He woke with a start.
Lightning tore white-hot through perpetually dark skies, illuminating the room in stark contrast. Rain droplets spattered the glass window that ran the length of the room, accompanied by roaring thunder quieted by thick walls. The room was still.
Rinzler sat up, dazed. For a moment his eyes darted about distantly, unseeing and blank, until a ticking rumble joined the patter of rain as his awareness returned to him. A creeping, hollow ache plagued his circuits and gathered at his core, reminiscent of exhaustion but akin to the strange sense of isolation he was so accustomed to. He ignored it in favor of assessing his situation.
Why had he been lying on the floor, and for how long? Instinctively his hand flew to his back to assure himself his discs were intact. They were a comfort to him; like home in his hands, the fragile lives of thousands derezzed cradled between his fingers. They were the only thing that belonged to him—he had no right to claim ownership of anything but.
This time, one part of the matching set was missing. Uncharacteristic panic set in, foreign and unwanted. He scanned his dim surroundings for his possession, landing on a lonely, deactivated disc lying in the center of the room. He stared, trying to process the anomaly. Had he thrown it? Dropped it? He was not careless. Why was it so far away? No answers came to him.
None of this made sense.
He sat back against the wall, straining to pull some kind of explanation from his memory banks. What was the most recent event that had transpired? His head pounded beneath his helmet, his ever-present distorted growl suddenly unwelcome and grating on his ears. His hand flew to his chest, fingers splaying over the vast blackness beneath four points of blood-orange at his collarbone. He could feel the excess noise vibrating up into his fingers. That had never been there, that abnormality. Something was wrong. Alan-One would have paid incessant attention to every detail--
Who is Alan-One?
The question dissipated as though it had never arisen, erased. The noise had always been there. Though still displeased with the flaw, Clu had told him it “gave him character”; variations in the pitch and frequency conveniently betrayed Rinzler’s feelings, as Clu rarely saw a face to read or heard a voice to decipher unless the warrior was directly ordered to respond.
The thought had Rinzler’s processes grinding to a surprised halt. That was wrong. Clu was everything—had saved him from sure demise, abandoned by the Creator—
He gritted his teeth, positive he was malfunctioning. Nothing computed with this predicament. Clu had just run a maintenance check and his damage scans came up clean; not that he could acquire enough damage to cause this problem in the first place. He always won, alwaysalwaysalways because that was perfection, that was right, that was his directive, Clu’s directive—
Clu. His master would fix him. Whatever was wrong with him, Clu would save him, lead him from darkness, as he always had. He would not throw him away like lesser damaged programs. Rinzler knew he was cherished, knew he was perfect. That was why, now, the icy beginnings of fright began to trickle through his aching body; now he was far from perfection, hiding in the darkness with his frayed memory banks and sluggish processing. Clu had shown him countless times what he thought of flaws. Perfection was expected from him always. He wasn’t meeting his directive now. He was falling. He was flawed. He was imperfect.
He pushed down the welling shame and focused once more on trying to figure out why he was here and whatever had caused his inexplicable shutdown in the middle of the floor, what had driven one of his discs halfway across the room from him. Perhaps he had simply run out of energy; Clu had berated him recently for avoiding recharge, but the nightmares were plenty reason to stay awake and gaze wide-eyed at the ceiling until he was called upon to do the system’s biddings again. He closed his eyes and willed himself to calm, to sort through his memory files with reason.
Flynn (enemy)—Sea of Simulation—ISOs (enemy)—arguments, violence—betrayal (by REDACTED)—sorrow, desperation—Clu (enemy)—pain, torment—subservience (wanted?), safety—peace, destruction—praise, perfection—master—life, reverence. Rinzler.
I am Rinzler.
His earlier anxiety slowly began to ebb away, and he let out a long sigh he hadn’t realized he’d held, as if to breathe out the strange fit that had overcome him. He was accustomed to occasional lapses in memory or judgment, ones that Clu was always merciful enough to forgive, but none had ever deemed the administrator a foe. He grasped at the wall to pull himself up, but stopped when he managed to stand once more. Something was off. His limbs felt heavy, a sickening nausea rendering his sensors dizzy and winded. His mouth opened to speak, unwilled words tumbling out like the rain tearing shadows across the floor.
“I am Tron.”
He stumbled forward, enough to reach for the comfort of his abandoned disk as he collapsed to his knees some distance from the wall. He grasped it tightly, almost desperately, its sharp edges digging into his fingers. Something within him wailed in agony, as if he’d expected his weapons to solve this problem too—they usually did. Now they did nothing but terrify him, and he wanted nothing but to hide. It was shameful and unworthy of his being, but hiding—hiding himself, rather—was admittedly one of his talents even his master was unaware of. His ableness and willingness to hide his pain when he was damaged, his confusion when he was glitching. His eagerness for attention and approval when Clu would not look him in the eye.
“You are alone, Tron.”
Tron looked up from where he knelt. His hands were behind him, restrained, a section of his face and throat leaking pixels where the skin was missing. The sting converged with other wounds scattered across his body, all sparking pixels and flickering white circuits. He had put up a formidable fight for a solitary weakened program; he was the Grid’s most powerful warrior. But faced with a multitude of Clu’s best soldiers, even he hadn’t lasted long. He recoiled visibly when something small in his head agreed with Clu’s claim; it was true. He was alone. He was the only program left on the Grid willing to stand up for what the User believed in.
“You’re alone too,” he spoke up, his voice rough and broken like jagged glass. The wound in his throat was deeper than he thought. “No one will ever serve you out of respect, as they did with Flynn. No one will ever admire you, protect you because they cherish you. You will never reach his level. You rely on fear and violence. That is all it will get you.”
Clu stopped his predatory circles, something like a smile manifesting faintly at the corners of his lips. He said nothing in reply for awhile, and resigned to grabbing something from the outstretched hands of the sentry by the door.
“Is that so?” He turned, stalked forward, knelt in front of the weakened security program, holding up the unlighted disc in his hand.
Tron’s eyes hardened. “That isn’t mine.” As he took another minute to study it, he realized it was the second disc he’d picked up what now seemed cycles ago in the battle to protect Flynn.
“I know it isn’t.” Clu’s smile was clear this time, and he stood once more, though he did not move for some time, instead choosing to stare him down, his eyes narrow and contemplative. Anger burned within them, a seething anger Tron had seen fester and grow over many cycles. Now it had finally prompted Flynn’s double into action. He stepped behind Tron, and for a moment there was a dip of tense, simmering silence.
Tron struggled to turn his head. “What are you—”
A disc snapped into place on his back, and Tron could not stop the screams that tore from his throat.
Rinzler dropped the disc as if it had burned him, scrambling backward until his back hit the wall. He shook, unfamiliar terror coursing through every iota of code in his body, his chest heaving. It hurt. Everything hurt. He had done something terrible and wrong. He didn’t know what it was, but he knew he’d done it (He’d done all that was right in order to maintain his master’s will). He’d failed, somehow (He’d succeeded in his perfection). He’d lost something important (All that was important was Clu). He’d cost himself his freedom (But he was free, hewasfree!). Maybe the disc he touched wasn’t his. Maybe it belonged to some derezzed program, and somehow he’d accessed its memories; Clu could read discs and the memories that went with them. Rinzler didn’t know how to, but perhaps he’d done it by accident.
It was a dismal excuse to protect himself from his unreasonable fear.
I am Tron.
The helmet encasing his head unfolded and disappeared, his hands flying up to press against his ears, as if somehow that would block out the intruding presence he couldn’t quite place. He squeezed his eyes shut and his knees came up to rest against his chest. He knew he looked pathetic. It made him flawed, made him weak, to hide like this. He would fight if he could, but he had no target. It was his own programming, tearing him up from the inside out. Go to Clu, his instincts insisted. But then he would be seen for what he was: imperfect. Again he tried to run through his memory files, hoping it might clear up his malfunction. The list he’d encountered before was no longer there.
Painpainpainpain—Flynn—Creator—gone (betrayed)—Clu—lies (convincing)— pain—silence, darkness, failure—nothing.
There were no memories to follow.
His eyes flew open at the familiar drawl. Clu knelt in front of him, his grey-blue eyes unreadable, intently studying Rinzler’s face. In his peril, Rinzler must not have heard him come in—panic surged through him at the possibility that Clu might have been watching him all along. The enforcer froze up, livid hatred and soothing reverence running through him simultaneously. He found he could not move, fighting against some foreign urge to attack his master, to destroy him, tearhimapart—
“Identify.” Clu’s eyes were burning again, as they had in the memory Rinzler had felt so vividly.
He struggled, trying to spit the words out. His coding felt violated and wrong, like something was plowing through him with all the ruthlessness of a virus, like a glitch, clawing at him from within, yelling, shouting, screaming. Ruined Flynn, ruined the Grid, ruined me, destroyed everything, he destroyed me, HEDESTROYEDME--
“Designation: Rinzler,” he murmured, watching Clu’s face closely for any change, keeping his eyes just short of Clu’s own gaze, barred permission from looking him in the eye unless specified. He wanted this all to go away, to collapse at the foot of those golden circuits and plead to be fixed, to be rid of this horrible ailment. But he could not ask that of Clu, after everything his leader had done for him, excusing so many of his mistakes when he could not live up to the perfection Clu expected of him. He would be patient. He would be perfect. He would.
Clu frowned, eyes narrowing in disapproval. “Rinzler,” he said again, “Identify.”
An unfamiliar rage flew through him at the demand. “Designation invalid. I am Tron,” he snarled. His eyes flew up to Clu’s own in shock and confusion, quickly averting as he tried to make up for his untrue words, his lies. “Rinzler. I am Rinzler.”
But he did not move, as much as the thing called “Tron” willed him to. His intent was to harm Clu, and Rinzler would do no such thing. He no longer had the energy to keep the words from tumbling out, however, too frantic for solace from the split in his coding. “Master,” he whispered to the floor beneath them, “What is happening to me?”
Clu stood, taking a few steps back. He said nothing for a moment, observing Rinzler’s struggling with a dark curiosity. His enforcer was practically curled into a ball, shaking like he’d been scheduled for deresolution. He had never seen his program like this. He was interested to see what would happen if he pushed too far, if Tron really could break his reprogramming after so many cycles with no problems, with perfect obedience. It would be beneficial to see just how strong Rinzler’s coding proved against the Grid’s protector. He settled with the idea and held out his hand. “Disc.”
That was an answer enough for Rinzler. He would be fixed. Saved. Everything would return to normal and once again he would be forgiven, something he did not deserve for his weakness. Standing this time was easy, although he paid little attention to this sudden change, too enticed by the idea of repairing his coding. He took tentative steps forward, unlatching the single disc from his back. His eyes remained on the floor, too ashamed of his ridiculous behavior to look anywhere else. He was stronger than this. He was better.
He stilled at Clu’s voice, his eyes lingering on the floor, gazing at the reflections of golden circuitry.
“Look at me.”
Clu was furious. He could hear the tight coldness in his voice, that cold that sent throes of despair through his core, that told him of disapproval, of his failure to uphold his directives. Rinzler’s fists clenched at his sides and his gaze turned upward, locking with Clu’s in compliance. His master’s eyes smoldered angrily, and although they met Rinzler’s, the enforcer couldn’t help but feel that the anger flew past him, into something deeper. He was thrust into yet another memory that did not belong to him.
“This torture is pointless. I have no information for you.” He paused, waiting for some kind of reply, but his former friend ignored him. “You don’t have to do any of this.”
He didn’t know how long it had been. It didn’t matter. It felt like cycle upon cycle of constant agony. His circuits were nearly lightless and his body shuddered violently. Every part of him wanted to accept deresolution, but that was beyond him. He was tasked to protect and he would do it. He would linger as long as he could.
Clu was altering the coding in both the ownerless disc and Tron’s disc once more. He barely acknowledged Tron’s voice, aside from a small noise in his throat that sounded vaguely like a laugh. He was too focused on the glowing coding spiraling in front of him from the center of the disc, moving bits and pieces, fascinated with the amount of detail that had gone into Tron’s creation. He was unfamiliar with it. Flynn had not coded Tron, and Clu’s coding knowledge came naturally from Flynn. The process of reprogramming a foreign code was tedious and frustrating, especially when that coding belonged to a ridiculously strong-willed program that would have nothing to do with him—
“Clu,” Tron growled, “Listen to me.”
Clu finally looked up from the discs in his hands. “I’ve been listening. You’ve done nothing but babble incoherently up until now. Even the Grid’s most powerful warrior has a limit at some point, I see.”
Tron grimaced. Clu was too far gone; he clearly enjoyed the reversal of power. Cycles of anger and a sense of abandonment had twisted him into a monster. Tron felt guilty, somehow. He had dealt with Flynn’s frequent absences well enough, but they had always infuriated Clu, and ever since the ISOs had emerged from the Sea, he had never been the same. Tron should have done something the first time Clu had showed signs of misdirection. He should have helped him, not respond with bewilderment and disapproval, as he had done with so many of Clu’s decisions.
Tron dropped his head, staring at the floor, at the faint, flickering reflections of his dying circuits. He felt like this was his fault. Clu was breaking him. “Flynn would have never wanted it to turn out like this.”
Clu’s boot slammed into the side of his jaw and he rolled across the floor, hissing in pain.
“Do you think I care what Flynn wants anymore? Look around you, Tron!” Clu snapped, throwing the discs to the side. He was tense now, a deep pain swirling in the darkness of his eyes. “This city is mine! I created what Flynn could not in the gaps of time he failed to assist us! Flynn abandoned us for the “real world,” for his world, but this, THIS is our world, and I am asserting the control needed to accomplish what Flynn could not!” Snarling, he grabbed Tron by the back of the neck and shoved him against the glass wall that looked over the city. “Observe. This is the system I will perfect. And the first thing to go is the abominations Flynn defended so passionately.”
The ship was hovering over the white, radiant Arjia City, the home of the ISOs. Hundreds of Recognizers whirred around them, taking off from the metropolis in a sea of evanescent red lights, ascending into the stormy skies.
Tron said nothing, a deep, gut-wrenching dread overcoming his circuits, his eyes widening. A rumbling encased the warship they stood upon, a bright light blossoming below them as the ship’s weapon began to charge. “No,” Tron whispered, his arms finally tugging at their bonds. “You can’t do this. You can’t do this.”
“I can,” Clu hissed in his ear, “I can, and you’re going to watch while I destroy everything you and that sorry excuse for a deity ever stood for.” He pushed Tron against the glass again and left him there, walking back across the room to retrieve the discs he’d been diligently working to alter.
Tron sank to his knees, resting his forehead on the glass. The dread engulfed him. He was helpless. Clu was about to completely decimate an entire civilization and he could do absolutely nothing. His breath quickened, stricken by horror. Clu had returned to stand beside him, his hands folded behind his back along with Tron’s discs, watching the city below them. He looked so casual, and it struck Tron that Clu had no qualms about this, no second thoughts. He was completely at peace with his decision.
“Clu,” Tron whispered, his voice shaken. “Please.”
A vicious satisfaction ran through Clu’s circuits, and they glowed brighter momentarily. As the ISOs fell, Tron would fall with them. He would break.
“Don’t despair, Rinzler. In time, you won’t remember anyway.”
The noise in Tron’s ears was deafening. His limbs were becoming numb, his vision swimming, reduced to merely watching as Flynn’s miracles flooded into the streets below them in crowds of panic. He could hear the dull roar of shouts and screams as the ship prepared to fire into the last haven for the ISOs. He couldn’t look away. He wanted to move, to shut his eyes, but his gaze remained fixated on the beautiful city, yearning, despairing.
The walls around them jolted as the laser fired into the intricate, stunning utopia beneath them. All was white, loud, deafening like the surging terror in his ears. Masses of damaged data and pixels flew before him, derezzing into nothing, and Tron shattered.
The helmet reformed over the enforcer’s face and the disc was activated with a flick of his wrist, aimed straight for Clu’s chest. The sparse orange circuitry scattered across his armor turned white, and the perpetual growl that characterized Rinzler whirred out into silence.
Clu smiled broadly. “Greetings, Tron.” His disc was out faster than Tron expected and he parried the quick blow that would have easily shattered his arm. Tron jumped backward and held his disc close to his body, arm coiled to strike once more.
“You seem angry,” Clu said pleasantly, striding casually to the center of the room to retrieve Rinzler’s forgotten disc. He held it gently between his fingers, as if it would break if he weren’t careful. He gazed at it fondly before activating it, letting the map of pixels swirl up from the center.
Tron growled under his breath. “Don’t patronize me, Clu.” He was angry. He was enraged. Tron had never known true anger until Clu had done this to him, broken him, turned him into something else, something wrong and sickly compliant and—
“What have you done to me?” Tron’s voice came out desperate and torn, confused and most decidedly still broken, and Clu suddenly forgot the disc, setting it down on the glass surface of a nearby table. Something in Tron wanted to fall to the tyrant’s feet and apologize, beg for forgiveness, and the thought repulsed him, made him ill. He was glad for the helmet concealing the strained and desolate face he knew he wore.
“What have you done to yourself is the inquiry you’re reaching for, I would think,” Clu replied, folding his hands behind his back, studying the program before him. “None of this is my doing, Tron. You know better.”
Tron faltered, his disc lowering a fraction. You know better. It hit something in him that squirmed again, frantic for approval. He ignored it, raising the disc once more. He tried to bite out the angry, brutal words he’d been so ready to spit at his tormentor, but he could not find the spirit to say them now that he had broken free from his reprogramming. His actions as Rinzler—his crimes, his murders—flooded from his memory banks, and they grated on his morals like millions of spinning discs. He was remembering all the programs he’d failed to look after. He’d failed to protect what the User believed in. He’d failed to carry out his directive, his purpose. He was remembering how alone he was. All he could manage was, “We trusted you. Flynn and I. We were supposed to create this system together.”
“The perfect system,” Clu corrected him. “We were supposed to create the perfect system. But you and Flynn couldn’t see perfection.” He turned away, walking to the expanse of the vast window at the front of the room, looking down at the empty arena. He was confident enough to turn his back on his adversary. His arrogance was suffocating. “I could see a perfect world in my mind, Tron. It was spectacular.”
“Your directive can never be reached, Clu. Your programming is faulted.”
“And whose fault is that!” Clu abruptly snarled, whirling around. “Who made it so?”
Something like pity crawled through Tron’s core. “Flynn didn’t know. His intentions were innocent. He only wanted to make this a better place—to make his ideals a reality—”
“I was no different,” Clu interrupted, taking a step forward. “Don’t you understand a grain of what Flynn’s actions achieved? Chaos, disorder, inadequacy! He was a poor father of the Grid, leaving us for cycles at a time for a world that was more important than us—he abandoned us, Tron, for his own paradise, left us scrambling in the dark for answers and direction. Had I done nothing, the Grid would have fallen into disrepair. It is because of me the some six million programs here still exist. I offered salvation. I saved them all. I saved you.”
“You did no such thing!” Tron exploded, “You haven’t saved anyone! This was once a free system and now it’s a prison, a cage for millions of programs that once had a choice; now they are directly controlled by your oppression. They aren’t living. They’re barely scraping by, existing in fear because that’s all they have left.” He raised his disc, the circuitry along his body growing bright with fury. “You didn’t save them, and you didn’t save me. You—you twisted me into this killer—”
“I didn’t just damage you a little, Tron. You’re broken.”
He cried in rage and lunged himself at Clu, even as the tortured voice somewhere in his coding screamed no no NO, and they both slammed into the floor, Tron throwing a punch into the side of Clu’s now helmeted face, his disc forgotten in his anger. He didn’t need it. He didn’t need a weapon to derezz this soulless bastard. They rolled across the floor, each alternately gaining the upper hand over the other until Clu managed to pull his disc from its place on his back, slashing out at the security program that was smashing his fists into his stomach. An explosion of pixels flew out on impact with Clu’s disc, skittering across the floor.
Tron reeled backward, gripping the gaping wound in his chest. Clu stood, the cracks in his abdomen burning, punched so hard they’d broken skin. “Flynn left you to die, Tron,” Clu hissed through his teeth. “He ran like a coward and abandoned you.”
“Because I told him to! I protected him—”
“But you didn’t! You didn’t protect him, you couldn’t even protect his ideas! You failed your directive, made yourself worthless, and I saved you when I could have killed you. I gave you purpose. I was there for you when Flynn was not. I made you perfect!”
“You’re wrong.” Tron’s voice shook. He could say nothing more.
“I’ll show you how broken you are,” Clu said, spreading his arms wide, his voice distorted and deepened an octave by his helmet. “Take the shot, Tron.”
Not a second thought crossed Tron’s mind as he staggered to his feet and struck forward, expectantly waiting for the shower of golden pixels. None came. His hand had stopped just short of slicing his disc through Clu’s middle, and he struggled to finish what he’d started.
Savior heismysavior, led me from darkness—howdareyou—
“What’s the point?” Clu asked, his smile evident in his voice. “What will you truly gain from derezzing me? Satisfaction? Revenge? The ISOs would disapprove of your savagery, as would the User. It doesn’t become you. You’re the Grid’s benevolent protector, aren’t you? What would they say of your eagerness to kill?”
A choked cry escaped Tron’s throat, almost unheard through his helmet. “I—” he squeezed his eyes shut, willing himself to finally rid the Grid of its cruel dictator. He couldn’t bring himself to do it. Clu’s words echoed in his head. It is because of me the some six million programs here still exist. I offered salvation. I saved them all. I saved you. Tron’s hand fell and a shiver of anguish ran through him, repulsed by his own very being. He was ruined. Clu’s reprogramming still held fast; he was not Tron. He would never be Tron again. If only Clu would forgive him—not Clu, Clu hadn’t programmed him, Alan-One had—
Who is Alan-One?
Tron crumpled at Clu’s feet, gasping for breath in his surge of panic. He had no name. He didn’t know who he was anymore. He didn’t want to be.
Strong fingers touched the sensory area behind his neck, manually derezzing his helmet. Another hand tilted his chin up, stroking, and Clu hushed him, his voice gentle but his eyes infinitely cold, dissecting, picking him apart. Orange began to flicker back into his program’s white circuits, on and off, fluttering like a User’s quickened heartbeat. Clu let go of him and stood again, moving to retrieve the two deactivated discs. Tron’s hand grabbed Clu’s ankle as he turned, and he crawled forward, folding himself around the golden-circuited leg, trembling.
Don’t leave me please don’t leave me I’msoalone—
Clu pulled his leg away, snapping the two discs together. Tron reached desperately for him, his circuitry almost entirely engulfed in orange now, only small squares of white still flickering faintly in the darkness. Clu watched intently as he took a step backward, and the program crawled after him pitifully, whimpering. The tyrant laughed low under his breath, reveling in that desperation, in that need. Finally he knelt in front of him, reaching behind him to snap the discs back in place. The white disappeared with a last weak pulse of light, overwhelmed by blood-orange.
“Identify,” Clu murmured.
The program’s head remained turned towards the floor for a moment, his breathing slowing, a collected, calm relief washing over him. He looked up at last, slivers of orange glowing in his gray eyes. “Designation: Rinzler.”
A deep approval lingered in Clu’s smile. “Good.”