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the advantage of having a User among us

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The area of the Encom mainframe that had once housed the archival memory of the Master Control Program was a vast, only somewhat orderly network of dark, high-walled canyons, branching off from one another at various angles. In Flynn's opinion, the whole thing resembled nothing so much as a gigantic hedge maze designed to confuse and entrap. The image of a maze struck him as entirely fitting; how many times, over the past three years, had he gotten lost in the MCP’s memory while doing a bit of clandestine “exploring” in search of his stolen files? But then, he remembered with a guilty start, it hadn’t been Flynn who had really gotten lost in this maze, and it hadn’t been Flynn who had paid the price for the intrusion. That was why he and his companions were here now. Seeking distraction from the bleak landscape and his equally bleak thoughts, Flynn turned towards Tron, who was facing away from him, scanning the terrain their little craft hovered over for any hint of danger. He got the security program’s attention with a tap on the shoulder and tried to start a conversation.

“Pretty cheery neighborhood, right?”

Tron’s expression conveyed only confusion. It occurred to Flynn that “neighborhood” might not mean much to someone from another world with its own idioms, someone who didn’t sleep and spent most of his time roaming the wide System in search of intruders and corrupt code rather than grilling burgers in the backyard or walking the dog (the bit?) around the block.

“Y’know, this memory,” Flynn explained, waving his hand to indicate their surroundings, “it’s real easy on the eyes.” He bumped the sarcasm in his tone up another notch, knowing the literal-minded individual Tron was.

The security program gave a low “hmh” of amusement and replied, “High-clearance memory isn’t the most lively part of the System. Especially not when it’s this corrupt. We’re probably the first programs-well, programs and User, that is-to risk going this far in since Master Control fell.” With that, he turned back toward his side of the ship to resume his watch. When he’d found out that Flynn meant to venture into the portions of MCP’s abandoned memory archive that hadn't yet been cleaned up and reorganized, Tron had insisted on accompanying him for his own safety. Flynn had found this irritating in the moment, but he was grateful in retrospect, not that he'd readily admit it. Throughout the canyons they had encountered several areas where the floor and walls of the maze were cracked and discolored, the floor strewn with glowing rubble. The very sight of these areas set Flynn’s nerves ajangle, and their pilot carefully avoided them, pronouncing them dangerously corrupted. Several times over the course of their various trips in they’d met with swarms of gridbugs, which threatened to mob the ship and drain it and its passengers of their energy if not dispatched quickly. Flynn understood that this was the electronic-world manifestation of the damage and disorder caused by the MCP’s erasure, which Encom’s human staff was still working to correct. He might have to come back to this area and do a little correcting himself next time he was digitized, to see if the process could be made more efficient (or at least less boring) by working from the inside, but for now his attention was on the specific mission for which he’d enlisted the aid of the search program. She too had seemed a little apprehensive about venturing so deep into this region, although she was more than willing to face danger if it meant assisting the program who had been an icon of hope to those suffering under the MCP's tyranny and the User who had crossed the barrier between worlds to set them free. Once the three of them had set out, apprehension and awe had both given way to the professionalism and focus that seemed to be second nature to programs, regardless of their other personality traits. Concepts like personality and professionalism being applicable to computer programs no longer struck Flynn as surreal; this was not his first trip into the mainframe, nor even his second. Indeed, if the personhood of programs had been in any doubt, Flynn would not have been on this current mission.

The search program steered their vehicle into a narrow opening in the side of the wider tunnel they were traveling along. “Memory archive section one-nineteen,” she announced. As they hovered in Flynn saw what he knew he would see: they had arrived at a closed chamber filled with large, luminous cubes that Flynn knew were packages of data. The search program would now scan this data, with Flynn’s help, to see if any of the packages contained what they were looking for. Tron, who was not designed for this task like the search program and lacked the flexible abilities of a User, would stay in the vehicle and keep watch for gridbugs and other hazards. The search program landed her vehicle near the chamber entrance, hopped out, walked over to the first cube, and rested her palms on it, scanning, eyes shut in concentration.

“Negative,” she called as she raised her head.

As she moved on to the next cube, Flynn shot Tron a look of “here-we-go-again” and stepped out to help her. They’d been at this for what felt like hours today, and this was not their first trip. But giving up was not in Flynn’s nature, especially not when the task before them was this important. With only the look he’d exchanged with Tron to vent his frustration, Flynn headed over to a data package and began scanning.

Flynn and the search program moved through the data blocks, calling out “Negative” as they finished scanning each one. Flynn was quite capable of applying himself to any task that interested him, but this was so mindless and repetitive that his thoughts began to wander, and the places into which they wandered were as dark and difficult to navigate as the maze of tunnels they’d just left. If and when they found what they were looking for, how would they proceed? How would Flynn explain himself? What could he possibly say or do to make up for--

“Positive.”

Flynn heard the search program’s voice, but it took him a moment to register that she had not said the same word that he had gotten used to hearing from her.

“Positive?” he called out to her, confirming. She nodded, circuits bright with accomplishment. Flynn practically skipped over to her, his own circuits flaring, his worries momentarily forgotten in the simple joy of success. He clapped the search program on the back and gave her the thumbs-up, then called out to Tron, “Hear that? We found ‘im!” Tron gave a wave of acknowledgement and returned his attention to the tunnel. Flynn turned back to the data block in front of him. He rested his hands on it, opened his mind, and scanned it-

-and knew. He had felt this sense of identification, of affinity, before, when he’d rebuilt a Recognizer during his first visit to the System, the first time he’d touched code of his own making. The data stored in this block was his. His circuits brightened with the feeling; his palms tingled. He broke away and turned to the search program.

“Yeah,” he said, slightly short of breath, knowing he couldn’t put what he’d just felt into words, “yeah, this is it, all right. Good work.” The search program ducked her head in acknowledgement, but Flynn’s attention was already back with the data block. He placed a hand on it and put the force of his earthly programmer’s skill, translated into his unearthly User power, into a command to open, decompress, yield. The block obeyed, flickering before his eyes, beginning to change shape under his touch. Flynn withdrew his hand; the block would finish the process without further input from him. He flashed a grin at the search program and muttered, “Open sesame.”

At their feet, the data block was finishing its transformation. They watched in silence as it assumed vague human (or rather, program) shape, a featureless wireframe at first, with only the faint traces of circuits. As the program’s features gained definition, and the face became recognizable, Flynn fought down a fresh surge of anxiety. He’d come too far to back out now, not that he would really have done so. He couldn’t. The program’s surface features- skin, armor, circuitry-were flickering in and out of resolution over the wireframe. Flynn knelt down and laid his hands on the program’s torso, focusing on the details of the code. It wasn’t all there: the MCP had managed to have its way with this code before its destruction, but there was enough for Flynn’s purposes. He had written this code. He could reconstruct it. The core functions were untouched, but some of the secondary functions and extra touches that Flynn had been especially proud of were incomplete or missing.

Wanted a little of my mojo for yourself, Mr. MCP? Wanted to spice up your own breaking-and-entering efforts with a bit of the Flynn magic? Eyes narrowing with resentment at the idea, he began to reconstruct the missing code as best he could, using his own memory and the traces the MCP had left behind as a guide. The program slowly gained resolution under his hands. He could feel, in a distant way, the hard armor taking shape, the warmth of the circuits. His mind was filled with words and symbols, patterns of information and energy. His fingers twitched as though part of his brain believed there was a keyboard beneath them. The code consumed his awareness; he lost all track of time until the work was done.

Finally, Flynn had done all he could; the program was as close to complete as it would ever be again. Flynn raised his head, opened his eyes. His neck ached; now how did that make sense? He tilted his head back with a groan, raised his hands and stretched his arms. Apparently staying in one position for too long had the same effect in here as it did in the physical world. As he stretched he caught sight of the search program watching him with curiosity and awe. He considered that from her point of view he’d just performed a bona-fide miracle, raised the dead. And really, was she mistaken? If programs were people, then what meaningful difference was there between what Flynn had just done and the religious miracles of old? The thought was unnerving; he needed some levity.

“Hey, anytime you need some loaves and fishes, you know who to call,” he quipped. The search program didn’t get the reference, of course; the joke had been more for Flynn’s own benefit than for hers. He steeled himself and returned his attention to the resurrected program. The program was now solid and unflickering, circuits glowing an alarmingly dim yellow (why yellow?, Flynn wondered, never having seen that color on a program before), his telltale face twitching with the first stirrings of semiconsciousness. “Needs some power,” Flynn muttered, and reached out his hands to provide it, but paused as he noticed the program mumbling softly. Curious, he lowered his ear to the program’s mouth to listen.

“No...won’t tell...save your...Master Control...”

Flynn’s hands clenched involuntarily. He couldn't yet know for certain what terrible circumstances this program had experienced before he had died and undergone the appropriation process that had brought him to this archive. This was far from the only program the MCP had consumed, and it was hoped in the System that the Users might be able to provide more of them with second chances once the archive was secured, but Flynn hadn’t been able to wait till then. He owed it to this program to do the job personally. Without further ado he rested his hands on the program’s chest and began to transfer power into his flickering circuits. Their glow steadied and brightened; the program’s mumbling broke off, and his eyes flicked open. Flynn swallowed; this was it.

“Clu?” he said softly. “Clu, you with me?”

The program struggled to sit upright, his eyes flicking wildly around the room. Flynn brought his hands to Clu’s shoulders, steadying him. “Take it easy, bud,” he soothed, “you’re among friends.”

Clu’s eyes focused on his face, and flashed with recognition. The program stared in confusion for a moment, then his entire body relaxed slightly, and he let out a sigh of relief.

“You’re a sight for sore eyes,” he informed Flynn. “How’d you get me out of there?”

“I decompressed you,” Flynn replied. “This is all gonna be a lot to explain...what’s the last thing you remember?” If he knew that he might know where to start. He had no idea how long Clu had been alive after Flynn had lost contact with him.

Clu pasued, remembering. “I was in the Encom mainframe looking for some kind of meta-data...not sure what the boss wanted with it, but it was deep in Encom’s high-clearance memory. Had to grab a group-seven password just to get into the main data stream. Anyway, I got caught.” At the last three words, his voice took on a bitter, resentful tone. “They took me to that MCP of theirs...” He broke off with a shudder, his face tense with what was clearly a disturbing memory.

Flynn’s stomach (or the local equivalent) clenched at the thought that he had sent Clu into that high-clearance memory, seeking his file... Stop it, Flynn, he told himself firmly. He hadn’t known then that he was sending a living being into danger on his behalf; he couldn’t blame himself for that. He had to put a lid on his conscience and deal with now.

After a moment Clu gathered himself and continued. “I thought I was finished.” A thought seemed to strike him; he looked directly into Flynn’s face with a solemn expression. “Am I a backup copy?” Clu asked softly.

Flynn blinked. Backup copies, death and rebirth- he'd have to ask Tron or Yori for details about how that looked from a program's point of view. “Not exactly," he told Clu. "The MCP appropriated you and stuck the parts of your code he didn’t want in this archive.” Flynn tried to keep his voice calm, but the idea of a person being treated like that was difficult to stomach. He felt a bizarre mix of humanitarian outrage and the indignation of a proud programmer whose work has been tampered with without his consent. He went on, “We,” he indicated the search program behind him with a wave of his hand, “just came in here and dug you out. You weren’t exactly easy to find, but I’m not exactly easy to discourage.”

Clu stared at him, alarmed. “Are we still inside Encom?”

Flynn nodded, understanding the program’s concern. According to Clu's last recollections, the MCP still ruled Encom with an iron fist. “Yup. But don’t worry about ol’ Master Control. He’s out of business.”

Clu’s alarm gave way to amazement. Flynn couldn’t help but grin. “Permanently so?”

Flynn nodded. Clu gave a grim, satisfied smile. “Did Flynn do that?”

Flynn laughed. “He had a little help, but yeah, Flynn was involved.”

“Who’d he send in?” Clu asked.

Here it comes, Flynn thought. It had to come out sometime, and sooner was probably better than later. “Well...I guess you could say I sent myself.” This was a serious moment, and it was for precisely that reason that Flynn couldn’t resist a bit of wordplay. His meaning would be clear enough.

Clu stared at him, uncomprehending at first. His face scrunched with confusion. “Are you saying...”

Flynn gestured to himself, ducking his head in an ironic half-bow. Clu’s confused expression hardened into suspicion, disbelief with an edge of anger at the thought that anyone would dare usurp the name of his User. Flynn smiled wryly.

“I know, I know. Impossible, right? Straight-up blasphemy. But hear me out.” He’d thought about this moment in advance, and it seemed to him that there was a simple enough way to prove his claim. If this backfired, a demonstration of his User power would serve the purpose, but Flynn figured Clu was going to have enough weird to swallow as it was. He continued, “How many programs know the password that Flynn uses to access you?”

Clu continued to give Flynn that hard, untrusting stare. “Only me.”

Flynn nodded. “So nobody knows this password except you and Flynn.”

Clu nodded.

“So,” Flynn led on, “If I knew the password...”

Clu shook his head. Flynn marveled at how like his own the program’s movements were. “You cannot possibly know the password.”

Flynn couldn’t help smiling. He leaned in towards Clu’s ear and whispered a single word.

He heard the program draw in breath sharply. Pulling back to take in Clu’s reaction, Flynn saw that the program’s face was slack with shock, his circuits dimming back down from a flare caused by the same emotion. He waited, a little apprehensive; he’d never met a program of his own making before (not counting nonsentient vehicles like the Recognizer), and he had no idea how Clu would take this revelation. He’d tried to pump Tron for information on what to expect, but the security program had had no coherent idea of how he would conduct himself in Alan’s presence, nor of how programs in general might be expected to react to such an encounter. No program had ever actually met his or her User (or any User, until Flynn had entered the System), and there was no established procedure for how a program should handle what was assumed to be an impossible scenario. Flynn could only wait to see how Clu would react to being confronted with the impossible.

Clu seemed to be trying to steady himself, physically and mentally. He grasped at the nearest data block for support. He was shaking slightly. Finally he spoke, no longer meeting Flynn’s eyes. His tone was flat in the way that served programs for formality, although his voice shook a little.

“User Flynn acknowledged. Full read-write access to program Clu confirmed.”

Flynn tried to imagine having to grant anyone “full read-write access” to himself and suppressed a shudder. Programs weren’t bad company, but sometimes Flynn found himself deeply glad not to be one. He laid a hand on Clu’s shoulder, which startled the program so thoroughly that he looked up and briefly met Flynn’s eyes before averting his gaze again. Flynn sighed; he was not looking forward to having to coax this program into not treating him as Flynn Almighty, full of grace. It was hard enough convincing Tron to act the same way around Flynn as he had when the two of them were just two fugitives from the Games, united by shared hardship and common purpose, before Flynn's true nature had been revealed. Most other programs he'd met since then had no idea how to interact with him. Before experiencing it, Flynn might have imagined that being worshipped would be an ego boost, but mostly it was just awkward and strange. Yori was more casual around him; she seemed to have inherited her programmer's open-minded, adaptable nature.

Flynn's thoughts were interrupted as the program spoke up. "Sir? May I ask a question?"

"Go ahead."

"Am I- I mean, are you..." Clu paused to organize his thoughts. "This... isn't the Encom mainframe?"

"Sure it is." Was the program having memory problems? Flynn wondered if he'd missed anything while repairing him.

"But... how are you here, sir?"

Right. Unprecedented divine manifestation. Flynn supposed he should have seen that question coming. "That," he said, rising to his feet, "is a very long story, which I will be happy to tell you on our way out of this dusty old archive. C'mon. Oh, and you don't have to call me sir, okay?"

“Yes, s-” Clu bit back the honorific just in time. “What should I call you?”

“Well,” said Flynn, “my name’s Flynn, so let’s go with that.”

Clu’s mouth twitched, almost imperceptibly, but Flynn perceived it. If he were hiding amusement, which he did only rarely, his own mouth would probably twitch in the exact same way. “Acknowledged, Flynn.”

So the boy’s got a sense of humor, Flynn thought. Next step is to get him comfortable enough to use it within a mile’s radius of my divine presence...

Flynn and Clu walked back over to the little hovercraft where Tron was keeping watch, the search program having joined him while they were talking.

“Tron,” said Flynn with a flourish in Clu’s direction, “allow me to introduce Clu. Clu, this is Tron. He’s Encom’s new independent security.”

There was a moment’s silence as the two programs sized each other up. Flynn was struck by the intensity with which they did so, but then, their respective functions would normally make them enemies: Clu, who broke into secure systems and Tron, the security program. Flynn had spoken to Tron about Clu and his function before setting out on this search. Tron did not begrudge Flynn an attempt to subvert the MCP's authority; his biggest question on the subject had been simply "What will he do now?", which Flynn assumed he and Clu would have plenty of time to figure out together once the latter was freed from the archive. Therefore, Tron’s next words surprised him.

“This program is not authorized.”

Clu stiffened, glancing warily between Tron and Flynn. Flynn cocked his head in slightly indignant confusion. “What do you mean, not authorized? Tron, man, we talked about this, you said as long as he wasn’t trying to steal any data from the current administration he was fine!”

“I can’t let him run on this System as long as he’s yellow,” Tron said flatly.

“So yellow means unauthorized?”

“Yes,” said Tron and Clu together, sounding equally surprised that Flynn didn’t know. Flynn snorted ruefully at their stereo confirmation.

“Well, I authorize him. How do I turn him-” He stopped. The words I authorize him seemed to reverberate through the memory chamber. Clu looked down at himself, feeling the power of the words take hold even before the effect became visible. His circuits flickered and turned blue before his eyes. Flynn stared.

“Thank you,” said Clu quietly. Flynn shrugged, shaking off his surprise. “Hey, anytime,” he said in a dry tone.

“Well,” said Tron, bemused, “that takes care of that. The advantage of having a User among us, I suppose.”

“All hail me,” said Flynn. “Now can we get going?”

“Of course,” Tron replied.

The various passengers boarded the vehicle and the search program raised them into the air. As they sped back they way they had come through the canyon, Flynn reflected that the real advantage of having a User among them was the possibility of doing things like this: giving someone a new life. It was strange to be confronted with such a weighty responsibility, and to feel the satisfaction of fulfilling it. Flynn was in high spirits as they travelled, despite the remaining uncertainties about Clu’s future in the Encom system. Flynn was confident that he could work out anything that came up.