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Tron hit with all the force of a Solar Sailer knocked loose from its rail, slamming Clu into the wall of his office so hard that it cracked and the administrator’s processes skipped out blank for microcycles. When Clu finally shook off the brief cascade of errors, Tron was still there, looming nose-to-nose and so angry that the security program’s fury stole the admin’s original opening statement.

Crash it, Clu, you viral maniac, I should derezz you right now!” Tron shook him for emphasis, clutching the collar of his coat so hard it made the warrior’s armored gridsuit gloves creak with strain.

“Why don’t you?” Clu croaked, regretting it a moment later when Tron slammed him into the wall again. Tron was flickering wildly, his expression of disgust eloquent. Flynn— the User— must have blocked the request. Tron didn’t have the permissions to derezz Clu without User approval, a standard feature of security software that must have Tron completely infuriated. Relieved, almost giddy with it, Clu wondered if Flynn even had any idea how this tacit approval parsed to the other programs, how it emboldened the rebels who refused the order of the system and had been attacking anything related to the ISOs before Clu had quietly stepped in. Or was it just another sign that the User didn’t care and was oblivious to his actual creations?

“You made an antiviral, didn’t you?” Tron said, ignoring the question as he got his face back under control.

Well, that explained the visit, at any rate.Threatening really wasn’t Tron’s style.

“Of course I did. Do you think I’d honestly destroy a system resource that important? I’m not glitched.” The Sea did more than spit out ISOs, driving the system’s global debugging and defragmenting processes, and with its functions crippled there were already reports of escalating gridbug activity as the junk data piled up. They were going to need more strict limits on utilization of system resources to keep the bugs in check until the ISO problem could be solved more permanently.

“Get it,” Tron said, finally letting up the bruising grip to Clu’s throat.

“Why?”

Clu.” Tron growled warningly, circuits flickering again, the blue-white warming briefly into palest gold. Not good. If Tron did wrench free from his directives to serve the Users in all things, there’d be nothing holding him back from derezzing Clu and tearing a swath through the rebels.

“All right. All right. I have it right here,” Clu said, holding his hands up and out as he side-stepped to his desk. The code was safe in its box, no need for replication in advance since the antiviral was designed to be self-perpetuating to save time.

“Are you sure you want to do this now? We have a little breathing room, and you have to be just as tired as me of losing sectors to gridbugs—”

“Bring it. Now,” Tron ground out, and Clu shut up and followed the seething security program, who was still blinking gold at odd moments, to fetch a lightrunner from vehicle storage.

The Sea was much as they’d left it 256.4 microcycles ago. The ISOs had dispersed and the canisters of manufactured virus had been taken away to be analyzed and decontaminated, but the waves rolled in an inky black. Tron was a rumbling presence at his back, threatening in ways Clu had never imagined the other program could be as he continued to visibly and audibly fight his own coding. Any wrong move would be the admin’s last.

Briefly, Clu wondered how their friendship had come to it. Their functions had meshed so perfectly before the ISOs came. Tron’s cycles of experience in the other system, his stories of ENCOM 511 and the MCP, had always been a benefit when Clu had been forced to puzzle through his own vague directive. But maybe that was the problem, too. Tron was not Flynn’s work, and when Clu had asked why the import had happened at all— especially when Tron spoke so wistfully of Yori, left behind to keep User_LBaines from getting suspicious— the Creator had just smiled mysteriously and said Tron’s autonomy would be an asset to the system. Autonomy that now seemed to keep them from seeing eye-to-eye about anything.

The administrator tried not to let any of his thoughts show on his face as he waded out into the water. The energy and random data made his legs prickle uncomfortably, fuzzed his circuits oddly. Frowning, Clu looked down to see his own glow dimming a little. The virus was meant to only effect ISOs, but… Best make things short, then, and he stopped when the water was hip-deep. It was far enough that the antiviral would perpetuate out into the open water.

With exaggerated care— Tron was watching his every move like a hawk— Clu slid the antiviral data out of its box and let it drift free out on the water’s surface. The code hex glimmered pale colors before dissolving away, and Clu waited patiently for the blackish ooze riding the Sea’s surface to vanish.

And waited.

And waited, going dizzy as the surf continued to tug at legs that were slowly going numb.

No.

“No,” Clu whispered, eyes going wide as he stumbled back a step and flailed uselessly when balance failed and he fell into the Sea.

It roared in his ears, sick and discordant, numbing and draining and reaching into his code. Clu was not like other programs either, he realized with slow-dawning horror as he thrashed and tried desperately to break the water’s surface and get out, not written elsewhere and uploaded but compiled out of the rawness of the Outlands, the Grid itself… and then the ISOs. Like a delayed reaction, like the system’s BIOS had observed what the Creator had done in making Clu and wanted to try its own hand. What had he done? The Sea so empty of the vitality that had once marked it, tearing through Clu’s code as if to find the answers again in him.

And now he was drowning with total failure clawing at his being in more ways than one. Directive impossible— was it ever possible?— and emergent properties of the system destroyed, stasis and death and deresolution

An iron grip seized Clu by the scruff and hauled him out of the sea.

Tron.

Gasping and coughing, Clu hung limp as he was dragged back to shore. The corrupted seawater burned as it came back out, and the admin couldn’t focus on anything as his code fought to re-normalize. Instead he lay on the sand, Tron looming over him, and stared at nothing as dimmed and barely-flickering circuits slowly re-lit to a steady state.

“What have I done?” Clu whispered, voice hoarse and shot after the Sea had ravaged it. He stared at Tron, who looked back impassively, colors resettled to blue-white.

“You were willing to destroy your own system to get back at Flynn over the ISOs,” Tron said, sitting back on his heels. Slowly, Clu levered up onto one elbow, looking out at the jet-black waves.

“The antiviral was supposed to work,” he said weakly, “I just needed time. It’s not about the ISOs, it was never about them…”

“And your excuses won’t fix it,” Tron said, interrupting with cold, flawless logic.

Clu’s arm gave out and he fell back to the sand, curled on his side. Failed directive yawned raw as an open wound until he was half-confused why he wasn’t already dripping loose voxels. No perfect system was possible from this wreckage. No wonder Flynn didn’t care about him anymore. His User had probably realized the flaw, left him in place as a stopgap while he wrote a real system administration utility.

“Derezz me,” Clu said bleakly.

“No.”

Why?

“You aren’t a threat to the system any more,” Tron said.

“I failed.”

“Yes. Now get up. We have work to do.”

Clu stared at Tron. Tron stared back.

We. Have work to do,” the fallen administrator said.

“Yes. Show me the faults, Clu. I can’t do my job if you’ve been withholding information about the system’s status.”

Slowly Clu sat up. Brushed at the sand sticking to the soaked coat before skinning out of the garment and tossing it aside. Felt better with the last of the viral taint no longer in contact with his systems. Tron was waiting patiently, something tight that had been in his gaze loosened now.

“Y-yes.” Could they fix it? Fixed wasn’t perfect but it was better. There was so much to fix. Broken trusts, broken Sea, broken functions, broken sectors, broken faith. Could he manage it all before he was inevitably replaced with better? Did he really have a choice? Clu had already betrayed his nature once and still felt sick from it, numbed and unsteady from the revelations of how close he’d come to turning virus all on his own. Willing to destroy his own system.

Tron stood and offered a hand up. Clu took it.

Together they limped back to the lightrunner, back to the city. Back to work.