0 - Prologue
Tron and Tron Legacy are the property and copyright of Disney
Three years ago…
Syd woke up with a headache. He always woke up with a headache these days. And he always forgot about Rachel. He kept expecting her to be there, by his side, still asleep in the dark. The only difference this time is that he didn't have time to be disappointed. This time, he didn't have time to call her name. This time, the phone rang.
He had received an anonymous text on his cell-phone in the middle of the night. "WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT YOUR PROJECT," it said, and it came with a rendezvous in one of the ENCOM tower's sublevels with a pass code he would need to access the area. He didn't know what possessed him to go: he was just a concept artist, and everyone at the top of the project's hierarchy couldn't convince Sam Flynn (may he burn in hell forever) not to axe the game and fire the whole lot of them. Flynn had made it clear that he didn't want him in the premises anymore (though not in so few words and not quite that politely), but if there was a snowball's chance in hell that Syd could somehow salvage the project after throwing a bowl of hot gourmet beef stew on the CEO's thousand-dollar shirt…well, he'd take it.
Getting to sublevel 3 wasn't difficult: the pass code granted Syd access through the elevator and several security doors. The real panic came when he encountered a guard: having a code was one thing, but to be somewhere without clearance was another problem entirely. He could have run like hell, but thought it was better not to make things harder for himself. Besides, the security guard had just asked him for his ID. It would be rude.
And his head hurt.
The guard had eyed Syd's card, furrowed his brow, and scanned it on his PDA. After a while, he spoke:
"So…Syd Jung, right? What's a game developer doing down here in Special Projects?"
Special projects? That's what this place is? Syd's eyes widened: everyone in ENCOM had heard of special projects, but no one except maybe the board members knew any specifics. It was here that the basic design for FlynnOS-13 and its upgrades came from. Considering that OS-14 and 15 came along just 10 months later, rumors as to what was down here ran from a farm of super-genius monkeys chained to desktop computers to an alien AI recovered from an UFO.
Syd couldn't help but wonder the same: What WAS he doing there?
"Man, I wish I could tell you, but…"
"Yeah, yeah, but then you'd have to kill me, right?
Syd could have just let things stand there, but his curiosity, as always, got the better of him.
"Actually, they just called me down here and didn't give me any details. You know how it is: the bosses say jump…"
The guard chuckled at that: "…heh, you jump."
The PDA finally beeped, and when the alarm klaxons didn't wail, Syd had breathed a sigh of relief.
"Well, you're cleared to be here. Sorry it took so long, the security server must be acti-"
"-Hey, no problem, but could you, huh, answer a few questions for me? I hate to go in there in the dark like this."
"Sure, ask away."
"…What goes on in here?"
"Oh man, if you want specifics, you're asking the wrong guy. All I can tell you is that a lot of hardware goes in and out of here, either in small packages or some really big ones. And then there's the occasional foot traffic, and that's it."
"Foot traffic? Who else comes down here?"
"Besides you, me and the rest of the guard shifts? Mr. Flynn and Mr. Bradley, mostly. And Mr Dillinger, sometimes. And…"
"Well, there's this fine looking lady. Makes quite an impression: raven black hair cut like some rock starlet, pale skin, and has a thing for leather clothes that's snug in all the right places. She's usually with Mr Flynn."
"…Wait. You mean the Girl In Black? I thought she was his bodyguard. She sure doesn't look like a programmer."
At this, the guard just shrugged.
"Are any of them here at the moment?"
"Nope. …and you said someone called you down here?"
"Yeah, I guess either I'm early or one of them's late. Speaking of which, where's room 00? That's where I was told to be at."
"Double-oh...? Huh…You sure about that now?"
"Well, that's the room Mr. Flynn and that girl in black always ever go to. They always came out with huge grins on their faces moments later…I figured it must be their private love nest when they needed a quickie or sumthin'…although they haven't been there together in months."
"Really? That's interesting."
For a moment, neither of them said anything, and when he noticed the guard looking at him funny, something dawned on Syd.
The guard held his hands up, smiling.
"Hey, guy?, I'm not judging…If Mr. Flynn's got eclectic tastes, it's none of my business, ya know?"
"I'M NOT- Argh! Look, just get me there? Okay?"
Room 00 wasn't that far away, although one did have to take a circuitous route with a couple of checkpoints to get there. No doubt so any intruder would have to dodge that many more cameras, Syd had thought. When they arrived, the guard pointed at the card reader next to a plexiglas door.
"And that's where I gotta leave you: not allowed to go through past this point. Swipe your card here, and it should tag your chip with an IFF signal that will let you through that steel door on the other side."
"What is that, an airlock?"
"That, or a de-con chamber, as far as I can tell. Doubles as a trap if an intruder gets in without a passcard with a signal. Any other questions?"
"Nah, I'm good."
"Well, have fun," said the guard, and he left with a smirk on his face.
Great. Just great. Before long everyone will think I'm Flynn's chubby love slave. Fantastic.
Syd swiped the card, and entered the airlock. As the plexi door behind him closed, he had thought that if a prank was to be played on him, this moment would be the best time to pull it off. Maybe the klaxon would wail and he'd be stuck in this thing for an hour or two, or a maybe the contents of a bucket of pig's blood would be poured on his head. Or something. When the scanner was done, well, scanning him, the steel door that led inside Room 00 opened, and he went in as he breathed a sigh of relief.
The room itself was bare, save for an obsidian desk and a swivel chair on the other side of the room. The walls were made of big, long, copper tiles, the lighting coming from slim neon tubes crisscrossing the ceiling. In the middle of said ceiling was some sort of post-modern chandelier. Some love nest, thought Syd. There isn't even a couch!
The desktop then made a beeping sound, and Syd walked up to it. He recognized it as one of those Touchscreen desks with an integrated computer inside. The kind every big wig in encom just had to have. On it, the words, Press Me kept blinking.
"Hey, whatever you say."
He touched the screen, and waited. The virtual keyboard materialized on screen, along with these words:
Syd couldn't believe it. All of this cloak and dagger for a chat session? He sat down, and began to type:
-Guest- Well, I'm here. You want to tell me what this is all about?
-Anon- This is about you.
-Guest- Is it now? Well, FLYNN, do you want me to pay the cleaning bill for that nice suit you were wearing at the bistro?
-Anon- I'm not Flynn.
-Guest- Yeah, right. Well, you had it COMING you yuppie COCKSUCKER. Do you have any idea how many lives you just went and fucked over? We were ready to make you the greatest game since Space Paranoids, we poured out hearts and souls into it for a whole year and you give us the shaft for what? A fleet of yachts? A new mansion on some tropical island? Oh, wait, you realized we weren't making a Future Warfare clone and panicked? You were with us one hundred percent, you said. This is project is gonna go gold, you said! You sure showed us what your words are worth!
-Anon- There are things you are not aware of. That money was needed somewhere else, There are ENCOM projects that are far more important than games. And yours was not the only project that had to be cancelled. Others were fired. They're getting ready to move on. You're the only one that doesn't.
-Guest- Oh, are they, now? You wanna tell that to Julie Sanders? She's up to her armpits in student loans thanks to leeching, deadbeat parents, and this job was her way out! Or how about Isaac Kent? He's got a sick kid to take care of! The ENCOM medical benefits package was the one thing he needed to keep his son away from the grave! I don't care if you needed that money to save the fucking planet: these people needed help, I helped them get these jobs, and you fucked us over!
-Anon- We are getting off-topic. This is about you.
-Guest- The fuck it is! This is about them! I. DON'T. MATTER.
-Anon- Because of the tumor?
"YES, BECAUSE OF THE TUMOR!" Syd found himself shouting out loud. Tears were forming in his eyes. Wiping them away, He found it amazing how an irc chat could bring out such anger and sorrow in him. He didn't want to confront this, but he had to. He was dying a slow, horrible death, and before the darkness would take him, his mind will have been long gone.
Just like his father's.
-Anon- How much time do you have?
-Guest- What business is it of yours?
-Anon- I want to help.
-Guest- Fuck you.
-Anon- You feel cheated. There are so many things you want to create, so many things you want to make amends for. You just don't have the time.
-Guest- You sure as fuck didn't help in that regard.
-Anon- What if I could give you all the time in world?
-Anon- What if I could give you an endless canvas on which you could paint?
-Anon- What if I could give you clay that molds itself to your thoughts?
-Guest- I'd say you sound like a goddamned cult leader and that I should get the fuck out.
-Anon- You haven't left yet.
-Guest- Right. Hey? Did you offer three wishes to everybody else you shafted?
-Anon- I've already settled Mrs. Sanders' account, and I've made arrangements for Kent's child. I've also arranged future employment for the rest of the layoffs. In other companies.
-Anon- That leaves only you.
-Anon- If you want to take me up on my offer…
A blue YES appeared on the left of the screen.
-Anon- Then press here, and you'll be able to start fresh. On the other hand, if you still think I'm lying, that his is all just a prank…
A red NO appeared on the right of the screen.
-Anon- Then press here. The computer shuts down, the connection ends, and you can go on living what little life you have left.
What bullshit, Syd thought. He was just about to walk out when his cellphone rang. He got a text from Julie titled "Miracle". Shortly after that, he got another message from Isaac titled "good news". They both said the same thing: He didn't have to worry about them anymore. This Anon had lived up to his word.
That left only him.
-Anon- In there, you will find a new world.
-Anon- In there, you will find an eternity.
-Anon- In there, you will find your salvation.
His hand reached for the screen.
-Anon- What do you have to lose?
"Nothing. I…have nothing," Syd whispered. "Nothing, and no one."
And then, he pressed YES.
Suddenly, the desk began to recede into the ground. As he backed away, he heard the whirring of machinery above him. He looked up, and saw that the so-called chandelier looked more like a really big camera. What's more, it seemed to be tracking him as he moved around in the chair.
"What in the…"
And then it lit up.
Syd was not a very fast man, but he was amazed to find how quickly adrenaline, reflexes and fear could galvanize him to jump out of the way. He fell on his side, seeing the chair explode in a shower of sparks. Nothing was left of it, not even ashes.
"FLYNN! WHAT IN THE HELL ARE YOU DOING!"
The laser charged again, and he rolled out of the way as it fired. For some reason, the thing could not track and fire at the same time. Getting up, he ran towards the door, and sidestepped as he heard the gun charge up. It narrowly missed him by centimeters.
Goddamnit, he thought. This thing's leading me, now!
He reached the steel door, but despaired as he found that it was locked.
"LET ME OUT!" Syd cried desperately, banging on the door. "SOMEBODY! HELP!"
He heard the laser charge again, and turned around. Too exhausted to dodge, too tired to run, he leaned back on the wall. He wanted to cry, but instead conjured up all the hatred he could muster.
"So this is how you get your jollies, you sick fucker?"
The laser became brighter.
"I swear to you, you're going to pay, one way or another. You're going to pay."
"I'LL SEE YOU IN HELL, FLYNN!"
And then the world distorted, and became nothing but light.
"I'LL SEE YOU IN HELL, FLYNN!"
Syd fell back as the wall behind him suddenly decided to vanish from existence, and landed on his rear. He looked around, wondering if he had just woken up from a really bad dream. He could see it was still the middle of night, but he was apparently in some very posh part of town, because everything had neon lights on it. And the people were dressed in glow-in-the-dark clothes, and were all staring at him, and speaking to each other in hushed tones wondering why this strange fat man was shouting obscenities to the sky while sitting in the middle of (what looked like to Syd to be) a public sidewalk.
Probably not New York. He thought. Maybe Tokyo? But there's no way I'd get to either of these places so fast…
He tried to pick himself up, noticing how smooth and clean the ground was. Unbidden, rumors that Flynn was working on teleportation came to mind, and he wondered if he had just been used as a guinea pig. He felt woozy, but he managed to get back up without vomiting.
"Did he call out to the Flynn?"
"Shh! You know we're no supposed to speak of him by name!"
"We're not supposed to speak about him at all! Now, both of you be quiet! Or it's off to the games with us!"
The crowd's voices felt distant, and Syd could swear he heard some kind of warble while they talked. Audio hallucinations: those couldn't be good.
The crowd parted, and two men completely covered in glossy black spandex made their way into the half-circle of people. They were carrying glowing staves, and were wearing gold leaf carnival masks with some kind of flow in the dark paint printed on the edges. Syd could swear he could see…rods? Bones? dotted with LEDs…as if their bodies were made of dark glass. They were no weirder than everyone else present.
Harajuku, maybe? Wait, I haven't heard one word of Japanese or even bad English-
-and who are these jokers? Cops? In costume? What the fuck?
"Look, I don't know where I am, and if I caused a disturbance I didn't mean to, but-"
"Hey! Who the fuck are you bozos anyhow? Unless you got badges, I don't need to tell you shit!"
Their response came in the form of a staff strike right in the crotch. Syd firmly shut his eyes and choked back a scream. Before he could fall on his knees, one of the goons grabbed him by his left shoulder and turned him around.
"NO DISK," said Goon A. "DEFINETLY HASN'T GOT THE PERMISSIONS TO BE HERE. WHAT DO YOU THINK?"
"I'M THINKING," answered Goon B… "I'M THINKING STRAY RESOURCE HOG."
"A REASONABLE CONCLUSION: LOOK AT THE SIZE OF HIM."
"…Did you just call me a pig, pigs?"
"WHAT IS A…PIG?" asked Goon B.
"PROBABLY SLUM SLANG FOR A HOG," supplied Goon A.
"IF SO, THEN YES," said goon B. A beat, and then: "PIG! HEY, I LIKE THE SOUND OF THAT!"
"Then you'll love this."
Syd was not much of an athlete. And he didn't have much in the way of upper body strength. His legs, however, had to carry his 200 pounds of mass to work every day, and Syd took great pride in his kicks. As Goon B found out, a straight one to his stomach propelled him a good 4 meters backwards until he slammed into a bystander. Goon A, who was holding Syd's shoulder, attempted to grapple him to the ground, but Syd pushed as he pulled, and the masked goon found himself with a fat man on top of him flooded with testosterone.
Syd brought both his fists together and started working on the face.
"You like THAT, piggie?"
Goon A tried to protect his face, but could still feel the impacts.
The goon could feel his face crack and de-rezz.
"SQUEAL! SQUEAL! SQU-"
Syd was so full of rage that he could barely feel the first lighting bolt as it impacted with his chest. The second one he definitely noticed, and the third one knocked him backwards into unconsciousness. Goon B walked up to his partner, staff crackling, and helped him up.
"NEED A PATCH?"
"NAH, MY SUBROUTINES WILL FIX THE DAMAGE…TOOK YOU LONG ENOUGH."
"SORRY, STILL HAVEN'T PROCESSED THOSE DRINKS FROM THE END OF LINE COMPLETELY…DIDN'T THINK HOGS COULD PACK THAT KIND OF KICK, EITHER."
The Hog groaned.
"DIDN'T YOU SET YOUR ROD TO DEREZZ?"
"I DID: SETTING 6."
Goon B kicked the Hog, just to make sure. When the vagrant grunted, he did a scan.
"BUNCH OF CODE I DON'T RECOGNIZE, LOOKS LIKE A LOT STABILITY UPGRADES BLENDED TOGETHER. EXPLAINS WHY HE TOOK THAT MANY HITS."
"SETTING TO 11, LET'S FINISH HIM OFF."
"WAIT. DE-REZZING HIM WOULD BE TOO EASY, CONSIDERING WHAT HE JUST DID TO ME. I WANT HIM TO SUFFER SOME MORE."
"…SETTING 7, THEN?"
"WHAT ARE YOU THINKING, THEN?"
"I'M THINKING…I'M THINKING DISC ARENA 009. THEY NEED FRESH DATA. BIG EVENT TONIGHT."
"I LIKE THE WAY YOU THINK."
Arena 009 was known as the nastiest pit of death and desperation known to exist in the grid. Built just between the slums and the data processing centers, it picked its fighters from the hungriest programs (who would fight for scraps) for the entertainment of the rabble (who had the bits to pay). It was technically Tier 1, but even Castor himself paid a visit once in a while. It was amazing how vehemently untrained programs fought when you so much as promise them a bottle of energy. They were like mad gridbugs, and hedonistic despot enjoyed every nanocycle of it.
"COME ON, I'LL SECURE HIM, YOU CALL IN A RECOGNIZER AND SCATTER THE CROWD."
The Guards, after going about those tasks, were waiting in the middle of the street, gripping the vagrant by the forearms.
"WOW, HE'S HEAVY."
"YEAH! HOW MANY KILOS IS THIS GUY PACKING IN?"
"DAMN. CAN'T WE JUST COMPRESS HIM?"
"YOU SEE AN ENCODER ANYWHERE?"
"THEN NO, WE'RE NOT COMPRESSING HIM. WHEN'S THE RECOGNIZER DUE?"
"ANY NANOCYCLE, NOW."
Just as it was said, the Recognizer, a huge floating arch trimmed with yellow lights came down from high above. The two guards were ready to get moving, when they heard slurred laughing.
"…Okay, I get it. I get it now. It's finally happened: I'm in a hospital bed, shitting in a diaper and pissing in a condom, and my brain's last working neurons decided to put me in a TRON cartoon…"
The Hog was silenced by a staff discharge to the head.
"DID HE SAY…TRON?"
"DON'T BOTHER LISTENING TO JUNK DATA. TRON'S JUST AN ANCIENT MYTH THE REBELS LIKE TO THROW AROUND."
"I THINK HE MENTIONNED FLYNN EARLIER, TOO."
"…DO YOU WANT TO BE THROWN IN THE ARENA WITH HIM? YOU KEEP MENTIONNING THE DESTROYER, AND CASTOR WILL SEND YOU IN WITHOUT A DISK!"
"JUST LOAD HIM."
Syd woke up to the sound of voices. He felt restrained, and when he regained full consciousness, he realized he was strapped upright on some kind of plank by (and he could not believe this) straps made of some kind of barely visible glowing glass. He struggled against his bonds, but they wouldn't so much as wiggle. He look around: he was inside a large room made of polished stone, bathed in light blue neon light. In front of him, there was some kind cylinder with a chakram latched onto it. Beyond that was a large door, big enough to fit a small truck through. Mounted on the walls as an array of plastic objects. Syd guessed that they were weapons, but they looked too exotic to be practical.
"A resource hog? A hog that just put up some resistance?" said a soft, but warbled voice behind him. "Is this some kind of joke? Hogs don't have the clock speed necessary to make good Disk Warriors!"
"AND STARVED DATA PUSHERS DO? THAT'S WHAT OPTIMIZERS AND CHEAP ALGORYHTMS ARE FOR."
"And how's his stability? Hogs have got so much random code they break apart at the first disc hit!"
"HE TOOK THREE OVERLOADER SHOTS BEFORE GOING DOWN"
"Low setting overloaders are not the same as a disc!"
"AT SETTING 6."
"…What about power?"
Syd could hear a faint whirring sound, like a digital camera's tape slot opening.
"LOOK AT THIS. HASN'T PATCHED YET. HE'S GOT POWER ALRIGHT."
"CAN'T GO LOWER THAN 400 BITS."
They're selling me, Syd realized. Those cocksucking pigs are selling me off! And to what? A gladiatorial Arena? What kind of fucked up country wants to mimic goddamned ancient Rome?
"AND WE KNOW CASTOR'S HERE TONIGHT. YOU NEED THE TALENT."
He heard the sound of high heels hitting hard floor behind him, getting closer to his right, and then he saw the palest woman he ever saw, clad in a white and dull blue gray one piece plastic suit with the most elaborate gold reticella he had ever seen framing her head, neck and collar bone. She had bone white hair, done in a tight bun but a long wavy strand struck out in defiance over a pearly white mask on the left side of her face. She looked at him straight in the eyes, leaning her head over as if examining a piece of modern art. For a brief moment, Syd thought he saw a flicker of realization come across her face. Couldn't miss it: the uncovered half of her face was otherwise so cold and expressionless she might as well have been wearing a full mask. Before long, one of the goons came at her side, and then Syd wanted nothing more than to finish what he started. He struggled, but the restraints held.
"WELL, DO WE HAVE A DEAL?"
"Does he have a name?"
"WHAT? FOR THE REGISTRY? JUST TAG HIM AS HOG…OR BETTER YET…"
The goon got close real close to his face. Syd couldn't see his eyes, or much of his expression because of the spandex and mask covering his face (wait, he could see his goddamned jawbone!) but he just knew the man had a shit-eating grin splattered on his battered face.
Syd's reply came in the form of a glob of spit propelled from his mouth and straight into the goon's eye. The counter-argument would have been another whack of the staff, but the pale woman calmly stopped him with a motion of her hand.
"Don't…damage the merchandise, please?"
The goon wiped the spit from his mask. He soon found it stuck on his glove, which only frustrated him even more.
"DO WE HAVE A DEAL OR NOT?"
"YOU WANNA HAGGLE SOME MORE?"
"Yes. How about…nothing?"
"TO THE BIN WITH YOU, THEN. THERE ARE OTHER TIER 1 ARENAS THAT WILL BUY UP A GOOD HOG.
"There's isn't a Tier 1 Arena in the whole Grid that will buy this one. Haven't you figured it out yet?"
She leaned in close, and whispered something in his ear. He looked up suddenly. Syd only wished he could see the look on his face, but it wasn't hard to imagine. The man was scared. The woman began to laugh. A artificial, monotonic, fake laugh.
"You two idiots…scanned him, didn't see so much as one line of data that made any kind of sense, and you didn't immediately bring him to the palace? Oh my! I'm sure Castor will love to hear that one. And I'm just certain me and my sirens will be outfitting you."
"NO. THAT'S IMPOSSIBLE."
"I'm afraid that it is. Tell you what…" she began to caress his arm and motioned him out of Syd's sight. "I'm going to do you a favor: I'll give you one hundred bits and my solemn promise that I'll not speak a word of this to Castor, and in exchange you…don't mention in your report ever seeing this…vagrant…at all."
"WE ALREADY CALLED IN A RECOGNIZER. THERE WOULD BE DISCREPANCIES."
"Then make something up? Say he tried to overpower you and you were forced to Derezz him?"
"…THAT MIGHT WORK. THE PILOT LEFT AS SOON AS WE DISEMBARKED TO ANSWER ANOTHER CALL. HE…COULD HAVE MISSED CERTAIN
"Excellent, then we have a deal, then."
It wasn't even a question.
And a moment after that, he heard the warbled sound of…freight elevators? Freight elevators rising, mixed with the even clack of the woman's footsteps as she approached him again. She got closer, and closer still, until she gently laid on her hand on his chest.
"I haven't seen one of your kind for nearly a thousand cycles…"
Syd trembled, looking away. He tried to fight his own arousal. He tried to put up a wall of hate against the Slaver Bitch. He tried…It was futile: It had been too long since he felt the touch of a woman, too long since he'd even been allowed to be so close to smell one…Smell the promises of something sweet… Too long since…her.
No, don't think about her. Don't let the sorrow take you, not again! Not now! Hate. HATE.
"What? Not a whole lot of chinks around here?"
He had conjured up enough of it to look her in the eye, and he realized that she had gotten even closer. It was in that closeness that he found the most disturbing thing about her: she didn't have a smell. That was good. It meant that he couldn't get intoxicated. He'd love to kick her in the shins, though: she stood almost a head taller than him, and he still felt dominated by her presence.
"Do I make you nervous?" it was almost a whisper.
"You don't have to lie to me…I can tell."
"Then don't bother asking."
"Hm…what is your name?"
"Can't you tell?"
"No." she said, smiling. It's why I asked."
"Hi, Syd. I'm Gem."
"Gem, huh? Truly outrageous dungeon you got here. Your slaves must love staying here."
"I don't have slaves. I run the Arena."
"You just gave coin to two people that beat me to submission and brought me here in chains. And now I'm strapped to a board in your basement. Sounds like slavery to me."
"You're not my slave." She said, pulling away a little. "You belong to the Arena. You will be a Disk Warrior. You will fight, and you will keep on fighting until you are de-rezzed, until the crowd grows weary of you…or when you please Castor enough that he deems you worthy to join his Royal Guard."
"And if I don't comply?"
"I de-rezz you."
"I thought I was supposed to be headed straight to the palace. Won't 'Castor' get pissed?"
"I have his favor. And he values entertainment above all else: making you into a prize combatant will please him far more…and if you die tonight, I can just deny ever knowing what you are."
"Right, Ok. What if I comply, and suddenly decide to throw the fight? Just sit my ass down and let myself die? A final fuck you and farewell from yours truly?
She leaned in-close then, with amusement on her face.
"You'll do no such thing."
"You sure about that?"
"You are defiant, oh yes. But not that kind of defiant. It's simple enough to provoke a Guard. A few choice words, a blow to the face, and it would have been over. But you didn't stop there. You kept on fighting. You wanted that guard de-rezzed, and you didn't care if it cost you your life…"
She held his head with both her hands, locking his gaze into her eye.
"… deep down, You're a fighter. Syd. I can see it in your eyes: you're the maddest kind there is. You won't stop until you've won. If anything, you'll make this one fight very entertaining."
Syd said nothing. As she released his head, he could not help but avoid her gaze: she had him figured out.
"Now. Let's get started."
She clapped her hands twice, and on that cue four woman-shaped coffins opened to reveal…four women, dressed like Gem but without the frills or the mask. They approached him, their steps stiff, robotic, and perfectly synchronized.
The restraints pinning his body dissolved, and the board he was fastened to vanished into the floor. He tried to make a run for it, but he found his feet perfectly bound. He was about to fall over and break both his ankles when two women caught him from behind. The other two brought their hands up in front of him, and small, bright lights exploded from all twenty fingers. And then they started clawing at him.
Syd braced himself for some intense pain, but found none. Instead, his clothes were being cut in large strips. His shirt and black hoodie went first, then his pant, and then his socks.
And then his underwear.
The women stepped back, apparently to admire their handiwork. Syd tried in vain to cover himself. He hated his body, and he hated having it stared at. The constant smirk on the women's faces and their cold gaze didn't make it any more pleasant.
"Yeah, I get it. Pot bellies and love handles and back titties, oh my! Have yourself a chuckle, why don't you."
No, Syd decided. This was not his best day ever.
"Suit?' asked one of the women.
"oh that would be nice yes," said Syd, annoyed. and then: "WITH PINSTRIPES AND SHIT. IF IT'S TOO MUCH I UNDERSTAND."
The women cocked their heads, and then looked at Gem.
"Mark VI," said Gem. "Pattern 117."
The women approached again, jabbing their fingers on his chest and shoulders. A rubbery substance grew out where they touched him, creating a second of skin. They then traced lines on Syd's body with glowing fingers. Hard, metallic plates spontaneously but slowly came into being when they finished tracing shapes, and quickly got to working on other parts. Eventually, Syd was covered in a suit of segmented armor that weighed almost nothing at all, and yet felt like a second skin. And yet he still felt like he was wearing nothing at all. Green lines like computer circuitry glowed in the gaps between the plates. A crawling sensation came over the back of his head, and a helmet in the same style as the rest of the suit assembled itself over his head, completely covering his head in metal. And yet, he could still see.
"That won't be enough," said one of the women.
"He's too massive, too slow," Said another.
"We're not finished," said Gem.
The women looked at each other.
The next minute of Syd's existence would feel like an eternity of agony: it had started simply enough. The lighting in the room went from dim blue to bright orange, a transparent glass tube materialized. Holographic consoles appeared before the women, and they began typing furiously. It was then that Syd could feel himself change: his bones ached, his muscles contracted like he was being electrified. He felt his insides getting hotter and hotter. And he felt a hot coal inside brain, getting bigger and bigger. And then it exploded. And then the alarms went off. And all he could feel was his skin being picked apart. And then all he could feel was his muscles being stripped from his bones. And the bones grinding themselves into dust. And the dust grinding itself into mist. He wanted to scream…he could scream, god could he scream. And yet he had no mouth.
He wanted to escape, he wanted to reach out. He could feel his hand forming out of pure pain at first, and then bone, and he could feel glass break under his knuckles, and the sensation of skin on skin, the skin parting to make way for bone and for bone to make way for IT HURTS. And he heard a scream, so distant and so quiet it could have been never been heard over his own IT HURTS mouthless cry IT HURTS don't stop IT HURTS he can take it MAKE IT STOP she needs help DON'T STOP MAKE IT STOP MAKE IT STOP MAKE IT STOP
. HELP ME
DON'T TOUCH ME
Are you there?
"I'm right here."
"Don't be afraid."
"I'm right here with you..."
"…with you, in the dark."
He fell on knees that were not his. On hands that did not belong to Him. He whimpered with a throat that was put inside Him. He covered a face that He stole. Gem approached, her heels -THAT DAMNABLE SOUND- announcing her presence. Someone was screaming. Someone said something about needing an emergency patch. He didn't care. Nothing mattered. He didn't care.
"You are…so, so very beautiful!" said Gem. She was smiling. He could feel it. It was…an honest one. More real than He had ever seen. "I wish you could see yourself right now. I wish you could see what I could see."
She caressed His head, ever so gently. He could feel her touch in the metal.
Someone else had spoken those words to Him, once. Someone had touched Him, just like that, a lifetime ago. The words had not made sense to him at the time. Why not? He wondered. I don't remember, He answered.
Gem removed the black chakram from the cylinder, which promptly disappeared into the floor. "Alpha package" she said into it, and a red holographic ring appeared inside its inner rim. It was divided in 5 sections, each one with a different blue icon in the middle.
YOU WILL RECEIVE AN IDENTITY DISK
Gem mounted the disk on a mount on His back. He could feel it touching his mind, coming inside Him, right into his soul. It was knowledge. It didn't belong there, He knew it didn't belong there.
EVERYTHING YOU DO OR LEARN WILL BE IMPRITED ON THIS DISK
The door opened. Light and sound flooded the room. He could hear the wild cheers of a hungry crowd, begging Him to come out. Taunting Him to come out. Threatening Him to come out.
IF YOU LOSE YOUR DISK OR FAIL TO FOLLOW COMMANDS
"It takes a while to take to new algorithms…"
YOU WILL BE SUBJECT
"But don't worry."
"To learn them, to control them…"
"...you'll have all the time in the world."
And Gem walked away. With a motion of her hand, she conjured up a wall to separate her from Him.
"I'm gOiNg tO kIll yOU."
Gem chuckled. She made sure he could never lay a hand on her.
She didn't break stride.
At this, she stopped and turned to face him. He had just managed to pick himself up from the ground when the two walls came together, separating her from him, and drowning out the noise from the outside. She would have to ask him about that after… Now, she found herself…hoping that he would not die. Not before her curiosity could be satisfied, in any case.
And as for Him… The blinding light, the joyous noise, it beckoned him to come. To take his place within it. To earn it.
To kill for it.
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