Failsafe: Part One

by Tenshi

Jade did not take long to find them. The last survivor of the arena's sirens, she made her way alone to the dark sign above Flynn's arcade, and put her hands to the door. When the door opened and the shadow of her maker fell over her, Jade went to her knees in supplication. She could not see that Flynn wore the face of her oppressor, and by the time she did, it didn't matter. CLU could be a gentleman when he pleased; he had his maker's charm, after all. But had he bent to lift a stray program up off the ground, it would only have been to strike her down again himself.

Flynn knelt down beside her, Flynn asked if she was all right, Flynn invited her in. And Jade, who had barely exchanged ten words with her maker before, found that she was treated as a prodigal daughter, without the least scorn for straying in the first place.

"You must have had a rough trip over," Flynn said, steering the dark-haired Siren through the atrium of the arcade, its restful, Zenlike atmosphere in sharp contrast to the derelict exterior, and up into the intimidating space of the command center above it. "Yori told me you were coming, so I had her disable the security for you, but you've gotta admit, it's not like it's right off the downtown bus route." Flynn waved to the occupants of his headquarters, all of them busy over various tasks. "You've met Sam and Tron, of course. I hear they bumped into you on the street a few cycles ago. And that's Alan, Tron's User, and over there wasting time talking to Yori instead of repairing those vehicle batons like I told him to do is Ram."

Jade stammered a hello, as much as she could manage at being in the presence of so many important programs and three Users.

"Hey!" Sam hopped over the table and through the three-dimensional light map of the city that Tron and Alan were working on, scattering bits of light that slowly pooled back into formation. "You made it! How's that code patch? Still holding up?"

"I'm fine, thank you," Jade said, and twisted her slim hands together. "I owe you my life, and... for that I came to give you information," she finished, turning to Flynn and lowering her eyes, unable to meet his frank stare.

"And you will," Flynn said, pulling out a chair for her. "I can tell you right now we're all very interested to hear it. But I don't want you to think I have bad hospitality. Hey, Ram!"

Ram, who was still chatting to Yori instead of working, started guiltily at the sound of his name. "...Oh! Yeah?"

"Go and get Jade a drink," he said, and pulled out the chair next to her. "Matter of fact, better round up some for all of us." He sat down, elbows on the table, chin on his hands, the very picture of attention. "I have a feeling this is going to be a long meeting."

"This is better than I hoped," Flynn said some time later, after he had dismissed an exhausted Jade upstairs to get some rest. "If what she's told us is true, we only have one central knot of CLU's loyalists to take out, not a bunch of factions."

"Yes," Alan agreed, with reluctance. "But it sounds like there's only one faction left because it's destroyed or absorbed all the competition."

"One main group massing near the north end of the city," Flynn mused. "Tron?"

"It's hardly news that the opposition forces are located there," Tron said, pointing into the map. The lines of light turned red at his touch, to indicate their enemies. "What is vital is knowing that these loyalists are now confident enough to start attacking our known supporters, and absorbing unaligned programs. That means they're not worried about survival anymore, they're ready to take on the Grid."

"And I'm afraid that means it's time for us to take them on," Flynn said, rolling one of his prayer beads between his fingers. "As much as I would rather a peaceful gambit, they've started lashing out at innocent programs. And we've been idle long enough."

"Even Buddhists have to kick ass sometimes, dad," Sam said, smiling from the other end of the table. "I've seen enough kung-fu movies to know that much."

Flynn looked somber. "I'd rather do this without a Hollywood high body count, thanks. Most of these loyalists were once User-friendly programs rectified by CLU. They need to be reconfigured back to their defaults, not erased."

"Well, that makes this harder," Alan said. "We could just delete them from the outside, and it would probably take about five seconds. But to reconfigure them all--"

"I've thought about it." Flynn said. "Ram?"

Ram sat up, and slid his fingers across the glass table to bring up an irising glyph of code. "Flynn asked me about some of the current programs in use to hack systems from a distance. I exploited the same weaknesses when Roy wanted me to search for information about Flynn, and when I broke into Encom's databases. He was mostly interested in what Users call zombie systems, taking over hundreds of systems at once with a single basic program."

"A mass overwrite," Sam said, peering at the code. "You want to bring them back online without raising a finger against them."

"That's right," Flynn said, and reached out to the code glyph, stroking his hand through it. "And I made a virus to do it. A good virus, at least. I guess you could call it more like a vaccine. We'll plant it right in the middle of their base, and with any luck, it'll spread fast enough to repair them before they can sort out what's happening."

"But I still don't know how are we going to get that code right into the middle of their base." Ram wondered. "I mean, it's not like they're just going to let us walk in, and sneaking through their defenses would be hard, even for me and Tron. And trying to launch this code patch as we go?" He shook his tousled hair in dismay. "Not my kind of party."

"We don't have to worry about their defenses," Flynn said, and tapped out a command on the tabletop. The glyph of the rectify code faded out to be replaced by another spiral of digital DNA, far more detailed than the first one, the full code of a complex program. "They're going to open the door for him."

"Him?" Sam repeated, uneasy.

"Flynn," Tron said, going very still in his seat, his eyes fixed on the oscillating code stream. "That code..."

"Yeah," Flynn said. He breathed on the code, and it formed into a light-point profile, just like the kind projected by an identity disk. "...It's CLU's."

You once told me I was the best program that's ever been written.

Flynn tilted his head at the fountain. The atrium was eerily quiet; programs and users alike were either asleep or on patrol. CLU's voice was startling, and Flynn looked down at his own sentient reflection. Never before had CLU's ghost initiated conversation. "I did," Flynn said, in answer. "It was true."

It was a long time ago. CLU's reflection had been standing, rather than sitting at the pool's edge as Flynn was. When he sat down it was deliberately turned in the other direction, to mark him apart from his maker. I was a different Program.

"I was a different man," Flynn said.

CLU reached out to the surface of the water, as though seeking to push through the thin membrane between the echoes of memory where he existed, and the digital reality of the Grid. He could touch it, but his fingers could not break through, straining at it like a newborn through a caul. Is it still true?

Flynn looked up into the meeting space at the top of the stairs, where CLU's rebuilt code still turned above the meeting table, shedding a quiet light of its own. "It never stopped being true," Flynn said. "And I'm sorry if you ever thought it did."

I did everything you ever asked.

"I know."

I wanted you to be proud.

Flynn looked from CLU's future to his past, and reached out to touch the reflection of his own hand. "I was always proud of you, CLU. Even when I didn't agree with you, I couldn't help being impressed. And if I never told you, then it's just one more way I failed you."

...Will you give me another chance?

Kevin Flynn looked down at his own young man's hopes and dreams, a landscape so far now in his past that he wondered if it had ever been his. "If you give me one," Flynn said, and closed his fingers around water and light.

In the other room, the spiral of CLU's code winked out. The energy in the fountain reversed its flow, coalescing in one mass from basin to basin and leaving nothing behind, condensing into a single point in Flynn's hand. In an instant it shot out again, tracing line upon burning line, carving incandescent circuits in the air. When the last two lines finally met, there was a last flare of color, blue to green to gold. For a moment those hovering gold circuits were the only light in the room, ephemeral in the dark. Slowly, the basins of the fountain began to fill again, and two figures were revealed in its swelling illumination.

"You are C.L.U. 3.0."

"I am Clu."

"And," Flynn said, with a wry smile, "We're gonna try not to fuck things up this time."

The silence around the meeting room table was acute and uncomfortable. It was not entirely the fault of the extra program among their number, a program whose gold lights and familiar features set off waves of bad memories among all those present, a program who met every guarded face in the room with his own opaque, unwavering stare. It was the fact that he had entered the room with a Kevin Flynn far different from the one they had seen the evening before, one whose appearance caused a mutual double-take on the part of his friends.

Flynn had aged twenty years overnight. Though he was not the ancient figure Sam had first met on the Grid, burdened with cares and cycles that had extended his age to centuries, neither was he the young man he had been after CLU-2 traded forms with him in his last-ditch, failed attempt to escape. Kevin Flynn was simply the age that he should rightly be: grayer, leaner, and mapped with lines of the years had that passed without him in the Users' world. His blue eyes were keen and piercing, his back straight, and his veins made ropes ove the backs of hands that had strength in them still.

"Dad?" Sam whispered, the first of them to speak.

Flynn's smile was always the same, clever and mischievous and sharp enough to sever the taut thread of suspense in the room. "Had to give Clu his code back," he said, by way of explanation. "And I guess that means I can't rag on Bradley about his gray hair anymore."

Everyone seemed to exhale at once, except for Clu, whose intent observation of the room meant he hardly seemed to breathe at all, and Tron, who had barely taken his cold eyes from Clu's lights.

"Flynn," Tron said, tersely. "I'm sorry, but I must reiterate my misgivings about this plan."

"That's putting it nicely," Flynn said, pulling out his chair. "Yesterday you asked me if I had accidentally deleted my brain." He sprawled down in his chair with his usual ease. Clu remained standing, hands tucked into the small of his back.

"Listen, Flynn," Alan said, coming to his program's defense. "You can't blame Tron for having doubts about this. I have plenty myself. Who's to say the same... error might not surface?"

Flynn narrowed his eyes at Alan. "You ever known me to let the same glitch happen twice?"

"No, but this is--"

"Excuse me." Clu's voice broke over them like a wave, causing every head to turn in his direction, producing a deep and suspicious pause in the meeting room. Clu, for his part, seemed utterly unaffected by it. "Am I correct in assuming you are referring to the terminal programming error present in my predecessor?" He cocked a curious look at Tron, and at Alan, who nodded slowly in affirmation. "In that case," Clu continued briskly, "I can assure you that the erroneous implementation of CLU2's basic directive is wholly absent from my own code. While I share some of his basic formatting, my directive is the restoration of this system, and on the completion of that, the well-being of it and its inhabitants, User and Program alike. Not only do I endeavor to repair my predecessor's mistakes, it is a statistical impossibility that I could malfunction in the same way." He took a moment to assess his audience's reaction, as though waiting to see if there would be any questions. When there were none, he finished, "My failsafe will ensure it does not happen again."

"Failsafe?" Tron echoed, in wary tones.

Flynn looked down at his hands, and there was something strange in the way he would not meet Tron's eyes.

Clu-3 nodded. "Yes. Should I in any way disobey my User, or refuse a direct command, it will activate the failsafe in my code, which will result in my immediate and permanent de-resolution."

The pitch of the silence in the room went from uneasy to horrified, and even if the expressions on Tron and Ram's faces had not said enough, the surge of color in their lights gave away the full depth of their reaction.

"I understand the need for precaution," Tron breathed, his lip drawing back in revulsion, "but that kind of coding--"

"It's appalling," Flynn finished for him, quietly. "Something the MCP would have done, something for slaves, not free programs. Yes, I know. I didn't want to do it."

"Why?" Ram said, looking as though he might burst into tears. "I know CLU's directive went wrong, but--why would you ever put something like that in a program's code?"

"I don't understand," Sam broke in, confused. "I mean, I guess it's like a bomb collar? But it's just to be on the safe side, right? He doesn't screw up, he doesn't blow up, no harm, no foul. What's the big deal about it?"

"It's a big deal to programs, Kiddo," Flynn explained. "When I built the Grid, I built it for free programs, programs that could think and make their own choices. I wanted them to work with their Users, but I could just have easily made a world of slaves. I promised myself I would never do that." Flynn looked up at Clu, standing unperturbed in the middle of the discussion. "Even if you put a bomb collar on a human, he can still have a free mind. This won't even allow that. I had to tear out everything about Clu that made him who he was, and lock it inside him in a place he can never access, on pain of death."

Tron swallowed hard, and though he was physically incapable of the act as Users knew it, the look he wore was one of unmistakable nausea. "I knew you had such power, as a User, Flynn," he said. "I never imagined you would ever do it to any program, much less one you wrote, one you had loved. Clu would rather stay de-rezzed than to be reborn as an empty shell, a slave with no will of his own--"

"Wrong." Clu's words brought them all to a halt once more. He lifted his head, and there was something of Flynn's glint in his eyes. "I was the one who insisted on the failsafe. My previous version deviated from his set protocol. I will do no such thing."

Ram swiveled in his chair to face Clu. "You... asked for this?"

"I did," Clu confirmed. "My original version died rather than revealing Flynn's activities to the MCP. That any program with that same code should commit the treachery of CLU-2's betrayal is an insult to my source program and his sacrifice, and I will undertake whatever burden needed to amend it." He splayed one hand over his chest, where his heart would be if he was human. "I only exist because of Flynn's willingness to give me a chance. I won't waste it."

"Admirable sentiment," Tron murmured. "Let's hope it's true."

Excuse me. In the bulkhead above the table, Yori's still, marble-esque figure flickered with ripples of multicolored light, and her eyes opened. Flynn, that arena program has just exited the arcade. Her bearing indicates she is heading for the north end of the city.

"I was afraid of that," Flynn said, scrubbing at the now-silver stubble on his chin.

"Jade?" Sam said, worried. "Where is she going?"

"She's probably going back to the Loyalists," Flynn said, with remarkable calm. "As I expected she was going to do from the start. For all that she told us, there was a lot more that she didn't say."

"But--" Ram spluttered, indignant. "After we were so nice to her! And Tron and Sam saved her life! She was safe here! How could she--"

"I suspect she didn't have a choice," Flynn said. "There's no telling what hangs in the balance for her, but I figure it's something important. But whatever her reasons are, we don't have time to sit around and talk about it anymore. Let's move."

Jade ran through the neon-streaked streets of Tron City, certain that at any moment its namesake would appear to wreak revenge for her betrayal. In her brief time with the Users, she had longed to confess her true purpose, to fall upon Flynn's mercy and beg for his forgiveness. But she dared not. Even if it should all prove to be a trick, even if there was no hope her lover had survived, even if her efforts had been purchased with lies, she had to try. He would have done the same for her, and she only continued to function because he had.

And if Flynn was truly the User she believed he was, her actions would have little bearing on the outcome. CLU's loyalists and remaining Black Guard stood no chance against the allied powers of the Users. But before the Black Guards were defeated, she had to get back to them. So she fled, a trembling white flame in the dark, from street to street and shadow to shadow, with the name of her beloved on her lips.


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