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Duped

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Maybe he was getting too old for this.

No, it’s not me; it’s this damn virus, he insisted to himself.

You sure? His mind betrayed him with uncertainty.   You sure you’re not just too archaic to know any better?

Tron scrambled down the dimly lit side street, trying to soften his steps, deaden the noise that would give him away to the figures not too far behind him.  His pitch-black suit kept him in the shadows, but his sparse circuitry lights gave him away as he ran.

Derezzing them would be the easiest option, but he didn’t want to have to resort to that.  These were just thugs… desperate thugs, he hoped.  Programs that wouldn’t normally stoop to this if they didn’t have a tyrant over their heads.  You’d have to be desperate to try mugging programs after curfew, right?

Keep telling yourself that, his mind icily snarked.  

Of all the times for Beck to go to Gallium City.  A few cycles after Beck’s suspicious failed attempt to go to Gallium for a supply run requested by Able, he left for a second time under Able’s urging.  Those supplies  weren’t going to get themselves, after all. Beck was unavailable, and things were still uncomfortable with Able so Tron had kept his distance there too.  

Not many options for someone who only knew two other programs.

He cursed under his breath.  I could’ve waited a cycle.  I could’ve sent him here instead of myself.  Kept out of harm’s way.

It had seemed so easy, a simple run into Argon to secure a new adapter for the healing chamber.  Hell, it was even on the side of the city closest to his hideout.  Stealing it from the warehouse was the easy part... at least until one of the thugs had gotten wind of it.  Unfortunately for Tron, it was during curfew, and the only programs willing to be out during curfew weren’t the kinds of programs he wanted to be messing around with right now.  At his peak, this would be child’s play.  But in his current state, with his energy sapping away every milli-cycle he wasn’t in his chamber, this had gotten serious.

The alleys were too narrow to use his light cycle, and stepping out into the open would mean he’d have to bare down for a full fight, so he kept at it through the alley, looking for some place to veer off and hide until they passed.

Until he hit a dead end.  

He could’ve sworn that this passageway led to an intersection, but there it was, a wall in front of him as plain as the nose on his face.  Did they construct it recently?  Was he not thinking straight because of the energy drain?

Not important right now.

He tensed up, as the footsteps grew closer.  Four programs spilled into the dead-end, cutting off Tron’s only escape route.

“Wow man, you really made us work for it,” one of the cockier thugs laughed.  He motioned over to a scrappy looking program.  “Dabber here caught you stealing some choice stuff from that place near the port.”  He extended his palm.  “Hand it over and you won’t get derezzed.”

Tron clenched his jaw tight behind his helmet. “I can’t do that.  I need this.”

“That’s a shame,” the thug replied.  “Then we’re gonna take it.”  He paused, the grin growing across his face.  “While we’re at it, we’re gonna take your disc too.  I hear they sell well in Purgos.”

The disc in Tron’s hand flared white.  “Come and get it,” he snarled dangerously.

In the blink of an eye, the back alley erupted into a blur of bodies, a deadly, messy dance of discs and fists.  The thugs weren’t especially good at fighting, but they had energy to burn.  

Tron didn’t.

As the clash went on, Tron managed to deftly dodge several disc swipes, while flipping two of the programs over into the recycle bins off to the side.  The cocky thug got an elbow to his face for his trouble.  The scrappy one had his legs kicked out from under him by a quick foot sweep.  

The thugs regrouped, panting and angrily clutching their discs in haphazard fashion.

Pathetic.

Tron almost chuckled at their ineptness... before he doubled over in pain.  

No…

Familiar scars began eating their way across his chest.  Despite wearing a helmet, he could feel the burn of the scar on his jaw.  It was growing.

Not now--

He collapsed to his knees.  The programs straightened up, confused.

“What is that?  Is he infected?”

The fight had used too much energy; whatever reserves he had were now spent.  He had to get out of here before--

The thugs were visibly frightened by the scarring.

“I don’t wanna get infected!  Let’s just derezz him!  What if that shit’s contagious?”

“No, y-you don’t understand--” Tron tried to explain.

The cocky program stepped forward.  “Dabber’s right, can’t take chances.  Sorry man, your game is over.”

“N-no…”  Tron tried standing up but completely fell to the ground in a heap.  He couldn’t hold onto his disc, and it clattered noisily below him.  

I can’t derezz here… I can’t…

His vision dimmed and he passed out.  The thugs began to swarm in on him.

 

Just then, the rhythmic sound of footsteps began echoing from the alleyway.

“Stop right there, programs,” a booming, low voice called out.

“What?”  They stopped short of Tron and turned around.

Mechanical, goose-stepping figures emerged from the alley, filing in and spreading out.

Three of Clu’s black guards.  Their red-orange circuitry played off of the walls in the dead-end, bathing the space in a red hue.  They ominously came to a stop in a line formation.

“Fuck!” Dabber blurted out.

In unison, the black guards removed their discs, as they flared up in succession.  The programs’ faces went pale.

“You have violated the curfew.  You will come with us for re-purposing. Or…” Discs raised up.  “You will be derezzed.”

Whatever courage the thugs had grown in mistakenly thinking they overpowered Tron instantly disappeared as they panicked, completely forgetting about him and fleeing past the black guards and into the alley and beyond.

“Stop!  Submit for re-purposing!” The black guards turned and chased after them, orange discs humming like a batch of mad bees.  

The noisy exit of the guards and programs faded into the distance, leaving an unconscious Tron alone on the ground.   From chaotic noise to deathly silence.

A few short moments later, a gentle set of steps broke the quiet, as a slender female program carefully entered the dead-end, looking around, as if to confirm she was alone.  Her eyes honed in on Tron’s crumpled form.  She quickly knelt down and checked him over.   A mysterious looking program, she thought.   Almost all black and I can’t seem to get the helmet open. The scars were an eye opener, but she shrugged it off and went about trying to lift him up.

The movement jostled him awake, barely.   He was close enough to peer deep into her green eyes, eyes that looked a great deal concerned.  For him?  For herself?  He couldn’t tell.

“Hey... hey, are you okay?”

“Who...?”  Even with his energy depleted, he still managed to fumble and push away defensively.

“Whoa! Hey, calm down, I’m here to help!” She tried her best to steady him, but it was like trying to herd cats.

The last time someone helped him…   Cyrus…

That only made him try to break away harder.

“Hey! Stop! You’re going to--”

He pushed himself out of her embrace, but in doing so lost his equilibrium and tumbled badly to the ground.  His helmet impacted hard, and everything went black.

-------

 

Tron came to in a dimly lit room, lying on a comfortable bed.  It was a quiet apartment, with large windows covered by drawn blinds.  A few beams of light from the street outside trickled in, but otherwise it was a very low-key environment.  

Instinctively, his hand whipped to his face, but he realized quickly that his helmet was still on and intact.  Slight relief escaped his lips as he sat up slowly.

"Finally awake, are we?" a voice gently inquired from the shadows of the hallway.

Tron prickled with apprehension.  He had no idea where he was, and even less about the program behind the voice.  All undesirable variables.

"Who's there?  ... Who are you?"  His tone was affected by his helmet, creating more of a digital snarl to his words than he intended.

The form in the hallway stopped, its blue and white circuitry the only light in the darkened corridor.  

"Relax, I'm not here to derez you," the voice continued, sounding a little hurt.   "If I was, why would I have saved you?"

The program stepped gradually out of the shadows.  Tron's tensed body relaxed a bit in recognition.  It was her... the program from the alley.  The thin bars of light from the windows trickled across her body as she walked forward into the room, revealing her violet locks and taupe skin.  Her light green eyes scanned the space, finally resting upon Tron on the bed.  

"What is that?" he barked, pointing at her hands.

She raised an eyebrow, lowering the bowl in her hands a little to show him.  "Calm down, I was just trying to help you out."  He could see that there was some kind of energy in the bowl, and a compress floating inside it as well.

She chuckled a little.  "You really get worked up pretty easily, don't you...?  Although from the looks of it," she mused aloud, checking out his full-body black suit, "you certainly have your secrets."  No discernible markings or circuitry.  A fully opaque helmet.  An almost complete absence of light on his suit, except where absolutely needed.  He was a veritable shadow on the Grid.

"I don't need your help... I need to get out of here," he snapped back.

She deadpanned, her weight shifting on her hips in a defiant pose.  "Look, this act might work with other programs you know, but I wasn't scripted yesterday."  She motioned at him with the compress in-hand.  "I'm not sure how you're coded, but I can see you're running dangerously low on power.  I don't know if your subroutines are a resource hog or what, but you're practically bleeding energy."  Her steps grew sterner, more direct as she approached the bed.  "You leave now and you'll probably derez in less than a milli-cycle.  I saw you; I could’ve left you to those two-bit thugs.  I made a choice to help you."

Tron eased off a bit.

"Look, I get it," she said softly.  "It's hard to really trust a program these cycles.  Believe me, I... I understand that more than most.  But when I saw you getting attacked, it reminded me of something.  And I realized I could either walk away and let it happen... or do something about it."  She carefully ventured closer to the bed, and sat at the edge of it.  "The question now is... will you let me help you?"

Tron leaned back gingerly against the bed's headboard.  It was all he could manage.  Despite being so weak, his body was still tensed up by instinct; he'd never truly been able to let down his guard anywhere, not even at his hideout.  She wasn't lying though, because he knew the virus was well on its way to eating him up; his energy was greatly diminished from the fight and he could feel the scarring worming its way up his jaw again.  He didn't have enough time to get back to the hideout on his own before he'd collapse from the lack of power... and probably derez.

He looked down finally, relenting.  "All right, fine."  Curt.

She raised her eyebrow again, amused.  "Oh, what a benevolent guy! Deigning to allow this lowly program to provide succor in times of need!" she teased sarcastically, the air of buffoonery in her voice causing Tron to squirm.

"I-I didn't mean--"

She laughed, like a small cascade of gentle notes.  "I'm teasing you, program, that's all ."  This one was really wound up, she thought to herself.  She wondered if it was by design, or if things had been rough for him.  Her smile wilted slightly at the thought.  That hit a little too close to home.   

Tron saw the smile fall from her face and felt a twinge of guilt.  

"It's okay," she said quietly.  "I think we've all had bad cycles... I know.  I just thought maybe you'd find that a little funny, but I suppose there's not a lot to find funny out there anymore."  She cleared her throat and straightened up.  "In any case, let's get you some energy, hm?"

She dipped the compress in the glowing blue pool of energy in the bowl, scooping it up in her hand and scooting closer to Tron on the bed.  Instinctively, his knees buckled in, as if to protect himself from an attack.  

She paused.  "You're going to have to remove your helmet though..."

Tron froze.  "No, I can't do that."

A frown crinkled her otherwise sleek features.  "Okay, Mr. tall, dark, and broody, this is how it's going to go down.  You're going to remove that helmet so I can give you energy.  You don't seem like a program that just trusts from the get-go, and that's fine... but I need there to be mutual trust here, okay?"  She leaned in, staring deep into his obsidian faceplate.  "And trust works both ways.  I put my own safety on the line to help you.  Can you do the same... and trust me now?"

Silence.

"Please?"  Emerald eyes implored him.

This was dangerous, but he wasn't just concerned for himself.  If she knew who he was then that would place her in danger, too... But he was out of options.  

"Tell me," he said simply, "What's your name?"

She tightened up a little.  Clearly she hadn't been asked that in a long time.  Her eyes dipped down.   You did ask me to trust you, didn't you? Tron thought.

"It's Pandora," she replied at last.

There was a considerable pause, but eventually Tron tilted his head forward, as the plates of his helmet folded in on themselves and retreated inside the neck of his suit.  The pitch-black of his suit rippled away as his usual black and white circuitry re-asserted itself.

She almost dropped the wet compress.

There, staring at her, was the face of Tron.  His eyes were listless from the strain, but focused on her.  The scarring across his face had grown larger, reaching up to his left eyebrow.

"My name is--"

"T-tron..." she exhaled almost breathlessly, her eyes as big as saucers.  "I...  I thought you were dead?  Derezzed?"

"Most programs do," he replied with a rueful smile.  He winced and leaned back on the headboard with a groan, holding his midsection.

She regained herself to help ease him down to lay on his back.  She swallowed hard, chuckling nervously.  "It's not every cycle that you rescue a hero of the Grid, you know."  Snapping herself out of it, she carefully pressed the compress against his face.  It covered his scar completely, the energy seeping out of it into his mottled skin.  He took a breath sharply.

"Ahh!  That feels..."

"Sorry, it'll take a little adjustment, but I think this'll be just what you need," she murmured as she dipped the compress into the bowl and then returned it to his face.  "This is concentrated energy, not the usual stuff.  Got a bit of a kick to it at first."

"How did you...?"

She beamed a proud grin, almost gleeful, like a mischievous child who had snuck from the cookie jar undetected.  "Oh I've got my ways," she replied.  "I've got... a bit of a talent for acquiring stuff like this.  This is the extra potent stuff Tesler's goons like to store at their facilities."  She glanced back briefly at the room down the darkened hall.  "I've had a few cycles to stock up on it."  Her hand had an exquisitely tender touch; he couldn't tell whether it was the energy or her caress that was causing his cheeks to throb.  Vaguely self-conscious of his reaction, Tron’s eyes darted back and forth from her hand to her face anxiously.  He wasn't sure if she noticed.

Pandora, however, was still too preoccupied with elation at her discovery.  "You know, my instincts are usually pretty good, but I guess I hit the jackpot this time!"  She re-applied a freshly soaked compress.  "Just relax, this will probably take a little while...  have to make sure to apply this directly to those scars."

Tron nodded uneasily.  He didn't generally like being at someone's mercy like this.  He'd been on the defensive so long that it was an uncomfortable, alien feeling.  Too much could happen too fast.  If something went wrong, how quickly could he react?  Survival mode slowly started creeping back in, and his body language tensed up.  

Pandora could read the conflict on his face.  "Hey," she soothed, "It's okay.  You're safe here.  I know what it's like to need that security."  Her hand faltered.  "I... I've had a lot of practice being on the run.  I’ve had that feeling."  Her eyes fell, staring down at the bowl.  "I mean... you probably know that better than any program, right?"

Tron considered her for a moment.  "Did you have to run...?  ...from Clu?" he asked.  His expression was still non-committal, but his voice was apologetic, delicate.

She found it hard to look him in the eyes.  "Yeah, you could say that," she replied emptily.  Noticing the diminished scar on his cheek, she moved the energized compress to the larger scars on his chest.

There was a long stretch of silence as she worked and re-worked the energy through his scars.  Something about her diverted gaze made him all the more compelled to look at her as she did so.   I've never seen a program like her.  I can't explain it... but there's something, something about her code that seems... different.

The stillness in the air was broken periodically by the gentle splash of the energy in the bowl absorbing into the compress.  The process itself took longer than a stint in the healing chamber, but amazingly enough the concentrated energy helped, and after a while the scars had successfully receded enough for Tron to sit upright a bit more solidly.  It wasn’t perfect, but the drain had subsided enough for him to regain his alertness.

The bowl now empty, Pandora dropped the spent compress into it and checked Tron over.

“Well, that definitely looks a lot better,” she mused softly as her fingers brushed past his now miniature jawline scar.  Instinctively, his hand came up and clasped hers... not in appreciation, but defensively.  The sudden motion frightened her and she snatched back her hand.  Her scared face stung him with regret instantly.

“Sorry, I--” they both blurted at the same time.  Awkward.

“Sorry,” Tron started again, “force of habit.”

Pandora waved her hands.  “Oh, no no, it’s my fault, I’m sorry.”  Embarrassment colored her cheeks.  “With everything you’ve been through, I don’t blame you for wanting boundaries.  I have them too, but sort of the reverse I guess.”  She absently fumbled with the bowl as she put it on a stand near the bed.  “It’s... “ Her eyes were stuck on the bowl, unable to meet his gaze.  “It’s just that I haven’t been able to talk to someone, a real someone, in a very long time.”  She smiled sheepishly.  “I think I’m out of practice.”

Tron blinked.  In that moment, he was reminded of Beck.  It was on more than one occasion that he jokingly reprimanded Tron for his… lack of tact dealing with Beck, his own friend.  Yes, Tron was abrasive at times, but he usually felt like he was justified… wasn’t he?  He frowned a little recalling his spats with Able as well.  He’d been on his own for so long, a solitary soldier.  A soldier so good at defending himself that his own barbs unintentionally hurt those around him.  Was he out of touch?  Out of… practice?  

“I… think I can understand that,” Tron heard himself say.  A pang of remorse trickled through him.   The stakes are high, he reminded himself.   But… Beck’s a good kid.  And he’s trying.  I should try harder too.  He’s sacrificed a lot; I shouldn’t discount that.  I won’t baby him, but… I shouldn’t be so cold with him either.  He deserves better than that.

Snapping himself out of his thoughts, he turned to regard Pandora.  She certainly was an unusual program; she had no love for Clu, was resourceful, and seemed to be very effective in remaining unseen.  Tron had been prodding Beck to look for possible allies… maybe he had stumbled onto one himself?  

“Have you heard of the Renegade?” Tron ventured.

She squinted for a second and smirked.  “Sure, but… the rumor was that the Renegade was you.  Is that true?”

In too deep now, not much point in lying about this…  “No.”  He leaned forward a little.  “The Renegade and I work separately, but our goals are the same.  We’re fighting against Clu… someone I’m guessing you don’t particularly like.”

Pandora’s eyes steeled over.  “No.  That’s putting it mildly,” she replied with a halfhearted chuckle.

Good.

“The Renegade and I want to do something about that.  We want…”

Moment of truth.  All in, or not at all.

“We want to start an uprising.” His voice dipped low, the purr of his gravelly tones cutting against his words.  “But we can’t do it with just two programs.  We’ll need all the help we can get.”

To say Pandora looked floored might’ve been an understatement.  Her life had gone from 0 to 600 in a single cycle.  Not unlike that cycle that happened way back when…

“Me?  In a resistance…?”   

Tron nodded.  Pandora studied his features.  Solid, stoic.  There wasn’t a lie in there; if there was, it was one hell of a performance.   “I-I don’t know…”

“You don’t have to decide right away, but I want you to think about it,” Tron caught himself.   Less abrasive.  Right.  “...Please.”

“All right,” she acquiesced.  “I’ll think about it.”

Tron smiled.  A small, tight smile, but a smile nonetheless.  “Great.”  His body language loosened up a little.  “After all, it’s not often that I come across someone who has the kind of fighting skills to fend off a gang of programs.”

Pandora scratched her chin nervously.  “Hah, well, actually… I hate to disappoint you, but there really was no fighting involved at all.”

Tron frowned.   What?  “None?  Then how did you deal with those thugs in the alley…?”

She rubbed the back of her neck and sighed slowly.  “I guess this was inevitable really, but I probably owe you an explanation, especially since you were passed out.”

A keen, quick glint flashed across her green eyes as she blinked.

“Well, we can’t all be security programs,” she joked lightly, “so I had to… enlist a little help.”

“Help?”

“Yeah… sort of,” she replied.  She raised her hand and waved it back towards the darkened hallway.

On cue, the hall was immediately bathed in light.

Red-orange circuitry light.

Tron froze on the bed, muscles tense.  Survival mode screamed in his ears.  

 

Three of Clu’s black guards slowly marched out of the darkness....

Coming for them.







Chapter Text

You’ve got to be kidding me.

The three black figures strolled out of the hallway, the clattering of their boots echoing hollowly into the room.  Tron’s eyes deadened.  His nostrils flared as he clenched his jaw almost to the point of breaking.

Why…?

His hands balled into tight fists.

WHY?

How many times… do I have to endure this…?     ...How many times will I be betrayed?

“Well, you see, it’s actually kind of a funny story.  Well, I mean not really ‘funny’ per se, but--” Pandora cut off mid-sentence, as she turned from looking at the elite black guards back towards Tron and paled.  His circuitry had reverted to pitch black, and his expression darkened.  His icy gaze fixated on the approaching guards, and then lost itself as his obsidian helmet snapped up and eclipsed his face.

The figures stopped abruptly.  Pandora raised her hands frantically.

“W-wait!  You don’t understand! I-”

“Oh, I understand,” Tron snarled, the distortion of his helmet crackling his words.  “I understand all too well!”

In a fraction of a moment, his hand was on his disc, and it buzzed to life sharply.

Pandora fell backwards onto the floor, her arms scrambling to steady herself as she slipped.  Her eyes widened in utter terror.  “N-no, please-- please, just WAIT!”

The bright disc roared over her head, careening into the guards.  She barely stifled her scream.

… But then it went straight through them.  No cubes, no deresolution.  It just sped through them like a bullet through a ghost.  Their images rippled as it passed.  The disc intuitively circled back around and roughly found itself back in Tron’s grasp.  His helmet tilted ever-so-slightly to the side.

...What?

The three black guards were now standing defensively, their arms covering their heads, in fear and untouched.  Tron looked down at the floor, and saw Pandora.  She was cowering in a ball, her arms cradled around her head, just like them.

“P-please d-don’t derez me!” Her voice had grown small, quivering.  Unbelievably frightened.  “L-look!”  

The guards lowered their arms and began flickering in and out.  Like brittle glass, they suddenly and silently shattered, dispersing into the air like thousands of tiny twinkling stars, until the lights faded and the room was once again only comprised of two programs.

Not real black guards… holograms…?

Tron’s tense arms slackened, circuitry returning to normal as his helmet retreated inside his suit again.  He returned the disc to his back slowly.  The click of it settling into place only served to make Pandora curl in on herself further.

“I-I’m sorry! I’m s-sorry,” her muffled voice trilled.  “I-I thought it w-would b-be cool to s-show you, but i-it was s-stupid of me!  So stupid!”

She was shaking like a leaf.

“P-please don’t derez me.”

Tron moved to the edge of the bed and planted his feet on the floor.

“P-please d-don’t…”

He got up and slowly knelt down near her.  She rocked back and forth as she shook, repeating herself over and over.   Was she stuck in a loop?  Or…?

“P-please d-don’t derez m-me.  P-please don’t derez me...”

He moved to gently touch her arm, and she yelped.  Gone was the warmth of curiosity and playfulness from her face.  Her features were creased with a kind of terror that was well-worn.  Traumatized.  Learned.  She reeled backwards and hit the back of her head against the wall.  Her breathing was erratic, her chest rising and falling far too quickly.

Tron lifted his hands.  “Hey, it’s all right, I’m not going to derez you,” he whispered.  His anger had melted away, replaced by hints of guilt.  “I’m sorry.  I’m sorry I frightened you.”  He frowned a little.  “I thought I was going to be attacked, so I was going to defend myself… but I was never going to attack you.”

She eyed him nervously; his words seemed like they should be soft and gentle, but they were spoken in a tone that was surprisingly stiff.  All she could muster was her shuddered breathing, but he was patient.  He sat there with her until she eventually managed to calm down.  Pandora blinked, her face slowly easing back into a small semblance of her previous demeanor.  

“I’m sorry,” she replied finally.  “That was pretty stupid when I think of it now, wasn’t it…?” She shakily brushed an errant curl from her temple as she spoke.  “I… I was just so eager to try and impress you with it, I-I… I overdid it.  I shouldn’t have, but I did.”  Her brows knit with shame.   “I told you I hadn’t really talked with someone in a long time, that I was out of practice.  There’s no better proof of that than what I just did.”  She sighed dejectedly.  “Just an awkward, solitary program.”  

“It’s all right,” he assured her, “No harm done.”  For once, he was relieved that his survival instincts were wrong.  “But I have to know.  What were those…?  Holograms?”

Pandora bit her lip.  “Ding ding ding, tell the program what he’s won,” she joked weakly.  “That’s exactly right, Tron.  They’re dupes.”

Tron sat back, his cool facade dropping as his brows raised in genuine surprise.  “I don’t think I’ve ever come across a program who could do that.  That’s incredible!”

“Yeah…” She rubbed her arm uncomfortably.

He sensed her unease.  “What is it?”

She got up and paced around the room as she spoke.  “It’s not like I was always a dupe program or something.”  She sat down on the bed.  Her eyes softened, warmed by a memory.  “Before… Before all this, I used to be an art program.  I was a renderer.”  A tiny smile tugged at her lips as she remembered.  “Programs used to say ‘wow, Pandora, your renders are the best!  They’re so beautiful.  They’re so… real.’  I made art for my friends. It was my claim to fame.”

Tron got up from the floor and joined her on the bed, keeping a respectable distance.  “But a renderer can’t just make dupes out of nowhere…”

“That’s right.  I had a little help, if you could call it that.”  Her eyes were glued to her knees.  “From the User, Kevin Flynn.”

Tron’s eyes widened.  Flynn!   “...What?  When?   How?”

Pandora looked over and regarded Tron for a moment.  “It’s a long story, and I’m not exactly the best storyteller.”  She paused.  “But… here, I’ll show you.”  Her arm looped behind her and un-clicked her disc from her back.  She held it in front of her with both hands, and set it in front of Tron.  The disc hummed gently as images began focusing and forming above it, blurring as they went, like a video tape being rewound as it played.  It scratched to a stop on a particular memory, and then resumed motion as she spoke.

 

*******

 

A tall skyline cascaded across the disc as her memories played back.  Tron instantly recognized it.   Tron City.  The view shifted from the tops of the buildings down to the ground below, whisking past the bustling inhabitants.  The city had always been packed, but the crowds were strangely subdued.

It was only a few cycles or so after Clu’s coup had hit.  There was chaos, panic.  Pandora walked down a populated street, cluttered with programs who were huddling among themselves, whispering and murmuring in worried tones to one another.  Periodically, a frenzied program would dash down the alley, disappearing into the darkness.  Not everyone was so eager to accept Clu’s new position.   An administrator with absolute power corrupts absolutely, right…?  

For programs like myself that thrived on individuality, creativity, and freedom-- we were the ones who were the most frightened.   Pandora tucked her arms in against her chest, frowning warily and picking up her pace as she turned a corner.   I had already heard that Clu was cracking down on programs who didn’t agree with his approach.  Clu's forces were all too cavalier about derezzing anyone who spoke up.  I had... nightmares about that.  And… and we had heard about other programs who just up and disappeared.  Like, abruptly disappeared.

As she walked, the area grew quieter; the groups of programs thinned out, until she had turned one more corner and come to a near-empty street.  Pandora sighed, approaching her apartment at the end of the alleyway.  I usually spent the ends of cycles with my other art program friends… but my two closest friends vanished two cycles prior, suspiciously right after they had created some anti-Clu propaganda that they copy-pasted across several of the larger buildings in the city…  including your own ridiculously tall security hub.  My other friend wasn’t so lucky… he was derezzed right in front of me for openly defying Clu and standing his ground.  Pandora bit her lip as her hand reached for the door.  He was gone and I knew I would probably never see the others again, either.

A cough erupted from a darkened corner, startling her.  A lone, hooded figure was sitting there, almost imperceptible in the shadows.  Pandora’s footsteps evidently had woken it up.  The figure raised a hand to its shrouded face and rubbed its eyes.  It dropped its hand when it noticed Pandora frozen in place.

“Sorry,” he apologized, “Didn’t mean to spook you there.”

Her fingers were still hanging in the air, short of touching her door’s security panel.  “...That’s okay,” she replied hesitantly.  Unidentified programs were things to stay away from right now; she didn’t want to risk getting in trouble.  The image of her friend shattering into cubes was still far too vibrant in her mind.

The hooded figure cocked his head.  He stared at her just a little too long, definitely long enough to unnerve her.  “Tell me,” he inquired, “you’re an art program, aren’t ya?”

She swallowed hard.  Was this a trap?  If she affirmed him, would she be spirited away just like her friends? … Or was this perhaps another art program as well?  Hiding from Clu? Too scared to show themselves?

“I might be,” she replied at last.  “... Are you?”

The figure chuckled, resting his arms across his knees as he leaned back against the wall.  “That’s kinda debatable, I guess.  Some people could call what I’ve done in the past ‘art,’ but I guess that’s always in the eye of the beholder, right?”  He noticed she was still unmoved.  He sighed.

“Look, don’t worry, I’m not any kinda bad news.  At least not yet.”  He stood up, dusting himself off, an unusual motion to do considering that he wasn’t actually dirty.  “But I had an idea, and if you’re who I think you are, I need you.”

Pandora frowned.  “And just who do you think I am…?”

The hooded figure stepped up in front of her, his smile the only thing visible under the hood.  “It took me a minute, but think I finally placed you.  You’re Pandora, right?”

She swallowed tensely.  “Yes, I am… but who are you?”

He looked around briefly, confirming their seclusion in the alley.  He dipped his hands, tugging at the hood and loosening it to collapse around his shoulders.

A weary-looking Kevin Flynn smiled sadly back at her.  “Someone who needs your help.”

Pandora’s eyes bugged wide.   I still vividly remember how utterly surprised I was.  “ User ??  Kevin Flynn?  W-what are you doin--”

“Ah ahh, let’s keep our little chat down to a dull roar, okay?” he smirked, but the apprehension was etched sharply on his features.  She was still shell-shocked from the reveal.  He placed a hand warmly on her shoulder.  “D’you think we could go inside for a bit?  It’s not really safe out here, and I’d like to fill you in on what the heck I was talking about.”

Pandora nodded dully and stumbled to her door’s security panel, activating it and letting Flynn gently usher her inside.

...

Inside her apartment, once she had a few moments to properly process everything, she was able to calm down and address Flynn.

“How,” she murmured, “how did you know who I was?”

Flynn smiled a wide, crinkled grin.  “It may take me a little bit sometimes, but I never forget a program.  And man, for once, I think I might’ve lucked out.”  He motioned for her to sit on the simple couch near them, quickly seating himself beside her.

“Clu’s in full swing with his takeover,” he continued, his smile dissipating, replaced by a concerned pursing of his lips.  “I’ve tried to fight back, but it’s like I’m trying to plug a sinking ship with my fingers.  The dude’s got an army of re-purposed programs doing his dirty work.”

Re-purposed.  I didn’t know why I hadn’t thought of that before.  When I heard him say it, I knew there couldn’t be any other explanation for the disappearances.

Flynn noticed the shift in Pandora’s expression.  He squeezed her shoulder tenderly.  “I’m sorry… I know a lot of your friends were probably re-purposed.”  His eyes faltered and then returned to her.  “I wish there were something I could do right now, but Clu’s kept me pretty damn busy running for my life.”  He frowned.  “Can’t mount a good offense if I’m always on the defense.”

Flynn stood up and began pacing around the room, his arms emphasizing his words as he thought out loud.  “I gotta get out of the city.  His goons can’t follow me into the Outlands.  If I can get away, I can regroup and hopefully try again from a better angle.”

“But how can I help?” she asked, at a loss.  “I’m just a renderer; I can’t fight. I’m no Tron.”

Flynn’s feet ground to a halt; his eyes glinted with pain at the name.  His brows sunk, heavy with regret.  His gaze fell to the floor and stayed there a long while.  When he spoke again, his voice was thick.  “I’m not asking you to fight for me.  I … I already failed Tron. It was my fault that he… he…” a hitch in his breath forced him to clear his throat, looking back up from the floor at Pandora with glistening eyes that he blinked furiously, willing the water away as he took a deep breath.  

“...I wouldn’t ask that of anyone else.”

So Flynn thought I was dead as well, Tron thought as he watched.  Not a big surprise; so did everyone, thanks to Clu… but it still hurt.  From the looks of it, it still hurt Flynn, too.

Flynn cleared his throat again, roughly regaining his composure.  “No, all I need from you is a distraction.  If I can get those cronies of Clu chasing dudes they think are me, I can get to the Outlands and finally get some breathing room.”

Pandora raised an eyebrow.  “But how can I do that?  I mean, I’m a good renderer; I could make some pretty convincing dupes of you… but they’re static .  Wall art.  Holograms.  Statues at best.”

He leaned forward conspiratorially, which looked rather laughable considering they were alone in the apartment.  “What if I could ‘teach’ you to do more?”  His lips splayed into a mischievous smirk.

“Really?” she whispered back.  A User, offering her a chance to transcend herself?  What were the possibilities?  Her lips tightened.  More importantly though, what were the risks?

“All I need is for you to trust me,” he replied, as if reading what she was thinking.  “I got a far out idea when I was looking for you, and you might be my only hope.”

Was I going to let my fear win out over helping a User?  I had never fought before; I was always a runner; I hid, I survived.  But despite the propaganda Clu was trying to push about them, I still believed in Users.  No use in stopping that now, especially when one was staring me in the face.

“All right,” she heard herself say, the tiniest hint of a tremor in her voice.  “What do I need to do?”

“I’ll need your disc,” he answered gently.  “I gotta see how you’re currently coded, and what I can… upgrade.”

Pandora took a deep breath, and detached the disc from her back, handing it gingerly to Flynn.  He smiled appreciatively in response, and held it in his hands as strands of data began to light up and trickle upwards in the visualizer just above the disc’s edge.  He sat for a few micro-cycles, just poring over the data, nodding here and there, revealing a small child-like grin when he began understanding the flow of her programming.

“It’s really quite remarkable,” he mused as he began the initial finger traces across the data strands.  “I had… borrowed the idea of your code from another company a few years back.  They had some cool ideas about what the future of 3D graphics could be.”  He chuckled giving her a wink, “Of course, me being me, I figured I could take their ideas a step further.”

He found a particular chain of code that called out to him, and he flittered a finger over it, re-forming it and shifting it together with another strand.  “At the time, I left myself a little backdoor with the code; I figured this kinda tech always gets outdated when the company doesn’t plan for the future, plan for it to expand… so I just left a kind of expansion slot.”  One more chain was carefully adjusted, the bits on the visualizer separating and attaching to other chains.  “And it looks like that might’ve paid off in spades.”

The data pulsed a faint blue and re-sequenced itself in the visualizer, detached data strains re-aligning and once more flowing in unison.  The resulting glow of the data was a brighter tone than before.  Flynn gave himself a small nod and motioned for Pandora to turn around.  Obliging him, he returned the disc to her back and gently clicked it into place.  

“It may take a moment,” he cautioned her, “those patched subroutines need to update… just let it do its thing, okay?”

Pandora shuddered instinctively, like the involuntary bodily response to stepping into a freezing room.  Her green eyes flared for a moment, pulsing in tandem with the light on her disc.  She held her head, the strangest feeling flowing through her.   It was as if the grid opened up to me, just a bit more.  This feeling of expanding space… the fleeting visions of places and programs I remembered in all my cycles flooding back to me and categorizing themselves.

When the patch finished, she nearly blacked out, but Flynn caught her and she managed to stay online, eyes fluttering as they dimmed back to their usual hue.

“It’s... “ her mouth felt oddly dry.  “It’s incredible.”

“Now there’s no user manual for how this all works,” he admitted. “Some of it you’re going to have to acclimate to in your own way.”  He stood directly in front of her, hands behind his back.

“You already had some pretty far-out skill with creating holograms,” he continued, “But with your upgrade, you can make dupes that you can control and move as you see fit.  Anything in your memory banks is fair game.”  He scratched his chin.  “The catch though is that you gotta be in close enough proximity to your target to get the kinda data needed for a full dupe.  Ahhh… I’d say within the confines of this apartment would be about how close you’d probably need to be.”

He rubbed his hands together impatiently.  “But enough of me boring you with that, why don’t you give it a test drive?”

“A test drive…” she repeated.  She stood firmly, staring at him and accessing her subroutines.   It was so unusual… the process felt vaguely familiar, but different at the same time.

As she focused on Flynn, her emerald eyes glinted and flared for the briefest moment.  A tiny sensation of draining energy, and then…

As if being filled in with stardust, a figure came to life on Flynn’s left side.  It blinked slowly and then turned its head to look at the User.  Flynn’s eyes widened with glee.

“Whoa!” both the Flynn-dupe and Pandora blurted out at the same time.

“Hahah!  It looks like I’m beside myself with amazement!” Flynn erupted in a dorky chuckle.

Both Pandora and the Flynn-dupe moved in unison; as she raised her hand so did he, and their voices appeared connected as well.

“Hm,” Flynn mused, “I think if you allocated a little more processing power, you could make the dupe do things independent of you…  hell, you might be able to do more than one!”

Pandora strained a little, and then the Flynn-dupe was running his hands through his hair, grinning wide, and humming a tune… all while Pandora was standing still.

Flynn whistled.  “Looks like I made the right choice after all,” he beamed.

“I wonder,” Pandora started.  A wince crept into her eyes as a second Flynn-dupe flickered into existence on Flynn’s other side.  Then another just behind him.

“Whoa, now take it easy Pandora, you don’t want to overdo--”

A fourth began to materialize next to her, when suddenly a sharp jolt of pain raced through her.  Her processes glitched and she felt an overwhelming deadened weight upon her.  Her vision started to dim as her legs weakened and gave way underneath her.

“Pandora!” Flynn rushed to catch her before she tumbled to the floor.  The three forms dissipated around them and scattered.  Flynn’s touch inexplicably emboldened her fading circuitry, bringing her back.

“Ohhhh…” She held her head.  She was shaken at how instant that drain was.  If Flynn hadn’t been there…

“It’s okay,” he murmured gently.  “Don’t push yourself.  Heh… I think you found your limit.”  He helped her onto the couch.  “Looks like any more than three of these bad boys is too much of a power drain on you.  I mean, that’s still a damn awesome achievement.  Just… keep that in mind, huh?”

She nodded.  

After he felt confident in her health, he continued.  “I think… I think we might be ready for that other part of my plan now.”

 

*******

 

The memories on the disc fast-forwarded once again, blurring and distorting until they stopped to play a new scene.  This one was on the top of a tall building.

After a bit more practicing, I was getting the hang of making and controlling the dupes.  Now it was finally time to put Flynn’s plan into action.   On the rooftop, Pandora looked out at the streets splitting off on all sides away from the building.   I could make three of him, each to run off in different directions, each drawing attention away from him.  The only hitch was that I needed to be in enough of a visual range so I could see where to make them run… so the rooftop seemed like the most logical choice.

She stared down below, three identical Flynns stepping out of the shadows and each choosing a respective street.  None of them were hooded; she wanted to make sure they were as visible as possible.

Flynn meanwhile had slipped into the back alley, prepping his ENCOM 786 light cycle.  Although the dupes were supposed to divert attention, he didn’t want to take chances, and the 786 was the fastest way to the Outlands that he knew of.  With the cycle’s light ribbon disabled, he hoped to make a quiet getaway without attracting any gawkers.  All that was left was to wait for the signal.

Up on the roof, Pandora caught a glance of Flynn’s faraway form down below.  He looked ready.  She took a deep breath and began the game.

Simultaneously, all three Flynn-dupes broke off into a run down the opposing streets, whooping and hollering and drawing quite a confused crowd.  Their yells echoed throughout the city.  “Down with Clu!  Clu’s a tyrant!  Programs should be free!”  They managed to actually start working up a few groups of programs alongside them.  

That’s when the black guards arrived.

Waves of black guards trickled out of the alleyways like ants, veering off and heading towards the Flynn-dupes.  Pandora bit her lip and had them all sprint full-speed.  Now or never.  She flung a light grenade high into the sky, exploding like a small firework.  Down below she saw the hooded User pause momentarily to give her a solemn wave, jump into his light cycle, and zip off into the uncertainty of the street leading to the outskirts of Tron City.

Go Flynn. Go!  Her nerves raced.

Turning her attention back to the dupes, she extended them as far as she could see.  I knew that once they had run too far out of my field of vision, they would break down, but hopefully it would be enough.

A beam of light bleached the rooftop in white.   Shit.  The firework signal had drawn some unintended attention of its own.  A large recognizer was flying low and detected movement on top of the building.  Pandora paled as she realized the beam had focused in on her.  Had she been identified?   No time to worry about that.  She panicked and made a break for the fire escape.

 

*******

 

Pandora sat back on the bed, the memory on the disc glitching slightly and fading from the visualizer.  She sighed and ended the process, putting the disc back on.

“So there you have it,” she chuckled weakly.  “And I’ve been running ever since.”  She rubbed her eyes.  The strain of reliving those moments was an unwelcome feeling.  “I was sure they'd put two and two together and realized what I'd done, so I wasn't safe there anymore.  I managed to smuggle myself out of Tron City… and stumbled into Argon.”  She offered a slight smile to Tron.  “I guess I’m not the only one who had that idea though, hm?”

Tron nodded slowly.  He was still trying to process what he’d witnessed.  She had seen Flynn, conceivably helped Flynn escape.  He was still out there, somewhere.  His processor did a little flip.  Maybe the odds weren’t so terribly stacked against him?  But that also was a long time ago… a lot could’ve happened.

A lot could still happen.

He blinked, looking at her quietly.   But right now, more importantly, I’ve got a program who has a function I’ve never seen.  

An asset.

But I need to handle this correctly.

An uncomfortable, pregnant silence permeated the room.

“I’m guessing you don’t know how to fight,” Tron said finally.  Blunt.  Not really a question so much as a statement.

“Uh, well,” Pandora looked down, embarrassed.  Something in his tone made her feel ashamed for some reason.  “No, not really.  As I mentioned, I’ve always been more of a runner than a fighter.”

“Mm,” he grunted in acknowledgment.  

I know what I need to do.   He recalled just moments before how he caught himself being a little too gentle, given the circumstances.  I can’t afford to get soft if I’m really going through with this.  There’s too much at stake to have kid gloves on now.

Somehow, just like that, a steel door had solidly shut on his facade, his face as cool as a cucumber and impossible to read.  He stood up and looked around the room briefly, inspecting it.

Pandora was drowning in self-consciousness.  “I-If that’s a problem, I--”

He spun around on his heel and faced her.  “I’m going to teach you to how to fight.”

She blinked.

“...What?”

Chapter Text

“I’m going to teach you how to fight,” Tron repeated.

“Huh, that’s what I thought you said.”  Pandora bit her lip anxiously.  “I think you might be wasting your time, Tron.  I don’t think I’m cut out for--”

“The Renegade,” he interrupted.  “The Renegade wasn’t a security program.  You’d probably be pretty surprised to know his designation… but that’s not important.  The fact that he’s out there, out trying to make a difference, holding his own against Tesler’s guard shows that it doesn’t matter what you come from.”  

Tron closed the distance between the two of them, close enough for Pandora to see the steel in his worn but compassionate eyes.  “You can surpass your programming.  You can be more, if you truly want to be.”

Her voice was small.  “But how do you know I can?”

Tron allowed himself a slight smile.  “Because you already have before.  You risked yourself to help Flynn, you took the leap to become something new.”  His tone shifted as he frowned.  “Clu is still out there.  With every new cycle his stranglehold on the Grid tightens.  Whether or not you decide to join our cause, you need to be prepared to defend yourself.”

A firm hand extended towards her, held by a firmer expression.

“One session every other cycle.  From curfew to the beginning of the next cycle.  You provide the energy, and I’ll provide the training.  For as long as it takes.”

Pandora was floored.  This was Tron.  Fire and determination.   How do you say “no” to something like that?  But more accurately, how long before he realizes I’m not worth the trouble?

Hesitantly, her slim hand rose to meet his, and shook it with a fragile motion.  His fingers gently wrapped around hers and met that same motion, lending it strength.

“...Okay.”

His smile at her response made her feel winded and warm all at once.

 

*******

 

Pandora didn’t know what to do with herself for the cycle afterwards.   He’s coming back next cycle, she thought.  She briefly eyed the discreet shelving in the wall that housed her concentrated energy canisters.   Plenty for at least twenty cycles or more… I guess we’ll see if I even last that long.

She balled her hand into a fist, looking at it.  Such a small fist.   How is this ever going to be strong enough for anything?

Everything in her life had gone from 0 to 100 in the span of a cycle.  From being an insignificant program hiding out in a forgotten part of town, to suddenly being the fixation of the Hero of the Grid.  A very much alive Hero, by the way.  Her head spun a little at the turn of events.

She had shown him the back entrance to her apartment, a more convenient rooftop access from the window’s fire escape.  Easier for him to enter that way and avoid unnecessary detection rather than using the street-level door.

Pandora retraced her steps out the fire escape and up to the roof.  It was a particularly quiet cycle.  She leaned her arms against the edge, peering off into the horizon.  There was something calming about going up there, watching the Grid below, the lights twinkling and pulsing throughout Argon, small vehicles in the distance traveling to and fro, blissfully ignorant of the grand scale of things.  Just existing cycle to cycle; that’s how most programs made it through.   Perhaps not much of a life, but any life was preferable to being derezzed.   This far up, it was hard to see the traces of Clu.  If she closed her eyes and sat there, she could almost pretend it was still like it had been before.

Her eyes opened somberly.  But it wasn’t like before.  Someday Clu would be here too, a permanent visage, just like he was in Tron City.  She sighed.  Tron was right.  It was only a matter of time, and she had to get prepared before that time was up.

 

*******

 

As promised, Tron appeared promptly around the start of curfew.  Pandora didn’t bother to ask how he had been able to make it there unseen; it was Tron, after all.  Now that he was familiar with the surroundings and running on plenty of energy, she doubted he’d ever be in that situation from when they first met.  She wondered what those thugs would’ve done if they knew it was really Tron they had--

“Pandora?”  the gravelly purr of Tron’s voice pulled her out of her thoughts.  

“Sorry!  What were you saying?” She straightened up, grimacing.

“I said, let’s start out with the basics.”

“O-ok!” She tried taking up what she thought a good stance was like.

Tron walked over to her side, his foot looping in and lightly kicking out her left leg.  She almost slipped, but regained herself.

“Your stance is too wide.  You want your legs apart, but not so far that it compromises your footing.  Here.”  His foot nudged one of her legs closer in, and she pulled the other in to match.  A relaxed stance, but not nearly so wide as before.

“Better,” he acknowledged curtly.  “Now.  Attack me.”

“What?”

“Attack me.”

Pandora froze.  She had never initiated combat before, and had no idea of how to start.  As she reached behind her back for her disc, Tron waved her away.

“No discs.”  Following her confused gaze, he continued. “There may be times where your disc is unavailable, or otherwise unusable.  The most important thing is knowing how to fight without it.  If you can’t fight without it, you shouldn’t fight at all.”

He paused.  Pointing at her knowingly he added, “And no dupes either.  No cheating; we do the basics.”  

She nodded slowly.  Squaring up her shoulders unsteadily, she raised her fists loosely and eyed him.  Tron remained still, in no stance… just simply standing there.

O-kay…

Taking a deep breath, she rushed at him, right arm forward, fist reaching out to make contact--

A slap of the arm, a yank of the midsection, and suddenly the world was upended and she felt a strange hovering sensation.  Abruptly she realized she was flying backwards and almost crashed against the wall behind her.  Wind knocked out of her, she lay on the floor, staring up at the program peering down at her.  

She must’ve looked rather foolish there, because for a fraction of a micro-cycle, Tron’s expression betrayed a glint of amusement before masking itself back into absolute seriousness.  

 

He helped her up briskly.

“That was… a good first try.  Perhaps let’s practice punches first.”  

Tron raised both hands, palms forward, as the yellow outlines of holographic pads manifested on top of them.  

“This is a training exercise I used to run with the greenest security programs.  The pads here are your targets.  I want you to hit them as hard as you can.”

Pandora set to work boxing with Tron.  As hard as she tried punching, the yellow pads just absorbed her efforts and bounced back.  Frustrated, she tried increasing the intensity, only for him to easily match her.  After some time, out of breath, she plopped down onto her couch.

“I don’t get what the point of this is,” she wheezed, “I can’t punch hard enough.  It’s not doing anything.”

“The point is not to damage,” he replied.  He knelt down, bumping her gently in the forehead with one of the pads.  “The point is to get you comfortable with the idea of punching.”

She blinked.  He was right; in that time, she hadn’t noticed how she had gone from being too scared to hit him to trying to legitimately knock his block off.

“Okay,” she grinned, “that’s not a bad technique.”

“Right?”  Tron smiled, standing up.  “Now, again.”

 

They spent the first few sessions this way.  Pandora got more comfortable with striking the training pads.  As they practiced, she began trying to work around the pads, as Tron adjusted and matched her movements.  By the end of the third session, she was actively trying to hit him without fear or apprehension.  

“Now that you’re warmed up, you must learn how to anticipate your enemy’s actions.”  The yellow holograms dissipated as Tron took up a loose stance.  Pandora tensed.

“Relax,” he said.  “I’m going to do this very slowly.  Pay attention to how I move; try to react.”

“But what if I hurt you?”

Tron deadpanned.

Pandora made a face.  “Okay, okay, so I obviously can’t hurt you.”

“The point of this isn’t to try and strike back.  I want to see if you can do what I just did earlier.  Match or divert my attacks.  Don’t worry about striking back at this point.”

Pandora straightened up, fists up and locked.

Barely above a whisper, he uttered, “Here I come.”

Tron dashed forward, arms extended.  Pandora panicked and barely dodged a swipe to the side.   Slowly he says!  Right… Coming around again, he lifted a leg that got past her defenses and lightly smacked her in the hip.  Falling off balance, she stumbled and loosely deflected a fist to the side with both of her arms shielding her, but the move made her vulnerable to a kick in the behind.

“Ow!”

“When you used both hands, you lost the ability to use one to block something else.”

The barrage started again, and again, and again.  Each time Tron changed up the approach just enough to keep Pandora on the defensive, and each time she received a well-meaning, yet humbling smack somewhere for her troubles.

Well, no one said this would be easy…

More often than not, Pandora went flying.  Winning the battle but losing the war, dodging one move just to get flipped over yet again by Tron.  But with every failure, a flicker of persistence fired up in her, and as they trained, the flame grew brighter.  

Time passed, energy canisters slowly diminishing as they revitalized themselves after each session.  Pandora felt unsure if she was making any headway, but Tron slowly became more comfortable with the process.  Something about it triggered memories of a time that now seemed so long ago and far away, when he once trained security programs in Tron City.  He had missed this feeling, this pride, in passing on his knowledge to the future.  And what could be more unusual than this?  Two students.  A mechanic.  An artist.  Both pushing past their limitations, achieving what programs assumed was impossible.

The promise it held.  

Training Beck and Pandora was like night and day.  Beck possessed a gift for combat that only needed to be nurtured; despite the need to challenge him now and then, Tron felt confident that Beck was finding his way.  While not perfect, he was on the right path; Tron was certain of it.

Pandora was another story.  The drive... the desire was slow-burning, but it was there.  Unfortunately she hadn’t hit the ground running like Beck.  In their training she proved too passive, too analytical; she lacked that fighter’s instinct.  Tron feared that if she couldn’t upgrade to that capability, it could prove fatal down the line.  But for now, it was all right.  

He could see it in her eyes, she wanted so desperately to succeed… but was it for her?  Or for him?  Every time she fell, she got back up again, ready to do it again.

But there was that persistent darkness in there as well.  The fear.  Fear of the unknown.  Fear of failure.

 

It was at the end of the 15th session that Pandora needed a little variety.

After complaining that her strength wasn’t sufficient against stronger opponents, Tron took that as a challenge to prove her wrong.

“Not everything is about power,” Tron intoned.  “If the enemy is stronger, you use their strength to your advantage.”  He beckoned with an open palm.

Pandora swallowed hard and charged him.  He held his pose until the last possible moment, hands suddenly stretching out and matching the speed of her arms.  They coasted in tandem, until they wove between her and scooped her up, using her own speed to carry her up and over, as she smacked against the far wall.

“Utilizing an opponent’s momentum is crucial to your skills,” Tron continued without missing a beat.  “So long you can re-channel their energies away and outward, the enemy could be twice your size and still be taken down efficiently.”

“As fun as it is being tossed around,” Pandora said, standing up after yet another full body flip, “any chance we could switch places?”

“I’m not sure you’re ready just yet--”

“At least to try?”  She made a pitiful frown.  “Just give me a chance.”

Tron looked at her.  She looked ridiculous, really… scuffed up and hair fumbled to the side, she’d taken a bit more this time around, and it showed.  But despite her bruises, she faced him with steely eyes and a fading determination.

Before that determination failed completely though, Tron relented, lightly tossing his hands up.

“Okay.”  Preparing his stance, he added, “Remember: use your enemy’s momentum.  Don’t fight it.  Flow like energy.”

Pandora nodded briefly, sizing him up.  How many countless times had they done this dance?  Sessions had begun blurring together, countless moves and counter moves, instruction and re-affirmation…

He stood before her, with the same loose stance she’d seen many times before.  The “I’m humoring you” stance.  Or perhaps, more accurately, the “I’m not fighting you seriously” stance.  She grimaced; even his body language was mocking her lack of progress, intentionally or not.

But that was strange…

That one little lift his left shoulder made.  The hitch in his breathing before he switched weight to his other leg.  The subtle twist of his arm as he pushed off his leg into a sprint.

Her eyes flashed.

She’d catalogued these moments, somehow.  They cascaded before her, familiar notes in a song that was buzzing in her head, almost pieced together to get the melody, but still incomplete.

But it was enough for this.

She could see his arm extend before it did; her perception filled in the gap before it was made.  And before he could strike with his fist, her arms looped around his, yanking with a strength that propelled from her firm footing, as Tron, impossibly, was flung over her shoulders and towards the opposite corner of the apartment.

He landed like a cat, nimbly on his feet and aided by a single hand, but as he rose his face was colored with fleeting surprise.

“That was… good,” Tron managed, his expression now tempered but his voice betraying his shock.  

Pandora looked at him, eyes wide.  “I… it was like I could see it before it happened.”

“What?”

She shook her head, trying to piece things together.  “The move of your shoulder, the way you placed your feet…”  She frowned.  “I remembered them, knew what came next.”

A dawning realization hit Tron.  “The analysis.”

“What do you mean?”

“When Flynn gave you your new dupe subroutine, he mentioned needing to gather enough data from the subject to make a dupe, correct?”

“Yes…”

“And your main code is a renderer.  Instinctively, you analyze something to create the most accurate replication you can.”

Pandora nodded, as she started understanding where Tron was going with this.

“It’s in your code to be efficient at analyzing a subject.  So it’s only natural that you can analyze the subject’s behavior along with other physical attributes.”  Tron smiled.  “If we can figure out how to maximize your analysis, you’ll be able to see an enemy’s moves before they even hit you.”

Pandora paused.  “Tron, I hate to be a wet blanket, but I’ve only really watched your moves that heavily.  Programs all fight differently; it would take forever to catalogue and attempt to analyze everyone’s fighting styles.”

Tron paced casually in the room, finger at his lips as he thought.  “Perhaps…” His tone darkened.  “But I can tell you one thing.  Clu’s elite black guards… they were once my entire security team.”

She paled.  “All of them?”

Silence crept between his lips as he stopped pacing and looked away, unable to meet her gaze.  “Yes.”

“I’m sorry Tron... I didn’t know.”

His jaw tightly clenched as he tightened his lips. Eventually, he sighed and turned back towards her.

“Clu re-purposed them all, there was nothing I could do.”  Tron’s gloom lifted slightly as he pushed his mind away from old thoughts.  “But, the point in telling you all this… is that I trained them all.  Myself.”

Pandora’s eyes widened.  “That means…”

He nodded.  “They followed my instruction to the letter, which means they all fight like me.  Perhaps not as well,” he added with a gentle smirk to his voice, “but close enough that their movements ought to be familiar to you.”

Somehow, Pandora felt the wind knocked out of her.  To be able to predict and fight black guard?  Maybe she could do this after all, maybe--

“Now, hold on,” Tron interrupted.  He wagged a finger at her.  “I can already see the gears turning in that head of yours, but don’t get so excited.  Regular guards that weren’t re-purposed were never put through my training.  That means you may have more difficulty dealing with them than the black guard, ironically enough.  So training you is still something that we’re going to have to keep doing.  Besides, just because you can predict moves doesn’t guarantee an opponent’s defeat.  There’s a lot more to it than just that.”

“Right…”

“Not to mention, there’s always the danger that someone could toss in a new move to purposely throw you off.”

Pandora raised an eyebrow.  “Would that ‘someone’ happen to be a certain Hero of the Grid…?”

Tron gave a noncommittal head tilt.  “Maybe, maybe not.”

She shifted her legs into a fighting stance.

“So the feeling I’m getting is I’ve ‘still got a lot to learn,’” she replied, trying to imitate his voice poorly.

Tron smiled and matched her stance.  “Yes.  Though you’re learning it quicker, I think.”

They sized each other up.

It was probably all in her head, but she could have sworn his tone was warmer.  “Now, again.

The sparring continued, now heightened with the predictive knowledge of Pandora’s internal analyses.  She was able to perceive the more obvious movements before they landed (thus avoiding several body flips in the process), but Tron was exerting more effort in shadowing his body’s flow.  Shifting shoulders, doubling his side steps, he purposely complicated his maneuvers to prevent an easy reading of them.

As Pandora charged him, he initially cast out a fist.

He’s going to try and throw me, she thought.  I can see it!  If I just go this way instead--

But then the arm retreated, and his hips drastically shifted to the side.  She panicked and swerved to avoid her momentum being manipulated, but her own dance to the side was met with Tron’s long and imposing arms.  They both ended up clattering together roughly, Tron pinning Pandora against him, her back flat against his chest, his arms wrapped tightly around her front, while her arms were clamped uselessly to the sides.

They stood like that for a moment, the positioning slowly sinking in to Pandora.  She couldn’t see his face from her position, but his arms around her were warm, as was his body behind her.  Training had been so sterile and visceral up to this point that she hadn’t considered the closeness of two bodies.  

Tron was holding her.  

As her feelings began pounding in her ears, she suddenly noticed her circuitry near his touch turning tints of purple.

She coughed loudly and broke his grasp.  Flailing, Pandora attempted to imitate training fatigue, but for the briefest of moments she thought she saw a faint purple hue disappear from Tron’s chest circuitry.  She rubbed her eyes and only saw his standard white and blue glow.  Just my imagination, I guess.

Tron looked at her with an unreadable expression, but quickly regained his usual hard-edged demeanor.  

“Perhaps that’s enough training for this cycle,” he said finally.

 

*******

 

“You did well this time,” Tron said between sips of energy.

“Ah, but still not well enough,” Pandora caught him, giving a self-effacing smirk.  “I think I’ve been hearing your training chatter long enough now to tell when you’re just trying to be kind.”  Her smirk faded as she looked down.  Blinking quickly, she tore herself from her thoughts and grabbed his arm.

“Can I show you something?”

 

The far corner of the rooftop felt particularly welcoming that cycle.  The city lights were of a bluer hue than usual, and far in the distance an electrical storm showered down on Argon’s industrial district.

“Since we’ve been at it, I’ve been coming up here a lot more,” she settled her elbows down on the rooftop edge, staring ahead.  “It’s my own little place to think.  I get a nice view of the city.  I don’t know how to explain it, but… it kind of helps keep me centered.  Focused.”

Tron nodded.  His own hideout certainly had quite the view, but he remained silent.

“I’ve been thinking about things, while I’ve been training, but I…”  she faltered.

He looked at her, perplexed.

Pandora started again.  “I’ve never really gone head to head with Tesler’s goons.  When I stole energy, I did it with dupes… I used them as a diversion and then took it when no one was looking.”

Tron raised his eyebrow.  “Well there’s nothing wrong with that.  It’s actually pretty clever.”

“Clever maybe, but brave?  No.”  She chewed her lip, frowning.

He scanned her features for a moment and then understood.

“You’re ashamed you did it that way because you were afraid.”

Her emotions sank as she looked at the city lights.

“How do you do it? How do you get rid of the fear?”

Tron opened his mouth to reply, but then thought better of it, closing it with a rueful smile.

Finally, he replied, “I’d love to tell you there was some easy way, but everyone is afraid of something.”

A faint hint of confusion touched Pandora’s brows.  “Even you…?  But you’re the Hero of the Grid; you aren’t afraid of anything.”

Tron surprised her with a light chuckle, leaning back and taking a breath.

“You know… that’s the funny thing about myths.  When enough programs start spreading the same stories, everyone just ends up accepting it as truth.”  His eyes focused on the scenery below.  “It’s a ‘truth’ that works for them because the figure is larger than life; something to aspire to, to believe in.”  

His lips tightened.

“Who am I to take that from them…?  To take that symbol of hope away, when they need it most?  But that mythical Tron, the one everyone sees as perfect, as incorruptible… It’s just that.”  Tron’s eyes hardened as his jaw clenched, still unable to meet her gaze.

“A myth.  Everyone is afraid of something, even me.  But the secret... the key is to not let that fear overtake you, to control you.  There were many times I was afraid, where I could’ve drowned in my fear and let it take me away.  But I pushed past it; I found reasons to fight it and persevere.”  He closed his eyes, clearly lost in a memory.  “If you let your fear hold you back, then the revolution’s over before it has a chance to start.”

There was an honest ache in his words that made Pandora stir, so much weight behind unspoken memories that fueled his speech.  In that moment, the Grid felt so very, very small… as if it were just the two of them.  She felt an overwhelming urge to put her hand on his, to say “I’m here, I understand,” but her fingers trembled in anxiety and she remained where she was.

They sat there in silence for a short while, the blinking and brilliant city below expanding once again and surrounding them with far-off sounds and a shimmering landscape.  

“Thank you, Tron,” she managed at last, tucking her hands under her thighs as she sat.  “I’ll… I’ll keep that in mind.”

He stole a glance at her and smiled.

 

*******

 

Some time after Tron had gone, Pandora was left alone to check on her stores of energy.

Where there had once been a healthy supply of canisters, there were now only two left.  She frowned.   We’ve been going through these so fast…

She closed the cabinet and slumped down into a seated position on the floor.

We’re almost out, and I have to get more, but…

What she had neglected to tell Tron was that her large cache of energy had taken more than just a few trips to get.  She’d accumulated them over the course of dozens of cycles.  Sneaking around with dupes would usually only net one or two canisters per try, basically just what she could carry.  But with more training on the horizon, she would have to seriously up her supply.  And quickly.

Pandora stood up and paced around the room.  I need to get a lot of energy in one go, she thought.  It’s risky, but I can’t lose him now.  No energy means no training… and I…

She touched her chest lightly, where Tron’s arms had crossed around her.  

Her realization sank in, startling her.  His stern visage was clear as a bell in her mind, his face warming ever so slightly with a gentle smile.

 

...I don’t want to lose Tron.

 

Pandora bit her lip.  Walking over to her table, she lifted a simple baton and rolled it around in her hand.

“Well, go big or go home, right?” she said aloud to no one in particular.  

She took a deep breath.

“Next cycle I ransack the energy reserve... or derez trying.”