In the beginning, it was about belief. Cyrus was a self-assured, bold program from a few cycles after he was generated to a few millis before Beck left him to die.
He was not born with flayed skin. When the birth-techs carefully folded his mask back from his face for the first time, they saw a square chin and a spot of hair that would later grow neatly into a goatee.
No one suspected, and really, there was nothing to suspect. He was a good man. So good, so average, that Dyson took him without a fight. All very regulated, very official. Cyrus forgot his original task as soon as Dyson's army reprogrammed him into a guard.
Nevertheless, he still valued his beliefs. They were dug into his disk too firmly for a surface erasure to smooth them out. Cyrus knew when Tron was tortured that this was against his beliefs about the way the world should work. The data scattered across the floor disgusted him, and he wondered why Clu would support a method of information-gathering that was so imperfect, so like chaos.
So Cyrus took both himself and Tron back.
As he half-carried Tron into an ice cave, the Recognizer burning behind them and the weight of somebody's hero - somebody's, not Cyrus's, but that didn't really matter - nodding against his shoulder he wondered what exactly he had adopted.
It was Cyrus who figured out what the scarred, corrupted data was doing to Tron, that it would grow across his face and his body until the security program fell apart. It was Cyrus who set up the first spit-and-luck recompilation tank while Tron was still silent and seething, maybe plotting what revenge he would have on Dyson and Clu, maybe just hurting and holding in his hurt.
Tron stayed quiet forever, but the first thing he said to Cyrus, all narrow eyes and narrow lips, was "Thank you."
Tron believed in free will. Cyrus did not. They started talking about philosophy because, since Tron was laid up with his energy sapped and his face torn, they couldn't do anything else. They also started because Tron had questions. Tired and hurting as he was he did not trust Cyrus, whose circuits still burned red until he chipped the energy pool out of the ice that Tron would later use to build his permanent healing tank.
Cyrus was also not sure whether he believed in Users.
"I knew Kevin Flynn," Tron said one day when Cyrus brought the question up without fuss. Tron snapped his way through the words, teething at the odd duality of the name. They were sitting perched on the side of a mountain, looking down at the icy landscape. The ground seemed like only a thin skin out there, so many energy pools and meandering rivers broke its surface. "I fought beside him."
"You saw somebody who started a rebellion and did some things and said he was a User," said Cyrus. He leaned back against the cold wall, folded his long legs in front of him. "A lot of people are trying to start rebellions these days."
"I believe in my user," Tron said.
Cyrus said, "And I don't know mine."
As Tron dug into the code of the mountainside and started hollowing out the cave, Cyrus did the gross physical work of moving stones and shoveling snow with a burnt armor piece from the Recognizer. He picked up the pieces that it was easier to just move.
"Thank you," Tron said absently.
"You're welcome." Cyrus turned toward him, looked at his back. Gradually he had begun to think of Tron as a mentor rather than a rescue. A rescue wouldn't be so proactive, so eager to dispense advice. Tron had lost part of his face but none of his pride, and Cyrus found himself following Tron instead of expecting it to be the other way around. "You know, I really believe we were meant to be here."
Tron turned toward him and put a hand against his own cheek, next to the ugly crevice of the scar Dyson had given him. "Do you think so?"
Cyrus dipped his head, ashamed that he had maybe made light of Tron's suffering, but pressed on. "Yeah, I ...really do. We could do some good out here. We never would have found a wild land like this if...well if I was still brainwashed and you were still trying to work in the city."
Tron put his hand back down to the tangled glow of code in front of him and smiled slightly, or at least flattened his expression away from its usual frown. "I suppose so."
A loud buzz like machinery startled Cyrus, and he dashed toward the entrance to the cave without thinking that the other way might be safer.
Tron's voice grated from somewhere behind him, telling him to stop, but the droning engine sound was getting louder. Just as Cyrus skidded around the corner to the open cliffside entrance to the cave he saw the red light of a Recognizer in the distance. He ducked back immediately, breathing hard, looking around as if for a door he could close. Tron appeared at his shoulder in the next moment, his hands free of code. He just watched as the Recognizer moved behind the thin peak of a mountain and back into view, never changing its course, passing the cave.
Cyrus braced one hand on the cave wall and laughed, hearing Tron do the same beside him for perhaps the first time. He laughed low and quiet and sincere as they watched the light in the sky move away.
"I think this might actually work," Tron said. "I think we might have time."
As soon as Tron began to heal he also began to go out and get himself hurt. The actions of the renegade were modeled on the actions of the master, and it was only by asking repeatedly and insisting that he was less recognizable that Cyrus convinced Tron to let him go too. Every time Cyrus walked out of the cave he felt Tron's eyes on him.
He went on a few missions that felt terrifyingly seditious to him, even occasionally obscene, once stealing a guard's disk to try to understand how Dyson re-purposed programs. The distracted guard wondered in a fugue for days, his memories slipping away, while Cyrus watched from the shadows.
After that, Tron called Cyrus into one of the rooms hewn out of the mountain and said, "It's time for you to be revealed."
Cyrus stepped forward, his feet clicking on the smoothly polished, neatly coded floor.
Tron said, "You are truly my acolyte."
Feeling stifled and awkward in the formality of the moment, Cyrus said, "Did users talk like that?"
Tron gave a small smile. "No."
Later Cyrus would think that when Tron marked him he worked so hard to make it sound like an honor, not just a way to take the blame.
Tron set his fingertips against Cyrus's arm and pressed inward, through Cyrus's suit and then the first few layers of data.
Tron said, "Now, I need you to be brave, because this may hurt a little."
It didn't, not really: just a few pinpricks of static, a tinny disawareness of Cyrus's fingers, and then it was over and Tron straightened up, patting his palms together up and down, and Cyrus saw the boxy new pattern on his own forearms.
The pride heightened his awareness, sank into his disk as a new indelible groove of memory. He would always have that little bit of Tron-pride poking against his back. Later, it connected more to bitterness and anger than happiness and friendship.
"There," said Tron, standing straight and tall and narrowing his eyes at his handiwork. "Now you're just as recognizable."
"Perfection," said Tron one day when they stood on the mountain again, "is a lie. Dyson doesn't understand that. Clu...does not understand that."
Cyrus looked aside at him, hearing the wind flick at the mountains. "You told me that when Dyson was having you tortured he wanted you to experience imperfection."
"So imperfection is truly a terrible thing."
"No. It...it isn't that simple."
Tron was still learning how to teach. He stumbled through it, still laughing at himself sometimes. Cyrus could catch him smiling. After he had experienced enough little things like that, a program like Cyrus might come to the conclusion that the Grid could never be destroyed.)
Cyrus's memories tried to reconcile Tron's non-answer with a correct neural path to take. He tried to give the ideas some kind of permanence, because programs always lived a few steps behind their thoughts. Memories were written, but consciousness was free-floating.
Cyrus tried to figure out whether imperfection was a zero or a one, a good cause or evil.
In the end, it was about belief.
The last thing he learned was that Tron had never told him everything. Maybe the security program had extra skills he had learned from the Users, or maybe he had just taken more time to teach himself out here in this crumbling, digitizing waste than Cyrus had suspected. Whichever it was, Tron knew how to touch the world and make it crack in half.
Tron did this when he gave Cyrus one last chance.
Cyrus had already done his deed - not made his choice, but simply followed the path that fate had for him. He was only reassured in his certainty when he saw that Tron had been long arranging a punishment for him. Something like this didn't get built in a day.
Cyrus saw the mirror, inky and metallic and as cold as the snow on the mountain.
"What have you done, Cyrus?" Blue light was building at the edges of Tron's scar as he faced Cyrus across the ice field, like lightning flashing. "What have you done?"
Of course Tron knew the answer to his own question. He's crazy for asking me, Cyrus thought, and then reined his thoughts in. I must not accuse my enemy of insanity, of malfunction. Then I would be no better than him. I must be convinced that he is sane for him to be worth fighting.
"I will fulfill my purpose," Cyrus said, because that felt true. It felt like new lines locked into his memory, comfortably indelible.
Tron hit him so hard that Cyrus could feel the individual strips of blue lights across the back of Tron's fingers cutting into his cheek. Cyrus's skin was peeling.
Cyrus would be first on the list of programs who tried to save the Grid from itself, but he was sure he wouldn't be the last. Even if he died, brought down by a hero (who also thought he was the only hero who could save it), his body would diamond down onto the Grid-ground and be recycled by virtue of lying there until circuits re-infected it and formed new pathways that told his bits they were part of the world.
He was destined to succeed because he had succeeded already. There was no way he could not change the Grid.
He knew this was true. He felt it in the way his feet stayed level on the ground. He would unlock secrets of the Grid that Tron never knew, too fettered by his ideas of what the world should be.
This was reassuring to Cyrus.
"You want our world to conform to the Users!" Cyrus shouted. "But I don't believe."
"Why do you fight so hard against something you don't believe in?" Tron's voice cracked. Was he regretting the loss of a friend, or just an apprentice?
Cyrus looked around at the mirror, so black that he almost registered it as an emptiness like it should be. It was a deceptive thing, and constructed to be so. It was chaos restrained into something with four corners, and it wouldn't stay restrained for long.
As he backed into the mirror Cyrus reached up and dragged his own fingers across his face, feeling the layer of skin texture flake off, the light of his own circuits starting to fog across the bottom of his eyes. Tron watched him with pity and disgust.
Cyrus had a lot of time to work, to learn, to shape the odd inverse world he had found himself in and use it to learn about the inner workings of the Grid. He found that he was better at reverse-engineering than almost anything else.
Then the Renegade (second? third? Cyrus doesn't know how many Tron tried after him) appeared, and fumbleed his way through Cyrus's cave.
Cyrus immediately noticed that Beck was better at bold-faced, stupid-brave fighting than almost anything else. Cyrus saw this first as a weakness, then as useless strength, and then a strength that he had underestimated.
When Beck threw him inside the mirror again, the black surface closing over him like a liquid ceiling, Cyrus felt a few millicycles of uncertainty.
Maybe he wasn't good enough. Maybe Tron was right about something Cyrus never even comprehended.
But then he remembered that none of this was up to him. Free will was an illusion, remember?
He remembered all the times he and Tron sat and talked about that very thing, and how quickly the conversations went from relieved refugees distracting themselves from reality to a serious argument, a cutting disagreement that had broken their friendship before it properly began.
And Cyrus had a few millicycles of uncertainty.
Only a few.