The new city shone. It didn't just glow or shimmer in backlit mist; it shone.
She did it. They did it.
She walked alongside Shaddox and his CAD team, taking in the view. Buildings blossomed out in spiral patterns, streets branching out in Julia sets. The whole place was afire, white like the Users' light. It made her own home seem dim, almost indistinguishable from the storm grey clouds that ruled the horizon. She didn't mind; her finishing touch was the majestic bridge that linked the new and the old, and as the trails of light spilled down its tracks at the inaugural race, she imagined the rest would follow.
She tried not to think of energy drains, of how the plans had drained her with near-impossible demands. Taking an ever-expanding, unpredictable population into account meant they had to call on every system resource, hook into every program capable of complex calculations. By the end of it she had almost agreed with Clu. What certainly didn't help was when she took the plans to Radia and demanded numbers, and the Iso had simply shrugged and smiled.
Yori watched her now, took careful note of what was said - and what was not - between Radia and Clu. She didn't have to, strictly, but it wasn't just the system that was straining at this time, and tensions ran deeper than what was needed to keep the bridge in check. She didn't have to share her functions with Tron to pick this up. So she walked, smiled when her work was praised, and logged.
It should've been Flynn there, chatting up the guests. Clu had better things to do and it showed in the way he moved, posture on autopilot and smile out of sync with his eyes. He was still running simulations, she could tell, trying desperately to project what this city meant, what kind of future it held for them all. But how could he know when even Flynn couldn't tell - and what could he possibly do if Flynn didn't care?
It should've been Flynn there, end of line. But there was young, growing life on the User side of the screen too, and she couldn't find a fault with his priorities.
She could find plenty other faults though, and judging by the look on his face and the lag in his overburdened stream, so could Clu.
The city shone so bright, the outside felt no different than its white-lit halls. The congregation lingered, unwilling to retire in the face of such splendor, though Yori also suspected that the new programs simply had very little to do. Not so her own team, but they took the long route out regardless. They used the time they still had left to scan the new skyline and assess it from afar.
She only excused herself when she saw the shadow trailing them, one dark streak in the outlands' perpetual night. "You carry on, guys," she broadcast. "I have to confer for a micro."
She brushed off a batch of queries - preset and triggered automatically by surprise - and completely ignored the giggle from some of her assistants who were faster than the rest and scanned the terrain for signs of life. "You just go on and confer, boss," the comms rang. "You know where to find us."
She flashed all her lights in greeting and fell back, turning her cycle and her own suit off to blend with the surroundings. If she was going to spend more than a mili out in the void, it only made sense to drop down to power save. She could still make fun of it.
"All clear," she whispered on a private line. "But we have to stop meeting like this."
She bit her lip trying not to snigger as a micro passed without a sound. Then, "Meeting like what?" A little affronted, a little anxious, but all made to sound neutral.
Users bless him.
"Let's compare notes," she said, tone sober. "Clu looks about ready to crash. This might make Radia happy," she snorted, "but it's bad news for everyone. I wish Flynn were here."
"Flynn." The name came like the swish of a disc, sharp and almost hissed, nothing like the reverence Tron used to fill it with. "Yes. We need to talk about Flynn."
She followed the curve of his bike in silence, twists and turns coordinated with cycles of practice. They left the ground intact as they moved through the sector, leaving no trace and no dust sparkling behind. It wasn't even stealth as much as it was sync, a skill that could only grow with time and trust. Once, in a different world, she'd had enough for all; but here she had to weigh each line and access code.
"What about him," she said when they finally stopped, far out into the void. The landscape was formatted and bare, mere craggy wastelands that awaited purpose. Here and there the dark was pierced by muted glow, source power pooling in cisterns and cracks. Yori compressed her cycle back into its baton as she disengaged but Tron left his on, leaning against it as he went through his logs.
"Do you remember Sark's game grid?"
She started; not a question she expected. They often spoke of their old system but it was about the things they loved, the things they missed -- not this. "I do," she said slowly. "Why?"
He knelt, dipped his fingers in one of the blazing cracks, and used the source to outline a map against a flat, smooth rock. "The holding cells were here," he said, marking a field, "and the cycle grid all the way over here. But we were simply relocated... even without the Users, we were moved from one folder to the next." He looked up. "Can you do this?"
She considered it. "I know how a teleporter works," she murmured, pulling up ancient paths and long-forgotten scripts. She blinked, trying to reset the lot. "What do you need?"
He stood up and took her hand. It felt cool to the touch, still alive with the system's own electric sting. "I want to be able to use it on Flynn," he said, "if I need to get him out of trouble quickly."
"Tag him?" She frowned, calculating. "Sure, I can do this... but the coordinates have to be fixed on one end, or it'll be too slow."
He nodded. "I'll find a place."
"Tron," she whispered, no longer playful. "What's this about? What do you think will happen?"
"You said it," he replied in the same hushed tone. "Clu."
She shook her head. "He's tired, that's all. So are you. Listen, Champion," she said, fighting off a creeping unease. "You haven't raced in a while, and I can tell you need it. See if you can beat me to the pool." She squeezed his hand, dropped it, and ran.
Of course he caught up; and when his arms wrapped around her and the world was swapped in a drop and splash with the vivid glow of living source, she didn't mind. Not that it held off plans for the teleporter for very long, or that they didn't have an argument as heated as their congress when they emerged; but for a blissful while, with Clu and Flynn and the Isos all shuffled off to a distant file, all was right with the Grid.
The teleporter activated at .008 cycles since system save. No message or echoed ping from Tron: not then, or a milli later, or a hex. But that was all moot; she knew right away. She was just waiting for an EOT of sorts.
It came at .032 cycles since system save, when Clu made his announcement and made clear his plans. By that time she'd loaded Flynn's coordinates to a prototype vehicle - she was the only one who knew, aside from Tron - and left the city. It gave her enough of a head start, and the car had enough provisions to cover for four should needs be. She revised her list of possible stops and strove to reduce it by the order of likelihood, of how willingly help may come and what the odds were of getting out alive.
Get Flynn. That was the first, the only task she allowed herself, and all else was subclassed. Get Flynn, get him out. She'd have pointed that tele at the portal outright but Tron had said no, it could be a trap.
Traps. Plenty of time to think about them later. And enemies, and friends. And Flynn, and what he has done.
Get Flynn. Get him out.
Focus - or she was lost.
Prototype or not, the car worked fine: she got the hang of its modes quickly and almost enjoyed the bumpy ride as the streets gave way to rocks and the whole thing lifted to accommodate for the large, rugged wheels. But she almost crashed herself trying to sort her itinerary. She deleted the entire database, opened a fresh one, and turned the fields around in her mind as if they were 3D blocks. Think.
Everyone she knew from their small emergency network would be engaged, and the rest might have already joined the ranks of orange-lit programs that lined Clu's halls. The broadcast was clear about their number and their strength. She was certain the resistance would grow because no program would simply surrender their purpose - she'd been through this before, seen it all first hand - but even so, every unit would be precious. She needed to look elsewhere for support, but this was not the sprawling world of Encom where each branch of the maze built a city of its own. The only other option lay ahead and it was bright, beautiful, and thoroughly alien.
Hostile too, she learned. They had no weapons other than their discs but they were quick to draw, even if her color was locked to blue and she'd sooner derezz than let it hit 255 on the red. And she'd built the towers where they lived, but they wouldn't talk to her. That was it, then. Just her.
She looked; didn't stop the car.
A cycle raced along, trying to match its speed with hers. A "wait!" rang again, urgent and scrambled through a helmet's screen; she couldn't guess the voice even if she'd known it. She wished for a helmet of her own, what with the way her hair whipped at her eyes. And to think that she was pleased when she first came here, and firmly believed she'd never have to suit up like a solidier again. Flynn had promised, hadn't he?
She wondered what promises he'd made on this side. "You have one micro!" she shouted over the wind. The other rider hadn't made a move for their disc yet so neither did she, and kept her grip on the handles firm.
"You're the architect!" the Iso tried. True, but irrelevant; Yori sped on. "You're with the network!"
She kept going; this might have been a fluke. They never named their backup system, partly for tradition and a little superstition, as if that could stop it from being used. Mostly though they were just practical: you couldn't find something if a search would throw up scores of superfluous results. From the corner of her eye she saw the rider squirm in frustration. "So am I!"
She stopped. The cycle overshot and ground to a noisy, painful halt half a mpx away. She could sense a muted curse and laughed; this program was brand new.
"All right," she said. "If you were 'with the network,' you'd know better than to say so. And if you were after me, you'd know much better than to say so."
The Iso tensed, but Yori could tell that this was a sign of apprehension rather than readying for battle. She'd seen enough of her assistants do the same when they had to log an error. "Do I know you?"
The helmet folded back. The program really was new, with immense info-hungry eyes and lips half-parted in a decision loop of what to say. She was still winding down, fists clenching in a clear attempt to render back to the calm her kind was meant to project. "Quorra," she said. "I'm sorry. I saw you when I was still up in my tower. I had my orders, I just - I couldn't find the cycle..." She waved the baton as if it had hid from her.
Quorra. Yori scanned through her encrypted files, running the visual and what stats she'd grabbed against the data in her lists. The Isos were a gamble but then so was everything else, so Tron had picked a handful and - yes. There she was: cleared. Yori flushed the scan and nodded at the empty seat in front. "Come on. We'll swap specs along the way."
Quorra smiled, relieved, and vaulted in. She extended a hand, User-style. Yori blinked and took it; she'd learned about handshakes from Flynn, among other things. "Darmon should've been your guard but he got sent out on patrol," Quorra said, leaning back as the car picked up speed. "I'm sorry, we're so new at this. But trust me, I can fight." She reached behind and pulled her disc, a move so full of pride and eagerness that she looked just like Tron, back when he was new.
Yori fixed her eyes on the road. "Don't worry," she said. "I trust you."
By proxy, anyway. But it had to do.
"What do you know?" Yori said when they were far enough from either city. Their lights were off and there was little left to see but the mesas' planes bathed in the dim, gauzy glow of the clouds. This part had gone smoothly enough; they kept to the cover of outlands rock, and out of Recos' sight. She never understood why Flynn copied those monstrous arches over from Encom; he spoke of games but he'd been in Games and knew what these were for.
Quorra perked up, grateful to be of help. "Not that much," she said. "I had my orders, that was all. If either our admin or yours pulled a coup, we were to get Flynn out if he was in, or send a ping if he was out. Else," - if he was dead, you mean - "we were to initiate lockdown and partition ourselves off."
Yori didn't know about that last part. "This was all from Tron?"
"No, Radia," Quorra said. She grimaced when Yori shot her a look. "She's the admin. She has to know."
Yori sighed. What was it that Flynn had said? 'Endlessly wise and profoundly naive'? She could only verify the second part. She thanked her User that no-one would tell her admin what the plan had been, and tried not to think of a script in which the Isos rose like Clu had done. At least Quorra was peripheral enough to avoid the blame of having talked.
"I'm taking us to Flynn," Yori said. "With any luck, he won't have moved." About a terabyte of luck, she thought. "There could be guards at the portal. There could be anything." Quorra nodded, terrified and ready.
The Iso didn't pry, didn't ask for the co-ords or demand to know where Tron had gone. Yori put it down to wisdom, that stealthy feature, and kept her mind on the mark. Get Flynn, get him out. It was a chant, a mantra like what Flynn would say, and she was pleased to see that the Iso was as focused as she was. Quorra held her disc in front, tight enough to cut, and scanned the skies in sweep after careful sweep.
By the time Flynn's location rolled into sight, half a milli had gone past. That was half the time they had, so she ran up quickly saving every tick. Quorra followed on her heels, and when the door's secret panel showed an occupant inside, Yori felt the tension drain like the bliss of a shutdown sequence. She was more than ready to take a break.
The door slid open to a wild-eyed, flustered Flynn. Judging by the state of the room, he wasted no time in trying to get out. Seeing that he didn't - couldn't, even if he was the almighty User - made her appreciate and miss Tron so much she started laughing, and slid to the floor in delayed shock. She could feel Flynn standing there, and Quorra on the other side, and she didn't care who he spoke to when he finally found his line.
"What the hell is going on?"
"I could've stopped him," Flynn said. "I could've -" he threw an arm out, gestured aimlessly. "I could've done something."
The three of them sat on the smooth rock floor, with no furniture or any sort of editing done to the room; nothing but a cluster of hexagonal lights carved in the ceiling. The place was sketched in a hurry and Yori would've apologized, except that Flynn wasn't listening and her options were running out.
"Done what?" she said. "You couldn't get out of here, and that was just our work. Clu did all of his right under your face, and all the time Tron's been telling you -"
"Nose," Flynn muttered. "Right under my nose."
Yori couldn't believe what she was hearing. She looked at the Iso who was taking everything in, from Flynn's clothes and shoes to the impromptu screen in the air that looped Clu's promise to his kind. Hexes upon hexes of Recognizers waited on his call, and below them the ground rippled with staffs and discs raised high. There was no patch of floor visible for the army, all rendered from the same template and run from the same script.
"- triumph of the will, man, how -" Flynn ran a hand through his hair and stared, idle. Yori had no time for this. They had no time for this.
"The portal, Flynn," she said. Her processes were still clashing now that she let them run, and freed up memory to let herself grieve. She was dizzy but she had a job to do - for Tron, and for anyone who was still out there free, doing what they wanted and living how they liked. Which meant every single Iso too, starting with the one in her charge.
"Yeah, yeah," he said, then blinked. "No. He'll know. The moment I step out, he'll know where I am. I can't risk you guys."
Yori ignored that. She fixed him with a stare she knew would work because he admitted once that her User did the same. "You're risking all of us if you stay. I can get us to the portal; you know this. Quorra can fight. As long as you stay our payload and do nothing that the system can detect as an admin move, we'll be fine. Just lay low and let us do this."
She felt the Iso's stare on her own shell now, admiration mixed with thrill and barely a trace of her earlier fear. She smiled at the program and placed a hand over her disc. It read the same: Quorra found her purpose and was itching to execute it. She'd been ready from the start, of course, born of the sea and bright with its power, but she missed that spark of meaning that only a User could give. But if she could write it on her own - even if she copied it from her, from them - then they could do this; Tron had chosen well.
"Do nothing?" Flynn almost laughed. "I can't do nothing. He's my program, I can -"
Quorra's voice was quiet, but it fell between them like a giga's worth of files. She held a hand up, and her head was tilted slightly to the side as if listening for something. Her eyes were locked wide open, and if it hadn't been for the flow of streaming data that followed every active program, Yori would've thought she hung. Then she jerked, Siren-like, and Yori flinched in turn. "Flynn, my people."
Another whisper, another slab of data.
Flynn rose slowly, eyes as lost as Quorra's. Yori watched, detached. She didn't have that sort of link with the system - Tron did; had - but she knew the feeling; it was the kind of skill that gave her instant command of vehicles, that helped her see the structure of entire sectors and improve their growth. And she didn't have to link to scores of other programs to recognize the look of loss that blanked Quorra's features; she'd only needed one.
The ping from her network came a mere micro later; she echoed it right back, the quickest ACK that she could do. But then another came around, with information that she didn't know. She requested confirmation from another source; it cleared. Well. At least Flynn would lose that excuse.
"It doesn't matter if you're here or on the Grid," she said. "They're already on to us."
The skies were eerily bare: no scouts, no Recos, no telling distant noise. The landscape was just as dead, even more than the outlands' normal lack of buzz; not a milli prior the horizon span from blue to white, alive in the gleam of two mirror cities. Now the blue faded off to grey and gave way to meandering clouds. Quorra stood rooted to the spot, unable to tear her eyes away from the gap.
Yori touched her shoulder to break the loop. The Iso met her gaze and froze, something in her face as strange as Radia's. "You're the last one too," she said. Yori said nothing; wouldn't confirm. Instead, she tugged at Quorra's arm and followed Flynn to the car.
He was quick to load her designs and hummed in approval as the wheels retracted and wings took shape. The thing was a blend of several objects she retrieved from his books, and while she had no idea if it would ever function in the Users' world, out here it did as it was told.
"We'll stick to ground level until we hit the coast," Flynn said. Behind him, wings folded back to standby and tank features came online. White at first, they dimmed to a dull red after a quick tamper. Close enough. "Quorra," he called. "I hear you're a mean shot."
The Iso loaded herself to the gunner's post by way of response. "Not much I can show you, huh?" he said. "Sam's the same way."
He climbed up to his spot and jumped in; Yori was already adjusting the controls. "I told him I'd bring him here," he said. "I promised, just before I came in. He's still waiting out there. Jesus, Yori... I nearly orphaned my own kid." His voice gave out. "And for what."
She wasn't listening; she wasn't. She found the portal's address and committed the path to memory. "Here goes nothing," she said to no-one in particular; she wasn't even sure why she said it. But it felt right and with that, they were off.
The car crushed the rocks in its path: a problem, were it not for all the other tracks already ground to dust. Patrols. They ploughed on, curving and twisting as much as their bulk allowed. Their color failed to save them when another tank ID'd them as unscheduled, but Quorra was quick on the draw. They left the cloud of derezzing dust and sank back into the dark.
The tanks weren't the problem; even if it all went wrong they still had Flynn the champion with them, and he held a record in Reco takedown, never mind the tanks. Yori'd be happier if he could lay low until it was time to raise his disc and go, but the point was that the null-units that drove those things were not an issue. Her diminishing pings however were.
She pointed out the pattern of their disappearance. "It makes no sense," she said. "We never congregated, never accessed the same directories. If Clu wanted us all gone he could've done it in batches, swept us up with other programs in our sectors. Not picked us out like this."
"How do you know it's not just sector after sector?"
Flynn's voice was flat and level. She feared it was resignation but hoped his mind worked through the hoops of restoring it all once he was out and back at his terminal.
The car shook with narrowly missed fire. "Unscheduled again," Quorra yelled from the back, more excitement than rebuke. Her cry of retribution drowned out in return fire. Yori picked up. "It's just a feeling. But I've learned to trust them, here. With no Users to look out for... you learn to listen to everything else."
He wouldn't look at her. "Yori, I'm -"
"Don't." She swerved, angling the car around to give Quorra more maneuvering space. "You saved my life, Flynn. I can't forget that. And when I asked you why, do you remember what you said?"
"I said I needed your help."
"Exactly," she said. "And look at us now."
He nodded. "Not sure what I can do," he said. "This place reordered itself long before Clu came along. Hell, I don't even know if I can read the code any more. It writes itself!" He turned to look at Quorra. "But yeah, I'll do my best. Had a miracle once already; time may be right for another one. You just... you two be careful."
She swerved again; Quorra spun and laughed. Yori grinned. "Always are."
Halfway to the portal, only Shaddox remained.
Yori let Flynn drive and busied herself with the comms, hopping ports and addresses as randomly as she could, while still maintaining some kind of link. "It's one agent," she relayed. "They thought it was some sort of special unit, like the programs seeding bombs, but it looks to be unique." She dropped the connection and waited for another one to clear. "Why won't he just divide by zero," she sighed. "It's like he's mocking us."
She kept herself in check and didn't tell Flynn this, but it wouldn't surprise her to find that that's exactly what Clu did. The playfulness, the easy arrogance...
"Come on," she muttered at the comms. "Acknowledge."
She sat back and put her face in her hands. Glitch it. "Flynn," she said. She felt so tired. "Maybe it's me they're tracking. Not you."
"No way," he said. "If Clu has a problem, his problem's with me. I should've listened. He went on about organics and predictions and perfection and I just... I zoned out, man. By the way, ladies, coast in oh point oh two. Fasten your seatbelts. No, Yori, he's after me."
Yori said nothing. She drew up a chart and overlaid a map, entering timestamps and memory blocks: names, locations, extrapolated vectors. She remembered the MCP and what it did, and how Flynn had brought over Recognizers and identity discs for all. Even Sark's old ship, because if that was not the template for the thing that dwarfed Clu's army in his broadcast, nothing was. And Clu was Flynn, and saw what Flynn had seen.
Her network's path was leading up to her.
All terminated by a single program.
No. No. In the name of Lora, and Alan, and all that worked and was uncorrupted.
She barely felt the car transform, barely registered Quorra's whoop of surprise. Her mind was an ocean of noise, louder and more chaotic than the wild mass of code that swirled and crashed against the rocks, far below them now. The aircraft lurched in the gale, shots boomed hypersonic. She shut it all out, compressed herself to that one line - get Flynn, get him out - and filed the first half away.
Get Flynn out. Get them out.
"We're clear," she heard Quorra say. "Cleared the level," Flynn confirmed. "And as long as there's no boss fight waiting when we land, we'll be good to go."
Quorra was suspiciously silent. Yori looked up. "Is it true," the Iso said, grip tightening on her triggers, "that when a User says something, it becomes real?"
The sleek, unlit jet that appeared out of nowhere - 'ported, did it /port over/ - evaded their salvos like a ghost. Like a game.
Any nano now, it would return fire.
Yori almost tore Quorra out of her seat as they landed. "Go," she yelled. "Drop it! Quorra, go!"
Flynn was already up the steps. Yori ran, dragging the Iso along. She had to shout over the wind and she was already drained, but she only had this one chance. "Go with him," she said, "and find my User. Her name is Lora; Flynn knows her and you will too, because you know me. We look like they do."
Quorra held her hand and nodded, hair electric like a jet-black halo. "Will Lora come and help us?"
"I know she will. She'll do anything. And Quorra, if you see the User Alan, tell him - say -- just say 'thank you'. Now go! I'll cover you."
She watched Quorra bolt up the steps and latch on to Flynn, determination made program. The jet descended and opened fire, aiming for the generators. It wouldn't just kill the beam at this point - it would kill them.
Yori drew her disc and cast, using all she got from Tron to shield the delicate structure. She wouldn't last but it would be enough to let him know; he had to know. Come on, she hissed. Come closer.
The portal closed down; end of line. That's it.
The jet derezzed. She watched a lone figure descend and knew that all was now in the hands of the Users. Whether she lived or died, whether she saw Quorra again as herself or as a minion of Clu's. It didn't matter; there was only one place she belonged and if this was the way to win it back, so be it.
She held her disc tight, and waited.