The long trek back to civilization revealed to Tron just how badly the Grid had been damaged in the mysterious catastrophe. Everywhere he looked there were deep abrasions in the land that were slowly widening as the corruption spread. He could also see hoards of gridbugs feeding on the damaged code, eroding it further with their insatiable hunger for energy.
The Grid was falling apart.
Kneeling down, Tron placed one hand on the ground and said, "Access Grid memory, cycle 3023, 07.98 hours, Portal 25."
He'd been putting this off for the past several megacycles, but couldn't stand it anymore.
He had to know. He had to know what had happened with Flynn and Clu.
A holographic screen rose up from the ground in front of him and began replaying the events that had occurred at the Portal. Tron watched with pained eyes, seeing for the first time what over a thousand cycles had done to his best friend.
In the playback, Tron could see that Kevin Flynn had become an old, tired man. Unlike programs, who did not age, Flynn had told Tron that Users' bodies did not last forever.
"Users aren't like the Little Engine that Could, choo-chooing along for eternity. We grow old and die, man."
"Die?" Tron didn't even bother to ask what a "Little Engine that Could" was, because he was sure he wouldn't understand the explanation.
"Yeah. It's not the same as here, where programs derez and stop existing completely. Our bodies don't disappear, but we're gone all the same." Flynn's eyes had a sad, haunted look. "And the people who are left behind feel like…like a part of them has died too. They look fine on the outside, but inside they feel hollow."
"You sound like you're talking from experience, Flynn."
"I am," Flynn responded heavily.
Tron had noticed that Flynn had been acting unlike himself during his last couple visits to the Grid, and also more exhausted. Stranger still, Flynn always talked very animatedly about his wife and son, and recently hadn't said a word about them. "Flynn, what's happened?" he asked with concern.
"My…my wife…" Flynn's voice trembled with grief. "She's dead."
Tron had never seen his friend so upset and felt quite awkward; he could take down rogue programs, no problem, but he was out his element entirely when it came to comforting someone in pain. Wanting to at least do something, Tron put an arm around Flynn's shoulders.
Something glistened at the edge of Flynn's eye and trickled down his cheek. Puzzled, Tron reached out and caught in the palm of his right hand as it dripped off of his friend's face.
"What is this?" he asked, rubbing the unknown substance with his finger.
Flynn let out a melancholy laugh. "They're called tears."
"…tears? Are your eyes malfunctioning?"
"Heh…no. When Users feel sad, they cry tears. It's our bodies' way of relieving stress."
They stood in companionable silence for a few millicycles.
"You miss your wife?"
"Yes, Tron. Terribly."
Watching the memory feed, Tron could now understand what Flynn had said. There was an ache in his chest that throbbed painfully, and it had nothing to do with physical injuries.
"This is mine," Flynn said, placing a hand on his son's chest. He started walking slowly towards Clu, who stood before them on the narrow walkway, the last obstacle between them and the Portal.
"I had a feeling you'd be here!" Clu shouted. He laughed, but there was no mirth in his voice. "The cycles haven't been kind, have they!?"
"Oh, you don't look so bad," Flynn answered, trying to sound light but just sounding tired.
"I did everything! Everything you ever asked!" Clu said petulantly. He too, started taking slow steps towards his creator.
"I know you did."
"I executed the plan!"
"As you saw it."
Clu's arms were outstretched, almost in a pleading gesture. "You…you promised that we would change the world, together! You broke your promise."
"I know." Flynn's tone was heavy with guilt. "I understand that, now."
"I took the system to it's maximum potential," Clu continued, as if he hadn't heard Flynn, "I created the perfect system!"
"The thing about perfection is that it's unknowable," Flynn said, shaking his head. He and Clu stopped a few feet from each other. "It's impossible, but it's also right in front of us, all the time! You couldn't know that because I didn't know when I created you! I'm sorry, Clu." Flynn reached out towards Clu, a conciliatory gesture. "I'm sorry."
For a microcycle, it appeared that Clu would actually enter Flynn's embrace, and that would've been the end of it. His expression softened, and he seemed to want to do it. But there was too much anger, too much hatred, and he struck out with his foot, kicking Flynn backwards. With a bestial howl, Sam charged forward and swung his fists at Clu's face, catching him on the jaw twice, but neither hurting nor fazing the program. Ducking low, Sam lunged at Clu's chest and tried to barrel him backwards, but it was useless. Grabbing Sam's shoulder with one hand, Clu effortlessly lifted and threw him further down the walkway, treating the young man as a minor nuisance. His true goal was Flynn.
"Go," Flynn said weakly to the ISO female.
She nodded, her lower lip trembling. Using a grapple, she swung out and below the walkway, using her forward momentum to land feet-first back on the walkway, behind Clu. He advanced on her with his disc raised, but Flynn's voice stopped him.
"Clu! Remember what you came for."
As Clu advanced on the prostrate Flynn, the User took that opportunity to reprogram the walkway to start retracting–effectively keeping Clu from pursuing his son or the ISO further, and also forcing an unwilling Sam towards the Portal.
"Dad!" Sam shouted desperately, unable to do anything but watch Clu bear down on his father.
"You knew I'd beat you," Clu said coldly, as he leaned down to remove Flynn's disc from the User's back, "and still you did all this…for him?" He activated the disc's matrix as he stood, and his expression of triumph faltered when the profile that appeared was not Flynn's, but the ISO girl. He glanced back over his shoulder to where Sam and the ISO stood, and saw the disc on her back. Understanding dawned, and he looked back at Flynn with a betrayed and confused expression. "No…no…Why?"
"He's my son!"
Enraged, Clu raised the disc and activated it, prepared to strike Flynn dead. But instead he stuck it in the walkway and took a running leap, trying to cross the wide berth that now separated him from his goal. He caught on to the edge of the separated walkway and pulled himself up.
"Go!" Flynn called out.
"Sam, it's time!" Flynn got to his feet, and glanced back. The Rectifier was almost at the Portal.
"No!" Sam cried.
"Sam, it's what he wants," the ISO girl said gently.
"I'm not leaving you, dad!"
"Take her!" Flynn urged.
The ISO removed the disc from her back reverently and handed it to Sam. Reluctantly, he took it from her grasp and raised it above his head.
The portal accept the disc and began pulsing faster as it prepared for transport.
"Goodbye, kiddo," Flynn whispered softly.
Clu tried to get into the Portal before it closed, but Flynn activated Reintegration. It sent out a small shockwave that sucked Clu backwards, away from the portal and towards Flynn. He began to disintegrate the closer he got to Flynn, and by the time his body had reached his maker's he was nearly gone. Flynn's arms closed around him, like a father embracing his son, then a burst of light exploded outwards and…
The feed ended there.
Tron let out a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding. Though he processed information at a much faster speed than any human, it took him a bit to truly comprehend what he had seen. He knew perfectly well what Reintegration was; he'd recognized the signs and effects as he watched memory feed. He also understood that Flynn could in no way survive such a process. What was so hard to accept was the painful truth.
Flynn, his oldest and dearest friend…
He would never come back. They would never stand together again, never laugh together again, never speak together again. And worst of all, Tron could never explain, never apologize for his actions to the one person he'd hurt the most.
How he wished, now, that he were human.
If he had been, he would have indulged himself in what Flynn had called "tears".
Tron could almost hear Flynn asking, in that slightly amused tone he'd always used, "You miss me, man?"
"Yes, Flynn. Terribly."