Sam's mind was still whirling with estimated figures and stocks and inter-company politics when he finally reached his flat, and he ambled towards the fridge autonomously, vaguely wondering if there was any pizza left from a few days ago.
"Hey, Sam." he nodded absently to Quorra's greetings.
"Hey." Alan and he had both had misgivings about leaving two ISOs and one Basic on their own, but some meetings couldn't be dodged, and Quorra had been in the User world long enough to hopefully keep all three of them out of trouble for the day.
"Have you been keeping tabs on Kaps and Gem?"
"Yes!" A cheerful third voice called over form another room. Sam turned to stare at Kaps, and Quorra gave him a sheepish smile.
"And they are in my house why…?"
"They were bored."
"Why couldn't they be bored at Alan's?" Kaps he didn't really mind, but Gem… Quorra seemed willing enough to reconcile with her, however that was possible, but as far as Sam was concerned, this was the same ISO who had betrayed him and sold him to CLU, who had easily turned on a program that she had employed the second he wasn't neccesary. She came here to wipe the Grid, to destroy everything his father had dreamed of. If Alan and Quorra wanted to take her in, that was their choice, but he didn't want anything to do with it.
"Because of your gaming computer, if truth be told," she, sighing. Sam just rolled his eyes.
"I should've figured. You guys and video games, it's an unnatural affinity." His gaming computer was the best of everything he could get his hands on through ENCOM; a machine that he'd built by hand in 1993, from parts Alan had given him for Christmas in the hopes that it would give him something to focus on and a goal to work towards. Most parents would've given me a puppy for that… It had been upgraded, rebuilt and overhauled countless times since then, and was less of a gaming computer than a patchwork technological masterpiece that had had its powers more often turned towards Skyrim and the like than not, usually in the business of online game hacking and such mischief.
Alan said he'd created a monster in that regard, but really he just gave the world a new Kevin Flynn.
"So, everyone still alive? No collateral damage?"
"None." Her eyes flickered away from his, and he sensed the hesitation instantly.
"…And?" he prodded.
"I went back to the Grid."
"What!?" She flinched back a little, and he regretted his tone instantly.
"Why didn't you say something, you can't just"- he broke off, unsure of what to say, how to respond.
"I guess I wanted to see what it was like, since I left. I was... homesick. And I just wanted some closure." Sam barely heard her. She'd risked herself with no warning, and she could have been trapped, or hurt or…
"You should've told us," He finally got out, voice tight, painfully aware of how scared he must sound.
"None of us can just go there, Quorra. Especially right now." She looked at him sharply.
"Kaps and Gem were right there. They wouldn't have let anything happen to me. I can take care of myself, you know."She turned away, face set. Sam felt like an idiot. Nice going. He'd learned quickly that the ISO was stubbornly independent, and did not appreciate overprotection.
"If you wanted to go back, why didn't you say something? We would've gone with you." He told her, voice softer. Why didn't you trust me enough to talk about it before running off?
"I was only gone for a few minutes, User-time. I don't even really know why, I just felt like I had to. Have you ever felt that way? Just… out of nowhere"? He thought of all the time's he ran away as a kid, first from his grandparents, and then from Alan. He remembered arrests, and wriggling out of trouble. He understood needing to escape, to go out and look for an answer that didn't exist. Quorra wasn't stupid or as young as she often appeared; she really could take care of herself on the Grid better than he could take care of himself.
"…I get it, Q." For a moment a relieved silence hung between them; over the past few weeks, they had become close, though Sam was still struggling to identify what kind of relationship that 'close' was. Whatever the case, arguing always frayed both their nerves.
"Did you see Tron?" She nodded, smiling.
"He decided I needed a personal security detail, and followed me from the moment I rezzed online." Sam laughed, unsurprised. He knew that attitude well- Alan had doggedly kept tabs on his exact whereabouts until he was seventeen; to the extent of custom-building a GPS tracker and wiring it to the Ducati, cleverly hidden. Admittedly, he had been the sort of trouble child who needed that sort of supervision more than he'd ever care to admit.
"Was he okay? I mean, he kind of took one look at the arcade and bolted, so…" Tron was running fine, of course; the security program had done an incredible amount to help him and Alan from their side of the screen already in restoring the Grid. But after actually meeting him, he thought that surely there was more to them than just 'running fine' to the programs he'd met. He knew how easy it could be to go through life acting the right parts to look happy and normal .
"He's better, I think. All focus and brooding, but that's just Tron." Not so long ago, Sam had been willing to contemplate deleting Tron and Rinzler as one and finding an old backup or a new firewall program for the Grid. Now, the notion appalled him. I'm never going to be able to uninstall an old program again. No wonder Dad was so keen on just upgrading old stuff and never getting rid of outdated software...
"We have got to get him to lighten up sometime."
"Good luck with that!" He turned with Quorra to see Kaps leaning in the doorway to what Sam referred to as an 'office', but was in reality just one of the sections of his tiny flat, large enough for the computer and two people, if one stood. He gave him a look, and the program shrugged at him, unrepentant.
"Countless eons of security program killjoy instincts plus a thousand cycles of Rinzler… you'll need some luck."
"I'm a User!" He said, flinging out his arms grandly.
"…you'll improvise," finished Quorra.
"I wasn't going to say that." She gave him a long look and he huffed.
"Okay, I was thinking about it."
Quorra didn't know how to tell Sam about the message. He'd been happy to drop the subject and if she stayed silent now he would never ask about a message he couldn't have known about, but this wasn't supposed to be her secret.
"There's something else, too," she started awkwardly, and he tilted his head questioningly, smile fading just a little. She felt Kaps' curious eyes searching her face. She hadn't mentioned it to him and Gem, she realized.
There's something else? Of course there is. Quorra had been acting a little unusual since her last foray into the Grid. He'd written it off as something to do with complex, unknowable ISO emotions. Like all Basics, he'd spent the last thousand cycles or so hearing the echoing rumors that had ignited during the Purge. The whispers talked of erratic, violent proto-viruses that lashed out at their safe, controlled Grid with corruption and chaos.
And like most, he'd seldom actually met ISOs, so he had never really known how true any of it was. Quorra effortlessly defied the stigma cast before her kind; she was kindhearted, sharp as a katana, and... most unexpectedly, she had that rare, clean and sharp sort of beauty he'd never known up close. Of course, she had eyes only for Sam, he had seen at once. The User hadn't quite figured it out yet, but Kaps had been watching and listening for the tiniest hints that might give away a shred of information since before Sam's creation, and he knew the signs of interest, even though they seldom came his way.
Her words broke through his thoughts, and he listened. Whatever the ISO had found could mean nothing or anything to him, but her eyes said that to her, at least, it was important.
"Sam, he knew he wasn't going to make it before we even left the safe house, or at least he suspected it. He recorded a message and left it in the safe house to be found… after he was gone." Kaps knew who 'he' was. Sam's face clouded and he nodded silently.
"We should tell Alan. He'll want to hear it." Suddenly the User's eyes widened with realization.
"Alan. He doesn't know you brought them here- I left my phone off after the meeting!" Kaps froze as he heard a car tearing up to the flat before screeching to a halt. This should be good. He quietly vanished; slipping back into the so-called office as Alan came bursting in. It took Sam and Quorra's combined efforts to calm him down; and that took a good five minutes still.
Alan stalked past the two of them and found Gem and him, looking them over as if searching for injury. Kaps flashed a grin at him, waving.
"Sorry, should've left a note." The User rolled his eyes, casting the younger Flynn a stern look.
"Doesn't that sound familiar, Sam?" He turned back to Kaps.
"I supposed you were just going 'out', too?" Sam tried to hide a laugh behind a cough, but Kaps could almost hear the reference sailing over his head. He shrugged it off.
"Hey, I had dragons to slay! Flynn left a note, though," he added at the end, mostly as an old reflex. It was the strongest instinct written into him- catalogue all new information as required, and then report back. Sam had described that tendency as having a 'big ears, and a bigger mouth,' which he didn't understand, but could guess at the meaning of. Alan looked at him, then at the Grid.
"What kind of 'note'?" Said Alan, giving Kaps a searching look.
"It's an audio file he created and left for us. I guess he knew he wasn't coming back." Quorra answered before him. She was already navigating the vast corridors of the Grid manually, fingers flying over the keys as her eyes took in vast amounts of streaming code, stripped of the conventional User interface settings.
"You know, finding it again would be a lot easier if the internal systems search engine hadn't been uninstalled."She remarked, and suddenly all eyes were on Kaps. He felt a shiver of unease- being uninstalled was the preferable alternative to deresolution, but it had the same end result, that he knew of. Apparently, leaving the Grid meant that the system registered him as such. Stranger and stranger.
"There's no way a system this big has only one search program." Sam said, and he was right.
"There were more before the coup, quite a lot, actually. We were all specialized." Kaps admitted.
"We had our individual functions as part of the system's search function- some for finding documents, some for damaged files that were too low risk for the security programs. I was initially installed to find programs- if, for instance, they'd been saved to the wrong location, I tracked them down. We were whittled down to only the functions useful to programs after the coup. All those 'User-friendly feature' types suddenly found a new life as a Sentry."
"Then there were only a few of us left, but other obsolete programs filled the ranks quickly enough over time to escape Rectification. The system sustains its own needs. After all, it's easy to make a program into a search engine. It just requires a few upgrades, and there you go. I've had my share of cut-and-paste patches, and I was written a search engine. The system doesn't register most of them, because they're still designated to their original jobs." To his surprise, Alan was smiling, exultant. Kaps didn't find anything to smile about in admitting that he was actually quite expendable. He didn't resent it more than he should, but he certainly didn't like it either.
"If you leave a computer system running, in chaos, for over two decades with a single, impossible directive, it should crash within a week." Said Alan wonderingly.
"But what Kevin created survived. It evolved and it lived, during all that time. Programs reformatting themselves to fill niches in the system and establish order- only Kevin could have imagined it, and only he could have engineered it."
The ghost of a smile flitted around Sam's mouth.
"I guess so."
By then Quorra had located the message, and Kaps peered over Sam's shoulder to see the screen as she started the play back.
"Whoever finds this, get it to Sam Flynn, Alan Bradley, ISO-459-desigQUORRA or TRON-JA-307020, if he's still out there, somewhere. If I never came back and destroyed this file, that probably means I'm not coming back at all."
Kaps recognized the voice. It was the first one he remembered hearing, welcoming him to the Grid, a system like no other. Since that first microcycle, he'd never seen the User up close again. But he'd always remembered that voice, the voice of a god. Sometimes that memory was the only proof he had that Flynn really had even existed at all. Now the words where hushed and furtive, whispered hastily in the last moments Flynn had to himself.
"So, first of all, let me apologize for that.
"If you find this, CLU, all I ask is that you listen. You have questions I never answered, so many things I know you wanted me to explain. I never let you understand that sometimes I didn't have the answers you needed. What you did was no more than a response to your directive based on the information you had. And I don't expect you to be sorry for that."
Flynn made a… mistake? A grievously huge mistake? It was his fault that the Purge had happened? That hundreds of thousands had been put to the Rectifier? He remembered Tron as he'd found him, a twisted creature made of pain and chaos. Was that the Creators fault? Of course it was, logic told him. He made CLU. He made the entire system.
But for the first time, listening to the architect and fallen ruler of his world apologize to the monster he'd created, Kaps truly understood that the anonymous Flynn that he knew from rumors and myths was no more a god that his son- that he had destroyed the world as surely as he had created it.
The first person- program- his dad addressed in his final words was CLU. The traitor, the murderer, his wayward creation. He'd taken everything from Sam, and from his dad too. Yet he didn't seem angry, just as he hadn't at the Portal on the night he died. He just seemed so damn sorry for everything, which didn't undo anything or save anyone.
…why did he have to directly address CLU first?
"I gave you a directive that cannot be carried out. And for the longest time, neither of us knew it. But now, I need you to understand that there is no perfection in the User world, if you haven't seen that for yourself by now. That's because there can never be the perfection we both once believed in- it does not exist. Perfection is there, though- it's all around us- in every small miracle that makes life possible, but it can never be absolute, controlled.
"I hope you're still listening. This isn't what you wanted to hear, man. I know that. But I also know you can change, CLU. The fact that you're still here is proof of that.
"So I'm going to ask you to do what no program has ever done. Change your directive. Free yourself of our mistakes- it might be too late for me, but it's not too late for you. Just... don't be angry at Sam for what I've- what we've – done. This isn't his fault.
"There's so much more I want to say, CLU, but I can't. There is no time left for me. It's over."
The message wasn't, though.
"CLU wasn't the only program who would've been better off if I'd stayed on my side of the screen.
"I haven't seen Tron since that night, the night of the coup. Sometimes when I close my eyes to sleep I see everything happen again, and there I am frozen, unable to stop it.
"Sometimes I don't think he's dead. Surely I would feel something- the system would just know that it had been mortally wounded. If CLU didn't destroy him though, I can imagine the alternative was worse.
"In fact, there's a security monitor, and enforcer who's come to prominence- a program they call Rinzler- that could be him, or at least, was him."
Sam remembered the way his dad had half-whispered, caught between joy and sorrow- Tron! He's alive! He had never really believed him dead, Sam reflected; he just couldn't bear to accept that he was Rinzler.
"I can't run a system scan and find out anything that way, because they could triangulate it back to here, to me. I hope it's not him. I tell myself he's dead and gone, data in the wind, so I don't think about what CLU is capable of doing to him. Isn't that pathetic. I'm a blind and deaf god out here- I don't even know what happened to one of my best friends. He and Alan, they could be anywhere, dead or alive, and I'll never know now. Never say goodbye.
"Never get to say I'm sorry.
"But if Tron survived, he would've raised hell trying to save me. He never, ever stopped fighting once he'd started. He knew CLU was more powerful than him when he told me to run. I know that wherever he is, whatever's happened to him, he'll never stop trying to end CLU, to save us all.
"If he ever hears this, I want him to know he's the best goddamn security program ever written."
He still had trouble, every now and then, with coming to grips with the fact that his Tron, the stubborn little program that had given ENCOM back to Kevin, written out line by line on an ancient computer, was the lithe dark shadow with the jet black helmet who had dived into a collapsing building after Sam.
Listening to Kevin seemed to finally cement it all together for him, the secret world he'd just met and the reality he was a part of.
"Somehow, Alan has to know. He deserves to see this all for himself… I always wanted him to meet Tron. Now that would have been something. Every night for years, I would go home and think of how I would tell Alan tomorrow, how I would explain this project. But come morning I just… couldn't say anything when my chance came."
Why not? That was what had been tormenting Alan since 1989- why had Flynn kept him in the dark about what he was doing? Their secrets had been few and far between, save for Kevin's 'project'.
"I was too scared. What I was doing was so innocent to human greed and corruption, so untouched by the evils of world. And I was terrified that the second I shared it, even with my most loyal friend, I would somehow begin lose it all to the world. The military would want to exploit the Grid, and the corporate world as well. If they want it bad enough, they'll get it. I canceled the laser program just to make sure that would never happen.
"Don't you see? I had to give this new world time to grow and become strong, so it could not be corrupted so easily.
"And once the ISOs appeared, I had something new to protect."
He'd known that part of Kevin had never really recovered from having what amounted to his life's work stolen in 1982. His career had been snatched out from under his nose, and with all his dreams and ambitions. It had given him a certain wariness that had not been there before, a paranoid edge that never let him fully trust in most of the people around him.
"Of course, in the end it didn't matter that I kept the Grid isolated from humanity, because I gave it all the flaws and corruption it could handle and more all on my own. Isn't that the irony? That if perhaps I'd involved others, they could have kept me from ruining it.
"But the one thing I have to thank you the most for, Alan, is for never giving up on me. Sam told me you still keep that old pager, though I don't think you'll need it again now. When I realized I was trapped here for good, my first thoughts were of Sam. I was afraid I'd never see him again, and I knew he would believe he'd been abandoned. It hurt like nothing I'd ever known.
"But I knew he was safe. I always knew you would be there for him, and you would keep him safe for me.
"There's no greater gift you could have given me than that.
"You deserved a better friend then I ever was.
This wasn't the Kevin Flynn he had known. It hurt him to hear his voice as much as the words themselves. This older, rougher voice was tired and careworn, and so absolutely defeated. This Flynn had been lost for so long it had broken that wild, free spirit he'd missed so much. How could I have let this happen?
But how could he have ever hoped to stop Kevin? These were the thoughts that had taunted him since 1989. I can think about it until the world ends and nothing will change. There's nothing to be done for it now. All he could do was watch over Sam, be there for him through the tumultuous times ahead.
In the end, that was all Flynn had wanted.
"Sam… there's nothing I can say in a few minutes to make up for all the time we've lost. But go back to the Grid for me, as a last request, if you will. I've been hiding files, thousands, since I was trapped. Every microcycle another one, embedded deep where only you can find them, every word I wanted to say is waiting for you to go and find it.
"Every nanocycle I've been here, I thought of you. And I have hundreds of thousands of things I want to say- but now, there's only one thing left that matters.
"I would give everything up, everything I've ever created and discovered- just to be your dad for one more day."
And that's all. The message cut off. Those half-whispered words, unplanned and raw, hidden and left in the hopes of discovery are his father's final farewell. Sam stared at the screen, as if he could coax a few more words from his father from it. Only then did he realize there were tear tracks running down his face. In all of those years, he had never cried for his father. He had yelled and screamed and cursed, he'd cried from pain when he was a kid, but he'd never mourned. When he had still clung to the belief that his dad would be come any day now, he hadn't mourned because that would be giving up.
He let go of that hope long ago, but he had still refused to mourn a father who had left him without looking back. And now, he suddenly had the wrenching impact of a loss he didn't think he'd ever face to contend with- the death of the dad he thought he'd never had- the one who loved him and had never wanted to leave him.
But through the pain, he felt free. He had the digital frontier in his hands, to save and recreate. He had his father's friends, his miracle, and his words to guide him.
It wasn't over when the message ended. It was just beginning.
END OF LINE
…I can't believe that this is over- there will most likely be an epilogue. I just kind of felt like it was tying itself up neatly all of a sudden, without being too saccharine or formulaic (it still might be- feedback wanted!) The character arcs I'd worked with all came to conclusions, and the overreaching story arc has been winding down for a few chapters.
What do you think still needs to be explored before I call it wraps? Is there anything that I'm totally missing?
Thank Cyberbutterfly, Zuzanny, Sonata IX, 3LW00D, and Elz Durden for their support in reviews- it really does help provide inspiration!