Quorra looked at the structure she had built over the last ten milli-cycles or so with her head tilted to one side, eyes a little narrowed and her delicate eyebrows furrowed in a tiny frown. She couldn't find anything more to do on it, she'd been trying for a while and couldn't, but it didn't seem right.
It wasn't disproportionate, nor lopsided, nor unbalanced. Just sort of... unfinished.
She frowned a little more, then exhaled an irritated sigh and reached out to spread her fingers in the middle of it, destroying the delicate inner supports and making it all collapse, pixelate, and in a few moments, dissolve on the intricate pattern of her flooring. Then the ISO flounced on her comfortable sitting chair and crossed her arms, pouting at herself.
What had been missing? She felt like she should know, but it had evaded her all this time.
Still frowning, she closed her eyes and tried to catch the thrum of the Grid around her. The near-imperceptible, inaccessible rhythm of the Sea.
When she could feel them, or she thought she could, she held the glowy structure in her mind again, trying to understand. And again. And again.
Until the word crystalized in her mind on its own.
What her creation had lacked had been purpose, even so ephemeral as to please.
She tried to hold on to that thought when the knock on her door interrupted her.
This time, her sigh was cross, but she opened her eyes and straightened up, and then bounced to the door to check who it was.
The other program wore pale robes leaving his arms and chest half-bare, glowing marks displayed proudly, and beautifully complemented. His motions were graceful and easy, and he gave her a brief embrace. "Greetings, Quorra."
"Esper!" The glee of the fact that he was there - she hadn't seen him in cycles - obliterated the frustration both with her work and with the interruption of contemplating her. "Haven't seen you in too long, how is your work going?"
"Attending both Radia and Jalen is a bit demanding, I'll admit," his high tenor laugh filled her living quarters, "but very satisfactory. They are very good at taking care--"
"Of us all, I know, I know. Are they still upset over the Colony refusing to comply with their requests?"
"Jalen is. Radia is... more accepting. Or less loud about it, sometimes I don't know, with her sometimes. And on that topic..." He looked around. "Do you have anything to do over the last... oh, half a milli-cycle or so?"
"Not really. Want to catch a drink somewhere, or...?"
"No... I'm actually here at Radia's request. She has... something to ask of you, and not even I know what it is. But she sent me to see if you'd be willing to hear her out?"
Quorra blinked a couple of times. She had been in Radia's attention some two or three times before, once for performing a rather dangerous stunt right in her path, not that either of them had meant it that way, and a subsequent long talk with the first of the ISOs, and then once again, when Quorra was being distinguished for helping design a section of the Arja scape. The attention, especially the last time, had made her almost uncomfortable; there was something about Radia, who had once been Ophelia, that really was special. And it touched all of them that she paid attention to.
And now she'd asked for her.
"Huh." At least Esper knew her enough to interpret the sound of surprise as a directive to wait, rather than talk more. The thrum of the Grid went on for a little while, and then she smiled at her guest. "Certainly! I'd be honored to join you. Now?"
"Now would be fine."
"Do I need to take anything...?"
"I don't know what it will be, therefore not what you will need, but since I was not given information, my guess is it will be just talk."
"All right then. Your call, refreshments or we can go."
He thought a moment, then smiled that calm smile of his. "Let's go."
When they reached their destination, they found out they needed to wait. Radia was in conference with Jalen, and nobody even considered disturbing them - not for fear, although there were enough reasons for ISOs to be afraid, on occasion, but for respect. Even those of them who had chosen to step away from under Radia and Jalen's guidance, creating the Colony... what they dubbed the only truly free settlement on the Grid - even they had respect for the leaders, two of the oldest ISOs. There was wisdom to them, born out of longer existence - and many milli-cycles of conferences with the creator and the system administrator. They knew things... or possibly understood things in a way nobody else did, and their rule was one of leadership and sharing of wisdom, rather than power.
Or rather then tension. When Jalen walked out of Radia's door, he was laughing, and laughed genially to the white-clothed or robed people outside, his own more erratic attire standing out, quirky and distinctive and reassuring.
He'd fully left before the white-haired Radia stepped into the area in his trail, looking around and her face lighting up even more. "Quorra. Ah, good. Come, child. I have something for you to do. I think it is fairly important."
Quorra felt a bit of an irritation at being called a child - she was only vaguely aware of what that meant, other than very young, and she was a few tens of cycles old now. But then again, being singled out, even so... She followed the oldest ISO - and then watched her activate an energy field, locking them in and away from the rest of Arja.
That was... different. For all that they did have privacy in the homes they made for themselves, the ISOs rarely isolated themselves this completely. Quorra's curiosity was definitely piqued.
Radia settled on one of her comfortable chairs, then motioned her to seat herself as well. Quorra chose the end of the couch that was closest to her, not quite sitting on the edge, but near impatient enough to do so.
"Quorra," the leader began, "I am sure you know that, while we came out in good faith and complete trust, after we emerged from the Sea of Simulation, not all Basics have been very... welcoming. Or comfortable with us. And that there have been occasions of danger that were... focused among the ISOs."
Quorra nodded. She wasn't one of the ISOs who followed the information bulletins obsessively, or involved herself much in the areas that had been hit so far, but she'd caught some of that. "I've seen a few of the Gridbugs attacks - from a distance."
"Yes." The head of white hair bowed, and Radia was silent for a few moments before she continued. "We have not been able to refute the claim that we attract them, because they do attack here. And the rest of the unrest is too complicated to truly find out. It has been some time and much thought since I have begun considering the idea of... asking an ISO to spend some time among the Basics. As one of them. Secret from anyone else. See if that makes any difference."
The younger ISO blinked slightly as the implications wove through her mind. "... me?"
"If you would undertake it."
"But that would mean... hiding what I am."
"Yes. It will not be easy, to maintain the untruth, and I am certain that there will be many details that will need to be decided upon. But it will be... something very needed."
Radia's lips curved up slightly. "Because you have willingness to take risks, tempered by more restrain than most who do - and your imagination and creativity should make it possible for you to adjust. Imagination, creativity, and youth. And because you are only partly known among us - and not at all among the Basics. They do get relocated, on occasion, and I will make sure of the patterns so as not to place you in danger of discovery."
"I... are you certain that this is necessary?"
Quorra found herself in the gentle-but-deep gaze of the blue eyes, before Radia reached out her hand to her. "Come, take my hand and close your eyes."
Barely hesitating, Quorra did as instructed. "Feel the beat of the Grid with me, Quorra. Let me show you what I've felt through it."
It took them a little while to synchronize enough so Quorra could open her mind sufficiently to take in what Radia wanted to show her; by the time they managed it, Quorra was sitting on her knees at Radia's feet, holding her hand in both of hers. And then, suddenly, as though a switch was thrown, she felt it. The faint, regular throb of the world around them, something she'd known around the edges of her awareness but never like this. The pulse, from what she had read, should probably be like this.
And in the pulse, awareness of who was on it. Quorra almost let go of the contact when that happened, but she held on. Things weren't quite as specific as individual programs, and there were no words to that knowledge, but there was a feeling, of Basics and of ISOs and of growing, sutble enmity. And of many Basics freely a part of the ISO cities, but the opposite less true. And a feeling of danger.
When she opened her eyes and looked up, Radia was gazing upon her, somehow calm.
"How... long has it been like this?"
"A few cycles., this definite."
"How can you see this? Can anyone else? What is it?"
"I think it is a latent ability in us. The ISOs. Some feel it less clearly, others only need work to become more and more aware. I cannot yet tell if there are signs about either. I think I am the only one who can show it to others -- for now. It has taken me... most of my time here, to reach this."
"That is amazing."
"Many things are."
"True." Quorra closed her eyes again, bowing her face down. "What does that mean?"
"That we need to take a new approach. Not one of aggression, of course, no matter what a few - Jalen included, but he knows better than to press it without cause... for now - believe is necessary. I need eyes and ears where I only have a feeling. I need data that I can present, clear and uncorrupted. I need someone to be a part of what we are not. Can you do that?"
"What will happen with my life here? My friends?"
"I think that is one of the details we can work out. If you return and spend time with them, will that be acceptable?"
"Probably. How... how long?" Although she was afraid she knew the answer to that.
"As long as is necessary."
Quorra tried to listen to the almost-familiar throb again, but it was hovering just outside her senses once more. Radia waited for her reply, and her patience seemed infinite.
And so did the need in her eyes. Looking up into them, Quorra suddenly became aware that Radia, radiant, glorious, wise Radia, was begging.
"Yes. I will do that."
"Thank you," Radia said, quietly, before leaning down to press her lips on the top of Quorra's head. Quorra could feel the hair and ornaments gracing the leader's head caressing her cheeks, her shoulders.
For one moment, that brought more peace than she had had in a long time.
When she returned to the outside area, she realized that whatever else, now she had purpose.
The thought made her smile.
The busy-ness that ensued from accepting the task made her smile much in the time that followed. There was so much to learn, and Quorra relished learning with a zeal that met Radia's almost-surprised approval.
The workings of the City, the history, with more precision than the vague way she'd known it that far. The divisions of it, in sectors and then finer; the functions that programs performed, and what that meant - in terms of appearance, of freedom of motion, of clothing, of behavior. Of expectations.
That last one was possibly one of the hardest concepts to drill into herself, she found out. That she was expected to be only one thing, basically. A basic program - one that had a present directive, set by the Creator, and whose entire behavior was subject to that directive. But she kept on trying.
Soon enough, she had learned how and when to approach Radia in ways that would permit them time for discussion, if such was needed, without bestirring anyone's attention. Esper went through a brief period of jealousy, since he was obviously left out of the main reason why they were talking, but Quorra's enthusiasm for learning anything and everything about the Basics soon joined Radia's calm aura of peace and calm to settle him into joining the research efforts. It made a difference. Quorra basically clung to all her friends, when she could spare a micro-cycle or five with them. Not much. But it would have to be enough for a very long time.
Because once she had everything ready, she would become somebody else. And that was frightening.
And, naturally, extremely exciting.
There were things that the new identity had to include, or it would be somewhat useless. Quorra-the-Basic would have to be able to move around, rather than be stuck in one place for milly-cycles at a time. She would have to be able to talk with other programs, too, without drawing suspicion. Not that many would consider suspecting any ISO in duplicity, that sometimes never occurred to even the most hostile of Basics, and she doubted it would be a quality she'd lose, pretending. But if some program supposed to mind her own business suddenly started chatting up random others... well, that would likely get her into trouble.
And she'd have a place to live, and... so many other details. Good thing Flynn was still was writing some, tying up ends he perceived or was reminded were loose, so she wouldn't have to have a long back-story. She thought.
In the end, they settled on a sector, one of the less-populated ones, where she could be assigned as monitoring, maintenance, and support - low-level functions. Nothing that would require strongly specialized knowledge, and a function that was necessary, though often ignored. It would be as close as they could figure how to make her invisible.
Then came a time of research - what she would need to fit in, how. How to make her disc pass a superficial inspection in a way that would fit her story, without at the same time losing any of what she'd learned already.
Even designing the outfit she would be wearing needed attention. Giving up on her loose, comfortable white robes wasn't something she was looking forward to, so she could at least wear something she liked, couldn't she? It took time and effort to make it comply with that requirement as well as the one to make it inconspicuous among the Basics.
But, eventually, it was ready.
Everything was ready.
Radia gave her her blessing, and only then it struck Quorra that she might not see anyone that she loved so dearly anytime soon. But the pale lips giving a soft kiss on the top of her hair reminded her that even so, she would not be forgotten, nor would she be forgetting them. She would be helping them, and it would all work out.
She slipped out of her robe near the boundary of the City, derezzing with a soft sigh of regret as she donned her new clothes. As each element of the suit connected, it felt more and more like an armor, protecting the parts inside that were supposed to stay together, separating her from the world around her down to allowing only the window of connection that she would willingly make.
It was odd.
It was to be her, from now on. Quorra, maintenance, sector G-16. Nothing more.
"So, are you new, then?" Quorra was above average height, but the program leaning over her seemed to tower, tall and broad to her own slender shoulders. She didn't think he was threatening, more like friendly, but she had to remind herself to smile, anyway.
"Yeah, I g-- I am. Low level maintenance and--"
"Never mind that, who cares what you do on your off time?"
"But I thought..."
"Oh, come on, sweetheart. Don't tell me you don't like a big boy?"
"I'm not sure..."
He scooped an arm around her waist. "Well, we'll take care of that, hmm? Come on, I'll show you the best place to relax around here. Totally amazing, even if it's the only one also open to ISOs."
"I-SOs?" She stammered, surprised. In all her research of the City, she hadn't actually run into information about that place.
"Didn't that info get uploaded to your disc? ISOs, the programs that Flynn didn't write. Supposing he wrote anyone, of course, the whole religious argument, but if you're new, you might not have heard the last bit out of it yet. Anyway. C'mon, beautiful, join me for a glass at the End of Line?"
"I... need to report... for work soon." It was all that she could come up with, trying to disengage herself even while a part of her recognized that the warm stolid feel of the tall body was pleasant, and she could just go with him... should she? Shouldn't she?
"Aw shucks. Maybe another time? I go there most evenings. Oh, and I'm Aston. I think you'll be able to find me if you show up."
"All right. I might." And then her confused mind suggested that she may have to introduce herself back. "I'm Q-Quorra."
"No need to stammer, beautiful. It's all right." His hand cupped her cheek, and he grinned, and she couldn't help smiling back. "Come on, get along with you, if you need to report. I'll be easy to spot, later."
"Yeah," she was now amused enough to smile normally, "I think you will be."
"It's a date, then?"
"Ma-a-aybe. We'll see."
"Don't miss it. End of Line." He made a curious gesture of pointing at her with one finger and winking, and then was off on his way.
Quorra stared after him for a while, then shook her head and set off along one of the 'streets' perpendicular to the way he went, before turning in the opposite direction. Sort of made sense to her right then... but by the time she paid attention to where she was going, she realized she didn't know where she was, any longer. She looked around in dismay, then muttered quietly to herself, "well... glitch!"
She couldn't even see an info point from where she was. That wasn't good. She didn't know what would anybody make of a program that was lost, but staying under the radar and not attracting undue attention weren't on the list.
"Oof..." She would have glared at herself if she could have, but had to settle for leaning against the nearest wall and thumping her head into it. Great start, Quorra. Brilliant.
And going back where she came from wasn't exactly an option, what with her having announced loudly she had to report for work.
Right. Then the only thing she could think of was to keep going, right?
It took way too long to find her way to an area that she knew well enough, and almost half a milli-cycle to get back ... 'home', to her designated quarters. (Quorra hadn't asked how she had been provided with an actual place to stay at, in the City, but she knew it was a very good idea, so she wasn't going to question too much). After she'd had time to rest and was assimilating a portion of energy and getting acquainted with the space and her info-port, she couldn't help berating herself for this episode. And even more for how long it had taken her to realize that if she thought of it, she could always tell in which direction things that she knew or had seen were. She was at all times aware in which direction Arjia lay, and which way was the tall building she saw among the nearer ones every so often. Once she'd known that, getting disentangled was somewhat easier.
"Stupid, stupid, stupid ISO." Her voice resounded in the new space in a different way from how she was used to, how it did in her own apartment back in the White City. She didn't know what to do with that, either. It was strange, and different, and she missed home, her home, from which she knew the exact steps to get to the shore of the Sea and listen to the whispers of the dark-surfaced simulations, only hinting at the reality she knew beneath.
Maybe she should go there. To the Sea. She should be able to find it from here, too, no? Her fingers flew around the controls, eyes taking in working schedules that she would need to integrate herself into, transport schedules, transport access conditions, personal vehicle batons conditions and energy charging patterns, even plain old foot traffic to the shore.
This, this she could do, she thought. She'd better, after all.
It didn't occur to her that even though she'd blundered and gotten lost, she hadn't been identified as anything other than what she was pretending to be. Nor that she was in a space designed for programs with an entirely different, almost alien in a way concept of functioning, so feeling odd and out of place inside it was to be expected.
She had things to do, and she was faring less well than she'd expected of herself. So... she'd had to do better, right?
Touching base with home as a start should help.
Then she'd go look for a way to start working. It wouldn't do not to, or she would have to find a way for her disc to be frequently re-forged in order to pretend. Maybe there were enough gaps and tiny glitches in the system to be able to pretend that, yes, she was a new program, she had to report there, she didn't know why the supervisor wasn't notified...
But back to the Sea, first. Some reflection on it would always help.
He was an interpreter program and his name was Zuse.
Interpreting, in the gaming Grid in the system created by Flynn, was an intricate job, but not one that needed to be done all the time, not with how many the Creator had assigned to it. Now that Zuse was complaining, the gaps in his work left him plenty of time to wander around and learn.
And acquire new capacity, both in information and ideas.
The Grid was pretty nifty, he had to admit, smirking to himself at how well certain things fit together and worked, but despite the periodic entertainment of the Arena, it was kind of... dull. That realization struck him one milli-cycle as he was mixing himself an energy drink of other-than-usual flavor, and then enjoyed the sensation.
Some of the drinks he prepared were slow-acting, some fast, and he really did enjoy their effect.
So can others, he added to himself, and grinned more. Maybe that is one thing that I can do. Start a place where people can enjoy a drink, some of their time off their duties. Everybody has time off their duties and not nearly all of that goes to the Grid or other existing... entertainment.
So he dug into the archives, to see what he might need. Drinks, that he could arrange, he thought. A place that would be noticeable. And personnel, of course. He would have to see about that.
And a theme. And a name. Those last two didn't come to him on his own.
What he did know was that he would need to get permission from the system administrator. Anything not originally authorized or assigned had to get Clu's permission, and that was the first time when Zuse wavered in building up to his idea. Clu could shut him down with a word, and what would he do then?
Go back to interpreting for a quarter to half a milli-cycle every three or four. Pah!
It was easier to research, and dream, but it wasn't enough. Not for Zuse. He could see the opportunities shining everywhere he went, and so he had to find a way to take them, and sooner rather than later, people would get the same idea... and act before him. And he couldn't have that.
"So. I hear you have a request."
"Yes, Excellency." That brought him a snort, but the look of the blue eyes under the atypical light brown hair grew more attentive. Zuse marked that. "I want to open an entertainment unit. From what I can tell from the User world references, it would be called a 'club'. Totally on my free time from my regular obligations, of course, and anybody working or... guesting there would also be on their downtime."
"A club." A few steps made the mantle sway around Clu's figure, and Zuse marked that in his mind for future reference. "And what would the name of that club be?"
"Ah..." The white-haired program blinked. "I haven't thought of one yet."
"I see. Well, when you have more of the details, try asking again. I am not sure what to do with a faint idea. I need details."
"It's necessary. End of line, man."
It took him a while before it fit in in his mind.
That would be the name of it. The End of Line club. And it wouldn't be just any entertainment unit. It would be high up, where it could be seen from most of the City. Noticeable. Important. Maybe not downtown, there were no buildings tall enough for his taste there, but he found one that he liked. Where the upper floors could be repurposed.
He found more details, too. Staff that would be willing to work there, both as servitors and as other entertainment, music being something that some programs were slowly trying to dabble in and some enjoyed. Suppliers for the drinks ingredients and methods of preparation. He even took the liberty to draw some of what he imagined for the space.
When he next asked for admission to the Administrator, he had a data package with a lot of details.
The time it took Clu to look through them was dismayingly short. Th words, however, weren't. "That's better. Are you sure you want to undertake such a thing? You will have competition, and I don't want your disappointment to bring... disorder around you."
"Oh, Excellency, disorder is the last thing on my mind, of my intentions! I would like to make sure programs have things to do that satisfy them between their working ties, that is all!"
Disorder and the unexpected were, in fact, not on anyone's mind inside the Grid. Except possibly its Creator, but he only graced them with his presence seldom. As compared to everything else that was happening, that was. Regularly, but it was only a small fraction of the time.
Common programs such as Zuse rarely got a chance to even see the man. User. Let alone talk with him or discuss things.
And then, as they say (he knew from whatever information was available about the outside world), everything changed.
At first it was only a rumor, a word of mouth and quick notes entered for each other in datapads, and in his newly opened club, Zuse got it over and over again before many.
There were programs now on the Grid who hadn't been written by Flynn. Who hadn't been written by anybody. Programs that were not created by anyone, had no primary directive, and, in that way, were considered almost User-like.
It was shocking, really. Except it was too small at the beginning to shock anyone. A few programs, everybody thought. They couldn't bring all that much of a change, could they?
And yet they were more than a few. And even if in the beginning their numbers were so small they barely populated a couple of the buildings in the part of the sector assigned to them, more kept appearing. Without anybody writing them, they just walked out of the sea, whole and complete and ... well, uncontrollable, Zuse heard, but his encounters with them - in and out of the End of Line - were completely amicable. So they didn't have a directive, but they had enough decency to not look for trouble, and there was something thoroughly endearing in the wide-eyed innocence with which they explored the system.
On the other hand, some were frightened. Programs who knew their place in the system, who had heard how excited Flynn had been at the new addition to their lives, but they never understood it, and the Creator was absent for a long, long time, after that. He wasn't there to explain. Nobody did explain, and so wariness sneaked in.
Most of the programs that he met these days didn't even remember Gridbugs from before the problem had been cleared by Clu and Tron, but when they started appearing again, mostly in or near the sector of the newcomers, the ISOs, they panicked anyway.
It meant more business for him, somehow. Up in his club, everybody felt unreachable, untouchable. Safe. And some could huddle in groups with those they knew, not really talking with anyone else, around the most delicious drinks that they could find, and let the energy boost their courage or made them forget. Others would come in and just hang around, tell stories about the ISOs, some that Zuse found credible and others not.
And then he would come out among them and tell other stories, made up or mostly gleaned and patched together from information available in the system or in the Archives, funny stories, shocking stories, everybody's eyes turned to him until he knew he was doing well because even the most frightened when they'd come in earlier didn't blink an eye at the two white-clad programs with delicate glow marks along their cheeks and palms stepped out of the elevator and were guided in.
He had already given instructions that nobody would be turned away from the place, unless they've already caused problems at the End of Line.
There had been no problems.
Everybody was let in.
But even though he could smooth things together between Basics and ISOs in his small realm, he had to be blind to miss the fact that the newcomers' presence in the system was changing things. Deeply. There were not only the Basics and the ISOs. There were those who were afraid and those who were fascinated and those who were indifferent.
The City, which had once been whole and unified and beautiful in its continuation of purpose was now factioning.
It was none of Zuse's responsibility, of course. He was a mere interpreter program with a Club to run, which was barely beginning to become busy enough to be entertaining. He wasn't supposed to figure out how the problems of the Grid should be fixed, and even if he did have his thoughts - plenty of them, he assured absolutely nobody - nobody would pay attention to that, after all.
His two meetings with Clu assured him of that, at least. You couldn't turn the Administrator in a direction he didn't want to look, and the way he saw the ISOs...
It wasn't obvious. Thankfully. Or the situation would have gotten infinitely worse.
But he didn't like them, and anyone paying attention (fewer than one would expect, Zuse knew) would notice that. The way he phrased his "neutral" messages. The way he communicated, the way he even favored, slightly, the establishments and programs who stayed away from the newcomers.
The factioning, Zuse didn't like. The System Administrator's partiality, he was actually afraid of.
Not that anyone would know that.
Zuse, of the bright disposition and a word to say to get everyone's attention couldn't be afraid. He learned that programs were beginning to talk that he knew everything that happened on the Grid, and some ways, although his intelligence was not as reliable nor as precise as that of their esteemed leader, he kind of did. And he probably knew almost as well which way opinions ran, if his smallish sample was indicative, and since there was enough variance from off milli-cycle to off milli-cycle, he thought it was.
And then he suspected he knew much better than Clu and those who... advised him? If there was any delegation of authority, as opposed to simple execution, in the hierarchy he headed - he knew how opinions ran among the ISOs. Better than anyone.
Because he as simple as listened. However loud he seemed, he kept his eyes and ears open. Constantly.
The time when the most remarkable program... of the Basics, at the very least, in the Grid crossed the elevator opening and into his club, settling at the bar and ordering a drink like any other, for example, Zuse could have as good as chewed on his processing thread.
Not nearly as much as he would have if Clu had walked in, sat at the bar, and order a quiet drink, but a lot. Tron was one of the top three in the subtle hierarchy of the Grid - not Administrator or User, himself, but protector of the Grid and all in it, and absolutely outstanding at it.
Especially since these days Flynn was not heard from almost at all, to the point when some were beginning to wonder if he had abandoned his creation, and Clu was becoming more and more withdrawn, flanked by his guards and busy with running the Grid, Tron was rarely considered any more accessible.
And yet, there he was.
Well. Good thing Zuse had added a few enhancements to the place since the plans discussed with Clu. Since the small, incipient thing that the club had been. He took his pride in his establishment, now, the kind of pride he'd never suspected possible as a mere interpreter program. It was a place that people liked, and not only because it was well situated, or featured the exotic presence of the ISOs as welcome guests, rather than some kind of weirdness.
For one thing, there was his creativeness in the refreshments he offered. Energy was energy, in a way, and that was not quite possible to change, but it could be served in as many ways as could be imagined and tweaked, and he proved to have quite the imagination for it. The clear, iridescent liquids, mixed with various additions that enhanced the experience were sought after, welcome relief after a long milli-cycle of work, or before a particular difficult assignment. Or after some news, personal or global, that were a reason to celebrate... or to escape from. Energy was welcome, and delicious energy, even more so.
And then there was the ambiance. He'd expanded the original area, making the bulge at the top of his tower a prominent thing, but that was an advertisement of its own. He had different areas, too, some were private and some less so, some well lit and some darker. Spots where everything one said or did would be noticed (which he often employed, himself), spots where a friendly conversation - or necking - could happen among programs, and spots where the almost-absence of light made everything shaded and obscure, leaving anybody wishing to almost complete privacy.
But even there, security was ensured. He wouldn't have anybody hurt at his place. That was also important, he knew. His staff. The servitors, some of whom were Arena sirens during their Grid-employment cycles, and some - male and female - were chosen to be their likes in beauty and bearing. And trained by the sirens into behaving, acting with quiet grace and dignity, the lithe way of moving among the patrons, solving incipient disputes (some got away from them, but they did do a lot of damage control) and making sure everybody was provided for. Everybody was served, exactly as they wanted.
Then there was the security stuff, discrete muscle that would help keep the order among the patrons. It was very important, for Castor. Since disorder, chaos, was far less unknown an idea now than it had been when he started. He was worried that if something spectacular happened in his establishment, Clu would close him up, and by now he didn't want to give it up, didn't want to give any of this up. It was too important.
The club had become that important to him, and he was trying to keep it at its best. What his patrons wanted. Everything that they wanted. So he listened to them, and made the alterations appropriately.
Because, and there was not a drop of false modesty in the thought, the most precious employee of the place was himself. The hub of the entertainment, even if there was music played to create the atmosphere; the person who could talk with anyone and listened to everyone, who seemed - he knew - to most to know everybody who was in the club at any moment. The End of Line club was his, and he wasn't going to let it down. And it wasn't letting him down, either.
So the first time Tron crossed the threshold, so to speak, he finished the round of amusement he was offering his guests at the moment, and then quietly - it was a trick, he'd learned, of just slipping away from the spotlight and people would accept the break and let him go about his business, even if he did have a private office, difficult to access unnoticed - slipped behind the bar and across the newcomer.
"Can I offer you a special, excellency?"
"Please, just Tron." The words were relatively quiet, but at the same time carried through the noise of the club, drawing attention to their clarity with the specific voice. For a moment, Zuse wondered if they weren't conditioned by programming to trust this voice, then dismissed the thought for later contemplation. "Sure. I'd like something refreshing."
"Coming right up." And as he was preparing it, his eyebrows rose, as he imagined, conspiratorially. "Is there a specific reason you are with us tonight, si-- Tron?"
"I wanted a drink. Should there be further reasons?"
"Oh, no, of course not. I just... well, we don't often have visitors of your position on the Grid, I am flattered."
"It's a place to get some downtime among other programs... isn't it?"
There was such innocent confusion in the face that was so well known that Zuse raised his arms, after passing him the requested drink. "It really is. I am..."
The pale eyes flicked towards a small huddle of ISOs and Tron's gaze followed in that direction. To Zuse's surprise, Tron's reaction was a smile, a slight relaxation of his shoulders. "Oh, good. I like getting a chance to spend the time off with anyone on the Grid, not only limited company." The smile turned on his host, and he settled the account and shifted to focus a bit on his drink and the surrounding area with a quiet, "thank you."
For the first time, Zuse understood something about the attraction to this program in the Games which had eluded him before. Tron genuinely cared about what he did, how he did it, and that simply radiated from him. He was the best, and that was the result of superb coding and much practice, but it was also a function of his attitude. And it was...
Well, Zuse had gotten to know quite a few ISOs, by now. While lacking their naiveté, Tron had a touch of the same kind of innocent earnestness. Pureness.
And now the system defender liked his establishment. Over the next centi-cycles, he showed up several more times, and Zuse observed more, and everything seemed just better for it. The Club was growing more popular than ever, nobody bothering Tron unduly but most noticing his presence.
It led Zuse to hearing some stories about Tron's accomplishments outside the Arena which he hadn't known, before. The way he protected Basics and ISOs alike, heroically, efficiently, amazingly.
Theree was a brief pang of confusion, wondering if they wouldn't have all been better if they were written by Tron's User instead of Flynn. But then again, from the little he could access in the system's informational banks, Tron's User wasn't exactly the same kind of proficient or daring as Flynn... maybe they wouldn't have existed, if Alan-1 was in charge of the system.
Then Zuse had to laugh at himself for this kind of thinking. It was really odd, and useless. He had a Club to run, and that was plenty for a program to do.
Not to mention that now that the place was established, there were all sorts of things that became possible. Information flow that was separate from that towards the System Administrator, for one thing... and occasionally involved the business of the Administrator, too.
And so much other information. It was amazing, really, until he started to realize that maybe not all of what he learned was genuine. He even discovered the fact before he ran into blurting unverified information out, to his personal pride. After that, he started picking and choosing his sources.
He started knowing his sources. Started seeing the Grid in ways that he hadn't expected before, more angles, more layers to it, and both appreciating the design of the Creator and resenting certain aspects of it that only made certain - unpleasant - sense to him. Made him wonder what His goals had been, really. But seeing the different angles - as many as he could, he began wanting to see all the angles, calculate all the probabilities - was exhilarating on its own merit. He wanted knowledge.
It wasn't power the way Clu wielded it. He didn't want to be in the Administrator's place, either, considering some of the problems Clu had to resolve and Zuse knew he laced the resources to take care of. But it was... a great opportunity.
He learned those who he could get reliable information out of, and those he had to verify, and those he wouldn't really count as informative. He learned those he could provide with that information, too. And they got to know him, little by little, and to respect him. Seek him out. Trade bits and pieces until each of them was satisfied with what they had and could go on their way having a better idea of what was going on around them.
And one day, another trade happened. A different exchange. Information against something special, a skill transfered to his disc that he hadn't had before, that was rare and he could teach to others if he chose - or not, if he chose to withhold it.
It was incomparable, to have something of his own like that. Something that he had earned through hard work, too, something that they couldn't simply ignore him having, and 'them', he knew, was most likely those with technical power on the Grid. He didn't even know how this skill had been smuggled away from them, but he wasn't going to ask too closely, was he? He had it, and he was going to keep it. And get more.
Little bit of control, like velocity accelerator for a baton-started vehicle, like the light-cycles. Brakes for the electric liners, in case something was happening that he considered an emergency.
Little bits of control, but he was becoming somebody, not a nameless, faceless program in the mass, but Zuse, the program running the End of Line club, the one to go to if you had a juicy bit of information or if you were in need of help.
He wasn't doing it for the credits. That was really only means to keep the place going and growing, maybe implement some of his designs. No, he was doing it because it was what he wanted to do. Because he was like a spider who, instead of killing his victims once caught in his network, let them go because there was no sustenance in their destruction. Only in their attention. Even devotion.
Of course, it was far from glitchless. There were ill-chosen staff. It turned out that it was preferable to employ ISOs to serve the ISO clientèle and Basics to process the Basics, except for a few exceptions that he could almost name to a the program, starting from Tron and down into ISO obscurity, who didn't mind either way. They were easy. Most were not.
Then there were programs, of either variety who couldn't tolerate some of the additives he enhanced the energy drinks with. Figuring that one out was awkward and unpleasant, and since it required maintenance assistance to recover the well-being of those programs, some of Clu's guards came to explore. Really unpleasant business. But he learned, and learned how he could deal with the guards on such occasions. Mostly by making sure they were really an exception.
The more difficult thing to deal with, though, were fights. And once the order directive was loosened by the appearance of the ISOs, energy-stuffed programs turned out perfectly capable of starting and keeping up those. Despite his best security employees and attempts. Some milli-cycles were just... like that.
It was during one of the biggest fights the End of Line club had seen when the slender program jumped into the fray, not to make it worse but to pull apart the brawlers. It was impressive, the way she would take insults and punches and return merely constraining the programs she had access to, keeping out of the way of the hired security staff seemingly effortlessly.
She was not a security program herself, her circuits not marking her as anybody who had particular training in the area, but she seemed to have very precise intuition. Zuse watched with his eyebrows raised how a stranger - a mere low-level maintenance program, he was to learn later - helped settle temper and calm down the fighting. It was, he decided, impressively special, and there was a certain grace in the way she moved that possibly helped her, as well, some of the more distractable brawlers possibly spending those few nanocycles watching her nearly dance among them instead of swinging fists or furniture or, User forbid, discs at each other.
Maybe the whole maintenance thing had taught her how to handle rough programs, or something like that. Or how to handle herself among them. But after somebody tossed her away and she rolled, one leg extended sideways, her hands firmly on the ground, bright eyes back into the fray and an enthusiastic smile on her lips, Zuse decided that while she had been rarely seen at his club until now, he'd do his best to change that.
He really could use more patrons such as her.
Eventually, the fighting stopped. The last of the combatants - thank the Creator there were no fatalities - who could move on their own were loaded on the elevator down, and aid was called for those who couldn't.
More than ever before, the End of Line club was looking like a wreck, the energy drink spilled across the glowing floor glimmering on scattered shards of glasses, pieces of tables and chairs, fragments of the bar and light fixtures. Thankfully, the glass of the music DJs' section had turned out sturdy enough (finally, he would have to commend the craftsman for the current formula), but at first glance, it seemed the only nook of the club that was in order. A flying bottle and a chair had even reached his office area, and he sighed at the shots responsible for it. Who likely hadn't even aimed up there, but still.
The few of his staff who hadn't run away (that was an option he had permitted in case of fights, so nobody would have to be let up because of it) were moving among the injured or inebriated or unconscious, their white attire making the pale reflections even brighter around the premises.
All but the one dark-clad figure. The strange program who had helped settle the brawl was moving around the place, gently separating broken pieces from surviving furniture and setting it upright and in order again. Light touch, but it was a touching, for him, start for the cleaning up process.
"Pray excuse me," he approached her, "but I have to thank you for all the help, both earlier and now."
"Oh, it's nothing. I could do it, so I did."
"There aren't many who share the sentiment," he replied wryly. To his surprise, her reaction to that was an almost alarmed look around, and the realization that she was the only non-staff member who was helping. "So, again, thank you. I am Zuse, your... host."
"Oh, I... is it like this every time it happens? I really haven't spent so much time around, let alone at clubs..." Moment, and then she caught his expecting look. "Oh! I'm Quorra! Simple works maintenance in sector B-18." She gestured around. "Or where it is necessary, I suppose.
She smiled, a softer version of the enthusiastic smile she'd given the fight earlier, and he couldn't help himself answering it. Not that he tried very hard. He liked this program, with her almost shy attire and her elegant way of moving. "Then welcome to the End of Line, Quorra. I sincerely hope that this doesn't stop you from wanting to grace us with your presence again."
Her smile grew a smidgen confused, but her eyes remained eager. "You... do mean that, don't you."
"Yes... why wouldn't I?"
"I don't... know. I'm still rather new, you see. There is much to get used to."
"So there is."
The new voice made Quorra jump, while Zuse's merely straightened, his expression oddly more frozen than it had been during their conversation. Then he turned towards the entrance, very deliberately, and made a sweeping bow. "Excellency! Your presence is a delight! How may I help you tonight?"
Quorra became aware that she wasn't the only one startled by the visit. The sounds of cleaning up - tables and chairs straightened, fragments that were too self-contained to merely disintegrate scraped around, and so forth - had gotten quiet. Nobody was talking, or even moving around, the sound of booted footfalls against the floor vanished into silence. She didn't look around over her shoulder to check - she knew that all the faces were focused on their system administrator.
Who swept a long look around the club, now brightly lit all through to make the work on the recovery easier, and Quorra at least had an impression that his eyes didn't miss much. If anything. If they didn't see more than was to be seen, even.
Zuse's face didn't reflect any of the alert... or alarm that seemed to have settled over the battered club, or rather its staff-and-single-guest, even though after a moment, his eyes followed Clu's look around, the only sign of nervousness that she'd ever seen in him.
"Well." The administrator's voice resonated with aching familiarity even in her, and she could imagine it would have even stronger effect for Basics. "I'm looking for information."
Zuse's face brightened into a smile that looked almost genuine. "Then you've come to the right place, excellency! I can help with much that you may want to know, although I suspect most of that you already have acquired ... elsewhere."
"Not this, Zuse."
"I'm at your service."
"Within the parameters of the system, of course."
The silence stretched. Zuse broke it first. "What would you like to know tonight?"
"There was a fight here, wasn't there."
"As you can see." Zuse gestured around and then frowned at his employees, who scurried back to work, reluctantly. As well as more careful and quiet than before. Efficient. Quorra resumed helping them, the maintenance work she'd been doing was helping her orient herself, but she was extremely self-conscious in the presence of the Sys Admin. Let alone about overhearing the conversation.
Even if, in a way, that is what she had come to the City for. It had seemed one kind of thing from the distance of Arjia, when she was safe and remote and contemplating concepts.
When it was spying on somebody who almost had somehow started feeling like a friend, it was different. And even more so when Clu was actually there.
For one thing, somehow it felt like his eyes were on her the entire time.Which couldn't be the fact, whenever she looked over - with good excuse, of course - he was engaged in the conversation, or examining something specific. But she couldn't shake the feeling, anyway.
For another, now she understood something she had heard about but hadn't fully registered before. In a way tied up to the Grid and all in it, Clu was infused with some of the Creator's ... will. She could tell the effect of his presence was even more strongly felt by the Basics - only Zuse masked part of it - but she was ... aware of Clu and his pleasure or displeasure, in a manner that even Radia hadn't commanded. It was frightening.
Quorra did not like being frightened. At all.
And she liked what they were talking about even less.
"I have heard something unique about your... establishment," Clu was saying. "Something that we hadn't discussed, possibly because it was not an issue at the time."
"Oh, you mean that my club's visitors are both from among the Basics and the ISOs?" Zuse's laughter was forced, but then, it wasn't the first time she'd heard him force a laugh, even in their brief acquaintance. "Yes, well, it gives variety to everybody who is willing to mingle. And I'm sure there are plenty of places to go to, for those who do not. Although I can show you what arrangements I have made to ensure privacy for anyone who likes the place but not the company. This way--"
"Yes, yes, man. I've had the run-down."
"Oh, you have?"
"Of course," Clu said. There was an irritation in his tone, and Quorra could see the siren trying to herd a few stray bits, left behind in the fray, flinch at it. "But that's not why I was asking."
"Of course not, Excellency. I'm all ears."
"How much of tonight's trouble do you think is owed to your mixed... patrons?"
"Oh, I'm sure such things happen in Basics-only establishments, too," Zuse began to say, but Clu interrupted by reiterating the question.
"Was tonight's brawl caused by the ISOs, program?"
"No, Sir." The clipped answer was quick, unusually succinct, and seemed to tear out of Zuse almost against his will.
Quorra wanted to sink into the shadows and cry. Or just hide. But there were no shadows in the End of Line club now. Everything was brightly, mercilessly lit up. She couldn't even crawl under a table, with the floor illuminated. So none of those was an option, and trying to step out right now would be very, very conspicuous.
The silence stretched, only accentuated, rather than broken, by the noises of the clean-up.
Eventually, Clu's voice resembled the crack of a whip. "That's too bad."
"Ah... I would have thought..."
"End of line, man," the voice was moving away, and Quorra risked a look up to see the administrator gathering up his guards and filling up the elevator.
It wasn't until the indicator showed that the cabin had reached down to 'ground' level that Zuse swallowed, then visibly shook himself. "So! Where were we?" He spun about, and the smile plastered on his face was so fake that Quorra wanted to give him a hug. "Oh. You, my dear. That was a very odd welcome, I'm afraid. But it's not really always like this, I assure you. Tonight is just... complicated."
"I'm sure," she quirked her lips back at him wryly, leaving off the job she was doing half-done and nearing, called over by his beckoning finger. "Nobody here seemed particularly comfortable with the visit."
"Oh, well, what can you do? It's the system administrator's job to make sure he knows everything and everything is running smoothly, dontcha think?"
"I... guess so."
"You, on the other hand," and she could feel the change in topic through the smallest of her bits, "seem to be extremely capable in both helping settle disputes and helping clean-up. Are you by any chance interested inn job opportunities?"
"I... I couldn't..."
"Oh, why not? Didn't you like it here?"
"True. True. Well, at least give us another chance? I'm pretty sure we can make it up to you."
"Your next not-downtime free milli-cycle? Please?"
Quorra laughed. She couldn't help herself. "Are you usually this insistent?"
"Oh, yes. Or maybe that's only a hint of how it usually is, and I haven't unleashed my full persuasive power on you."
"And why would you do that for a mere simple minor maintenance program?"
"Oh... is that what you are?" He canted her head, and somehow the pale blue eyes seemed to take her measure more completely than anyone she'd met since arriving to the City. "Minor maintenance program, possibly. But neither mere nor simple, I don't think."
"There's nothing special about me..."
"You're wrong, my dear. You stand out in a crowd, if one has the eyes to notice. And I do. I'd rather I keep my eye on you, let's say it like that?"
Quorra blinked at him. And then her gaze moved to the elevator entrance, and then back to him. Was it her, or was he ... overing her his protection? The thought was weirdly comforting, especially after Clu's demonstration of power and coercion just now. "I'll... think about it."
"Come on. What can you lose?"
She had to laugh again. "Your time and mine?"
"Any better ideas on what to do with your free time, then?"
The seemingly casual question was about as light as the smile he had plastered on his face. Not at all. There was... more happening here than she could evaluate, and all her instincts suggested that she run. Run far and run right now. Except she couldn't, not when there was a chance to find out something that might be useful.
And Zuse was friendly to the ISOs, after all. If she was going to spend time somewhere to gather information, why not under his watchful eye?
Because he could get me into trouble? Very easily, too.
She held that thought for a few moments, then discarded it. No risk, no progress, right?
"I'll really think about it. But probably will come again. Don't know about working here, though!"
"Oh, most people here didn't know about working here, darling. I think you'll fit right in."
Zuse made her laugh. That was something not many Basics managed, and it was odd, because she wasn't that difficult to amuse. On further thought, she decided it may have something to do with being somewhat scared of them.
For all that Zuse had an aura of knowing more than he should (which, careful prodding revealed that he did) and having greater ability than he needed to (which she later found out was also true), he still managed to make everybody comfortable, turning everything, especially any advantage he might have, into something so ridiculous it was all right.
In the end - which was to say, after about four more visits to the End of Line - she did agree to work for him.
Which turned out easier said than done. Well, not done, but easier said than decided upon what exactly she should be working as.
First, since her initial participation had been trying to keep programs from beating each other into dysfunctionalilty, they decided she could try as security. She got a uniform to use just for that, and did her best to do what she was assigned to do.
On the one hand, she was superb in the gathering and even somewhat sharing of information. Her intuition was very good, and she could smell something brewing - including a fight - way before it got dangerous. That was a good thing, and both Zuse and herself enjoyed that aspect of her work.
On the other hand, she was so slight and unimposing that if a fight did break out, or was about to, she couldn't do practically anything without directly resorting to violence. Nobody listened to her at all, otherwise. It was frustrating, and though she could stand her own in a brawl, and she worked hard to keep on being better about that, she was really irritated because if she had more intimidating presence, many of those fights wouldn't have happened in the first place. It was an entirely different thing for a program a head taller than either her or Zuse to freeze the atmosphere and suggest the argument could be taken to the Games. Her voice just didn't cut it.
So she tried serving next.
Zuse had no objections to her modifying slightly the white uniform as she pleased, so long as the general shape was preserved, and she made sure it covered any glowmarks identifying her as an ISO.
Later, she decided this was where he had begun guessing she wasn't a Basic, but he said nothing at the time.
Because it did feel very peculiar, to be dressed in white, here among the Basics. It felt both wrong, because the cut was singularly inconvenient, and right, because it was the color she was used to wearing, for many cycles before.
Besides, she was not a very good servitor. While she was attractive and graceful, which were features Zuse was very happy about, and so were his patrons, and her memory was very good, there was something that didn't quite mesh. She was either too loud and intrusive when she should have been invisible, or too timid when she should have been bold. And she realized she was so, so very distractable. Anything happening anywhere in the club could capture her attention, and while she would still remember the orders and who made them, the patrons would feel ignored. And complain.
Zuse didn't like complaints.
Neither did, in fact, Quorra herself. It was absolutely humiliating, trying her best and then getting negative feedback singling her out.
The remaining job that she could do was, of course, after-hours maintenance. But Zuse complained that it was wasting her potential there. She laughed at him for it and gently suggested that maybe employment under him was not really the best option for her.
He pouted. "But that would mean I get to see so much less of you, my dear. It's highly upsetting."
"Is it?" She tried to laugh it off, but then there was something in his eyes that hitched the mirth inside her throat.
"Then maybe I can show up frequently to spend time here, instead? Would you like that?"
The white hair brushed his shoulder as he tilted his head to one side, and then nodded. "I think so, yes. I would very much love you to spend more time here." He paused, then lowered his voice, only slightly but sufficiently in the din of the Club. "And with your instinct for collecting information, maybe we can find fun occupations for you anyway."
"I think so. Look me up when I head towards my lounge next time you're here?"
It puzzled her.
But it turned out so very interesting.
On the one hand, it was almost the same thing that she was doing anyway. Gathering information. Watching out for how things were in the City, in the Grid itself. And while she was questioned carefully by Zuse over her findings, he respected her choice if she withheld some information. After a few such times, she asked why.
"I know you somewhat by now, my dear. You can have only very few reasons to keep something from me. You believe it's none of my or anyone else's business, and I trust your call on that. You think that information may endanger somebody, especially a friend of yours, and I respect that. Or you have another person to give that information to. Which I don't think very highly likely, but it is possible. In which case it proves your loyalty to that other program, and reassures me that if you get some information that is exclusively for my use, you will give it back to me and me alone. Am I right?"
"You're incorrigible!" Even though his words were in a way serious and frank, the way he said them made her laugh and want to throw something at him. Something soft and not-hurting, of course. "But I think you are right. And thank you."
She had more reasons to thank him, too. In exchange for her information, he gave her back information, too. And sometimes shared some of what other he had to give. Usually it was something small and of the utilities, something she could use to get around faster, quieter, less noticeable, but sometimes it was shortcuts on how to tap into energy or data sources she wouldn't have been able to, otherwise, and those were really special.
All of it was useful.
And all of it was discouraging. Well, not what he gave her. What she learned. On her own or from Zuse, or from his extra ways to collect data.
Things were not going well on the Grid. She was sure, throughout her circuits, that the ISOs did nothing wrong... by default. But their presence did not work well on the Grid, and there was nothing that anybody was doing that actually helped.
There was discontentment in the City, words spoken behind upraised hands and notes passed from interface to interface. There was violence, not only the occasionally reappearing gridbugs, but also random explosions which some blamed on ISO terrorist acts. Quorra couldn't figure out how that worked, there was nothing more peace-longing than an ISO, or at least those she knew, but the rumors were there.
And then she thought how, peaceful or not, she had learned to fight herself, and there have been some who had taught her, and it made a slight bit more of sense. The Games... the Games were inside everybody on the Grid, somehow imprinted. Even Radia or anybody else who never mentioned them. She saw the reaction of the quietest ISOs in the End of Line or along the streets - when the results or battles from the Arena were discussed, everybody listened.
Somehow, however, that didn't seem to unify Basics and ISOs. Nobody seemed to notice much, or at least, nobody whose opinion needed to be changed.
Despite the monitors which always traced around the City, in patterns set out by Tron himself, there were slight occasions of ... scuffles. An ISO got jostled here and needed some repair and maintenance. There was a fight in some dark passageway and programs buzzed about it for many milli-cycles, until something happened to take the heat away from that. More and more programs chose to stay separate, inside the Club where they could mingle, even though none of the regular patrons chose to change to another place.
Even the friends she had made, various programs that she'd met around, on the job or outside of it, or in the club. The meekest of them sometimes even so much as cringed if a company of ISOs larger than three passed beside them. When she first saw that, she started. "Have they done something to you?"
The program, all of his height hunched a little quietly, shook his head. "No, not really. I don't think I've seen them before. But there are... a lot of them."
"Four isn't a lot!"
"Well... not that many, but it's still more than me."
"Do you really think they'd try to do something? To you or to anybody?"
"Why would they?"
"Well, they're ISOs. Nobody knows why they do anything, do we?"
Try as she might, she couldn't argue against that to mutual satisfaction. Considering the friend in question, who didn't have anything against ISOs and such and would relax and laugh and enjoy himself around them, that was rather indicative.
To Quorra's dismay, the situation was not really better in the ISO cities.
Arjia. Her beloved home.
While there were no fights, there was still suspense. There was fear, and that was difficult for her to accept easily. The ISOs couldn't quite mistrust any program unless they had direct reason for it, but they tried to stay more and more secluded. There was talk about trying to go someplace else, somewhere that they wouldn't be bothering the Basics any longer. Where they would be free and independent. Where they could grow and help each other, help all those around them become something bigger, something better. Become Flynn's dream.
And they didn't understand the Basics, in turn. They didn't understand the constant urge to win, even at the expense of others. They couldn't understand why the basics needed so much guidance, so much constancy, so much order. Not that Arjia was disorderly, per se. It was more a city where the arrangements came out of aesthetics combined with functionality, rather than from utility alone, or from a necessity to maintain strict order, or from lack of need or want for anything extra. Arjia was the way it was, and it grew, beautiful and proud. Original and created every day anew. Dignified. And in a way, as isolated as it could be made.
Even as its people sometimes cowered at the thought of Basics guards marching its streets. Even as the halls where Radia and Jalen walked among them were buzzing with worry and alarm and the leaders tried to find some way around the perils, real and perceived.
And there were real ones. The Gridbugs did attack. And not Gridbugs alone.
During downtime, during cycle partitions where places were quieter and unobserved, there were attacks. Not ones like the brawls inside Tron City, no. There were no witnesses, there was no information who accomplished them. But there were explosions that rocked the silence and made those losing neighbors weep. There blasts that swept away entire floors of residence complexes, attacking those at rest, or the youngest ISOs that were still learning what to do with what of their lives, only to have those lives snatched away from them.
It was terrible.
It was not widespread enough to be called a war. But it was cruel, and it was unpredictable, any sort of pattern erased in the vanishing fragments of code and energy.
Yes, Quorra got to see one such place, after the explosion. She had returned home, to talk with Radia for her sporadic reports, and the bomb rocked the ground under her feet. She ran, ran as most who felt it ran, except for those who had seen it already who rose their heads and then hunched in their graceful white robes to continue trying to forget it.
She couldn't forget it. Destruction made no sense to her, even though, fighting, she knew she may come to that, one millicycle or another, sooner or later, or possibly many times, over and over. But it still made no sense, her eyes wide and taking in the dying flickers of energy along the edges of where something had used to be but was no longer. After everything faded, she wanted to return to her old apartment, the beauty that she and her friends had created surrounding her, and curl up until the vortex of confusion somehow calmed down.
It didn't, not for a long time.
The day of terror when the Sea became impossible for them made it all worse.
It didn't came that soon, she had returned to talk with Radia three, maybe four times. She had even ventured at the Colony a few times, under her role as a Basic that she was growing more and more confident in.
That... wasn't her best experience, even against the background of worry and tension elsewhere.
There was nothing by means of warning, among the passageways that were starker and darker than those of Arjia, but still rang familiar to her eye and sense. Many of the ISOs she met along those passageways seemed as fit for personal play as she was herself, the economy of motion caused by great control over themselves, rather than by trying to conserve energy.
Unlike hers, the blue eyes that watched her back were far from friendly. They followed her steps under lowered eyebrows, although there was no open hostility when she tried to do the work she had found for herself to do here. An assignment by Zuse, who was, as she could guess, as curious about the third city as she was herself. The assignment itself wasn't that difficult. Zuse's name was known, there were apparently patrons from here who preferred not crossing him or making him unhappy with them. And in some areas, things were ... suspicious, but fine.
Some parts of the Bostrun Colony, however...
"Oh, wow. A stray Basic has dared to come spend time with her bigger siblings, the scary ISOs. Are you looking for something, gorgeous?"
"Thank you," she tried to both keep her calm and emulate an actual Basic, although she felt a lot like snapping right back at him. "I found what I needed, and I'm just looking around now."
"Ohhh, adventurous spirit. I didn't think any of you cowards in Tron City had any of that." The green-lit, hooded ISO hopped down from his perch on the outlet of a higher passageway, boots crunching oddly on the under-maintained floor surface. Then he lost the points of admiration caused by his agility by wrapping an arm around her shoulders. Not that it felt unpleasant, but making such a familiar gesture with somebody he had just professed... his lack of sympathy for the kind of seemed out of place. To her, at least. "Come on, then, precious, let me show you around."
"Where?" The suspicious question slipped past her lips before she even thought about it, and then she had to resist making it worse by reaching up to cover her lips - the word was out of them already anyway.
"Hmm?" Yes, it was highly unlikely that her brethren would be slow on the pick-up. "I thought you were looking around, I'm being helpful and catering to the cooperation between you and us, you see?"
"I just..." she stammered, her mind flailing for an explanation. "Should be able to go back to work after half a milli-cycle or so. If you take me too deep or too high, I might not be able to make it back."
"And would me telling you where I'd take you make a difference?" The question was double-edged, testing her professed ignorance and mocking her, since he was guiding her in the direction of his choice sort of inexorably. If relatively gently.
"I'd... have some idea?" She ventured, trying to step away from his arm. Unsuccessfully. She pushed harder. "I'd no the general area. I think. I did my research..."
"Ah, but it's an ISO city, you slight silly thing. The place changes, we improve and expand and modify it all the time. Even more so than Arjia, that place is beautiful but stagnant. Way too controlled. Here, here is the only free place on the Grid. And even the general areas change. Now, maybe on most maps..." and he headed into a lengthy explanation involving the locations in the Colony and how they shifted about. If she had actually been a Basic, she might have been careless enough to miss the fact of him expanding and enhancing reality. Or maybe the Zuse personnel wouldn't, she wasn't sure, she only knew about herself.
But when she was an assignment, and this was one by both Zuse and Radia, no conflicting loyalties at all about that part of it, she'd done her research. She knew exactly what he was talking about, where it should be, and where he was modifying around actual facts. It irked her, and she tried to figure out why. He wouldn't hurt her, not really... she didn't think. He didn't seem the type, besides, he could have done that right after they moved outside the common area of the Fountain. But... ohhh yes. He could leave her lost and wandering, asking people about the things he'd told her until somebody clued her in.
That was nasty. She'd just reached the conclusion and was about to try to push him away, come what may, when there was a sick, wrenching tug inside her body, an by the way the other ISO stiffened beside her she could guess he had felt something similar enough. It was by a great effort of will that she didn't pivot over in the direction of the Sea, from where the suffering was coming. Only to feel herself dragged around to face it so that her companion, who still (or perhaps now in a different manner) was holding her around her shoulders.
She didn't mind just now.
Nor being dragged over to the shore, to see for herself what she knew well enough inside.
Something had happened to the Sea. Something terrible. To their brothers and sisters still - or already? or again? - beneath its surface.
Quorra only tripped once as they ran. It also seemed the furthest she'd run in a long time, or maybe that was only how it seemed because of how sicks she felt.
When they reached the shore, the word was spreading already. Isomorphic virus. Released by rogue Black Guards which were then destroyed by Clu and his henchmen. It didn't matter. The Sea was gone, dead to them. The silence she could feel radiating from it, filled with static where quiet and more developed voices had sung before.
She could cry. As much as programs cried.
Instead, she had to face her people, her own likes, treated like a Basic, because that's what she looked like. It was a terrible time to be a Basic among the ISOs. Not that they threatened her. Not even the Colony ISOs dared lay a hand on her the wrong way, and not because Flynn or Clu or the Black Guard were there.
The ISOs were grieving. Grieving hard and deep and complete, for something irretrievably lost. Irrecoverable. A basic in their midst was a stranger, one like those who had caused the loss, even if she was innocent and they were not ... hounds, looking for a victim. But grieving is private, and she was a stranger, or so it seemed to them.
To her, it was excruciating. She stepped aside, eventually, sitting down on a boulder, her limbs feeling powerless as though she'd lost energy, even though she hadn't. She tried to hide, from her own people. Even Radia, or her old friends, couldn't help her now, because they were feeling the same pain, and their stray, mostly missing recently friend would be a burden, not in any way relief. Or concern. Which she couldn't hold against them. They had all, all lost so much. Future brothers and sisters.
Maybe their own future?
It took a very long time for her to make her way back to the city, in order to report to Zuse. In fact, she returned after what he had sent her for had been delivered, and his pale face was tense with worry. He relaxed for a moment starting his babble automatically, and then cut it short when he fully looked at her face.
"What happened, my dear?"
His arm around her shoulders was welcome, and she leaned into it with a sound that almost sounded like a glitch. She needed to be better in control than this. "There won't be," she started, and that sounded a little better, "any more ISOs. An isomorphic virus was released in the Sea of Simulation. Most of the ISO cities emptied to the shore to mourn. I was... swept with the flow."
Zuse gave her an oddly focused look. "Quorra... if you need to take time off, we can talk about the assignment later?"
She blinked. And then again. Before the import of his offer reached her fully. She hesitated for a moment, then her eyes flicked to everybody outside Zuse's office... lounge. Whatever. Then she sighed, eyes holding the pale ones for a long moment, before squaring her shoulders.
Her secret was her secret no longer. Since when she could not tell, but he knew. And she had admitted it to him, sort of. Without saying the words.
"Thank you, I am well. I appreciate the concern. It was just... unexpected. Is all." Discs could be falsified, modified, and he was good at doing that himself, but still... it was easier if he didn't have to.
Instead of letting her go, he hugged her a little closer. "All right then, my dear. I will get from you what happened."
She took another moment anyway. Snuggling into him. Before answering. "It's not good. It's tense, all through. The errand was easy enough, true, but other than that... suspicion. Not open hostility, although I wouldn't even try to guess what happens after today, but ... tricking. Unfriendliness. It's bad, and it's going to get worse."
"What do you think?"
"I don't know, Zuse. I was never one supposed to make decisions, to evaluate the information. I am just... a person. Not a leader. Not anyone special in any way."
"Not quite so. You're more special than I am."
"Am not." The denial was quiet, definite. "Look around you. Look what you have done. You. True, with the help of everyone who's there, but you found them and gave them... us. A common thing to do together. What have I done?"
The white lashes were beating at her in a broken, stuttered rhythm. "It's not... it's who you are. Who you can be..."
"And who says what you can be? Surely this was more than was expected of you. And despite what's expected of me, look at... well, what I haven't done."
"You've been pretending to be somebody you aren't. Quite successfully, too, I might add."
"Not completely. Besides, what is that? Lying. Lying to people whom I have begun to consider friends, and who maybe consider me that, too." A part of Quorra processed that this was not typical for her, too bitter, too sharp. But she couldn't change it, couldn't think of any other way to put it. "ISOs aren't more or less than Basics. IDOs're ... ISOs're different. Maybe it'd be better if ISOs did go to a different system, as some are suggesting, although," she choked. What good will that do now? Besides... "Besides, that would mean those of us who do have friends across won't ever get to spend time around them. I wouldn't... I wouldn't like that." And some others would be even less fond of the idea, she knew and was going to add, but the thought slipped away from her mind when the slight, pale program moved to carefully hug her, and she realized she was shaking, wracking shudders that run through her entire frame and somehow the embrace helped. Just a little.
"Don't worry about it, my dear. Just calm down, all right? It'll be fine. It'll work out somehow."
"How?" Her words were coming out glitchy, and she was kind of clinging into the white front of Zuse's suit, feeling the reassuring touch of his hands on her back. Slow and certain.
"I don't know. Trust... Trust the Users, I guess."
"The User, then." He kissed her hair. "Trust yourself, too. You are far more than you give credit for."
"How do you know?"
"I know. Right now, I really do know. Because you made things better for me just now. Made things make more sense. I don't think anyone ever has made things make more sense for me yet. Given me more information, sure. Even answers, sometimes. But not clarity. You give that. You touch and bring ease, and I think that's very, very precious. More than a whole Club."
"But not better than a successful Club."
He chuckled quietly. "If you say so. But I don't know how I got here."
"How does one get anywhere? You're realizing your potential. Doing what you want to do, and doing it well. And it's... it's amazing." It felt a little flt just now, but that was the pain, the disappointment talking. She knew that. Having the comfort of proximity helped buffer that, somehow. She didn't even know what was going on with her processes anymore.
It took them a while before she could make herself step away from him.
Over the next milli-cycles, she caught an odd look on Zuse's face when he looked at her, but she was too random to explore what it meant. It wasn't a bad kind of a special look, really. Just... deeper, somehow, than the way he'd looked at anyone that she'd seen, before. It almost gave her enough of an anchor to snap away from the weird state she'd fallen into.
She took to wandering around the city in the times she was off shift. Aimlessly.
Often, her feet directed her to the shore of the ocean. Although as soon as she could see it in the distance, the dark surface rippling, mirroring lights exactly as she had before, she couldn't move nearer. She stood there, only grasping at glimpses in the distance, and eventually turned back.
Then she would sit on top of a boulder for a long time, looking in the distance. Over the Outlands, since the Sea was too painful, the City was foreign, Arjia was in pain, and Bostrun was hostile.
It was really odd, because she both knew exactly who she was, where from, why she had undertaken what she was doing, and at the same time felt disconnected and alone and deserted by everything that she was and everyone that she knew. That... hurt. Maybe that's what many of the ISOs felt, or something akin to it. But this was her, and she didn't know what to do. The one time she had seen Radia after that, instead of comfort - which the leader did try to impart - she only felt deeper pain, because of how haunted the pale eyes were, how grieving.
What would ever be right again, Quorra found herself asking, and finding no answers. She couldn't see any further, and it was hurtful, and it was sad, and it was confusing.
The lightcycle that pulled beside her lonely seat was pretty unique, white and dark. Recognizable, in a way. She blinked and tried to straighten her slumped shoulders, the tingle running through it confirming the identity the vehicle had suggested. Even stronger than Clu, this was a Presence. One could say, the Presence on the Grid. Its creator. The blue eyes looking at her with surprising gentleness. The same blue eyes, or similar, that she'd seen all around, except for the shape of the pupils - perfect circles, instead of hexagons.
"Need any help going back to the City?" The words were casual. The concern, real. As with the gentleness, it was taking her by surprise, somehow stirring her up even worse, and she didn't know what to do about it. So confusing.
"N-no. Thank you. I'm just taking a little bit of time by myself."
The blond eyebrows - also a rarity, on the Grid, down to him and Clu and Tron, really - rose into a questioning arch. "Something bad happened?"
She looked, involuntarily, towards the Sea, then checked herself. "No. Not really. I'm fine."
Flynn followed her look, then narrowed his eyes on her. "Weren't you at the shore, a few deci-cycles back? Along with the rest of the ISOs? You're dressed as a Basic, but..."
She didn't want to lie to him, but being discovered twice in such a short time was a bit too much for her right now. She hunched down again, hand coming up to cover the suit over the spot on her arm where her glowing marks were. Well-concealed, but still there. "I was caught at the Colony when it happened. An overly friendly resident pulled me along, I couldn't really help it." There, not really lying, but not confirming his guess, either. Maybe that would help. Help... what exactly? The question made her want to run away again, except she didn't know where she could be running to. Or even from. It was all in her. Trying to step away from that, she blurted, "everybody was so upset."
"It was a grievous crime, in fact. Worse than expected anything I'd created to commit." He swallowed, she could see the bob of the little protrusion in the middle of his throat. It seemed so weird. Was it something User-connected? "Is that why you're here? Why you need time alone...?" The question was going two ways, and she answered the easy part first.
"Quorra. I'm Quorra." Then she shrugged. Paused. And nodded, her chin remaining down. "It's terrible."
"Do many think as you do?" There was hope in his voice, she realized. Somehow, that soothed her a little. Because... because they were on the same side, maybe.
She had to think back to what she'd seen, sort through perception received but not processed at the time, to answer. It took a little while. "I... think some do. Those who have had reason to interact with ISOs. Or were never afraid of them, although those weren't that many. Some were scared that there would be retaliation, but since nothing's coming, some of the sympathy has returned. It's difficult to hold on to, I think, since some are feeding the animosity. With things like the attacks, on both sides of things." Somehow, she found himself falling into report mode, more detailed than she'd be giving Zuse - because Zuse connected the dots in a way she knew, so she didn't have to go into too much detail, of course - and less so with Radia. Which was because the lady would lead her through thinking together through things, which was precious all on its own, for Quorra.
And now she was doing something like that, or maybe even more, giving her own thoughts, undiluted, to Flynn. Who was the Creator. And a stranger, somebody she never even thought she'd talk with. Come here in her lowest hour, or one of those, at any rate. And she was talking to him, talking and somehow calming down because of it. Or maybe because of him, or maybe because of the attention, the care in his questions.
Or maybe because he'd looked carefully enough at a randomly met program to see her as she was, and yet accepted what she claimed by omission without making it worse for her.
What was this person, this User, who could, and would, pay attention like this? She didn't know, she couldn't actually make out too much about him, for all that they talked the better part of half a milli-cycle. He was helpful, even answered questions that she dared ask, and she still had no idea.
It was confusing.
But it was also distracting.
When she found her way back to the City, the drive to roam all alone had toned down. She could show up to work with something akin to her earlier energy. She could be friendly with the basics around her.
She could go back to the End of Line, and like being here, rather than be intimidated by the loud and the crowd.
Quorra was grateful.
It took a while until things returned to some semblance of normal. Futureless, in a way, sadder normal, but normal nonetheless. She did her maintenance work, and even occasionally got praise for it, both routine and some that she felt gladder because of. It was an odd feeling, to return to routines, and sometimes she still got the urge to go off on her own.
It was less often. It was easier to think of the rest of her people, and their grief. To watch the Basics without resentment. To even laugh sometimes.
Most frequently, it was Zuse who made her laugh, too. Not his gigs at the club, although some of them were absurd enough to bring up fits that were halfway between choking and giggling. He never stopped, once he started, it was brilliant to watch. But the laughter, her own laughter, maybe only a little hollower, came out more when they were discussing information. Sometimes just the two of them, her making reports and him analyzing the data, his quick calculations sometimes worrying - no, usually worrying, anymore - but sometimes presented in a way that she couldn't help being amused. She had the faint suspicion he did it for her sake. And it made her more thankful than she could say. The little treats of good news, of enhancements to her disc. Of kisses to her cheek when she showed up. It was all a part of who he was, when she was there, and it became something she longed for.
Almost as much as she wanted to be back home, and safe, and loved, before anything had gone wrong. Almost as much as she wanted to immerse herself under the surface of the Sea of Simulation again, feel the calming tingle that the water there gave her, the feeling of weightless, perfect peace. The beauty that awaited underneath.
The beauty that she had wanted to one day show Zuse, and maybe a few of her other friends. That she still wanted to share, but touching the waters would be lethal. For her, definitely, and nobody knew what exactly the result would be on Basics. None of them dared test it on themselves.
Flynn wouldn't force anyone to try something that risky. His programs were going through enough, he knew.
So it was all out of reach.
And then came the next grief.
Even though she followed the news from the Arena, Quorra didn't often go to watch the Games. Sometimes she did, especially when Tron fought. Partly because he was a face she knew from the Club - not often, but he did came to visit - and partly because he didn't derez his opponents.
She could sit for a long time at Zuse's feet, listening to him tell stories about the games when nobody got destroyed. It was a long time ago by now. Not longer than her own life span, but she had been so young that she hadn't gotten interested in the Games yet and didn't remember much of those times herself.
The stories were really preferable to some of the games, the pixels scattering across the game grid behind exploding lightcycles and digital screams of pain and horror. When Tron wasn't competing - and he didn't always, not any longer - she often traded shifts so those who did want to watch what happened. She even tried to shut out the waves of ... reactions - and sometimes the effect of deresolutions - that radiated from the Arena when those games were happening. It had been easier in Arjia, because it was further away, but she was doing her best.
So Quorra didn't know the news until she showed up at the End of Line, hair askew because she had pulled one of her stunts and, instead of taking the elevator, had climbed up all the way on her own. She liked doing that now and again. Like every two or three times she came in. Choosing a new route every time, because it was more fun that way. Different starting points, different sides of the building at the top of which the Club perched for each sections. Different ways to overcome the basically upside-down section she had to cross to get to the entrance somehow. Without falling. She'd started out wearing security, and sometimes that was still so, but not always. Tonight, she'd picked the narrowest side that the place protruded over its support, and one of Zuse's gifts, making her hands and feet stick to the material as she scurried, unsecured.
It was even only worth it for watching Zuse's reaction as he was reported what she'd done and he crossed whatever distance was between them to make sure she was all right.
This time, instead of the expected berating, Zuse's white arms in white sleeves went around her in a hug. "Come, my dear." He was as breathless as programs got, which she thought was because she'd gone particularly risky. "We need to talk."
"Of course. It wasn't that dangerous..."
He blinked at her and shook his head, the edges of white hair brushing over white-clad shoulders. His mouth twisted as though she was trying to not say something here and now, and that took all of the excitement from the successful, invigorating climb away from her. She straightened her shoulders and waved on some of the faces she knew on the way to Zuse's private lounge.
"You don't know," he started, as soon as the stairs were retracted.
"Know what, Zuse?"
He sighed, and slumped on one of the couches, rolling the cane between his palms and falling silent for a while. When he spoke, she could barely hear him above the noise of the Club. "Jalen was in the Games today."
Suddenly, there was no noise from outside. Only the sound of Zuse's words, and the pulse of the Grid as she tried to cast her senses out, to try to find her beloved leader, but couldn't find anything. Couldn't feel anything, other than stirred worry from all places. "What happened?" Her question was quiet, timid. But she somehow knew the answer, it was in the way everybody was sad, or alone, or, a few of the Basics, gloating.
"He lost. Being Jalen, he was not derezzed in place, but he was badly hurt. They took him away to try and restore him, but... with him being an ISO and with Flynn being outside..."
"I'm afraid so."
She slipped down to the floor, touching the plates with faint glow in the cracks between them, palms fully out. "Jalen can't be gone."
Zuse's arms were around her again; she couldn't remember when he had moved, but it was welcome, and after a moment she clung back to him, tight and strong. And she lost track of time for a bit.
When she blinked her eyes open again, the roaring in her ears subsiding some - it sounded like standing beside a recognizer's engines as they were firing up or flaring for landing - he was still curled kind of awkwardly around her, pale fingers running through her hair. For a moment she entertained the thought of sitting up, but then the cold shiver made her discard the idea and snuggle closer into her friend.
Some more indeterminate time later, she sort of found words. "This wasn't supposed to happen. He and Radia..."
"Should have been appointed co-admins. I know."
"There was so much hope in that..."
"From what I heard..." Zuse made a pause, and Quorra sighed, slightly. His information was usually very precise. She knew, she was part of the network he relied on for acquiring it. "From what I heard, he either volunteered or was talked into participating in the games to prove that he was no worse than the Basics, if he was going to become their leader, too."
"Oh." She paused, processing that. The conclusions made her dizzy, a little bit sick. "Owww. No..."
"You suspect foul play."
"I always suspect foul play, anymore, my dear. After..."
He didn't finish that. He didn't need to, she had been here, witnessing the backstabbing that almost cost Zuse his club, and possibly worse. She didn't like what had happened then. She didn't like what Zuse had to do then to avoid it all, but then, if he hadn't, it would have been worse. And she knew Zuse disliked it, too. Enough that he wouldn't even mention the occasion by direct reference. But she knew what he meant with precision.
She paused, then asked quietly, her voice tired. "Anything else?"
And since he didn't expand any further. she sighed and steeled herself into asking, "what else?"
Zuse held his peace a while, then sighed. "This is... only very recently reached me, in fact. Programs are very wary about talking or even thinking it, since it stinks of defiance for Flynn, and nobody wants that. But there have been... words. That some of the Basics who have the most contact with the Bostrun colony are in disagreement with some of Clu's decisions." Quorra's eyes widened at the daring, because wasn't Clu... after everything, Flynn's Will on the Grid, incarnate, so to speak? Incodenate? "They are a little more sympathetic to the ISOs than they are expected, a little less in agreement with the way they are charged with some of the... unfortunate events in the city. In disagreement with the few inconsiderate words that our esteemed leader has been rumored to have said."
By now, Quorra was sitting up. "This... this is something ... huge."
She'd sprung up, now, to pace. Her thoughts still a-whirr from the news about Jalen, and now this. "How long has it been going on? How much do you know... how long have you known?"
"Unknown on the first. Not much, and not long." She glared in his direction, and he sighed. "Quorra, it may be just a rumor. Nobody would try to gainsay what Flynn's put in order."
"But they are friendly with the ISOs. They don't buy the nonsense about terrorism. They ... they probably got stirred up after the Sea, didn't they."
"Possibly. Possibly even materialized as such, with it."
"Oh... I must..."
"Talk! It's not like I report to anyone. It's all... free words. Free deeds. Because it's difficult and dangerous and we need to be able to stick together."
She paused, at the warning in his voice, then started again. "The ISOs would like to be in a separate system, you know. Not because they can do without the Basics. But because even though this system is home, it wasn't meant for ... them." His small nod registered with her a little, and then she charged on. "But we can't, and we should be able to make do with what we have. With being together. The ceremony..." The thought that Jalen's ending might change things about that hit her all of a sudden. "Is the ceremony still on?"
"The word is, yes. Only with Clu and Radia alone as co-administrators."
"Quorra, can you please calm down a little, dear."
"I don't know! It's... the equality should help, right? It should mean that things can be talked out, rather than left to happen and not addressed. I'm... communication should be good. It must be good, mustn't it?"
There was an odd quiver in her vision, almost like static. Overexcited, probably. She must have shown that somehow, because Zuse was on his feet and by her side in no time again, draping his arm around her and guiding her to sit down once more.
"Quorra. Listen to me. When was the last time you had proper downtime?"
"Oh, that? A... a while back."
"Not over the last four milli-cycles?"
"... nno, I don't think so. It's difficult to down, anymore."
"The last ten?"
"Maybe. I'm not sure."
"If I have to, I'll set that on your disc."
"It might not work more than once, but if you need help for the downtime, I'll give it. I want you to spend two milli-cycles down. If you can't remember offlining over the last ten, you need that. And then prepare yourself to... talk with whoever you need to talk before the ceremony."
"But I need--"
"Please." His hand held her arms, under her shoulders, and tightened a little. She finally raised her eyes to him. "Do this for me, dear. Please."
There was a moment of something while their eyes held. Something that had built up between them for cycles, now. Something real and tangible. It brought a slight hiccup in her processing, and then gave her a small smile. One that blossomed back at her, first somehow inside the hexagonal pupils, then the entire eyes, then the face.
"You will do this?"
"Yes, Zuse. I will. And then we'll talk."
"So we will, darling." He kissed her cheek. "Now go get some downtime."
And she did. It wasn't very easy to shut down to that level of rest, not with processing all the news he had given her, but then something in the balance of that which had happened, came back to her, and there was rest.
She spent the rest of the time before Radia's appointment ceremony digging through the information Zuse had suggested. It wasn't easy to track, very elusive, very delicate. Very uncertain.
Then she ran out of time.
Zuse watched his ... what was she? Friend? Protegée? Informant? All of those. He watched Quorra leave the club. Very unusually, too, using the elevator. It had been cycles since he'd seen her do that. For a moment, he propped his hands down on the clear table surface, head bowing down in worry - and, in a way, exhaustion - and then he squared his shoulders once more, face returning to his features as though it belonged there.
Down he strutted along the steps from his lounge, giving a nod to the music programs, a sign that he might be taking the spotlight soon. They'd be ready, he was sure. First, he had a quick word with the staff, identifying key areas of tension in the place. It was routine, by now. One of the changes he'd worked out, and, actually, some of the steps to it had been suggested or enhanced by Quorra. One way or another. Not that she knew about all of them. System developed after the first big fights and helping, he knew, very much to avert some such, lately.
He hadn't had to do all of this, before. But it was a necessity, now.
Over only the short ... or not too short, actually, duration of time he had spent with her, no fewer than three centers of tension had formed. Two of them way too close for comfort.
Well, he knew what to do about them.
He spread his arms wide, the cane flying out from his right hand, and the beat altered that very slightly. The lighting, somewhat more definitely, dimming the calmer areas most, the areas where darkness might just heat things up less, and the spotlight on his white face and and attire making him almost blinding, for a moment.
Just the kind of attention-attracting effect he was aiming for.
After that, his motions were smooth as a dance. Words, gestures, offers and even measured, tension-diffusing insults, all weaved together into a single work. Of amusement, of brightness. Of reminding, in ways too subtle for most to realize, that they were together to enjoy the time off, rather than to pick a fight and release tension that the rest of the patrons had no fault in building.
There were reasons why, even with the tensions with the ISOs rising, his establishment was the most popular in the Northern half of the City. Some of them had to do with the drinks he served, and they were good. Others with the service, which was also brilliant.
But in the end, it was because he made every single program coming in feel welcome, equally and without prejudice.
It had taken much processing power to find the ways to do it, and it required extensive calculations, real-time, as he bounced among the pooled faint lights from tables, bars, booths. Even when those sitting or standing there were consumed by their own thoughts or conversations, their eyes followed the dance, the unerring motion guiding their attention to places they enjoyed, places where they wanted to be. Places where they didn't want to fight or get hurt.
Zuse was very, very good at real-time calculations.
Then he reached his full stop, his high point, and after half a beat - only enough for the impression to stay balanced on the edge of perception - the spotlights on him were cut, and life at the End of Line resumed as it had been.
Although not quite.
The almost-fights were broken before a chance to explode, let alone escalate.
And Zuse was sagging in the darkness and almost-privacy that the absence of light and his darting away from his last known location had given him.
It was one of those performances. His intake of energy after them was almost frightening, as various concerned friends had pointed out, and today was no exception. He chugged the drink quickly, thirstily, feeling the tingle of its effect revitalize his heavy limbs, help the hurt in his head recede, the throb in hands and feet fade. It didn't fully replenish what he had given away, but it helped.
But he had done well. He could rest until the next time things were threatening out of control.
Even so, sometimes fights did happen. Less frequently major brawls as the one that merited Clu's attention, but they were a fact.
And even more exhausting than this. Zuse was almost forgetful of how badly, between occasions. But not always.
It wasn't the ISOs, however. In fact, they participated in the actual fights slightly less than the Basics.
And the clubs that were exclusive for either didn't fare any better, destruction-wise. The ones in Arjia somehow least afflicted by the events, but not absolutely free of them, either.
Zuse had a pretty good view on how exactly tense things were. He only wanted less damage to his place. So he did what he could. Which was more than most, apparently. And it cost him more than most paid. Or maybe more than most were willing to pay, and he was getting morbid.
It was difficult, as the only mixed place, anyway. He couldn't lie about that. The ISOs and the Basics rarely entered into direct confrontation, although when they did, it was spectacular and tragic. In particular if the ISOs were damaged beyond the ability of anyone accessible to repair. Watching the damaged parts torture their complicated, intricate construction was painful on its own. And no matter how far he tried to reach, it never seemed like there were enough ISO-qualified medics to suffice. Basics treatment was easier, and easier to teach. And Basics were, in a partial way, reproducible. ISOs weren't.
There were so, so many things that one group was and the other wasn't, or the other way around.
There were so, so many reasons for friction between them.
From plain envy and jealousy and fear, to the ... most intricate versions of the same. Not really like fire and ice, although there was sizzling around the points of contact anyway, and that would be typical for those two, from what he had learned.
A long time, when he had time for random, free-fall research like that. Like things out in the User world.
Now he had more important tasks, and while the research rarely ended, it was not random, nor disconnected. With anything.
Further and further he needed to reach for any scrap of useful, helpful information. Further and further did he need to reach for the tiny upgrades that he was trading his precious information for.
And he stumbled on. Few saw that part of things. Sometimes Quorra, although since the Sea he was loathe to show her too much of his own neediness, and after the revelation about downtime, he knew he'd been right bout that. Sometimes a very few others. Maybe he needed somebody to maneuver him into getting more rest, too. He snorted. Found a smile for the wandering spotlight which highlighted his presence for all in the Club.
He was Zuse. Their host.
They would have nothing less from him.
It was the music duo which ended up dragging him off to the games.
After the occasion he had told Quorra about - and even then, his information had been second-hand - he was even more loath to go.
Once he stepped inside the Arena again, though, the doubts disappeared. There was something about the place which he never could put his finger on but made this place the heart of the Grid. The place where they could all leave, time and again, but would always return to, over and over again, for the thrill and exhilaration and the intricacy, the brilliance of the Games. The challenges. Holding one's processes while waiting to find out which one of the combatants would continue.
The ISOs didn't do badly at all, he noticed.
Made him wander about Jalen again. Briefly.
There was not much thinking going on, once the game started. You paid attention to the action, to what the game masters were announcing, to the scoreboards, and soon enough nothing existed outside of the game itself, almost moving yourself together with the contestant you were paying attention to. Cheering for the winners, sometimes saddened for the losers - grieving, for those rare occasions where you knew the program in question.
Less rare for him. He knew more programs than ... just about anyone else. Maybe with the exception of Flynn, or Tron, or Quorra. Or Clu himself.
But even he got swept in the excitement of the crowd around him, cheering and calling and keeping his breath as the matches were close, as competition was intricate and complicated and hard. Skill, there were programs who were skilled, and there were some who were talented, and it was precious to see them pitted against each other or less proficient ones, and figure out the ways to win.
Oh, there was nothing like the Games. Not even the best energy drink could compare. Not even seeing a long-lost friend.
Maybe some few times with so very few programs, although even that was nowhere near as exciting, just as exhilarating.
Zuse rarely came to the games, but when he did, he never left early. Never left before the last competition was over, before each contestant was either victorious or derezzed, when those in need were taken care of, and before the arena was empty of all the audience.
Maybe he was missed during those times, in the End of Line. He didn't know, and he never asked. But it meant something to him, to feel the emptiness, the finality, the completeness of the process. It was one of his quirks, he supposed. He just... couldn't calculate, couldn't mind all the percentages until it was all over. Until the entire was finished. Beginning, content, culmination, and ending.
He missed that, at the club, a little. Everything tended to go on and on and on, there, in cycles like sine graphs somewhat, but mostly continuous. There were always people there, even if only staff; it was never dark and empty the way the rafters echoed with his steps where they had vibrated with thousands of throats and feet so shortly ago. The maintenance staff would take over, clean and polish and repair and keep in shape, when he had left. Not immediately after, either, he knew from Quorra.
Why did he need this, the exhilaration and the silence after it?
He didn't know.
But when he allowed himself to go watch the Games, something felt completely right, a place he belonged and which made him complete and ready to return to where he was so very alive.
Something big was coming.
That was what he realized in the emptiness of the arena, what he couldn't hear himself think anywhere else.
He hoped he would be ready for it.
Zuse knew that the Club would be full later - it always was - but he had to admit he shared every program's curiosity about the ceremony. That Clu would agree to install anyone else - let alone an ISO - as a co-admin was cause for much wondering and many rumors. As somebody who knew some of the questions the administrator had been asking about the ISOs, what he seemed to be really feeling about them? Zuse was not sure if it would happen.
So he joined the crowd attending. Programs were gathered pretty thick, as such things went, not that there was anything like jostling or even overt tension, not with as many sentries and monitors as were lining the area. Everybody was peaceful and attentive, and Clu's introduction speech swept through the crowd, as confident and powerful as always. And then Radia...
Oh, she was a good choice, that one. He didn't think she had ever been to the End of Line club, not when looking like this, at any rate - and ISOs could change their appearance much more easily than Basics - but he had heard talk about her for a long time. She and Jalen had been doing a fair job of ruling Arjia and keeping an eye on the Bostrun colony - even though the ISOs in the latter didn't exactly acknowledge Radia and Jalen as their leaders, they still listened to some general advice and direction, and Radia and Jalen seemed to have a gift of not pushing beyond what was welcome.
Radia alone, now.
If only Clu was really seeing this--
The disruption started somewhere to the right of Zuse, and the ISOs of Radia's entourage who had a better view started moving her out of the stage and, presumably, to safety almost before the screaming started. Clu, on the other hand, sent his sentries to secure the threat, whatever it was. They didn't seem to manage it all that quickly. And the sounds... they were nothing like what Zuse had heard every before, a glitching, shifted voice of too great depth and volume, beneath the screams. One voice. And, as they ran - oh yes, he ran with the rest of the crowd in the clearing, for cover, for safety - there were more voices.
The harried words came from around him. "Virus!" "Infects..." "So strong!" "New Monitor fighting him!" "Infects both Basics and ISOs! How is that possible?"
Oh, he'd have much to learn about this, when he was back and the club was open for business. Which would be very, very soon. Despite the chaotic motion, he headed straight for the End of Line.
These events would bring even more people to his place. Programs of both kinds, unified by a shared threat... saboteurs or not, virus or not, this would be good, wouldn't it?
Quorra pressed closer behind the corner from where she'd been watching. What did this mean? There couldn't be a virus, how could there be a virus when they were a closed system? Flynn would never introduce anything like that to his Grid-- oh, there he was.
She was going to return to her attempts at getting to Radia - she had spent all the time since Castor told her, about Jalen's death and the rest, finding proof, finding evidence of what he'd said, figuring things out, piecing things. She was going to present it to her today, before the ceremony so maybe Radia would have used it somehow; now, Quorra wasn't so sure it would be all that helpful. Not in the face of what she had seen, the powerful figure...
Instead, she listened.
The virus... was an ISO once? She agreed with the Creator, oh, how good it was to see him defending the ISOs, pointing Clu's mistakes out, for herself, rather than just hearing rumors about it. Where the draw of her attention that the Administrator exercised was strong, she noticed that Flynn's was even more so, and as the little council broke up, she hesitated a moment, then decided that maybe she could talk with Flynn first, bring his words to Radia, maybe it would make more sense then?
She followed Tron and Flynn. Not immediately after, no, some distance, and to her horror she could see infection creeping along the clean, clear walls of Tron city. It was a heavy sight; even heavier were the three virus-infected programs she ran into on her way. She didn't know, with the ceremony, she couldn't know who they had been before - ISOs? Basics? Ones she had known or not, ones she had shared work or a drink before, or ones she had argued against?
But when they, one by one, started heading toward her, discs or, one case, arm extended, she could only resort to flight or fight. The sickly greenish-yellow color they derezzed into didn't hearten her at all, either.
It wasn't until after she was in the clear, running to get the two tall, all-familiar figures back in sight, that she realized that was the first time she had derezzed another program. It made her freeze in her tracks for a moment, eyes wide.
And then she thought that more might be coming after her.
She didn't want to do that to any more.
She was running again in a split picosecond, eyes open as much for Tron and Flynn as for any more infected programs, her algorithms churning at the idea. She almost missed the program-and-User pair in the distance and headed into a passageway leading entirely elsewhere, but she checked herself in time.
Another cross-section and she would have caught up with them, when suddenly Clu was there. Again. Except this time he looked different. The attire that mirrored Flynn's was gone, replaced by cirtuited suits like most other Basics and many ISOs. Except the color was like none else she had seen on the Grid, a bright, angry orange instead, the sentries that showed at his command wearing a darker, secondary red.
What was worse...
Clu next did the unthinkable, knocking down Flynn, going after him, and when Tron hit into him, two discs somehow in hand - one must have come from the programs she had heard screaming while she was staring in horror at the identical-yet-not figures - Clu overpowered him, too, his disc descending into the security program mercilessly, inexorably.
Processing was suddenly outside her powers and she stood, frozen, unable to take her eyes away from the scene cleaning up around her corner. Only when red-glowing sentries started leisurely approaching her did she register she needed to get away.
Up and to a different level, and running as quickly away from the scene where two balancing powers, the hope for the System had perished.
User... What now?
It wasn't until she caught a glimpse of the new Monitor as he was struggling against sentries and infected that something like a flicker of a plan started occurring to her. This Monitor was new, and he had been in Tron and Flynn's confidence. He should help her, right? She'd get to him, somehow, then they'd go to Zuse, and then...
She didn't know what, after that. But they'd figure it out, right?
Flynn. Tron. Oh.
They'd have to figure it out. She didn't know who or how, but they'd have to.
He was a new program, though. She knew that much. She made her way around some of the guards, who didn't seem to have any reason to attack her, and watched him fight with them. His motions... didn't suggest he had many of the special jump or... anything, really, upgrades. She only thought a moment before crossing to the nearest disc access station, syncing it with her disc and making it spew out what she needed. Or... what she wanted to give the monitor. She waited a moment when there were no guards around him and gave it to him, disappearing quickly.
Those guards... they were sentries loyal to Clu now, the administrator, the traitor, and yet they were still programs. Like others she had spent so many cycles around. The thought of having derezzed the infected few on her way here was still heavy and harsh in her, she didn't want to add to that until she had to.
So she ran, keeping up with the monitor, impressed by his skill and abilities.
Maybe he could help her. Help them. Help something, in this confusing, changing place that had been her home, her Grid, until such a short time ago.
Not that she was very informative when she tossed him the block. "Take this, upload it to your disc. Makes it easier to get around." And away she was again, as unseen by anyone as she could be. Running, keeping up. Trying to think of something, anything.
She'd catch up with the monitor when it was a little clearer. And then what?
Zuse. The thought came to her almost unbidden. He always knew more than the rest. Maybe he would have some idea what to do.
And maybe, just maybe, being for a moment among the other ISOs would help.
There, that was almost like a plan, wasn't it? Quorra craned her neck to check on the monitor's position, then headed towards a cross-section that seemed clear for now. Hopefully, it would stay so until both of them reached it. And, hopefully, they both would.
At least the guards, loyal to Clu or not, seemed to be keeping their immediate vicinity clear of the infected. So long as she could stay hidden from them...
Zuse had little trouble moving away from the square - he was among the first to leave, as soon as there were signs of trouble, and if he wasn't a master at going with the flow of the crowd, he didn't know who would be.
Not that there weren't incidents along the way, but somehow the majority of programs managed to get away. The accompanying black guards may have helped with that. There were screams of digital pain somewhere behind him, but he didn't turn back. He wasn't going to help anyone if he became one of the infected himself.
No. What he had to do was go back to where he belonged and make those who found their way to the End of Line forget. Forget about the disruption, forget about the ceremony, forget about the virus, forget about their fear. That was what he did best, after all.
The club wasn't completely dark or empty when he returned, maintenance staff keeping the levels on standby ready to flare in full life, and that's what he did when he arrived. Bare moments later, spiking, unique flashes of light radiated from the top of the tower - the open, glamorous invitation. Come one, come all, bring your friends - the End of Line Club is open and waiting.
The elevator headed down all too soon, and Zuse barely had time to put together in his mind the general idea of what he was going to be doing when enough programs had filed in for the atmosphere to start tensing up, which was his cue to begin.
He shone, even if he thought so himself.
By the end of his gig, he was tired, in need of energy, and the place was nearly packed - and the atmosphere was nearly as steady and calm as he needed it to be. For his guests' peace of mind as well as his own. Of course.
And then Quorra stepped up to the bar and everything shattered.
"If it's half as dire as your tone, my dear..."
He'd just spent almost a quarter of a milli-cycle escaping the dire events outside, and leading all around them with him.
And yet her news were not half as dire. They were many times as dire. Flynn dead... Tron dead.
Zuse's processor switched to overclocking. Quorra didn't come to him to frighten anyone. She knew he was the one who collected information inside the City, the one who might possibly give her - and her companion monitor - direction. So he was going to do just that, as well as he could.
If the Grid was in danger from one of its administrators - and if Clu had killed their Creator, that was a safe assumption - then the other one had to work to counter that, shouldn't she? And Quorra was Radia's anyway, more than she was his, much as that saddened Zuse. Always had.
She had turned to him first. He was going to take that.
The enhancement to her disc - this was not the first time he'd done it; neither of them hesitated about it, and it was the best he could calculate right now that would get her where she should go.
... and then it all changed. The explosions shook the place he had spent so, so much time growing, developing, creating into what it had become. It was done. Over. He knew it even as he tried to hide, tried to stay out of the way of the programs - Basics and ISOs - stomping out to try and save themselves. Not many managed to get inside the elevator at a time, and then it was blown up and Zuse winced. Whoever was attacking (Who am I even trying to fool?) was not discriminating, destroying basics or ISOs didn't seem to matter. Programs then started running - or, the few who had collapseable vehicles, riding - down the tower. Somehow, the ISOs seemed a little more agile, from his point of view, but that may only have been because the way they did it reminded him of Quorra.
Was she going to survive this?
At least he wasn't going to run. Hide from the most evident attacks, yes; run away from his place, no. If they were going to completely erase it, he was going to go away with it.
A time that he could name the measure of but it didn't mean anything later, the greatest part of the ruckus stopped. Programs were still running - or grieving, or panicking in one place - but the violence itself had faded, replaced by the presence, he realized as he peeked from his hideout, of Clu's black-clad sentries, their circuits now burning in an angry, frightening red color.
Now Quorra's insistence that the monitor with him was all right made somewhat more sense. She had seen them, probably.
User save us...
He didn't. He wouldn't, Zuse knew, because she had told him. The only User they had was dead.
Resistance was futile.
He didn't offer any when the black guard pulled him out of his hidey-hole, as they unerringly did with anyone who was curled up out of sight. They were rounding up everybody, but separating the ISOs from the Basics as soon as they were identified. The sentries holding Zuse were directed to the correct place, except that on the way there, one of the guard patrolling the operation stopped them with a hand on his holder's chest.
"Are you Zuse?"
"I-- affirmative, sir." He swallowed the flippant answer. They could get back to that later.
"Clu wants him held separately and awaiting his orders."
"Understood," the other program holding Zuse answered. And then they moved into a different direction, getting to a recognizer which led to a holding cell where Zuse was completely alone for the very first time in many, many cycles.
Quorra's eyes were wide and somehow they felt like they were burning, physically (was that appropriate for programs?) hurting with what she had seen. Radia had told her to stay hidden, to observe, and she couldn't go over the orders, and what could she do alone, against the slaughter she was witnessing?
And yet it hurt. The cries of her people pierced through her as she watched, and watched. She never looked away, not as the gathered crowd tried to resist, not as friends she recognized the faces of were derezzed, systematically and blankly, by programs which were supposed to have been protecting them. It didn't make sense, and she had the feeling that nothing ever would, again.
Dead. Gone. Everybody dead and gone, and she slid down against the wall in her cranny overlooking the meeting place that Clu had told Radia to call everybody to--
Suddenly, there was something bigger and stronger than the grief that overwhelmed her. Panic. Fear for the one, best, first of them, and she rushed back through the familiar, familiar streets, now unfamiliarly sinister, empty of her people and of the beauty they radiated. Empty of the friends she had known.
Somehow, she knew that however short her remaining existence, she would never be free of this searing lack, or the sight of glowing faces fading in fear and then disintegrating into pixels and then the pixels dimming and disappearing with the final deresolution of the identity that held them together.
But if Radia was lost... User, let her not be lost. Let there have been ISOs who didn't show up at the meeting place she had called, or were late--
The green-glowing figure she glimpsed over an intersection's turn only had time to take out his disc and then scream, as the baton's blade cut through his body diagonally. A small sound escaped her and the guard looked her way, but she made herself straighten and look at him directly, and after a moment which made her hand run in needles as she held it still against the urge to take out her disc and charge, the guard nodded and moved on.
Back to Radia. Back to the reason that she was still moving, and that last part was getting jerkier and disjointed. Except it wasn't because she was running low on energy (was it? She thought back, but she didn't think she had gone without that long), not this time.
She just pushed forward.
Radia was there, and relief, at least a tiny bit of it, washed through her as she listened to her voice.
Clu was there, and the administrator's words to the leader of the ISO just... just about flipped a switch in her. Did you feel all of them drying?
He shouldn't be allowed to just go on. Not with this.
And then it got worse. Even with the monitor's presence there, it got worse, because the terrifying virus that had started the whole thing was Jalen, their leader, and Clu had lied, lied from the beginning, and of course Radia wouldn't fight him or try to escape, even if Abraxas didn't remember, Jalen and Radia had loved each other so well and so long, and now Radia died by Abraxas's hand, and the Grid started crashing around Quorra's head. Or inside her head.
She would destroy Clu. She was the last of the ISOs, or soon would be, the way things were going, and she wasn't going to let him live. Even if it destroyed her.
As the monitor's hand wrapped around her arm, trying to stop her, she realized that was exactly what was going to happen. She was going to sabotage Clu's ship, when the administrator was aboard, and she was going to derez inside it.
An infinitely long time later, when Clu questioned her about why she was the only one who resisted his policy that the entire - surviving - Grid embraced, Quorra realized that there may have been another way. A slower, more systematic, and more successful way.
But it was too late now. She glared into the familiar face, beloved Creator's features twisted into an expression Flynn would never make, and knew it was all over for her, all over for the ISOs, and she was the one who had wasted the opportunity.
Anon... the new monitor was suddenly there, then, and as she watched him win fight after fight, in the brief time between his appearance and her getting tossed, unconscious on the ground to await getting infected by Abraxas, even as Clu's disc pressed against her throat, hope flared inside her, admiration, belief that maybe, maybe possibly, not all was lost--
Then everything went black, and she woke up to the Outlands only to watch the monitor derez and be able to do nothing about it, and what was even left? Now she was depleted, and alone, and lost, because she had never been to this part of the Outlands, and going back to the City was impossible, and Arjia and the colony were lost--
And she walked anyway. As far as she could go, because she couldn't stay where the last program who had helped her had gone offline. For good.
There wasn't much that Zuse could do, closed up and alone.
He could review his disc's mods and tinker with it until they weren't really accessible without a code sequence of actions. Which he then dumped from the disc and committed to memory. If he forgot it, then he would be back to how he had been before all of them. He could deal with that. He couldn't deal with getting derezzed a punishment for having illegal modifications.
That took less than half a milli-cycle. And then he had a few more, not counting regular downtime, to think.
The perspectives didn't look good.
He had been friendly to the ISOs. Openly friendly to the ISOs, that was, unlike many who had been quietly - or clandestinely, now, was his guess - so. He couldn't do much about hi past actions, but if he wanted to survive, and if he wanted to be good for anything, to anyone? He was going to have to redress that.
He didn't like the idea particularly well, but he knew the facts. He was alone, there was never going to be anyone who would be assisting him now. He had lost everything he had, his network for information had blasted along with the remnants of his club after it was emptied of all Basics.
Not of all ISOs.
Zuse thought that maybe a few could have escaped anyway, he knew how creative they could be from all the cycles observing his friend--
Quorra was... had been? He had no idea which it was, but Quorra was a friend. No matter how different their relationship was also - sometimes he was the mentor, and sometimes she was, and that was only one tiny facet of what they had going - she was a friend, and she was maybe gone.
He didn't have all that many friends, come to think about it. Oh, he was the friend of many, or so they thought. Maybe they weren't exactly wrong, either. But there were very few programs he had trusted.
And now there were maybe none. She, mostly likely of them all.
That was where his thoughts were stuck in smaller and smaller circles when the guards came for him.
Maybe the conversation that followed would have felt differently if he wasn't considering how denying the ISOs would mean betraying Quorra, or maybe her memory. But he was suddenly missing her terribly and he didn't know how he could do it to her.
Clu's presence hit him like the blast of a distant explosion. This was all his fault, all the disruption, all the loss, all the change. The loss of their User, for crying out loud. Even if his name was uttered with dark strength, Zuse's chin lifted and he looked up at the administrator - the only surviving one, by the rumors he had heard on the way from his holding cell to the interrogation room - squarely in the eyes.
"Clu." There was a slippery quality to his voice which made the administrator narrow his eyes suspiciously.
"I hear that your popular club has encountered some difficulties and then met with an unfortunate end."
"I hear, your excellency," and Zuse didn't try to keep the sarcasm from the address, "that said difficulties were very specifically arranged and targeted."
"I'm afraid you must have been misinformed." There was a hard, echoing finality in the simple sentence. Zuse heard his sentence in it, as clearly as if he had been threatened explicitly.
"Really?" The curiosity in his voice was mostly feigned. "Then I would be enlightened as to how it did happen."
"The ISOs started turning into viruses. It's what had been inherent into them since the very beginning, as Abraxas has shown us all." Zuse's eyebrows rose; he hadn't known that little curious bit of news. But Clu went on. "Many Basics were destroyed. My sentries had to intervene, and once as many Basics as possible were led out, the place had to be blown up to contain the infection." The tall system administrator leaned in, scowling, at the now-homeless entertainer. "We wouldn't have wanted more viruses spreading around the system, now would we."
"What did happen with old Abraxas boy, then?" He needed time to think. He doubted he would get it, but he had to try.
"The original ISO-turned-virus was destroyed in a valiant battle by the latest edition system monitor that had been coded into the system. To our great grief," Zuse could almost believe him; Clu had always been a charming orator, "the monitor did not long outlive the former ISO. He would have been a great addition to the sadly depleted system security detail."
"As far as I have heard, he would have been the only one of that kind, and the latest, last created program?"
"That is none of your business, interpreter." Oh, right. Clu of all programs remembered how he had started his career.Of course. The sharpness of the words would have been a slap, but Zuse just smiled.
"I stand corrected." Oozing, he was aware he was oozing, but he needed... needed to be able to do something.
"Or else you stand alone, and not for long." Clu made a quick motion back towards the guards behind him, reminding all present - or all who needed reminder, which was - Zuse - that whatever else happened, he could always resort to repurposing a program. A Basic one, but that was plenty enough in the situation. "Are we understood?"
Zuse lifted his chin up again. "And what happens if we are?"
That might have been a mistake. The silence cracked between them, and then felt like sizzling with static.
And then Clu laughed, the sound harsh but dismissing, and he tilted his chin to the guards flanking Zuse. "Take him away."
What did that mean?The way back to his cell was merely a preview for the way his thoughts spun around and around and around.
Clu hadn't confirmed that Flynn was dead, hadn't gloated, hadn't reinforced it. Which meant that maybe there was hope. Hope of what, he wasn't certain, but there was some, shouldn't there be?
Except nothing happened. There was no counter-coup, nobody came to his rescue,
Zuse was alone with the threats and the knowledge that if he tried to remain who he was, he would be eradicated. The program that he was would be gone. So why try to cling to it? Why stick to friendships and beliefs and trusts that brought him nothing but the destruction of all that he'd had? Why try to be who he thought he should be?
Why face destruction when he could, instead, strive for more?
As the milli-cycles ticked around him in silence, without a single line of his code touched by Clu, the program that Zuse had been slowly, painfully ceased to exist.
Zuse had believed in Users. He had believed in his friends. He had believed that the information that he gave and received mattered to the Grid, that his club was popular because program thought what he was doing was important.
One by one, those things died off. He remembered them, of course. But limiting himself to holding on to them seemed so absurd.
When Clu stepped inside his holding cell, this time without any sentries present and without the chance to hear anything along the way, anything at all, because he went nowhere, so there was no way.
But then, where there was power, there was a way.
The program in white slowly straightened, smiling widely at the administrator. "Your Excellency."
"Zuse. I see you might be more reasonable now."
"Zuse? I believe that program perished in the struggle in his club. Poor thing, he was so eager to help his friends, he was infected and put down along with so many ISOs and not a few good, faithful Basics."
Clu's eyebrows rose. "Is that so."
"He was such a heroic figure, this humble program here would love to be like him, but I can merely imitate. My name is Castor. If Your Excellency will permit me, I'll be your host."
"And a host of what wold that be?" The blue eyes, clear and familiar, and yet, not, narrowed, and the white-clad program bowed low, obedient.
"Anything Excellency might wish for. If you please, I can open an imitation club, obviously Basics only, where the most esteemed servitors of Your Excellency will be always welcome. And I might attempt to restore the lines of gossip that the program named Zuse had, and deliver anything unusual and interesting to you directly - or through those who choose to assist you."
Clu kept on looking at him, but the newly named Castor didn't squirm. There was nothing dangerous in him. He would do what he had to do.
Playing all the angles, minding all the percentages.
And now, the highest of all was standing right in front of him. Castor only needed to woo him right.
"If this meeting offer is not enough, I'll be glad to come with additional suggestions at a later time?" The look on him had grown thoughtful, and then distracted, so Castor was not worried about breaking the tension.
"What?" Clu's attention snapped back on him. "Ah... no, I think we can begin with that. Now, what do you have in mind..."
It was an elaborate arrangement they eventually reached. Clu would rarely be showing up at the new End of Line club, of course, that would be far too conspicuous. But Castor could deliver information through the Sirens to Clu's assistant, Jarvis. If anyone was keeping an eye on things, nothing would seem wrong.
Nothing would be right, it couldn't be, but the appearances would be... well. Perfect.
The thought appealed to Clu.
It didn't matter, to Castor.
He would just entertain the crowd. All of the surviving crowd. There wasn't much left, after all.
And wasn't that hilarious?
Oh, who needed real things anyway, when he could have all the shiny ones? Like power to do with those who came to him whatever he pleased.
He grew to like that one.
A very, very long time later, Castor was lounging in his private office, overlooking the full, loud club, when Gem stepped up to it, her eyes brighter than usual and her smirk smug.
"Gem, my dear! Come sit by me and tell me the news. How are the games today? I haven't been to the arena in ages."
The tall siren smiled more and settled beside him, reaching to run a finger along his neck, then over his cheek. He made a small pleased noise. She was in a good mood. "The game has changed, Castor. Somebody different came through to be outfitted today."
"Different?" He laughed. "But how, my dear? Everybody is th same."
"A User isn't."
Castor's eyebrows drew up. He disentangled himself from the Siren and moved to the concealed windows of his office, shifting the polarization in a way that would allow him to look East. Sure enough, the Portal was there.
"Oh. Oh my." He watched it for a few moments, while the swirl of flares of forgotten, ignored memories and sub-routines settled, and then he turned to Gem again. "I presume you have seen this... User?"
"He went into the Games? That does not bode well for him."
"He'll survive or he won't. More likely survive." She rose and stepped beside him. "If he does, he must do that by escaping the Games somehow."
"Well. If he does that, we'll have to give him back to our Administrator, shouldn't we?"
"It should be worth a great reward, I believe."
"Anything I can share, my dear. You know that."
Gem watched him impassively for a long moment, then nodded slightly, smiling again. "Of course."
"You can do it?"
"We can lead him here, Castor. The rest is up to you."
"Oh, and I will do the rest." His fingers caressed her back, from under the disc and straight down, then up again. She liked that.
"Then we are decided."
"Yes." His eyebrows twitched up, just so very slightly. "Can I offer you a drink?"
She didn't answer right away, and the anticipation was delightful. Eventually, her beautiful predictable face inclined down towards his. "You may."
It had taken Quorra a long while to return to the city, and she preferred not to think of it. There had been the time when she had barely been able to think, and the nightmares had never stopped; then there had been the time when Flynn had gone down, and that had been even scarier. She hadn't known what 'despair' meant until it had dragged him under, and the madness had raged inside and outside his mind for cycles.
It was better now, and sometimes she returned to the City, helmet on so nobody might know her but listening and watching and trying to help. And telling Flynn whatever rumors there were.
Today would be a poorer case of that, she thought as she sat over the scoreboard on the gaming Grid. There would be something here, but the Games were a regular event.
Or maybe not. As Clu's flagman floated and descended over the arena, and then Jarvis's spiel unfolded, in a whiff everything changed.
And by the looks of it, not any User.
She didn't wait for the game to start, she rushed off to where the she'd left the lightrunner. She would be lucky if she got before it was over, but trying to calculate the probabilities was only going to lose time.
And she made it. She was both running and planning how to get them out, once she was on the gaming grid; then she waas driving and planning still. It was going to be tight, and it was exhilarating.
Then Sam Flynn was on the seat beside her, vivacious, alive, brilliant as Flynn had once been, too, and everything sped up. It should be dizzying, she thought as she was helping set the table, later, but it wasn't. It was thrilling and amazing and a little scary, watching the father and son, so alike and so different at the same time, and she wondered if it was always like that. If the User world was really built up of amazingness like that, and love, and excitement, and then they were fighting and that hurt. Hurt hurt hurt, both of them were hurting and hurting each other and that was wrong, and she had to help. Flynn couldn't stay trapped in here, and Sam shouldn't, and if Sam had considered things and was going to help his father, then she should help him, shouldn't she?
She had no power in the City. Without Flynn, she didn't know how to get to the Portal, either, even if it was visible from here, too.
But she knew somebody who did.
Once she had returned to the City, she had tried to find out. And while she couldn't learn everything, rumor had it that Zuse was alive. That he had survived the slaughter and was again in charge of information - and modifications - flow around the Grid.
If anyone could get anyone to the Portal, or anywhere else, that would be Zuse.
Her friend. Her mentor, before Flynn and alongside Radia.
If there was anyone Quorra would trust, with her life, and even more, with the most precious person for Flynn - and she held no grudge in giving up the first place in Flynn's heart for Sam - that was Zuse.
It was only a small information carrier that she gave to Sam Flynn. And yet also it was all of her hope, that things could be right again, that her friend was alive, that the Creator could return where he belonged and be happy again. All her hope.
She didn't know she could be wrong until she looked outside the force field and saw Flynn as he had not been in a long time. In black, ready for action. Dangerous.
It was frightening and beautiful and she hadn't known she had missed it until it was a fact, and she didn't realize how scared she was of the thought that maybe something would happen to Flynn until the possibility was real again.
User, she would protect you.
It took some doing to get Flynn inside the City without alerting everybody; then again, she was very good at sneaking in and out. In the end, she hijacked a Recognizer which would carry them to where Sam was. For that location, they would rely on her sense of where things were, honed with practice over the cycles.
Over the same cycles, her fear of derezzing programs had died. Or maybe it had died that short time so long ago when she had watched the Purge with her own eyes. Clu and those loyal to him could do that to her; she could do this to them. When she had to. She didn't like it, but it didn't hover in her mind like a dark cloud that she couldn't shake off any longer. She preferred stealth, or flight, but if she had to fight, she didn't hesitate.
"Do you really think that Zuse can't be trusted?"
"I don't know, Q. You say he can be; that doesn't factor out the possibility of mischance, or him being betrayed."
"Oh." It actually made her feel better, as she guided the Recognizer in patterns she had come to know well, with all the observation and sneaking onto them.
The Club... she felt a sharp pull inside her mind, as the familiarity of the setting washed over her - but the club was under an attack. Again. For a single moment, it felt like she had dropped through time, from one attack of the End of Line club to another. Very similar. Except. She was the only ISO now. And Sam Flynn was here. And Zuse...
She looked up to see him watching everything, high, untouchable, in control of the situation. And her world turned upside down again.
He had done this.
He had become something she didn't know.
And he met her eyes, his own a little wide, but not shocked at her existence. He had known.
She was fighting for her life, and for the life of the son of their Creator, and he laughed.
If she could have, she would have run far, far away, grieving for the friend who was no more. Who was worse than gone. He was an enemy.
And then Sam reminded her she had sent him to Zuse herself.
She was fighting, but her focus was wavering. She couldn't afford to - and it ended badly. The pain as her arm shattered washed through her and then there was darkness, with Zuse's mocking voice turning the relief of it bitter.
He could have been thinking of many things, as Clu's recognizer floated away and the bomb was winding up to explode and format the entirety of what he had left. He could have been thinking how it would eradicate him, and the Siren who had done nothing wrong.
But he only thought of that moment when Quorra had looked up at him, hoping, trusting, expecting him to help, and he had turned her down.
Users, one of the databases had said, laughed when it hurt.
"It was true."
"What?" Gem was frantic, trying to unlock the explosive, to find a way out. He just stood with his back at the counter. "Castor! Snap out of that and doo something!"
"My name," he said in the last moments if their existence, "was Zuse."