Chapter 1: Of Glasses and Canes

The Stray Bit club – as far as anyone knew, the last ISO-friendly place in the city. Well, that and the Lair, which still seemed to radiate an aura frightening for anyone but its inhabitants, like a cave slumbering in the depths of a bottomless sea. Ironically, the fear served as a shield. It was a wily defense mechanism fueled by the predators themselves.

She never would have thought that she'd wind up there, of all places. Yet there she was, sitting on a glass barstool, sipping the bitter, digitalized equivalent of gin and tonic. However, the taste was so dull she could as well have been drinking water with a slight pine undertone. She couldn't stay focused on one place. Her attention kept darting from one seducer to another and she watched as everyone seemed to lose control that night, toying with each other for fun, careless of the consequences. But despite the illusion of a frisky mood, she realized she was watching an image of despair. Something was in the air. She could feel it all around; every time she took a glimpse of a newcomer, every time she saw that one orange-circuited program whisper into the guard's ear, with every swallow of the bloody drink, she could almost hear their stares persuading her to join in. Have fun while there's still fun. Drink while you can still drink. She ordered another round.

"Welcome, program! I haven't seen you around yet. What is a pretty lady doing out here in the woods, all alone?" an excessively flamboyant program asked and tapped on the bar table with a plain white cane he obviously didn't need. "Another one for the lady, Earl! Mix in something more powerful and include the tiny umbrella this time, Blackie doesn't seem to be enjoying herself enough." His pale blue eyes looked the newfound mystery up and down. "I believe it is my right to demand the name of the program which so shamelessly conflicts with the perfectly light color scheme of my residence," he said with a grin. "Oh, where are my manners! Excuse me, my dear, I was momentarily mesmerized by your charming gaze. Zuse is my name, and I run this place. At your service." He exclaimed with a melodramatic bow. She couldn't help but giggle and assume a little miracle prevented him from hitting someone as he did so.

She raised her eyebrows at him. "Would you still consider my gaze so charming if I told you I was an ISO?"

"Look at this place, honey. ISOs and programs walk in hand in hand, and, well, as for walking out, that's a whole other story," Zuse winked playfully, making her cheeks turn slightly pink.

"Then it's nice to meet you!" She reached out her hand with a smile. "I'm Quorra. I'm waiting for an… acquaintance of mine."

The program's white coat wrinkled as he bent to kiss the back of her hand politely. "That… acquaintance of yours doesn't know how to treat women very well, if he's making you wait for so long. Or is it a pretty lady, too?" he grinned impishly. "Don't think I can't keep track of what's happening here, nuh-uh," he said, pointing a finger at her in warning. "You've been sitting here for a while. Have problems with the cycles, do we?"

Quorra sighed, rolling the filled glass in her hand. "That he does, sir, that he does."

"Oh, away with the formalities! If you fancy any more free drinks, you are going to have to learn my name." He gently lifted her chin to make her look at him. He could feel the impatience in her deep, innocent green eyes. "Do not worry, Miss Quorra. Smile suits you better. The night is young, have some fun in the meantime. Rezz a little!" he said quietly, sounding serious for the first time that night. As serious as Zuse could be.

The ISO watched as the stairs to his lounge disappeared and any movement she could see merged once again with the ocean of white and blue, the spark that had lit up her microcycle slowly fading to nothingness. The music changed to a more upbeat rhythm, inviting, daring, but she stubbornly resisted all its attempts to seduce her. Control, maintain control, it was all about control. Everything would be fine. There was no need to worry.

She downed the next round.

Finally, she felt a hand on her shoulder. "Sorry for the delay, had some trouble with a few ICPs."

At that moment, Quorra thought she would faint or cry or laugh or hug the person the hoarse voice belonged to, or kill him with her bare hands. In the end, her only reaction was to stare dumbfounded at the green-circuited ISO as he sat down, ran a hand through his ruffled black hair, and, unable to inhale enough oxygen to speak more, motioned for the bartender to get him a glass of whatever was close as soon as possible.

"By the users, Gibson! You scared the living hell out of me! A-Are you alright?" she managed to stutter when the circuitry in her brain caught up with the visual input.

She waited until he was ready to talk, fidgeting.

"I'm fine, but you're not gonna like what I'm about to tell you." He leaned closer and his voice softened into a whisper. "It's bad, Quorra. Real bad. Clu's gained much more guards than he had the last time I saw him. I have reasons to believe that that's why we keep disappearing. He's capturing the ISOs and, somehow, turning them to his side." Quorra's eyes widened in horror. "That's not by far the worst part." Gibson took his disc and held it in front of her. A miniature map of the Grid assembled itself above it, floating up and down, as if attempting to lull them and ease the situation. "I downloaded this from an archive bin in the command ship. The red points," he zoomed in to a more detailed version, "are some strange facilities, labeled names I can't decipher. I know for sure they weren't there a few cycles ago. J-9-82, N-17-10, and so on. I don't know what algorithm generates these, nor on what basis. I want to investigate one of them, but they are all way too far in the Outlands and I can't get there without a decent vehicle. I searched for permissions to board one of their lightjets, but with no success. And that's when they caught me." He looked up at her. "They know we're watching them, Quorra. I'm telling you, you need to get the hell away from here, and fast. I'm worried that they'll attack the Lair. He has the manpower he needs, and overcoming the programs' fear ain't gonna be a problem much longer. He's already got them hooked on everything he says, the anti-ISO propaganda, the exile. As long as they have a common 'enemy', they'll follow him to the depths of Tartarus. They're looking for me, so I need to hide for the time being, before someone sees me here with you. Can't tell you where. Radia doesn't want to admit this, but the shields are down, and most ISOs are too proud or pious to give up the Lair. It's over, Quorra, and you'd better run. While you still can." His last words shot through her like a bullet in the chest after a fair beating. She was desperately trying to come up with a fact to contradict every statement he said, but there was none. He put his hood on and vanished out of sight before she could even comprehend the information. Hope lost its ground, falling helplessly into the blackness. Losing the Lair? Unthinkable! She needed to get back and warn everyone, drag them out if it were the last thing she'd do. She would never allow this, ever!

Just as she got up, the playful music was replaced by the orchestra of her death sentence. All the windows cracked and shattered, small and large fragments bounced off the floor with the jingle of triangles, scratching the perfectly polished tiles. Her half empty glass fell over and the probably lethal mojito no one should ever taste spilled all over the table.

"Good evening, programs! This is your leader. I am here to proudly announce the beginning of the end – the end of all imperfections, bugs and glitches!"

He made sure the entire Grid would hear his final conviction and that everyone would know this was all his doing.

A swarm of black vultures swept from the sky, their beaks clacking like drums. The guards scanned the club for their targets, marking every second program red-handed.

"Today, I will finally achieve what you've been waiting for. I will achieve the inevitable! Today, I will crush the scorpions who are still trying to get close enough and then poison us, infecting our minds and bodies with their foul venom!"

Everything burned, everyone screamed. All of the pain and hate one had for another united into a few nanocycles, forming a masterpiece that would leave you breathless, born out of the pen of Tchaikovsky himself.

"Today, I will eradicate the plague threatening to corrupt us and the system we've established."

They didn't derezz anyone unless they had no other option. They took them, one by one. They were only sheep led to slaughter. When she reached for her disc, a firm hand grabbed her by the wrist and twisted her arm painfully. Tears sprung to her eyes, and the last thing she saw in her blurry vision, was Zuse, possibly her only program friend, being outnumbered, defeated, and dragged, just like she was.

Mozart, Bach, Beethoven; bits of everything came together in a precisely planned symphony, getting louder and louder and louder, echoing through the theater, not one tone too short, not one tone too long.

"Look to the horizon and see the future! Laugh and celebrate, for you shall have the honor of witnessing their downfall!"

The spectators clapped and cheered, craving more, another flawless performance.

So, this is it. The war has begun.

War? Who were they kidding. This was slaughter.

And then the actors bowed and the curtains closed, at least for the day.

Author's Note: The author of this story strongly advises all Tron-fic writers to write Zuse, if they haven't done so already, because the guy is incredibly entertaining to portray. Incredibly. (I have to admit, there were a few times when I actually LOL'd at my own lines. Oh, silly me.) A few subtle references, as always, because I'm a reference nut. I don't know for sure if there's an "official" event where Gibson met Quorra, but I can't remember the two of them sharing any scenes. Hopefully I got it right.