For my sister.
His helmet is gone now, battered and torn away, and the wind is solid against him, stealing his breath, drawing out his tears. He has ridden the wind before, tamed it and touched the sky, but this time he will not fight. Cannot.
He falls, and below him the Grid is dark, as dark as his memories.
Flynn is alive.
He clings to that thought, a spark of hope like the Portal beacon. He hasn't failed completely, because Flynn is still alive, alive to escape, alive to end everything.
Flynn always needs help. If the recovery subroutines had kicked in sooner, if he had fought harder, maybe...
"I'm sorry, Alan One," he breathes into the wind that holds him.
Defend the system—
What have I done?
Recompile complete. Reload program.
The deep itch of being recompiled is impossible to forget, and Tron shudders away from it as he never would have before Clu's repurposing. He's trapped, helpless, his code changing in ways he can't control and no longer trusts. If Clu found him...
But there are no implanted commands chaining him now, no foreign directives. Tron runs another self-analysis. His find-and-repair subroutines are better than most, but he doesn't dare believe their report. Not anymore.
"Buddy?" The voice is tentative, and familiar enough that Tron flinches. "Tron? Are you okay?"
He has no idea how to answer that, but it's cause enough to divert part of his attention outside himself.
The gray-bearded face that greets him looks nothing like Clu, and little enough like Flynn, to his eyes. Users change so strangely over the cycles, and Flynn's attempt to explain it long ago had never prepared him for the reality of deep lines in the face he knew, dark hair gone nearly white, the beard blurring the edges of Flynn's features. Tron blinks, taking a moment to adjust.
He knows it's Flynn, because Rinzler knew. But Rinzler had been occupied with thoughts Tron doesn't want to remember.
"Talk to me, Tron," Flynn orders. There's worry in his eyes. He shouldn't be so close if he's worried, shouldn't risk himself.
The subroutine reports once more that there's nothing wrong with him. He tells it to scan itself, and then check again.
But Flynn is waiting. "I seem to be myself," Tron says, at last.
His voice should be hoarse, broken, somehow show evidence of his failure. But the words are perfectly clear, as though nothing had ever happened.
The grin that spreads over Flynn's face is more like the old days, joy and victory. "Yes!" he exclaims, and claps a hand on Tron's shoulder. "I knew Sam could do it."
Tron tries not to flinch, closing his eyes. Sam, Flynn's son. He could have killed the boy—would have.
Flynn must have some reason to have saved him, recompiled him. "What happened?" he asks. "Clu wanted to reach your world..."
His repair protocols claim that they are fine. Which they would, of course, if they were contaminated. It won't do any good to run another check. He runs it anyway.
"It's a little complicated," Flynn says, looking oddly embarrassed. "But Clu is gone, completely gone. Quorra and Sam got out, but they had to wipe the system. There just wasn't enough salvageable. Not many programs held out against Clu's repurposing, even enough to get a recent clean backup."
"Wipe the system?" Tron repeats sharply. "Then why—" He forces his arms to bend, shoving himself up to get his first look at his environment.
The gentle rise where they are holds a Portal Tower, brightly lit. Beyond, energy lines pulse through empty sectors, sparkling across wide, flat plains. There are no cities and no wreckage, no roads and no rough Outlands, no buildings and very few data sectors at all.
It looks just like the Grid in the cycle he first woke there.
"No," he breathes, and scrambles to his feet. "No, Flynn."
The repair subroutine says again that he is perfectly fine, which just goes to show it's malfunctioning, because if he were perfectly fine he would never even have considered denying the User's will like this.
"Tron?" Flynn says, with that worry stealing his smile and creeping back into his eyes. "What's wrong?"
He's shaking, hands trembling so hard that folding them into fists does nothing to stop the involuntary movement. "You're asking me to be your security again? In a clean system?"
The first time, he'd been awed and delighted to see the structure of a system created before him, greeting every new and trusting face personally, working hard to know every name. He'd patrolled the whole Grid, and the programs had greeted him with cheers, their own System Monitor, defending them from glitches and gridbugs...
None of them would know what he's done. Even survivors of the Grid, if there are any others, wouldn't know what Clu had made of him. Rinzler's former identity was a private satisfaction for Clu, never something he advertised. Everyone would trust him.
The thought of it curls in his gut with a pain like damaged code.
"Find another program. Some early backup of me, if you really insist I'm what your system needs, but not me. Decompile me, derez me—I don't care." He's tearing the words from someplace deep and painful, sharp-edged as a light disc. "I can't do this again, Flynn. Not even for you."
"Hey now. Tron, man." Flynn lifts open hands in placation. "You don't have to do anything you don't want. I can find another security program. We'll get you anything you need, new subroutines, you just name the job."
The thought of doing and being something outside his design is so utterly alien that Tron has to pause, attempting to work his processes around the concept.
Flynn hesitates, dropping his gaze to the sparkling ground. "If it's me you don't want to work with, I understand. After the mess I made..." He shakes his head, wearily. "Sam can upload you into an established system. You'd never have to see me again."
It takes a moment, but Tron works past the baffling offers to the reason for them. "It wasn't your fault," he says, halting and awkward. "You made a mistake, but not—I don't expect you to be perfect, Flynn."
Gray eyebrows lift, and a small, ironic smile creeps in. "Guess you know me too well for that," Flynn observes. "But it's certainly more my fault than yours, Tron. I gave Clu full system access. Program access. I should have given you some way to stop him, just in case. I didn't. I was too distracted. That's on me, not you."
Part of Tron's job had been making sure Flynn was warned and ready for potential problems. But Tron can't quite bring himself to deny the User twice in a row. He looks out at the empty system instead, and offers, "I'm glad you and your son are all right. And the Iso girl."
"Yeah," Flynn sighs. "At least they made it."
There's something a bit off in that response, but before Tron has time to process it, Flynn adds hopefully, "If you don't blame me—would it be so bad, staying here? It'll be different this time..." He breaks off, rubs a hand over his aged face. "You're not here just because you're a brilliant security program, Tron. Though you are. I wanted you here because you're my friend."
He really isn't sure how to respond. It's a kind statement, but Flynn is friendly with everyone. There are no doubt old backups of himself who would remember Flynn, who haven't been contaminated. No reason to risk a new system by bringing in what's left of Rinzler.
Flynn trusts too deeply. It's endearing, but not safe. Tron wonders if other Users are the same.
Explaining the risk will only get him Flynn's assurances that it's perfectly fine. "You were in the Grid too long, Flynn," he says instead. "You should go home. Spend time with your son." Tron's calculations could be off—he's no actuarial program—but he guesses Flynn to be at least two-thirds through his runtime now. Sam has a right to more of it.
Perhaps that will distract Flynn enough that he won't try another recompile, if Tron should happen to lose a battle.
But Flynn shrugs, spreading his hands outward. "This is my home now, Tron. Though I certainly hope Sam visits regularly."
Tron frowns, puzzled. He can't think of anything that would make Flynn choose to stay away from his "real world," or his son.
Unless he was still, somehow, trapped—
"I gave Quorra my disc and stayed to delay Clu," Flynn confirms the guess. "Getting her out was more important than me." He smiles, with an oddly apologetic glance. "I'm not a User anymore, Tron. Just a program restored from backup, like you."
Tron sits down, rather hard.
So he hadn't even managed to save Flynn, in the end. Thousands of cycles, thousands of innocents dead at his hand, and even at the last he hadn't pulled out of it in time to save the Grid's creator. "I'm sorry, Flynn," he whispers. "I should never have let him get that far."
"Tron," Flynn says, voice sharp, "let's just agree that we both wish a lot of things had happened differently, okay? You saved Sam and Quorra. There's nothing to apologize to me for. Nothing."
Tron doesn't answer. Flynn is stubborn about this kind of thing, and answering won't help.
With a deep sigh, Flynn sinks to the ground beside him. "I want you to stay, Tron," he says, quietly. "It's probably selfish of me. I know your memories have to be hundreds of times worse than mine. But you and me, we're the only ones who know how it happened, who remember them all. And I missed so much of it."
Flynn's eyes are focused far away, toward the sectors that correspond to those that once held the Iso cities. "They're gone now. Can't bring them back, any of them. Quorra is so young, and she'll forget eventually—Users do." He grimaces. "If no one remembers, how can we be sure this won't happen again?"
It's a valid point, though it sits uncomfortably in Tron's logic processes. Even he, loyal as he always had been, had sometimes questioned why the User seemed to find more value in the unpredictable, changeable Isos than in the obedient programs he had designed himself. The only answer he had ever found was that the Isos were more like the Users themselves. Flynn valued them as kin to himself, as something beyond his own design.
Which meant that, even if whatever had brought the Isos into existence never happened again, programs had a very basic conflict of ideals with their Users, and always would.
Tron will fight for the Users. Always. Not without question; he's learned how imperfect they are, how thoughtless they can be. But their goals, even the illogical ones, are all that ever gave a program purpose. Clu's ideal of single-minded and unchanging perfection would end in stasis, with no reason for anything at all.
But would a program who hasn't lived through Clu's regime understand that? Tron doubts it.
Flynn breaks the silence. "I don't want to remember alone, Tron," he says, the tone a soft plea.
Tron remembers every innocent who died at Rinzler's hands. And Flynn is right; they shouldn't be forgotten. Living with their memory is all that he can do now to honor them.
"All right, Flynn," he whispers. "I'm your program."