He was sitting on the edge of the dark cliff. The cities down under lived their normal life: the old town, with its modest buildings and lights, with all its working programs and the new one, with the tall, luminous edifices and purposeless denizens. It was a sight he had seen many times before – the same way as he had seen the glowing light beam outside of the Grid, above the sea. Now his eyes were on that glimmering stream, which announced the arrival and presence of the User in the system; which had used to make all of them so excited, so happy. This time the only feeling he could have was disdain.
Behind him the opening of the cave was dark, no sound escaped out from there. Often he caught himself looking at it over his shoulder, even though it was pointless and it distracted him. But it was hard to try and quit, because not long ago that twin-city down there had been his home, he had been in charge for the well-being of the programs that lived there and he had had friends: Kevin Flynn, the maker of the Grid and Tron, who had been there to protect the system. Now it was only him and that dark cave.
The dark lands were silent, safe: even though his duties had always linked him to the city, he felt secure amongst the black hills and slopes, around the places where he had come to existence.
“I am Clu. I will create the perfect system,” he said to himself the same words he had said back then. It sounded odd now, after being disinherited and condemned to death. But there had been a time when those words had been true: and now he remembered, because there was nothing else left for him, except for those memories.
In the beginning it was easy; to build, to create, to calculate – it was complex and challenging, yet it was easy, because he was confident. He was always assured about his own role in the system and about the importance of his work, by programs, whose life became easier through his efforts, by Flynn, who let him act more and more independently and by Tron, who was instructed to assist him in his duties. The security program took the assignment so seriously that he ran every time when he was called with such determined expression on his face that Clu could not resist and sometimes sent out the signal without reason. Seeing Tron’s chiding look he quit doing that. Or almost so.
It was like a dream coming true: Clu could not be sure if it was his dream or something originated from Flynn. This went to most of the things, the ideas and feelings – usually he was not certain where his impressions came from; from his logical side, the program entity or from his subjective part that he had gotten from Flynn. Or, he wondered sometimes, was his program part entirely logical, without feelings or he did have emotions on his own? Clu was not sure and the question was not important, not really. They worked and proceeded, that was what mattered. Buildings emerged from the ground and programs were created to inhabit the system and he came to learn the satisfaction while seeing vehicles traveling on a road that he had built a cycle ago.
When the end came it was rather quick and unexpected for him. It started with system error: programs that had not been written appeared in the system and began to multiply. The three of them went together to examine the new arrivals and the Creator was enthralled by them. The new programs were strong, nice-looking with pleasant tongue. The flattering talk was meant for Flynn: Clu and Tron were listening from farther away.
“What’s your opinion?” asked them Flynn after they returned to the city. He was pleased and satisfied like every time when he had been praised by his creations.
“Well,” replied Clu, “we will see how this thing would come out.”
“Why?” asked Flynn. “Why do you say that?”
“Because we don’t know these programs. We don’t know from where they are, what they purpose is.”
“They don’t have a purpose, didn’t you hear them?”
“I did, but it sounds strange,” said Clu. “Programs need to have a purpose, don’t they?”
Flynn was considering his answer and then he turned to Tron. Having been more than supportive with Flynn, the security program was expected to give a rather pleasing reply.
“These viruses…” started Tron.
“What?” asked Flynn. “What did you just say?”
“These programs replicate themselves on their own and that makes them…” said Tron, slowing down and then falling silent at Flynn’s disapproving glare.
“They are ISOs,” said the Creator, closing the conversation. Soon after he left the Grid and from then everything changed.
Following the new programs’ appearance system failures began with increasing gravity. The life on the Grid became dangerous due to bug attacks and glitches. Instead of new projects Clu spent his time with recoding the damages and he did not even see Tron anymore, since the security program was on constant patrol. Flynn was absent citing his obligations in the User world and when he visited the Grid he refused to investigate the origin of the errors.
“It is nothing you two can’t handle,” he said. “I designed the Grid to handle a certain amount of traffic after all. The only main stress in would have would be traffic from programs, which I’ve been managing as more programs were created. But the numbers of the ISOs are too unpredictable.”
“Are you saying they’re tearing the Grid code apart?” asked Clu.
“It’s more of an evolution than a threat to the system. But there is a significant rewriting going on here.”
“Can you talk to them? So far they haven’t taken any part in the works or in the preparations to the upcoming attacks.”
“Why don’t you talk to them?” asked Flynn.
“They wouldn’t talk to me,” admitted Clu. “Their leaders say they would only discuss the matters with you.”
“Then why am I keeping you?” he asked and turned away. Clu was silent for a moment. He took a look around. It was only Tron within range: the other program seemed to be stunned too.
“How do you mean that?” asked Clu. Flynn responded without looking at him.
“You don’t have any prestige,” he said. “How do you want to control the city in my absence if you can not carry authority?”
“Every decent program respects me,” replied Clu, trying not to show his frustration. “Nobody else indulge themselves in the kind of confidence like the ISOs do.”
Flynn did not reply. He went toward his bike. Clu and Tron were about to join him, but the Creator refused them.
“You just said they won’t talk to you,” he said Clu. “And I don’t need any protection there. I’m going alone.”
Watching Flynn taking off Clu found himself being angry at him not for himself, but for Tron, who was standing next to him silently. The security program had not complained about his troubles with the Gridbugs or about any other issues: even now he wanted to please the User desperately; he did not deserve to be told off like that. They went back to their duties before Flynn’s vehicle got out of sight.
The largest Gridbug attack occurred during the construction of Arjia City. The ISOs provided the plans for the new buildings, but Basic programs were sent to do the actual work: Flynn and Clu had their first real argument about the matter.
“I don’t see why we should build their city” said Clu. “They are strong and capable. Besides, the bugs are localized to the ISO sections of the Grid. I have no intention to send our programs there and expose them to danger.”
“So you think the ISOs cause Gridbugs?” asked Flynn.
“They are the very definition of uncertainty. The bugs are a product of uncertainty,” replied Clu.
“I see. Well, we will send the System Utilities there: I expect them to report to work on time. Are you willing to organize that or should I look for somebody else?”
“I can do that,” said Clu without confidence.
And there he found himself rushing to the ISO city after the alarm started, along with Basic programs that ran to the aid of their fellows in danger. The construction site looked like a battleground: the bugs were larger and more violent than any they had encountered before. Wounded System Utilities lay everywhere amongst the shiny pixels of the already derezzed programs, the screams mixing with the sound of the fight. In the middle of everything there was Tron, his moves barely visible as he slammed, hurled and struck; remains of derezzed bugs lay around his feet. The arriving programs threw themselves into the battle – even in the midst of the grapple Clu could see that there were only Basics fighting, all the ISOs had fled the scene.
When it ended the tinkling and buzzing sound of the activated discs ceased and only the painful screams sounded. It took long to fix the wounded and transport them back to the old town; now, that the threat was gone the life resumed around the construction site, the ISO vehicles passed along, music played. The first aircrafts arrived from home to pick up the injured programs, yet nobody from the ISOs came to see after them. Clu felt the eyes on himself, the looks of the other programs’, the silent expectation. He looked at Tron who seemed to be contemplating.
They returned to the old town. Clu stopped the constructions and all the Basics went home, to their original duties. Messages came from the ISOs, demanding the workers to return to the abandoned constructions. Clu did not send anybody, he did not even respond: still there was a good amount of general discontent against the ISOs all around the city. He had not heard a single comment from Tron regarding the previous events, but the fact that Tron, who was always the first to go and execute Flynn’s orders, silently went back to his patrol around the old town, told him a lot.
Once the light of the portal appeared Clu braced himself for a possible impeachment – yet he could not brace himself for what happened, for Flynn visiting the ISO city first. And when he finally came, way later than Clu expected, he was dangerously calm.
“I want you to send back the System Utilities to work,” he told Clu as he entered the office. Tron followed the User; Clu assumed that Flynn had summoned him on his way there.
“I’m not sending there anybody,” replied Clu. Flynn stood in front of him. As he looked at him Clu wondered how was that possible that they were intrinsically the same yet so different that they could not understand each other.
“This is an order, not a request,” said Flynn. Clu looked at Tron. The security program was staring at the floor.
“I am aware of that and I am not sending our programs to their death.”
Flynn shrugged. He turned to Tron.
“Do you agree with him?” he asked.
“Sure I do,” replied Tron. He did not lift his gaze, but the words came instantly.
“I see,” said Flynn. He eyed the security program up and down and smiled ironically. The User walked out of the office without offering any other comment.
“Give me your disc,” said Clu to Tron. The security program, still stunned after the short scene with Flynn, reached behind his shoulder.
“Why?” he asked.
“I want to make a copy of it.”
Tron’s stopped, with his disc in his hand.
“What for?” he asked.
“I will make copies for the two of us. I will fill them with the very same amount of data that we have on our discs and rename them. Then I will make some minor change in our own codes, so from the outside those programs will come up for a query.”
“I don’t get it. Why do you want to do that? And from how would you get those programs? You can’t create programs.” Tron was utterly confused.
“There are plenty of shells on the manufacturing line. I will use two of them. They don’t have to be functioning programs… It is actually better, if they are mindless anyway.”
“What for?” asked Tron suspiciously.
“So if somebody wants to make any change to us from the outside, that would happen to these copies, not to us,” said Clu. Tron was staring at him, his expression darkening slowly.
“If somebody?” he asked. “It’s only Flynn on the other side. Do you accuse him of intending to do changes to us from there?”
“I’m actually afraid that he will delete us now” Clu replied. Tron snapped his disc back to its place angrily.
“Everybody is going crazy here,” he exclaimed. “He’s our friend! We’ve been through things, this issue will be solved too.”
“Surely will, but one can solve things this way and that too,” argued Clu. “Didn’t you see how he looked at us?”
“He looked nothing different than he used to,” said Tron. “Do it for yourself if you have doubts, though it is a waste of time. Why do you even want to do that for me?”
“Because…” started Clu, but Tron lost his patience and spun on his heels.
“I don’t even want to hear this rubbish,” he said and stormed out. There was more confusion and hurt in his voice than real outrage. Clu looked after him. He was distracted as well, yet he took off right away and went to the manufactory, where the User created his new programs. This was the only work process that could not be performed without Flynn’s presence and the place was empty accordingly. There were separate, large rooms to store the various components – Clu picked up two empty discs and then went to the rack that carried the empty shells. What he was about to do was forbidden: only viruses and the ISOs - if that meant any difference - multiplied on their own. But, he said to himself, this was not really creation: he could not awake the program at the end of the writing process and this was for this one, special time only.
He removed his own disc and examined it for the exact amount of data it carried. Then from the terminal in the room he downloaded the same size of files onto the first empty disc. When he was done with that, he took his own disc again and renamed himself, simply adding a couple of alpha-numeric characters to the beginning of his code name. Then the named the new program.
The whole work seemed to be botched, but he hoped it would make it. He placed the disc on the faceless shell’s port. Nothing happened: the information he had put on the disc was not comprehensive and he did not have the ability to wake up the terminal product anyway. He saw a flash and turned to the window quickly. The light of the portal ceased; Flynn left the system. Clu knew that time passed slower in the User world and he was aware of that it could be only his impression that the Creator had turned against them, still, he hurried up. He had handled Tron’s disc before, he remembered the size of the files that had been stored there for the last time. He began to download the information on the second empty disc. Clu heard some sizzling sound and took a look around. Much to his astonishment the shell that wore his name now was melting. He cried out in dismay. The shell was burning from some heat in the inside: it got the command from the newly attached disc – it must have just gotten it as a signal from the closest I/O tower. Having realized that Clu picked up the other disc in an instant. The downloading was done. He renamed the disc as quickly as he just could.
He jumped to the next shell on the rack and attached the disc. He just felt that he was shaking: next to him the other shell pixelated as the deletion process continued. The first thing, Clu thought, it was the first thing Flynn did after leaving the system, deleting me. He watched the other shell that hung there undisturbed. Clu was hoping that it did not get that message – but at the same time he knew that he had not have the chance to rename Tron, that if the signal had been sent out for him, then he was already… burning.
Clu turned and ran out of the room.
He found Tron next to an empty road, en route to the patrol check point where he had headed to. The baton of his light cycle lay farther away, closed. The security program must have suffered injuries during the fall, but those wounds were indistinguishable from the horrific marks of his derezzing. He was unconscious already when Clu found him and the light of his circuits so low that it was barely visible. He pixelated as the deletion process advanced. Clu jumped to him, yanked his disc away, stopped every update, renamed Tron to the first name that occurred to him and then reattached the disc. The derezzing stopped; yet Clu knew that it was too late. For a couple seconds he was unable to move, his arms were too heavy to lift.
Finally he removed Tron’s disc again to see the damage. The data loss was devastating; Clu had to start rewriting some of the missing code immediately, at least the vital elements. His hands were shaking as he entered the lines – he remembered the codes, a lot of them, but not everything. That meant that he had to come up with some of it, based on his experience, based on the fact that he knew Tron. Still, that was not going to be the same, that was not going to be Tron anymore.
Clu worked there for long. When he finished he put the disc back to the port and watched Tron as he rebooted. Much to his relief his physical wounds started to heal and then disappeared and the light of his circuits strengthened, yet the program remained unconscious. Clu decided to look for a safe place nearby: he needed some time to rework Tron’s code and to consider his next step. The road was empty now, but it was an important passage and it was only the matter of time for a program to come that way.
The road ran through a digital plain, surrounded by rocky hills. Following a steep path Clu found a small cave and he chose the place to stay. He carried Tron up there and sat down at the entrance with the program’s disc. There they could stay safe, he could work on the disc and keep an eye on the system from the distance. With the coding he worked slowly, trying his best to redo the original version or something close to that. Every time when he finished with a larger portion he entered the cave and attached the disc to Tron’s port. The information was accepted and the security program looked to be fine, still, he did not wake up. Clu knew that by then he should have waken up and sensed that something had broken deep inside the program.
He saw the portal lighting up, saw the constructions resuming in Arjia City, saw the flashes of the fight when the next bug attacks happened. He saw the portal closing and opening again. Once he traveled to the old town in disguise to obtain some energy and learn the news, to learn about the growing discontent. He approached a sentry and gave him a command, ready for the possible fight and aware of the option that he would have to derezz the program. But the sentry obliged: Flynn had been so sure about Clu’s deresolution that he had not deleted his administrator license. By then Clu knew what he was going to do: or he had always known that and he just returned to his original designation. He was there to create the perfect system – and remove the User who tried to corrupt it.
Soon he was ready with his plan. By then several sentries were waiting for his command: the User was on the Grid and Clu received reports about his movements. He was getting ready – he put away his casual attire and took on an armored combat suit. The change revealed the shift that he already suspected: his circuits on his body and on his new suit glowed with a golden light, visible proof of his heretic views. Before leaving for the city Clu went back to the cave. Tron was lying there in the same position he had left him. Clu sat down next to him.
“I need you to wake up,” he said, not being sure if the other program heard him at all. “I have work to do, for the sake of the system. For the sake of our programs.”
He was sitting there, thinking. He could have just stayed there – they could have just stayed. The system was big enough, they could have lived in exile without being noticed. He was considering the idea, even though he knew it was impossible. He was a program, he had to follow his directions – that made him different from stray programs and from Users.
“And I can’t do it without you,” he said. He closed his eyes. He allowed himself to return to that idea for one last time: he could build a hideout here or at some more secluded area of the Outlands. It would not be an adventurous life, but it would a way of life anyway. They could sneak in the city for supplies and for news: they would be safe. But that would be the ultimate betrayal of the system and of their fellow programs, leaving them all at the mercy of the User. And that was not going to be happening.
Clu opened his eyes, stood up and walked out of the cave silently.
They were standing on the top of the building. The sentries and the guards were waiting for Clu’s command without a stir. He was watching the light beam of the portal in the distance. It had been too long: the User delayed his departure again – and for the last time now. He looked at his companions. Their circuits were glowing red; he did not program that, the switch happened to them because they served Clu now against the User. Down there Flynn was about to exit the building and leave for the portal. Clu started and the others followed him.
The hall of the building was large and seemingly deserted. Flynn walked through it with his companion: Clu recognized the program and the realization made him stop for a second. It was Tron – and it was not Tron: Tron was lying in a cave, abandoned and betrayed. This one was a new version of him, updated. Tron had been faithful to the User: this version was listening to Flynn’s tirade with outmost devotion. Clu was wondering if there was a new version of himself in the works, one without doubts and objections.
“Flynn,” he yelled. The User stopped abruptly, looking in his direction, dumbfounded. “Am I still to create the perfect system?”
Flynn and his new program stared at Clu who was walking toward them. The security program stepped ahead and brought out his disc with obvious delight on his face that he could fight for his User. Clu had his own disc in his hand in an instant. The User flew, saving himself and letting down his new creation too – and the program attacked Clu. As he parried the blow Clu felt enormous anger for this treason, for the very existence of this creature, while Tron was dying in that dark cave. It was such a small thing compared to Flynn’s failure with the whole system, but it hurt Clu enough not to cry out for the guards. He wanted to deal with this thing himself, even though it meant giving Flynn a chance to escape as the guards and sentries were not programmed to kill the User and they did not have the capability to capture him.
Struck, parry and struck again: there was no way for any program to stand their ground against Clu, yet this one lasted long. At the end he lost his disc and he got to the ground - and for a very second Clu considered not making the final blow. Then the damned creature looked up at him with implacable hate on his face. The only reason that he is here, thought Clu, Tron’s loyalty to the Grid. Had he betrayed the programs, he could be here, whole again, fighting for the User.
His disc came down and beheaded the security program; Clu was standing above him as he fell to pixels.
Upon his return a few microcycles later he found the cave empty. He walked out and recalled the trail that Tron had left: it led to the top of the cliff above the cave. Clu followed the lead and made his way up there. Tron was sitting on a large rock on the edge; he looked up at Clu’s arrival. Clu was silent: he had almost lost his hope that he would see him like that again.
“Did he die?” asked Tron.
“No, he got away,” replied Clu.
“I saw the portal dissolving.”
“He was late getting there. He’s trapped here.”
Tron nodded and turned back to the view.
“How…?” started Clu. Tron tilted his head.
“I’m okay. But… I’m not Tron anymore.”
Clu did not understand it first; then he remembered.
“I gave you a different name to hide you from him,” he said. “Give me your disc. He can’t hurt you anymore. I will give your name back.”
“It’s fine,” said Tron after a moment of hesitation. “I’ll keep this.”
Clu felt some strange warmth hearing that.
“We have to go,” he said.
“I’m not going back.”
Clu sat down onto a rock.
“We have a designation,” he said.
“You have a designation. I… I don’t know what I am,” said Tron slowly.
“Because I didn’t make a good job with your code. We need to go back and…”
“You did a good job. Thank you for that. You were right. But going back means…”
“That we will create the perfect system,” finished Clu. They were sitting there for long.
Clu stood up finally. Tron did not look at him.
“You can choose staying here,” said Clu. “If you do so, nobody will come and bother you. But I will wait for you, because your place is there, in your city. Keep that in mind.”
With that he left.
It took long. It was not eventless: the life continued and there was plenty to accomplish. All the Basics returned to home, for good now, to work on their own projects. New roads, new buildings emerged – a new order. Delegation came from the ISOs, just to be sent home without the chance to see Clu. They tried to instigate rebellion then, which was beaten down quickly, but no retribution followed. The sense of waiting was palpable, now for everybody.
Clu received reports about the User who found shelter outside of the Grid and lived there now, exiled the same way as Clu had been before. He let him be: he did not want his death, he had never done it. If Clu wanted anything from him that was the promise to be kept and that opportunity was gone. Along with the regular constructions battleships and Recognizers were created. The ISO city was collapsing under the bug attacks.
Then, after so long that Clu almost gave up hope, he came. He was silent and almost casual, the only indicator of his decision was the red color of his circuits. His helmet was activated, hiding his face as if he was saying goodbye to his old beliefs the same way as he had let go his original name.
“It’s good to see you,” said Clu, with the obvious relief in his voice. “Rinzler.”
The program tilted his head in the fashion he had used to do it.
The Black Guard was summoned and the Recognizers lifted up from the ground. Clu walked on the streets of Arjia City as if to return the ISOs’ visit.
“Greetings, programs,” he said. “We’re going to create the perfect system.”