Quarantine

by Dawn

It's been many hundred cycles since she heard the name Yori. (Please note that this is a sequel to Recompiling, so you should read that first if you haven't!)


The walls are blank and opaque to her, enclosing a space so small that she cannot extend her arms without brushing both sides.

Dim orange light from her armor reveals nothing except herself, folded into a corner and hugging her knees, her head resting against the smooth wall. Her sisters might be on the other side, or her captors, or anyone at all, but the quarantine cell gives nothing away, as is its purpose.

She will be released soon, she assures herself, because she is loyal to Clu, loyal, obedient. They have followed all his orders, every one. Use Flynn's disk to send programs through the Portal, that was his last order. She and her sisters obeyed.

(And if long-hidden fragments of herself had danced with delight in her core at seeing that the code they worked with was User code and Iso code and not Clu at all, still she had done only as her orders bade—)

Burying that flicker again with the skill of long cycles, her mind holds to its single track. Loyal to Clu, whose vision of shining stability would ensure that the Grid would never again be abandoned as Flynn had abandoned it. There is perhaps some temporary setback, but Clu must reach the User world, and she will find some way to help him. He certainly cannot do it without her, or without her sisters. The close-knit digitization software programs, working in tandem, are the only ones in the Grid who can deliver anyone safely through.

(It's the only reason he left them alive, she carefully does not think.)

The farther wall shimmers, and a program steps inside, black armor, a familiar pattern glowing under his chin. The color of the glow-

Irrelevant.

(If it were Tron, she would have to raise an alarm. Tron was Clu's enemy, and she must fight Clu's enemies. Therefore it is not Tron, not Tron, a patient subroutine whispers, editing sight and thought alike.)

"Greetings, Rinzler," she acknowledges him politely. She's surprised to see Rinzler without his helmet, but perhaps Clu has ordered it. Neither of them would ever question Clu's orders.

Rinzler flinches, looking at her, and his eyes are full of emotions she does not understand (will not understand). "What do you remember?" he asks quietly,

She tilts her head quizzically. It's a strange thing for Clu's best warrior to ask. "All Portal information is accessible," she answers, because what else is relevant to her function? She remembers completing the two conversions, and then something shook the Tower violently, even to the heavily shielded rooms at the base where the Portal programs worked. After that, only this quarantine cell. "Have I missed something? Sir?" The formality is an afterthought. She has met Rinzler only a handful of times, and does not know what it is that makes her feel as though he is an old friend.

There is no need to feel guilty; she has only obeyed Clu's orders.

He kneels with battle-ready grace, bringing himself level with her gaze. "Yori," Rinzler breathes, reaching carefully for her hand, "tell me you remember more than that."

It's been many hundred cycles since she heard the name Yori. (And why—No, she cannot wonder that.) "My current designation is Portal Supervisor," she corrects Rinzler. "Clu has ordered that my memory logs unrelated to the Portal are superfluous." (As a Portal program, all her memories are by definition related to the Portal, though she had not troubled Clu with the fact.)

His hand over hers is oddly warm. There is a recognition code in the contact (no, no, this is not Tron—) She doesn't recognize it, and wonders why Rinzler sent it. Perhaps he has mistaken her for someone else. It would only embarrass them both to say so.

"Where is Clu?" she asks, worried. "Has the Portal closed?" If so, there is no telling how many cycles it will be before they have another chance. If ever. The Users have abandoned them, and the Grid's power supply unit is long past its design parameters.

Grief and rage flare in Rinzler's face, and a cold satisfaction. "Clu was derezzed," he says, sharp and bitter, "and not nearly soon enough."

She feels—(piercing joy, joy and disbelief, would he test them this way? can't risk, not now)—she is puzzled. "Surely you are mistaken, sir."

"Flynn made sure of it," he tells her flatly. His hand tightens on hers; she hasn't pulled away. "Please, Yori..." It's a choked, haunted sound. "Even if you don't remember anything, don't call me—that. I'm Tron. I won't be...him. Never again."

Pain twists her core in sympathy, and she shivers without quite knowing why. "Tron?" she echoes, and the overwrite subroutine falters.

Tron is—Tron was...

"Where are my sisters?" she demands, in swift redirect. She can't, she won't think about that yet, not yet. "Clu needs—the Portal needs us all, every one. Where are they?"

She tries not to see the heartache still darkening his eyes.

"They're safe," he says, "they're here. In quarantine, until Flynn is sure Clu's reprogramming won't contaminate the new system." He lowers his head, speaking to the floor of the cell. "Flynn thought he'd gotten rid of Clu's overlay, but...apparently it's stubborn."

Gone? she dares to think, with fragile hope. Clu is...Clu is gone, and she is—glad.

She grits her teeth, waiting for the lash of pain that has accompanied any momentary disloyalty for every microcycle since Clu decided the Portal programs ought to be kept under his control.

It doesn't come.

Laughter bubbles up uncontrollably, even as she initiates the subroutine to recombine her memories and conscious processing. That will take a while. But she is Yori, she is free, and Clu was derezzed.

And Tron is here.

His hand is still over hers, and Yori grasps hard and tugs on it to bring herself closer. He is so tense that she realizes, a bit too late, that he was expecting it to be an attack. "I do remember!" she hurries to assure him. Somewhere she has an old recognition code, but her logs are too much a mess to search just yet.

Fortunately, her armor is eloquent enough that she doesn't need to find the words yet. It's slowly rejecting Clu's orange patterns to return to her familiar blue, as the loyalty-code is stripped out like the thin shell it was. The shifting colors light the shock in Tron's face.

"Just—give me a few micros. I had to segment out everything Clu might not want to see, to have any hope of reinterpreting his orders," Yori explains, grimacing. "But he wasn't going to mess with my core coding, he wouldn't risk breaking the Portal."

Many basic programs on the Grid were at least partly Flynn's work, which had given Clu certain advantages in dealing with them; besides which, he'd considered it no great setback if nine or ten programs were derezzed in the process of being repurposed. But Yori and her sisters were proprietary code written by Lora Baines, and neither Flynn nor Clu had quite had the confidence to fiddle with the only way in or out of the Grid. The digitization programs had been relatively safe, after they'd convinced Clu that his attached commands were working.

Safer than Tron had been, certainly.

He's staring at her, eyes wide and bright. "Yori?" he asks, cautiously, as though expecting her to turn on him for the question.

Yori tries to smile, though the tears get in the way a little. "Tron. I'm glad you're okay." For values of okay that include recovering from harsh reprogramming and hundreds of cycles spent as Clu's best hunter. Even so, this is a better outcome than Yori has dared to imagine since Flynn disappeared.

Her memory is still resetting itself, a feeling of static in her core that won't fade quickly, but she clings to Tron's wrist and turns parallel with him, disregarding his tension to settle under his arm.

Tron doesn't exactly pull away, but he doesn't draw her close, either, and leaning against him she can feel a faint tremble. "How much do you remember, now?" he asks, and there's something broken in his voice.

It's a hard question to answer, because her entire life is still disordered; large sections are completely unrecoverable, noted as self-erased to protect others. But Yori is reasonably certain Tron isn't talking about things she might or might not have done in the early cycles of Clu's rule.

Her memory is not so badly scrambled as to have made her forget Rinzler's part in her long captivity.

"Enough, I think," she says, squeezing his wrist gently. "I'm not going to blame you for Clu's orders, Tron. He did his best not to give you a choice." Far less of a choice than Yori had managed to keep, and as there is quite a lot about the last few hectocycles she may yet self-erase in defense of her own sanity, she doubts Tron feels any better about his time as Rinzler.

A quiet sigh, and his arm around her tightens just a little. "You should," he mutters.

Yori cannot spare the processing time it would take to attempt to argue Tron out of that. "I don't," she replies instead, letting Tron make the related conclusions on his own.

When he doesn't answer for too long, she forces herself to ask, "Are you—angry at me?" For breaking; for letting Clu, the glitch, have access to the Portal. She'd hoped desperately in that moment that it would never reopen.

If he isn't, perhaps the thought will break him out of the spiral of his own guilt. If he is...well, he has every reason to be. Yori had put the whole User world at risk.

"No," he replies instantly. "No, never, Yori. I'm just," a sigh that hitches halfway, "just so glad you're here."

"Same for you," Yori murmurs, letting her eyes close for a moment. It's been so long since she knew her own mind, and longer still since she last felt safe. Tron is here and himself, no one is in danger, and she really can't think past that right now.

After a while, Tron shifts uneasily, and says, "Flynn will want to know if you can keep the Portal functional."

Yori hasn't had nearly enough time to work out how she feels about Flynn. "Oh, functional, certainly," she says, bitterness twisting her mouth. "If you told my sisters that Clu wanted someone sent through, we'd be ready now."

"You know Flynn wants better for you than that," Tron insists at once, sounding faintly shocked that she would say such a thing.

She is not at all sure that she does know. If there was one thing Clu might possibly have been right about, it is this: ever since the Isos appeared, Kevin Flynn had treated the rest of the Grid as secondary to what he called the miracle. Yori liked the Isos, both as friends and for their potential as explained by Flynn, and had not minded. Before.

Now, the Grid and the Isos have spent hundreds of cycles paying for Flynn's favoritism, and time has burned away the last dregs of Yori's belief that the Users had some greater plan. The Users had never had any plans at all for the inhabitants of the Grid, because Flynn had never told anyone that the Grid existed.

Yori isn't going to let it happen again. This time, Flynn is glitching well going to explain his plans. In full. Even if she has to insist by withholding access to the Portal.

Maybe that will convince him that Basics have as much capacity for his "free will" as Isos, whether their Users meant for them to or not.

But she doesn't say any of this to Tron. If Yori knows her beloved at all, he is still deep in guilt about his own forced betrayal, and any suggestion of disloyalty will not go over well. "I thought he would be in a hurry to leave," she half-apologizes.

"Even if he were, I know he'd want to see that your sisters were all right first," Tron insists.

Which might be true, but doesn't answer whether Flynn actually cares about them, or just wants to make sure the Portal is safe to use.

"Besides," Tron says, and stops.

The hesitation triggers several warning flags for Yori. Something is very wrong. With Flynn? With the system? "Besides...?" she prompts him, warily.

Tron looks away, his voice distant and shamed. "Flynn was...damaged, in the battle with Clu. He cannot use the Portal."

Flynn would know. She used to scold him often enough about the need to be careful on the Grid; there are sections of User code that cannot be accurately restored if damaged, because not even the Portal programs understand how they work-only that the conversion process requires them. Saving a backup copy never quite catches the active code.

"He'll find a way around it eventually," she says, more for Tron's sake than because she believes it. This might actually be a good thing for Flynn. If the User has to spend time inside the system, perhaps he will remember to treat the programs like he used to when he first brought them to the Grid, and not like less-interesting puzzles.

Besides which, if he is here, other Users will have to come here to see him. Yori had never approved of Flynn's insistence on having no one outside who knew enough to watch for trouble.

Tron doesn't exactly respond, but he squeezes her shoulders in gentle comfort, and Yori could almost believe they were home. "Flynn will want to see that you're recovering, if you're ready."

She isn't ready, but it hardly matters; she can't leave her sisters in quarantine a microcycle longer than necessary. Wordlessly, she gets her feet under her and accepts Tron's help to stand.

The outer wall of the cell fades away at his touch, revealing the distant glitter of an empty system. Yori can't move for a long moment, looking out. She'd expected extensive damage, but for the city to be gone completely...how many programs will ever be rescued for this new system? The fractured remnants of Clu's rule seem like a poor beginning for it. But perhaps the Users are merciful, after all, if she and Tron are here.

"Whatever we do," Tron mutters in an undertone, "let's make sure he doesn't call it Tron City again."

The resurgence of a very old argument startles a faint laugh from her, though she knows Tron really isn't joking.

Flynn's voice calls, happily, "Yori!" and she turns to look. The gray-maned face that approaches them gives her another moment of adjustment. Examining Flynn's disk code is not the same thing as seeing him, and the face she remembers has belonged for too long now to Clu.

The differences let her relax, just a little. Flynn has always meant well, whatever his faults in the implementation. She does not need to guard her thoughts, not any more.

But she can tell it will be a hard habit to break.

"Flynn," she greets him. When did a smile begin to feel so unnatural on her face? "It's good to see you well."

His smile looks more genuine, in spite of the peculiar effect of the added beard, and he hurries to clasp her free hand warmly in both of his, though to Yori's unexpressed relief he doesn't try to pull her away from Tron. "You're all right?" Flynn asks belatedly, with a glance at Tron. "You look all right."

"I was behind a filter routine," she explains briefly. "But I'm mostly intact." She can't honestly say that anything is all right, not with her sisters still in prisons of their own making, but...her memory logs report themselves complete but for the known exceptions, and her code has taken little damage.

Flynn nods at once. "That explains it. I was sure Sam and I had caught all the added commands." He grins. "You were using the filter to get around Clu, weren't you? I never imagined that the Portal might reject Sam and Quorra, but when Sam loaded you in and I saw Clu's code all over the place, I wondered why it hadn't."

She does not want to be pleased by his approval. Too much time, too much pain has passed for Flynn to reclaim his old role so easily. "And what were you doing, all these cycles?" Yori asks, enough bitterness leaking into the words that Tron begins to frown at her.

The tone succeeds so far as to make Flynn let go of her hand, which closes unobserved into a fist.

"Hiding," he says, regret and long grief layered almost so deep as to weaken her resolve. "Waiting for a chance to make a difference." His intake of breath is long and unsteady. "It was a long time to think about my mistakes."

"It wasn't your fault," Tron objects instantly, with a gentle but admonitory squeeze about Yori's shoulders as he looks at her. "Flynn couldn't have expected what Clu did."

That's a debatable point, but Yori has no interest in debating it. "Clu's decisions were his own," she agrees, narrowing her eyes toward Flynn. "And now? You are System Administrator, Flynn. How are you going to avoid your mistakes this time?"

Flynn blinks at her, uncertainty creasing his face deeper. "Well, I'm not going to say anything has to be perfect." It's about half a joke and all self-deprecation, with an accompanying flicker of a weary smile, but Yori doesn't smile back.

The Grid's creator spreads his hands, an earnest note entering his voice. "I'm going to pay more attention, be more involved. It'll be easier now that I'm down to one world. I'll do better this time," he says, very sincerely. "I'll make sure nothing goes wrong, Yori, I promise."

Which is exactly what she feared he would say. "Crash it, Flynn, you will promise no such thing," Yori snarls.

He and Tron both stare as though she has become a complete stranger. And maybe she is; maybe none of them know each other now. The language is certainly not what the Yori they knew would have used. But that Yori had not spent hundreds of cycles cursing Clu and censoring every thought. That Yori is gone.

It still hurts to feel Tron's arm falling away.

"Yori," Tron says, his tone forcibly calm, "you shouldn't blame—"

"Yes, I glitching well should," she interrupts flatly. "Betrayal and murder were all Clu's own idea, but he came by the stupid perfectionism honestly. It isn't less stupid because you mean well, Flynn."

Flynn shakes his head, pain in his eyes. "I told you, I won't make that mistake again."

"Of course not," Yori says, sarcasm so thick she thinks she might choke on it. "Because it's okay if everyone else makes mistakes. But not you."

Silence, for about a microcycle, and Tron's hand finds hers again, to twine fingers briefly in understanding and unspoken support.

Flynn looks away with a shadow on his face. "Okay, Yori," he says at last. "I make as many mistakes as anyone, and I can't promise I won't. Is that what you want me to say?"

It will do. "Close enough," Yori agrees, finally letting sympathy soften her voice, though it doesn't dilute her urgency. "What I want is for you to accept that making some mistakes is actually okay."

He flinches. "Mine had...worse consequences than I ever imagined, Yori."

Yori advances on him, grips both shoulders firmly, ignoring his start. "Flynn. You're the Creator. You build, you take risks, sometimes things go wrong." She shakes once, hard. "We need that. Don't lose that." This program-not-a-User who is not quite Flynn...she is very afraid of watching him go down the same cold path as Clu, and she won't let it happen, not if she can stop it. "But if you care about us at all, let us help you design a proper safety net. Listen to us. For pity's sake." Yori can't even count the number of times before Clu's betrayal she had asked Flynn to tell someone else in the User world the full truth about the Grid. Alan One. Lora. Anybody.

Emotions flicker, difficult to read on his bearded face, but then he smiles, slowly, and Yori sees just a hint of the old twinkle. "Build in some fault-tolerance, huh?" he says. "I guess I could learn to live with a few safety nets."

Yori smiles weakly back in relief, and all her energy seems to trickle out with the loss of an immediate argument. She steps back, seeking the comfort of Tron's arm again with a pleading glance, and he obliges. "You're not the only one whose mistakes led to this," she adds quietly, to Flynn. "And I am so sorry."

"You didn't do anything wrong," Flynn says, with a look of blank puzzlement.

"If I'd overridden the safety protocol and held the Portal open, you could have gotten out, Flynn," Yori reminds him, guilt and old pain weighting her voice. "You could have stopped Clu. Maybe kept him from hurting Tron." It had already been too late for Arjia City by then, but the fleeing Isos would have had a better chance.

"No," Flynn shakes his head at once. "You didn't know where I was or how long it would take me to reach the Portal, and the energy drain would have shut down the whole Grid in less than a millicycle."

Which is what she's told herself a thousand times, but it doesn't actually change anything. "Shutting down the Grid would have protected it from Clu." The Portal programs, preoccupied and isolated by distance, hadn't known how bad things were until after the Portal closed.

His warm hand catches hers, and he squeezes lightly. "Yori. You made the best choice you could with the information you had. I knew that then, I know it now. None of this was your fault."

She meets his eyes, doesn't look away. "And you have always done the best you could, Flynn. I know that. Does it make you feel better?"

That answer is too obvious to need words, and no one bothers to supply them.

Tron reaches to clap a hand on Flynn's shoulder, completing the circuit. "We'll do better this time," he pledges for them all. "Together."

(end)

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