Just a reflection; just a glimpse, just a little reminder...
Of all the 'what abouts', and all the might've, could've beens...
Another day, some other way, But not another reason now to continue
And now you're one of us...
The cell he's been locked away in is tiny, smaller even than Master Control's pit cells, and cleverly designed so that Tron can gain no information at all from the coding of its surfaces. He's only just managed to sort out "up" from "down"—"down" is the floor he's lying on, curled on his right side in a semi-fetal position, arms bound behind his back, forearms locked tight together. The faint red glow from the lightropes restraining him, barely visible out of the corner of his glitching peripheral vision, provides the only real light in the room. The walls and floor of the cell cast nothing, reflect nothing, and his own circuits are dim and flickering.
Tron knows he's damaged, and that his energy level is dangerously low. The last memory file he can pull prior to coming back online in this pitch black oubliette is Clu's disc crashing down at him, its edge burning so brightly it nearly hurt to look at. Everything after that is static, but he can feel the damage to the left side of his face, a dull tingle that sparks into blinding pain any time he moves his head. His vision on that side is impaired, as well, but in the near-total darkness he can't tell how much. That the blow didn't derez him outright is something of a miracle, and Tron is too practical to believe in them. Clu wants him for something, has left him alive on purpose. He wonders how long he's been here; his internal chronometer tells him it's been barely a millicycle since the last accessible timestamp in his memory, but Tron doesn't trust it.
He doesn't trust anything.
Flynn escaped, though, and that thought sustains him. Tron couldn't stop Clu, but at least he'd bought the User enough time to get to the Portal. From the outside, Flynn will be able to shut Clu down and stop the virus (and how convenient, Tron thinks, that the viral attack provided Clu exactly the distraction he needed). He just has to hold out until then, or until an opportunity for escape presents itself. Tron knows he can hold out. After all, this isn't the first time he's been in such straits.
After ([.487 millicycles], Tron's chronometer stubbornly insists) what feels like cycles the door slides open, flooding the cell with too-bright light. Tron instinctively tries to shield his eyes, but all the movement accomplishes is to make the restraints pull tighter, almost to the point of pain. A figure appears in the doorway, at first visible only in silhouette, but Tron recognizes his visitor's frame instantly.
"Clu." Speaking is agony, and his voice comes out fractured and raw, as if he were talking through a throatful of sand.
"Greetings, Tron," Clu replies cheerily, the floor lighting up as he steps fully into the tiny room, causing Tron to wince and squeeze his good eye shut against the glare. "Look at you, man. You look like you walked into an engine circulator." He crouches in front of Tron, running a gloved finger along the ruined left side of his face.
Clu's touch burns, but Tron wills himself not to react, opening his eye again to stare defiantly back at him. "It's no good holding me hostage here," he grits out. "Flynn won't fall for it. He'll shut you down from the Users' world and there's nothing you can—"
Clu laughs, cutting Tron off before he can finish. "Is that what you think? That I'm holding you as leverage? Flynn never made it to the Portal, Tron…it's been heavily guarded, this whole time, and nobody's come within a hundred yards. And as for you, as far as Flynn knows—as far as the entire Grid knows—you're dead, friend. Hell, half the Grid believes Flynn's dead too. Witnesses saw that new System Monitor of his turn on you both. Shoddy workmanship, if you ask me…probably infected by that virus, too." He sighs, shaking his head, then looks back down at Tron, smiling tightly. "Nobody knows you're here, and nobody is coming for you."
Then what do you want with me? Tron thinks, but doesn't speak the question aloud. All it will do is cause more pain, and Clu will play his hand eventually. Whatever it is he wants, he won't be getting it from Tron. I didn't break under Master Control, and I won't break for you.
Clu regards him for a moment, head cocked slightly, with that same cold smile that doesn't quite reach all the way to his eyes. Then without warning he grabs Tron's shoulder, hauling Tron to his feet along with him as he stands.
"Come on. I want to show you something."
The first thing Tron registers about the room Clu brings him to is the tight quarantine field that surrounds it, cutting it off from the rest of the construct.
They're on a carrier ship—Tron can feel the hum of the engines beneath his feet—but not one that he's ever been on before, and the reason for the quarantine soon becomes terribly apparent. Not even the containment field can dampen the overwhelming sense of wrongness in the room, every data feed grating on Tron's sensors, squealing with corruption.
[Threat Detected: VIRUS]
It's standing on the other end of the room, next to a great observation window looking out over Tron City and Arjia. Half of what used to be a conference table at the room's center has already been eaten away, the rest gone the ugly yellow-green that Tron last saw at the inauguration ceremony. It turns toward them when they enter, but does not attack, and Tron's suspicions about the timing of the Virus's appearance and Clu's coup immediately solidify to fact in his mind.
Clu forces him through the doorway and across the room to the window, shoving him to his knees. "Hello again, Abraxas," he greets, voice casual and almost jovial. A name, Tron thinks with a sort of distant horror, dear Users, he's given it a name. "I've brought a friend to meet you."
The Virus steps forward until its boots are bare inches from Tron's knees, black mask staring down at him, and despite himself Tron finds himself struggling against his bonds, skin and circuitry crawling madly with revulsion and the core-deep need to fight this thing, to neutralize it before it can infect anything else.
"…well, well, well," it hisses, its voice deep and gravelly and awful, shot through with that ghastly subtonal squealing that makes Tron want to grit his teeth despite the pain in his face. "Our Champion. Protector of the Grid. Our 'hero'. What a…pleasure to see you brought to your knees too."
One clawed hand reaches for Tron, but Clu suddenly yanks him back before it can make contact, shifting his body halfway between the two of them (but not releasing his grip on the back of Tron's neck) in a gesture that seems oddly protective.
"Ah ah," Clu chides, finger wagging back and forth in a mocking imitation of a gesture Tron has seen Flynn use when reprimanding Clu, but his eyes are glinting dangerously. "Look but no touch." He glances down at Tron briefly, then back up to the Virus, a little smirk playing across his lips. "Then again, you always did like looking at him, didn't you…"
"Abraxas" snarls, but draws back its hand. Tron's mind is racing, trying to put the pieces together. This virus didn't come from outside the System, Flynn would have known. Mindless viruses could be programmed from within the Grid, of course, by a programmer masterful enough, and surely Clu has the priveleges and the skill—Tron has long harbored suspicions about where the virus that poisoned the Sea truly came from—but they're nothing but misshapen bits of code. This thing, this walking nightmare, has consciousness, something that Tron knows from Flynn is beyond Clu's ability to create. And the familiar way Clu speaks to it…
"…Clu, what have you done…?" he rasps.
Clu's smirk widens into a smile, and his eyes light up with what Tron can only mark as a twisted species of pride. He steps back behind Tron fully, hand tightening on the back of his neck, forcing his gaze upward.
The thing's mask dissolves away in a patchy random pattern, and Tron recoils, unable to stop the gasp that escapes him. Beneath the mask, Abraxas' face is deathly pale, eyes the same dead black as the Sea. Ugly dark blotches edged with gangrenous yellow mar its features…features Tron knows.
"…Jalen," he whispers, the pain of speaking drowned out by horror.
That day in the square, the last time they'd seen one another. Was this why Jalen had suddenly fled? Had it already been inside him then, working deeper, corrupting him? He remembers how he'd meant to follow the ISO, sensing that something wasn't right…and then there Clu had been, needing to talk to him about security for the upcoming Games-the Games in which Jalen had supposedly died. He hadn't been there that night, either, pulled away to deal with a gridbug sighting on the edge of Tron City, and he realizes bitterly that Clu must have set that up too.
"Damn you," Tron grates. "Why…how…?"
Clu chuckles. "How? All I did was perfect him. Brought out the true essence of what he is. It was easy." And it had been easy. The ISO had given himself up without a second thought, that "profound naivete" that Flynn had been so enthralled with…it had almost hurt to go through with it.
"Sure, he doesn't look very pretty. But that's what happens when you're given an imperfect base to work off of. What is it Flynn's always saying? Garbage in, garbage out."
Abraxas' claws snap into fists, more of those sickly yellow cracks spreading up his forearms, ravaged face twisting hideously with rage. Jalen,Tron thinks, sickened. Oh, Jalen, I'm so sorry.
"You, though…" Clu continues, and something in his voice sets Tron's skin to crawling all over again. "You're not like him. You're beautiful, a creature unique among the entire Grid…Flynn wasted you, but I won't." The grip on the back of his neck becomes a caress, and Tron shudders.
Abruptly, Clu changes gears again, looking back to Abraxas. "Alright, that's enough. I've got work to do, and so do you. They say Flynn's out at Bostrum…burn it. I don't want him to have a single place left to hide."
Abraxas growls, so low Tron imagines he can feel the vibration in the floor. Finally the blank black mask rezzes back into place, and Tron hates himself for the relief he feels.
"I hope you enjoy…perfection as much as I do, ' hero'."
Then at last the Virus is gone, stalking past Clu and Tron out the door through which they had come, leaving only the partially-disintegrated table as evidence he'd been there at all.
"…I won't let you corrupt me." Tron whispers, voice nearly gone. "I'll derez myself first."
"As if I would ever let you," Clu counters, his own voice turned soft and silky. "And I told you…it isn't going to be like that. I wouldn't do that to you. I'm going to help you reach the true pinnacle of your purpose…to be what you should have been from the very start." He bends low to whisper in Tron's ear.
A/N: This fic was written in response to this piece of fanart by WineGum: . /tumblr_lzz64u1kjs1qaei58o1_r1_ It ended up becoming a semi-sequel to my earlier Tron: Evolution fic "False Light". Lyrics quoted are from "The Wretched" by Nine Inch Nails.