They find him on the shore of the Sea of Simulation, centicycles after the massive explosion at the portal. It has closed since then and remained dark, leaving programs wondering about the events that rocked TRON City. The disk-less program lying limp on the blackened shore, sluggishly rebooting, might be the only one who knows what happened to their leader, their savior, the one who promised to lead them into the Users’ world.
“Is he a Black Guard?” they wonder.
“How long will it take to reboot?”
“Did he see what happened at the portal?”
“Were the rumors true? Was there really a User among us?”
“They say a User was on the Gaming Grid. That User must’ve caused this.”
“What matters is Clu. Without him we’re lost. The city will fail without our sysadmin.”
“Why isn’t he rebooting?”
“Where’s his disk?”
“Wait. His circuits. He’s not a Black Guard.”
“Then who is he?”
Who is he?
Who am I?
* * *
As he sits up he notices traces, footprints all around him. They’re several millicycles old and originate from a distant city. He presses his fingertips deeper into the ground and an older history emerges, spindly trails left by gridbugs looking for code to rip into. By some strange stroke of luck none happened upon him. Perhaps they were drawn away by other events, or derezzed by the reintegration’s massive shockwave.
He shakes his helmeted head, fingers gripping at the smooth surface, and then slides a hand to the back of his neck to activate a circuit. He retracts the helmet for the first time in cycles and blinks rapidly at the brightness while his sensors adjust. What he sees is the smooth surface of the Sea of Simulation, the horizon line unmarked by the obstacles placed by Flynn to prevent wayward programs from finding the portal while he’s here.
The portal is gone.
Clu is gone.
Flynn is gone.
Everyone who knows is gone. He’s all that’s left.
He feels behind his back and his hand closes on nothing. He laughs bitterly; he doesn’t have his identity disk either. He’s an unknown program, a “stray”. He doesn’t have a User - Alan-1 is a fleeting name with no meaning - or a purpose. All he has is what he remembers and what he remembers... something thumps heavily in his chest, processors pushing through some broken line in his source code.
An explosion rocks a distant corner of the Grid. That wouldn’t happen unless there’s instability and despite himself he tunes into it. Slowly he rises to his feet and lurches in its direction, but stops within a few short strides. What is he doing? Does he really think he can do something about it? The system is broken and it’s only a matter of time before the Outlands absorbs it.
Besides, they wouldn’t want him around, not after what he did.
Another explosion and he moves over the uneven terrain. He can’t solve anything, he can’t protect it, can’t fight the inevitable crash, but he has to go. He has to return to the city he helped build and terrorize.
His circuitry turns white.
* * *
So while they wait in vain for a savior to restore TRON City they survive.
He survives. Programs rise and fall as the cycles pass and the city continues its slow collapse, yet he survives. He wanders, flits from sector to sector, allows programs to enlist him in fights against other programs. He’s still the elite combatant on the Grid, the undisputed champion of the Gaming Grid, and his prowess draws all kinds of attention.
“You’re a neutral program,” they explain after they corner him.
“That means I fight for no one,” he replies.
He fights anyway.
* * *
He disappeared immediately after the Reintegration, and now he’s back, a ghost of a program on the broken streets of TRON City, a whisper of code in the shadowed places of the Grid.
That shouldn’t be possible. Clu never meant for Zuse to live beyond the handing over of the master key. If he survived the deresolution of the club then he may no longer be the program he once was and other programs don’t know what they’re talking about. Clu would’ve found use for a powerful translation program, after all.
There’s something else.
Zuse claims to know what happened in the cycles leading up to the Reintegration and hints that he has access to the Grid’s infrastructure, knows all of its secrets and caches. He’ll sell the secrets to the highest bidder, the most powerful program, for a promise that not only will the program take control of TRON City and give it the sysadmin it deserves but also give Zuse full rein of the Games.
The secrets supposedly come in two disks that found their way into his hands from the Sea of Simulation.
* * *
He operates from an abandoned memory bank in the city’s downtown, a far cry from the glossy and up-to-date End of Line Club. Then again, the program leaning on the cane isn’t the savvy double-dealing translator who once fought for the ISOs and Flynn only to later cut a deal with Clu to preserve himself. This Zuse is desperate, willing to bargain with anyone in order to regain some measure of power and influence.
“Well, aren’t you one very special program, hm?” Zuse asks as he walks behind the flickering counter. “Don’t hear much about programs that can repurpose another’s disk, let alone two, and use them against their previous owners.”
He limps markedly; a long deep crack runs up his leg, the edges blackened and jagged with broken code. Zuse notices his stare and laughs, twirling his cane before hooking it onto the edge of the counter.
“My war wound,” he says. He turns and plucks a few bottles of neon energy, some laced with intricate cracks and some crudely chipped at the mouth. He pours a bit of each into the waiting mixer, gives the contents a shake, and fills a tall slender cocktail glass. “That’s what I call it. That’s what everyone thinks. Earned it during the overthrow of the might Clu, supposed savior of the Grid.”
Zuse drops a fragile umbrella into the glass and lifts it up in a mock toast. “Viva la revolución!”
The cocktail slides across the countertop. “This one’s on me.”
He doesn’t move to accept it. “Where are my identity disks?”
Zuse shakes his head. “Such an outdated term. Shouldn’t give yourself away, Rinzler; most programs will forgive you now but once they find a method to the madness they’ll turn on you. Some will like nothing more than the chance to derezz you. Vengeance, for your past deeds.”
He flinches. His processors grind and his circuits flare an angry red before settling back into neutral white. “I’m not Rinzler.”
“No?” Zuse leans on the counter, eyebrow cocked. “What makes you say that?”
He bristles at the challenge and his circuits flicker, turn blue. “I fight for a free system.” I fight for the Users.
Zuse’s smile is all teeth. “Tron.”
* * *
He shudders at the memory.
“A scavenger found it,” Zuse says. “A poor broken search program picking through the strewn wreckage of the Reintegration, the second great Purge of the Grid, finds a damaged light disc at the edge of the Sea and discovers its secrets.”
The program drinks straight from a neon pink carafe. The cocktail on the countertop is untouched.”
“Nobody wants a corrupted, useless search program holding some of the keys to the city. Certainly not the sysadmin we deserve. So, she brought it to a security program, and paid dearly for it. That program was later derezzed by another who wanted it. Eventually the disk came to me as a relic, something belonging to one of Clu’s command. Surely its program had permission to access the Grid’s infrastructure. Imagine my surprise when it split in two and that was before I took a look at its contents.”
His shoulders stiffen. “Where are they?”
“In a cache in Beta. You think I’d keep them near, knowing you were looking for them?”
Zuse is lying. He stands perfectly still behind the counter, both hands planted on the surface like he’s shielding something. And even if he had no tell he couldn’t dampen the disk’s homing signal, that imperceptible connection between program and disk.
“You can’t fool me.”
Zuse shrugs casually but moves his left hand towards his cane. “I can’t just give them back to you, not with all the information crammed into them. But for a price....”
“But in my hands.” Zuse nods to the doorway behind him. “You think I’d be stupid enough to just let you walk in here? I still have a measure of power around here. Programs that think I’m their best chance at a stable Grid. They won’t let you walk out of here, either, not without my say so.”
“You have no right to possess another program’s identity disk.”
“Oh don’t talk to me about what I can and can’t do, Rinzler,” Zuse replies. He drops his right hand under the counter. “You can agree to run errands for me in exchange for your identity, or you can risk deresolution and fight all the programs in this memory bank to get it back.”
Several security programs file into the room, wielding disks and beam katanas. He turns to give them a sweep and analysis, but balks when he recognizes evidence of rectification in three of them. He turns back to Zuse, who’s leaning on the cane and giving him a calculated smile.
“So, Tron, what’ll it be?”
* * *
He doesn’t know how long he sits in the hangar. He stares at the darkened Solar Sailer, recalling his and Yori’s escape to the MCP’s core and Flynn hanging off the side by his fingertips.
He wonder what became of Yori in the cycles following the Purge. Was she repurposed? Derezzed? Hiding in the underbelly of TRON City or beyond its borders? There were other cities, too - places of refuge and resistance now forgotten, ghost towns collapsing back into the Outlands.
A group of unidentified programs appear at the far end of the hangar, wielding their weapons defensively while picking through the piles of broken data for caches he already emptied. He watches them, then rises to his feet and walks back up into the city.
* * *
They encircle him but from a distance; he can see their fear, their hesitation. A part of him relishes that as a measure of safety - they’re too afraid to strike him and if the confrontation becomes a fight he can take advantage of the fear - but another part is ashamed. He used to be the most revered program on the Grid, the one others turn to for protection and guidance.
They only see Rinzler now, and so can he.
“How are you still functioning?” a broad green program wonders. “The Reintegration should’ve derezzed you like it did the others.”
No ones misses the stutter in the rattling processors.
“We’ll just have to derezz him ourselves,” a damaged military program snarls, the cracks in her face flaring red. “Die, you corrupted glitch!”
He walks away from the aftermath unscathed. He locks his disk back onto its dock and doesn’t look back.
* * *
I fight for the Users.
I am Rinzler.
I serve Clu.
* * *
“She and Castor derezzed when the End of Line Club was bombed,” she says while sliding him a blue cocktail. “Zuse is lucky to be alive.”
Lucky indeed, he thinks as he tips the contents into his mouth.
On the loft at the edge of the dance floor two MP3s pound out a beat for the clusters of programs before them. A crack runs through the helmet of one but they’re otherwise intact and functioning, not a code out of place.
“Survivors,” the Siren says. “Just like the rest of us.”
He looks up at her, finding a knowing look in her eyes and smile.
The programs on the dance floor move to the pulsing music and the energy’s buzz like there isn’t a civil war raging through their doomed city. He watches from his place at the bar, noting the wary looks and open hostility from the other patrons that recognize him.
“They’re here to forget,” the Siren whispers into his ear. “They won’t hurt you while you’re here. I won’t allow it, not in my club.”
Fingertips trace the shape of the armor on his forearm and slide down to the edge of the circuits on the back of his hand. A pleasant buzz sinks underneath and intensifies with every sip of the blue cocktail.
He closes his eyes as the pulsing energy syncs with the music and for a cycle he forgets that he is Tron and he is Rinzler, the city’s protector and one of its most hated programs.
* * *
The music abruptly dies and everyone freezes in their tracks.
Something hums deep inside him, a hot and heavy coalescing sensation that intensifies as he sits on the barstool and stares at the wide-eyed messenger. His sensors pick up first a whisper, then a cacophony of fears and lies and half-truths about what it means, what the beacon of light far out above the Sea of Simulation means for them, for the fate of TRON City. Is it Clu? Is it the Creator? Is it another User? Sam Flynn? Does it mean stability and peace for the Grid or further destruction and collapse?
He makes to slide off his perch and leave, but the Siren, Crystal, holds him back with a hand on his shoulder. “I have something for you.”
He turns to see two batons on the countertop. “You’ll need these.”
He stares at them and then at her. “Thank you.”
As he circles the anxious programs for the exit Crystal calls out, “Save this city, Tron.”
Outside, high above the skyline, is a bright white light. He stands just outside the club and studies it for a long moment. It used to mean something to him but the memory has no use here. He glances up and down the street; other programs have come out to see the light for themselves and more than a few of them look frightened. He can’t blame them, because nobody knows what it means anymore.
But it means something. He turns away and walks down the block in another direction, darting around the spectators, and unhooks a baton from his holster.
Programs jump out of the way as he rezzes a lightcycle under him and rockets down the street, weaving around corners and salvaged tanks meant to maintain the sector’s neutrality. He doesn’t go to the portal itself - he can’t, he just can’t, he doesn’t even know how it’s there when it wasn’t; he tilts the lightcycle around a corner and races down one of the main highways to an abandoned sector.
He hopes the User walking out of the input tower is who he thinks it is.
He hopes this User will give him a purpose again.
I am Tron.
I am Rinzler.
Who am I?