Chapter 1: Arrival
Sheer determination and spunk were what it took to convince Kevin Flynn that she was the candidate to be his eyes and ears on the grid. Showing even the legendary game designer a few coding tricks had been the clincher. When she first saw the code for the project - she was head over heels in love with this new world. The programs, even as lines of syntax, seemed to come alive. When Flynn described just that, it clicked and she knew without a doubt she had to be the one -- that would pave the way on the grid for more users.
She wasn't sure she'd have a chance when she applied. Female programmers often get overlooked because they aren't as aggressive as their male counterparts. It's not a fault. It just comes from not being the squeaky wheel. People just don't notice you when you're quiet. Being in her late 20s, she decided she just couldn't be the quiet type any longer.
She also worried that her blond hair in a pixie cut and short waif-like frame would be a drawback and get her labeled "ditz", "shrimp" or worse yet "kiddo". Despite her quiet demeanor and stature, she could give a look with her bespectacled hazel green eyes, that would kill from all the way across a room when anyone tried to look down on her or those she cared about. And she had to use that look when she got comments about her all black attire. People didn't get how much she wanted this, and looking the part of being on the grid was only one facet.
Today her hard work paid off.
Crossing the 'bridge' between the real world and the grid is as incredible as it is terrifying.
She gives the thumbs up to Alan, who gives a reassuring smile and activates the laser. Knowing that she is being converted bit by bit to a digital form makes her mind scream about everything that could go wrong. Being aware of existing in two different spaces for a few seconds is the most disconcerting thing she's ever been through.
When she is in one piece again, her breath comes in ragged gasps and her hands feel the contact of the desk. But everything's like it's in a black and white movie, only with a blueish tinge. Putting her first two fingers on her other wrist, she lets out a sigh of relief to find a pulse. Shakily she gets up from the desk and looks around. Her legs still seem wobbly as her knee high boots make contact with the floor.
Flynn had said the grid was very different, but so far - not so much. It just looks like a version of his office. She tries to brush aside the disappointment as she makes her way to the exit. Stepping out, her breath is taken away by the beauty of Tron City. The incredible buildings with glowing circuits are so different, yet so familiar. It feels like home, even with her first glance into this world.
Her eyes are drawn upward to the skyscrapers in their dizzying heights. The vast distance sets her a little off balance, and she stumbles just as she hears two motorcycles pull up. Whipping her head forward toward the sound overwhelms her and she goes down to the pavement with an embarrassing "Oof".
A hand covered in black light suit reaches down to help her up, she gratefully accepts before straightening her tunic and short cropped blond hair.
"Are you OK, User?" and "Where is Flynn?" two voices ask, making it feel like a barrage of questions is about to start.
To head them off she holds up her hands, "One question at a time, gentlemen. First, I think I'm OK. Just a little overwhelmed. Wow, you two really do look like twins to your users… Anyway, as for Flynn, well, he sent me."
"Why?" one demands.
"He knows he can't take care of his son and the grid at the same time. Flynn just lost his wife a short while ago and Flynn is all little Sam has now. He's tried so hard to do both and to run Encom, but he's realizing each thing is a full time job in itself. I was the applicant that had the vision and skills closest to Flynn's."
"More expressions that make no sense. Users..." the one with the square jaw, bright blue eyes, and slicked back hair and wearing the black motorcycle jacket and jeans grumbles.
"You must be Clu. I've really been looking forward to meeting you, since I first saw you in the code!" she offers a hand, but he hesitates and lets the gesture fall awkwardly. She plunges on despite being a little hurt, "Flynn has told me so much about you. He's very proud of you and knows you've had a hard task. What did I say that didn't translate well? I'll explain or won't use them," she offers.
He waves her off, but she takes note at his annoyed expression. She'll have to learn the lingo here as quickly as possible to keep off his black list.
Making a guess from the glowing T on his chest, longer face, deep set brown eyes, and military style haircut, she ventures, "And you must be Tron! I've heard much about you, too!" Automatically her hand goes out to him - old habits die hard, and he graciously accepts. "Sorry, I have so much to learn. What's the protocol for greeting someone here?"
"No worries, User. How should we refer to you?" Tron tries to smooth things over.
"Oh... yes. I'm Kris. Kris Talegaard. I know Kevin Flynn used his last name here. But I'm more comfortable with my first name, if that's OK with you two."
"Good to meet you Kris," Tron says warmly.
Clu just glowers and Tron chides, "Clu, lighten up a bit. Let's get Kris to headquarters."
Taking out a slender cylinder, Clu sprints as a sleek futuristic motorcycle appears, and he takes off in a huff.
"Whoa... he just pulled that stick into halves and a motorcycle formed out of nowhere!" Kris exclaims absolutely ga-ga.
"You've not seen a light cycle before?" Tron queries and notes the shy negative shake of her head. Ever the gentleman, Tron offers, "I assume you'll need a ride." Her eager expression brings a warmth to his sober demeanor, so he hands the baton to her. "Hold it out in front of you, and pull it apart."
As she does and the cycle starts to form under her she squeals with delight, "Oh my God! That is so awesome!"
"Knowing Flynn, he didn't send you with a map. So, you'll have to let me drive. We'll get you your own cycle at HQ," he unabashedly climbs on in front of her and lets his helmet form around his head. "Hang on tight!"
"Don't I need a helmet?" she asks, feeling silly.
"Activate it, by thinking the helmet command. I'm surprised that Flynn didn't tell you these things. Don't hold it against the programs if they call you a beta," he instructs.
It takes a few tries, but her helmet finally flips up and she hangs on around his waist and locks her hands, "I've ridden a few motorcycles before, so I won't be a beta for the riding part," she says trying to cover for her noob-ness.
"Good. You'll need it here," Tron seems relieved as he revs up the cycle, takes off down the street and puts it into high gear streaming a light ribbon behind them. "Do User motorcycles do this?" he motions behind them and yells above the whine of the engine.
Laughing good naturedly, she admits, "Show off. No, they don't. And yes, it's pretty darn cool. Users must love the speed as much as programs."
"Then we'll have to show you the games," Tron shares.
"I'd love that!"
"Let's get you a disk first thing," he directs and they lean together as he turns a sharp corner.
At headquarters Kris can't stop touching each circuit, out of fascination. Every surface is so pristine and shiny - no fingerprints or dust. "You don't have circuits to provide your light in the User world?" Tron asks, politely pointing out that it's not standard behavior.
"Light comes from the sun, moon or light fixtures there. This is much more elegant than our solution." She clasps her hands in front of her to keep from touching everything.
Tron introduces her to Dyson (a short, muscular, sharp faced, hawk eyed program sporting a goatee), and the rest of the battalion, and to Clu's assistant Shaddox (an imposing but handsome ebony skinned program with a close trimmed beard).
Dyson volunteers to help her find her way to New Program Compiling for her disk and help her with integration.
"So what's it like to be a User and create programs?" his curiosity gets the best of him as they walk together.
"Well, I don't know what to compare it to here, yet. But I love the thrill of seeing all those characters in the source code come together. Most software I've written before has been long term projects, and to see the programs work together is what I live for," she reminisces.
"Y...You see our source code?" Dyson's voice rises several octaves and he stops in his tracks. He has difficulty speaking as a blush burns his cheeks. Calm and collected can no longer describe him.
"Well yes. How can we write programs otherwise? For this system - I haven't seen as much as I should..." then she notices Dyson's expression.
He squeaks, "What?"
"Well, if it makes you feel any better. Flynn was really proprietary about his code. He only let me take a peek at Clu's source for a few moments."
"Don't bring it up around him. EVER. I mean it." Dyson's voice drops with his staccato command.
Unable to stop herself before the words leave her mouth, "What? I was impressed."
Dsyon covers his eyes, "User, you need to learn some tact and a thing or two about a program's privacy."
"Sooooo...it's like seeing him..." her eyes go wide then her hand goes to her mouth in embarrassment. "Oh, my. I'll keep my source comments to myself. Sorry. The real world is, uhm, quite different in that respect. I'm actually a very reserved gal. I have a lot to learn...Oh ghads that sounds bad too...I think I'll just shut up now."
Dyson had just regained his composure, but that last remark before she started to turn beat red just got to him. A fit of laughter overtakes him, that he can't get to subside for several microcycles and it drags Kris in too. When their laughter calms he admits, "Kris, having you around will never be boring. Let's get you a disk before they come looking for us and find us derezzed from the giggles." He opens the door for her and she quickly steps in, hoping to leave her discomfort in the hall.
A formally dressed female program with lovly tanned skin and large jet black eyes greets them. She's quite a bit taller than the two of them, but she moves with a grace that Kris envies. With a raised eyebrow she inquires, "So dear Dyson, what did I just miss? I've never seen you so red before. You were practically glowing."
"Ruby, it's not fit to repeat," he tries to sidestep her question.
She tries Kris. "What ever you said, tell me so I can see him like that again. It's so dull back here in this rarely used department," Ruby begs.
Dyson gives Kris a pleading look.
"Ah...no. I was just repeatedly embarrassing myself." Kris sees the disappointment in Ruby's face, and wishes she could have shared. The program seems like she'd be fun to get to know.
Ruby sashays over to select a disk from a cabinet. Dyson is entranced with her every move, even when she takes Kris's arm and guides her into another room.
After Ruby shuts the door she asks "Now, hon what is your function?"
"User. My name is Kris, by the way."
"It's a privilege, User Kris," Ruby perks up. "My predecessor assisted Flynn with disk installation. Will you require armor or a different uniform?"
"What did Flynn wear here?"
"His casual user look would not suit you, even if tailored to your form."
"Hmm. Do I have to decide now, or can I come back later? I'd like to blend in, instead of sticking out." Kris hopes to have more time to think.
Ruby assesses Kris's tunic, leggings and boots. "This will suffice as your default look, but you can add others later. I would recommend minimal circuitry with your current attire."
Kris notes the delicate circuitry on Ruby's outfit and realizes Ruby's exquisite taste, "I'll defer to your judgment."
"Prepare for installation." Ruby attaches the disk to Kris's back. There's no pain, but it does seem to scramble her brain for a second before her vision returns to normal.
"Installation complete. Now for the fun part." Ruby winks, then lifts her finger and it begins to glow as bright as a welding torch. "Stay still User Kris."
Ruby brings her to a mirror to watch the progression. She starts drawing a diamond shaped set of small circuits just under her collar bones.
"It tickles!" Kris tries hard to resist moving.
Ruby continues small blue highlights on her shoulder blades, down the back of her neck, on each hip and the soles of her boots.
Inspecting the work, Kris gives her thumbs up approval, "Sweet! Thank you!"
Ruby whispers to Kris, "I could read your lips through the window. Dyson is so straight-laced. It was precious to see him laugh and blush. I'm glad there's someone who can do that for him. Let's see what he thinks of you now."
"Ruby, didn't you see how he looked at you?"
"He always does. But he won't go beyond that," Ruby dismisses it and directs her back out to the lobby.
With fluid movements that show off Kris as if she's a tempting product for sale, Ruby asks for Dyson's opinion and gently nudges Kris to turn around, "What do you think?"
"You do the very best work, Ruby. Perfect choices as always," he responds admiring Kris, but then fixating again on Ruby.
When they are safely down the hall, Kris decides to bring it up. "Dyson...I couldn't help notice how you look at Ruby. I know it's not my business, so tell me if you want me to butt out. But I think she likes you, too."
"Nah. A program like her? She'd never go for a security program like me. Flirting with everyone is just in a siren's programming."
"Don't sell yourself short, ok?" Kris encourages.
"I thought you said you were reserved..."
"Point taken." Kris makes a zipping motion over her mouth.
Meeting them at the corner, Tron takes over the tour so Dyson can get back to his duties.
Heading up to the command center, Tron checks with Kris, "Are you ready to help us take on the challenges we face here, or do you need some time to adjust?"
"I don't know. Part of me wants to see the grid and get comfortable here first. And part of me just wants to jump in with both feet right now," she admits.
"So you're really planning to stay?" he inquires.
"Yes. Part of the reason I was the best choice to come to the grid, is that I have no attachments back in the real world," she confides.
Cutting in from behind them, Clu contradicts, "The User world is not more real than this one."
"Clu..." Tron grumbles.
"You have a valid point, Clu. Very well. I'll refer to where I came from as the User world." She turns to face the still sullen lead program, "I know we got off on the...I mean we didn't have the best first meeting. But I'm here to stay Clu. Know you can depend on me." She purposefully offers her hand to shake, "Truce?"
He stares down at her outstretched hand. "Truce," his answer seems in conflict with his petulant manner.
She uneasily fiddles with her sleeve, "Ok then. Let's get started."
Chapter End of Line
Chapter 2: Challenge
After seeing Kris to Flynn's old condo, Tron hunts the system leader down to try to straighten things out.
"Clu, you treated her with absolute scorn. What is wrong with you?" he challenges.
"Flynn, himself, should have come. Why did he send a substitute?" Clu protests.
"She explained already. Users have children and they take much time. Flynn will be back some day. He cared enough to send a User."
"But she's not familiar with the grid."
"And we can help her. Clu, she's willing to live here among us - instead of heading back to the User world for long periods like Flynn did."
"It's just that, she's..."
"Get over it, Clu. She's here for us. For the grid," Tron demands.
"I don't trust her," Clu gets into Tron's space.
The security program stands his ground, "Flynn sent her, so I do. I'd recommend you do the same."
"She's trying to take my place," Clu won't relent.
"No, she already clarified that. Flynn cared enough to send a guardian, so we wouldn't be on our own. Clu, get it through your resistant circuits. She won't even stay in his living quarters longer than she has to. There's something different about her, more humble and sincere. I think she's what the grid needs, Clu."
"Sleep cycle ending," a pleasant feminine voice alerts as the lights slowly turn on. Kris pulls the pillow over her head. Milicycles later, the bed tips her out. "Sleep cycle has ended. Please function now, User Kris. Resistance is futile."
"Ugh..." she groans as she's unceremoniously dumped onto the floor. "You didn't do this to Flynn, did you?" she fusses.
"I was programmed to handle less cooperation than you are showing this cycle, User Kris," her room's AI annoyingly chimes.
"Blah. Flynn you're a jerk," she bemoans, "I have to get my own place before I come back to ring your neck for creating such a dreadful wake up system."
"Flynn isn't here Miss."
"Gah..." she throws the pillow at what she assumes is the speaker.
"Tron, I've got to find a place of my own. Flynn's place is driving me crazy. I did NOT appreciate being dumped out of bed. And where can I find some coffee and breakfast?" she grumps at the only program who is listening to her.
Completely deadpan Tron asks, "I know we kept you up late, but are all Users this grumpy in the early clicks of the cycle?"
Shrinking back a little abashed, she offers, "I'm sorry. What a rotten way to greet you."
He shrugs it off, "We don't have coffee, but I can show you the +O2 where you can get an energy drink before we start for the day. Flynn was experimenting with different flavors last time he was here. Strawberry or orange interest you?"
"Which one is more popular with programs?"
"Orange, but the original is still the favorite."
"I should try the original first, shouldn't I?" she looks for confirmation.
"You don't need my permission." He switches subjects and holds out a baton to her, "Here's your new cycle. It's a copy of mine. I didn't think you'd want anything else of Flynn's."
"Exactly. Sweet! Thanks so much!" she cradles the gift.
After only 30 milicycles of dealing with Clu and his obstinate attitude, she storms out of HQ with Dyson and Tron following, trying with no avail to calm the enraged User.
"What does he have against me?" she screams at the hapless programs.
Dyson steps in to take the brunt of her fury, "He doesn't take change well. Never has. And Flynn hasn't been here for Clu as much as he's needed."
"But I'm here to help! Why does he have to be such a jerk? I'm here for good. Cant he see that? It was so important to Flynn that I reach him," she blurts her frustration.
"Not yet, Kris. Give him time. He'll come around," Tron takes a turn to soothe.
"How can you be sure?" she slams back against the wall and crosses her arms in disbelief.
"I know him and I know the one who wrote him. Both are what you Users would call 'pig headed'," Tron continues.
She snorts at the phrase, and Tron's lifted eyebrow confirms he's seen this plenty before.
"Well," Dyson adds, "I hesitate to tell a User what to do..."
"I could use the advice."
"Don't give up. He's angry with Flynn, but idolizes him too," Dyson tries to gently encourage her to be more like their creator, even though she's fighting it with all she has.
Unconsciously, she bites her lip as she processes what her new friends have said. Glaring up at the conference room level, she wills Clu to look out so she can bore a hole in him. "Understood," she concedes and blows a strand of hair from her eyes. "Thank you for hearing me out. I need some time for my emotions to catch up with what I know in my head. I've not seen much of the city, so I'm going to go for a ride. Be back later."
Tron hands her a small black disk, "Press it if you need to communicate with us. We haven't briefed you on the dangers of the grid."
She nods and accepts it, letting it strap itself onto her upper left arm. In a flash she's off down the road.
"Give her space, but follow. Just in case, " Tron orders Dyson.
"I know you're there. You might as well join me," she calls back as she sits on the side of the bridge, letting her feet dangle over the water below. The lights of the bridge move in the reflection of the current. Glow from the city looks like a haze around the stark silhouettes of the buildings.
Dyson takes a seat next to her and rests an arm on his propped up knee.
"So, what's the best way to let off steam here in Tron City?" she asks.
"You mean deal with stress? Well, there's the games courts, dancing at the +O2, and programs are almost always up for a good race."
None of the ideas seem to help her out of her sulking. Dyson tries one more piece of advice. "You know he's not met his match before. Until you can stand up to him, he'll continue to dismiss you."
"But I hate the conflict..." she whines.
"Then he'll take advantage every time."
Pulling her knees up to her chest, she exasperates, "Blah. There's not even anything to throw here..."
"Aren't Users supposed to know how to deal with everything? Flynn always had a plan."
"Alas, we don't. But I'll figure something out. I've got to."
Back in Clu's office...
"Clu, I've burned the ships," Kris insists.
"More sayings that a program will not understand! Do you think it makes you superior?" Clu interrupts.
"It MEANS that I'm not going back. I AM HERE. Deal with it," she advances on him.
"You're not my User! I know what I need to do, so mind your own business and let me carry out my function!" he doesn't flinch as he glares down at her.
"And Flynn sent me to help you. You always wanted more help from him. You always wanted him to be here and see that THIS world is important too. I'm here because he saw that need. Buy a clue!" she parries.
"What does that mean? Are you making fun of the name I was given?" he reposts.
"It means you need to actually try to understand what I'm saying. You're blocking me out, but there's nothing more counter productive that you can do!"
His glower speaks volumes of distrust.
"You don't get it, do you? I'm here for you. YOU, Clu," she pokes a finger in his chest.
With his jaw tightly clenched, he defiantly growls and swipes away her hand, "You have one chance, User. That's it."
Letting that small hard won concession sink in, she softens a tad. "I won't let you down. Show me what your number one priority is."
"The waves of grid bugs. They're originating with the ISOs," he gives the ultimatum and denotes the hardest hit sectors. "The ISOs are likely the ones bringing this plague. They don't belong here."
Gulping, she laments to herself, 'He couldn't pick an easy one could he?'
Chapter End of Line
Chapter 3: Lure of Power
In the book Tron: Betrayal - Shaddox is very no nonsense. But it always seems that very intelligent, powerful and influential people are only ever serious in stories. That bugs me. It's not true to life. So I tried to give him a little more depth. Anyone who would work with Clu everyday would have to have a sense of humor.
"I knew it. You're no help to us," Clu takes her hesitation as weakness.
Kris runs her hand through her butterscotch bangs to try to recompose herself, "Actually, Flynn, Alan and I were discussing this issue. We think the grid bugs are coming from multiple sources. One is actually external to the grid - a fault in the older hardware we're running on. Memory in computers can go bad sometimes and cause what we in the User world call glitches. I suspect they manifest as grid bugs here. We have a plan to move the grid to a new more stable platform with an automated backup and much more space."
"Alan...my User?" Tron whispers in wonder.
Ignoring Clu's look of skepticism, she focuses on Tron, "Yes, your original User is still there. And he's proud of you adapting to work in this system." She squeezes Tron's shoulder, "I should have told you sooner."
Pushing her glasses back up on her nose, "As to the other source, we're working on that. We suspect that the other source of of the bugs is generating near or along side the ISOs, not because of them. And I'm working on a modification to the grid code to try to help minimize the bugs, but still allow spontaneous life forms to appear. The first phase of this though is the system move. We'll have to prepare the citizens. If moving is anything like coming to the grid - which is down right scary by the way - it may cause panic among the program residents."
"What is the time table for this move? Do we have any say?" Clu fumes that he was not included in this decision.
"You do have a say. I know the grid on the current Encom desktop is what you know as home. And if you and Tron don't agree to move, it won't happen. But I think you'll like the new system designed specifically for the Grid. When the Grid was first designed, Flynn used the best computer available. Like the Grid, the User world evolves. You'll be amazed at how fast and efficiently the new system will run. Memory is more reliable now too. I truly believe this will help wipe out a large section of the grid bugs," she encourages.
"User time tables are so in-exact. I don't want the whole grid waiting cycles just for the Users out there to get around to moving us," Clu is still not buying into this, but he's intrigued.
"Yes, it will be a cron job, so it can be guided by the computer clock. Residents here won't be waiting for long periods in fear. That was something I insisted on. And we'll have quite a bit to coordinate with the outside, so we hacked a communication protocol to work with this system. It was tricky because this system doesn't follow the newer methods, but we managed. I wanted real time, but Alan pointed out that it wouldn't work well since life on the grid goes at a much faster speed. But we'll be able to leave messages for each other. And on the new system, it will be even faster."
Seeing that Clu is truly interested now, she pushes for the sale, "I know you'll like the new more powerful system. It's the best money can buy in the User world and it's amazing! I was running simulations on the new system and...It just blew me away. I had a hard time coming up with a test that would really push the limits of the server. Oh, Clu - you'll be able to do so much more with the Grid there! More capabilities, more room for the Grid to grow, more stability!" She's jittery with excitement over the possibilities.
"Flynn promised us much, and often got sidetracked by things like the ISOs," Clu offers one last bit of resistance that reveals yet another injustice by his creator.
Softly she goes to face him, resisting the urge to reach out. Her bright green eyes lock gaze with him and counters, "I know. That's part of who Flynn is - brilliant and visionary - but a little flighty. I'm more grounded and better at carrying a plan through and seeing the details. Flynn is better at coming up with ideas and seeing the overall picture. But most important - I'm dedicated to the grid. And I really am here to stay. How many times do I have to say it?"
Clu looks to Tron for his answer and receives a decisive nod, then answers, "If you aren't expecting me to clean up your mess - I'm in."
"Yes! I can't wait for you both to see the new system!" She gives a celebratory jump into the air at her first victory with Clu. Another thought brings her back to earth, "That brings us to the next issue. You'll need the communication code. May I insert the mod to your disks?" she offers.
"Flynn told me this was impossible," Clu sputters.
"It used to be," she responds as she adds the code to Tron's disk. "Yes or no, Clu..."
He slaps the disk into her hand.
"I knew you'd like this ability. Just remember, it'll take time to get replies, ok?" she soothes. He's been horrible since she arrived, and she's got to work with him. What happened to that code that caught her eye when she first glimpsed him from the User world?
"What do you think of the residents getting a vote on the changes I'd like us to bring to the Grid?" she pauses to see his reaction.
"I need to review them first. But the programs here might appreciate a say in changes. We'll talk more after the system move," Clu procrastinates her request indefinitely.
"Of course! Clu, I know I'm not the user you wanted to be here, but I'll do my best for you...for all of you."
"No, you're not the one I was expecting at all."
"Believe it or not, I want to work with you, even though you've been a jerk."
"Why? This isn't logical."
Tapping her finger on her lip in thought, "How do I explain it?...I just do. You're the first program of your kind."
"I don't need your admiration or your pity," he tries to dismiss.
"But you do need help from a User," she persists and hands back his disk.
Reviewing the mod that was just added to his disk, he strides out the door.
Dyson peeks around the corner to make sure the coast is clear and shuts the door to Shaddox's office, "Find anything?"
Shaddox's sly work with the system logs puts Dyson in awe. So few programs have access to those files. "Let's see what my little grep line found. Hmm. More arguing. Oh-ho, ho! Looky this. Our girl made a bit of progress. She must have listened to your advice."
"Users actually listening to programs. That would be a first," Dyson adds wishfully.
"Oh, and Ruby turned down two more hot date requests. She's waitin' for you, lover boy."
"What? Leave Ruby out of this."
"Come on! Kris and I are right. You know it," Shaddox waggles his eyebrows conspiratorially.
Waving him off, Dyson takes his leave, just as Tron walks in. Shaddox hurriedly closes a couple vid windows.
"What was that all about?" Tron's voice is filled with suspicion. He knows his comrades all too well.
"Just chillin' with Dyson," Shaddox gives his best image of innocence.
"Stay out of Kris's business," Tron demands with an educated guess.
"Brotha, you are so darned uptight. You know I gotta know everything to do my job," Shaddox verbally dodges.
"And the 2nd most powerful program on the grid is also the most nosy," Tron quips.
"Comes with the territory, bro. You know how the boss is. And she's on his radar now with all that talk of a blingged out new system."
Chapter End of Line
Chapter 4: Lack of Requirements
"System transition is T minus 52.14 cycles. We have much to accomplish and all programs must be informed of preparations to be made. Ensure vid screens are posted in every neighborhood. I don't need to say this must be completed as efficiently as possible," Clu closes the meeting with his top advisers and they file out. He radiates confidence and belief in the plan and those under him are following suit. But Kris is trying to figure out if his heart is really in it, or he's just being an obedient program. She wants his buy in, desperately. With out him, this will all fall apart. She knows he's been working like a dog to make this happen.
When the room is empty of all other programs, he wipes his hand over his face and the facade falls to show the worry and exhaustion. Noticing that she's still there, the walls go right back up.
She sits beside him to offer some comfort and hoping he won't take this wrong, "Clu you're working yourself into the ground - I mean that you're working so hard it's wearing you out. I'm glad to see you care so much for the Grid. But, take a little down time. Do it for me, ok? I'm worried about you."
"I don't do this thing you call 'down time'. I'm functional and will continue to be," he tries to brush her off.
"Clu, even Tron takes time for himself in the games. Being a little obsessive is one thing. But you need to step away from your job, so you can be refreshed when you come back to it," she nudges.
"I was tasked with perfection - but it's not possible. And if I could manage perfection - I'd have to maintain it. If even one program is not ready, it falls on me. 'Down time' does not exist, and I'm very busy as you can see," he dismisses her.
She gets out of her chair but doesn't leave yet, "Perfection is in the eye of the beholder. Each person and program will see it differently, Clu. Programs have to be ready - you can't choose for them. If you don't rest, you'll break. Simple as that. Come to the games with me. Tron and Dyson are competing today. It'll show support for your friends and the community. Even the mighty Clu can do something fun, if it has a purpose. Come on..."
Even while she was talking with him, he began reading reports coming in. She sighs exasperated and makes her final case before leaving the room, "What good is perfection if it takes so much from you that you can't enjoy it? I'll save a seat for you, in case you change your mind."
She's just put her visor up, as he saunters out of HQ as if nothing is out of the ordinary. "It will benefit the citizens if we're both at the games at the end of cycle."
"Ok..." is all she can manage, as she lets her cycle actualize.
"We'll be late if we drive," he releases the vehicle in his baton and it forms into a light copter, "Unless you wish for me to beat you there..."
"Fat chance," she revs her cycle.
"I only play to win, User. Come with me and we'll be in time," he steps in and motions for her to get into the chopper.
Her head tilts and she pauses before storing her cycle, joining him and poking him with her baton, "You owe me a race, mister."
As soon as both her feet are in the chopper, Clu lifts off and makes a beeline for the stadium. She grumps, "Could you have at least waited until I was at least sitting down?!"
A few microcycles of fuming pass before she notices the lights below. "The view is breathtaking!" she gawks at the glowing citi-scape as it glides by.
"Yes. I prefer flying," he concedes before touching down on the helipad above the seaward side of the stadium.
Leading her to the announcer's box he motions for her to take a seat nearby, as one of the announcers gives Clu his chair. He hints, "We'll need to be a comforting presence shortly."
"What's happening then Clu? Did you get a message?" she pesters him for information.
He points to the enormous glowing wave on horizon behind them - a single streak of aurora that spans the entire skyline and is moving ominously fast. Decisively, he clicks the mic and his face appears on every vid screen in the place. "Greetings Programs. User Kris, and your leader Clu here to show you there is nothing to fear as the wave approaches. It is only a backup in progress. She and I will be the first scanned. As the beam approaches, remain seated. Afterward, the cycle's events will proceed as normal."
When he clicks the mic off and brings it with, Kris fumes, "You could have warned me."
"You could have asked on the way or you could have read your messages," he gives an annoying shrug that emphasizes his point and he steps in line with her so the scan reaches them at the same time. "Look at the camera now, and show them it's ok."
She stomps her foot in annoyance as the light rushes over them and eerily creates a glowing band that shows their inner core. They can hear the crowd's nervous agitation. He switches the mic on and shoves it at her, causing her hands to go clammy from being put on the spot. He's only doing this to see how she handles it. Everything he does seems to push her buttons.
Lifting the mic to her mouth, she tries to offer words of comfort as the scan proceeds to the stadium and the murmurs turn to wails, "Programs, the scan is painless. I know it's new, but do not be afraid. Flynn and Alan are in the User world making a backup copy of our entire world as a precaution. They truly care what happens to us and want to be sure that not a single program is left behind when we move to the new system. This will happen a few more times before the move commences. Thank you for being brave through this time of change. You are all a credit to your maker."
His hand is held out - silently demanding the mic back, and his confidence urks her. She slams it none to gently back into his palm and a barely visible lopsided smirk shows on his face.
"Just stop it with the mind games, Clu. We need to work together," she snarls. The programs in the announcing booth are just gawking at their interchange. Who in their right mind would talk to Clu or a User the way they are speaking to each other?
"We are working together. But we are also tied now. I play for the long term. You'll just have to keep up," he challenges before switching the mic back on and facing the crowd. "Citizens of the Grid, the games may now commence!" He waves to the crowd as he provokes her, "Dyson is up first, you could at least act excited for him..."
"Bring it on," she slugs him in the arm, relieved at the change from him pushing her away.
He pulls back, shocked at the fact that she just hit him, even though it wasn't hard.
"UGH...it's a friendly gesture between friends or close rivals," she pinches the bridge of her nose after yet another breach of etiquette.
"I find it too...reminiscent of Flynn," he reveals before changing the subject, "I expect the games will end with Dyson against Tron again. The crowd loves when it comes down to that pairing."
"Clu..." she tries to form the words for her thoughts. Why does he have to be so darned complicated?
"Yes?" he says as he looks intently out toward the field.
"Thank you for telling me."
When the contestants enter the arena, the crowd erupts. Tron and Dyson are the definitive favorites as the volume of cheering rises considerably. The high emotion is infectious, sucking in Kris - distracting her from Clu's stealthy exit attempt. The swoosh of the door gives him away though.
"Hey, aren't you going to stay?"
"I'll listen to the vid cast as I plan. I've seen them play before."
"Dyson swore he would beat Tron this time!"
"He always says that."
"Come on, Clu. Just a few mili cycles to support our friends."
"Will you stop nagging me if I stay?" he pleads.
"Yeah..." she concedes, but it's not the attitude she'd hoped for.
"Meet me in the VIP box."
Clu was spot on. Several milicycles later it's announced that Tron and Dyson are to be the final match.
"So what were you going to work on?" she sips an energy drink and attempts small talk while they watch the final match pre-show.
Lounging with his boot against the window and a drink idly hanging in one hand, he purses his lips, "Preparations I've been working on for some time now. Though, I thought we were having 'down time'."
"Fair enough. I just wondered what was so important. Will you tell me sometime?"
"Not necessary... Are you cheering for Tron or Dyson this match?" he evades.
"But they can't both win," Clu gives her a puzzled look.
She sighs, "I know. I still want them to both win, though. Isn't it funny how Users want conflicting things sometimes?"
"I suppose," he puts down the drink and steeples his fingers in thought.
"Who are you cheering for today?" she asks in return.
"Tron. He's always the victor," Clu says matter-of-factly.
"No exceptions?" she's surprised.
"Until Dyson can exceed his programming he will always be second to Tron," Clu explains.
She frowns sadly, "I know how Dyson feels. I've had to live in my big sister's shadow all my life."
"That's the first thing you've said that I identify with," Clu confesses, and stares out the window as he drains the remnant of his drink.
"Flynn's shadow... Yeah, that would be a difficult one to get out from under," she says in a hushed tone. "Well, it's about to start - need another drink?"
He reaches back to give her his empty glass in acknowledgment.
When she returns, he asks, "You're the User. Yet, you didn't even object when I told you that your plans have to go through me. And you just served me. Why seek my approval? What do you gain?"
"Well, I want to work by your side, not be your superior. Flynn is mythical, even considered god-like here - he's the creator after all. But that's not for me. It's dangerous in a system where we want more users to visit. A master and servant caste system always goes bad. We have to be able to be equals, just with different strengths," she confides.
"And I'm the key..." he puts the piece in place, as he watches the fireworks that indicate the last match is about to start.
"Yeah...The key to helping the programs be independent. Interacting with users, but not dependent on us," she keeps it simple.
"You need to interact more with the programs, to truly understand us. Since, you enjoy the games. I'd like for you to start training for the games," he requests with unexpected humility.
"Awesome!...But what about the work that needs to be done before the move? Will you listen to my ideas?"
"Tell me after the match."
"Gladly, if you're sure you can drag yourself away from your other work..." she lightly teases as Tron and Dyson are announced for the match.
"User, you have no idea what being here is costing me in planning. Flynn only ever requested my presence for tasks. I'm here because you didn't require something from me." He stands and starts clapping for his friends as they make their entrance.
A catch in her breath makes her question - How could Flynn only see him as a means to complete tasks? "I'm...I'm glad you stayed and will slow down for a bit." Everything else she wants to say seems like it will get in the way, so she joins him in welcoming the two contestants.
"Dyson vs. Tron - light cycle battle on 2 levels. Disk and staff allowed," the automated emotionless female announcer states.
Kris does a fist pump in the air. "Sweet! I've been waiting for a light cycle event!" Wistfully she adds, "Now if we only had buttered popcorn..."
It makes Clu shake his head in amusement, "Users. You're all so excitable."
The levels form on the field with a staggered series of ramps between them. The ramps switch speed boosts on and off. There is a series of road blocks between the ramps, preventing long straight runs at each other.
The two weave and dodge trying to cut each other off with the light ribbon from their cycles. Dyson succeeds with a tricky bump maneuver then a burst of speed, knocking Tron off his cycle and sending him tumbling into the air. As Dyson is about to come in for the 'kill', the bell dings for a gravity reversal and "Levels 1 and 2 merging" is announced. It throws Dyson off in aim. Instead of making another round for Tron, Dyson puts his own preservation first.
Tron takes off at a dead run and slides, managing to grab his light cycle, and swings back to the active level just before the bottom layer collapses. Dyson makes his way back around.
A little in awe of her new friend she remarks, "Tron never gives up, does he?"
Clu adds, "Though Dyson does, because he's never had to fight for his existence like Tron has. Tron will push him to the limit every time." He leans in to see how Tron manages to turn this one around.
Tron pulls out his staff and Dyson follows suit.
Instead of attacking Dyson with the light staff, he calculates and raises it above his head before slamming it down and deleting the section in front of him. Dyson's momentum carries him forward. His cycle drops below him and derezzes as Tron catches him. Using the momentum to whip him back up onto the surface, Tron then flips himself over to slam down with his disk just hovering over Dyson's neck.
The automated voice chimes in, "Combatant Tron. Final round. Victory."
"Wow! That was so totally awesome!" she screams and jumps to her feet along with the crowd below her.
"Had Dyson stood his ground, he would have had a chance," Clu remarks.
"At least, he made Tron work for the win," she grins starting to enjoy the squabbling with Clu.
Chapter End of Line
Chapter 5: Peace Offering
Back in the main conference room at HQ.
"The simulations I've run with the light hounds have stopped the bug waves, and retrieved a sample to study. I'd like to proceed with testing two hounds in the hardest hit sectors," Kris presents confidently. "They are intelligent, but not fully sentient. So they will be good defenders, without loss of life. We'll need a sample grid bug for them to track. But once they know what a grid bug is, they'll always be able to track them and alert us when the bugs are near. I'd like for the citizens to vote if we keep them after the move."
Clu inspects a miniature holo model of a wolfish program in a predatory lope. He looks up, "You have a beta version ready for test?"
"Right here." She tosses a file on the floor, and it transforms into a sliding door which releases two almost shoulder high rather scruffy but lean hounds that sit and bark at a visual cue. Their circuit lines go along their collars, ears, and feet. "Magnus and Ulf are their names. They're modeled after wolfhounds from the User world." Scratching them behind the ears, she praises, "You're such good dogs aren't you? So ist brav."
Clu's head tilts in puzzlement at the last phrase.
"Oh sorry, I forgot to mention that. They're trained to follow commands in a User language called German. Only their handlers will be able to give them commands. Would you like a copy of the command list? I'd like to send Ulf with you on your inspections today, so all the programs can get used to him."
Clu holds out his disk without hesitation this time. While the commands download, she introduces the dog to him, "His brain is scent based. Put your hand out to him for him to smell, and he will know you."
While he puts his hand to the hound, its nose glows on contact, and she says, "Ist Clu." Ulf sniffs and barks to let her know that he knows the program now. "Pass auf (gaurd) Clu," she commands and the dog goes to Clu's side. "He's loyal and obedient to a fault. Please don't do anything like asking him to fetch something that can't be fetched. He'll derezz himself trying to please you."
Clu gives a slight grimace at the thought, "Sounds familiar." It's too close to home, so he changes mental gears, "What do you have for the migration?"
"Well, the immediate need is keeping the populace from mass panic, right?" When no contradiction comes, she continues, "They need something to do to help mentally prepare. Then we all can focus on the construction of the terminal connection and mass transit needs for the move. I'd like for them to see the hounds moved. I'd also like for them to start setting aside 7 cycles worth of energy. Lights are scheduled to go out at about T-3 cycles. It's best to have a few cycles worth on either side of that. Do you think that it will help them focus on the terminal and additional trams?" she hopes for his input.
"It should ease their circuits. The terminal will be completed on time if they aren't distracted. Will Alan and Flynn be helping to create the trams we'll need?" he counters.
"Yes. They left a message verifying the population count, so they're making progress," she adds relieved to finally be working with instead of against him.
Kris is eventually able to take a few half cycles to start training for the games. She's determined to try this with out User skills. But it's kicking her butt. Sports have never been her forte.
Tron and Shaddox have been encouraging her to keep trying. But she's fearing that even they might give up on her ever improving.
At disk practice, she tries to throw her disk repeatedly at a target and can't hit it for anything. Finally her arm just won't throw anymore. She keeps telling herself as she rubs her aching arm, "Practice makes perfect! I can get this!" Magnus and Ulf retrieve the disk for her, which helps take the sting off a little.
When she overhears, "Hey look at that beta program! She couldn't use her disk if Flynn guided her moves!" It gets under her skin and she slams her disk to the floor, letting out a string of swear words that would make a sailor blush.
Her only strength seems to be the light cycles, though battle from them doesn't work out well.
From fighting practice, she has more bruises than she can count.
"She's beyond hope, bro. I don't wanna dis the girl, but can we just send her home before she starts cryin'?" Shaddox whispers to Tron.
Tron ribs him hard and hollers to her, "Use your center, Kris!" He's lost count of the times that he's repeated that phrase.
Clu drops in to see how she's progressing, fully expecting to see Flynn's game talent. His jaw drops at how utterly awful she's performing. "I thought you said your talents were close to Flynn's!" he protests and stomps onto the field. "What in the name of the creator, do you think you're doing here if you can't even master basic grid skills?"
It distracts her and her opponent sees the opening, kicking her into the air toward Clu. She sees the oncoming collision. Clu's strong aversion to her friendly touch gestures had been received so badly, that the thought of crashing into him makes her shudder.
Instinctively, she starts a dodge function, her hands move as if holding an invisible ball and then pull a part. Her white circuitry turns a sky blue hue. Bright light emanates from the center and unwinds into tendrils of blue characters that protectively wrap around Clu and herself. When her right hand closes, the strands whip her like a leaf around him and she lands in a crouch as the ribbons of code fade. Clu's hands sift the fading lines in bewilderment.
"Dang, Kris! We should have had Clu visit sooner, 'cause that was 'da bomb!" Shaddox exclaims. "You were just waiting to show off for the boss, right?"
Clu's eyes roll. But she chuckles and smoothes back her hair, "Aww, no. Just didn't want to tick him off again by bowling him over with my complete lack of grace."
Lifting an eyebrow in Clu's direction, Tron walks over to the user. "Code is your center, Kris. Don't keep trying to avoid the fact that you're not quite like us or even Flynn for that matter. Accepting what you are will help in all areas of your life cycle."
"So much for trying to fit in..." she deflates.
"Programs would stand in line for many cycles to see that bit of wizardry. They'd be hounding you for autographs," Shaddox tries to cheer her up.
She pats his arm, "Thanks, but that's what I've been afraid of... I'll see you all later..." Clu is heading off the field and she jogs to catch up and her hounds follow.
Tron gives a knowing nod in her direction, and Shaddox has to cover his mouth to keep from snorting in laughter. "So. Someone's got it bad for the boss..."
Quietly snickering Shaddox adds, "Oh that will be a good one. Think he knows?"
"Dunno. Could get interesting around here," Tron muses.
"You managed some real talent back there. Why didn't you tell me about your abilities?" Clu broods as they walk. "I should have been informed."
"I don't want the notoriety. If programs want to hold Flynn in that kind of status, fine. But I don't want it. I was the only one to be able to out code Flynn at the interviews. It was what gave me the chance to be here. He and I talked quite a bit about how it would affect the grid and myself. The burden of godhood is heavy," she's noticeably uncomfortable with the idea as she chews a thumbnail.
"You should have kept your talent secret, then. You can't avoid it now, User," he points out, but doesn't say the reference to her with malice.
"But I was headed straight for you..." she protests.
"So, you chose to protect me instead of hide your power."
"Duh, Captain Obvious," she retorts.
He glowers at the reference, her tone explains the phrase fully though. "Would you choose otherwise?" he probes, temper cooling.
"No. I guess not..." she's more contrite now.
"Very well then," he closes the conversation.
Scrunching up her face she frumps, "That wasn't much of a pep talk..." But he's right. She's got to live with her actions.
T-41 cycles to migration. Clu and Kris seem to banter instead of argue, now. The User feels more like she's finding her place, despite the reverence most programs show her. Her hounds have proved their worth in helping to defend the weak sectors of the grid. Bug samples haven't turned up what she'd hoped and she doesn't feel she can keep the samples long - for fear they'll attract a new wave. Clu isn't fussing about the ISOs as much, perhaps because he's got other things to think about. But Kris isn't ready to broach that topic quite yet.
"Hey, you," she pulls a chair up next to his at his favorite conference table.
Vid screens are spread out all over, showing the progress made, steps left to accomplish, messages from all over the grid asking for help or info, status of each sector, grid bug incident reports, ISO status, and all manner of other things. Closing a few of them, the grid leader rubs his temples.
"Can I get you anything?" she offers.
"Focus. I can't stay on task right now," he lets himself be vulnerable for a moment.
"What can I do to take some of the load off of you? You don't have to carry it all alone."
Waving her off, he insists, "I'll manage."
She shakes her head, "I knew you'd say that. So I brought you a couple things - a double shot energy drink and a little surprise." She puts the glowing glass in front of him first, then a small velvet box with a loop clasp.
He seems unsure as he does a double take, so she coaxes him, "Go on, open it."
Slowly his fingers move the clasp from the loop and flip back the lid to the box. "What are these?" he asks of the black spheres with orange stripes.
"They're for meditation and focus. May I?" she explains as she reaches for the spheres. Placing them in one palm and rotating them, she ensures they don't touch as they go around. "I see the way you're looking at me like I'm crazy. But humor me. Once you get it, it's relaxing and helps keep the random thoughts away." She drops them into his palm.
He holds out his hand, fumbling just a few times before finding the coordination. "Hmm..." he tests flipping through vid screens one handed while he twirls the orbs.
Tapping the desk as a signal that she's done here, "All right then. I'll let you get back to work. I was serious about helping you more, though."
Turning back to her, he indicates the gift and drink, "Thank you...Kris."
"Someone has to watch out for you," she smiles as she walks out the door.
When she's safely outside, she can't resist a little victory dance, because he used her name this time. His guards try to pretend they didn't see the odd User behavior. But they have to straighten up quickly to cover when she gives them 'the look' and they know they've been caught gawking.
Chapter End of Line
Chapter 6: Race
Tron's office. T-28 cycles to migration.
On cloud nine is the only way to explain Tron's reaction when he receives a vid message directly from Alan. HIS User thought enough to send a message. Stifling a giggle, Kris pats Tron on the back, when she catches him replaying the vid message over and over. He's oblivious to any teasing, because the contents of the vid message make him more hopeful than he's been since he was placed on the grid. He lets it run one more time, just to be sure he understood it right.
A face just like his, but a little older and with glasses appears. The same voice as Tron's speaks, "Hey Tron! This is Alan Bradley. It's great to finally be able to communicate with you. How are things going on the grid? I've wondered how you're doing. Flynn said he didn't move your counterpart, Yori, to the grid. But I think she'll be of use to you on the new system. Would you mind if I install her? I expect to make the trip to the new grid to help with the transition. See you soon!"
"Alan is so much like you Tron. It's almost scary. He even mentioned that Flynn told him once that Yori looks just like his wife, Lora," she shares, hoping to help the User world seem a little closer for her friend.
"He's installing Yori...and HE thinks of me, even after all this time," Tron mumbles almost dazed.
"He really is an awesome guy and loves to hear the stories about you. And you two will probably be trying to out do each other with politeness, worried what the other will think," she gently jests.
"Nah... A User wouldn't worry what a program thinks, would He?" clearly nervous about meeting Alan.
"Wrong, bucko. I do." Her childish chagrin makes him laugh at his fear.
T-22 cycles to migration.
Tumbling. Falling. Helpless. A look of resigned acceptance. He's descending into endless dark depths and she can't do a damn thing to save him. Why can't she make a program to catch him? She tries to scream his name and dive after him, but no sound comes out and she can't move.
"Kris!" she hears his voice but it's not coming from his mouth.
"User!" startles her awake with a gasp and she tumbles awkwardly out of bed, twisted up in her sheet. Hand to her chest she tries to catch her breath after the dream. Then she sees the boots with the distinctive yellow orange circuits in front of her. He's only recently changed his outward form. But she'd know that unique circuit color anywhere.
Puzzlement covers her face as she looks up to him and tries to cover herself better with her sheet. Her cami pajamas aren't enough to cover her for her comfort. "What in the world are you doing here? In MY ROOM?" she demands.
"You were screaming my name. I assumed you needed my assistance." he states as if there's nothing weird about this situation at all and he starts inspecting the things in her room.
"I..I was having a nightmare. It was so vivid...I can't get it out of my head...I must have actually voiced the scream when I couldn't in my dream," she covers her head with her arms wishing for the images to go away.
"You needed me? Yes or no," he presses.
"Technically both... Even though it's a bit creepy that you were hovering over me while I was sleeping. I'm relieved to know my nightmare isn't true and you're NOT falling to your deresolution," she shakes her head, "That was the worst dream I've had in a long time. So...Tell me. How did you know I was calling your name? And how long have you been in my room?"
"I set up a cron job to monitor you and alert me if you were in trouble. I'm here." Her broken apartment door supports his story.
"Just, how should I take the idea of being monitored?" she says with a set jaw.
"I was ensuring your safety. Nothing more," he tilts his head a little confused at her mood. Making an educated guess, "Nothing on the grid is truly private. Didn't you know? All commands and communication traffic are recorded for review later."
"Oh my. Think I need a while to process that," she shuffles as she gathers up some clothes for the day, while clutching the sheet to herself. "I'm going to change in there...Uhm...make yourself at home..." she sweeps her arm in a halted gesture because of the sheet. As she heads into the other room and is about to close the door, she turns back as it dawns on her, "So, you really were worried about me?"
"I thought you might be in trouble," he repeats simply, holding an image of her and another User.
"Right then," she bunglingly closes the door.
When she's presentable, she closes the broken front door and invites him into the living room for a drink. He states a crew will be around to fix it.
Handing him a glass and sitting down across from him, she nervously adjusts her tunic. "Umm...Thank you. I mean it was weird. But I appreciate that you'd come to my aid...And I keep sticking my foot in my mouth...Ugh."
He gives a nod of recognition to her gratitude and asks, "So who were you with in the image?"
"Oh that...she was my older sister. Despite living in her shadow, I loved her very much."
"Was?...What happened?" he holds his glass in both hands and leans forward to hear better.
She takes a deep breath. "Well, it's not easy for me to talk about. But I'll try. See, she was killed in an automobile accident..." Kris swirls her drink and gathers herself for the rest, "I had sent her a text message. I didn't know she was driving at the time. When she checked it, she ran a red light and was killed instantly when the semi hit her." Tears fill her eyes, "I keep telling myself that it wasn't my fault. But it keeps nagging at the back of my mind..."
"I don't know what to say..." he fumbles.
"It was several years ago. Sorry for being such a downer," she sniffles and tries to regain her composure. "I need to get out for a bit. What about that race you owe me?"
"I should verify the progress on the new station." He gets up to go and puts his glass in the sink.
"Perfect! A race up the coast might be just the thing we need! And maybe I could be of help ta-boot." She grabs her light cycle baton and points it at him, "You up for it?"
"You don't stand a chance, User," he states flatly as he heads out the door.
She's not quite sure if he's agreeing to the race, or trying to discourage her. But she hopes for the best as she banters, "I think it'll be the other way around, with my User Mojo and all," she runs past him and wiggles her fingers conspiratorially, before rezzing her light cycle.
"You'll need it," he hollers, while he's at a dead run and his helmet goes up. He leaps into the air with his cycle rezzing and passes her up.
"Clu, you stinker!" She slams it into high gear and lets the light ribbon trail behind her.
In town, it's easier to keep up with him. She lets him lead - since he knows all the short cuts. She'd just be behind here anyway. But on the single lane highway, this is where she has the best chance. His racing experience keeps him in the lead. Every time she thinks she can pass him on a corner using a little mojo for boost, he uses the corner to his advantage. Near the station, she sees her chance. She chants a bit of code to use his cycle's momentum to slingshot her cycle forward. Some how though, he manages to pull ahead of her and reach that station first.
"You cheated!" he fusses with his helmet up, despite his win.
"No, I warned you I was going to use the Mojo," and she wiggles her fingers again. "Retract your visor so I can see your expression. You're difficult enough to read as it is." She waits while he complies. The ever so small grin on his face is worth everything to her. She pokes her baton in his direction again, "And talk about cheating, mister. How did you get such a fast bike?"
"Just a few modifications. Can't have anyone being faster than me." He tosses the baton in the air idly.
His pretend modesty entices her, "So that's how it is. I'll just have to snitch your cycle next time."
"Next time? I see you don't give up," he looks back as he heads into the station work area toward the back office.
"Nope," she catches up and matches his stride.
"I took it easy on you..."
"If word gets around..." she feigns shock.
"It won't, if you want a rematch."
"Scandalous! That's extortion..." she mock protests.
"I know...Lets get this over with. I have another meeting. And I want to see if you manage to steal my cycle..."
"Are you sure you want to tempt me? I might keep it."
"I know where you live."
"You just can't stand to lose, can you?" she smiles at his audacity.
"I don't lose. But I do enjoy a challenge," he tilts his head indicating the location of the site foreman.
During the meeting, Clu runs through a few tricks with the orbs Kris gave him to help fend off the boredom. The terminal is progressing on target. A minor glitch with a crane down, but two crews worked over time to repair it. They need an extra order of i-beams, because the inspector had the architect update the blueprints and said the roof needs better stabilization. But the beams are on the way, so Kris doesn't have to conjure them.
"I questioned that when they first showed me the drawing," he mutters as they walk out and he swings his baton lackadaisically. Does he really want her to do this? Jeeze, he's such a tease. Who would have thought?
Figuring there won't be a better chance, she catches the baton on the upswing and tugs it from his grip. Using a small code boost to propel herself forward faster than he can take off in a run, she rezzes the cycle. As soon as it hits the ground it sends up a dust cloud.
He anticipated her move and pulls a second baton from his side. In no time, he's right behind her and then pulls out in front.
"Hey! I thought your cycle was faster!" she yells into the helmet mic.
"It is. That one was bait," he taunts as his lead grows.
"Fine. Play that way." She waves her left hand feeling the familiar tingle of the code being spun and she snaps her fingers. Suddenly she's swapped driver places. "Whoo hoo!" she cackles with glee as she's finally ahead of him. "If I win, I'm keeping your cycle," she goads.
Feeling rather smug as she rounds the next corner, movement catches the corner of her eye. He's taken an off road short cut and is headed into a cave as he scolds through the helmet mic, "You lost focus. And it would be cheating to just teleport yourself to HQ."
Wracking her brain, she swears. She's not sure where he is, so she can't just show up there. Think! Think! Think! While she ponders, she spins a little code to increase her speed and the light ribbon starts to show up a ways behind her. Ugh! How much faster will he get there? It's so not fair that he knows the grid better than she does.
At least she can enjoy his tricked out cycle. It had to be tailor made for him, because it doesn't fit her as well as her own bike.
City lights appear and it occurs to her that he insinuated a single teleport would be cheating. She makes several small jumps through inconvenient turns in town. When she finally pulls up to HQ, he's standing there waiting and his visor slides back to show his 'I told you so' expression. She tries walking past him, but he motions 'gimmie' with his hand. "You teleported, didn't you," he chides.
"A few inconvenient corners. You did say 'just' in the definition." She smacks the baton into his hand, "Sweet ride by the way."
The ribbing continues as they head inside.
Dyson catches a glimpse, nudges Shaddox and jerks a thumb toward the couple. Both officers peek around the door to watch the interchange.
Kris gestures, out of view, that there's an audience.
"Slow day, programs?" Clu queries with his back to them.
The two heads poke back into the room, and Kris shakes her head trying to keep a straight face. As soon as she can manage it she mentions, "Well, I should check on the migration from Flynn and Alan's end. Let me know when you're up for another race, ok?"
"You weren't beaten badly enough the last two times?" he prods and leans back on the wall.
"I'm learning your tricks plus I have a few more up my sleeve, bud."
"I believe the phrase 'up my sleeve' refers to cheating," he says blandly, but she notices a twinkle in his eye.
"Oh, and baiting me wasn't?"
"It wasn't in the rules."
"What rules?!" she exclaims.
She executes a one-eighty and throws her hands into the air, "Gah! What am I going to do with you?"
A luscious waft greets her as she opens the new door to her apartment, and her stomach growls in response. Tip toeing slowly over to the cardboard tub, she picks up a piece with the utmost delicacy - afraid that it won't be real. "Oh my word! Somebody really loves me!" She cradles the tiny white puff smothered in warm butter, and inhales its scent as she giggles with absolute pleasure then pops it into her mouth. "Mmm! Oh, wow... this HAS to be a dream!" she says in ecstasy. Cramming a whole handful into her mouth, her next words come out rather muffled, "Now where did you come from, my delectable little morsels? Who Convinced Alan to send you to me?"
It occurs to her, that if she eats ALL the popcorn, she might not ever be able to have some again. Regretfully, she tucks a little into a zip file. Hopefully the warmth and melted butter will be replicated if she copies the file. Instant popcorn - what a novelty that will be!
Next she realizes that her friends back at HQ might like to try the treat, too. Pouting and sticking out her bottom lip, she's a little afraid that there won't be enough. But she dutifully puts the tub in a zip file and slaps it on her sleeve. Dashing out the door she heads off to share her treasure.
On her way into the building, she does a quick test and copies the zip file with the precious contents. Then she opens the replication and the intoxicating scent starts drifting down the halls. Programs start appearing, following their noses, as she walks to the break room. The whole building seems to be there and it's standing room only. Perched on a desk to hand out copies of the tempting treat, she directs, "One at a time now, I'll share as fast as I can."
"Where did you get this?" and "What's it called?" are shouted from the crowd.
"Well, it's popcorn and it's one of my favorite User foods ever! Someone was really kind and figured out how to get some for me. There's a couple programs that might have heard me talk about it. I'll be sure to hunt them down to say thank you for such a thoughtful thing."
"And you're willing to share?" a familiar voice emanates from the back of the crowd. Clu stands in his signature hands behind his back stance, with a minute hint of amusement on his face.
"Truth be told, I started stuffing it by the handful into my mouth, unable to think of anything else. Then I realized I should probably share..." she confesses slightly chagrined.
"Leave it to a user to cause utter chaos with a small token of apology," Clu mockingly reprimands.
"Yep. It must be in my nature to make things as crazy as possible," she volleys. Then a blush covers her face, "Thank you, by the way..." He's ducking out before the crowd puts two and two together. She's left to endure the cat calls as she makes her way out of the room. Playing it down is next to impossible. Shaddox, catches her arm as she goes past and encourages, "Go get him, User. He deserves something good."
She knocks on the closed conference room door. "It's just me, may I come in?"
Hearing, "Enter," she sneaks in before others notice and closes the door.
"Hey, you," she drags a chair up next to him, a little closer than she's dared before, and opens the zip file, placing it by him. "Want to try some, since you were kind enough to give it to me in the first place?"
"I wanted you to enjoy it," he tries to refuse.
She takes a handful and says with a full mouth, "I am. Immensely! This is too good not to share..."
Reluctantly, he gives in and takes a kernel. "Good."
"Dude, better than good! It's awesome!" she munches happily.
"Users... always so dramatic..." in his customary straight-laced tone.
"Thank you. I seriously missed this!"
Pushing his chair back and putting his boots on the table, he sighs, "I thought it would be kept quiet. Now there's chaos, and it won't be quickly calmed."
Drawing her knees up to herself chest, she sheepishly replies, "Sorry. I meant well. I was just so happy, I couldn't keep it to myself." She puts her head on her knees and munches. "Forgive me?"
"You'd nag me until I did."
She covers her face then peeks from between her fingers. How does he know her so well? "Yeah..."
"What is it about the User spark?" The theoretical question hangs in the air. "What is it in you that is the essence of energy? Flynn has it too. It didn't translate to me or other programs. We emulate you. But we don't have that...that vibrancy or potential for entropy," he ponders popping another kernel into his mouth.
"Those two things seem to go together, don't they? Kind of like calm and in control, or order and perfection..." she muses with him.
"Perfection...that elusive mist that only appears in the distance or stays for less than a nanocycle..."
"That's why we should just take time out to enjoy the most perfect of moments that we can find, right?"
"Like right now," she unfolds and puts her feet up along side his and grabs another handful of popcorn then grabs the tub and offers him some more.
He accepts and closes his eyes as he crunches contentedly. Then he nonchalantly twirls the spheres she gave him, the first time she's ever seen him at peace.
"What?! They're just sitting there with their feet up?" Dyson's creased brows express his exasperation.
Shaddox, in on the conspiracy, makes his voice go up in pitch at the next part to mimic a female voice as he stuffs his mouth with a handful of popcorn, "And there's no 'Oh thank you Clu, baby!' and giving him a big smooch?" Neither program can seem to get enough of the snack or the drama.
"It's time you step away from the system log," Tron enters the room and gives a tug on their shoulders simultaneously.
"Now!" There's a dark tone that won't book disagreement in Tron's voice.
"Tron, you're such a killjoy...You got no spark, man. No spark at all!" Shaddox protests as Dyson closes the sound file that told all about the moment between Clu and Kris. Then he rounds on his co-conspirator, "Dyson! How could you eat the last of my popcorn!? That was low, man. Real low..."
"You snooze, you lose," Dyson shrugs as he leaves.
When Ruby returns from break, she finds a little zip file with a note.
'Didn't want you to miss out on the treat Kris shared with us. Enjoy! -Dyson'
She smiles to herself as she daintily tries a kernel, then messages him back, "Thanks! You're getting bolder. Try face to face next time."
Chapter End of Line
Chapter 7: War
T-15 cycles to migration:
"The attack is ten clicks outside of Argon City. Bugs are swarming in masses larger than we've ever seen and will likely overtake the city with in the cycle, sir." Shaddox maps the attack on the wall sized vid screen in the emergency council room.
"Reinforcements are on their way. Keep us informed," Tron issues orders.
Shoving his head back on his chair's rest, Clu focuses on the ceiling as he twirls the orbs in his hand, "Why did another memory chip choose to fail now?"
Kris pipes in, "I've just messaged Flynn and Alan. We can't hot swap memory. But if they can bypass that memory chip and we max out the 2 remaining ones, we may make it to migration with out having to go through system restart. Granted, processing will be slower and traffic will be bogged down. I'm just concerned that our system has been running non stop for so long, that if we restart - it might not come back up. I've seen that happen in the User world. And we're not ready for migration. But it's your call. Would you rather we reboot or try to limp along?"
Clu pinches the bridge of his nose. "I agree. Restart is not an option for us at this time. We'll have to conserve resources and deal with the attacks as best we can.
Tron, have all programs in the affected areas evacuate to higher ground where the attacks are least likely.
Dyson inform the public to conserve resources and prepare for possible shutdown, just in case. We're likely to see shortages and slow downs with in the next couple of cycles if the Users outside can pull this off."
"I'll be going with the battalion to Argon City," Kris informs the council.
"No, I'd rather you were here," Clu gives her a warning glance.
"Clu, you know I can help speed up the creation of a barricade. And I just got my armor upgrade a few cycles ago," she protests and purses her lips in a pout.
He glowers, "We'll talk privately." Addressing the group in general, "Are there further reports or concerns before we adjourn? …No? You are dismissed, with the exception of you, Kris. We'll talk on the way."
A few sniggers, can be heard and Kris's eyes narrow as she points with two fingers to her eyes then to Shaddox and Dyson as they exit- 'I'm watching you, two.'
Kris strides down the hall, with her hounds loping behind her, determined to go with the strike team.
Clu blocks her path. "Kris, I'm just getting used to you being 'our' User. I don't let others close to me and I won't let anything happen to you," he intends to book no opposition. When she looks for an opening around him, he anticipates her moves.
"I'm glad we're closer. It truly means a lot. But, that doesn't change my mind. I have a responsibility, Clu."
"Why do you insist on going against my wishes?" Clu speaks through clenched teeth.
"Because, I am not you. You asking me to stay goes against my own wishes. We're our own sentient beings. I need to be of use here on the grid. You know that," her voice gets louder as she stands her ground. Then she softens, hoping to avoid this escalating further, "Clu, I know you mean well. And it's sweet. So many programs are in danger right now. I've got to go."
His intention was to keep her safe, he'll be darned before he looses this particular battle. "User, you don't know what you risk," he growls and continues down the hall, with silence between them.
When she and the hounds board the light chopper that will lead the recognizers, Clu does too.
"What are you doing? Aren't you going to coordinate the troops from HQ?" she can't suppress her confusion.
"Shaddox is capable."
"But, this will be dangerous! The grid can't be without you," she starts to protest, but realizes her hypocrisy and what a lost cause the argument is. He's not going to be told what to do any more than she is.
Rolling his eyes, he straps in, "Only *now* would a User think of such things…"
Tron reasons if he pushes their buttons they'll shut up for a bit. "If you two are finished with your little lovers' spat, we're ready for take off." Kris's whole face burns red as she buckles up and Clu pretends to ignore her when he sees the blush. Tron raises his eyebrows in a hint of amusement, knowing darn well he was right. Then he signals the pilot.
Seven clicks from the attack, they get a visual on the waves of bugs.
"Tsunami…" Kris blurts in horror. For the benefit of her colleagues she explains when she sees their lack of comprehension, "In the User world, it's a huge wall of water that starts from violent shaking under the water a ways away." she swallows and starts coding as she talks, "This may not just be one memory stick going bad…"
Her hands move in a blur as character streams start to form and cast a blue green glow on the faces that watch her.
Clu taps his communicator, "Shaddox give us a projection for the highest of the waves."
Kris adds, "I'll need to know the force generated and the expected length of the attack."
Shaddox's voice comes through the speakers. "You don't want much do you, User? Let's see here. Based on previous attacks and noting the exponential progression of the intensity…I'd say 25 meters, lasting hopefully no more than half a cycle before decreasing, and a force of 1300 kilograms per every cubic meter of the wave."
"Oh, my…well beyond the hounds capability. And taller than I'd hoped. But not as tall as a rectifier. O….kay..." Kris starts to fret as she works. "Well, I'd hoped to be able to make a solid wall. But I don't have the time right now to code something large to withstand that kind of pressure. Here's what I can manage...If we can set down ahead of the waves, we can erect a series of electrical wall panels that overlap with the rectifiers as the support columns (skinny side to the onslaught of the wave). I think we can re-direct the attack back to the ocean or at least to a lesser populated area. I'll have the baton codes ready to transmit to the rectifiers in just a second…right about…now. The most dangerous part is we need programs on the ground to plant the batons, to make the wall between the rectifiers about 3 rectifiers wide. I didn't have access to a rectifier to make the change there. Would it be better to just help evacuate programs?"
"Argon City isn't small enough to evacuate quickly. We need to give them time to head to higher ground. The wall may give them the time they need. This will give us a method to deal with future attacks too," Tron gives his thoughts.
Clu gives a grim nod and transmits the codes to the rectifiers. "It carries high risk for those setting up the barrier. But the most benefit."
"That will leave the evac team - each program on that team will need to take a light jet and a personnel carrier. Have them make those baton copies now," Tron relays the info.
"The ground team will each need a wall baton and a form of transport away from the wall area, in case of a breach. A soldier from each rectifier will need to create the wall to the north of his rectifier," Clu finishes the plan and has the pilot send the barricade creation instructions.
When the rectifiers land between the city and the oncoming wall of grid bugs, the ground crew has less time than originally calculated to create the shield wall.
"Scramble!" Clu gives the order. He and Kris remain in the copter on the ground to oversee the mission. The hounds run the perimeter to lay down a small initial barrier in front of the main one. The rising flood hits the small wall first, buying a few microcycles of extra time to complete the big wall.
But when one of the soldiers can't get his barrier baton to activate, Kris runs out to help. Clu follows, muttering curses. She throws up a code wall between the rectifiers to suffice until the baton can be activated and struggles to help the sergeant to get the baton to work. Much of her concentration is invested in maintaining the shield wall section. As the wave hits, it puts too much strain on her and she drops the baton. Clu snatches it midair, tweaks it and slams it into the ground to activate the wall section. Relieved that she can lower the shield, she leans on the sergeant who helps her run as the trio heads back to the copter. Kris sees the hounds go down as the tsunami catches up to them on the outside of the transparent barrier. "Farewell, faithful ones," she whispers in respect for their sacrifice, "I'll miss you both."
As soon as they are aboard, the copter takes off at full throttle before they can even strap in. The ascent is so quick that the recognizers look like toys before the trio can process it.
"Monitoring shield wall status. It's holding," Shaddox reports to Clu, who gives a sigh of relief.
"I don't feel so …" Kris's grip on the handhold slackens. She crumples and tumbles out of the climbing copter.
Clu bounds out the side after her. He puts up his helmet and makes himself as aerodynamic as possible to give himself the best chance of catching her.
Maneuvering to the side he glides in beside her and latches on with both arms. The shock he receives knocks the breath out of him, as her energy starved body absorbs a tremendous amount from his circuits. It's all he can do to hang on to her. They're plummeting down toward the grid bugs that are crashing against the barricade.
Desperately, he musters a bit more strength and pulls out his light jet baton. He tries to activate the multi seat option with one hand, but his hand isn't where the button is on the cylinder. "Come on!" he mutters. Finally, he jabs the thing into his hip, hoping to activate it. The rezzing of the light jet is the sweetest sound he's heard in megacycles. Struggling to dump her into the seat behind him, he finally does he pulls the plane out of free fall just above the waves. Only then can he focus on trying to breathe again. His gasping breaths suck in enough air to keep him from passing out.
Now to get her to the medical center, away from this chaos. When his breath has returned enough to speak, he contacts HQ. "Shaddox, have a team ready to meet me with Kris at the top of the medical center. She needs an energy infusion immediately," Clu snaps an order.
"What happened? Tell me she's gonna be OK, Clu. The news went live about how she helped save Argon City. We can't lose her! Programs are just starting to put faith back in the Users."
"I'll explain later. Clu out." He can't bring himself to express how worried he is, or to speak of the event just yet. It takes all his will to concentrate on getting to the center. His insides knot tighter with each microcycle.
Finally their destination is in view, and he slows the jet so it can hover over the roof. He closes the baton and grabs her as the jet disappears.
Dealing with the dead weight of an unconscious person is difficult at the best of times. When you don't have your strength it really sucks. Luckily, the medical team is there to assist. He tries to follow in a run but almost collapses at the door. One of the medics peels off from the group and helps the leader of the grid into the facility, despite Clu's protests.
He hasn't said a word yet, but he hovers anxiously at the door. After they get Kris hooked up for the energy transfusion, they let Clu into the room.
Taking a last swig of the potent phosphorescent drink they gave him for his own recovery, he pulls a chair up next to her bed. "Hang in there, Kris," his voice is tight.
Nearing the end of the cycle, she opens her eyes again.
"Hey you," Clu says in a hush.
"Hey," she croaks back.
"You almost scared the circuits off us."
"Ssssorry, hadn't passed out before," she refers to when she's spun code on the fly like that.
"Evidently when you use your User mojo, it's powered by your life current. Putting up the wall almost drained you of energy and you shut down," he explains.
They hear a knock on the door frame and Dyson greets them, "Our celebrity is finally rebooted. Excellent! I'll be right back! You two have to see something…" He disappears and returns with a wheelchair. "Let's get you into this, Kris, so you can see."
Helping her into the chair, he explains to Kris, "It was all over the mid-cycle vid cast, how you all saved Argon City - and how you almost derezzed in the effort. Sergeant Ott told everyone how you saved him and maintained the shield wall. Then you shut down and Clu rescued you. Ott organized a get well vigil, out of gratitude."
Dyson pulls back the curtain and pushes her chair forward and beckons Clu to come see too. From the 4th floor window, they see a river of programs with circuits doused, all holding light sticks and wishing for her recovery. At the front is Sergeant Ott and he salutes when he sees Kris wave. The gathering extends as far as the trio can see.
"Oh, and Ruby sent you this," Dyson hands Kris a small bouquet. "I need to get back, she's waiting for me."
Grinning like a Cheshire cat Kris slugs him in the arm, "Dyson, you sly dog! When did this happen?"
"Well, she needed a ride here…" he beams from ear to ear.
"You'd better get back down to her then," Kris frees him from any obligation. "Thanks for checking on me and for showing me. It's touching that everyone cares so much," she gestures to the window.
"Glad to!" He rushes out and waves his goodbye.
Clu is still gazing out at the gathering when she asks, "So you saved me? All I remember is everything going black, then waking up with you here."
"Yes," he clasps his hands behind his back.
"I…I thought we were going to lose you when you fell…" his hands fall to his side and his shoulders slump as he loses the stoic facade.
"You must have gone after me," she reasons.
He nods, unable to meet her gaze.
"So what aren't you telling me? Was it a close call or did the barrier fail?"
"VERY close. We were almost both derezzed. When I caught you, it should have been easy. But in your depleted state, you sapped my energy - in the middle of free fall. It was difficult to activate my light jet…"
"Oh my God! You took a terrible risk for me. Thank you…" she expresses and reaches for his hand.
He steps away, "I should go. My energy is restored enough for my duties."
"But, Clu…" she stammers. "What's wrong?"
"Shaddox said he wanted next watch over you," Clu informs, putting more distance between himself and her.
"Clu!" Her shout echoes down the hall after him.
"When are they going to let me out of here, Shaddox?" Kris whines.
"When your strength is back," his usual playful tone and speech mannerisms are gone. "User, we need to talk...about Clu."
She hugs her pillow and gestures for him to continue.
Shaddox tensely licks his lips before starting. "Clu was created for one purpose. He's relentless as he pushes himself to work toward that every single cycle. It's caused some serious friction between him and Flynn. Every time Flynn showed up, he added more chaos into what Clu was working on. But Clu still idolizes his creator. So your arrival has been even more chaos for him to deal with. Also programs all over the grid have started to lose faith in the Users since Flynn last visited so long ago. Clu was one of the most strongly affected. And you're uniting the grid, something that he hasn't done yet. But, girl, something about you is driving the poor program crazy. And you believe in him. He needs that more than he'll ever tell you..."
"If that's so, why did he just walk out. I was just saying thank you for saving my sorry butt and going to give his hand a squeeze? I know things remind him of Flynn, but this is different isn't it?" the perplexed expression wrinkles her nose.
"I'm getting there. Girl, you gotta learn some patience…," he pauses to remember where he was in the conversation, "After he told me what happened and let me know it was my turn here, I could see the conflict. He was pacing back and forth so indecisively it was almost like he wasn't himself anymore. I suspect that he didn't know whether to hug you or choke you for being so reckless today. Clu does not worry much about others. Yet he risked himself for you and wouldn't leave your side until you awoke. I've known him since I was created. Please, don't push my bro or you'll break this fragile thing you two have. And it may break him too."
She pouts as she hugs her pillow tighter. "All I wanted when I first saw the grid in code form, was to meet him."
"Girl, the Love Doctor is here. You wanna tell me what you see in him?"
Her pillow swings in an arc and thwacks Shaddox on the head.
"Hey! I was just trying to help!" Shaddox protests and puts his arms up protectively.
"And you'll analyze it in the log later…"
"I analyze everything. It's my function. So just get it out, already," he makes no bones about her accusation.
Tugging at the corner of her pillow she acquiesces, "Fine…It started when I first saw his code. Not just as functions - but I had a glimpse into the real him at source code level - kind of like into his soul. I could see what he looked like, his potential, and the comments Flynn had left in his creation, the uniqueness of his nature as a program, everything but his very thoughts. All I knew was that I wanted to meet him."
"A rather invasive way to fall for someone," Shaddox jibes.
"You're one to talk," she bites her bottom lip to try to keep from grinning.
"Back to the issue, though. We know there's something holding him back. We've got to find out and help him face it." he puts it as clearly as he can.
"Got it," she answers meekly.
"Now if only Dyson's issue could be solved…" Shaddox ponders.
"You may have to work on your observation skills 'Doctor Love'," she teasingly emphasizes. "Didn't you see him and Ruby down at the gathering together?"
"No?! It finally happened? Dang, that boy took long enough," Shaddox leans on the back of the chair, elated that things came together for his close friend.
Flopping back in her bed, Kris teases with a smug look on her face, "I knew something you didn't. Nanner nanner!"
"Gimme that pillow, girl!"
"No way!" Kris dodges and hangs on to it for dear life.
Chapter End of Line
Chapter 8: Condemning Evidence
T-7 cycles to migration.
"Clu? You there? We need to talk," she absently rubs her arm and tries to ignore the sinking feeling in her stomach. She didn't want to see the files she's carrying right now. But find them she did, and she's got to hear it from him. All she can think about is the dream she had of him falling into the black depths.
No answer, so she pushes through the door anyway and locks it behind her.
Head in his hands, he's hunched over the table, muttering, "Where are they?" Then he erupts shoving everything on his desk to the floor, "WHERE ARE THEY?!"
When she steps next to the wall into the corner of his vision, he slams his fists down and demands, "Leave me!" before he slides his hand over his face. She doesn't budge, and he roars, "I said, LEAVE ME ALONE!"
She bites her lip and chills go right through her. "I have them," she tosses the files in front of him. Tears start to fall, and she wipes them away with her sleeve.
His head falls to his chest, and the silence is deafening.
Through her sniffles, she breaks the silence, "I...I need to know. Why?"
Leaning on his elbows, he laces his fingers and rests his forehead on them while he responds, "I was told to make the perfect system..."
"A few cycles ago when we talked about perfection, I thought you understood. Chaos and order do not mix. Perfection only lasts when there isn't a spark, and it still has to be controlled to be maintained."
"But to wipe out all the ISOs? To betray your maker?...And ME? YOU CAN'T BE CONSIDERING THIS!" her fists ball up in indignation as her protest rises to a scream.
He rushes the wall behind her and slams his hands next to her face, pinning her there but careful to not lay a hand on her. She turns her head from him as he seethes, "I have no love for the ISOs. BUT DO YOU THINK IT'S WHAT I REALLY WANT?! TO STRIP AWAY EVERYTHING GOOD IN MYSELF?! TO BECOME A MONSTER?!" He confesses hoarsely, "All I wanted is to be with you." His palm slaps the wall. "But I can't. My User, in his infinite wisdom, gave me an impossible command at the instant of my creation, and I have to follow it even if I derezz trying." The haunted look in his eyes is worse than anything he could say.
"Clu..." She puts her shaking hand up toward his face, but stops short. "What if we talk to Flynn? Surely, he can't know what he's asked?"
Taking a hand from the wall, he pulls hers to his cheek and nuzzles it as he revels in the bittersweet of finally letting her reach out to him. "Your hope and spark, there's nothing more intoxicating...But I know him. If I ask if I'm still supposed to create the perfect system, he'll say 'Yeah...' and be confused why I'm asking."
"And you've been trying to find a way around it for a long time, haven't you?" she finally sees why he's always been so moody and aloof, resentful toward Users.
Resting his head on her shoulder, he indicates that she hit the mark.
She wraps her free arm around him and entwines her fingers in his hair, "We can still get him to cancel the command. We just have to get it through his thick skull. Before you told me this, my idea of perfection was very nebulous and inconsistent. But I understand what you're saying now, and I think he can too. Please, let me help you, Clu."
His throat is so constricted, he can only manage a nod. But she hugs him tighter in response.
A couple of loud thuds interrupt the tranquility. The door bursts open, and admits Tron and his battalion, who swarm into the room with disks raised and activated. Seeing her tears, Tron is ready to strike. He points his disk at Clu and warily asks, "Is everything ok?"
The couple turns as one as she maneuvers herself protectively between him and the others, "It will be."
Shaddox stows his disk and moves his fingers past each other a few times indicating the contradiction, "Yo. This does NOT match with what's in the system log..." causing Dyson to punch him in the arm for the absolute lack of tact.
"Can we have some privacy? PLEASE." Her last word isn't a request.
"You heard the User. Out! On the double!" Tron barks.
After the last under his command leaves, Tron addresses his old friend. "Clu, we had no idea of the burden you carried. You don't have to carry it alone. We're a team. Remember that." Turning to leave the room, he raises and circles his index finger - indicating for things to continue, "Now get on with your making up and stuff. I can only keep my crew from the system log for so long. They don't need a live play by play."
Not even waiting for the door to shut, Clu pulls her up into a kiss and swings her around, until they're both too dizzy to stand and they giddily crash to the wall laughing with hope, and love, and the knowledge that they're in this together.
Chapter End of Line
Chapter 9: System Failure
T-5 cycles to migration:
1 microcycle ago, 2:57 PM PDT
I'm sorry to have to let you know we can't keep the system up. It's totally bogus. But we've tried every trick we can think of. I know you didn't want to, but we have to shut down. The system is hitting a cascade failure with another memory chip down and the system disk completely full. We have the best chance to save data, if we do it now. Prepare everyone for immediate shutdown.
See you on the new system, man.
Kris reads the message over Clu's shoulder and absent mindedly smooths that one persistent flyaway lock of hair at the nape of his neck.
"So we do this the hard way. Should be about 30 milicycles from now. Let's get the warning out," Clu grabs her hand and they dash to the control room.
Shaddox diverts power to the emergency broadcast system.
"This is your leader, Clu and User Kris. We just received notification from Flynn of system shutdown. I repeat system shutdown. Halt all processes and shelter in place. We expect blackout in approximately 10 milicycles, and the final shutdown in less than 20. Take heart. After shutdown, we will be ported to the new system. See you all in our new home. Safe journey."
Sirens from the civil defense message repeaters begin to blare in the background as the warning is sent.
Groups of friends huddle together. Dyson messages Ruby to come upstairs, so she's not alone. Shaddox is the only one who works until blackout.
When the power loss arrives and programs' circuits are the only light - it's eerily silent, except for the click of Shaddox's boots on the floor as he walks over to sit with Tron's group.
"It's been a pleasure serving with you all on this system," Clu gives his respects to his crew - his friends.
Kris puts her arms around him and tucks her head into his shoulder. Pulling her in tighter, he kisses the top of her head while they wait together. As their vision goes dark and circuits fade, he takes in the smell of her hair and the feel of her next to him, hoping to hold her like this again.
Chapter End of Line
Chapter 10: Migration
Illumination gradually increases and consciousness gains a grasp in his circuits again. Bright lights turn into distinct shapes, as Clu's vision starts to clear. The first thing he's aware of, though, is that his arms are empty. There's a distinct lack of Kris next to him. He's rezzing onto the new system with out her. The first sound he registers is a primal scream coming from his own mouth as the dread fills him.
"Easy," Clu registers Flynn's voice and feels the familial touch on his back as Flynn kneels beside him. "Take a deep breath. You're ok now."
"Kris! Where is she?!" Clu immediately pulls up a vid screen and starts a repetitive search function script to look for her on the system.
"You're sounding pretty desperate there, dude. What happened?" Flynn takes a seat on the ground next to him and peeks at Clu's screen.
"She was here with me. Now she's not! I have to find her!" Clu can't get the last image and feelings out of his head. No one warned him of how traumatic the sudden change of location would be.
Shaddox's voice is a beacon, "She's coming on line right now, Boss. It was harder to bring her over. She's not just a program like us. She's almost rezzed - eighty-nine percent, ninety…"
"I don't see her, where is she? She'll be terrified!" Clu's still in panic mode.
Flynn grabs the screen and adds a location modifier to the search function. "She's rezzing closer to Tron City. There are plenty of programs there to help her through the initial shock. Sorry man, that it's such hard transition. It's been such a mess. We're pulling sections at a time from the original hard disk - but it was totally fragged, and we have to verify the integrity of every section. Then we pull that section from backup if needed. We pulled Shaddox from the programs first. Without his help, this would be a disaster!"
"She's fully rezzed, but they're reporting that she's not responding. They're afraid something went wrong in transfer," Shaddox tries to remain business like, but it's hard because his friend is involved.
Clu pinpoints her location and bolts in that direction, rezzing his cycle to help him get there even faster.
Flynn looks to Shaddox for explanation, and he fills him in, "Kris is the one bright spot in his life cycle. He's been through a lot." Shaddox pales and his voice catches, "Oh no…Flynn, he's gonna need you, man! There's no spark to her circuits."
Pulling out his trusty Encom 786 cycle, Flynn instantly lets the light ribbon trail behind him for the extra boost of speed.
Programs are gathered around - some whispering, some burying their faces in their hands, some clinging to each other and looking on with disbelief. As the crowd parts for Flynn, he sees Clu hunched over, cradling and rocking Kris's limp form and it brings a lump to Flynn's throat along with a flood of painful memories.
Clu's wild eyes and chaotic manner are so far from his normal operating parameters, it wrenches Flynn's heart to see the distraught program beg, "Do something, Flynn!"
"Jump start…gotcha," Flynn places one hand on her forehead, willing the energy to flow from him into her. A flickering in her circuits starts then dies, so he tries again, "Come on, Kris!" Four more tries are required to get her circuits to stay lit on their own.
A soft groan emanates from her, causing Clu to clutch her even more tightly. As the reality sinks in, a tear trickles down his face.
"Can't breathe…too tight…" she rasps.
Trembling in the clumsiness of relief, he loosens his vice-like grip, "Sss..sorry…thought we'd lost you." She returns his embrace and it's all he registers in the moment - not the crowd around him, not Flynn, not the hard ground they're on - just the two of them.
Programs all around them start dropping to their knees and whispers of "a miracle" are heard.
Standing there in his typical nonchalant fashion with his hands tucked into his pockets and kicking the ground shyly with his motorcycle boot, Flynn's at a loss for words. Clu scoops Kris up to get her to a medic and have her checked out, but faces his creator first. "Thank you. For sending Kris and for bringing her back to us."
"I'm glad she opened your eyes and you don't have to go through what I did, when I lost Jordan…" Flynn switches the subject, "You know, I don't think there's a thing I could have done to stop Kris from coming here."
"Darn, right," Kris mumbles.
"More of us are arriving and they'll need help adjusting and finding those they know. Back to work, programs!" Clu dismisses the crowd as he heads out with Kris and Flynn.
"He's next up to be transfered. Looks like he's rezzing in the sector just over yonder," Shaddox informs and points a finger in the direction with a small crowd.
She goes to grab Alan and Lora's hands to bring them with, but Alan politely declines even when she tries to insist, "He'll be most excited to see you. Find us a little later. Go on!"
Hovering in a crouch in front of where he's being transfered, she has the jitters as she watches. It seems so odd to see his draft lines filling in with voxels.
As soon as he's in solid form, she's unable to wait any longer and launches herself at him, "Tron!" Her exuberant hug knocks the barely conscious program over.
"Yori?" Tron lifts his head trying to focus his eyes as he adjusts to being on the new system. She helps him sit up and her face, illuminated by the glow around them, fills his vision. Tracing her cheek, then running his thumb over her lips - he wants to be sure she's real. "Alan, he truly did bring you. You're even more beautiful than I remember…" Tron enfolds her in his arms and kisses her fiercely. Seeing her puzzled wonder, he explains, "By the Users, it's been so long since I last saw your lovely face." For several microcycles, he just takes in her new look as if she's a piece of fine art - golden hair pinned up, short white dress with grey notches in the shoulders and her original collar circuits leading to a triangle in front, and boots that come to just above the knee. The rest of her circuits mirror his own, only in a more feminine fashion.
"How long were you on the grid?" she asks.
"More kilocycles than I could bear to count," his voice turns gravelly with the pain he bore.
"Oh, Tron…" the concern fills her voice. She cups his face in her hands and rests her forehead against his. "I'm here."
"Clu have you had a chance to look around the system yet? It's so tight, man! We have internet access - access to other systems! Do you know what this means for all programs?" Shaddox excitedly babbles.
"That we'll need to fortify our security."
"Aw…come on! Aren't you even the least bit excited?"
Arm in arm, Yori leads Tron to meet his creator. "I've said it several times already, Tron. He really does want to meet you," she puts her head on his shoulder as they walk. "I think he'll be just as nervous and excited as you are."
"You really think so?" Tron is still unsure. Meeting one's creator is rather overwhelming.
"Yes. You inherited so many of his character traits. He said he thought of what it would be like to be in your place and poured the best of himself into the code."
"That's a lot to live up to…" Tron tugs at the high collar of his uniform.
Yori halts, and ensures she makes eye contact with him as she takes his hands in hers, "Tron, take a deep breath. Know that he admires you and your work." With his brows furrowed, he nods a few times and she kisses his cheek, before she tugs him along again.
As they round the corner, they spy Lora straightening Alan's tie. Quickly, she moves to his side and squeezes his arm comfortingly.
Alan takes the initiative and offers his hand with a hearty shake, "Tron, it's an honor to meet you face to face. My favorite stories of Flynn's always have you in them. I don't know how you risk yourself day in and day out - but I appreciate that you're willing to do it to keep the grid safe."
"It's an honor to serve, Sir. I try to live up to what you wrote me for," when Tron lets go of Alan's hand - that he shook with both hands, he self-consciously smooths his hair.
"Just Alan is fine." He realizes he almost forgot in his excitement, "Oh, and this is my wife, Lora. She was the one who programmed Yori to be your counterpart."
"It's a pleasure to meet the program my husband is always talking about," she warmly greets.
"Thank you…Thank you truly, Mam. I'm indebted to you," Tron gazes from Yori to Lora and is amazed at the similarities.
Slipping her arm in Yori's, Lora winks as she whispers, "Shall we go find a drink, while these two get to know each other?" Yori gives a sweet little grinning nod as they go off chatting about who knows what and giggling like school girls.
"It's quite something that we both ended up with such remarkable ladies, isn't it?" Alan muses out loud.
"I just know I'm grateful you brought Yori here."
To break the awkward pause, Alan asks with a mischievous twinkle in his eye, "So, is it as hard to keep Flynn out of trouble on the grid, as it is at the office?"
It draws a deep chuckle from Tron, "I expect so."
Atop the HQ building Flynn and Clu survey the new grid. Incandescent green and white sheets of light slowly flutter in the atomosphere over the jagged skyline of New Tron City.
"So what did you want to talk about, Clu?"
Shifting his weight uneasily and crossing his arms, he starts, "You said we were going to change the world. On this new system, it's possible. You also said I was to create the perfect system. But I request that you change my function. We miss out on the beauty of what we have - if we seek only the perfect. Perfect has no chaos, no spark. It's dead and unchanging."
"That's deep… real deep" with a pensive look Flynn considers for a moment as he shoves his hands in his pockets. "Maybe because absolute perfection isn't really possible, is it?"
"What would you rather work toward?"
"Kris and I have talked about this at length. We want to guide the grid as it grows. To protect it from danger - she says there will be good from the internet but also malicious intrusions from other systems. To do our best to ensure peace and freedom - even for the ISOs. To leave room for a spark," Clu explains.
"Radical. Go for it. She's a good influence on you, man," Flynn clasps him on the shoulder and gives a good natured shake.
Clu heaves a huge sigh of relief and processes the significance of what's just happened. "She's helped me see things in a different light - to see the beauty in imperfection. Without her, I would have made very different choices, Flynn."
Faith in the Users, has been restored. While it doesn't bring instant peace and harmony, there was a little enlightenment along the way. Belief is a powerful force, man, whether it's about yourself or in others.
End of line.