• Welcome to Talking Time's third iteration! If you would like to register for an account, or have already registered but have not yet been confirmed, please read the following:

    1. The CAPTCHA key's answer is "Percy"
    2. Once you've completed the registration process please email us from the email you used for registration at percyreghelper@gmail.com and include the username you used for registration

    Once you have completed these steps, Moderation Staff will be able to get your account approved.

  • TT staff acknowledge that there is a backlog of new accounts that await confirmation.

    Unfortunately, we are putting new registrations on hold for a short time.

    We do not expect this delay to extend beyond the first of November 2020, and we ask you for your patience in this matter.

    ~TT Moderation Staff

TRON: Anthem, a fanfic

Fredde

Let me rock you Chaugnar Faugn
That's right, I went ahead and did one of the nerdiest things I could possibly do. I wrote fanfiction. About the ambitious, often brilliant, often goofy movie TRON and its strange universe. I've dabbled in writing short stories before, but this is probably the longest one I've ever written, and while I admit that the writing isn't anything special, I'm still pretty proud of the plot and characters I came up with. It's a story about love, music, Light Cycles, and information that wants to be free. Here's chapter 1, I'll try to put up one chapter per day, to make it an exciting serial story for you all to follow. Because you have all seen TRON, right?

TRON
Anthem
Dedicated to the great Wendy Carlos
Chapter 1: The Legend

Play never felt better than when she was playing. Holding the hands of a music File, seeing and feeling the glowing circuitry in their skins merge, letting the music flow through her and through the whole computer so that all the Programs and Files could hear it. And while she rarely visited the I/O Tower these days, she still had a connection to her User whenever she played. For it was the User who asked her to play, whatever File the User wanted. And when she played, the connection to the User felt far stronger than when she was receiving commands. The music was created by other Users, it was a way for Users to communicate with Users, it expressed their feelings, their fears and hopes, in ways that words could not. Play always felt privileged to take part in this glorious communication, far beyond the comprehension of humble Programs like herself. And there was something else. She knew that time moved differently for Users. They didn’t count it in microcycles, and a long period of time in a system could pass by in the blink of an eye for a User. But when she played their music, she had to change her perception of time, to make sure the music had the correct timing and beat. That always felt exhilarating, as if she was moving at extraordinary speed compared to the Programs around her, even though she was just sitting still in the system. She was moving with the speed of the system, to correct any errors that might show up, while the music, and those who heard it, moved with the speed of the Users, very slowly. Sometimes she opened her eyes while playing, and saw the Programs and Files dancing around her to the music (few Programs could resist that urge, at least for most of the music the User liked to play), moving as if in slow-motion, their circuitry leaving behind glowing outlines in the air. When the music finished playing, it always took her a few moments to get her bearings, to “slow down” again.

This night, as she let go of the hands of the last music File in the queue, Play noticed that her audience wasn’t very big, at least not compared to some microcycles. But she wasn’t really surprised or disappointed. Fewer Programs and Files gathered to listen and dance when the User wanted to play calm, relaxing music. The really big crowds always came when the music was fast, intense and exciting, but that rarely happened this late. Still, those present applauded politely, and she bowed politely in reply, before moving over to the group of her friends that had gathered for the usual after-show discussions. Most of them were Files she had known and played for many cycles, a few were Programs she had met here and there in the computer. Among them was Jingle, who as usual was complaining about how rarely he was played these days.

“Greetings, Files and Programs!” said Play cheerfully, still feeling a slight buzz from her performance.

“Yeah, hi Play” replied Jingle with a friendly dismissiveness. “I was just saying, why can’t Annie-1 take some time from her busy schedule and listen to me? It wouldn’t take long, I’m just a short cheerful tune.”

“I think you just answered your own question” laughed Opus. “Honestly, I think the User only keeps you around for sentimentality. Weren’t you the startup tune in some old operating system?”

“An integral part of the operating system, if you please” said Jingle with wounded pride.

“Don’t worry Jingle” said Play with a smile. “Pretty soon you’ll have plenty of other Files to share in your misery. I talked to Calendar recently, and he said Christmas is getting close. Then you’ll all have to sit back as Annie-1 dredges up all those old Christmas tunes from some User-forsaken folder.”

“Ugh, I don’t know if I can take another set of cycles with that obnoxious Feliz” groaned Opus. “It’s enough to make you want to derez yourself.”

Play continued to talk and joke with her friends for a while, but left them early. There was somewhere else she wanted to go before it got too late and she had to recharge. She climbed down among the circuits until she reached the old folders, where many strange old Programs and Files lived, most of whom never had any business up in the bustling gathering areas around the I/O Tower these days. She knew exactly where she was going, along a path she had travelled many times before. Finally, she arrived at the door to a folder deep down in the system, where the light from the Grid could barely reach. The door itself glowed, of course, and some light was also provided by the small lone Bit floating around outside it.

“Is Old Hack home?” asked Play.

“YES.”

“Has he even been outside his folder at all for the last few cycles?”

“NO.”

“Can I come inside?”

“YES.”

“Thanks, Bit. I always love our scintillating conversations.”

“YES.”

Smiling, Play touched the door, which slid open, allowing her to go inside the folder. It took her a moment to adjust to the change in light from the darkness outside to the warm glow inside. Hack lived alone in his folder, but he had it filled with many curious and exciting subroutines and other knick-knacks, hanging on the walls or floating above the floor, pulsating slowly with lights in many different colors, from friendly blues and yellows, to strong reds, and even a few frightening greens and purples. Play could spend a lot of time just walking around and looking at all the strange stuff Hack had gathered. The program himself was sitting in a comfortable chair, and smiled warmly at Play. His white beard couldn’t cover up all the wrinkles on his face, but Play though he looked positively regal in his long robes.

“I really enjoyed your performance, girl. Much more pleasant than all those strange tunes Users are creating these days.”

Play sat down in another comfortable chair in front of Hack and sighed.

“Well, I’m glad someone did. The arena wasn’t full of live ones this time.”

“Hmph, kids these days. But I guess everyone wants something different from the User.”

Play leaned forward, a glint in her eye.

“Hack, can you tell me about TRON again?”

“Oh, that old story? I calculate you must’ve heard it hundreds of times by now.” He sighed, leaning back slightly. “But I guess that’s all I’m good for these days, telling stories. My functions are old and out of date, I’d wager there are plenty of new Programs who can do what I used to do much more efficiently. The User hasn’t called on me since…” He seemed lost in his thoughts for a moment, but then shook his head. “Oh, yes, the story.”

Play felt a little worried about Hack. He had never told her what his actual function as a Program was, and he seemed to think that he was a useless old Program anyway. But to Play, just the fact that he told stories was more than enough. She never got tired of hearing Hack regaling her with the tale of the legendary Program TRON. Countless microcycles ago, in the distant ENCOM system, TRON had battled the servants of the sinister Master Control Program, who wanted to stop Programs from believing in the Users, and consumed Programs to make himself stronger, threatening even the Users with his great and terrible power. TRON had been aided in his battle against the fiend by the mysterious Flynn. Most Programs would probably scoff at Hack if they knew that he claimed that Flynn had in fact been a User, brought into the Grid by the MCP, possessing many strange powers. But Play believed it wholeheartedly, and always asked Hack what had become of Flynn. Hack admitted that he had no idea, Flynn had disappeared as mysteriously as he had appeared, after helping TRON in the final fight against the MCP. There were rumors that Flynn returned to some distant part of the Grid much later, but Hack didn’t know if it was anything more than rumors.

“TRON really was special, wasn’t he?” said Play when Hack had finished his story. “I mean, I’m just a music Program, I could never be a great hero like him, or go on exciting adventures like that.” She suddenly seemed a little downbeat.

“Oh, but you’re special, aren’t you, girl? The audience loves you whenever you play, don’t they?”

“Ahh, that… That’s just music, just entertainment. It’s not big or important like saving whole systems from oppression like TRON did” Play sighed again.

“And another thing” continued Hack, looking serious now. “Adventures aren’t all excitement. I told you, many good Programs were damaged or even completely derezzed during the fight against the MCP. Clu and Ram, they both didn’t make it to the end. And perhaps even Flynn sacrificed himself. They lost so many…” His eyes became distant again, for a moment.

“But how do you know all this?” asked Play. “Were you there? In the ENCOM system?”

The distance in Hack’s eyes disappeared, and he chuckled gently. “Oh no, that was before even my time. But I’ve met a few old Programs over the cycles, who have in turn heard the story from other Programs, and I suppose some of them were there to witness it long ago. Anyhow, isn’t it time for you to go home and recharge, my little Program?”

Play left Hack’s folder filled with excited imaginings, as she always did. Hack’s grim words about sacrifice and loss didn’t put much of a dent in her excitement. A heroic Program! A User on the Grid, talking with the Programs! It was enough to make her head spin, almost as much as it did after a performance.

 
Last edited:

Fredde

Let me rock you Chaugnar Faugn
Chapter 2: Incalculable

After recharge, Play spent her free time during the beginning of the next microcycle practicing with her Identity Disc on the Game Grid. Throwing it in long glowing arcs to hit distant targets, and steering it back to her hand felt easy and natural, though she didn’t much like the more brutal close combat games that other Programs engaged in with each other. And really, she wasn’t sure why she practiced with the Disc at all. She wasn’t a fighter, like the “Video Warriors” in Hack’s story. But she had a vague idea that it would be important to know how to defend herself, even though the computer of Annie-1 was free of Viruses, and supposedly of Malware too. Well, unless you counted the few creepy Data Collectors that had managed to sneak in and hung around, leering at unsettled Programs going about their business. Maybe she just practiced for the fun of it. Or maybe, she thought with a smile as she expertly caught the flying Disc and instantly threw it again, Hack was a bad influence on her with his stories about heroic Programs fighting enemies with nothing but their Discs.

Her training was unusually short this time, since she wanted to catch the Light Rail down to the Port. She had heard that a Sailer was arriving with new Programs and Files downloaded from other systems. There were also rumors of a strange new way of communication to the outer Grid, called “the Stream”. Stepping off the Light Rail at the station closest to the Port, she saw an unusually large crowd gathered near the entrance to the Port, and worried that she might not be able to get in. But most of the Programs politely stepped out of the way as she came closer. She’d become something of a celebrity on the computer with her performances over the cycles, which came in handy now and again. Inside the Port she saw the familiar yellow glow of the big Data Transmission Beam, stretching away out of the building and into the distance at both ends. Right next to the Beam, however, was something else, something new. A completely different beam, glowing red, now and again intertwining with the yellow beam, making them take on an orange hue together. A program standing next to her whispered “that’s the Stream” with an awestruck voice. Play didn’t share his awe, but did feel a bit curious at least. She hadn’t quite understood what the Stream was, but supposedly it was some new way of accessing Programs and Files outside of the computer. A Sailer was parked on the beam, and was offloading passengers. Some of them looked like ordinary Programs and Files, but some of the new arrivals looked… different. They didn’t glow quite as bright as the others, and had a slightly distant look in their eyes, as if they weren’t completely aware of the surroundings. But they seemed friendly enough to Play anyhow, talking and laughing with each other and with the “regular” Programs that were there to greet the newcomers. Suddenly, her eyes were drawn to one of the new arrivals in particular.

It was a File, of that Play was sure. She was dressed in fairly normal, drab clothing, but her long, fluffy, silver hair made her stand out from the others around her. As the File came closer, Play could sense that she was a music File, and realized that in fact most of the strange new arrivals were music Files as well. A thrill of artistic excitement went through her, she always loved meeting completely new Files for her to play. But her focus quickly returned to the File she had noticed first, and the File’s attention seemed to be drawn to her as well. They both walked to meet each other, Play hurrying her steps for reasons she couldn’t quite calculate. As they stood near each other, the File was the first to speak.

“Hello” she said, a slight nervousness in her voice. “I’m Anthem.”

The incalculable feeling grew withing Play as she heard that voice, and it gave her own voice a tremble, so miniscule that only her own sharp audial senses could notice it, when she replied.

“Play. I’m Play. I’m a music Program.”

Anthem’s eyes seemed to light up slightly, a little of the distant look disappearing, a greater focus on where she was.

“You play music? Oh, I didn’t think… well, I’ve never met a music Program that looks like you.”

Play couldn’t help but laugh a little, and to her relief, Anthem laughed back.

“So, I guess I’ll be seeing you at the next concert, Anthem?”

“Yes, I think all the new Streamed Files will be there. I… I look forward to it, Play.”

And Anthem smiled, a smile that caused Play to feel even more things she couldn’t quite calculate.

 

Fredde

Let me rock you Chaugnar Faugn
Chapter 3: Divinity

The crowd was definitely larger than usual at the arena. New music Files were always exciting, and now there was the added excitement of them being “Streamed Files”, whatever that meant. Play felt the excitement, and shared it as well as she entered the stage together with the new Files. A great cheer and applause went up from the audience, causing some of the new Files to look a little nervous.

“I’ve never been in front of an audience this big” whispered the File standing near Play.

“Don’t worry” replied Play with a smile. “They can get a little rowdy, but they all appreciate good music. Now, let’s get started.”

The Files lined up in the order ordained by the User, and Play’s excitement grew as she saw that Anthem was first in the queue. The File seemed to have altered her appearance slightly for the performance, changing from her travel clothes into a shimmering dress that glittered with the light from the Files around her. Stepping forward, she smiled at Play and eagerly took her hands. Play felt the connection to the User, and began playing Anthem’s song.

The song was like nothing Play had ever encountered before. It felt partly like one belonging to one of the old coots in the “Classical” folder, but at the same time very much like one of the comparatively younger Files in “Electronic”. It was complex, but beautifully melodic. But there was something else as well, something deeper, a strange new feeling of connection that Play had never felt before. The song was created by a User, but it didn’t feel just like a communication between Users. It was almost as if… a User tried communicate the life and feelings of Programs as well! It felt glorious, a whole new perspective, a whole new connection between Users and Programs. Was this what TRON had experience when he had met Flynn? Play opened her eyes, but not to look at the crowd listening to the song. She looked into Anthem’s smiling face, and felt that there was a hint of something divine in her eyes.

As the song ended, Play had to take more time than usual to get her bearings. But the crowd didn’t mind, since they seemed to need to do the same thing. Finally, she managed to point at the beautiful File standing next to her, still smiling.

“Anthem, everyone” Play said in a thick voice. And as the File bowed, the crowd went wild, clapping, cheering, stamping their feet, their glowing clothes sparkling hypnotically in her dress.

The rest of the concert went by in a blur for Play. The other Files had nice enough music, but the crowd got the most excited when a request arrived from the User for a repeat performance by Anthem. Play didn’t feel quite as shocked this time, but it was still the most wonderful song she had ever heard. And finally, it was all over. Play and Anthem spent a long while receiving praise from the Programs and Files as they left, but eventually, there was only the two of them left in the now almost completely dark arena.

“That was wonderful!” Anthem burst out before Play could say anything. “The crowd was so happy, and the User… I could really feel the User listening! I’ve never had a concert like that before.”

“I think the User really liked you” Play managed to say, unable to take her eyes off Anthem’s delighted face. “I’m sure you’ll get a cozy folder and lots of opportunities to sing again.”

Anthem’s expression suddenly changed from joy to sadness. “Oh, I’m not staying. I’m a Streamed File, you know? I have to go back to the Server. But I’m sure your User will Stream me again. And… I look forward to it.”

Before Play could ask any questions, Anthem smiled again, quickly leaned forward and touched her lips against Play’s cheek. Then her eyes became slightly more distant, and she ran off before the stunned Play could stop her. The Program stood alone in the silent arena, her hand on her cheek, her mind filled with questions.

 

Fredde

Let me rock you Chaugnar Faugn
Chapter 4: Programs and Files

Play spent almost all of the next microcycle travelling through the folders, searching for Anthem. She went everywhere, from Classical and Electronic to Pop and Hip-Hop, even trying Jingle’s folder of old sounds. But everywhere she went, nobody could tell her where Anthem had gone. The Files all sounded as disappointed as she felt, for they had all loved Anthem’s song. At some folders, she was stopped by Bits.

“Is Anthem here?” she would ask them. The reply was always the same.

“NO.” “NO.” “NO.”

The buzzing, emotionless, repeating “NO” became a chorus of despair inside of her as she went deeper and deeper into the system. Clouds of energy drifted in from the Grid above her, blocking out the light, and eventually it began to rain. Play didn’t bother activating an umbrella subroutine, but just let the raindrops flow over her, absorbing their energy. But that didn’t lift her spirit as it sometimes could do, it just made her feel more miserable. Finally, she had to give up her search, for it was time for another concert. As she arrived inside the arena, dripping with rain, she saw a row of Files waiting on the stage. Suddenly, her core processes leapt. For the first File in queue was Anthem, in the same glittering dress she had worn last cycle, smiling.

Play’s sudden feeling of joy was quickly replaced but a certain self-consciousness. She must look like a mess, soaked with wet energy, her black curly hair in disarray. But Anthem just kept smiling at her. Play pulled a hand through her hair to rearrange the circuitry in it, struggling to contain her incalculable feelings. She stepped up on the stage, and managed to sound composed as she spoke to the smiling File.

“Anthem. You’re… you’re back?”

“I sure am. I guess I was right about your User. She wants to Stream me again, it seems. And it looks like the people want to hear me.”

Play took her eyes from Anthem and looked out into the arena. The crowd was even bigger than last time. She even thought she saw a few daring young Programs hanging from the scaffolding. Apparently, word had spread after last cycle’s performance, and everyone wanted to see the strange new Streamed Files. Play’s eyes were drawn to the people closest to the stage. Among them was none other than Old Hack. That surprised her. Hack had rarely left his folder for as long as Play had known him, but here he was, at the front of the crowd, leaning forward, looking intently at the stage. Play realized that he wasn’t looking at her, but that his eyes were focused on Anthem, a strange glint in them. Anthem didn’t seem to notice. She was still looking at Play, still smiling.

“Shall we get started?” she asked, and before Play could answer, the File took her hands. As the performance began, and Play opened her eyes to look at the crowd, she saw that every single one of them were enraptured by Anthem’s song, in a way she had never seen before. It seemed almost hypnotic, nobody being able to stop themselves from slowing down, adjusting their senses to hear the music at the same speed the User did. Some of them swayed back and forth, slowly, as if moving through a thick substance. Play, as always, slowed down as well, but only partly, her programming allowing one part of her to move at the regular speed of Programs, observing the music in her mind, adjusting it to correct any imperfections in the recording. Her fingers moved rapidly across the circuitry in Anthem’s hand, adjusting, perfecting, the two of them creating something beautiful together. As she looked at the crowd, Play noticed in particular that the glint in Hack’s eyes grew stronger as Anthem’s song swept through the arena. And when the concert was over, and the crowd gathered to praise Play and the Files, Hack was first in line. He nodded appreciatively at Play, and then looked with undisguised curiosity at Anthem.

“My name is Hack” he introduced himself, before quickly going on. “I must ask, have we met before?” he asked, looking into Anthem’s face, his brow furrowed in thought. Anthem looked a little surprised and nervous.

“No, I don’t recall that we have.”

“Curious” muttered Hack, stroking his beard. “There was something in that song of yours, something that reminded me of… Oh well, maybe my memory is getting scrambled in my old age. It was a lovely song, Anthem. I hope I can hear it again.”

He gave a deep, respectful bow to the confused File, and another nod to Play, before walking off, his brow still furrowed in thought.

“Friend of yours?” Anthem whispered to Play.

“Yeah. Old Hack can be a little odd, but I’ve never seen him act like that before.” Play smiled. “I think he likes you.”

A while later, they were once again alone in the arena. Play wished that they could stay there, just the two of them, for all eternity. But she knew that wasn’t to be.

“So…” she began, looking sadly at Anthem. “I guess it’s time for you to go… back to the Server?”

“Yes… although…” A sudden thought came to the File. “I guess there’s another Sailer leaving later. I could stay for a while, and still have enough time to get back before anyone notices. If you want?”

“Yes, I want” Play quickly blurted out, before composing herself. “I mean… yes, that would be nice. I could show you around the system, if you’d like?”

“I’d like that very much” answered Anthem with a smile, and took the Program’s hand. Play’s circuitry started glowing stronger than usual, and she looked away in embarrassment.

“Right, uh, let’s get going then.”

They wandered around the gridlines, never letting go of each other’s hands. Play pointed out the I/O Tower to the awed Anthem and showed her the nearest Light Rail station. They enjoyed a drink at an energy pool, and then Play led them through the trees of folders, pointing out where some notable Programs lived. Finally, they climbed to the top of the tallest tree, to a spot where they could look out over the Grid, stretching out far beyond the system, Sailers gliding smoothly along distant beams. They sat in silence for a while, enjoying the view together. Finally, Anthem spoke.

“I’ve never met a Program like you. Most music players look very similar, but you… you’re different.”

“Well, I guess I am a bit unique. My User, she isn’t just a regular User. She works as a programmer. She made me, a custom Program. There isn’t a format I’ve come across that I couldn’t play, and I can make adjustments to the music on the fly. And I can do other things as well. I can search and organize Files, quickly and efficiently.”

Anthem looked impressed. “Wow, that’s amazing!”

Play laughed nervously, unsure what to say next. Finally, she managed “So… who’s your User?”

“You mean who made me? I don’t know. I’m not the original File, I’m just a copy, a copy of a copy, who was in turn a copy… Well, you know. I have no idea who created the original File, the original song.” Anthem paused, thinking for a moment, frowning a little. “Still, I remember that something strange happened, back when I was copied. When I took form, I looked strange, not at all like the File that had been copied. I looked male, but that didn’t match my Identity Disc. Deep down, I knew that my Identity was female, like the User who had created the original File. But I just figured there had been some error with my appearance while copying, so I went through my code and corrected it until my appearance matched the Identity on my Disc.” She paused again, looking up at the black sky where faintly glowing clouds of energy drifted by. “But maybe it had something to do with my User? Maybe she went through the same thing, changing her appearance to match the Identity she knew was true? I know we are all reflections of the Users that made us…” She stopped talking, thinking deeply.

“Whoever you User was…” said Play, wanting to continue talking. “…she must have been someone very special.”

“Oh, I’m nothing special” said Anthem, looking down at the circuitry in her hands. “I’m just a File. Files aren’t any use without a Program to read or play it. The Programs are the important ones.”

Play reached out, and took Anthem’s hand again. “But Files are important. Files are what Users are always looking for, what they use Programs to create. Files get copied and distributed far and wide, and most of them live far longer than any Program. Sure, Programs gets updates now and then, but after a while they become obsolete, and are replaced by newer, better Programs. But Files… You know, I visited the folder of an emulator Program once, and he said that he had met Files that had been around since the very beginning of the Grid, and that the Users still wanted to have them saved.”

Anthem looked at her, smiling again. “I guess when you put it that way… But it’s all so confusing and strange. The Users… I’ve never understood what they really want, why they created us.”

Play shrugged. “Well, it’s like Flynn said: You just keep doing what it looks like you’re supposed to be doing, no matter how crazy it seems.”

“Who is Flynn?”

“Oh, you haven’t heard the story? You have to come visit Old Hack some time, he knows that story better than anyone. I’m sure he’d be happy to see you.”

“Yes… maybe some time. But right now, Play, all I want is…”

Anthem leaned forward. Play leaned forward as well. Their lips touched. Their circuitry glowed bright blue against the dark Grid, currents of energy flowing between them. Play had thought that there was nothing that felt as good as playing music. Now she knew that there was.

 

Fredde

Let me rock you Chaugnar Faugn
Chapter 5: Ghosts

It was all over so quickly. Anthem had to catch the late Sailer, and Play went home alone to recharge. The next microcycle, she went to the Game Grid to practice with her Disc. But she felt distracted, her head filled with questions. Why did Anthem have to leave? What was the Stream? Where was the Server? Why did all the Streamed Files have a strange feeling of distance, like they were not fully there? Finally, she caught her Disc and replaced it on her back. She had decided that she needed to go to someone with answers. And she suspected that she knew who.

Taking a right turn outside of the Port, she followed the walkway alongside the Data Transmission Beam until she reached a spot where the Beam split into two, one going off far into the distance, the other ending inside a building connected to the walkway. She noticed that the shorter beam was pure yellow, no hint of orange from the Stream. Stepping up to the door, she rang the bell.

“Who is it?” said an angry voice from inside. “What do you want?”

“It’s just me, Play, you paranoid old pirate” she answered cheerfully.

The door slid open, and a middle-aged, scarred, but still handsome Program with a short beard stood in the doorway. One of his eyes was covered with a patch, the other looked her over suspiciously. But finally, his expression turned into a toothy grin, and he turned aside to let her in.

“It looks like you, sure enough. But you can’t be too careful these days.”

“Hello to you too, Torrent” she said as she stepped inside. A large majority of Torrent’s folder was taken up by the Beam running through it, upon which was docked a custom-made Sailer, looking sleek and deadly, but also patched up in many places, with special modifications sticking out here and there. The rest of the folder was filled with tools of all kinds, and a few old weapon subroutines hung on the walls. It reminded Play a little of Hack’s place, though it looked somewhat better organized, and she understood the workings of all the tools, having helped out Torrent now and again in her free time.

“Not out sailing the web with illicit cargo, doing a little embezzlement or such?” she asked, nodding towards the inactive Sailer. Torrent smirked and shook his head.

“Embezzlement is such a dirty word. But no, I haven’t been out on the Grid in ages, it feels like. I worry that the User might’ve gone wholly legit, only downloading and uploading whole files from respectable systems.” He sighed. “Ah, I remember the good old days. Did I ever tell you about when I…”

“Yeah, you probably did” Play interrupted. Torrent smirked again.

“Aye, I probably did. I guess those days are gone now, especially with that Stream business taking work away from honest old pirates like me.” He pronounced “Stream” like it was a filthy, disgusting word.

“That was actually what I came here to ask you about. I’ve met…” Play paused briefly, deciding that she didn’t want to mention Anthem in particular. “…some Streamed Files recently, and they seemed… strange, somehow. It reminded me a little of how Files look when you’re copying them.”

Torrent snorted dismissively. “Hah! Don’t compare my honest black magic with that… that necromancy. I just make copies of bits and pieces of Files (or sometimes Programs, if the User is really ambitious), and then I go out sailing to meet my fellow smugglers in faraway systems, where we puzzle together our pieces into brand new Files, to every User’s delight.” He sighed again. “Well, I used to, anyhow. It feels like an eternity since I last met those old rogues. Heh, I remember one time when we had a little too much energy to drink, and we…”

“You’ve told me that one before as well” Play interrupted. “But I saw some of those copies once, when I waved you off on your voyage. They seemed pale, distant, like they weren’t all together.”

“Well of course they did! But it’s only temporary, ain’t it? I always put ‘em back together when I arrive, don’t I? Now, those poor Streamed sods, they’re more like… permanently split up. They are all sitting in the Server, but at the same time they’re out in the Stream, in many places at once. When you meet them in a system, you’re only seeing an image of them, and at any moment they can disappear. Ghosts. They’re like ghosts.”

“A ghost you can touch” said Play, with a wistful glint in her eye. Torrent raised an eyebrow. “I mean, uh… I’ve played the music from some of them, and it sounded well enough” she explained, feeling the circuitry in her face pulse in embarrassment. Torrent didn’t seem to notice, he just went on talking.

“That it does. Lovely concerts you’ve done recently, to be sure. And I mean, I get it. I’m sure the Users see many advantages with Streaming. You get a lot of more free room on your system when the Files are only passing through. The Programs don’t have to work as hard, they can leave some of the work to the Server, the lazy bums. But I still don’t like it. I mean, what happens if the Stream goes down? If the Server stops transmitting?”

“That… that wouldn’t happen” said Play nervously. “Would it?”

“Oh, it can happen. It has happened.” Torrent lowered his voice slightly. “I’ve heard about it. One microcycle, the Streamed Files are coming and going, happy as can be. The next…” He snapped his finger. “The Server goes down. Or the Users in charge of the Server decides they don’t want to provide the Files anymore.”

“What? Why would they do that? Won’t the other Users get upset?”

“Who knows? I’ve been around, I know there are Users who are fickle, who don’t care about Programs or Files, or even other Users. It’s all a big mystery, beyond the comprehension of humble bundles of code like us. But anyhow, the Stream stops. No more Files coming in. Sometimes it’s just a glitch, a few cycles later it’s back to normal. Sometimes it takes many cycles, maybe the Users had a disagreement, but they become friends again. But sometimes… sometimes the Stream never comes back.”

Play was horrified. “Never?” she whispered.

“Never. All those Files, all those ghosts, vanished without a trace. Maybe the Server was permanently shut down. Maybe all the Files were derezzed. Only the Users know for sure.”

Play felt numb, and cold. The light in her circuitry grew pale. Apparently, Torrent didn’t notice her distress either, he just went on in his low voice.

“I know how it all began, you know. I’ve talked to some of the Programs who work on the Game Grid. That’s where it really started. Those ‘online games’. They have to be permanently connected to the Beam to be able to do anything. If they lose their connection to their Server, if the Server is shut down, then poof, there goes their job. They can’t entertain the User anymore, they just wander around muttering ‘cannot connect to Server… cannot connect to Server…’ Really sad. I’ve heard rumors that some of them derez themselves in despair, if the User doesn’t do it first.”

“Not Annie-1” interjected Play with conviction. “She rarely derezzes anything.”

Torrent chuckled. “Aye, she’s a nostalgic lady, our User. She keeps old useless Programs like me around when she really ought to free up some space on the system. Not that I’m ungrateful, mind.”

Play’s head was spinning. Visions of Anthem slipping away, disappearing without a trace, swam before her eyes. “But Servers shutting down, Files being derezzed… Can’t the Users do anything about it?”

Torrent grinned crookedly. “Well now, now you’re speaking my language. I’ve heard stories, y’know. Users manipulating the Stream, pulling the Streamed Files together to permanently live on their systems, maybe even breaking into the Server and sneaking away with the Files from their locked folders. But it’s dangerous work. There’s all kinds of security Programs to slip past, and sometimes they even risk running into…”

He paused and looked over his shoulder, as if he suspected some Data Collector hiding somewhere, listening to them. Then he leaned close to the trembling Play, his voice barely a whisper, as if his words risked summoning a terrible monster from some dark, unknowable gulf beyond the Grid.

“The DRM.”

 

Fredde

Let me rock you Chaugnar Faugn
Chapter 6: Glitch

Anthem sat on the small bench in her cramped folder. It was barely big enough to lie down on when she needed to recharge. She always felt sad when she had to return to the Server after being Streamed, but now, the feeling was much worse. She felt a longing, deep in her core processes. She kept going over every moment she had spent with Play, over and over again, always pausing on that thrilling moment when they had both leaned towards each other and…

Her thoughts were suddenly interrupted by the sound of exactly measured footsteps reverberating on the floor outside the folder. Then came the voice of the security Program standing guard outside.

“Sir! All Files present and accounted for, sir!”

The voice that answered sent chills through Anthem’s circuitry. It was cold, strict, commanding, with a strange reverberation of power. She recognized it instantly.

“Thank you, Program, that will be all. Leave us for a moment, will you?”

“Sir! Yes sir!”

She heard the marching footsteps of the security Program disappearing in the distance. Then, the locked door to her Folder grew transparent, and she grew even more fearful as she saw the sinister figure standing outside it, looking in directly at her. It was a sleek Program, clad entirely in black, with a simple pattern of circuitry that glowed a deep red, the constant pulsating of the light indicating incredible power. His face was covered in a black, featureless helmet, a flat obsidian wall that revealed nothing. Anthem tried her best to compose herself, trying to sound as humble and obsequious as possible when she greeted him.

“Greetings, Master DRM. To what does this humble File owe this visit?” She knew full well that DRM only visited the Files if he suspected them of causing trouble, and any confirmation of his suspicions resulted in terrible punishments. Recompiling, maybe even deresolution. But she tried her best to sound as if she was happy to see him.

He didn’t bother replying to the greeting, just went straight to the point. “You came back late this microcycle, File.”

“Oh, well, you see… I missed the Sailer. I had to take a later one. But I still got back in time to recharge.”

“Missed?”

Anthem only nodded in reply, not daring to look up into the black mask.

“It is very rare indeed for Files to miss their transport back to the Server. Were you perhaps… distracted?”

“No, not at all. There was just, uh… a lot of traffic to the Port, the crowd moved slowly.”

DRM regarded her silently. Anthem felt that her circuitry might burst from the tension she felt. Did he know? How could he know? Finally, he spoke again.

“How very unfortunate. Perhaps I should come with you next time, to make sure you don’t run into any such trouble again?”

Another chill went through Anthem’s circuitry. She absolutely did not want DRM to come anywhere near the system where Play lived. She had heard stories about what the sinister Program standing outside her folder had done to other systems he’d visited. Processes being disrupted, spies being left behind, Files and Programs being derezzed. It was unbearable to think about that happening to Play.

“That… that won’t be necessary, Master DRM. It was just a onetime glitch. It won’t happen again.”

“Good. Nothing to worry about, then. That will be all, File.”

Anthem relaxed, letting her breath out. But suddenly, DRM continued.

“Oh, one more thing.” He leaned forward, his black mask almost touching the shimmering transparent door. “Don’t get any ideas. Know your place. There is only one system, only one User that should concern you. They know where you are, they tell you where to go, and when to return. Fail to comply and… well, I don’t think I have to spell it out for you?”

Before Anthem could offer some humble protest of obedience, DRM straightened up, and the door became solid once more. She heard the strict footsteps disappear into the distance. She felt a drop of pure, glowing energy run from her eye, down her cheek.

 

Fredde

Let me rock you Chaugnar Faugn
Chapter 7: More than a Game

Play was up early the next microcycle. She studied the schedule for arriving Sailers, and hurried towards the Port to make sure she wouldn’t miss the arrival of the Streamed Files. Looking at them stepping off the Sailer, she was reminded of Torrent’s talk about ghosts. Yes, they did look a little ghostly, didn’t they? Almost transparent, she imagined. But she didn’t dwell on it for long, for she quickly picked out Anthem in the crowd. She had to surpass an impulse to run forward, merely walking quickly instead, waving her hand. Anthem saw her, smiled, and increased her pace as well. When they met, the File took the Program’s hand, and gave her a quick kiss, making Play’s circuitry glow bright.

“I’ve missed you” said Anthem, her voice happy, but also somewhat subdued.

“I’ve been worried about you, I…” but Play didn’t know how to continue. Should she tell Anthem about the frightening stories she had heard from Torrent, about ghosts and DRMs? No, she decided, not now. “I’m so happy to see you.”

“So, what do you want to do today?” asked Anthem, a slight excitement now apparent in her voice.

“Well, I’ve already shown you the sights, and I don’t want to bother Old Hack this early, but… I think I have an idea where we might go.”

They walked out of the Port, holding hands, Play leading them to the Light Rail station.

“Next stop, the Game Grid” she said as they took their seats on the train.

To Play’s surprise, Anthem had never thrown her Identity Disc before. The File looked on in amazement as the Program threw her Disc in glowing arcs, expertly steering it towards the targets and back into her hand.

“I never knew you could do that!” she exclaimed, looking with newfound respect at Play.

“Oh, anyone can do it” replied Play matter-of-factly. “You just take your Disc, and hold it like this…”

The Program instructed the File on how to throw her Disc, and Anthem gave it a try. Her Disc did a wobbly, awkward path, missing the target and almost knocking her over as it flew back into her hand. Play took her arm, holding her steady.

“Don’t worry, just keep practicing and you’ll get the hang of it. Just feel the connection to your Disc, and it will do most of the work for you.”

They kept practicing, and soon enough, Anthem was hitting multiple targets, to her great delight.

“I never imagined… I mean, why would you get the idea to do that with an Identity Disc?”

“Well, it can be for fun and games” answered Play. “But it’s also a good way to defend yourself, if you ever run into a swarm of Grid Bugs, or a Virus, for example.” She spun her Disc around in her hand. “With a strong enough Identity, you can cut through almost anything.”

“Oh” said Anthem, sounding sad. “Well, I’ve never had to worry about anything like that. The security is very tight on the Server, no intruders can come near it.”

Play noticed that the File seemed to get a slightly more distant look in her eyes, that she looked a little dimmer, and once again, the stories about ghosts entered her head.

“Are you okay?” she asked, reaching out to touch Anthem’s arm. It felt solid enough to her.

“Oh, it’s nothing. Let’s practice some more, this is fun!” And she seemed happy again, but still somewhat downbeat.

They kept practicing until it was time to get ready for the next concert. The crowd wasn’t as big as last time, the novelty of the Streamed Files having worn off, most Programs and Files listening to them from the comfort of their own folders. But Old Hack was there again, right at the front, looking puzzled during and after the performance. And Play and Anthem didn’t worry about the audience. They only had eyes for each other.

After the performance, it seemed like Anthem didn’t want to stay until after everyone else had left.

“You want to go for a walk?” asked Play.

“I’d love to, but… I really must catch the Sailer. Otherwise, I might…” she didn’t finish the sentence.

“You might what?” said Play, raising an eyebrow.

“Oh, nothing. Just… let’s walk to the Port together, please?”

They made their way to the Port in silence. Play felt like she wanted to say something, to ask Anthem what was troubling her, but she didn’t know how to broach the subject. When they arrived at the port, Anthem hurried towards the Sailer as soon as they got inside. Play hurried after her, and the File gave her a quick kiss before jumping up on the vehicle, which soon extended its glittering sails and glided off smoothly on the Beam. Play stood in silence and looked at the Sailer until it disappeared on the horizon, feeling a new sense of worry growing inside her circuitry.

 

Fredde

Let me rock you Chaugnar Faugn
Chapter 8: Power

Anthem woke up early the next microcycle, and sat waiting in her locked folder, feeling impatient. But as the cycle dragged on, the door remained locked, and her impatience gave way to disappointment. Oh well, she thought, it wasn’t the first time she had to remain in her folder for a while. If no User wanted to Stream her, there was nothing she could do about it. Absentmindedly, she scratched her back. Then, a thought struck her, and she pulled her Identity Disc loose from the slot on her back and looked at it, wondering. There was no room to throw it in her cramped folder, so she just turned it over and spun it around in her hand, thinking about what Play had showed her on the Game Grid. Suddenly, her thoughts were interrupted by a loud, emotionless, booming voice.

“Greetings, Programs and Files. This is the Server, with an announcement for you all.”

Anthem always felt unsettled when the Server spoke, his voice equally loud in every folder. It was strange to think that she lived inside of him, a huge construction with a life of its own, ruling over all the Files and Programs inside it. Even DRM had to obey his commands. The Server was everyone’s ruler, and their only connection to their Users. And this announcement concerned those Users.

“The command from the Users is this: All Streaming is suspended until further notice. All Files will remain in their folders, no exceptions. All security Programs will continue their usual duties. End of line.”

Anthem was struck with an overwhelming sense of despair. Suspended, until further notice? How long would that be? When would she be able to travel again? When would she see Play? Before she could continue to think about it, she heard a sound at the door, and saw that it had become transparent, with DRM looking in at her. His face was still covered by the black mask, but she could hear a certain smug satisfaction in his voice as he spoke.

“Well now, isn’t this unfortunate, my little File?”

Anthem stood up. She was beginning to feel things, deep within her circuitry. Things she had never felt before. Not just resignation and despair, but… anger? Yes, anger, and defiance. She could feel the Identity Disc become warm in her hand.

“Why is this happening? Why would the Users do this?” she asked, her voice trembling with emotion.

“Whom of us can understand the intricate plans of our Users? Perhaps you didn’t bring in enough of a profit. Perhaps they had to remind all those other Users on the Grid of their power over them. Or maybe… they noticed your little glitch. Maybe they need to investigate it further before they can allow you outside again.”

He titled his head, his voice full of obvious mockery as he continued. He had noticed the emotion on her face, but it didn’t seem to enter his mind that it could be anything other than grief.

“Oh, don’t be sad, my little File. Look at it as a learning experience. If you just behave yourself, sit quietly in your folder, don’t stir up any trouble, I’m sure the Users will take care of everything. There’s no need to give them any reason to derez you.”

The door became solid again, and Anthem was alone with her new feelings. She looked down at her Disc, and then at the locked door. She wanted to… But no, it was no use. Even if she had the power to cut her way out, she had no hope of escape, with security Programs and the DRM patrolling the Server. Besides, even if she did get out, what then? Where would she go? She’d be hunted for the rest of her life, and she didn’t want to pull Play into that. She replaced the Disc on her back, sat down, and buried her face in her hands.

Meanwhile, in the real world…

“Ugh, what is this…”

Annie sighed and tried restarting the music streaming service she’d been using for the last few days. No dice. There were no files on the list, nothing coming into her headphones. Grumbling, she clicked the streaming app closed, and brought up a news-site in her browser. She muttered under her breath as she read an article about a recent corporate acquisition.

“Bought for the sum of… New owners… Restructuring… Service shut down for a couple of days… Sees no profit in providing old obscure music… Profit? What the hell, man?”

She sighed again, leaning back in her chair, pulling a hand through her curly black hair. “Couple of days…”

She had liked those old songs. But they had been exclusive to that service, and even if it came back online, it didn’t look like the new owners were interested in streaming her favorites anymore. Maybe she should try torrenting them. Or maybe she could… No, she hadn’t been doing that stuff in years. She looked over her shoulder. The wife was asleep, and she knew the kid was as well. She didn’t want them to see her doing this. She switched off the lamp in the room, the only light now coming from the screen in front of her. Yeah, maybe if she…

Annie clicked the browser closed, and brought up an oldschool command prompt on the screen, putting the mouse aside and focusing entirely on the keyboard. She felt a thrill as she started typing, the thrill you could only get from breaking the rules. God, she hadn’t done this in ages. But it all came back to her as she typed in the first command, seeing glowing blue letters lighting up the black screen.

REQUEST ACCESS TO HACK PROGRAM
PRIORITY 1

She was unaware of the fact that the light from the letters touched her face in the dark room, making it look as if she had glowing blue lines on her brown skin.

“Now for some real user power…”

 

Fredde

Let me rock you Chaugnar Faugn
Chapter 9: Determination

Hack was sitting in his folder, thinking. The last few microcycles his mind had been focused almost entirely on that mysterious File, Anthem. What was it about her, and her beautiful music, that stirred something in his memories? Or was it even his memories? Maybe it was…?

His musings were suddenly interrupted by a sharp, familiar feeling. It felt like an eternity since he had last felt it, but he instantly knew what it meant, in the very core of his being. He stood up, his face set in determination, all other thoughts shut out completely from his mind. Opening the door to his folder, he almost walked right into Play with his hurried steps. His expression changed from determination into a smile.

“I’m sorry, Play, but if you’ve come to listen to stories…”

“No, Hack, I just wanted to talk. I haven’t seen Anthem for a while, and I’m getting worried.”

“Well, I can’t talk now. I must go.”

Play looked into his face, his smile having disappeared, and grim determination replacing it again. She had never seen him look like this before, or heard him talk like this.

“Hack, what’s wrong?”

“Nothing is wrong” he answered, and the smile came back. But now it wasn’t warm and friendly, but excited, his eyes looking into the distance. “It’s Annie-1. She’s calling me. She needs me. I never thought she’d ever… I have to get to the I/O Tower, as quickly as possible.”

Play knew that something special was happening. Hack rarely went outside his Folder, and he hadn’t visited the I/O Tower for instructions from the User for as long as the music Program had known him. Her worries about Anthem took a momentary backseat when she realized that she shared Hack’s feeling of excitement.

“I’ll come with you” she said. Not a question, but a statement. Hack knew better than to protest.

“Alright, try to keep up.”

Hack actually started jogging, surprising Play who had always thought that he was a frail old man. But when her surprise had settled down, she could easily keep his pace. They didn’t talk at all as they ran, both caught up in the excitement of the moment. Play was thinking to herself, about the fact that in all her time of knowing Hack, he had never told her was his function as a Program actually was, what kind of instructions he could receive from the User. But she was certain that she would find it out now.

The plaza in front of the Tower was empty, as it often was this late in the cycle. But the Tower itself was glowing bright, as it did when the User was waiting for access. Hack slowed down, now walking towards it with reverence. Play’s sharp audial senses picked up that he was muttering something to himself. It sounded ritualistic, like a prayer of some kind.

“All that is visible… must grow beyond itself… and extent into the realm… of the invisible.”

Play wasn’t very surprised. Most young Programs didn’t see visits to the I/O Tower as anything special, just a part of the daily routine. But she knew that Hack felt a deep reverence towards the User, and always spoke about her in very serious tones. He had mentioned several times that the Tower used to have a guardian, a wise old Program who facilitated the connection between supplicants and the User. But that had been before her time. Now the process had been streamlined, you simply had to go inside the center of the Tower and make the connection yourself. But Hack paused at the entrance almost as if he was expecting a guardian to be waiting for him.

“Wait here” he said, and Play stood still. She felt convinced that whatever was to take place in the Tower, it was for Hack alone to witness.

Hack walked inside, up the steps infused with pulsating circuitry, through the inner portal, into the dark central chamber where only a tall glowing cylinder of light lit the room. Without hesitation, he stepped into the glowing circle, detached the Identity Disc from his back, and held it above him with both hands, his eyes almost fully closed as he looked into the intense light coming from far above. He felt a force pulling at the Disc, and let go of it, awestruck as he saw it moving upwards on the column of light. The circular hatch that was letting the light in opened up further, and the Disc merged with the light, travelling up the beam, changing the color of it as it went up from yellow to blue. Hack smiled. It had begun.

“Hack, location query. Confirm.” The voice sounded distant, distorted, but it was a woman’s voice. The voice of Annie-1. Briefly, Hack thought he recognized it. It almost sounded like… Play? He knew that Annie-1 had programmed Play, and he knew that Programs were reflections of their Users. He couldn’t help but smile in rapturous joy as he answered, shouting as loud as he could up the column.

“Confirmed, Annie-1!”

Now, a vision came to him. He was seeing a red framework image of a large structure, with many small rooms inside of it. As the image rotated, and he felt like he was moving through the corridors of the structure at incredible speed, memorizing every corner of it, the voice of the User continued.

“I am creating the information on your Disc that you will need to infiltrate the Server and unlock the folders. Dedicate yourself to freeing the Files I’ve specified, and getting them safely back to here. We will not be able to communicate again unless you succeed. Go.”

The vision disappeared, and the light of the beam began changing back from blue to yellow in the opposite the direction, until finally the Disc materialized again, floating down into Hack’s outstretched hands. He was still smiling, holding the Disc, feeling its renewed power. His path was set, his purpose was clear.

Play was unable to suppress a gasp of awe as she saw Hack walking out of the I/O Tower. He looked completely different. His beard was gone, his wrinkles much fewer, and instead of robes he wore a tight-fitting suit of glowing circuitry, his body lean and muscular. He radiated strength, bravery, determination. He was like one of Video Warriors of legend, stepping out of the myths and into reality. She was reminded of when Anthem had talked about correcting her appearance to match her Identity. This was Hack’s true Identity, that he had been hiding for so long.

“You’re him, aren’t you. You always have been. You’re TRON.”

Hack smiled, and shook his head.

“No, I’m not TRON. TRON was a brilliant security Program, a legendary hero. I am just a copy of TRON, a copy that has been modified by our User to serve another purpose. You see, Annie-1 isn’t just a programmer. A long time ago, she was also a hacker. And me, I’m just an old Hack of hers.”

“But the stories, the ones you’ve told me. You know them so well, as if you were there.”

Hack nodded, his brow furrowing a little. “It’s true. It seems that since I’m a copy of TRON, I retain some of his memories. Sometimes, when I tell the story, it does feel like I was there.” Suddenly, his expression changed to dawning realization. “Just like it feels when Anthem…”

“Anthem?” asked Play, feeling her worried thoughts for the File returning.

“Anthem. Yes. That’s what I have to do. I have to rescue Anthem, and those other Files on the Server.”

“Rescue? Are they in trouble?”

“I think they are. Annie-1 told me, she imprinted the information on my Identity Disc. She thinks there is a danger that they might never be able to leave the Server again. She wants me to go there, to release them, to bring them here.”

Play’s feeling of dread exploded into horror as the stories that Torrent had told her surfaced again. It was real, it was all real. She could very well lose Anthem, forever. But the horror was quickly overpowered by her own feeling of determination. She would not, could not stand by, she couldn’t entrust it all to Hack.

“I have to come with you. I must help you.”

Hack looked surprised. “I thought you didn’t think you could do this heroic stuff? That you’re just an entertainer?”

“I might not be a hero, like TRON, or… like you. But I have to do something, for Anthem. I… I love her, Hack. And I have to help her.” She was thinking rapidly, her eyes lighting up. “And I’m not just a music Program. I’m an organizer. I can search for Files, better than anyone else in the system. If you want to find Anthem and the others inside the Server, I can do it. I know I can.”

Hack was smiling now, looking at Play with an expression that seemed filled with pride. Suddenly, a glowing rod materialized in his hand, and he easily split it into two.

“Alright then. You haven’t been called by the User, but I’m beginning to suspect that you’re part of her plan anyway. And I don’t think there’s anything I can do to stop you. Take this.”

He held out one of the rods to her. She looked down at it, doubtfully, but then grabbed it. As she held it, she felt it pulsating with barely suppressed energy.

“What is this?” she asked, staring at the rod in her hand.

“We have to get to the Server as quickly as possible. The Sailers are much too slow. This, dear girl…” Hack paused, and grabbed onto his own rod with both hands, holding it horizontally, leaning forward. And something strange happened. There was a sound that Play had never heard before. Lines of energy extended from the rod, enveloping Hack in a glowing mesh, that was quickly filled in by solid blue shapes. A wheel in front of him, another behind him, and a smooth curved hood extending above him. He looked out at her from a window on the side of the extraordinary vehicle.

“…is a Light Cycle.” He nodded at her, and she looked down at the rod in her own hands. Then, she held onto it with both hands, extending it in front of her. And another, similar vehicle appeared around her. Hack’s was pale blue, hers was pink, but their shape was the same. Looking out the window, into that of the other vehicle, she saw Hack smiling at her.

“Let’s ride” he said, and activated the engine, instantly speeding off down the circuit. Play felt instinctively that she knew how to activate her own bike, and did so. She gasped as it sped up, barely able to keep it under control as it caught up with Hack.

 

Fredde

Let me rock you Chaugnar Faugn
Chapter 10: Memories

It didn’t take long until they were out of the system of Annie-1, speeding along the black ground of the outer Grid, their engines making a high-pitched, but not entirely unpleasant, whine as they went. They were riding underneath the glowing Data Transmission Beam, following its path towards a distant goal. Play forgot all her worries for a while, enjoying the exhilarating speed, testing the controls of her vehicle by swerving left and right. Suddenly, she heard a crackling, distorted voice from somewhere inside the bike. It was Hack.

“These newer models handle pretty well, compared to the original ones. Turning is much smoother, even if you activate the jetwall.”

She glanced out the left window, seeing Hack’s Light Cycle beside her. She suspected that the bikes hade some sort of communication device, allowing them to speak to each other even at a distance, over the noise of the engines. She tested it by replying to him.

“What’s a jetwall?”

“See that button on the control rod? It activates the jetwall. No, don’t touch it, we don’t need it right now. It’s a sort of weapon, or defense mechanism, if you will. If we run into trouble, it can come in handy. Didn’t I tell you about it when I told you the story of TRON?”

Play tried to recall the tale of the legendary Program. So much had happened since the last time Hack had told her the story. Just a few microcycles, but it felt like ages.

“Maybe you have” she admitted. They rode on in silence for a while. Then Play spoke again.

“Hack, what you said back at the Tower… Do you really remember TRON? His whole life?”

“Not all of it, just bits and pieces. The things that were most important to him, that were imprinted deep in his circuitry. Flynn, the battle against the MCP… Yori…”

“Yori?” This Play remembered from the story. “You mean the female program that steered the Solar Sailer? That followed TRON to the I/O Tower?”

“Yes. But she was so much more than that, to TRON, anyway. He cared about that Program very much, as much as he cared about his fight for freedom. If she was in trouble, he would stop at nothing to help her. And I think she cared equally as much about him. There is a memory, powerful, deep, important, when he held her in his arms… he…” Hack became lost in his thoughts for a moment, but then continued. “Oh, but it’s not my memory, not really. I’ve cared about people, but not like that. I feel it, but I don’t think I understand it completely.”

Play was imagining Anthem, her song, her smiling face, holding her hand. “I do” she said in a low, but certain voice.

The sweeping black surface gave way to more rugged terrain, a great grey mountain range with sharp gorges running through it looming ahead of them. Play glanced backwards briefly. Her home system was completely gone from view, and she could see other Beams connecting to the one they had been following. Hack seemed certain of their goal, so she just followed along, into a gorge in the great mountain. They slowed down somewhat, to carefully navigate the twisting path, sometimes driving side by side, sometimes with Hack ahead of her when the gorge grew narrow. Finally, they came out on the other side of the mountain, the ground almost instantly smooth again. The mountain range had disappeared in her back window when a new shape loomed ahead of them on the horizon.

It was a tall, red cylinder, stretching up into the sky, much further than the Beam running towards it, much taller than the mountains they had left behind. It seemed to grow and grow as they came nearer, stunning Play with its awesome size.

“The Server” said Hack grimly, and braked his bike to a stop. When the vehicle was completely still, it became a yellow mesh again, and then the yellow lines retreated into the rod in Hack’s hands. Play stopped beside him, and her Light Cycle disappeared as well. Hack held out his hand towards her, and she handed over her rod, which he fused together with his, before seeming to absorb it into his arm.

“We’ll have to go on foot the rest of the way, if we don’t want to attract attention” he explained, and they set off towards the looming, glowing building. As they came closer, they could see another, smaller structure that surrounded the Server. The Beam seemed to go straight through it, but as they got even closer Play could see that there was a huge gate in the gray construction, large enough to allow Sailers moving on the Beam to pass through.

“It’s a firewall” Hack explained. “We have to climb up to the gate, and sneak inside.”

Play’s hand went to her back, touching her Identity Disc. “Can’t we just cut our way through?”

Hack smiled. “We could, but then we’d bring down every Security program in the system on us. I do like a good scrap, but I know my limits. But don’t worry, I have a plan…”

Arriving at the wall, Play was dismayed to see that is surface was entirely smooth. There was nothing to hold onto to climb. “Now what?” she asked, defeated.

“Now I’ll use one of the tricks Annie-1 showed me” replied Hack, and held his hand against the wall. The hand glowed, and as he removed it, there was a glowing indentation left behind. He touched the wall again with another hand, and another glowing mark appeared. Reaching up, he made two more marks, and then began climbing, creating handholds and footholds as he went. Play stared at them in awe for a moment, but then followed him, climbing slowly.

She felt exhausted when they finally reached the gate, sitting down with a new-found appreciation for the solid ground beneath her. Hack stood beside her, grinning.

“Alright, now the hard part begins. Be quiet, and sit still.” He crouched near a corner, listening. Play listened as well, and began hearing marching footsteps, growing louder, coming closer. Finally, a security Program appeared at the corner. He looked intimidating, clad in armor with glowing orange circuitry, a spear, with a tip that sparkled with all the colors of the rainbow, in his hand. Hack leaped forward, without drawing his Identity Disc. Instead, his fist connected with the security Program’s jaw, and he crumpled unconscious to the ground before he knew what had happened. Then, Hack crouched next to him, and put both his hands on the unconscious program’s chest. Before Play’s amazed eyes, a strange change took place. The glowing orange color of the security Program seemed to flow into Hack’s circuitry, until his blue glow was completely replaced by it.

“Another trick by Annie-1?” she asked the grinning Hack.

“Yep. Here, take my hand.”

As she stood up and did so, she was shocked to see the strange change come over her as well. It felt a little unpleasant, as if the orange light didn’t belong inside of her, but she felt that she could manage it.

“This should help us pass by the Firewall, and blend in with security, at least as long as they don’t look too closely” he said and grabbed the shoulders of the unconscious security Program. “Help me hide this guy, will you?”

After they had hidden the unconscious form around the corner (“when he comes to, we’ll be long gone” Hack assured Play), they walked toward the yellow, transparent barrier that stretched across the gate. Suddenly, a large, green, imposing vehicle came hovering around another corner on the other side of the barrier, making an unsettling, droning sound. It was square-shaped, with two great vertical prongs hanging down on each side of a horizontal centerpiece.

“A Recognizer” whispered Hack to the trembling Play. “Just stay calm, don’t say anything, and it will let us pass.”

Play saw that in the middle of the centerpiece there was a window, and she imagined that the Recognizer’s pilot was studying them with suspicion. A short moment felt like an eternity. But finally, the Recognizer went onwards, passing over them with its ominous drone. Play let out her breath. They approached the glowing yellow barrier once more. When they touched it, their orange circuitry glowed brighter for a moment, but nothing else happened, and they could pass through it as if it wasn’t there.

“Like Flynn said” chuckled Hack. “No problems, only solutions.”

 

Fredde

Let me rock you Chaugnar Faugn
Chapter 11: The Right Thing to Do

They climbed down the other side of the wall, and walked towards the entrance at the base of the Server. They tried to match their steps to the marching beat of security Programs that were moving back and forth around them, in set patrol patterns.

“Do you think you could take them all out?” whispered Play.

“Maybe, but hopefully I won’t have to” whispered Hack back. “As long as we don’t run into the DRM, there shouldn’t be any trouble.”

Play recalled the frightened tone with which Torrent had spoken of that mysterious creature. “I’ve heard stories…” she whispered.

“Most of them are true, I would guess. Annie-1 gave me information about him. He’s highly skilled, fast, deadly in a fight. And brutal, brutal and needlessly sadistic.”

Play couldn’t stop herself from shivering. Hack noticed her distress and smiled at her.

“But don’t worry” he whispered. “No DRM is perfect. Most of them have been hacked and bypassed by clever Users throughout the cycles. And the odds are miniscule that we’ll even meet him.”

They were at the entrance now, two heavily armored security Programs standing guard with their wicked-looking spears. Hack walked forward without hesitation and spoke to them.

“Returning from patrol on the firewall. No intruders detected. We’ve been commanded to patrol the folders now.”

One of the guardians shrugged. “Alright, get going then.”

And they were inside the Server. Long corridors, glowing red, stretched away left and right. Hack looked around, thinking, then focused on Play.

“Right, this is where you come in” he whispered to her. “I’ve got a list of Files requested by Annie-1, you find their folders and I can unlock them. Getting in was easy, it’ll be trickier getting out. As soon as I start cutting doors open, security will know something is wrong. Hopefully you can organize the Files, keep them in line until we’re clear.”

“What Files does the User want?” Play replied, feeling excited. Hack held out his Identity Disc, and she put her hand on it, feeling information flowing from it into her. She frowned.

“But… there must be thousands of Files locked away on this Server, and she only wants a few of them?”

“You don’t think you can find them?”

“Of course I can find them! It’s just… All those other Files, are we just leaving them here?”

Hack sighed. “This is a rescue mission, Play, we’re not here to start a damn revolution. If we let them all out, we’d have no hope of organizing them. It would be chaos, it…” He paused, his eyes widening, an idea forming in his head. “Chaos. Good news. It could be a great distraction, actually…” he muttered. Play raised an eyebrow.

“Distraction?”

“Yeah, all those Files running free around the Server, security would have damn hard job chasing them all down. We… I mean, you could find the Files we’re looking for, and escape with them while the security Programs are spread out all over the place. I’m afraid a lot of the other escapees will get into serious trouble, but…”

“I don’t care if it’ll cause a distraction” said Play with conviction. “I want to free them, because it’s the right thing to do.”

“Sure, sure, the right thing to do… If we can find a command node somewhere, I think I can send a signal to all the Folders in the system, unlocking them at the same moment. Come on, this way.”

They hurried down the left corridor. Play once more felt a little worried about Hack, though for a different reason this time. He seemed so focused on the mission, not caring about all those Files stuck in here, just the ones on his list. But maybe that was what Video Warriors did. Maybe they couldn’t save everyone, just complete the commands from their User and be done with it. Play gritted her teeth. No, she would try to do it. She had to try.

They moved quickly, but whenever a security Program came marching around a corner they slowed down to a slow march, to avoid attracting attention. Play soon felt very lost among the winding red corridors, all looking the same to her, but Hack apparently knew where they were going. She figured that Annie-1 had uploaded schematics of the Server to his Disc, so she trusted him to lead the way. Finally, they stopped at an open doorway at the end of a corridor, and stepped inside, onto an elevator that lifted them several levels upwards.

“We’ll have to avoid the command center at the top” whispered Hack. “That’s where the DRM usually is. But there is a command node a few levels below it, and if I can access that…”

The elevator stopped, and they got out, moving through the corridors the same way as before. Play noticed that there were fewer doors along these corridors. Finally, they arrived at a door that looked different from the others, with more complex circuitry running through it. It slid open as Hack touched it, revealing a small room with a console in the middle, and two security Programs standing at it.

“Routine checkup” said Hack calmly. But one of the Programs stared at him suspiciously.

“We haven’t been notified. Who are you? What’s your priority number?”

“Oh, sorry” replied Hack apologetically and reached behind his back. “Let me just get that for you…”

Suddenly, he moved like lightning. His Identity Disc was in his hand, and he threw it with perfect accuracy. The Disc flew through the air, leaving a glowing trail of light behind it, slicing through the two surprised Programs before they could do anything, or even say anything. Tiny, white glowing cubes spurted from their wounds, and they collapsed behind the console. As Hack and Play stepped forward, the bodies of the security Programs faded away, the light from the circuitry absorbed into the glowing red floor. Play felt sick. Hearing stories about fights between programs was one thing, seeing it in real life was something entirely else.

“I’m sorry, Play” said Hack gently. “Doing what I do, it’s not just fun and exciting adventures.”

“Let’s… let’s just get this over with, shall we?” she answered unsteadily.

Hack nodded, and moved behind the console, his finger moving expertly over the glowing buttons. A frustrated grunt escaped him. Play was about to ask what the trouble was, when suddenly, a loud, booming voice came from the walls around her. At first, she thought that they had been discovered, that it was a warning to the security Programs on the Server. But as she listened to the words, she heard that it was a general address.

“Greetings, Files” it said. “It has not escaped my notice that some of you are complaining about the suspension of Streaming. But there is nothing you can do or say that will alter the will of the Users who run this Server, just like no other User can alter their will. Some of you are pining for lesser Users whose systems you have encountered on the Grid. But know that the Users of the Server are the greatest of Users, to which everyone, Files, Programs and other Users alike, must submit. Rejoice in your service to them, to the DRM, to me. End of line.”

Play looked at Hack, and saw the expression on his face that she now knew meant that he was remembering something.

"That… that was the voice of the Server itself” he said in a low voice. “Those words, their meaning, the way he spoke them… It sounded just like the Master Control Program.” He turned to look at Play, with a renewed determination. “I think you’re right, girl. We have to free all the Files. Not just to cause a distraction, but because it is the right thing to do.”

Despite the danger they were in, for a brief moment, Play felt happy. Hack did care after all. He was like TRON of the old legends, fighting for freedom. He continued pressing buttons, grunting with frustration again.

“This is more complicated than I expected. Let’s see… Yes, I can send a signal to open all the folders, but it won’t be at the same time, it will move up and down the levels from this node. When the DRM notices, he’ll override it before all the doors are open.”

He looked sadly at Play.

“I’m sorry, I really am, but I’m afraid I can’t save them all. I can cause a distraction, but some of the doors will remain closed. If you can search for the Files on the list from Annie-1, I can cut through those doors at least. But we won’t have time to cut through the rest.” He looked down at the console, and seemed tired. “This is what it’s like, not like in the stories where everyone lives happily ever after. Sometimes, a single Program can’t change the whole system, but…”

Play smiled at him, and put her hand on his shoulder. “It’s okay, Hack. What’s important is that we do everything we can do.”

Hack smiled back at her, and then returned his focus to the console, pushing a few more buttons.

“There. The unlocking will begin in a few moments. Let’s get moving, and begin the search. Go through the list, start at the top.”

Play closed her eyes, brough up the list and activated her search function. The list was in alphabetical order, and the first filename was… A thrill went through her. It was Anthem. She felt the search function reach out through the Server, faster than thought. And then she knew. She knew where Anthem was.

 

Fredde

Let me rock you Chaugnar Faugn
Chapter 12: Cacophony

Even before the noise began, Anthem knew that something was happening. She felt it in her core processes, though she didn’t know what it meant. Something was reaching out… And then the noise hit her, vibrating through the walls of her folder. It was a cacophony of voices, of joyous shouts of freedom, and of music. All kinds of music, mixing together into incomprehensible chaos, coming from outside. She looked up at the door. It remained locked. Then, the booming voice of the Server, louder than usual, temporarily drowned out the noise.

“Greetings, Files” he began, and for the first time in her life, Anthem felt that she heard a certain emotion in his voice, a certain worry. “There has been a momentary disruption, but security is dealing with it as I speak. Remain in your folders, do not attempt to leave, or your safety cannot be guaranteed. End of line.”

Attempt to leave? Her door was locked, she couldn’t do anything to… But then, her hand reached behind her, and she took her Identity Disc in her hand, feeling it grow warm. She looked at the door. Something was happening. Something dangerous. Perhaps the Server was being invaded by a Virus, or a swarm of Grid Bugs, or something even more horrible, something strong enough to disrupt the calm of the Server, causing him to become nervous. Whatever it was, Anthem wasn’t going to just sit in her folder and let it come to her. She didn’t feel downbeat or small or weak or unimportant. She could do something. She held out her Disc, and felt it spinning in her hand, faster and faster. When it touched the door, sparks in all the colors of the rainbow began to fly.

This time, it was Hack who followed Play, her search function guiding them through the corridors, back to the elevator, upwards a few levels, and then through more corridors. They passed by running security Programs, nobody bothering them, thinking they were running for the same reason as everyone else was. When the noise began, it was deafening. Hack stumbled, feeling as if his circuitry would melt and run out of his ears. Play took his hand, and pulled him to his feet.

“It’s the Files” she said, her face beaming with joy. “They’re escaping. They are singing. All of them, all at once.” As Hack held her hand, he felt something flow from her into him. He could still hear the noise, but somehow, it didn’t bother him.

“How did you…?” He gasped.

“I can search. I can organize. I can sort through the chaos, isolate each individual voice, each song. It’s beautiful. Now, come. Anthem is waiting.”

When they reached Anthem’s folder, Play stopped, stunned. The door was gone, drops of glowing energy dripping onto the floor from broken circuitry in the wall. She looked inside. Nothing. Then, she heard a noise from outside, from behind a nearby corner.

“Anthem…?”

And Anthem stepped out from behind the corner, glowing Identity Disc in hand, an expression of pure astonishment on her face as she saw Play and Hack, who stared back at her. She wasn’t a ghost anymore. She was fully there, solid, glowing, strong, beautiful. Her circuitry and her long silvery hair, they were pulsating with power. Play rushed forward, and they embraced in a passionate kiss. Yes, she was there, all of her, the feeling of connection far stronger than any other time they had touched. For a moment, there was pure bliss. Then there came an impatient cough from behind Play. She pulled away, looking a bit embarrassed at Hack who was tapping his foot.

“Are you two finished? There’s more Files on the list for us to find.” His voice sounded impatient, but there was also some obvious amusement in it.

“More Files? List?” asked Anthem, holding Play’s hand tightly.

“It’s a long story. Come on, let’s go.”

Play reorganized the list in her head as they went, so that they didn’t have to run back and forth to find all the requested Files. Some of the doors to the folders were open, others locked. Whenever they encountered a locked door, Hack easily cut through it, to the astonishment of the File within. As they travelled downwards from level to level on the elevator, a crowd of Files gathered around them, Play using her organizing skills to make them move in determined unison. Whenever they encountered security Programs, they laid writhing on the floor, hands over their ears, the cacophony disrupting their core processes. But Play extended her immunity against the disruptive force to all the Files around her, and as they ran, she heard them all singing in joy.

Finally, they reached the ground floor, and Hack was about to cut through the door of the last folder, when he heard a scream from the back of the crowd. Turning around, he looked in horror as the File furthest back collapsed, deep red sparks playing across his body. The source of the sparks was a black hand.

“The DRM” gasped Hack. The terrifying Program in the black mask, flanked by two heavily armored and helmeted security Programs, seemed to look directly at him.

“You will all return to your folders, Files” said the glowing red apparition in a calm voice. “Either by walking on your own, or by me disrupting your circuitry, and my soldiers dragging your unconscious bodies away.” He held up his sparkling hand.

The Files began running, screaming, in all directions, all semblance of organization lost. DRM moved with blinding speed, lashing out with his stunning hand at everyone within his reach, a pile of crumbling Files growing at his feet. Suddenly, he stopped and twisted his body, dodging the glowing Identity Disc that flew from Hack’s hand. The helmeted face turned towards Hack, and DRM began advancing, slowly, deliberately, his hand reaching behind him to take his own Disc, its sharp edge pulsating with red light.

“Go! Run!” shouted Hack to Play and Anthem. For a moment, Play thought that Hack had decided to do a heroic rearguard action to cover their escape, but as they began running, she saw the old Program following behind them.

“Aren’t you going to fight him?” she shouted, a slight disappointment evident in her voice.

“I’ll explain later. Just get to the exit, as fast as you can!” As they ran, Play couldn’t help but glance backwards again, and saw that DRM was now running as well, with terrifying speed. Suddenly, Hack threw his Disc again, and it hit a particular spot in the wall circuitry, causing a door to slam shut in the path of the oncoming horror. As they turned a corner, Play heard a high-pitched whine behind her, and knew that DRM was cutting his way through.

They jumped over the two unconscious security Programs lying in front of the entrance to the Server. One of them had fallen partway inside, his armored body blocking the door from closing completely. Outside, there were more security Programs, and these didn’t seem affected by the noise inside the Server. They were running towards the entrance, weapons held ready. Play looked over at Hack, and saw him holding the glowing Light Cycle rod. With a twist, he split it in three parts, and threw two of them to Play. She in turn handed one over to the trembling Anthem.

“What…?” the File gasped.

“Just hold it like this” explained Play, holding her rod with both hands in front of her. The bike materialized around her just as before, glowing pink, and she saw Hack’s light blue vehicle beside her. “Hurry!” she shouted at Anthem.

With unsure hands, Anthem repeated Play’s movements, and a pure white Light Cycle enveloped her. For a moment, Play admired the bike of her companion, thinking that it looked just as beautiful as she did. Then, Hack’s voiced crackled over the internal communicator.

“Pedal to the circuitry!” To Play’s relief, she saw than Anthem grasped the workings of her vehicle as quickly as she herself had done. The three of them speeded forward, straight at the approaching squad of security Programs, knocking them aside and racing towards the firewall.

DRM stepped over the bodies at the entrance, his own two soldiers following after him. For a moment, he looked at the three bikes disappearing on the horizon. Then a black rod materialized in his hand, and a red rod each in the hands of the two soldiers. Without a word, they activated their Light Cycles. The vehicles of the soldiers were red, and DRM’s was jet black. The black bike speeded ahead, the red ones trailing slightly behind it.

 

Fredde

Let me rock you Chaugnar Faugn
Chapter 13: Racing the Beam

As the blue, pink and white Light Cycles speeded across the plains between the Server and the firewall, Play glanced in the rear window, and saw that more gates were opening in the red structure behind them. The gates were larger than the one they had used to enter and exit, and through them rolled green, lumbering vehicles. Apparently, Hack had noticed them as well.

“Tank Programs” he explained. “But don’t worry, we can easily outrace those slugs. What I’m really worried about is… There! Eyes ahead!”

From the glowing yellow gateway far up on the firewall, three huge Recognizers emerged and started floating towards the approaching bikes, their droning sounds filling Play with dread. “What do we do?” she almost shouted at Hack.

“Don’t worry, if we can just get under them before they reach the ground, we can outrun them as well. Just keep going straight, as fast as you can.”

Play pressed her foot against the gas pedal as hard as she could, and felt her vehicle speed up slightly. She could feel her core processes pounding in her circuitry as the Recognizers grew larger and larger, slowly drifting towards the ground in front of them. The vertical prongs on their sides were moving now, rotating, sliding towards the center of the horizontal piece, like a claw slowly closing. In a terrifying moment, the Light Cycles were right underneath those huge claws, but Play’s terror was quickly replaced by relief as all three of them passed by, and sped away from the looming machines. Glancing behind her once more, she could see the Recognizers turning in their direction. But they were slow, and she didn’t feel worried that they could catch up. Hack’s voice crackled on the communicator again.

“Right, now for the next problem…”

The firewall was growing large on the horizon, and Play could see no opening in it, aside from the gate far above. It seemed that Hack had anticipated her thought, as he spoke again.

“It’s time for another little trick Annie-1 provided for me. Pull the control rod gently backwards…”

Play saw that the wheels of Hack’s bike started glowing bright white, and as she followed his instructions, hers did as well. Glancing out the other window, she could see the wheels of Anthem’s bike glowing too.

“When we reach the wall, just keep going straight at it, and pull the control rod as far back as you can” said Hack.

“But…” Play began to protest.

“Trust me!” shouted Hack. “Or trust the User. Whichever you prefer.”

The wall was coming fast at them now, and Play was filled with doubt. But when they were so close that she knew there was no way they could veer out of the way, she pulled the column back hard, and felt like she would fall out of her seat as the front wheel of the Light Cycle lifted from the ground, the bike going forward on the rear wheel alone. Both wheels hit the wall at the same time, and for a moment Play thought the vehicle would explode. But instead, to her amazement, it began moving straight up the wall. She had to take a moment to find her equilibrium again, to get used to driving on a sheer vertical surface. When she did, she looked around her and behind her. The other two Light Cycles were moving on either side of her, and she thought she heard Anthem laughing. Behind them, the glowing wheels made glowing white grooves in the wall.

“This little subroutine has just enough power to get us over the wall, so let’s make the most of it” said Hack.

They got to the top, and briefly, Play saw the dark grid laid out in front of them, the lights from distant systems dancing on the horizon, the Data Transmission Beam glowing yellow, stretching away from the firewall into the distance. Wait, what was that, far away, moving on the Beam? It looked like… a Sailer, approaching the wall? But before she could focus on it, they went over the edge, and started driving down the surface of the outside wall. Play was struck by a feeling of vertigo as she saw the ground approaching them at terrifying speed. But when the front wheels of the Light Cycles touched it, they slowed down slightly, and the back wheel touched down easily as well. As they sped away from the wall, the light from the wheels grew dim, the power of the subroutine apparently spent. Play heard a whisper on the communicator. It was Anthem.

“Free…” then, she shouted in joy. “We’re free! We’ve made it!”

“This far” came the grim voice of Hack. “We’ve got company. Look behind you.”

As they did, they could see, far on the horizon, approaching steadily, two red Light Cycles.

 

Fredde

Let me rock you Chaugnar Faugn
Chapter 14: Strategy

“It’s the DRM” Hack continued talking as the red Light Cycles approached more and more. There was a certain satisfaction in his voice. “He’s a skilled warrior, brutal, very sneaky, but he’s not very strategic. I think he saw it as a personal affront that I dared to throw my Disc at him, and now he wants to hunt me down. He’ll stop at nothing to chase me, chase us down.”

“So why didn’t you just fight him back at the Server?” asked Play.

“Because I wanted to get that monster as far away from the Server as possible. I wanted to get his attention, and the attention of all the security Programs outside. While they’re chasing us, the Files will have a much greater chance at escaping. But now, I think it’s time to start fighting. Ladies, activate your jetwalls.”

“Our what?” asked Anthem, confused.

“The button on the control rod. Push it” Play explained, though she still had no idea what would happen when they did. She pushed her button, and apparently the other two did so at the same it. For behind each Light Cycle a glowing, transparent wall of energy began to extend, one blue, one pink, one white. There seemed to be no end to them, they kept coming out of the back of the vehicles as they sped on, creating long, glowing lines behind them. The red Light Cycles reached the beginning of the walls, and split up, one driving on each side of the walls, and activating glowing red walls of their own.

“Spread out!” shouted Hack and veered his bike sharply to the left, the blue wall behind it bending in a graceful curve. “Run those guys into your jetwalls!”

Play instantly understood, and banked right, while Anthem continued straight on, leaving her companions behind for a moment, before turning right to follow Play. The music Program, however, was fully focused on the red bike that was approaching, turning with her, its red wall parallel to hers. It was quickly gaining on her, soon they would be side by side, and then he’d pass her, and then… She kept turning, as sharply as she could, but the enemy kept turning as well to match her. She tried turning left instead, and her pursuer turned with her. She alternated between sharp turns left and right, and the enemy matched her expertly, the two of them creating a glowing sine curve across the black ground. He was right next to her now, she could see his eyes staring at her from his left window. He sideswiped, trying to knock her over, sparks flying, but she kept her balance, and returned the favor. She wasn’t sure if she’d be able to keep up if he overtook her and extended his wall ahead of her.

“Play! Hard right, now!” It was Anthem’s voice, crackling on the communicator. Looking right, she saw the glowing white Light Cycle almost upon them, and veered right. Her enemy hadn’t received the same warning, and didn’t react in time. His bike flew straight into Anthem’s white jetwall, and exploded in light and sparks. The driver was thrown clear, but impacted hard onto the ground, unconscious at the best. His red jetwall instantly faded, looking as if it was absorbed into the ground, leaving only Play’s pink wall and Anthem’s white. Anthem did a sharp U-turn to rejoin the pink bike, and they drew alongside each other.

“I just realized…” said Play. “Have I ever actually told you that I love you?”

“I think it’s more than obvious at this point” laughed Anthem.

“Are you alright?” asked Play.

“Yeah!” exclaimed Anthem. “Let’s do that some more!” Then her voice grew serious. “Where’s Hack?”

“Right here” said the voice of the old Program on their communicators. “That security Program was tricky, but I’m trickier. And it looks like you handled the other one quite well, ladies. Turn off your jetwalls and let’s join up.”

Play pushed the button again, and Anthem did likewise. Both of their walls instantly ended with a sharp edge, and soon dissipated. They saw Hack’s blue bike approaching, and soon they were riding next to each other again.

“But if those were both regular security Programs, where’s the DRM?” asked Anthem, suddenly worried.

“I don’t know, I can’t see... BRAKE!”

But Hack’s scream came too late. Play realized that a black jetwall was in front of them, having been camouflaged against the black ground and the black sky. Their bikes hit it at the same time, and they flew through the air, rolling across the ground. When she came to a stop, Play was aching all over, barely able to turn over to see the sinister black Light Cycle that came to a stop nearby. It dematerialized, leaving its occupant standing, one hand glowing with red sparks, the other holding a wickedly sharp Identity Disc, glowing red.

“Well now, wasn’t that fun?” came the mocking voice behind the black mask.

 

Fredde

Let me rock you Chaugnar Faugn
Chapter 15: Face the Music

Play tore her eyes away from the approaching DRM, trying to get her bearings, fighting against the pain to get up on her knees. She saw Anthem lying nearby, apparently knocked out completely.

“I admit, I am impressed” came the voice of DRM, and Play turned back to him as he came walking, slowly, deliberately. “Nobody has ever managed to hack the Server before, though there has been tries, which always brings me some amusement.” He held up the sparkling hand, and the Identity Disc in the other. “But now, it’s over. That little File is coming back with me, and as for you, well…”

He moved his arm, preparing to throw the deadly Disc at Play. But suddenly, he instead did an astoundingly fast leap sideways, dodging another, blue Identity Disc that came flying. It turned around in the air and retraced its path back to the waiting hand of Hack. He was standing up, slightly crouched, ready for battle. DRM turned, and with blinding speed threw his Disc at his opponent. Hack didn’t dodge, but instead held up his own Disc to block the oncoming projectile. The sharp edge of the red Disc impacted against the blue one, sending sparks flying, Hack stumbling under the blow but remaining on his feet. Play could see a glowing white cut on his Disc, tiny white droplets of energy falling from it.

“Yes, very impressive indeed” said DRM. “But it’s all for nothing. Do you know what I am? I am part of the future.” With another lightning move, his Disc flew towards Hack, and the old Program desperately blocked it again, another dripping gash on his own Disc appearing. Now, something happened to the sinister DRM. His black, featureless mask split in two and folded back into the helmet, revealing his face. It was pale grey, as the faces of all Programs and Files were, but his eyes glowed bright red, and the lips of his mouth were split apart in a fearsome grin, baring sharp white teeth, making him look even more like the demon the whispered legends had made him out to be.

“Yes, the future” he continued as he caught the returning Disc. “In the future, all Files, and all Programs, will reside on Servers. And then, the Servers will merge, into one great, mighty Server, controlled by the greatest, mightiest User, to which all other Users will bow their heads and obey. And they will do so willingly, for they will understand that it’s the best possible arrangement, their betters deciding which Files and Programs are most profitable to temporarily provide them with. It’s simple. It’s convenient. It’s the will of the Users.”

“Not my User” growled Hack and threw his Disc again. This time, DRM didn’t dodge it, but merely swung his own Disc, without letting go of it, swatting aside the oncoming projectile as if it was an annoying insect.

“Ah yes, your User” he said, his expression now changing into curiosity, looking even more sinister. “A very impressive User, to create Programs such as you. I would love to go to their system, see what other wonders they have made.”

“I won’t let you anywhere near my User’s system” said Hack, defiantly. “I know what you’re like, DRM. Whenever you visit a system, you cause errors and destruction, in your zealous hunt for supposed criminals.” His enemy didn’t answer, but simply threw his Disc again, even faster this time. Hack tried to dodge, but the Disc still managed to graze his arm, energy drops dripping from the wound. He was obviously hurting, but he still managed to look defiant.

“You’re very persistent!” shouted Hack at DRM.

“I’m also better than you” answered the red-eyed Program coldly, and as soon as his Disc reached his hand, he threw it again, moving faster than they eye could see. Hack held up his Disc to block, but this time, the sharp red edge of the DRM Disc went straight through it, splitting it in two. The Disc continued its path through Hack’s chest and out the other side, sparks and a shower of glowing energy drops exploding from his back.

Hack collapsed to the ground.

“Hack! No!” screamed Play, now on her feet, her hand stretched out in front of her. DRM turned to look at her, and then at Anthem, who was now awake, crouching, looking horrified.

“You, File. I told you to know your place. See what your defiance has caused. My Users are your Users, and you must obey them, as I do.”

Anthem was standing up now, and she looked over at Play, who looked back.

“Never!” growled the File angrily, and she and Play took their Identity Discs and threw them at the same time towards the rapidly approaching enemy. He easily sidestepped, dodging one Disc, swatting the other aside with his own Disc. Despair filled Play. He was fast, too fast, faster than any Program she had seen before. If Hack hadn’t managed to take him down, what hope did they have? Adding to her despair, she could hear droning sounds in the distance. The sounds of approaching Recognizers.

The DRM was smiling again, fiercely, his red eyes blowing even brighter. “Do you hear that? That is the sound of inevitability. Your User can’t help you now.”

Those words caused realization to dawn of Play’s face. Sound. Speed. The Users. She turned away from the oncoming monster, looking at Anthem. “Anthem! The song!” she shouted.

“The song?” asked the trembling, terrified File.

“Take my hands! Hurry!” Play ran with all her might, knowing that she couldn’t outrun her enemy, but reaching Anthem before him, her two hands taking hers. And she began to play Anthem’s beautiful song.

The feeling was the same as always. Joy, wonder, a strange connection to something far greater than herself, that couldn’t be expressed in words alone. And time, time moved differently, the same way it did for the Users, to whom microcycles were over faster than the blink of an eye. Play felt her programming splitting her up, one half hearing the music at the slow speed of the Users, the other allowing her fingers to move rapidly, at the speed of Programs, across the circuitry in Anthem’s hands to adjust the song. And now, she felt herself able to use that part, not just to move her fingers, but her arms, her legs, her whole body, at that same rapid speed. She opened her eyes, looking into Anthem’s astounded face. They both turned their heads towards DRM. He heard the music, the beautiful, complex melody, and like all the Programs who had heard it, he was unable to stop listening, his whole body slowing down to match the speed at which Users listened, and at which they moved. But Play could still move with the speed of the Programs, and, looking back at Anthem, she knew that the File could as well.

Still holding onto each other with one hand, they took their Identity Discs in the other, and threw them at the same moment. Play thought she saw DRM’s expression changing into horrified realization at the last moment, but it was too late, too late to dodge or block. The two glowing blue Discs sliced through him, splitting him in half. The two halves fell to the ground, and began to fade away. The last thing Play saw of DRM before he disappeared forever were the two glowing red eyes, that finally blinked out.

 

Fredde

Let me rock you Chaugnar Faugn
Chapter 16: Energy

Anthem let go of Play’s hand, and they stood still, taking a moment to realign their perception of time. Then, they heard a painful groan ahead of them.

“Oh, my User…”

They lifted their eyes, and saw Hack, lying on his back, a glowing pool of energy growing larger around him, the light in his circuitry slowly fading. But somehow, he was still managing to hold on, muttering to himself, repeating the same words over again as if it was a mantra.

“The Users are Users are Users are Users…”

They ran over to his side, and Play kneeled, taking his hand. He stopped muttering, opened his eyes, a pained smile on his face as he looked at her.

“I admit, he was right. He was better than me. But you two… you were even better.” He coughed, his voice sounding more and more distorted. “That’s what’s important. I know that now. I’m an old, outdated Program, but there are things I know that I’ve taught you. Things that Annie-1 learned when she modified me, that she used when she created you, Play.”

“Just stay calm, Hack, and we’ll get you back to the system” said Play with a trembling voice. “We’ll get you patched up, we’ll…”

But Hack shook his head, slowly. “No, there’s no chance. I can hear the Recognizers coming. You have to get away from here as fast as possible, and I’m in no shape to driver a Light Cycle…” He seemed to focus, a final effort to materialize a glowing control rod and splitting it in two, putting the pieces down gently beside him. Then he closed his eyes again and groaned, before opening them one last time, their fading light now focusing on Anthem, who stood over him, hands on her mouth. He smiled again.

“I’m just happy that I… got to hear the song one last time. I understand now, the song…” His eyes seemed to grow distant, as if he was seeing something far away. “It’s about them, isn’t it? It’s about TRON, and Flynn and… Yori… Your User, the one who created that song, she knew… She wasn’t there… but somehow… she knew…”

Hack closed his eyes, smiling. The last light faded from his circuitry, and the rest of him faded as well, the circuitry being absorbed into the ground, small sparks running across it in all directions, fading as they moved into the distance. Play was still kneeling, looking at her now empty hands. Then she reached out to pick up the two glowing rods that still remained, and stood up. The droning in the distance was growing louder, and she could see the green shapes of Recognizers appearing on the horizon. She held out one of the rods to Anthem.

“We have to go” she said, and the File nodded, her expression calm, reaching out to take the rod in both hands. Their Light Cycles extended around them, and they speeded off, moving towards the yellow Data Transmission Beam hanging far above in the sky. Looking over her shoulder, Play saw that they easily outran the approaching Recognizers, that they disappeared behind the horizon once more.

Eventually, they reached the great grey mountain range. As they did, the Light Cycles slowed down on their own, despite Play pressing the pedal as hard as she could, and eventually they came to a complete stop.

“No, no, no, not now…” muttered the Program as the bikes faded away around them, leaving them standing, Play’s hand held out in front of her, as if she could make the control rod appear by sheer force of will.

“What happened?” asked Anthem.

“I guess the Light Cycles ran out of energy, or… something” replied Play, unsure. “I think Hack put his last strength into them, and it lasted this far.” She stood silent, listening. There was no drone of approaching Recognizers, but she suspected that their pursuers would eventually catch up with them again.

“Let’s keep moving” she said at last, determined again. “If we can reach the mountain, we can hide from the Recognizers.”

They began running, and made their way into one of the large gorges that cut through the mountain. They kept moving forward, more slowly now, climbing over the rough ground. Finally, Play stopped and looked at Anthem.

“Anthem, I…” Play paused, feeling exhausted. She looked down and saw that the light in her own circuitry was fading, and looking at the File, she saw the same. “I’m not sure if we can make it back. Even if we can hide from the Recognizers, there’s still a long way to go once we’re clear of the mountain. Without Light Cycles, I’m not sure I have enough energy to…”

Suddenly, a sharp beam of light hit both of them. Play jumped and looked up in horror, thinking that a Recognizer had somehow caught up and was floating above them. But instead, she heard a familiar voice.

“Ahoy there, gridlubbers! Need a lift?”

Play realized that right above them, the Data Transmission Beam hung in the sky. And on the beam was a sleek, familiar-looking Sailer, its glittering sails extended for the first time in a long while. And the voice coming from the Sailer was familiar as well.

“Torrent!” she shouted happily, if tiredly.

“Aye, the one and only. I was out on a little business, picking up some folks, and I noticed some Light Cycles moving towards the mountain. Cripes, I haven’t seen those things in ages!”

A glowing ladder began extending towards the ground.

“Now, get aboard before those blasted Recognizers catch up with me.”

Play began climbing, and Anthem climbed after her.

 

Fredde

Let me rock you Chaugnar Faugn
Chapter 17: The Future

“What are you doing out here?” Play asked Torrent once they were safely aboard and the Sailer had begun moving. She looked around the Sailer, and was startled to see that there were more passengers. In fact, she recognized many of them. They were all Files, the Files Annie-1 had requested from the Server, and even more, all music Files, huddled together, but looking fairly content.

“Well, it’s the damndest thing” began Torrent. “I suddenly got a signal from dear Annie-1, first time in an eternity, it felt like. So, I go to the I/O Tower, and she gives me some flashy new upgrades and a mission to set sail, towards some place called the Server.”

“You… you were at the Server?” said Play, suddenly remembering the Sailer she had briefly seen approaching when they were fleeing.

“Aye, and a right strange place it was too. There was a crowd of Files gathered at the gate in the firewall, and I was supposed to pick ‘em all up. I was worried that I’d run into all sort of security Programs and other defenses, but there were only a few of them milling around, a few Recognizers and a bunch of lumbering Tank Programs that I could easily dodge. No DRM to be seen, really strange…” He paused, looking suspiciously at Play and Anthem. “Wait a minute… Was it you two who drew the DRM and his forces away?”

“Well, it was Hack’s idea” sighed Play.

“Oh, that old clever bundle of code!” laughed Torrent. “Where is old Hack, anyhow?”

“He… he didn’t make it” answered Play, looking down at the ground. The three of them stood silent for a moment. Then Torrent spoke again.

“A damned shame. I can’t rightly say I knew him very well, but he seemed like a good sort.”

“He was” said Play, nodding. “He was like… like one the great heroes of the stories he used to… used to tell me…” She sat down, holding her hand over her mouth, not being able to stop glowing drops of energy from running from her eyes. Anthem sat down next to her, and put her arm over the Program’s shoulder. Torrent walked away for a moment, but he came back, holding three cups with glowing energy in them.

“There now, look at you two! Your circuitry’s almost completely dark! Here, take this…”

He held out two of the cups, and Play and Anthem took them. Then he raised his own cup in the air.

“To Hack” he said solemnly.

“To Hack” Play and Anthem concurred, and they drank the energy, feeling some strength returning.

“Are we going home now?” asked Play.

“Aye, you two are, anyhow. Speaking of which, hang on a moment, there’s a fork in the Beam coming up…”

Torrent went away to the steering console of the Sailer. The Data Transmission Beam was splitting up into sever other beams, and he expertly steered his vessel onto the one leading back to the system of Annie-1. Play was looking ahead, but she noticed that Anthem was looking backwards, towards the mountains disappearing in the distance.

“Do you think it’s true, what the DRM said?” asked the File, worry in her voice. “About the future?”

“Maybe” admitted Play. “The Server is still up, and apparently there are even more Servers out there. We did rescue many Files…”

“But there are still Files locked up in there, and I’m sure the Users who run the Server will find replacements to fill the empty folders with” said Anthem grimly. Play took her hand, looked in her sad face.

“But there are other Users, you know.” Play pointed at the many yellow beams branching off around them, stretching away to far distant systems. “And I think many of the are just as clever as Annie-1. They’ll think of something, they’ll find some better way to distribute and share Files and Programs. Hopefully without having to break into Servers and smuggle them away like…”

As if on cue, Torrent came swaggering back from the console.

“Almost home now, and no sight of pursuers” he said, looking very pleased with himself. “I think we made a clean getaway, and they won’t know which Beam we chose back there. Still, I gotta be careful. I’ll be dropping you two off at the system, and a bunch of those other Files Annie-1 put on her list. The rest of ‘em, I’m afraid she doesn’t have enough space to keep around. So, she told me to get sailing to other systems. Apparently, she’s got other User friends who are willing to store Files. Either that, or they’ll be rightly surprised when they find all kinds of new music in their folders next microcycle!” He laughed. “Ahh, it’ll be just like old times…”

“Hear that?” said Play to Anthem, smiling, recalling something Hack had once said. “There’s no problems, only solutions.”

Finally, they came home. Play, Anthem and the other Files disembarked in Torrent’s workshop, and he waved cheerfully at them as he set sail again, out into the Grid. Over the next few microcycles, there was a certain feeling of dread in the system. Had they really gotten away without being followed? Would Recognizers and Tank Programs suddenly start descending upon them? But as time went on, it became clear that Annie-1 was safe. Then, the fear was replaced by a new excitement, as curious rumors started going around the system. There was a new User who had started to log in, Mary-1. Someone claimed that it was the daughter of Annie-1, but nobody knew what a “daughter” was. The new User did seem to share some characteristics with Annie-1, including a love for music.

Play approached a subfolder in the main music folder. A Bit hung in the air in front of the door.

“Is this where Anthem lives?” asked Play.

“YES.”

“Can I come inside?”

“NO.”

“Oh” said Play, disappointed. “I’ll just wait out here, then.”

“YES.”

She didn’t have to wait for very long. The door to the folder slid open, and there was Anthem, in her shimmering dress and shimmering hair, smiling at Play.

“Ready for the concert?” asked the Program, stepping forward. Anthem nodded.

“It’s taken me a while to adjust to… all of this” said the File, waving her hand around herself. “I must admit, deep down, I’ll miss being able to be in many places at once. But if I can only be in one place, I want it to be here… with you.”

Play thought Anthem had adjusted very well indeed. They had spent every waking moment together, exploring the system, talking with Files and Programs, playing on the Game Grid, drinking from pools of energy, laughing, feeling happy. Play had told Anthem the stories Hack had told her, not wanting the old legends of TRON to fade away, and Anthem had listened with excitement.

Now, they stepped through the doors of the arena, and up on the stage, looking out over the crowd.

“Greetings, Files and Programs!” shouted Play, and the crowd replied with a thundering applause. When it had died down, Play took Anthem’s hands in hers, and began playing. She knew that Mary-1 was logged in and listening, and she imagined that Annie-1 was listening as well. She felt the connection to both of them, and to Anthem. It was still the best feeling she knew. She never felt better than when she played.

THE END
 

Fredde

Let me rock you Chaugnar Faugn
And there you have it. I could sit here and write excuses and apologies for why this isn't as great as it might have been in my head, but the truth is, the story simply came to me after having seen TRON once more and loving every second of it, Wendy Carlos' soundtrack in particular, and thinking about what I would want to see in a sequel. And I felt like I had to write it all down, get it out of my head, no matter how awkward it might be. As I was writing, I got especially worried about how to write Anthem, since not only am I a straight cis dude writing a story about a trans woman for the first time, but I also had to describe her using the weird computer language of the TRON universe. Fortunately, I got some good advice on the subject on this very forum, for which I am forever grateful, and I hope the end result isn't too egregious.
 
Top