Sorry for the very long wait, but I'm sure some of you are not surprised, heh. Anyway, short, breather chapter.
Deep in the bowels of Clu's former fortress, the teratoid Eva slept soundly beneath the bars of energy binding her to the cold floor. A protective wall of orange ribbon separated her from the rest of the world, two DataWraiths posted silently at each end.
The doors to the room opened. Quietly, Seth stepped inside, hands behind his back. He took a few more steps before stopping some feet before the prison. "Go," he ordered, voice cold. The DataWraiths said nothing, left as commanded, though somewhat hesitantly. Once alone, Seth moved closer to the energy wall, its vibrating hum filling his ears.
For a minute or two, Seth stared and studied Eva's monstrous form. She did not stir, her mutated face void of emotion.
Slowly, Seth placed a hand against the energy wall. To anyone else, it might have burned, but it was of his own creation. The disc on his back glowed a pale red. "Esmond informs me that you're currently in an idle state. Neither here nor there; floating chained in the Matrix. One of his Wraiths experienced this idling state in battle earlier." He bowed his head. "I suppose this is good. It's better than being awake. Though I wish for nothing more than to bring you home, I've been informed the reconfiguration would..." He trailed off, his hand drawing back from the wall.
"Esmond is currently hard at work creating an anti-virus that should return you to your formal state," he continued, inhaling. "The plan is to remove the corrupted, foreign coding from your system. He said there was a chance... that... You may never completely..." Seth turned, pinching the bridge of his nose; he whipped back to face the wall, growling angrily, "This wasn't suppose to happen. The Z-Lot shouldn't have done this. It shouldn't have any affect on Users!
"I'm not sure who is responsible. Wisteria or Dillinger. But whatever they used on you... It was different. Something special." He narrowed his eyes. "You may have respected Dillinger, but I know... I've known for a while now he's been keeping secrets. He must have known what would happen if a User was infected with his own personal Z-Lot. One he didn't bother to share with the rest of us," he spat. "Sooner or later, he's going to show his true colors. And we'll just be thrown aside like garbage. Hell, he might even kill us! But I..." He clenched a fist, leather squeaking. "I won't let that happen. Not to you, not to me - not to Future Control Industries. We've worked too hard for some upstart little brat to ruin everything. He underestimates us..."
Seth went quiet again. "You may... not like what I'm about to do. I know you said it was only to be used as a last resort, but given the times... Who can we trust but ourselves?" He laughed wearily. "I'm not sure I even trust Esmond anymore. He's grown rather attached to Dillinger. But I have to believe he'll save you. And if he doesn't, I will."
He turned. "I'm sorry for tampering with your program. I know it's important to you. However, I needed to make sure the energy fluctuations would remain off the radar. Even Dillinger's. I've only released a small horde - ten at most. They'll be more successful locating the Rebels' base compared to Esmond's Wraiths. And combined with our own expert coding, they're a force to be reckoned with."
Seth removed his disc, a small hologram popping open to obscure his face. A large worm-like creature emerged from underground, its gaping mawl equipped with four piercing talons. "The virus I've infused into your Seekers is something I like to call Z-Lot Lite. It has the same effects, though the time of death takes a bit longer than ordinary Z-Lot." He smirked, though there was no amusement. "All that matters is the unbearable pain remains intact, ensuring a slow, torturous demise."
The Rebels arrived back at Divide an hour later.
A storm had temporarily disabled one of their ships, nearly costing a crash. However, with Jet's help, it remained steady enough to finish its journey. After everyone unloaded from the ships, Kernel turned to face his men, the Users at the front. "Trixie, Micro - do a quick surveillance of the land. Make sure we weren't followed." Two of the Programs quickly dispatched from the group, heading into the stormy badlands. "The rest of you - take the wounded to the infirmary. Those suffering from serious injury..." His red eyes turned to the Users. "Follow me."
Kernel, Mercury, Jet, Quorra, Sam, Shaddox, and ten others followed Kernel inside. Kevin halted after taking two steps. He turned, staring at Tron's back. The security Program had been completely silent on the trip back to Divide. His solemn stare locked on his damaged arm.
"Tron?" Kevin murmured. He approached Tron, stood beside him. Once more, Tron's gaze was somewhere far away. There was a sadness, however, that Kevin easily recognized. Loss. Reserved only for loved ones past. He thought of Jordan for a moment - her smile, the way she laughed - then quickly turned back to Tron. "Suppose you don't want to talk about what happened. And I suppose you want to spend some time alone." He nudged Tron's arm. "But we gotta get that fixed up, buddy."
Tron remained unresponsive a few seconds. His dark eyes fell back on Kevin. "Wisteria," he croaked, swallowing hard. "It's her."
"Yori," Tron said, closing his eyes, "she's Yori."
"We hit the jackpot!"
Jet, Mercury, and five other Programs quickly dumped their stolen treasures out on the light tables. Everyone marveled, beaming ear to ear, at the dozens upon dozens of weapons. They moved forward, quickly snatching up whatever they could get their hands on.
Sam clapped Jet on the shoulder. "You did good, Jet," he said, smiling.
Jet smirked. "Wasn't easy," he confessed. He nodded to Mercury, speaking with Quorra. "Thanks to her, I'm still in one piece."
Sam smiled at the bright blue Program. He glanced back, just in time to see Jet avert his gaze. "... Well, whatta know," he sneered, grinning all his teeth. "Looks like you've found the One."
"Nah," Jet chortled, shrugging. He couldn't look Sam in the face. "She's just... She's really cool and all, but she's... Well, she's not exactly human, you know?" He shook his head. "Besides, we're just friends. That's all."
"Yeah, so says your goofy lovesick smile and doey eyes."
"Shut up, man."
Mercury glanced a look back. She smiled at Jet, lashes fluttering as she turned to Quorra again. Sam nudged his friend in the arm. "Seems she thinks differently," he muttered.
Jet shoved Sam away.
A moment later, the two women joined their comrades. "Mercury tells me you have the recovered Z-Lot stashed away," Quorra said.
"Yeah," Jet replied. "We brought it upstairs. Figured we'd keep it under wraps until Kevin and the others looked it over."
Quorra bit her lip, looked away then back to Jet. "Do you think Kevin might be able to manipulate the virus? If we had control over it, we'd be more than even with fCon and the others."
"My dad's a genius," Sam reassured, "it'll be a cake walk."
Mercury stepped forward. "You two should get to the infirmary. Got a couple Programs who could use your User magic," she said, nodding to Sam and Jet.
"Right." Sam looked to Quorra. "Care to join me?"
Quorra nodded. "Probably could use some help."
Jet and Mercury watched as the two headed off, walking closely side by side. Jet rolled his eyes as their hands barely brushed.
"Well, what are you waiting for, mister?"
Jet blinked and turned to Mercury. "Ah, right," he snorted. He saluted. "I leave you to deliver the Z-Lot to Kernel and Kevin then."
Mercury tilted her head. "Roger." A second later, she raised her hand in a salute - however, her fingers were below her eye.
Jet snorted, trying not to laugh. "Close," he said, and guided her hand up to her brow.
"Oh," the Program murmured, smiling crookedly, "I see."
Though Jet should have let her hand go, his fingers lingered. They stared at one another for a few seconds, completely silent.
The low whistle caught their attention. The two DJs from End of Line stood nearby. Hearts lit up and flashed on their visors. "Cut it out," Jet scowled, just as one of them started humming something akin to a love song.
Mercury laughed. "Have fun," she said, brushing past Jet and between the two DJs. They watched her leave, then turned back to Jet. Smiley faces with hearts for eyes scrolled along their glowing visors.
Jet sighed and dropped his face in his hands.
Kernel blanched, his eyes wide with shock and disbelief. Tron said nothing as Kevin went about reprogramming him a new hand.
"You can't be serious," Kernel said a second later. "She was derezzed!"
Tron looked up, frowning. "Did you actually see her die?"
Kernel blinked. "No..." he murmured, hands behind his back. "But... Why?"
"Yori was - is brilliant," Kevin explained, knitting coding. "At the time, Clu's army was still growing. He needed all the help he could get. And a bright young engineer was too good to pass up."
"So he reformatted her," Tron growled, his single hand clenching into a tight fist. "Just like... Just like he did me."
"Take it easy, buddy."
"If Yori was reformatted," Kernel mused, "then... What about Ram? The others we thought perished?"
Tron swallowed. "Or maybe during battle, we..."
"We couldn't have known, Tron," Kevin murmured.
"If we could only access her disc, we could uncover - "
"You're talking as if she's just another enemy troop," Tron interjected sharply. "Yori... She's messed up right now. She's been hurt. Sooner or later... Sooner or later, she's bound to see the truth."
"She's been Wisteria for thousands of cycles, Tron," Kernel said. "Are you sure it will be so easy?"
Tron grit his teeth. "She's smart. And with her disc and coding damaged, she'll need to dig." He calmed a little. "I know... I know I hit something. Neither of us - when we had each other right where we wanted, neither of us could deliver the killing blow. I know she sensed our connection. I reached through to her. Through a tiny sliver, I know, but I did."
"Let us hope she comes to her senses then," Kernel said. "If not and she still presents a threat, then we will have to take care of her. Derezz her if necessary." Though he expected Tron to yell, the security Program was quiet.
Kevin waved a hand and scowled. "Bad mojo, Kern."
"Face reality, Flynn."
Kevin guffawed. Before Kernel could berate him, he settled and added, "I know. I understand. We have to do whatever's necessary to protect the Grid and her people." His frown twitched. "I failed the last time, but it won't happen again."
"Knock knock! Delivery."
Everyone looked to the door, just as Mercury stepped inside. She carried a few of the cubes containing the Z-Lot loaded guns. "We didn't want to touch them, in fear of a reaction or defense mechanism," she explained, depositing the containers on the nearby oval table.
Kevin quickly finished repairing Tron's hand. "I'll take a look at them in a minute," he said. He looked to Kernel. "Call in the next patient."
Tron gathered to his feet as another heavily wounded Program huddled inside, sitting before Kevin with restrained awe on his face. "Judging the affects of the Z-Lot," he said, "this is perhaps one of the worst viruses I've ever come across."
Mercury's smile wilted. "That can't be good."
"We've got Flynn," Tron reassured, though he still sounded tired. "Sam and his friend, Jet, as well."
"That's what we're all betting on," Kernel added.
Kevin wanted to tell them to have faith. To believe in him. Yet, given his past failures... He went back to his repairs, speaking solemnly, "We'll figure something out."
Tron silently headed for the door. Before he could leave, Kernel's heavy hand was on his shoulder. "Where are you going?" he demanded. However, there was slight concern in his gruff tone.
Tron kept his back to the massive Program. "I'm not going to chase down Yori, if that's what you're thinking," he replied.
Kernel said nothing. Tron had been right. He slowly drew back his hand, and let him go.
After patching up a few more injuries, Kevin finally stood and moved to the table. "Guns, huh? Getting more modern, I see." He carefully opened one of the containers. Mercury stepped back as he slowly removed the weapon. They waited a moment, and then Kevin smiled. "Think we're safe. It's what's inside that counts."
Kevin carefully opened the gun's magazine, removed a single glowing orange bullet. He held it up, squinting as he studied it. "It'd be nice if it came with an instructor's manual," he said a moment later. He looked to his comrades. "I'm going to need Jet. I can't... I can't exactly break down the coding by myself."
"Why not Sam?"
Kevin bowed his head. "... You know why."
Mercury frowned. "You don't want him to know what happened at Genesis."
"You haven't told him yet?" Kernel huffed.
"No," Kevin murmured. "Now is not the time. I don't think he'd take the news very well." He shook his head. "This bullet - this virus - it's like anything else on the Grid. Made completely of coding; numbers, letters, ones and zeroes galore. Given Jet's - our - power as Users, we can easily break open this puppy and access the coding. Find a way to destroy it, or neutralize the effects."
Mercury leaned in toward Kernel and whispered, "What does he mean by 'puppy'?"
"I don't know," Kernel grumbled, "just humor him."
"Yo, guys? I can hear you, you know." He nodded to Mercury. "May I speak to Kernel alone?"
Mercury was hesitant, but nodded. "Right. Call me if you need me," she said. A moment later, she was gone, and the room was eeriely quiet.
Kernel looked back at Kevin, sitting at the table. "Yes?" he replied.
"You mentioned the Z-Lot mutated a User once they were exposed to the virus."
"The truth is, I all ready managed to hack and disable the first line of defensive coding."
Kernel widened his eyes. "Why did you not say anything?"
Kevin shook his head. "This virus... is a lot more complicated than I thought. From what I gathered, we'll have to hack through ten more lines, each more difficult than the rest. In fact, part of the reason it was so simple to break through was due on part to issue a warning." He showed the Program the bullet. "The failsafe will trigger an explosive reaction. And I'm not sure if it's because I've been changed, but I know working around it will be nearly impossible. I'd say we'd have a 32% chance of disabling the trigger." He looked at the bullet. "It seems we've grossly underestimated our enemy."
"Well, then, what can we do?" Kernel demanded, hands curling into fists.
"Everything," Kevin insisted, firmly, "has an Achilles's Heel. A weakness. We may not be able to completely destroy or reprogram the Z-Lot, but that doesn't mean we can't fight fire with fire." He sneered. "We just have to find a match first."
The storm across the Outlands should have reached TRON City by now.
Teleos, according to new rule.
Though Tron highly doubted Wisteria's rules still applied. The place was probably crawling with fCon's lackeys now. Hunting down stray rebels, reprogramming soldiers and innocents. It made something inside Tron twist and ache with disgust, and every strand of coding in his body wanted him to run. Run back to the city and finish everything.
To find, and rescue Yori.
The thunder rumbled in Tron's ears, though he barely heard it. He sat on the edge of the rooftop to the highest tower in Divide. Watching the storm pass them and move farther toward the city. Trixie, Micro, and six others continued roaming the area, keeping a look out for intruders. He spotted I-No conversing with a Program, a smile on his old face; the poor Guardian must have been lonely all by himself for so many years.
Tron removed the disc from its plug on his back. He studied the blue lines, glowing faintly. "Did Kevin send you?" he asked quietly a second later.
Tron listened to her footfalls until Quorra was beside him. She leaned forward, folded her arms over the edge. A stray breeze fluttered dark hair against her cheeks. "It seems like a day hasn't gone by without a storm since I return," she noted.
"Ominous, I guess."
"I dunno. Maybe," Quorra said and shrugged. "But after the storm... Everything is bright and beautiful." She glanced to Tron. "Don't you think?"
Tron didn't know what to say. "Only sometimes." He paused a beat, then finally met Quorra's gaze. "You're not angry with me, and I don't understand."
"How do you mean?"
Tron closed his eyes. "After what I did as Rinzler... I'm sure I took many of your friends' lives. Caused you great pain and grief."
"It wasn't you, Tron," Quorra murmured. "And... I'd be lying if I said I wasn't just a little upset." She lowered her gaze. "When you first returned online, when you told us you couldn't remember anything... I was angry. How dare you, I thought. How dare you not remember what you did."
Tron said nothing, listening.
"And I wanted to slap you, and tell you everything you did. I wanted to see that look of guilt on your face. I wanted you to suffer. But then I..." She sat upright. "Then I saw your face - your scarred face, before Kevin repaired it. The look in your eyes - I felt like I did that day I realized I was the last of my kind. That I was truly alone." She met Tron's gaze, her eyes glistening. "Whatever anger I had for you was gone instantly afterward. I realized that it wasn't your fault. And if I were to keep on blaming you, keep on believing you were responsible for what Clu did to you, I'd only keep feeling that terrible pain, that horrible loss. That I'd only be hurting both you and myself."
Tron studied her pale face. "You are mature beyond your years, Quorra," he said, "and perhaps you are the most bravest of people I have the fortune of knowing."
Quorra smirked. "Well, I don't know about that." She tilted her head. "You're still struggling, Tron. You've got a storm raging inside you ten times worse than anything out here. And... It's eating away at you. I know you've regained some of your strength and confidence, but you're still... pushing yourself. Sometimes a little too hard."
"Can you blame me?" Tron chortled.
"No," the ISO replied, "but I can hope you'll understand what I'm saying."
Tron clutched his disc tightly. "When my memories of Rinzler return, Quorra," he murmured, and paused, "I'm not sure... if I could handle it."
"You'll have us to help you through the process. You're strong, Tron. You're still a hero to many of us."
"I'm no hero."
"Heroes have weaknesses, too," Quorra pressed. "And heroes have their moments of crises. They fall, but heroes - they always get back up. Kevin, Sam, even you." She smiled. "We're not programmed to be perfect."
"No, I suppose not," Tron replied. He looked back to the passing storm. "However, even if I fail, even if I always remain broken, I will not stop fighting. And right now, there's more than my desire to make amends with the world I've betrayed keeping me going."
Quorra stared a moment. "Yori."
Tron frowned. "I'm not giving up on her," he said, firmly. "Kernel says she may never come to her senses. That we may have to derezz her. But..." He turned his fierce eyes to the ISO, and she felt a shiver run down her spine. "I'll die trying, if I must, saving her. I believe I've gotten through to her, and I believe I can bring her back."
Quorra studied the security Program, radiating with both sadness, anger, and pure, raw determination. "I believe you," she said, and he almost looked surprise. "I believe you can save Yori, Tron. And... I'll help you. We'll help you."
"It may be hard for the others to forgive and accept her," Tron said, "but if I deserve a second chance, so does Yori."
For a while, they stood together in silence, listening to the fading thunder.
"What was it like?"
Quorra perked up. "Hmm?"
Tron looked to her. "Reality. The User world." A beat. "What is it like?"
Quorra thought a moment. "It... It's indescribable," she answered. "It's so different, and yet we share so many of the same qualities. It's... amazing."
Tron smiled. "I think I'd like to visit that world one day."
"I'm sure Kevin and Sam will be happy to have you," Quorra replied, smiling. It faded, just a little. "Though, sometimes... Sometimes I do feel a little out of place. Because I'm... I'm not a User. I'm not human. And I don't think I ever will be."
"There is nothing wrong with that."
"No," Quorra agreed, touching her shoulder, "and I've been told I'm a breakthrough in science, that the User world may change entirely because of my coding alone... But..."
Tron placed his disc back in its plug. "You're reminded of your time here. Before Sam arrived, and Clu was in power," he said. "When you became the last ISO."
Quorra faintly nodded. "Though..." she muttered a second later, and Tron looked at her. "I think that may no longer be the case..."
"How do you mean?"
"I'm not sure, really," Quorra replied, "but something happened at Genesis. Something... inexplicable. And I think it was only the beginning."
Teleos was crawling with DataWraiths.
Edward had taken control of the city. Any and every Program in his possession quickly undergoing reprogramming. Soon, Wisteria's entire army would become his loyal, mindless slaves. The Wraiths took everyone prisoner, even innocent bystanders. They wrecked through buildings and streets, constantly on patrol.
Wisteria knew once TRON City was under Edward's thumb, he'd move on to conquer the rest of the Grid. One city at a time.
Wisteria cursed as she crashed against the wall, cradling her head. Once the pain subsided, she slowly sat down beside the window. She'd been hiding for hours now, like some damned coward. Not that she was in any condition to fight.
Wisteria opened the interface panel of her disc. She scowled at all the damaged coding. Her viral shields were weakening. Soon, she'd stand no chance against the Z-Lot. Whatever the DataWraith did to her disc was slowly eating away through her coding. The pain was increasing; before, it came between three to four minute intervals. Now the time between was dwindling. A migraine was forming at her temples, and her entire body felt too hot.
She had tried repairing the broken coding, but there was only so much she could do. She was a skilled engineer, but she was still a Program. Only Users could undo all this damage. The superficial wounds had been taken care of, but the ache remained.
Wisteria slowly traced a finger down the gouge in her disc. She paused half-way, noticing something. From the tear in her glove she could see a faint yellow. Yanking it off, she choked on shock. Thin venous lines ran down the length of her pallor flesh. Decaying coding. She was derezzing, bit by bit.
Wisteria's vision blurred, her head reeling. She sunk back against the wall, chest heaving.
Five more hours, she estimated, before she'd finally succumb to her wounds.
She sat there for a few minutes, thinking back on everything. Wisteria knew from the start the Users would eventually turn on her. She prepared herself, however; she waited. In the end, she survived, but lost everything. Her teeth grit as she thought of Malvir; she didn't expect that, no. Wisteria knew he didn't trust the Users, didn't agree with most of her decisions, but she never believed for a moment he would turn on her. To do something so stupid.
Yet, he was alive. He had his own army, small as it was. He was unscathed Wisteria snickered, bitterly. At least she wasn't a coward. Malvir - the dirty, treacherous coward. He should be the one suffering and dying slowly.
Yet... He was alive. And she was dying.
Is your pride worth your life?
Wisteria slowly opened her pale, tired eyes. She listened to the rain outside her window, pouring down fierce and hard.
If you cannot have power, you can have revenge.
It hurt. More than the physical pain tearing her apart. More than the loss of her crown and kingdom. It hurt to do this, but she knew... She knew it couldn't end like this.
Wisteria opened her interface panel again. She bowed her head, closed her eyes, and concentrated.
You claim we share an intimate bond. If so, then you can hear this message. Even with distance between us, you hear me. If what you say is indeed true. This may be futile in the end, but it is one of my remaining, last resorts.
What you have told me I still do not believe. I am not asking for your companionship. I am not asking for an alliance.
I am asking, however, for a temporary truce.
I need... a User. You have plenty to spare. I need repairs made that I cannot mend myself. You need answers. You need explanations. You need a way to defend yourself from the Z-Lot. Take me to one of your Users. Repair me. And in return, I will share with you what I know.
Is it a deal, Tron?