"Everyone into the garage," Beck says quietly, mask rezzing to distort his voice, "Everyone inside now."
Tron watches the back of his apprentice, his friend - his biolights reflect the wave of orange coming from over the Sea, the stormfront heralded by the massive yellow recognizer bearing down on the northern shore of Argon. Even from within the cradle of the city, they can see them, the lightjets and lightfighters, recognizers, rectifiers. An oppressive wall of red light trembling through the grid itself. He can feel his very code vibrating in tune with the fleet.
Tron's a security program - he's the security program. He knows the word for what this is.
Beck turns to him, two flat planes of tinted glass meeting each other as they share a look that doesn't need eye contact to land, that doesn't need anything but context and the shared urgency in their postures.
"Help me get everyone in."
Mara, behind them both, is the first to send up the signal to the rest of the group. She's fought personal wars on the grid, many of them - this isn't much different. The crush of crisis is balanced on her shoulders, and she knows what to do with it. She turns back to the other handful of mechanics.
"Alright," her voice is too loud in the silence, only cut by the steady rumble of the oncoming fleet - an implacable noise, one that rattles through each of them in turn. "We'll fortify the garage - we know this place better than anyone on the grid. Everyone in, and then we'll seal the hangars. Keep together."
Zed, next to her, still has his eyes on the horizon. Beck can see the wave of orange-red-yellow reflected in his eyes.
"We're mechanics, Mara," he whispers, "what are we gonna do? Make a fort? Hold off an army?"
"If we have to," Mara says. She activates her repair shielding, the yellow faceplate not quite hiding her expression the way Tron and Beck's faceplates do.
"Our priority is to protect these two," she says to the rest of the group, "we'll figure out a way to get them safely out of the city after we get ourselves somewhere defensible."
"We're not leaving the city," Beck says, stepping forward and past Tron. He feels the security program put a hand on his shoulder, but he shrugs it off.
"That's CLU in there, isn't it?" Mara asks, her biolights brittle bright with the fear she's not showing on her face. "He's coming for both of you. Let us help."
Beck takes a step closer to the assembled mechanics, their discs still clutched in their hands and humming a chorus of low-level power. The ruined recognizer behind him charges the air with ozone, thick waves of smoke, and smoldering pixels.
"What you did, standing up to Pavel, to his guards, that was admirable," Beck says, "and we owe you for your courage. But this is different. That - " he points out over the water, the encroaching reddish light, "is not occupation reinforcements or a city-wide curfew, that's not Tesler or his commanders."
"It's an army," Tron says. Beck looks over at him. His suit, black, is still lit with more lights than Beck can ever remember him having, all portal-white and intricate in a way that speaks of early grid designs, of architecture and code gigacycles older than himself. For the first time since Tron entered that reprogramming chamber on the recognizer, Beck realizes how close the security program had come to total blackout - how long those lights had been hidden, too weak and crippled by pain to spark back to life. They'll soon fade, just over energized circuits showing through his suit, but for a moment Tron looks old, powerful.
"We're not leaving the city."
Zed takes Mara's arm, half-turning back toward their ragtag resistance. His lights are just as bright as everyone else's, an instinctual fear that rises in their core coding like the vibrations through the grid itself, singing.
"We're the best mechanics this city has. If we can't make something out of this scrapyard, who can?"
Mara nods. The two of them divide the group into two - Mara's group immediately takes to the outer walls of the garage, beginning to close the outer hangar doors and opening their data compilers to lock them down. Zed's group moves further into the garage, snapping tethers from the ceiling and breaking open batons to salvage parts for defenses.
"We can fortify this place for a thousand cycles, Beck, but it won't hold against that," Tron says quietly as they begin to follow their sudden resistance into the garage.
"I know. But we can't leave them, and there's nowhere for us to run where Tesler won't find us," Beck says.
Tron shakes his head. "Not quite the place I'd want to make a last stand," he says, gesturing to the main hangar door as it drops after them with a dull, grid-shaking thunk.
"It won't be a last stand," Beck says, putting a hand on Tron's arm. "Promise."
"So here's the plan," Zed says half an hour later, "we make a last stand."
"Absolutely not," Beck says, trying to keep the panic out of his voice. The Renegade wouldn't panic over the thought of the loss of these programs he barely knows, wouldn't feel a sharp stab of guttural fear that makes him want to pull Zed and Mara close and keep them out of the oncoming dogfight that's currently skimming Argon's shore. He can't be Beck right now.
Zed rolls his eyes. "Okay, sure, but if you'd let me finish - Pavel's going to report back that we're here, and CLU can obviously see his shiny new recognizer in a pile of scrap right outside our door. We're stuck here. At least, that's what we'll have the occupation think. Mara, what's below the garage?"
Mara crosses her legs from where she's sitting on one of the lightcycle lifts, tapping her arm bracers together absently. "The harbor - oh! The harbor!"
Zed points to her, "Exactly. There's an escape route built in to this place already, we just need a distraction so we can actually use it. I'm thinking we keep doing what we're doing; lock down the garage, make sure everything is as defendable as we can get it. Make it look like a stronghold. A few of us can retrofit one of the lightfighters into a submersible while the others do that, and when CLU comes knocking we'll drop into the water and escape."
"I can do that," Beck says, thinking of the boat he'd thrown together on the collapsing island, and then of how it had been barely held together with a single line of binary and a lot of fucking luck, and corrects himself - "I've sort of done it before."
Zed nods at him at the same time that Tron shakes his head. His arms are folded in a way Beck recognizes. He's frustrated. It's one of his few tells.
"Even if we can get something like that operational, there's still no where for us to go. You'll all be identified by Pavel to Tesler, and after that you'll be hunted by the occupation. There's not a safe house in Argon that can withstand a direct assault by CLU's forces. I've checked."
Beck crosses to an info station near one of the lifts and pulls up a schematic of Argon, highlighting the garage with a gesture. The harbor around them is an empty void - no lights, no roadways, no structures, just pure black that cuts through the western edge of the city and creates an inlet that drains out to the Sea. His fingers follow the contour of the shore, a pixel-perfect line moving southwest, until -
"There, we can take the sub as far as there," he says, and pulls the map over onto his disc, holding it flat in front of his chest for the rest to see.
"It's near the border - we can follow the Sea until there, move southeast on land until we reach your place," Beck tilts his chin up at Tron.
The security program sighs. "If we can even get there without being stopped, or followed. Cyrus' virus did some damage to the internal operating system, too - if we went there, there'd be no guarantee that we'd know what was happening in the rest city, or even if we'd have the energy we'd need to stay online."
"Able had a spare stash of energy somewhere in his office," Mara says instantly. When Tron and Beck look at her curiously, she shrugs. "Able put me in charge, and I was supposed to, what? Not poke around a little? Unless he moved it, it should be in a compartment beneath his desk - there's a lot, enough for all of us at least for a few cycles."
Beck shoots Tron a look, but behind the faceplate, he's not sure if the security program is even paying attention to him. Able had an energy store, huh?
"We'll take one of the lightrunners," one of the mechanics says, Asper, Beck thinks her name is, interrupting that line of thought, "they're smaller than a standard carrier, but it should be able to fit all of us if we attach a cargo linkup to it and squeeze. We'll disable its auxiliary lights, too: that should buy us some cover."
"We'll find the energy Mara mentioned," Beck says, motioning for Tron to follow as he heads toward the back office, "you all get started. Work fast."
"You're tired, Beck. You should rest," Tron says as soon as the office door slides shut behind them.
"I'm fine, Tron, I'll power down when we're out of here," Beck replies, moving forward toward Able's desk without stopping to acknowledge him.
"You fought an entire recognizer's worth of soldiers, Beck, and there are more coming - the programs out there need the Renegade functioning. I need you functioning."
"Who said I wasn't? Look, I know how far I can push myself, Tron, it's not like this is my first life-risking mission," Beck says, and ducks to tap a hand to one of the plates beneath Able's desk. Nothing happens.
"Fine. If you're sure. I'll go help the others set up reinforcements for the hangar walls, they won't last the way they are now."
"Why was Able saving energy?" Beck asks. His back is turned to Tron, but he knows the program well enough by now to know his words have the intended effect. Tron is quiet for a long, tense moment.
"I'm sure he had a valid reason."
"I thought you were done with the whole lying to me thing, Tron."
Beck can hear him sigh. It feels like he's always doing that - a world of trouble on Tron's shoulders, a lifetime of being programmed to do one thing: worry.
"I asked Able a long time ago for a favor. He was a program of his word, he did what I asked."
"You asked him to smuggle you energy. That's how you've been keeping the healing chamber going for all these years. You two knew each other that well?"
"Better, actually, once," Tron says quietly, and Beck turns to look at him. Here, with both of their faceplates off, Tron looks...
Tron looks tired.
"He was my friend, at the end, and that's something I never should have taken for granted. He protected me when I couldn't protect him."
"You want all of these programs to get out of here safely just as much as I do, and I know you want to protect them," Beck says gently. The next tile he taps stays inert, and he moves on to the one adjacent.
"I need to protect them, Beck. I let things get this bad - "
Beck watches his expression. It doesn't exactly break, because Tron is a sturdy program, made first and foremost to withstand , but there's a pain there that he can't ignore. He realizes how much it must have hurt him, to train a Renegade as his apprentice, as his replacement , knowing the one thing he was made to do, he couldn't.
"Then start by protecting me - really protecting me, Tron. No more lying, no more hiding things from me because you think it's for the better. We won't survive the next few cycles unless I know exactly what's going on."
The next tile slides aside as his hand makes contact, and a shelf rises up from the floor. As it does, hardlight sides take form, and the box rises completely out from its hiding spot filled with neat stacks of energy cylinders.
"Huh," Tron says as he sees it.
"Able's last gift to us. That's more than enough to keep us all going for a metacycle, at least."
Tron crosses the room and grabs one of the cylinders, holding it loose in one hand. The blue glow mingles with his biolights. Something seems to reset in his expression, a resolution that loosens the set of his jaw. Able's last gift to us is life, Beck thinks, the ability to fight another day. He's thinking the same thing.
"You're right, Beck," Tron says, "I'm sorry. All I ever wanted was for you to not make the same mistakes I did. I wanted to keep you from that pain, but I hurt you myself instead. We always talked about this being bigger than both of us, but it truly is now. I can't let my fear of the past influence what I'm doing now."
Beck takes the cylinder from him. It's the same color as the T set high on his chest. The color that means hope.
"At least you learned your lesson," Beck replies, and smiles.
It doesn't take long for CLU's armada to come bearing down from overhead the garage, descending like the body of a massive serpent from the black void sky. The rattling they all feel in their cores gets stronger with every passing minute, until it vibrates through their teeth and their eyes, making focusing on their work hard. Beck wordlessly tasks Tron with finding them a decently remote route through the edges of Argon out to his base while Beck himself helps Asper, Mara, and Zed with the design of the submersible.
Subs aren't common projects at Able's garage - they're one of the rarer modes of troop transportation and cargo freighting for the occupation, and since Argon's harbors were closed cycles ago by the government, they've mostly been docked against the Sea and left abandoned. Making one from scratch, or more accurately, repurposing it from another vehicle, isn't something Beck's programmed to know how to do, not like tuning up lightcycles or reconstructing the damaged code of a tank. But he's worked against his programming before, made himself an entirely new identity outside of his code; he knows he can do this, too. Nothing but a data compiler and his bracers, picking apart engines line by line and stringing their code back together in a new pattern - taking apart Beck and putting together the Renegade. Variations on a theme.
Beck grabs Mara's hand as she passes by him toward the toolbench to get a wrench and pulls her behind the half deconstructed lightfighter. Her light's dimmed, settling down into the calm pulse of her work, but as she looks up at him they begin to brighten again, circuits humming an overclocked thrum, and through her suit Beck can feel a subroutine activating - worry.
"What's going on?" She asks quietly.
"Look," Beck says, and wonders how she hasn't picked out his voice from through the distortion, if the visage of Tron is really that distracting, "Just because me and... the Renegade aren't leaving the city doesn't mean the rest of you have to stay. Once we make it to our base, you, Zed, and whoever else wants to should hop a transport to Bismuth."
Mara laughs, "You're joking, right? We're your resistance , we're here to help you. How have you not gotten that past your firewall yet? When we leave, we all leave, and anything else is unacceptable."
"You would've made a great Renegade, you know that, right?" Beck says, and places his hands on her shoulders. He's glad she's here, even through all of this. He's glad he can keep her and Zed close.
She laughs at him. "I think I'll leave that responsibility to you and him."
"Speaking of," Beck says under his breath as he catches his friend's faceplate tilted toward him half the room away. "You keep working, I'll be right back."
"I think I've found our way through," Tron says as Beck approaches, "but it's going to be tricky. My base is on the mountain range that separates Argon from the Outlands, and from the other side the Sea, but the terrain will still be rougher than in the city proper. There's also this - " Tron extends his disc, where a holo light map paints the outer systems of Argon. Beck can see, highlighted in red, a single line that cuts across the mountain pass.
"A blockade," Beck murmurs.
Tron nods, "It must have gone up recently - to keep programs from escaping the city. To keep us contained."
Beck taps at the map until it expands toward the blockade. "Can't be any harder than taking out a recognizer, can it?"
Tron gives him a look. "It absolutely can. There's no way around it, so we'll have to go through it. The problem is, we can't let any of them know where we're going."
Beck sighs and crosses his arms. "Another distraction, then?"
Tron frowns, "This is a blockade . None of the programs on that line will leave their stations, not even for Tron and the Renegade. That means we won't be followed, most likely, but not that they won't track us remotely, and not that they'll fall for any of our usual tricks."
"We have usual tricks?"
"We can go over," says someone behind Beck. He jumps, but it's only Asper, standing with her repair shields up, glowing a saturated lavender. She looks at the map, but doesn't try to touch it.
She gestures to the workshop around them - every lightjet and lightcruiser cut from its tethers, laying dormant and unlit, some reduced down to their batons and others fully rezzed.
"We have plenty of aircraft, if we can alter their altitude perimeters we should be able to fly right over them."
Beck looks over at Tron, who pauses for a beat.
"The mountain is surrounded by a perpetual storm generator. There's nothing that can fly through it and come out the other side without being derezzed."
Asper shrugs. "There's me."
Beck tilts his head at her curiously.
"I'm a pilot, programmed to specialize in light to medium cargo transportation. This is light cargo transportation if I've ever seen it, so why not?"
"You're a pilot? Who works in a garage?" Tron asks. Asper shoots him a look.
"Like you were programmed for vigilante justice?"
"Do you think you can do it?" Beck cuts through. He looks out of the corners of his eyes at Tron, trying to get a read on the security program, but through the faceplate it's hard to pin down if he's actually considering it or not.
Asper looks at the map, studying it for a moment. Her biolights pulse once.
"Yeah, I know I can. We'll just need a big enough ship."
"We'll take a 'cruiser baton with us," Beck says, "Can you alter its altitude perimeters?"
"Easy enough," Asper replies, and turns away to get started.
The walls to the garage begin to shriek.
All of the mechanics cover their ears at once, some doubling over as the frequency mounts. Beck and Tron wince and step away from the nearest wall, only protected from the noise by their faceplates. They activate their battle subroutines in tandem.
From outside, they can all hear as the first recognizer sets down - more accurately, they can feel it, the massive pillars of code that slam home into the grid - and the next a half second after that, and the next, and the next.
"Time to go!" Beck shouts.
"Is the sub ready?" Mara shouts back, all of them setting their vocal protocols to max volume to be heard over the resonance spilling from the walls and floor.
"It'll have to be!" Tron replies, at the same time Zed yells "No!"
Asper looks over to Beck. He shakes his head, gesturing toward the bank of landed lightcruisers against the far wall.
"Pick any of them! You'll have to do it as we go."
"Citizens of the grid,"
Tron and Beck both freeze. The metal of the walls distort the sound as it rips through the air, quaking with the volume, but the voice is unmistakable.
"Do not be afraid," CLU says, gently, "I've come to liberate you from the virus that's infected this city's code. Seditionists and traitors alike, right here in Argon. Today we purge them, and make this city clean once again."
"It's time to go! Everyone together!" Tron shouts. Beck moves and gestures Zed forward.
"Derezz part of the floor, make a hatch," he says. Zed grabs a wrench without argument, and as Beck strikes down with his disc into the thick metal flooring, Zed opens the interface and expands the damaged code out into a perfect seven by seven square. Below, black water laps at the new edges.
Something strikes hard against the main hangar door, buckling the metal. The sound of a turret coming online and cycling reaches them.
"If you surrender now," CLU says, implacably calm as the first pixels start to fall away from the hangar door, as the water laps and reaches up, blackout empty and cold, "I will derezz each of you personally. There's no need for you to suffer."
"In!" Tron shouts, the sound tearing through his throat. For a moment the mechanics look at each other, fear in their circuits burning nova-bright, the deep thrum of their overclocked systems uniting them, and then one by one, they dive into the Sea.
Behind them, the garage explodes into millions of pixels and screaming orange-red light.
Beck hits the water and immediately feels it swarm his circuits. It's cold , achingly cold, the kind of cold that seizes up your processor as you sink to the bottom. He can feel his biolights throb against the dark, but even through the secondary cover of the Tron disc he knows they'll short out eventually - two minutes, three tops. In the whirling dark, he can see the faint lights of the rest of the mechanics, green and yellow and purple and pink and blue, all of them so far away and so dim, sinking slowly into the Sea.
Come on, he thinks, curling up tight against the system freeze wrapping itself around his circuits, come on, Tron!
In a bright burst of white-blue, Beck sees through his faceplates the schematic of a massive submersible take form out of the black. Its components etch themselves in quickly as he watches, and then his back hits solid metal and he gasps as pain shoots up through his port. His subroutines try to trigger his faceplate release, but he overrides it and instead twists over onto his side and coughs, trying to shake the phantom pain of white-hot cold water.
"Are you alright?" Tron asks from above him. The program extends a hand and crouches, lifting him into a sitting position and putting a hand on his back, just over his disc port.
"Fine," Beck manages. "Cut it a little close there, didn't you?"
He can tell Tron's smirking behind the faceplate. "Always do. Come on, we're not out of this yet. I need you to watch our tail, make sure no one comes after us. We've killed the lights - that should give us some cover."
"Who's driving?" Beck asks.
As he stands, he can take in the full layout of their handmade submersible. The general design of the sub still has the architecture of a lightcruiser - the main cabin flanked by two broad propellers issuing them forward, a tail that's been repurposed into a rudder. Either wing is fitted with guns, and so is the turret mount affixed to the back. Beck takes his place there, watching through the viewport for anything stirring in the incomprehensible darkness. Their circuit lights are down, their ship in blackout as it cleaves through the water, but the internal lights pulse a soft blue. Beck does a quick headcount, and comes up one short.
"We're missing one."
Zed, sitting on a hardlight bench at one side of the cabin, looks down at his clasped hands and shakes his head.
"Yeah, Aurora. He was next to me when the turret fired - it knocked him back. He never made it into the water."
Beck lets his head drop, just for a second, but keeps his shoulders steady. They'll have time to mourn, but for now a moment of grief is all he can allow himself. There are still twenty-six programs on this ship who need him, need all of him, present and ready. He can only distance the feeling so much, though, and he knows it's not a skill any of his new team have had to develop, so he lets himself put a comforting hand on Zed's shoulder.
"I'm sorry," he says quietly, "he deserved better than that."
"Yeah," Zed replies as he looks away, "he did. But it isn't your fault. I'll take up the grievance with CLU."
"Is everyone else alright?" Tron asks the assembled group. They've broken off into pairs and groups of threes, resting against the sides of the ship or sitting on hard light benches with their elbows braced on their knees. Beck can name each and every one of them - he's had shifts with them all, asked a few for spare wrenches, a few others to come out for drinks with him, Mara, and Zed. Even though he's not Beck right now - can't be Beck right now - he can feel each of their lives pressing down on his shoulders. The loss of Aurora doesn't ease any of that weight, but adds to it, compounding, until it feels like his circuits might snap.
"The Sea isn't a pleasant experience," Tron says softly, and Beck looks up at him from across the room. His circuit lights have faded completely now from the shock of the Sea, back to his original cluster of biolights. He's not just talking to him, though, but to the entire ship. "I know. We won't resurface for another millicycle or so, so try to rest for now. When we get to the base, then you can power down safely."
Beck sits in the turret station and watches the Sea spill behind them, the currents pushed by the sub making swirls of pixels in the water.
"You'll have to tell them, eventually," Tron says under his breath from behind his right shoulder. Beck doesn't react, but pulls his knee up closer to his chest. "There's no point in keeping it secret anymore - these programs are wanted, now. There's nothing the occupation can hold over you."
"Yeah," Beck says, "I'll tell them."
Tron crouches beside him to get him at eye-level.
"Beck, the whole no more lying is a two-way street. Once we get to the base, you can tell Mara and Zed personally, at least."
"I've kept this from them for so long," Beck says, "and I don't regret it, not at all. But this still feels wrong. They'll think I didn't trust them enough, or that I think being the Renegade was more important than being me."
"Do you know," Tron says, sitting down fully on the floor and leaning his back against the glass of the leftmost viewport, keeping his faceplate on the Sea as the sub cuts through it, "that back before Flynn left the grid, way back when me and CLU kept the peace, programs would call being thrown in jail 'being tron'd'?"
Beck snorts. Tron shakes his head.
"No idea how it caught on, either. The point is I've never had to distance myself from my identity. Being a security program is the core of what I am, all I've ever done. You're different. You've kept people safe by hiding a part of you from them, at great personal cost. Mara and Zed, the rest of the grid, they'll understand that. You've done this, all of this, Beck, to keep them safe. There's something noble in that."
"Thanks," Beck says, and looks over at him, "I mean it."
Tron waves a hand, dismissing it. Against the backdrop of the Sea, he looks almost invisible, delineated only by the biolights of his suit. Beck could pick those lights out of any crowd, just like he could Mara's or Zed's. The security program had become a friend more than a mentor somewhere down the line, someone he was afraid to lose.
"Cutler knew," Beck murmurs, "at the very end, he knew. I was willing to risk that, to get through to him. So why does this feel different?"
"I don't know," Tron admits, "but I think somehow you do. It won't matter in a few millicycles, anyway."
"Yeah," Beck says, and turns his head away, "Yeah, you're right."
“I can’t wait for you to meet him, man,” Flynn says, slinging an arm over Tron’s shoulders. The familiar weight of his creator makes him smile, just a little. Flynn isn’t like the programs he created - he reaches out, touches others, uses the contact of his hands and arms to comfort, to protect.
“Sam’s a good kid - he’s smart, just like his dad,” Flynn continues, and laughs at his own joke. Tron looks out to the portal cresting the horizon, breaking through the cloud barrier as a beacon of pure white light. He wonders what lies beyond - the user world, the one where the skies are always lit, by sun, by stars, by moonlight.
“One day once we’re ready, I’ll bring him in. He’ll love you!”
Tron hides his smile behind a hand. Flynn’s enthusiasm is infectious. For everything his creator is, Tron is most thankful for that - his unabiding love for the grid, for him, for them all.
“I can’t wait to meet him,” Tron says.
They make land sooner than expected - half a millicycle later Mara pulls up on the accelerator and turns her head toward the main cabin.
"Land ahoy," she says, but there's no real excitement behind it. Even standing next to her, Beck can feel dread activate in her circuits. He turns to look back toward the turret mount, where Tron is still in standby slumped against the glass viewport, head tilted back. The reprogrammer restored him, of course, but Tron still has megacycles of fatigue to overcome.
Beck shifts his gaze toward Asper and gets a nod. She’d finished the altitude adjustments on the way over.
“Alright, everyone, one last push and we’ll be home free. Pair off - I don’t want anyone getting lost in the storm, and it’ll be easier to rezz the ‘cruiser around us.”
Beck crosses to the back of the main cabin and rests a hand on Tron’s shoulder. The program comes online immediately, arms coming up to reach for his disc on instinct, but in a nanosecond he reorients himself and looks up at Beck through the faceplate with a calm recognition.
“We’re here,” Beck says. He offers Tron a hand up, and lifts the security program to his feet. Tron shakes his head slightly, like he’s trying to unstick a particularly stubborn thought from his processor.
“I dreamed of Flynn,” he whispers, “first time in gigacycles.”
Beck smiles beneath his visor. “Can only be a good sign, right?”
Tron huffs. “We should get going.”
The two dozen programs spill out onto shore - the perpetual storm of the outer rim of Argon rages, unceasing and unchanging, whipping pixels of snow through their little group. The wind makes Beck shiver, but he offlines his core temperature warnings and gestures Asper forward.
“We’ll be flying through a storm,” Beck reminds everyone at a half-yell, “so I need you all on alert for occupation forces. Hopefully we can get by undetected, but the cloud cover will make it hard to see. Ready?”
His little resistance nods. Asper readies herself at the top of their formation, where the pilot’s cradle will rezz around her, and takes off at a run. The rest of them follow, two pillars of programs, with Tron and Beck at the rear.
The lightcruiser stutters as its schematic unfurls around them, pixelated snow rushing through the framework, and for a second Beck thinks the ship won’t even rezz, but the hardlight grafts itself to the walls and the floor in an instant, turning to solid metal as its coding engages, and the twenty-six of them are suddenly aloft.
Things go south quickly.
“We’re not gaining altitude!” Asper yells from the helm. Her visor has come down over her face from the crown of her head, pulsing purple, but through the light Beck can see her eye renders begin to static as her interface with the ship begins to fail.
“Push it higher!” Tron yells back. He steadies Zed as the program stumbles, momentum suddenly changing as the storm buffets the ‘cruiser back.
“Work the problem, mechanics!” Mara orders, and opens her compiler against one of the walls. On the other side of the ship, Plex opens his own, and in sync they pull up the schematics for their respective wings. Beck grabs a wrench and plugs it into an aperture that spirals open at the tail end, resolving into the image of a thruster housing.
“Pull the wings up, get us more air beneath them! Power up the rear thruster, push us forward!” Asper directs. Mara, Plex, and Beck rezz their bracers in unison and pull at the clusters of data spilling out of their compilers. Around them, the lightcruiser groans, the sounding rising into a shriek, and then Beck activates the rear thruster and the noise is drowned out by a burst of bass that rocks each and every one of them. Tron catches another program as they begin to tumble back, and Asper grits her teeth through a wordless yell as she pulls hard against the control bars.
“We’re through the lower clouds!” She says after a second, “kill the thruster, Tron, the wings will do the rest of the work. Check our alt for me.”
“Thirteen hundred dpi, we’re climbing!” Beck shouts back.
Mara slumps against the wall, her compiler shutting down. “Thank Flynn,” she mutters.
Asper gestures and the altitude interface is flung from Beck’s compiler over to the main control HUD.
“Give us some more windows,” Tron instructs Plex, who nods. After a second, the walls of the lightcruiser break down into thick glass panels and polarize.
“Good job, everyone,” Beck says softly. Across the cabin, Zed gives him a relieved smile and a thumbs up.
“We’re not done yet,” Tron says, “but we’re nearly through it. Everyone, keep an eye out.”
Beck does a head count. He sighs, counting a neat twenty six including himself. They’re all still here, all together.
Beck stops his processor from putting together his next thought, but the pain of it still rips through his circuits.
CLU holds the program’s disc in one hand, tapping it against the recognizer’s flat plane of glass that overlooks Argon. Beyond, towards the south of the city, plumes of smoke rise in pre-programmed spires.
“What a shame,” he murmurs.
“Sir, I take full responsibility,” comes a weak voice from behind him. It doesn’t break, the sound, but the static nearly overtakes the words, making them soft and unintelligible around the edges.
“I intercepted the Renegade and Tron on your recognizer, but I wasn’t able to stop them.”
CLU notices the lack of I’m sorry in the words, graciously allows it without a word and clasps his hands behind his back.
He’s a newer program, fresh out of alpha testing, he can tell. Programs like CLU, members of the old guard, the ones created before the Purge, they can always tell. It’s something in the hum of their circuits, a sharper and higher whine than programs who have seen a few gigacycles. It’s something in the proportions, too - CLU smiles to himself; the further away from Flynn’s original design the grid gets, the less and less programs so closely resemble the users they were originally modeled after. He wonders how many generations away they are from rezzing programs completely alien to the eyes of users. He’ll look forward to that, in quieter moments.
He turns, watching the program before him duck his eyes in deference accordingly, the way Dyson and Tesler at the other end of the room straighten their spines.
“Oh, my boy,” CLU says, paternal, gesturing as if about to lay a hand on the program’s shoulder without actually making contact. “You say that as though you haven’t already given me a great gift.”
CLU turns the disc over in his hands, stark red on black, and activates the memory core within.
A hundred pixels spring to life, manifesting a holo image of a black visor and screaming white-blue disc, caught mid motion with the architecture of his recognizer behind him.
“The identity of the Renegade himself.”
The program ducks his head as CLU scrubs through the last half-millicycle, taking his time to commit every capture to his hard drive memory.
“You knew him,” CLU says, curious, “didn’t you, Cutler?”
CLU waves his hand through the memory, and it shifts forward to the black-plate armored figure laying flat on his back, a crack in his visor chipping into pixels, a shout building in his throat distorted through the faceplate and the distance of second-hand memory. In the next moment the visor is retracted, and the wide fearful eyes of the Renegade stare back at him, motionless in the capture but still dripping with lifelike exactness.
“Identify,” CLU orders Cutler quietly.
Cutler raises his head just enough to look through the holo image at CLU, the eyes of the Renegade superimposed over him, blue-washed brown on crystalline grey.
“Beck 1-PDX, function: mechanic. I met him in the games, before my… before my glitch was corrected.”
CLU nods his head and shuts the memory core down. He steps forward, offering the disc to Cutler. As the program takes it, CLU lets his grip linger for just a moment, cocking his head at the program.
“The first of the PDX operating system,” CLU says to himself, still looking at Cutler, “Interesting.”
In a sharp twist of his wrist, CLU takes back Cutler’s disc. With another, Tesler derezzes.
CLU catches the disc as it ricochets back to him easily, and wipes the edge with the sleeve of his cloak. He hands it back to the program.
“You’re dismissed. Back to work.”
Cutler bows his head and resheathes his disc, turning on a heel to exit the room.
The remaining programs don’t move for a tense second.
“Dyson, you’re now the Overseer of Argon. Congratulations. Commander Paige, you’ll be transferred to General Dyson’s command. Commander Pavel, I expect you on the next carrier out to Purgos.”
He listens as the three of them sing a chorus of “Yes, sir”s and waves a hand to dismiss them.
CLU turns back to the viewport.
“It’s not your turn yet, old friend,” he murmurs to the city of Argon, spread out before him shining yellow in the reflected light of his fleet. “Be patient.”
Three and a half levels down from CLU’s chamber, Cutler hits the emergency stop on the levetator platform and stares down at his disc. The hot sheen of discharged pixels paints one edge a golden orange, the color of CLU’s biolights. He falls to his knees, face inches from the disc, and activates the memory cores again. It takes him less than a second to scrub through to Beck’s face, lit by the recognizer’s engine room, staring up at him with an agony on his face Cutler doesn’t understand. His suit’s biolights are overclocked, pulsing white in the memory’s holo image. As he watches, the memory slows to a quarter speed, the first shapes of “ Cutler! Wake up!” forming on Beck’s lips, the T on his chest a burning star.
He can feel the weight of Beck’s hands on his forearm, the drag of his fingers through his as Cutler dropped into the belly of the engine, the two bright white figures crawling further and further away as he fell.
Why can he feel that?
“Emergency stop engaged, please wait for further assistance. Emergency stop en - “
Cutler rises and slams his palm on the all stop, disengaging the mounts that had sprung out of their manifolds to stop the platform. It began to descend again.
With a sharp click, the memory core offlines, and Cutler resheathes his disc, staring into a middle space of bright orange-red nothing.
“You should power down,” Tron says to Beck under his breath, “try to get some rest before we land. I’ll wake you up if anything happens.”
Beck crosses his arms and pulls up his internal alerts - being thrown into standby isn’t something he wants, not now, not when things can go so wrong so quickly, but there’s still things to be done, ways he can help, plans he can make with Tron to make the next few cycles count.
“Beck,” Tron hisses, sensing the pause, “I wasn’t asking. Your energy reserves have to be dangerously low right about now, and I can’t have you going into shutdown. Go power down.”
Beck looks over at him as he turns away, toward the helm of the ship. “You’ll wake me if something happens,” he says - he’s not asking, either.
Tron nods, and Beck crosses the cabin to sit on the floor just to the side of the cockpit.
“How’re you doing, Asper?” He asks.
The pilot program scans the horizon, or at least, what she can see of it through the cloud cover, and shrugs.
“I’ve been worse. Haven’t seen anybody out here so far, and we’re flying stable, at least.”
“Good. You did good work, back there,” Beck says.
She cracks a smile - rare, for her. Those have been few and far between in the last cycle, for everyone.
“Thanks. That means a lot, actually, coming from Tron.”
Right, Beck thinks, and touches the T pulsing at the hollow of his throat with the tips of his fingers.
“You can power down for a while, you know,” Asper says, a bit quieter, almost conspiratorial, “I won’t tell the others if you do. There’s nothing yet, but I’ll keep watch.”
“Thank you,” Beck says, and begins the sequence to enter sleep mode.
“Hey! Watch it!”
Beck pulls his lightcycle up short, the circuit he’d been riding down screeching beneath him as he decelerates suddenly.
The program in front of him crosses their arms. Behind them, the neon-blue sign of Abel’s Garage flickers in its holowrap and drenches the street in residual color. The harbor to their right laps at the dock, smooth Sea air.
“You make a habit of almost running down innocent programs in the street?” The program asks. Beck smiles and derezzes his visor. With a simple gesture, his lightcycle breaks down and he gathers the baton in one hand.
“Only when I’m late for work,” he says.
The program’s expression changes in an instant, the light in their eyes suddenly growing warm and enveloping their face.
“You must be the new guy! Well, well, well, speed racer, looks like I’m your welcoming committee! Designation’s Bodhi - come on, I’ll introduce you to the rest of the crew.”
end part one