Sins of the Father

by Tenshi

I believe your parents did the best job they knew how to do.
-Savage Garden Affirmation

Ram was utterly enchanted by the fish Flynn had made for the fountain in the arcade. If he had a spare moment, it was certain that he could be found there, peering over the edge of the pool at the silvery creatures in the depths. Energy was water on the Grid, and the very concept that something could live inside that substance was a novelty he had not even experienced in the wider, interlinked systems of the internet. Tron had commented dryly that Flynn must indeed be capable of miracles; he had managed to concoct something that made Ram sit still for entire nanoseconds at a time.

At the moment, however, Ram and Tron were both watching the fish, waiting for their Users to finish up their business with Flynn and change shifts. Roy and Alan were going back to the Users' world; Sam would be coming back in their place. Flynn as yet did not want Quorra to return to the Grid, not until he was certain she would be safe there. So the three of them traded turns. It was Alan's doing, making shifts for the Users as regular as clockwork, so they would never leave Flynn alone for long without backup, so that none of them would have to shoulder the full burden of a double life. It would only be a day in the Users' world before Roy would come back, and Alan shortly after, but the time would be longer than that for their Programs, and both of them were subdued.

Roy stepped out of the control center first, not yet noticed by the two Programs. Alan was right on his heels, and for a little while they both stood there, taking in the surreal vision of what looked like their own younger selves sitting in the light of the liquid energy.

"I don't think I'll ever get used to it," Alan said, in a low voice.

"Me either," Roy added. "Seriously, did my ass ever look that good?"

Alan raised both his eyebrows and nodded. "Sure. Just not as good as mine."

Roy swatted him on the arm. "Come on, Alan. Just let me have this."

"Yeah, Alan," Flynn cut in, appearing behind them like a rogue jack-in-the-box. "Don't get all superior, man. There's plenty of room on my Grid for all kinds of ass."

"And Sam's is due in here instead of ours," Alan said, checking his watch out of more instinct than need. He still hadn't managed to get it properly calibrated to Grid-time, due to the way processing speed randomly affected the duration of cycles. Flynn could keep up with it; Alan hadn't quite gotten the knack.

It was Flynn's turn to raise his eyebrows. "What do you know about my kid's ass, man?"

Alan gave him a long look. "I know I had to spank it from time to time when his dad wasn't around to do it," he said. "But he's a little old for that now."

"Wouldn't recommend doing that to your CEO anyway," Roy put in, with a chuckle.

"No, but he'll dock our pay if we don't let him in here, and that stings more." Alan flipped up the collar of his coat; Flynn's variable Grid weather had produced a chill and dank evening in the city. "We'll be back here tomorrow."

"Drive safe," Flynn said, with a flash of his old nonchalance. He put his arms around both their shoulders and added, with more sincerity, "Thanks for your help. Sometimes I think we'll really get this place back together." He let them go and pitched his voice louder, for the two Programs to hear. "Hey guys! Time to get your Users back to the Portal."

Tron and Ram sprang up, glad for action even if it meant farewells.

"Sam's due in once they go out, so Tron, I want you to be ready at the drop to pick him up. Ram, you take them the rest of the way to the portal and then get your tail back here. No single-handed assaults on enemy bases, no getting kittens out of trees. Got it?" Flynn eyed them both.

"Trees?" Ram echoed.

"Kittens." Tron was even more dubious. "Wait. I think I know kittens." He frowned, struggled to recall. "...Something Users wear to keep their hands warm?"

Alan sighed, fond. "Mittens, Tron. Not kittens."

"Ah," Tron said, unbothered by the correction. "Then I don't know kittens."

"You just love doing this to them, don't you?" Roy asked Flynn, who waved a hand dismissively.

"Immersion learning, man. They'll get it. It's how I became fluent in Japanese."

"It's how you got thrown out of a bathhouse in Osaka for propositioning a vending machine," Alan reminded him.

"Hey," Flynn shrugged his innocence. "That was one goddamn sexy soda machine, is all I'm saying." He made shooing motions at the four of them. "Okay, now get out of here, all of you. Go. Scram!" Flynn started to turn, and then checked himself. "Oh, and Tron?" Flynn waited until the Program looked up at him, and said, "A kitten is a baby cat." With that, Flynn went back into the control center, calling for Yori to bring up those harbor specs for him again.

Tron and Ram looked at each other in further confusion, and Alan shook his head as he came down the stairs to his Program. "Come on, Tron," he said, smiling at him. "I'll explain it on the way."

Tron's parting from his User was bittersweet. While it was a pleasure and a privilege to work in the company of his maker, the separation was hard. It was not easy for Tron to forget the taint of a thousand cycles spent in silence. When Tron was alone, he thought too much on the past, and he craved the unconditional love of his maker. While his redemption had only strengthened his faith in Alan-1, it was selfish, he knew, to wish for his company all the time. And yet he could not help the wanting of it.

Of course, Alan was available even when not on the Grid; Sam and Flynn had made it so those on the Grid could communicate with those outside at anytime (something to do with the communication devices they called phones), and there was no more need for the clunky interface of an old I/O tower. Tron could call up a panel anywhere and send a message to his maker. But Tron did not wish to be a burden on Alan, bothering him with his redundant processes; he understood the tremendous work waiting for Alan in the Users' world. And words, no matter how readily they came, were not the same as a smile, or the touch of a hand. A voice from another world was not the same as a whisper in his ear.

I'm becoming glitchy in my old age, Tron thought, as he watched the transport with Roy and Ram and Alan vanish towards the hidden portal in the distance. If I keep having these hang-ups, it'll affect my performance. Maybe Flynn can tweak my code a little. Still, it was with reluctance that Tron turned his lightcycle back towards the city, to meet Flynn's son at the arrival point.

Son was a strange concept for Tron. It had driven CLU to distraction, as he tried to discern what difference there was between him and the creature called Sam. Flynn had made both of them. But CLU had always felt that Flynn thought him lesser, and perhaps it was true. That had eaten away at him until there was nothing in him but bitterness towards his User.

It does not do to be too familiar with one's maker, Tron told himself. CLU never knew what it was to obey a User from afar, and perhaps Flynn was too easy with him. Alan-1 is kind to treat me with such equality. But I forget my place at my own peril. Tron looked down at his hands on his lightcycle steering grips, and flexed them to make the blue of the circuits on the back of his hands shine brighter. May I be erased before I turn colors again, he prayed. I would rather be undone than to raise my hand against my maker.

Tron was still pensive when he arrived at the jump point, and Sam noticed at once that his greeting was not returned as enthusiastically as usual. Tron for the most part was not very demonstrative, but he was always happy to see Sam.

"You all right?" Sam asked, leaning over to get a better look at Tron's face.

"Yes," Tron said, and then, "No," and then, "I'm not sure."

"Something bothering you?" Sam had taken out his lightcycle baton, but he attached it to his hip again. "It's okay, we can walk instead of ride if you want to talk. My legs work and everything."

"Thank you." For the first half-block, however, Tron did not say anything, unaware of Sam's curious glances. "...Can I ask you a question, Sam?"

"Sure, man. Shoot."

Even with Sam's easy permission, Tron struggled for a moment with his words. "What does it mean," he asked, at last, "to be someone's son?"

Sam stared at him, dumbfounded, and then he grinned. "Well, Tron," he said, scrubbing at the back of his hair. "I uh, well, that's... when two Users love each other--"

"No," Tron said, shaking his head. "I understand the theory behind the creation process of Users. But I don't understand what it means. What it's like. What it's for."

"Ah," Sam said, and looked thoroughly relieved. "Well that's... well I guess it's different for everybody. But parents--the Users who make sons or daughters--they teach us about the world, about who we are. And some are better at it than others. Having a parent... when you're a kid it means having someone you can always count on." Sam's mouth drew back in a frown. "At least, that's what it should be. But sometimes things happen. Car wrecks and internal coups in your PC and plain old shitty life. At least I had my dad's parents to look after me when dad disappeared."

Tron nodded encouragement. He had not thought that Flynn, being a father, must therefore also be a son himself, but it made sense.

"And Alan, man." Sam snapped his fingers, as though he had just remembered something. "He really made a point to be there for me. Even though I was kind of an asshole kid. I gave him a lot of grief that he didn't need, now that I know Dad being gone hurt him as much as it did me." Sam let out a sigh. "Sorry, Tron. I think I'm explaining this all wrong."

"No, go on," Tron said. "It's very informative."

"Well, I guess basically it's like this," Sam said, sketching out invisible charts with his hands. "You're born, and you're helpless. I mean, Users don't even remember what it's like to be a baby. But you get older, and your parents are pretty much the absolute makers of your world. And if they're decent parents, up until you're about twelve you worship the ground they walk on. Then suddenly you start to think for yourself, and for some reason that means you think you know everything. You think you're grown-up, but you're really not. Not yet. So you fuck up steadily until you're about twenty-five or so."

"Then what?" Tron asked, fascinated.

Sam shrugged. "Then, if you're lucky, you realize that parents are just people, just like you are. They've got the same mistakes and flaws, their own issues. And when you come to terms with that, and you come to terms with yourself, you can be their friend as well as their kid. Then you've really grown up. It's what I think, anyway."

"Flawed," Tron mused. "Thank you, Sam. I think I understand now."

"Phew," Sam said. "Glad one of us does."

"I mean, I understand what happened to CLU."

Sam blinked at him. "This was about CLU?"

Tron nodded. "Parents--and Users--are flawed. The idea that his maker was imperfect meant that he, himself, was imperfect. It went against his very code. How he must have hated that, and hated himself." Tron considered his own hands, thoughtful. "It's strange. I never thought I would be able to pity him. But I think I do, a little. It was a terrible thing inside him, that paradox. It ate him alive."

Sam had grown somber. "Yeah. I never thought of it like that. For Users, it makes it easier to accept our own flaws when we see our parents'. But I guess CLU wasn't capable of that."

"Once, I might not have been either," Tron admitted. "When Flynn first told us that Users are just like Programs, I rejected it. It was blasphemy to me that they could be careless, or imperfect, or unsure. But now, I know it means that he has done the best for us he can, and if at times he failed, it wasn't deliberate. He always meant well. For a time, during CLU's overwrite--" Tron fought to keep his voice level, and Sam put a hand on his shoulder, reassuring, until Tron could get it out. "He made me think Alan-1 had abandoned me here," Tron said, in a low, shamed whisper. "That he had exiled me on the Grid as punishment. But he hadn't, and he wasn't cruel. He trusted me to take care of myself when I went to the Grid, and he let me go because he believed I could do it, that I was strong enough not to rely on him. Alan-1 has told me not to treat him as a deity, but only now do I understand why." Tron looked at Sam in newfound wonder. "And I think... I love him all the more for it."

"Well," Sam said, smiling broadly at Tron. "I guess that just means you're grown-up now, bro."

Tron quirked an eyebrow at him. "Bro?"

Sam opened his mouth to try and explain that one, but whatever he was going to say was cut off by a shrill, short scream from a nearby alley.

"Someone's in trouble," Tron said, whipping his disk off his back. "Come on."

In the open space between empty streets, four of CLU's derelict Black Guard had cornered a lone program. She lay at their feet, curled up to defend herself with her empty hands. Some distance away, her discarded baton spat out strings of errant current, broken.

"You of all programs should have remained loyal," one of the guards droned at her. "You knew we would find you."

"I don't care!" she said, defiant even though she was clearly defeated. "I won't go back!"

"Jade!" Tron exclaimed, instantly recognizing the program.

"You know her?" Sam asked, and then, as he got a better look at her face, "Hey, I know her! From the arena armory!"

"She'll be de-rezzed!" With no other word Tron vaulted into the intersection, his disk spinning out of his hand and decapitating one of the guards before Sam had even gotten his loose from his back. Tron burst into the group and two more guards exploded into crystals of data, while Sam managed to take out the final one on his way in. Tron caught his disk out of the air and raked the side streets with his eyes, but it seemed there were no reinforcements.

"Hey," Sam said, lifting the black-haired siren up from the damp street. "Tron! I think she's hurt!"

Tron knelt down beside Sam, but one look at Jade's face told him enough, and he cursed himself for being too late. "She's decompiling," he said. "They broke her code, she can't compensate for the damage."

"And that means?!"

"She's de-rezzing."

"No!" Sam hurried to remove the Program's disk, and it flickered with a sickly light as it produced her image. Sam paged through her very being with feverish haste, opening layer upon later of code. "C'mon, c'mon, I watched Dad do this, you just have to find the right little... there!"

Tron watched in mute amazement as Sam reached into Jade's code and deftly pulled out the broken string, letting everything fall back into its proper place. Sam did not even realize what he had just done: healing a mortal wound, putting right again what was irreconcilably broken. He just did it, because he could, because it needed to be done, because he was a User.

"Now, we put this back on, and..." Sam latched the disk back on and waited, anxiously staring into the Program's pale, terribly still face. Her lights pulsed, she stirred, and brightness came back to her circuits. Sam laughed in shaky relief as she opened her eyes. "Hey," he said. "Jade, right? How you doin'?"

"You..." She began, looking up at Sam in confusion. "You re-wrote me?"

"Nah," Sam said, dismissive. "Just a tune-up. Can you stand?"

"You are the son of Flynn," Jade said, her eyes searching his. "I knew in the arena that you were different. They said you and Flynn had gone but--" She clutched his arm, as though to be sure he was real. "You're here? You've returned!"

"Flynn never left us to begin with, Jade," Tron said. "It was our fault for thinking he did."

Jade's eyes flicked to the four square lights nestled in Tron's chest, and her breath caught. "Rinz--" she began, and then she took in his unmasked face, his clear eyes, the blue flame of his untainted lights. "It's you," she breathed, reaching up as though to touch him, unable to make herself do so. "You've come back to us! You and the maker both!" She got to her feet like a startled deer, her eyes alight with happiness. "I--I have to tell the others!"

"Hey, wait!" Sam began, but it was too late. She caught Sam's outstretched hand in her own, kissed it in reverence, and with an innate swiftness rushed off into the Grid's maze of streets. For a moment Sam could only stare after her in confusion, until her gleaming shape was swallowed up by the city's glow. "She knew you," Sam said, with a question in his voice if not in his words.

"Yes," Tron said, somber. "The Sirens in the Armory were both my caretakers and my jailers. They outfitted me for the games; they tended my injuries; they alone saw my face. CLU swore them to secrecy on pain of erasure."

"Can we trust her?" Sam asked, uneasy.

Tron shrugged. "As much as we have no choice, now."

"I just meant..." Sam trailed off. "It would have been better, maybe, if we could have brought her to Dad."

"I recall her kindness in a dark cycle," Tron said, in a voice haunted by pain. "I do not think she will betray us."

Sam nodded, sympathetic. "Okay, man. But whoever these others of hers are, they're gonna know about us."

"They will," Tron said, with a tiny note of satisfaction. "And then the user-loyal factions will unite to find us. Flynn might not want to lead a revolution, but I expect it will come to him all the same."

"Yeah, well," Sam said, rising and looking at the back of his glove where Jade had kissed it in fervent gratitude. "I think he's gonna have a little bit of trouble making this a democracy."

"Okay," Flynn said, the instant Sam and Tron finally made it back to base. He had been standing just inside the sealed doors of the arcade, waiting. "I know it's bad when Ram gets back before you do. Where the hell were you?"

"Hey," Sam said, putting up his hands. "What is this, a curfew?"

"You bet your ass you've got a curfew on my Grid, kiddo." Flynn stepped up to Sam, meeting his son eye-to eye. "Especially when half of it is still out for User blood. I was about to go find you." There was plenty of bluster in his tone, but it was obvious he was relieved to see them safe. "Tell me what happened."

"We ran into some trouble," Tron said. "Some renegade Black Guard had captured Jade, an armory program from the Arena."

"Jade. I remember. The brunette." Flynn looked concerned. "Did you take care of it?"

"Of course," Tron said. "We dispatched the guard."

"And I fixed her code," Sam said, nearly bursting his suit with pride. "It was awesome, Dad. Just like you did Quorra's on the Solar Sailer."

Flynn folded his arms. "So she's all right, then."

"Yeah," Sam said, still grinning.

"Good, good." Flynn leaned forward, tilting his head slightly at Sam. "And where, exactly, is she?"

Sam's grin faded, his index finger waved around a little in the air as though in search of a point it never found. "I uh... I don't know."

"Ah-huh." Flynn leaned back. "She saw your faces?"

"Ye-es," Sam said, and Flynn sighed.

"Dammit, you two," he said, without any heat.

"She saw us, Flynn, she knew us, and she got away before we could ask her to stay. But she won't betray us, I'm sure of it." Tron balled his fists on his hips. "I know it's hardly ideal, but if either she or the guards had to get away, I'd rather she was the one."

"I'd rather it was neither, but it's done now." Flynn shook his fingers back through his hair. "Okay. Okay. I'm glad she's all right. I'm glad you two are all right. And whatever happens with this, it happens. We'll deal. Just--I don't look it, Sam, but I'm old. Don't stress me out."

"So now what?" Sam asked, daring to smile again. "I just spent twenty minutes explaining to Tron what a parent/child relationship is, are you gonna top it off by demonstrating a traditional User grounding?"

"That sounds awful," Ram said, popping out from the nearby alcove where he had been eavesdropping, and making Flynn start violently. "What is it?"

"It means don't sneak up on me!" Flynn said, putting a hand to his chest. "Jesus! What did I just say? Do you have to do that?"

"Flynn," Ram said, somberly, "I'm a spy program."

Tron and Sam both spluttered on a laugh, and did their level best to straighten up when Flynn shot them a glare. But though it was years past now, Sam had not forgotten that when he had done something bad and the end results were just plain funny, Flynn had never been any good at hiding his amusement. So Sam laughed and Tron did and Flynn gave in and laughed with them, and Ram too, though he wasn't sure what was so amusing about his basic protocol.

"All right!" Flynn said throwing his arms up. "All right. Change in the game, we'll adapt and evolve, first rule of survival. Let's go see what we need to do now that the cat's out of the bag."

"Well," Tron said, coughing gently into his fist. "For starters, at least you've still got the kittens."


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