Shepherds of the Source, Part 1

In the data fields of IOP8, any microcycle can seem like the next as harvesting programs spend their functions nurturing pure source into bit crops. But when a harvester goes missing, scheduler program DD takes notice.

by David March Fleming


A huge THANK YOU to the team at Lost Tales: a TRON Fanzine for first publishing this story. Lost Tales is an anthology of art and writing that explores the gaps in the story of TRON. Compiling the work of 29 creatives, the zine serves as a celebration of the franchise's characters, history, and lore, by expressing curious wonderment for the in-betweens of the stories we know and love. Without their encouragement, I don't know if this story would've gotten off the ground. Thank you!

Shepherds of the Source, Part 1

“The work here is hard, program. Not like Encom,” says ASL from behind her station. ROR, sitting across from her, is unsure how to respond.

“Yes, I under—”

“Encom is a highly developed system,” ASL continues. “All compilations of programs exist there. Almost any program can execute, thrive even, running untested functions on highly processed data.”

“Yes, I know what you—”

“This isn’t Encom. Sectors here loop endlessly, and one data field can look like the next. Many programs have lost their resolution calculating on nothing but raw bits for microcycles on end. Left-shift the wrong register at the wrong instruction, and it could be the last error you enter. Do you understand?” ASL demands. ROR waits a moment before speaking.

“Yes ma’am, I understand.” They look at ASL confidently. ASL returns ROR’s gaze for what seems a microcycle, when to ROR’s relief, she stands and smiles. ROR stands as well. ASL turns to look out her window toward the data fields.

“For those programs who learn its ways, this is a beautiful place,” ASL says, admiring the vista. “Users built this system, true, but we programs grow the bits and harvest the data,” ASL asserts, turning to face ROR. “Keep that in memory, and you just might make it.”

“I will, ma’am. Thank you. I calculate my functions will more than suffice for my duties here.”

“We’ll calculate that soon enough, program,” ASL responds, handing ROR an updated identity token. “Let’s get you loaded and running. Welcome to IOP8.”

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“How did you get in there?” ROR queries a field fly caught in a source brook. Ensconced in a cove just off the edge of the data field they’re supposed to be harvesting, ROR has been sitting, watching the source shimmer. It’s been many cycles now since they arrived at IOP8, and although they have adapted quite well, ROR isn’t what you’d call a data harvester by design. They do a good job, true. They almost never enter an error. But ROR’s heart is in the edges of things and, as they would say, a bunch of bits in the middle of a field isn’t on the edge of anything.

ROR scoops their hand into the brook, lifting the fly to safety. It flitters off as they watch; it becomes too small to track. ROR looks around the cove, enjoying a small moment of no operations, taking in the shapes and solace of all that grows around them. But no-ops can’t last, and they calculate they’d better check in with their scheduler, DD. ROR stands and stretches, when they are startled by a noise behind them. They turn, straining to see into the dark undergrowth. “Bug Bug, is that you?”

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DD pushes his hand into the substrate of the data field, sifts through and pulls forth a young bit. He inspects it, smiles, places the bit back, covers it gently. DD looks up, admiring the horizon, where the fields meet the vector mountains, mountains upon which the fractal forests grow, forests from which the source itself flows. Maybe this crop, this time, will execute on schedule.

LDA approaches DD quietly, not wanting to disturb him. “They’re late,” she says. DD stands, wiping his hands. “ROR again.”

“Yeah, I calculated as much, where is he this time?” a now irritated DD asks as he makes his way across the field.

LDA swats at a fly as she walks with him. “Want me to check the cove?” LDA offers as she scans the horizon, then sighs. “They should be here by now.”

“If I had a microcycle for every time he went off-grid, this bit crop would be integrated already,” DD moans. “Take BEQ and go find––”

“Them,” interrupts LDA. DD stops and LDA nearly runs into him. She lowers her head, feeling his gaze.

“Take a register, find them, get back here.”

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LDA and BEQ head toward the cove, as LDA smacks a loose shifter. “DD said he fixed this!”

“I don’t compute why DD is so hard on ROR,” BEQ interjects.

“Well, DD has a task to schedule, and ROR spending cycles in other memories is the last subroutine we need right now,” LDA explains as she points. “There’s the cove, just ahead.”

LDA and BEQ arrive, exit the register, and look around.

“ROR? It’s LDA! We need you at the field!”

“Hey, look at this,” says BEQ, standing at the brook. She motions for LDA and shows her some tracks.

“They go there,” observes LDA. They follow the tracks to a dark thicket.

“What the HELO?” asks BEQ, observing something on the ground. She pushes back the growth.

“Looks like some sort of ... transport marker?” offers LDA.


“Not sure. I’ve heard of them but I’ve never seen one.”

“Did it ... did ROR ... wait, what are you doing?”

LDA reaches her hand over the thing, calculating, when it begins to glow, then hum, increasing in intensity.

“LDA, I’m scared ... let’s go ... LDA, come on!”

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LDA and BEQ are nearly back to the field when DD, standing near his accumulator, hears their register fast approaching. He walks toward them as they stop and exit.

“No ROR,” manages LDA, catching her breath. “And something doesn’t compute. A transport marker, I think. Did ROR show—”

“A transporter?!” exclaims DD.

“We found tracks, ROR’s maybe,” says BEQ. “It started energizing so we ran.”

DD is unsettled. “You decided correctly,” he assures them as he reflexively scans the horizon. LDA and BEQ exchange glances as DD calculates what to do. “We need to tell ASL.” LDA and BEQ’s eyes open wide. DD heads for the accumulator. “Let’s go.” LDA and BEQ catch up and jump in. DD hits the accelerator and they speed away.

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After a long drive, they arrive and exit the accumulator, surprised to see ASL standing at her door.

“Missing someone?” says ASL, knowingly. “Come in. Tell me.” They go inside and stand by a nice heat sink.

“They found a transporter,” begins DD. ASL looks at LDA and BEQ, who abruptly look down.

“And you’re still here!” ASL says to them. “Well done, LDA.”

“It was BEQ. She pulled me away,” LDA confesses, looking thankfully at BEQ.

“Is ROR gone?” BEQ asks timidly. ASL looks at BEQ for a moment, says nothing, then focuses on DD.

“There is crosstalk among the data pushers of a program seeking control of other systems. Transporting its subroutines to any sectors it can reach. Appropriating files, annexing entire programs into its functions.”

“A program? Here?” DD asks. “How? Only a user—”

“Could do such things? If crosstalk equals true, and if users wrote us, then I calculate not all users have our best functions in mind,” ASL explains.

“I pray to the users for their return!” BEQ pleads, lowering her head as LDA reaches to hold her.

ASL turns to face BEQ, who looks up at her. “You pray to the users for ROR’s return? Then I must ask you, program, which users?”

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In the human world ...

“What? Not again!” Rachel exclaims, thrusting forward from her chair, staring angrily at her monitor. “Dad? ... dad! ... Robert! ... you need to see this!”

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To be continued.