of earshot. It's going to the administration building and getting the runaround until you give up and go home.”
Herd said, “And there are places like Arjin where Radia welcomed Basic and Iso alike. It's the fastest growing sector of the Grid. Kanna, our future will not have to struggle as we have.”
“Provided our future comes at all,” she said darkly, waving to Herd to be silent as two of the Hogs approached with a limp body propped between their arms, circuit lines so dim they looked close to flickering out. Without ceremony, they deactivated the forcefield and pitched him in. Herd raced to catch him, and eased him to the floor.
“Tron? Oh, no,” Herd said, noting the pixelated wounds on Tron's wrists and lower legs. “Kanna, help prop up his head. I'll see if I can -”
“I should help.”
“No, we don't know what it will do to you. I'll take the risk. I can't do much, but maybe I can stabilize the energy he's got left.”
It was the equivalent of cutting one's shirt to make a cellmate's bandages, but Herd had to do something, even a small something, to try and help.
Light-cycles running in tandem, Clu was ahead of Jordan's cycle by a nose as they rocketed into towards Kappa Sector.
“How do you know he's in danger?”Jordan asked.
“Neural link. We're still not sure if it's something unique to the two of us or if more Users would have it with their Programs if they came here. Cut through all the Tower Guardian trappings, and it just means I've got part of his life in me and he's got part of my life with him. Something hits one of us and the other is going to feel it.”
“More things about Kevin I wish he told me,” she grumbled. “Does that spider sense let you home in on him?”
“A general sense. Not much more than that.”
“So we could be searching this sector for weeks.”
“Unfortunately, yes,” Clu said. “But I am reading a settlement three clicks north of here. We'll pull in there and maybe they'll have some answers.”
“Can you sense anything about his condition?” Jordan asked. She felt like she swallowed ice. Sure, she had been angry that Kevin ran off like that, but she didn't want the last conversation she'd ever have with him to be a fight.
“Yup – and he's pissed.”
He many not have his disk, but he was anything but harmless. Kevin ran through the dark, identical passages. It was easy to get lost in here, and he still needed to find the way to the prisoner bin. He could sense their energy signatures right below his feet, but here was no telling where the elevators or stairs were in this mess.
Even most of the signatures he could read were disturbingly faint. What were these jerks doing to the Programs under his care?
“C'mon, come on...” He touched a wall, pulling up a mental map. More spaghetti code with dead ends, bugs and traps. This place was amazing in all the bad ways. The best bet for an elevator was going to be two corridors over and turn left.
Of course, getting there might be tricky. Five of them to one of him. Two of them had suffusion rods, and the rest had shock sticks.
Didn't matter. He raised one hand, pulling the excess energy he'd absorbed from their unfortunate friend into it.
“Don't.” he warned them. “Don't even think about it.”
“Baron,” the head thug said into the com on his helmet. “We've cornered the User.”
“That was easy,” Baron said. “Subdue him and bring him to me.”
Kevin weighed the idea in his head. Hide his cards and face the big boss or whip them out and stick to the original plan?
Let's make 'em work for it.
He pushed out his hand, expelling the absorbed energy and knocking the five Hogs off their feet. The closest one was blown away like an extra in a bad Western, skidding through his fellows like they were bowling pins.
Kevin started running. Someone must have seen that stunt because now the alarms were going off and instead of small squads, they were sending everything they had.
Well, got their attention.
Two corridors down and turn left – there it was! With a burst of adrenaline-powered speed, Kevin raced to the elevator. It wouldn't do him any good with the doors shut, though.
Two, four, eight, sixteen...The good news about User abilities was that it was like playing a game. It took a level or two to get into the flow, but it was easy to maintain once present.
The door opened and Kevin dashed inside, willing the door shut just as a dozen suffusion blasts hit it. Once the car was in motion, he allowed himself a moment to lean against the wall and take a deep breath. He'd need whatever focus he could get for what was coming next.
The doors opened – but not on the prison level. Flanked by his most elite followers, in a throne massive enough to seat his bulk, sat the Baron himself. Grinning, the giant pushed a button on his arm band. The collar around Kevin's neck sent a disrupting shock through him, dropping him to his knees.
“Welcome to Kappa Sector. I'm actually very honored by the fact that my crew has earned the attention of the Creator himself. I'm also delighted to know that the disruptor collar works this well. But if that isn't enough to satisfy you, I also have this...
Barron flicked the joystick on his throne, moving it out of the way and allowing Kevin a view of the back wall. It overlooked some kind of torture chamber, and Kevin shuddered. He thought (hoped) those devices would never come to his Grid.
Master Control's regime made the use of decompiler racks – curved monstrosities of burning circuitry and incredible pain. Kevin had experience with them, certainly. Right after he threw the match with Crom, calling Sark “pissed off” was an understatement. After Sark convinced Master Control to “take the fight out of him,” he had been strapped to one.
“I wonder if you will die screaming like your little hacking Program did...” Master Control had taunted.
The rest of the memory wasn't very coherent – just the feeling like he was being taken apart an atom at a time. He couldn't remember if he screamed, cursed, or (worse) begged. After it was over, they dumped him back in his cell, the other conscripts shooting him looks of sympathy. They'd barely allowed him enough time to recover before shoving him into the light-cycle arena, probably hoping that he'd be too weak to put up a good fight. If it weren't for Tron and Ram, and a renewed sense of being mad as hell and itching for payback, he probably would have lost hope.
Tron, he told. Clu probably knew. No one else. It still led nights where he was holding Jordan a little tighter than usual.
“Found these with other flotsam in the Simulation Sea. Slight tweak of settings and they're really useful for draining energy out of intruders. Isos make even better batteries, as I have enough of them to let a few recover between turns on these darlings. And occasionally, I'll feed on someone nosy enough to poke around my base...”
On the rack second from the left, two of Baron's thugs were cutting down Shaddox. The dark-skinned architect Program looked with dimmed eyes into nothing, like a broken toy.
“Fine, Baron. What do you want?”
Baron laughed. “You need to ask, User? I want this sector. Eventually, I think I'd like to have the whole Grid.”
When Clu and Jordan rode into the settlement, they found it deserted.
“There's no sign of life,” Jordan said, coming out of one of the residential buildings. “Granted, I did not do a room by room search, but if someone was here, you'd think they'd have heard me.”
“Nothing in the administration building, either, but plenty of evidence of a fight,” Clu said, pointing to scarring on the building, points that were blown out of the side or pixellated. “Useless Isos – they have disks, they probably outnumber whatever Hogs are in the sector. Why didn't they fight back?”
“Not everyone's a fighter, Clu,” Jordan said. “Certainly, you wouldn't expect all the Programs to fight in the Games or have combat functions.”
“No, but I do expect everyone on this system to have a purpose. And even if only half of them decided to draw their disks, they certainly ought to be able to fight off some bit-headed gang of rogue scripts. Those who can't defend themselves shouldn't expect others to do the fighting for them. Even with Tron and the System Guards, there's a lot of Grid and too few to cover it.”
“Then...start recruiting. Use the Games, train some of these 'Isos' you keep talk about. See if some of the other Programs wouldn't mind an upgrade. You want something, you find solutions. You're no fool, Clu, and while I'm no programmer, I've heard Kevin at work enough times to know there are always loopholes, no matter how good the programmer thinks their code is.”
Clu puffed out a sigh. “You're proposing long term solutions when we need a short-term one.” He knelt down and touched the ground. “Fortunately, they're insanely wasteful. See these greenish marks? Light-cycle contrails. They normally fade quickly, but they're burning through so much power, they've lit the way back to their base.”
“Guess we follow the breadcrumbs then.”
He got to his feet. “User phrase. Right.”
Jordan pointed to a large, greenish puddle at the far edge the looked like an industrial-sized paint spill. “And it looks like they've got something bigger than light-cycles.”
“That looks like a Recognizer trail. Amazing. These guys are on their way to earning my congratulations – a nano before I take their heads off with my disk. It would explain how they managed to transport a small settlement. Come on.”
They rezzed up their bikes and started to ride out of the settlement, following the power trails into the twisting valley. Jordan tried to focus on the trail ahead, falling in right behind Clu, but her thoughts were focused on Kevin. She just hoped they were going to swoop in for a quick rescue.
Aside from a couple barfights and Basic Training, she had never been in combat – never mind the life or death kind. Hell, they were dismantling the last vestiges of the WAC when she got in. As much as she sought challenges in the sparring ring or the rifle range, it wasn't even close to an honest-to-God firefight.
The disk on her back suddenly felt heavy. She had a bad feeling it was about to get a lot of use, and not for “information storage and identification.”
A hissing snap pulled her out of those thoughts. A greenish ball of energy narrowly missed her head, and she swerved to avoid it. “Clu, heads up!”
“They're sniping at us from the canyon walls. Vary your speed and trail as much as possible. Make it harder for them to hit.”
“Easier said than done!” The electronic-sounding snap and hiss of the guns as they dashed though the canyons drowned out everything in her mind.
Damn it – it's like playing that canyon survival level on Space Paranoids. Only you actually lose your life if you get hit!
There was something about the sound of the guns, though. Something she couldn't quite place. She had no idea why it sounded so familiar.
She swerved to dodge one incoming blast, only for a second shot to graze her cycle. It wobbled under her, its path becoming increasingly unstable. That's when their attackers got a bright idea. Firing at an outcropping, huge boulders that looked like jagged hunks of concrete collapsed into their path.
“Clu look out!”
Clu turned his cycle in a 180 degree turn, narrowly avoiding being crushed by the incoming debris. Unfortunately, it cut off the road ahead.
They derezzed their cycles. The only hope they had was going it on foot.
They didn't get a chance. The Hog snipers crawled down from the valley. “Baron. Couple of intruders. I think one of them is Administrator Clu, sir!”
“Really? Neutralize them and bring them for processing.”
Neither Clu nor Jordan could escape the incoming fire.
It's an entire universe in there, one we created, but it's beyond us now. Really. It's outgrown us. You know, every time you shut off your computer...do you know what you're doing? Have you ever reformatted a hard drive? Deleted old software? Destroyed an entire universe?"
-- Jet Bradley, Tron: Ghost in the Machine on why being a User isn't necessarily a good thing.