Characters/Pairings: Tron, Sam Flynn, Quorra, Ed Dillinger, Jr.
Summary: No one knew where the virus came from. By the time they noticed it, it was too late. The Grid's factions put their differences aside and built a haven in the Outlands--the Outpost. Time passes; the Grid's programs survive. Then the Portal opens again, bringing Users back to the Grid, and what happens next may change their world forever.
Warnings: No warnings for this chapter.
PART ONE: INCUBATION
CHAPTER FIVE: THE STUDY
They took a four-seat lightrunner from the Outpost to the edge of an infected zone towards the north. As Sam and Ed began their work examining the sector’s code, Quorra and the Nameless kept their distance. The Nameless watched them, eyes out for any sign they might be in danger, though he knew there were no corrupted in the Outlands. But he had been given an assignment, and he intended to do his duty.
Quorra watched him, her expression thoughtful. He ignored her, until she spoke.
“Why don’t you want them to know who you are?”
He glanced at her, then returned his attention to the Users. “I could ask you the same question,” he replied.
Silence. She was taken aback, perhaps. Eventually, she said, “So you remember me.”
He didn’t reply.
“You know why I can’t tell them,” she said at last. “The loyalists on that Council would call for my deresolution. Maybe even some of the others, I don’t know. We were never very popular here, you know.”
They watched the Users in silence for a little while. Sam and Ed spoke quietly as they combed through the code; the Nameless could only just make out the words. “This barely makes sense,” Ed was saying. “What was your father thinking—”
“I don’t think it’s supposed to make sense,” Sam replied.
“Then how are we supposed to know what’s wrong and what’s right?”
Quorra spoke again, drawing his attention away from the Users. “You didn’t answer my question. Why don’t you want them to know?”
“They don’t need to know.” He looked at her. “You know who I was, what I meant to this system. What happened to me.” He clenched his jaw as memories threatened to resurface. Silence followed, but Quorra said nothing to fill it. She waited, and as the memories faded, he continued, “Do you really think they’d be happy if I suddenly returned?”
“All right.” Quorra met his eyes, but the Nameless looked away from her. She said, “Do you think Rho is going to keep her mouth shut after what she heard?”
“She’s a message runner,” he replied tersely. “Keeping her mouth shut around the wrong people is practically her function. She knows better than to run her mouth, especially about me.”
He saw Quorra nod out of the corner of his eye. She clasped her hands in front of her as she looked back at Sam and Ed. “I do hope we can help the system. None of you deserve what’s happened. Though I wonder if it’s for the best.”
“We’re united again,” he agreed. “That might never have happened otherwise. But it’s pointless if the system fails.”
“A Pyrrhic victory.”
He gave her a confused glance. “A what?”
“Oh, sorry.” Quorra shook her head. “It’s a User expression. There was a general, Pyrrhus, who fought a great battle and won. But he suffered so many losses in his army and among his friends that it might as well have been a loss. Peace has won out on the Grid, but it may be for nothing.”
He nodded. “So even Users have wars. We used to think they were so infallible. And then Flynn came along and showed us how wrong we were.”
“But you knew Flynn before the Grid, didn’t you?”
“Yes,” the Nameless replied. “I was so stunned when he told me that Users didn’t have a plan, or a grand design. Everything we’d believed in was… wrong. They only knew as much as we did.”
“The Users only just understand their world,” Quorra remarked. “Some of them even believe in a kind of User of their own, one who created their whole world, and who has a plan for every one of them. It’s… very strange.”
“It sounds strange. I wonder what Clu would have thought, if he’d made it there.”
“He would have destroyed it,” Quorra said simply. “It’s beautiful and strange and imperfect. I can’t even begin… But he’s gone. He can’t hurt anyone or anything anymore.”
The Nameless’ brow furrowed. “Gone?”
“Flynn reintegrated him.” Quorra looked at him, blinking a few times. “Did you not know?”
“Nobody knows what happened to Clu,” he replied. “He disappeared along with Flynn and Sam, the last time the Portal was open. You’re saying he was reintegrated? But then Flynn—”
“He’s gone, too,” Quorra said, her expression tightening. “They’d been apart too long for the reintegration to do anything but destroy them. It’s… it’s been hard. For Sam especially.”
The Nameless didn’t know what to say. He glanced at Sam, who remained absorbed in the code beneath his fingertips, talking still with Ed. He knew how much Sam had meant to Flynn, and he could only assume that Sam felt the same way about his father. Flynn had been trapped here, hidden away from Clu and the system at large, for near on a thousand cycles. He knew that was a much shorter period for Users in their world, but… the Nameless had only been Flynn’s friend. Flynn had explained the concept of family and relations among Users. The Nameless could not imagine Sam’s feelings. Or perhaps he could, because Yori…
No. He steered his thoughts away from the past, from her, and back to the task at hand. It was nearing time for them to go. From what Sam and Ed were saying, it sounded like they were getting somewhere. But returning them all to the Portal was essential. Breakthroughs would, unfortunately, have to wait.
A thin beeping emitted from the lightrunner behind them; the alarm the Nameless had set on the vehicle’s chrono was going off. “Time to go,” he called to the two Users, who looked up from their work.
“But I think we’re—” began Ed.
“Doesn’t matter,” the Nameless said, striding forward. “If we’re to return to the Outpost and get a lightjet in time to return you to the Portal, we have to go now. I won’t have you three getting stuck here, nor would the Council, I think. Now let’s go.”
Ed opened his mouth to argue, but Sam stopped him with a hand on his shoulder. “He’s right. We can try and figure this out from the outside, all right?”
Ed gave Sam a burning glare, but stood up when he did. The Nameless gestured them towards the lightrunner, and in a few micros they were off.
The journey back to the Portal was by and large silent. The Nameless piloted the lightjet, while Quorra took the co-pilot’s seat. The two Users sat in what would ordinarily be the gunners’ positions, but the lightjet had not been used in combat since the days of the Departure and the war.
One thing the Nameless hadn’t been expecting was the view their trip afforded them of the virus’ spread. They flew directly over Tron City, of course, but over other cities as well, all of them succumbing to the virus. Recognizer patrols had the area around the Outpost pretty well mapped, but they never ventured far from home for fear of infection. The farther they got from Tron City, the more they saw of the virus’ prevalence. The Nameless made mental notes on the new terrain, to report back to the Council on his return.
Quorra also seemed to be taking in the viral spread, her expression growing more troubled the longer they flew. Sam and Ed, meanwhile, spoke quietly about whatever it was they had discovered or been close to discovering back in the Outlands. The Nameless rather doubted they were looking outside, and he didn’t blame them. They held the fate of the system in their hands, not an easy burden to shoulder, especially after that nearly disastrous meeting with the Council. He left them to it, not bothering to eavesdrop on a conversation he only half understood. He knew the Council would expect him to report on what they said, but he didn’t care. He could tell them the minds of the Users were beyond him, and most of them would believe him. He doubted Axel or Edis would, though.
He had to calm himself when they pulled out over the Sea of Simulation. The wind blew, rattling the lightjet, and the waves roiled silently below them. He remembered the last time he had been here all too clearly. The fight and flight, the conflict within coalescing into a simple truth—
He shook his head, trying to shed the memories, but others emerged to take their place. He remembered being crashed against the rocky shore of the Sea and slowly regaining consciousness amidst the pain. He remembered retracting his helmet and feeling the wind against his face for the first time in hundreds of cycles. And he remembered the determination that drove him into action, into that long trek across the Outlands and back to Tron City.
“Are you all right?” Quorra asked, and he came back to himself. The lightjet was in a slight climb; Quorra had her hands on her controls.
“Fine,” he said gruffly.
“I can bring us into the Portal landing area,” Quorra said quietly. “We had to rebuild it from the outside, but I think we’re nearly there.”
He blinked, staring at his hands on the controls but not in control. He nodded at Quorra, then swiveled his seat to face Sam and Ed. “When should we expect you back? The Council will want to know, and I have to give them something if you haven’t solved the problem of the virus.”
The two Users exchanged a glance. “We think we understand the virus,” Sam said slowly, “but… we don’t have a cure yet. We need time to work, and figure out logistics…”
“Like how we’re going to survive coming back,” Ed pointed out. “We can’t pull another Escape from New York like we did this time. Can we move the entrance point?”
“Might be able to figure it out from the other side?” Sam shrugged. “Alan might have an idea.”
The Nameless clenched his jaw, but said nothing at the mention of his User. “I just need to know when you’ll be back,” he said. “If we can avoid another adventure in the city”—he had no idea what “Escape from New York” meant; it must be another strange User expression—”that would be best. That cost us valuable time, and if you’re only going to be here for a millicycle, we need all the time we can get.”
“You think we’ll have something figured out by tomorrow?” Sam asked Ed. “Or the next day?”
“I need a break just from this excursion, and we both have work to do at Encom,” Ed pointed out. “I can only juggle so many things at once. Wednesday will be fine.”
“So… forty-eight hours on our side. I have no idea how long that will be for you guys—”
“About three point two nine decicycles,” Quorra said from beside the Nameless. She flipped a few switches on the main console; they were beginning their descent towards the Portal.
“All right,” the Nameless said. “Thank you.” He turned his seat back around, and watched as Quorra brought the lightjet in for the landing. It had been a long time since he’d last been here. Things had been different. They were different still now.
He accompanied the Users and Quorra up the stairs to the Portal proper. Everything was the same as it had been: the high winds, the narrow and railless bridge, the bright vortex of light. Sam stopped short when he saw it all, and Quorra put her arm around his shoulders, waiting until he moved again. She glanced back at Ed and the Nameless, who were, it seemed, equally confused.
“This is where the reintegration happened,” Quorra explained. “Where Flynn died.”
“Oh,” Ed said softly. The Nameless nodded stoically. There was a little time still before the Portal closed; they could spare a few moments for Sam’s grief.
“Do you think… he’s still here somewhere?” Sam asked, his voice thick with emotion.
“I don’t know,” Quorra said. “Maybe. Their code might be somewhere. I don’t know.” She patted his shoulder. “We need to go, before the Portal closes. We have no way of telling Alan to open it up again.”
“Okay.” Sam sniffed, then ran a hand over his face as he composed himself. “Sorry. Let’s go.”
“It’s all right,” Quorra said. She turned back to the Nameless. “Thank you for your help. Hopefully we’ll have something when we return.”
The Nameless nodded. “Best of luck to you,” he said.
They crossed the bridge slowly, and entered the light of the Portal, which thrummed and pulsed as Sam raised his disc to the sky. A flash of light made the Nameless blink, and they were gone. The Portal flickered, then vanished. He stood in relative darkness.
Three decicycles was a long time on the Grid. He hoped the Outpost could survive that long, and that the Users would not return to a Grid fully corrupted.