Characters/Pairings: Original characters, Tron, Sam Flynn, Quorra, Ed Dillinger Jr.
Wordcount: 2400 words approx.
Summary/Prompt: No one knew where the virus came from. By the time they noticed it, it was too late. The Grid's factions put their differences aside and built a haven in the Outlands--the Outpost. Time passes; the Grid's programs survive. Then the Portal opens again, bringing Users back to the Grid, and what happens next may change their world forever.
Warnings: No warnings for this chapter.
Author's Notes: A quick note about Grid time: This fic assumes a 1:1 ratio of Grid hours to Real World minutes, and that 1 cycle = 365 Grid "days." A decicycle is equivalent to about a month (36 days), a centicycle half a week (3.5 days), and a millicycle almost 9 hours. A microcycle is 1/1000 of a millicycle and equal to about 31 Grid seconds--so, basically a Grid "minute." Further notes at the end of the chapter.
Nobody knew where the virus came from. Lone explorers to the Outlands first noted its presence there, but word was not spread quickly enough. It might have roiled restlessly but harmlessly there for cycles on end, but all it took was one curious program to spread the infection to the cities. Much, much later, the plague was traced back to one program, an energy miner who unknowingly brought it with him to Tron City, whose colleagues and associates spread it from there. Tron City was the hub of the system; once the virus was there, almost nothing could stop its spread to the other cities.
The virus corrupted every sort of code it came into contact with. Buildings and vehicles and even the ground itself crumbled under its influence, and what it left behind spread the infection even further. It was less kind to programs, leaving them unaffected for some millicycles before assuming their functions and puppeting them to further itself.
They might have been able to stymie its spread, but the virus arrived in the wake of what some programs called the Departure. The User Sam Flynn had left them, to say nothing of the Creator, whose appearance in Tron City that night was still a matter of debate. And Clu, the only other leader they had, had abandoned them as well.
No one knew what had become of them. The Portal to the Users' world had closed, and it had not opened since. They were abandoned, and anarchy took over. The rebels fought the remains of Clu's forces, while the believers prayed for the Users' intervention, and everyone else tried to carry on around them. And none of them noticed the start of the infection until it was too late to stop it.
The gravity of the situation soon became clear. The rebels and the loyalists put their feud aside, the fight between freedom and perfection far outweighed by the need for survival. While some programs fled to the other cities, hoping for a place free from infection, this alliance worked to build a safe haven in the Outlands, in a region where there was no viral spread. As one cycle turned to another, the colony they built in the heart of the Outland hills became known as the Outpost, the only place on the Grid the virus hadn't reached.
Rho paced the length of her apartment, which wasn't saying much. More programs were arriving at the Outpost every decicycle, and space was precious. Even as fast as they were working, the excavation and building crews still couldn't keep pace with the rate of arrivals. Rho had been among the initial settlers, and so had managed to get a good space with a window overlooking the Outlands, but even back then the apartments had been small. As awful as he was, General Edis had had the foresight to realize what the Outpost would become to the Grid: a last hope.
Rho knew she should have been resting, even a little, for her work detail in the mess next millicycle. But she had something better coming up. The Nameless had told her she could come along on his next border patrol, provided she cleared it with the border guard captain, Halix, and her own superiors. Rho had naturally made certain of this, which left her here now, wondering where the Nameless could be.
She stopped pacing a moment to check the chrono beside her door. Less than 500 micros past the millicycle, so he wasn't technically running late, but still. Rho shook her head and started pacing again.
She liked doing border patrols. It was the closest she ever got to her work in the war. She'd always been a message runner, but in the war it had been different. She'd traveled through dangerous sectors of the city, keeping the rebel leaders informed of each other's plans, subverting the loyalists and fighting for the freedom of the Grid. She had loved that job. She had never been captured, and she'd only been injured a handful of times. She did the same work now at the Outpost, of course, but one didn't get nearly the same thrill from delivering orders to construction foremen or housing managers.
She volunteered for border patrol duty as often as she could, but Halix almost always refused her. Unless the Nameless had agreed to go with her first.
The Nameless commanded that kind of respect. He could have easily been a captain like Halix, but he refused all offers of promotion. Maybe it just wasn't a part of his function. No one knew who he was. He'd just turned up on the rebel lines in the middle of the war, knocking out every program who attacked him on his way to find Axel, their leader. Rho had been there when he'd shown up, had watched as he'd approached Axel, his disc burning, Axel still as a stone--
--and then his disc snapped out, and he held it out to Axel. "I'll fight for you," he said, his voice gravelly.
"I shudder to think of fighting against you," Axel replied.
And that was how the Nameless had joined the rebel ranks.
Rho had gotten to know him because he'd been part of her guard on some of her message runs. She had actually gotten on his bad side initially, because she had a habit of ditching her escort at the first opportunity, but even after she learned not to do that, he kept talking to her, when he generally didn't talk to anyone. He helped her improve her hand-to-hand combat, and had even given her advice on outrunning pursuers. In return, she didn't ask any prying questions. He obviously had a past, what with the massive scar on the left side of his face, but he only spoke of it in broad generalities, and he never hinted at his name. He became the Nameless to everyone who knew him, and even those who feared him, and he seemed to prefer it that way.
There was a light knock at the door. Rho scrambled across the room to punch the panel that opened it. The Nameless stood on the other side, hands clasped behind him, his expression serious. "Are you ready to go?" he asked.
Rho held up her lightcycle baton. "When aren't I ready to go?"
"And you've cleared it with Halix and your supervisors?"
She had to resist the urge to roll her eyes. The Nameless could be finicky sometimes, and she knew he'd refuse to let her come along if he thought she wasn't taking this seriously. "Yes, I cleared it all the way up to the top. Can we go now?"
One corner of his mouth twitched up. "You know, you're a great deal too eager for your own good."
Rho said nothing, waiting instead for what would come of this remark.
He turned away from the door. "Let's go."
She contained her glee to a mere fist-pump, then followed him out into the hallway. They were silent the whole walk to the northern vehicle hangar, but that was normal for them. Though he spoke to her the most, the Nameless had always preferred not to talk at all. Rho could stand the silence better than most programs, in part because she was so often preoccupied with her own thoughts. Today was no exception. She thought about the message runs she'd gotten out of for this excursion, and what troubles her temporary replacements might wreak in her absence. General Edis always had something to complain about after she'd had time off. The idea that he preferred her to even his own underlings made her shudder.
Things had been easier when they were at war. For a start, she had gotten out way more often.
The Nameless had to report to Halix when they reached the hangar. Rho had been cleared beforehand, of course, but it was vital to the survival of the Outpost that everyone's movements be accounted for. It took only a few micros to clear them for the run, and soon they were flying down the Outpost's perimeter road, their lightcycles humming quietly in the eerie silence of the Outlands.
"Remember to keep an eye out for viral spread," the Nameless reminded her as they rounded a curve.
"I will, I will," Rho replied. "Excuse me for trying to enjoy my freedom."
The Nameless sighed. "Remind me again why I put up with you." Rho might have been concerned but for the hint of wry amusement in his voice.
"Because I don't ask questions," Rho said. "And you think I'm spunky."
"Do I." A pause, and then he said, "Tell me what you see from the east."
Rho glanced away from the road to take in the landscape to her left. "Viral spread right against the horizon," she responded. "Makes sense, Tron City is back that way. More spread visible to the south, but that's still pretty far off." She glanced over again, trying to catch sight of the city's massive skyline, a glimpse of the home they'd all been forced to abandon.
"Oh my Us--" She slammed on the brakes, bringing her lightcycle to a skidding halt. "Nameless, look—look at the city—I mean, the sky—"
The Nameless had stopped when she had. He turned towards the eastern sky, where a clear, bright light had appeared above the reddened city skyline.
"Is that what I think it is?" Rho asked quietly.
"The Portal is open." The Nameless sounded as shocked as she felt. "There are Users on the Grid again."
"How do you know—"
"Come on," he said brusquely. "Axel and Edis need to know about this immediately."
They’d been ushered into General Edis’s office immediately after the Nameless shared their news with the guard. It was only luck that Axel was there as well. Together, Axel and Edis comprised the leadership of the Outpost, though they were further advised by the larger Outpost Council. The Council was not in session now, however, so their news was instead brought directly to the Outpost’s leaders.
An uncomfortable silence followed the Nameless's brief report. General Edis and Axel both looked shocked at the news, but Rho couldn't read their expressions further than that. She stood just behind the Nameless's shoulder, hands clasped tightly behind her back as she waited for word of what they would be doing next.
Edis bowed his head to his steepled hands and sighed. "Good riddance," he muttered.
Axel folded his arms, frowning. "I'm half inclined to agree with you."
"Sirs?" the Nameless said.
"Damn the Users," Edis barked, sitting back in his chair. "What good have they done this system but in building it? What help from on high have they offered us since we have come so close to collapse?"
"They may be able to help us now that they're here," the Nameless replied carefully.
"And they may only try to improve us for their own vanity!" Edis snapped back. "What we have made here is our own, and I will not let our work be taken from us. The Users have caused this system nothing but grief. First Flynn supports the Iso plague, neglecting us before bringing us to war, and then his son's follies cost us the only true leader we had—"
"Easy, General." Axel put a hand on his shoulder. He turned to the Nameless and Rho. "I don't see what can be done. Flynn always arrived in the heart of the city; we have no hope of getting there now." His eyes narrowed. "Though I can see you're on the verge of volunteering. Why?"
"Has it occurred to you what might happen if the virus infects a User?"
"I don't see how..." Axel trailed off. Rho could see both him and Edis thinking, and her own thoughts followed a similar vein. The virus infected programs at random, leaving them unharmed for four or five millicycles before corrupting them completely. They spread the infection further in this state, infecting everything from other programs to the bits of code that made up buildings.
Users could access and manipulate any code on the Grid, including, Rho assumed, the baseline code that told the system what it was and how it operated. An infected User could spread the virus to the heart of the system itself, she realized. Even here in the Outlands, they wouldn't be safe.
Edis and Axel seemed to have reached the same conclusion.
"The entire system could be compromised," the Nameless said. "Unless we act now."
Edis scoffed. "It's a fool's errand. The city must be fully corrupted by now. There's no way you could make it to the city's heart and out again without being infected."
"I could plot a course through the city," Rho said, raising one hand. "My code lets me access city maps, I can flag corrupted areas and get us through no problem. If—if that's all right," she finished lamely. She knew how unlikely it was they'd allow her on a mission this dangerous.
"We could bring a team to fight off the corrupted. Volunteers only," he added quickly, as Edis opened his mouth to protest. "A team of five, with one medtech to scan for infection, plus myself and Rho. I'm confident we can make it there and back again within a millicycle."
"And Rho?" Axel asked, raising an eyebrow.
"She's the best at what she does," the Nameless replied confidently, and Rho had to clench her jaw to keep from grinning with pride. "She'll get us in and out with all due speed."
"You were planning this," Edis said, his eyes narrowed. "Weren't you?"
The Nameless said nothing, and Rho knew his expression would give nothing away that he didn't want it to.
Edis scoffed again. "I might have known." He waved a hand at them. "You have my permission for this folly, if Axel agrees."
"With the system at stake, I don't see how I can say no," Axel said. "I'll put out the call for volunteers with the sentries. Be ready to leave in a hundred micros, both of you."
"Yes, sir," they said together, and Rho followed as the Nameless turned and exited the office.
Rho tamped down on her excitement. As thrilling as it was—a dangerous mission she might not come back from, with the whole Grid at stake—now wasn’t the time. She had a mission to prepare for, and now, more than ever, she needed to take things seriously.
ooo ooo ooo
Author's Note: Thank you for reading. I'm hoping to update once every couple of weeks until Part One is complete. Part One is fully written with eight chapters total. After I finish posting Part One, there will be a break to allow me time to finish Part Two or otherwise whip it into shape.
Comments are, as ever, greatly appreciated.
(Also: if you think you know who the Nameless is, you're probably right.)