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 Fanfic: "Through a Diamond Sky" Part 4 of 14


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Fanfic: "Through a Diamond Sky" Part 4 of 14

on Monday, March, 05, 2012 12:56 AM
Part 4

Kappa Sector was undeveloped space. Kevin had factored in expansion when he created the Grid, and planned to upgrade as needed. The appearance of the Isos on an already crowded system posed its own challenges, as did the gridbugs that cropped up inevitably with every new addition to the system. Bugs were annoying, but not preventable. Even the finest-crafted code would have some digital cockroach hiding in its depths, just waiting for the unsuspecting to trigger it.

Ah, the pursuit of perfection – always an uphill battle.

The question of Jordan's safety having been addressed for the time being, the next issue on the plate was Shaddox. The architect Program was in big trouble. The only good news is that his disk could have crumbled if he was de-rezzed. He was still alive, but there wasn't any telling for how long.

“Any idea about his mission, Tron?” he asked via the cycle's comm. “What was he scouting out here?”

“There's small Iso settlement in the middle of the sector, but some Basics also wanted to put a settlement in the sector to act as a bulwark against those gridbugs. So far, the Iso population has been content to segregate itself, but that's not sitting well with many of us Basics,” Tron admitted. “Even I wonder sometimes what they're up to.”

“They don't want to impose,” Kevin explained. “They're different in that they don't get directives or parameters. They're new to life and they're still learning the system. Given time, they'll integrate. I'm sure of it.”

“You are sure?”

“Dude, how awkward was I when I first got zapped in here?”

“Let's see? First words out of your mouth were blasphemy, you completely ignored the rules of the light-cycle matches, you had no idea what to do with an energy spring, and you made a pass at Yori.” Thankfully, there was a wry smile in Tron's tone. Despite the harsh conditions they met under, and the strange wrinkle the statuses of User and Champion brought them, Kevin thought of Tron as the best friend he ever would have.

“Bit more than making a pass, but yeah,” Kevin admitted. “Isos are like Users and like Programs at the same time. A point-five in a one and zero world; a bridge between your world and mine. They hold the key to linking our worlds together in ways bigger than one crazy User and a stolen laser, but they're nothing to be afraid of.”

“We don't fear their differences much as we fear obsolescence, my friend. Programs were designed for purpose, to be useful and carry out directives. De-rez is not as horrible a prospect as uselessness. Our fear is that an Iso has no directives, no apparent purpose, but that they will somehow find a way to supplant us despite this.”

“There are roughly a hundred thousand Isos to twenty million Programs. They're never going to be in a position to take over, despite what the glitched code in the bad sectors want to shriek on street corners. It's just not going to happen.”

“I'm picking up a disturbance in track seven,” Tron said. “Changing course to investigate.”

“Right behind you, man.”

The disturbance was centered on an energy spring on the outskirts of the Iso settlement. The spring itself was in a craggy valley, surrounded by jagged, pixellated cliffs. Three Isos, white lines and black suits moving in a blur of motion, were battling a swarm of gridbugs. Gridbugs were literal system bugs – appearing as oversized green insects, some of which were the size of a small house. The more the Grid was settled, the fewer places they could manifest. However, an infestation could be deadly to any Program unlucky enough to be caught unaware by a swarm.

Derezzing their cycles, Kevin and Tron pulled their disks and fell into the common attack pattern – back to back, moving almost in synch as their discs cut the air and sailed towards their opponents. This was almost routine for them, and the satisfying sizzle of the bugs de-rezzing into useless code never lost a bit of charm.

Two of the bugs tried to close in on them, using their greater size as an advantage. Tron ducked, rolled, and fired back with the disk, cutting off the front one's leg. Kevin's strategy was less straightforward. Diving between the monster's legs, he brought the disk up as a melee weapon and sliced it open, the creature giving a shriek before it shattered into voxels.

The stranded Isos, seeing as they now had some help, rallied themselves. Using the cliffs to gain a height advantage, they began sniping downwards at the bugs with their own disks. It wasn't long before the last bug was destroyed.

The three Isos hopped down from the cliffs and the larger of the two males approached them. “Thanks for the help.” He then got a look at who his rescuers were and gasped. “Creator? And...Oh, my.”

Kevin threw up his hands. “It's okay. We were in the sector.”

“We are looking for Shaddox,” Tron explained, taking off Shaddox's disk and activating the display so that the Isos could see the image. “Our scouts found his disk, but no trace of him.”

The Iso looked at his companions, but none of them had an answer to give them. “Well, I'm Herd. My companions are Charn and Kanna,” he said, indicating the other male and the female. “We haven't seen anyone else in this sector aside from that gang of Resource Hogs. We were trying to find their base when we ran into those bugs.”

“Resource Hogs? Great,” Kevin grumbled. “Looks like we've got some suspects.”

“There have been skirmishes with them on and off since we came to the sector,” Kanna explained, folding her arms. “We realize that some of the Basics are uncomfortable with our presence...No disrespect intended, Champion.”

“None taken,” Tron explained. “It's an adjustment for all of us. And I'll fight for the right of all the Grid citizens to live peacefully.”

“We'll take you to our settlement. Maybe someone there knows what happened to your companion.”

“Thanks,” Kevin said. “And whatever you can tell us about the Resource Hogs on the way would be appreciated.”

****

Clu wasn't exactly pleased to be stuck on an over-glorified escort mission. There were still far too many imperfections in the system; half-finished settlements, traffic bottlenecks, and a never-ending onslaught of gridbugs to chase out of the system. If Shaddox could not fend for himself, then he wasn't worth his resources. Still, Kevin was “User,” and that status accorded respect. He could not understand how his User's sentiment fit into the greater picture of a perfect system, and it really wasn't his business to know. He had his directives, and would follow. So far, sympathy was a tolerable imperfection on the part of his creator, but Clu hoped he would overcome it with future upgrades.

Right now, he had his orders to find Jordan-User “something to build or something to shoot.” They were in his command center, and he was showing her the layout of the city on the largest overview he had.

The more he seemed to explain, the more she seemed to retreat into silence. It was only after he had gone over an explanation of the entire traffic layout without so much as a word from her that he stopped himself.

“Jordan?” he asked.

“Oh,” she said. She was distracted, much like Kevin could be when he was listening to the necessary system reports. “Sorry. Thank you, Clu. You've been very informative.”

“Informative, but you're still processing something else,” he pointed out. “C'mon. What is it?”

“You're just...a little unsettling, is all,” she admitted. “You have his face and his voice, but I could never picture him getting this excited about city planning.”

“It's what I was designed for. 'Create the Perfect system' Your counterpart created me because he has to be in his 'real' world, attending to whatever it is he has out there.”

“He runs two businesses – a Fortune 500 company and a hell of an arcade. He's also got me and we have Sam. He would be a busy man even without this whole new world to manage. Then again, he's very bad about saying 'no' to a challenge.” She shrugged. “I'm just as bad.”

Clu put his hands behind his back and assessed Jordan for a picosecond. Certainly, she was quite attractive. He had been made in his creator's image, and with many of the same preferences. “Is it true that Users don't know their functions or have directives?”

Jordan scowled. “I'm not sure what you mean.”

“See this city, this system? Every Program in it has a directive. Mine is to build a perfect system. Yori's is to run that tower, repairing and maintaining the system. Tron's is to fight whatever a User tells him to fight. Everyone has a place and a function here, from building to entertainment.”

She looked out over the city. “Oh, that? Well, Kevin's right about that. We don't know what we're designed for. We don't even know if there's a higher power designing us at all. If there is, we haven't heard from him. I guess that's why I went into the Army. It took me a while to figure out what I was good for. By the time I got out, I had some college credit and a talent for drawing buildings. Seemed logical enough to get a degree and get paid for it.”

“So, no directives. No explicit functions spelled out for you. How does your world even function?”

She smiled wryly. “Sometimes, I wonder that myself.”

Clu took a step toward her, giving her another appraising look. “Now that you are here, though, what do you think about all this?”

Warily, she looked to the city's layout screen and then back to Clu. “It's all very...orderly. But I still wish Kevin told me about this life he has.” She turned away from Clu and kept her eyes on the viewer. “And even when he comes into the system, he assigns me a babysitter and runs off.”

“That would be Flynn for you,” Clu said, sharing his User's counterpart's frustration. “Comes in, listens to only the briefest of Grid reports, and then goes chasing adventure with Tron.”

“The security program that looks a little like Alan, right? Just how close are they?”

“If that's what you're wondering, then the answer is 'no.' Tron's bundled with Yori and pretty much has eyes for her only. Flynn respects that.” Though I wouldn't be shocked if all three of them were bundled and didn't inform me – or her - about it, he added to himself.

“So he comes in, takes care of the minimum, and goes off to play games?” Jordan sighed. “Yeah, sounds just like him.”

So he abandons her like he abandons me, Clu thought. Would it be so bad if...No, that's not in my directive.
“Who is Shaddox, anyway?” she asked, derailing Clu's speculation.

“Shaddox is a builder, an architect Program. His task is to build new settlements, plan new cities. He did the majority of planning on Tron City's outskirts, and founded Alpha colony. Of course, our population has been increasing, so his directive has kept him busier than ever.”

“So he was scouting out a new colony and got himself into trouble?”

“There is always trouble here. Gridbugs in the outlying sectors, gangs of Resource Hogs wanting to suck up more processor and memory than their functions are worth, glitched scripts that fail to heed their own directives. It's a pain in the processor just to keep it all going.”

“It sounds like it would be. But...” She put her hand on the panel and turned off the viewer. “But if he isn't going to show me this new world, I guess I'm going to have to ask you to be my guide. I don't want to see it from the confines of a tower, Clu. Show me this world. Show me how perfect you've made it.”

Clu couldn't help a smile. His User was missing out on quite the opportunity. “Well, the directive he gave was to find you 'something to build or something to shoot.' Let's start our tour at the game arena, shall we?”

***

Jordan never was one for introspection. The closest she got to that was when she was hunched over her drafting table and trying to figure out how the floorplan of an office building fit together. Thinking about problems took energy away from actually fixing it. Sitting and stewing over trouble didn't make her feel better, either.

The basics: the city she was cruising was inside a computer, populated mostly by Programs. She learned there was a difference between “program” and “Program” – some scripts were too simple to achieve the complexity and sentience of the humanoid Programs. Those that did achieve sentience tended to resemble their creators. They also seemed to have some concept of religion and spirituality (though she didn't believe much in those herself).

Her husband pawned her off on his somewhat-creepy administrative Program which looked and sounded like him, but had an entirely different way of moving and seemed much more “orderly” than Kevin ever thought of being. Meanwhile, he was off chasing some emergency with security software. These, she would just accept. Thinking about them wouldn't do any good, and would take away a chance to explore this world on her own terms.

The lightcycle under her had a smoother ride and better handling than the matching Ducati Kevin got her as a wedding present, and she had plenty of practice riding in tandem. The glittering turquoise lights of the city blurred around her as she wove through traffic, paralleling Clu's cycle.

The “game arena” was more impressive than Memorial Coliseum, even with the Olympic Games preparation nearly complete. It was a massive, sprawling complex of offices, dormitories for the athletes, and “tutorial areas” for the various competitions. The arena itself was jaw-droppingly massive – easily the size of a skyscraper and a couple city blocks. They pulled up to the entrance and the lightcycles dispersed back into their rods.

Think about how much I'd save on parking if motorcycles could do that in my world.
Clu explained as he called up the needed permissions to open the gate. “The gaming complex is one of the gems of the Grid. Home to the Games; the primary form of entertainment. Even the Isos will crawl out of their holes when a tournament is going on.”

“Isos?”

Clu sighed. “They're nothing. Rogue scripts that crawled out of the Sea of Simulation. They attract gridbugs and don't seem to have an actual directive or function. Still, Flynn wants to keep them around. He must have a reason. Anyway, let's head to the tutorial areas.”

“You've been trained on these games?”

“Yes,” Clu admitted. “Since Flynn can't often be here, I have to know whatever functions he would know, and that includes the Games.”

Computer games, Jordan thought. Kevin, your obsessions are showing... “I take it that this is a little more intensive than dropping a quarter down a slot and grabbing a joystick.”

“Joysticks aren't used for much, aside from a handful of vehicle controls. Let's try a target range first. Yori already outfitted you with a disk, I see.”

“She said it was a storage medium. Everything I learn, or whatever skills I acquire here will be stored on it. It's also whatever passes for ID in this place.”

Clu snorted. “That, and a powerful weapon if you need to defend yourself. Funny she'd leave that out, as her counterpart is the grand champion of disk combat.”

“Maybe she didn't think I'd be seeing combat. Even in our world, females are heavily discouraged or outright barred from the front lines. Not to say we don't fight our own battles. I had to argue with the 'big boys' just to get more than the bare minimum of time on the rifle range.”

“And what does your gender designation have to do with anything?” Clu said, putting his hands behind his back as they walked into the gate. “If someone can fight, they can fight. If they cannot fight, then they get out of the way of those who can.”

“I was just a grunt in the motor pool. I didn't make the rules...or program the directives,” she said. “It's a long, tangled, and annoying history with User-kind. Logic doesn't apply.”

“I've noticed that,” he said darkly, leading her down to a hall and opening one of the rooms. “This one isn't in use right now, and it ought to suit our needs.”


****

The Iso settlement was far into Kappa sector and very small – no more than five residential towers and an administrative node surrounding a power pool. Herd took point while Charn and Kanna flanked Kevin and Tron on their way in.

Despite the change in parameters Isos brought, and Tron's unease over this new factor on the Grid in theory, he found it hard to maintain that wariness in face-to-face contact with Isos. Most of them simply carried out their business and did no harm to their Program neighbors. The braver ones were venturing into the cities, where their curiosity and almost User-like thought process created functions and directives for them to carry out. There was already one who set up a dancing club in the Entertainment Sector. Another Iso, Aliza, had started collecting data files and information on a variety of topics, and gathering subroutines, organizing them into a “library.” Isos devoured data files like starving Programs faced with a data spring. Few like himself were interested in such matters, but Yori was an exception. If she wasn't at the Tower, or visiting Radia, she was over at Aliza's “library,” satiating the curiosity she inherited from Lora-3's spark.

Perhaps their ability to find functions where none existed previously was why Kevin was so enamored of them. They thought like Users and struggled like Users, so a User would understand an Iso better than he would understand a Program.

Their light-cycles folded back into their batons at the edge of the settlement. “This way,” Herd said, leading them toward the small administration building.

On the way, they saw that the energy pool in the middle of the settlement had a half-collapsed structure of blocks.

“Sculpture?” Kevin asked. He had seen similar drawings on Jordan's desk.

“It was,” Herd said quietly. “But on their last raid, the Hogs came in and destroyed it. They've got suffusion guns in addition to their disks. Powerful weapons, but they drain energy like crazy.” Still looking unsettled, he tried to motion them forward.

“What's this?” Tron asked sharply, gesturing to some thick, black marks on the ruined stone. He used the blocks as stepping stones to get a closer look at the markings.

“Champion, it's not your -”

“Flynn, you need to have a look at this.”

Kevin took the same route over the blocks and up to the sculpture. In crude lettering that looked like it was burned in, read the words:

ISO =VIRUS
In smaller letters, still looking like a black scar on concrete:

STOP THE INVASION – DE-REZ ALL ISO!
“Aw, fuck,” Kevin grumbled.

“The Resource Hogs did this?” Tron asked, anger creeping into his voice.

Herd merely nodded.


After that, they were brought into the administrative building. Already two other Isos were busying themselves with layout plans. Herd cleared his voice

“Torin, Maya. We're back from patrol. We'd run into some Gridbugs, and...well...”

The two Iso leaders looked up. Torin, a large-built Iso male with shocking white hair looked over the guests and scowled. “This can't be what it looks like.”

“Torin!” scolded Maya “Manners!”

“Maybe we should interrogate them as to the whereabouts of our settlers,” Torin argued. “Of course, when I made an inquiry in Tron City, no one could be bothered with Iso concerns -”

“Uh...Torin, right?” Kevin said. “I may not have been in here the day you came out of the Sea, or made a proper introduction...”

Torin's electric blue eyes became the size of ID disks when he caught a good look at their faces. “I'm not dealing with Administrator Clu, am I?”

“Uh, no.”

Torin gulped, trying almost comically to gather up his dignity. Fortunately, Maya was much more personable.

“Creator, please forgive Torin. We've been fighting this battle ourselves for several cycles now, and your counterpart in the City has brushed off our concerns. We thought we would have to take matters into our own hands.”

Kevin stepped forward. “We're here because Shaddox, one of the architect Programs from the City, was scouting out here and went missing. We found his disk, but no trace of him. We also saw the damage they did to your sculpture and the less than charming graffiti they left behind.”

“Now, they're concerned,” Torin grumbled. “It's when one of their own...”

“Torin,” scolded Tron. “Once we solve this, I want the name of the Program you spoke to in the City. It's not right that this didn't reach my attention. As I told Herd outside, I fight for the right of all the Grid's citizens – Iso and Basic alike. If something is disrupting the peace, then it needs to be dealt with.”

“It's a gang of Resource Hogs. Several dozen of them,” he explained. “They've been capturing our people from their homes, or when they go out for a drink of energy. We're under siege in our own settlement. Our three scouts,” Torin said, indicating the trio of Isos they met earlier. “Were brave enough to try and locate where those viruses are hiding.”

“All we found were a nest of Gridbugs,” Kanna said. “The Hogs must be somewhere in the valley. It's the only place in a microcycle's ride we haven't checked.”

Kevin pinched the bridge of his nose. “Half this sector is still uncharted, but someplace where they can hit and run - that'll be a good place to start. Maya, Torin, we can join your next patrol headed out there. Maybe a little 'fear of the User' will convince them that attacking your people is a bad idea.”

Herd nodded to the pair of settlement leaders. “We can be ready in a matter of seconds. I'll summon the next party. Meet us at the west edge of the settlement.”

As the settlement leaders excused themselves and Herd went to rally the scouts, Kevin shook his head and turned to Tron. “For a world of ones and zeroes, it annoys the hell out of me how much User-style problems you've picked up.”

“What do you mean?”

“First time I was here, it was persecution based on belief. We did the same thing on my side – people died horribly there, too. We're still killing each other over it. And now this place gets racism, too; people harassing each other based on their origins. You'd think there'd be a way to code out that crap.”

“If they're targeting the Isos, then why would they capture Shaddox?”

“Crime of opportunity, most likely. Plus, it certainly got our attention. They won't be content to continue hassling just the Isos, though. Too few of them to make it worth their while. They'll spread out to the Basics. If more go missing the Isos are going to get blamed. That way, they can get the Isos out of this sector for good. Any Programs wandering in here are going to end up falling right into a trap.”

“But why start a war between the Basics and the Isos?”

“Simple. War kills. The fewer Programs – and Isos - that are alive and running, the more resources are freed up for them to guzzle.”

****

The lightcycles were rezzed up again, but this time, Tron insisted on taking point. Kevin was right behind him, and the three Iso scouts on their flanks and bringing up the rear.

The valley was a craggy, narrow passage, barely big enough for two lightcycles side by side, so they moved to double file as they maneuvered through the sharp turns.

“Everyone, stay sharp,” Tron warned through the coms. “And check above you. If an attack is going to come, it'll be from -”

“Users! What is that?”

The massive two-legged shape loomed straight ahead, the single ominous eye with the large spotlight conducting its unblinking scan. It had seen better days, its surface dented and pixellated, and it was scored from top to foot with the ugly markings and rude language they saw on the Iso town sculpture.

“Aw, man! They didn't!” Kevin shouted.

“Recognizer!” Tron shouted. “Everyone, between its legs. Full speed!”

The engines gunned and the five went racing for the space between the recognizer's legs. The lookouts no doubt saw them, and were closing the legs shut. Four of the cycles made it through. Charn's cycle was bringing up the rear. The lightcycle and rider crashed into the heavy girder at top speed. Both were de-rezzed instantly.

And that's when they found themselves in a large caldera – round, wide and flat, surrounded on all sides by high cliff walls. Five green-lit lightcycles charged straight at them.

“Dead end. Damn it!” Kevin yelled.

“Can you do something?”

“Not at a hundred miles an hour. I'll need somewhere safe to pull off in order to work.”


The green Resource Hogs drove like maniacs. “Well lookie here,” a male voice taunted over the two-way. “Looks like we got us some fun!”

“You don't know what you're dealing with,” Tron warned. “Stand down or be de-rezzed.”

“Guys, is that who it sounds like?” One of the Hogs was having second thoughts.

“Stop being a bit-brain. They wouldn't send -”

“Even if they did, this is our sector. Destroy them!”

With those words, the chase began, the caldera turning into a lightcycle ring. Four trails of blue-white versus five trails of green.

It looked like they would have to take care of these attackers first. Lightcycle sparring was a favorite pasttime, even if it usually didn't have life and death stakes these days. Kevin and Tron looked at each other and nodded. They didn't need coms. Hell, they met on a lightcycle ring.

Tron's cycle made rapid turns that few Programs could replicate, drawing out a nasty labyrinth with the contrail of his cycle. Charging the closest one head on, Tron challenged it to what Kevin called “chicken,” each of them facing square on, daring the other to turn first. With barely a pixel to spare, he was the one who curved up and right, the other driver just a picosecond too slow. With a hideous crash and the sound of shattering voxels, they were down one opponent.

Kevin's User abilities required a fair amount of concentration to actually pull off - roughly the same amount as writing code, even if the mechanics of the Grid meant that all you'd have to do is think of the calculations in your mind and the code would assemble itself. At lightcycle speed, he was like any other Program. He just had a hell of a lot more practice than these clowns and a few modifications he put on his cycle's coding.

For example, the ability to make round turns instead of the square ones. He hadn't tested it completely, and planned to roll out the upgrade to all the lightcycles as time permitted. For now, it was a unique feature. Gunning for the cliff walls, he made a fast turn and rode the edge of the wall in a long, graceful arc, looping back behind his shocked opponent. The Hog wasn't very bright. Trying to curve his standard cycle with its right-angle turn limitation and inability to arc across the wall, he ended up a smoking crater on the cliff.

Kanna and Herd were holding their own. What Isos lacked in explicit coding and directives, they made up for it in tenacity and the ability to learn new skills rapidly. Riding in parallel, they charged for one of the Hogs, who turned and started charging at Kanna. She made a swift turn left as Herd made a swift turn right, flanking the Hog and leaving him to crash into the contrail from their cycles.

Down to a pair of their cycles against four riders, the Hogs realized the odds had turned against them. Some of their fellows started appearing on the cliffs and sniping down with suffusion guns. The weapons shot out a spray of energy pellets that could stun or de-rez an opponent. It wasn't as clean or accurate as a disk hit, and it required high energy expenditure, which is why they weren't practical weapons for most Programs . However, a hit even the lowest setting caused excruciating pain and the guns required minimal skill to operate – a perfect weapon for thugs.

One of the shots hit Herd's bike, and the Iso's cycle wobbled and spun out of control. He tucked and dove off his damaged bike just before it hit a wall and de-rezzed Laughing, one of the Hogs changed direction with the intent to run him over, only for her laughter to be cut off along with her head when Tron's disk severed her neck. Herd dived out of the way as the riderless cycle smashed into the wall. Tron paused momentarily to pull Herd onto the back of the lightcycle. They weren't designed for two, but it was better than allowing the Iso to be killed by the last of the Hog cycles or by their weapon shots.

Kanna and Kevin had the last one on the run, but he was tricky, laying out patterns and elaborate moves designed to trap his opponents and force them into their own trail. Kanna saw this too late and was trying not to spiral herself into her own trail. Kevin saw the Hog laughing maniacally. This guy was rapidly pissing him off.

Tron's cycle wasn't handling as well as it usually did with the extra weight on the back, but he was making up for it by sniping the jerks on the hill and keeping them from firing. Good.

Having seen Kevin's arcing stunt before, the Hog was on the lookout for it, trying to force him against the wall and trap him there. What he wasn't expecting was for Kevin to double-back, gun the engine, and find a way to use that “climb the wall” trick to vault over his opponent's contrail.

Lightcycles 3-D. Gotta pitch that one to the game department and watch them freak out.
Now, it was his opponent's turn to double-back and try for a suicidal hit. Kevin snapped off his disk and hurled it. Seeing this, the Hog ducked.

But Kevin wasn't aiming for his head – not when the tires were a perfectly valid target. The tire smashed, sending the cycle end over end and the Hog crashing to the ground and de-rezzing.

It was over – the four of them stood in the caldera, disks armed and no more lightcycle opponents coming.

“That can't have been all of them,” Kanna said.

“I know,” grumbled Tron. “Stay sharp, everyone. Flynn, can you -”

Kevin nodded and dropped to his knees, broadening his senses and sight through the Grid. “C'mon, you little bastards. Where are you hiding?”

As soon as he got a reading, he was on his feet. “Everyone, scatter!”


****

Sectors away, in the tutorial arena, Jordan was rolling out of the way of the laser shots coming from the probes and training drones.

“Keep going!”

She was laughing as she flung her disk. Another drone smashed. This was a trip! The rifle ranges and orienteering runs she made at Fort Sherman paled in comparison. And Clu did not hold back – thank God! He would have made a natural boot camp instructor.

“Double-time it!” Clu yelled, right on her heels as she vaulted over another pit and fired her disk at the closest training bot. It missed, but the annoying little thing had to sail out of the way so that she could jump.

This tutorial area was a large obstacle course like the kind she ran through countless times in the service. Those obstacle courses didn't have annoying as hell little robots raining live fire, though. She dropped, rolled to the base of a wall and fired her disk.

Jordan was pleasantly surprised at the reflexes and speed her digital body possessed. She was still in pretty good shape, even if she was stuck behind a desk these days. It took her months to ditch the baby weight, and bed rest was a massive pain in the ass. She put up with it because Sam was worth every backache and bout of morning sickness.

Back in action, testing the capacities of her body, the adrenaline rush...This felt awesome.

“How about a few water hazards – make them swim for safety,” she taunted Clu. “Unless Kevin didn't throw that in your programming!”

“Show me some plans, as we'll talk.”

She fired the disk at the last training probe and started to scale the lightrope dangling off the wall. “Tell you what. After my grand tour? I show you about three new layouts for your office.”

“Okay, now I see why my User spends so much time away from this place,” Clu said with a laugh, climbing the rope parallel to hers.

They reached the top of the simulated building, the end of that phase of the obstacle course. “Three-twenty, according to the readout” Jordan said.

“Not bad for a beginner. Actually, it isn't even bad for an experienced opponent,” he commented. “You'd more than qualify for the Games.”

“You just saying that to impress the boss's wife?” she said dryly.

“No,” Clu said, putting a hand at her mid-back where her disk would normally be. “I say it because it's true. You are a builder...and a fighter.” His voice dropped. “And I wish my User appreciated you a bit more.”

Jordan wanted to jump back, but something seemed to freeze her to the spot. She had been feeling neglected lately. There was this double of her husband who was creepy and fascinating all at once. Obviously, there was enough of Kevin in him to make the attraction carry over, but...

You got into this mess because you thought Kevin was the one cheating. And you are speaking to software. Don't break your brain on this train of thought, sweetie.
“Thank you,” she murmured, having a moment where she could completely understand her first husband's inability to keep his fly zipped.

“I realize you're bundled,” Clu said with just a hint of disappointment. “And I will act accordingly.”

“Clu, do you share...anything else with him?”

“What do you mean?”

“More than just his face and voice.”

“He also gifted me with my spark...at least, that's how the Tower Guardians phrase it. In their philosophy, a piece of a User's soul is given to their Programs, bringing them to life.” He lowered his head. “I have his memories. Up until the point of my creation.”

“When were you created?”

“User time? Seventeen months ago.”

Jordan did the calculations in her head. That was smack in the middle of her second trimester when she had that miscarriage scare. “So, you remember me...through his eyes.”

Another heavy nod. “Much of it, I can't process. But yes.”

Now, she really didn't know what to do. Step away? Hug him?

Fate intervened. Clu staggered back, dropping to his knees and clutching his head.

“Clu? What's wrong? What's -?” Do these guys have medics?
He sucked in a couple deep breaths and looked up. “It's Flynn – Kevin, your counterpart. He's in trouble. Come on! We have to go now.”
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It's an entire universe in there, one we created, but it's beyond us now. Really. It's outgrown us. You know, every time you shut off your computer...do you know what you're doing? Have you ever reformatted a hard drive? Deleted old software? Destroyed an entire universe?"

-- Jet Bradley, Tron: Ghost in the Machine on why being a User isn't necessarily a good thing.
 
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