[Fic] The Lone Stranger


"It was 2011-08-16T23:59:58Z when the stranger walked in, head down and stride casual, hands hidden in a long, siren-white coat."

Or …

The Continuing Digital Adventures of Sam and Tron

Or …

Sam walks into a bar, meets a girl, gets saved by the girl, and Tron somehow still gets in the last word without even being in the story.

Set within Winzler’s phenomenal Reset universe, some time after Home.

[Read on AO3]

Read on Tumblr below …

It was 2011-08-16T23:59:58Z when the stranger walked in, head down and stride casual, hands hidden in a long, siren-white coat. The few glimpses of the gray suit underneath betrayed spare circuits that hinted at some sort of monitor function.

Her replacement was already here, but Shell indicated with a flick of her fingers that she would take this last order, and patiently dried two more glasses waiting for him to wander over to the bar before she offered, “Greetings, Program.”

Rather than the usual ‘greetings’ in turn, he glanced up, half-startled and bemused, and declared instead, “I’m not - never mind. Hi, I’m Sam Flynn.”

"SamFlynn," she echoed obligingly, feeling her own mouth quirk in response. "I am Shell. What would you like?"

He leaned an elbow against the bar’s surface, whole weight shifting into a half-slumped slant, eyeing the short array of softly glowing bottles on display behind her before releasing a skeptical breath. “I’ll trust you to know things best. Why don’t you pick something out for me?”

It had been a long series of cycles since anyone on the server was new enough to ask for recommendations, and Shell couldn’t help grinning at the rare option that was being presented to her. Gauging his overall capacity and circuit illumination levels critically, she plucked two bottles from the shelves. “So, what brought you to” she asked as she poured. “Did you arrive with the firmware update or the new RAID expansion?”

His brow puckered, but he waited until she slid a full glass toward him before he answered, “Nah, you’ve got the equivalent of a twelve-lane highway running right next door. I dropped in from there.” Shell paused as she was setting the sources back, uncertain of her interpretation, but before she could query for clarification he was already asking, “So you had some upgrades recently?”

"Yes," she answered as she straightened, her smile slipping as she considered him. All his surface declarations seemed innocuous enough, and while he was a little strange in presentation and mannerism, that would not be unexpected if he had arrived from the Wild, as he had implied. But security was always drilling them on the potential dangers of what might arrive from the very Wild that the system serviced, and she had just as much of a duty to report suspicious activity as to maintain system efficiency. "It was part of scheduled procedures. What is your function, then?"

"Direct as ever," SamFlynn snorted beneath his breath, and her doubt increased by a few more percentage points before he took a drink - and promptly doubled over with a wheeze, expression tortured. "Shell, jesus, what’d you put in this thing, jet fuel?"

She couldn’t help herself. She laughed, feeling as if she had just downed a mild energy drink herself, caches clearing for all the new data from this odd, odd program. “You looked pretty run down, SamFlynn. I thought you were in more need of an emergency patch than a power conditioner.”

He grimaced comically at her, but as his gaze fell to the drink once more, the amusement visibly bled from him, leaving him looking just as grim and exhausted as his circuit lines had reported. “Run down, huh? Yeah, I guess that’s one way of putting it. Cheers,” he tipped his glass before taking a deep breath and tilting it back in a series of long swallows.

Disconcerted and intrigued by turns, Shell prompted delicately, “That should set you right enough that just about the only thing left would be some proper downtime with another program.”

He set the near-empty glass back down before he slanted a wry brow at her. “You offering?”

She blinked at the oddly coy nature of his words, letting an uncharacteristic pause lapse before she recovered and shrugged. “I can, if you wish. Or I could locate another program in need of similar services for you.”

"Uh, yeah, no thanks, then," he laughed, though he didn’t sound like he actually found anything funny, and gave himself a shake before straightening and sliding off the stool. "Don’t worry, I think that did the trick. You’re good at this," he nodded to her, with a sobriety that made her feel strangely gratified, as if he had megs of reports to back up such an assessment rather than simply a minor sampling.

"Thank you," she answered, matching his grin.

And that was that. He walked out the door, her shift was over, and a microcycle later, she was back in her home folder, filing the encounter away into archives.

The server at address was merely backup storage, a virtual mirror for other hosts that served up live sites to the www. Every so often there would be a sim run for handling live traffic at full load, but overall, half a dozen cycles could easily pass before any major routines were broken. There were the occasional anomalies, of course, but usually they were barely interesting enough to make it into system logs.

As Shell stood on a corner four blocks from the bar and watched SamFlynn, hood drawn up over his head against the rain, run gloved and ungloved fingers carefully over the side of a building, she wondered if there would end up being an entry for his process ID this microcycle. “Did you lose something?”

SamFlynn whirled around, fast enough that the scatter of water off the edges of his coat made a staccatto beat against her knee. “Lose? Uh, yeah, I guess you could say that,” he let his hands drop with a sheepish smile. “Shell, right?”

"Yes," she smiled back, the glow of her umbrella’s handle passing over her face as she shifted it to gesture at his rain-slicked form. "I think there’s something else you should be looking for first, though. There may be a spare umbrella at the bar, if you’d like … " She trailed off as she registered the slant of his gaze, something odd in the shape of his eyes, though it was difficult to assess with his pupils shrunk so small against the glare of the handle. "SamFlynn?"

He blinked, refocusing with a vaguely guilty air from the umbrella to her. “Sorry,” he rubbed a hand over his face, as if to exchange the tight mask that had slipped over it for the more congenial expression he now gave her. “You just reminded me of something - someone else, for a moment. A siren.”

She couldn’t quite suppress the arch of her brows or the flattered twitch of her mouth. “High praise. I’m only a step up from garbage collection - I don’t do much more than make sure resources are properly managed on the lowest levels.”

But he was already shaking his head, that tightness sneaking back for a micro as he said, “Nah, don’t sell yourself short. Believe me - ” and in that strange, unpredictable, malleable way of his, he was grinning again, sly and conspiratorial, “ - you’re way cuter.”

Half the time, she could barely parse what he said, and the other half, she suspected that her dictionary was glitching. But even though he threw her into a perpetual state of disorientation, she couldn’t help responding, laughing and almost giddy, as if he himself was some sort of packaged reservoir of energy, making everything around him a little brighter. “SamFlynn, I’ve half a mind to report you to security for being a menace to logical processes simply by opening your mouth,” she chuckled. “It’s like you’re an Encom program or something.”

He blinked, and suddenly, his gaze was fixated on her in the same way that it had been fixated upon the umbrella earlier. “Oh? Why do you say that?”

She hesitated beneath that uncanny regard and the unexpected question. “You haven’t heard? A few cycles ago, a new server went live on their domain. Some say it wasn’t even properly beta at the time - the development cycle was that new. Anyone who interfaced with them returned with … with incredible stories. About the programs, what they’ve built - what programs have built, not users.”

A low whistle, eyes wide, and he murmured, “You don’t say. Ever thought of visiting?”

And, just like that, she was wasting processor cycles again trying to figure out what he meant and how he had even arrived at such a thought, and it hadn’t even been more than seven words since the last episode. “Visiting?” she echoed uncertainly.

"Yeah," he waved a hand toward the sky, and she automatically lifted her gaze in case he was motioning to something relevant; but there was nothing but the familiar particle layers far overhead and the splash and slide of water across the clear panes of her umbrella. "You know, take a vacation, book a trip, go see the web."

"My … my directive requires that I stay here," she began, suddenly leery of the strange concepts now that they were leading toward her rather than being contained to him alone. "I cannot carry out my duties remotely - "

"Aw, c’mon, I’ve peeked at the server logs, you don’t get much more than a fire drill every five or six cycles. You’ve got at least another three cycles before the next one - "

"You’ve accessed the server logs?" It was true that the logs were not placed under as high a security as certain system files, but still, they required a certain level of permissions to even find, much less open. She was reasonably certain he was a system monitor of sorts, but from the Wild? Should a monitor from other systems have the same privileges here?

" - yeah, and you could easily get a buddy to cover your shifts for a little while; heck, return the favor later, let them take off for a centi or two when you get back, maybe they’ll thank you. Whaddya say? I’ll even be happy to play tour guide," he offered with an open hand and open smile …

… and Shell slid back a step, frantically shuffling through her memory archives for the last set of security lectures she had attended, wondering how many of the warning signs she had to check off before an anomaly should be flagged for investigation. “I - I don’t think so. I have an important directive. I belong here.”

His smile froze, then slid away, and his hand dropped back to his side. “Yeah,” he gruffly agreed, mouth abruptly compressing into a thin, unhappy line as he regarded the wall he had been examining so intently earlier. He looked as if he wished to tear the whole thing down to examine bit by bit. “Yeah, sorry if I scared you, I don’t know what got into me. Maybe I’m the one who needs a vacation.”

Composing and discarding at least four possible responses in rapid succession, Shell finally settled on a simple, thin, “Uhm, good luck,” before she retreated quickly across the street.

Shell was not an adventurous sort, and that was just fine, because her directive did not call for her to be one. In fact, it was better than fine - she was supposed to be stable so that she could provide others with stability, and that meant being able to sort out the practical aspects of a problem without letting extraneous variables confuse the matter.

There was no doubt, now, that SamFlynn was quite something else; maybe something special, maybe something dangerous, maybe even something of both. He was obviously here for a purpose, even if he wished to play an itinerant of the www, and whether that purpose was for good or ill or neither, she had yet to get a hint of.

One of her possible actions was to report him to security and let them deal with the matter. Logically, it was the safest, cleanest, and most economical decision. The alternative was simply to continue waiting, and he would move on without incident, someone else would eventually report him, or he would do something that attracted security’s notice directly. However, by then, there could potentially be damage already if his motives were indeed nefarious.

But beyond simple practicality, Shell also had her purpose, which was to ensure that programs were running at peak efficiency … and, until definitively proven otherwise, SamFlynn was currently a part of her system, and it was as obvious as the rain she was shaking from her umbrella that he was not running at peak efficiency. In fact, considering his last outburst, she wondered if he was managing to accomplish anything at all that was related to his personal directives … which were still a mystery.

Sighing, she considered just how much she had lapsed with regards to SamFlynn. He had managed to so distract her during their two encounters that she still knew little more than his public designation and that he was looking for something -

A hand brushed against her forearm as the colleague she was to relieve passed by, fingers tapping out a familiar greeting against the circuit on her wrist. She absently returned it with a press of her own fingertips - when she abruptly froze, recalling hands brushing over a blank wall, fingers alternately gloved and bare, flexing in recognizable, if unfamiliar patterns …

"Wait!" she called. "Wait, please, I’ve got a favor to ask … "

Less than a microcycle later, she was back out in the rain, her colleague grumbling at the extra shift but not so disgruntled that he refused the offer of a two-for-one exchange. She couldn’t help thinking that SamFlynn’s proposal of a ‘vacation’ in exchange for shifts sounded like a much better deal than what she had just managed to arrange, but he would just have to be grateful regardless, particularly if her conjectures were correct.

Buoyed by the thought that she might have found a new, far more elegant solution to her quandary - to help SamFlynn get what he wanted and, thus, chivvy him off the server to other destinations all the quicker - she didn’t even bother re-opening the umbrella still clutched furled within her hand. Hoping that he had not already moved on, she half-jogged through the street toward the shallow opening between buildings in which she’d left him …

… just as every internal warning and alarm she possessed tripped so suddenly that she stumbled, momentarily dizzied.

It took another microcycle before she realized no, it was not her vision swimming, but the alley was actually, physically seething; surfaces shrugging and cracking as if something burrowed beneath, revealing an occasional flare of feverish red light. At its center stood two figures - no, only one could be properly termed standing. Thin and stooped, it was an angular shape of sleek black panels and sullen, scarlet lines. The other was crouched, half-kneeling before it, the long white coat all too recognizable.

SamFlynn’s face was a snarling mask of pain and effort, teeth bared as one hand pried helplessly at the black glove fixed around his throat, sickly red invasions creeping up his neck. His other was locked about his attacker’s opposing wrist, trembling as he tried to keep it from joining its mate. Though the tableau seemed at a stalemate for the moment, there was a low, awful cackle building as the black figure loomed ever closer, apparently thinking that the outcome was already decided …

Shell was not an adventurous sort. And that had been just fine, up till now. But while she had been confused by SamFlynn and waffled over whether he constituted a security risk, every sensory suite she possessed - the finely honed tools of her trade that could tease out the ‘problems’ before they ever became real problems - was screaming at her that this program was wrong, that it did not belong, that there was no way to make it right and the only solution was its removal …

Shell had thought herself an exceedingly practical program, and the practical thing to do would be to alert security. But perhaps she was still confused in spite of SamFlynn not having uttered a single word, because she could take only one more look at him on his knees, making the thing work for every single pixel of area yielded … before aiming a firm swing at the back of the thing’s head with the end of her umbrella.

She could retrieve the sensation of impact shivering up the umbrella’s shaft as it had snapped, but not the image of the exact moment when its light extinguished. She could recall the confused blur of scenery as she had hurtled backwards, momentarily weightless, but not what had sent her flying in the first place. There was a blank moment in which she was aware of her internal clock continuing to roll over, though she received nothing from her external sensors at all, before visuals and audio staggered drunkenly online again and she saw -

SamFlynn, brighter than what he was before, brighter than any program she had ever seen, rain scattering the light until it seemed like he was glowing all over.

The thing, one wrist still captured within his grip, but twisting back and about with its other hand raised to strike, fingertips curled like claws.

SamFlynn grinned, tight and feral. “Too late,” he said.

And the whole world went white before it went suddenly, terribly dark.

"That’s a nice, solid codebase you’ve got, Shell. Alan would approve. I think, in another life, I would’ve liked to meet your user."

What bits and pieces of memory she could piece together just before she went offline had Shell sitting up with a gasp. Just as she began registering that she was no longer in a torn-up alley and there were no red-traced things menacing nearby, she tracked down the final reports of her working systems and looked confusedly down at her perfectly functional arms and hands.

"Sorry, it took a little while since I was pretty drained after that hadoken, but as far as I can tell, everything’s working."

She squeaked and received immediate proof that her legs were fine as well when she jumped up out of sheer reflex. Swallowing nervously, she glanced from SamFlynn - sitting serenely little more than an arm’s length away - down at herself again. “Am … am I glitching? Or is it my memory?”

"Neither," he chuckled as he also stood. "I fixed you up." Turning grave, he made a gesture - an oddly reassuring bend of fingers tapping a familiar pattern of acknowledgment in the air, from a program that she had not the slightest clue of how to classify. "It was the least I could do for your help. Maybe I could’ve figured something out on my own eventually, but it would’ve been even messier than the way it happened."

"The way it happened?" she shook her head faintly. "What … I don’t even know what happened."

"Ah. Well. I just borrowed some laws of physics. I think it’s pretty interesting that you’ve got rain falling in an electronic world and nothing ever shorts out, don’t you?" At her blank stare, he ducked his head, scraping a hand ruefully through his hair before he reached out to tap an end packet upon her shoulder. "Eh, never mind. Thanks again, and sorry to just be taking off, but we’re not that far from ground zero and I don’t have time to play twenty questions with security right now. Take care, all right?”

She was still staring as he showed her the flat of his hand in an odd, key-less motion and had taken two steps away before she finally remembered her original errand. “Wait! SamFlynn, wait - you’re looking for something, right?”

He paused and glanced back, but didn’t turn completely, impatience beginning to leak through politeness. “Yeah?”

Shell took a deep breath, hoped that she was not simply chasing bitstuff, and said, “A message. You’re looking for a message, aren’t you?”

He turned. Took the two steps back to her, eyes wide, and here, in the clear light, she could see his pupils - as round as the irises they were set in. “How did you - “

"There are public bulletin boards, of course," Shell said with slow care, reminding herself sharply that his eyes were the least of the differences between them. "But there are ones programs use that are not authorized, hidden … sometimes, I’ve seen security searching for them, or checking that a wiped one hadn’t been reinstalled. They do what you did … "

His mouth quirked to one side. “Not exactly, but close enough. I’m guessing you know where some of these are usually hidden?”

She shrugged. “Only a few. But I can make some suggestions. There are several places on the server that security don’t scan as often, and that’s where most of them should be.”

He turned to the side with a sweep of his arm, from which she took to mean that she was to precede him. “Then, lead on, McDuff.”

She knew better than to wonder anymore.

They found it at the fourth site they tried. They nearly passed it by completely when, riled by the recent incident, security made an unscheduled sweep through the area; but SamFlynn proved he had more impossible tricks available, masking their presence until the suite had moved on.

Now, Shell watched with lip caught anxiously between her teeth as he swept his hands with increasing excitement over a certain surface, and finally hissed in triumph when a patch abruptly lit clear and blue beneath his palm. When he moved back, she could see an icon resolving - four squares, grouped neatly together, shaped like an upside-down pyramid.

"On the run, kicked off of two servers and counting, and you still can’t resist signing your name, can you?" SamFlynn snorted, but she could already hear the ease that has replaced the weary anxiety. Just seeing that icon glowing cheerfully in the shadow of an unused storage block had done more for him than the strongest drink she could mix.

"You’re trying to help someone?"

SamFlynn started, looking like he had mislaid the fact that she was still present, then looked moodily between her and the icon before seemingly coming to a decision and snorting. “I’d like to think so, but who knows if he actually needs any help - or will admit he needs it even if he does. Uh, usually I’d ask for some privacy for this next step, but … I figure I owe you this much.”

As he rested both hands on the wall just above the icon, the thought of gracefully excusing herself touched briefly upon her decision matrix. Very briefly. Because she was owed some sort of explanation … but considering all the evidence up till now, she had an unsettling suspicion that the whole truth was more than she deserved.

"There are other stories about the Encom server," she offered quietly as flickers of blue light began chasing themselves across the surface, arranging themselves with slow grace into odd, looping designs. "About … about miracles."

"Miracles?" he echoed, clearly distracted, but apparently intrigued enough that the process of recovering the erased message slowed as he devoted some of his attention to what she said.

"That users walk within the system and possess unbelievable powers. That the programs developed there are so close to their creators, they are nearly users themselves. That they have machines that nothing on the www can match, features never before seen on any system … "

"Yeah, I get the picture," SamFlynn chuckled softly, the sound oddly off-balance as so much of what he uttered was, and let his hands drop away. Eyeing the neat lines of unintelligible code that were now revealed, he licked his lips and began translating the encryption on the fly:

Found the package, but had to brute force it. Keep alert. Triggered a second watchdog.

" - yeah, figured that out, thanks buddy - "

Have to keep moving. Hurry up, don’t have all cycle for you to catch up. Routing path follows below.

" - hey, love you too, you bastard - "

Final round is coming. Been a fun game - will be glad when it is finished, though.

SamFlynn paused so suddenly, Shell wasn’t certain if it actually signaled end of line, but he eventually released a long, pensive breath and murmured, “Yeah, I’ll be glad too.”

There were questions, almost too many to even queue properly, everything from the dramatic (what was he, exactly) to the trivial (were they bundled). But, in the end, looking at him and how he stared at the icon stamped at the message’s terminus, she asked nothing at all.

"There’s a rumor. That one doesn’t always need to interface with Encom servers to find their miracles."

His eyes flicked her way, hooded and considering. “Yeah?” he said as he laid a hand upon the message’s center and it began dismantling itself, line by line.

"Yeah," she echoed the idiomatic form, smiling hesitantly when he gave the now-blank wall a last brush and turned a crooked grin toward her. "Maybe there’s nothing more for me to see on Encom’s domain."

His grin widened. “Offer still stands, though, if you ever get bored enough. See you around, maybe, Shell.”

And he walked away, head high and stride casual, hands hidden in his long, siren-white coat.