14.578 cycles of careful planning, every moment snatched from duties that grew more urgent by the microcycle. Staggering, really, that they’d managed any of it at all. But they were out of options.
Unprecedented work-around of User coding, User permissions so Clu could share his keys with his three co-conspirators. Not disallowed, not technically given they were all privy to Flynn’s vague plan to invest Radia and Jalen with co-administrator status and Tron’s designed purpose was to stand a step away from the system’s hierarchy, but it had still wrenched the memories of nearly going virus once before. It was almost frightening how easy the copy had been, as if he had been hacking systems his entire runtime, but it had worked and that was most important in the end.
Tireless effort from Radia to discover Flynn’s method of contacting the so-called “real world” the cycle User Sam_Flynn had compiled, and further stress heaped on her shoulders as she used her unique gift for connection to modify the “phone interlink” to their needs. She had been forced to fend off endless questions from her people at the necessity of closing herself off to manage the tenuous communication line, and she loathed secrets. Clu was well aware that he owed her, big-time.
Couldn’t forget Jalen’s glitching stupid and process-stuttering last-nano addition to the plan of faking his death and masking his signature from the registry in a last-ditch effort to drag in undivided attention to the system’s cascading problems. Clu still wasn’t sure if he wanted to strangle Jalen or not over it— the ISO’s gift for unconventional thinking was going to get him derezzed at the rate he was going. Especially when there had turned out to actually be a fault in the Arena that cost Jalen his leg until they’d figured out how to recompile it. The whole incident had at least eased things for the last step, Jalen’s intent, ensuring that there were no other solutions within their power. The User had to attend to the system, and nothing else they’d tried worked.
Tron’s strained whimpering was still ringing in Clu’s ears from the final preparatory step, though the security program had left the observation deck under his own power and without a trace of the tell-tale rumble of code conflict, his mouth set in a grim line. The final line crossed. It was an unfair sacrifice, risking repudiation from his proper User, but Tron’s logic was once again sound. They couldn’t risk a breakdown or a crash from directive conflict, not with what they were going to try. No going back now— Flynn was frequently oblivious, but not even Tron could render-mask it forever.
Radia’s hand was warm on Clu’s shoulder as he tensed, hearing footsteps and voices approach across the promenade. Tron and Flynn, right on time.
“You’ll do fine,” she breathed in his ear, squeezing gently, “Jalen is waiting with the lightjet. Everything is queued, and the interlink is open. Good luck.”
For an Alpha-class ISO, Radia was indecently good at melting out of sight into the shadowy alleyway.
Swallowing— there were so many things that could go wrong— Clu stepped forward to get a look at the chosen ambush site. Flynn was talking in an undertone to Tron, admonishing him to stop worrying so much by the handful of words Clu caught. It was enough to push anger past nervousness, and the administrator straightened his spine and stalked out with newly-gold circuits blazing openly.
They both stopped, turned to look. There was new tension in Tron’s stance, coiled and ready for action. It felt surreal, as if the Grid itself was prioritizing Clu’s processes, time curiously slow as the User faced him with confusion written all over his features.
“Am I still to create the perfect system?”
Last chance, for all their sakes. Last shot at relief from the crushing burden of responsibility, last opportunity for any alternative to present itself. The moment dragged forever, a knife-edge that cut in all directions, and unnamed emotions continued to chase themselves across Flynn’s face.
“Yeah?” the User said, voice cracking high and uncertain as he blanched. Maybe he knew what the yellow meant. Maybe he was seeing a ghost of some other program that shared his face. Maybe the rebels’ attempt on the investiture ceremony and the threat they represented had actually managed to sink in this millicycle.
Tron locked eyes with Clu, chin dropping in subtle signal. Ready.
“Get the disk!” Clu called, running forward as Flynn started and turned to bolt. Time resumed its normal pace. The render-mask on Tron’s circuits dropped, the pale gold still alien and wrong-looking on him, as the security program lunged for the User. Flynn twisted. Tron snagged the arm of the User’s jacket, but Flynn struggled out of the garment.
It was just enough time for Clu to close and grab him, scrambling to undock the disk— the master key. Flynn lashed out with his elbow, managing a solid hit to Clu’s stomach that hurt even with the armor he was wearing. The administrator held on as Flynn tried to hit him again, both of them falling in a graceless tangle of limbs when Clu overbalanced. Tron waded in right after, locking Flynn’s arms behind his back and dragging him up again before the User could think to use touch-contact with the Grid to alter the odds in the fight.
Wincing, Clu got back to his feet, undocking his own disk.
“Why?” Flynn said, struggling against Tron’s hold. He was turning red, eyes glittering oddly with emotion. Clu reached and managed to get the master disk this time. They looked almost identical, side-by-side.
“How could you?” the User continued.
“There are six million programs living in this city alone,” Tron said quietly, “What would you have us do?”
“That’s your problem, Flynn,” Clu said tiredly, “You don’t.”
The master disk felt heavy in the dock between his shoulders. Suddenly he felt every one of his hundreds of cycles.
“You’re going to stay here and fix things. You’re going to finally make the time to keep your promises. Because this world is as real as it gets, and it is falling apart without User input. You are not going to fail this system any longer,” Clu said simply. His own identity disk was handed off to Tron, who he knew would keep it safe until he returned. Clu hadn’t been completely sure that the copied keys would work without his own administrative masters active in the system, and Tron, Radia, and Jalen would need the access in case Flynn tried anything stupid.
“And what are you going to do?” Flynn’s voice was dead, face blank with despair. Missing his precious User world already? The man who never spent more than a millicycle at a time in the Grid, who had coded everything and yet not seen more than a fraction of the system?
“What you made me for. I’ll be where you can’t.”
Flynn shifted, horror breaking out over his expression, but before the User could try to escape Tron twisted a captured arm up into a configuration that had Clu wincing in sympathy. The User sagged, looking between the two programs in utter confusion, something ugly flashing to the surface of his gaze and subsiding before Clu could identify it.
“Clu, go. The Portal will close soon,” Tron said, offering a sad half-smile.
The administrator had to shake himself to get moving, slowly walking backward just in case the User got lucky and managed to lunge for the master disk— the only ticket out of the system. Flynn was staring at him, expression unreadable. Part of him wanted desperately to stop, to run forward and beg forgiveness for the betrayal. Part of him wanted to shake Flynn, to erase that self-centered blindness in the Creator that he had long ago been forced to see in himself. Part of him wanted to flee back to the administrative offices, terrified of the great unknown that waited beyond the inky waters of the Sea.
“All that is visible must grow beyond itself and extend into the realm of the invisible,” Clu whispered, an ancient prayer from long before the Grid’s foundation. Then he turned on his heel and broke into a run for the transport hub where Jalen and the lightjet were waiting.
He didn’t dare look back.