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Alan. Swearing.

Alan.

The kind, gallant, unfailingly professional Dr Bradley fired off words even Sam would've been reluctant to use. He was good at them, though. He'd calm down every now and then to say something reasonable, then carried on cursing. It must’ve been about the tight, sharp world of pain that held Sam in its grip, but the argument was muffled and unfolding far above him.

Sam felt he had to say something, even though he would've liked for everything to just go dark and quiet. He was snug in his cocoon of creeping numbness; just needed some rest. "Cut it out, Alan," he slurred. "You sound like Gollum."

Somewhere in the distance, farther now, Gollum shut up for a few blissful seconds before picking up again.

An obnoxious little part of Sam's mind refused to yield to oblivion, straining instead to listen to the argument and figure it out. Alan needed to take a break, that much was clear. Sam tried to lift his hand in a gesture of peace and goodwill but the blast of pain that shot through his arm jolted him out of the lull he'd embraced. It made him dizzy, too, and if he wasn’t certain if the cries he heard were his, he sure recognized the taste in his mouth.

He tried to cough the blood out, and only managed to choke.

Sam! Stay down - -

- - - hold him - - should've guessed this would happen -

- - - no precedent -

- the hell was I thinking - - don't move, Sam -

- no archived reference - Sam, please listen --

- the hell does that matter now

- matters because

- - the goddamn ambulance - -

- Alan, his condition -

- I KNOW -

- - - - -

- - restart the fucking thing -

- - - matter of - sectioning the parts we know are Sam -

What?

- - have faith -

Whoa, whoa, what?

- FUCK --

Damn right, ‘fuck’. What the hell? Sam tried to protest but he couldn’t tell if anything coherent came out. Judging by the furore above, not much.

- - - right, this is -

- time

--- Sam, if you can hear me -

He could, but he passed out instead. Should've done that right away.


When he came to, Sam was certain he was still asleep.

He was on the wrong side of the arcade basement, the eerie digital space. Worse yet, the place was made to look like a lab or, wait, a hospital room. And to top it off it was the early nineties because there was Uncle Alan, still and stern, just like the time Sam thought skateboarding down railings with Marty Dane from Mrs James' class was a righteous idea. Except that Alan never wore all black like that.

It suddenly occurred to Sam that he might be dead, not dreaming. But before his mind whipped up more paranoia the door hissed open to let Alan through and thank fuck, he looked his normal self this time, nothing like this doppelganger -- wait. Wait.

Sam shook off the daze and propped himself up without thinking. He froze halfway, wincing, and relaxed with exaggerated, belated caution to see if he hadn't been hurt. Yet everything worked fine, if a few experimental stretches were anything to go by. So why was he...

He patted the bed, looking for a pillow to adjust. Fat chance; the ‘bed’ he lay on was nothing more than thick warm glass that pulsed with a network of fine power lines. He’d seen these things on the Grid before but they were used to repair programs and normally stood upright, not… yeah. Okay. Time to find out what the hell.

Sam sat up and nodded at his audience half in greeting, half in question.

Two identically sombre faces exchanged looks. Sam muttered a quizzical okay and hauled himself upright, only to be met with the granite wall that was Rinzler's hand.

He sat back hard and tried to be polite. "Excuse me, Nurse. May I?" He pushed but the thing would have none of it, staring at him in a way that made him feel scanned.

"How do you feel?"

The picture of concern, down to the voice. Sam rolled his eyes and cranked his neck grudgingly, stretching his shoulders. He could remember being hurt: really badly hurt, in a way he couldn't kid about, but not much else. It wasn't the first time though, or the twentieth, and he didn't appreciate the attention. He knew how to take care of himself, for fuck's sake. "I'm fine," he told Alan instead. "Why am I here?"

No answer. Alan was engrossed in a wall display Sam couldn't see from his angle, focused to the point where Sam wondered if he was even listening. And then, just as Sam was about to gripe, Alan reached over to the wall and in one swift move unclipped a disc and passed it over to Rinzler. Still in mid-breath, hand still raised in a gesture of now-hold-on-a-minute, Sam found himself spun around and the disc fitted into place. Only then did the program find it appropriate to let go.

"How do you feel now?"

Sam stared at him impassively. "Would anyone care to tell me what's going on? I'm supposed to be working on the signal."

Rinzler turned to Alan, who gave a small nod. With an incongruous pat on Sam's back and a smile set on default, the program slipped out of the room. Alan slid the doors closed and leaned against them with a sigh.

Sam let himself settle back down; the bed was comfortable enough. "Still keeping him around, huh? Guess he hasn’t killed anyone lately -”

"Sam." Alan was the picture of anguish. "What were you thinking?"

"Uh," Sam said. "I was -"

"The signal, yes, the signal. I know! What got into you? It's an old building!"

"I -"

"You knew it was unsafe! You, with your acrobatics, you of all people should've known the billboard wouldn’t hold!"

"I -" Sam tried again. "Wait, did I slip? Is that what happened?" If it was, he could've laughed. And he nearly did, except that Alan had him pinned with a look of pain and anger.

"Slip? You - you were -" Alan stuttered, gesturing at the floor with stilted, rigid sweeps, like something out of a silent movie. His expression was suitably grim. "Sam, the whole thing fell - there were parts, these metal -" He faltered, hands shaking. "Metal rods sticking out of you. This scaffolding -"

"Okay. Whoa. Stop." Sam got up and walked over to the older man who looked ready to go into shock. "I don't know what's going on here but I'm OK, look. One piece."

Alan shook his head. "I tried to get you to the hospital. But this godforsaken part of town, that late at night… the ambulance was too slow, the goddamn chopper was too slow. I had to. I didn’t – I had to do something.”

His eyes were still locked on something only he could see. Sam tried to think.

The signal, right?

Rewind.


Sam was at the arcade for Quorra’s sake. He didn't really want that much to do with his father's tomb but she lost more than he did, and deserved more than him futzing around while the others worked to restore the devastated system. So the arcade it was; the Grid it was.

He couldn't bring the Isos back, not short of a miracle or a time machine. But he could broadcast a trial network, sending programs off to query other systems for signs of spontaneous development, anything even remotely resembling the code that had created her kind.

He'd set up a couple of servers in the neighborhood, half of which was abandoned and up for sale: different types of machines, different ages even, the vintage ones placed with great care in custom-built containers that kept them running at optimal temperatures. No expense spared; it was the least he could do.

It was all he wanted to do. He kept with the hardware, leaving the Grid to Alan, Lora, and Q. Quorra may have had her own misgivings about the place but it was still her home, and sometimes she found the real world wearing. Sam never asked the Bradleys what they thought of the Grid – figured it was none of his business - but it kept them busy. The arcade was full of notes and the system full of programs imported from all over the place. It worked.

And Sam was happy where he was, even if it meant he only had twenty-four hours in a day instead of two full months, and had to pick priorities between messing with the board and trawling shops with Q looking for spare parts. It was only logical, he’d explained, to move on to server maintenance once there was little left to do to keep his bikes in order. And only logical, given all his skills, that he should build the wi-fi tower.

What was it that Alan had said? Old building? The whole thing fell? The whole - oh. Oh, crap.

Sam wondered if he hadn’t at some point thought that scaling the Paranoids billboard would be a good idea. In the dead of night, because that was the kind of thing he did.

Even now that he was head of Encom.

Alan was going to rip him a new one.


For now, though, he was safe. Alan talked without a break, like he wanted to purge his brain of memories: the heart-stopping noise outside, clangorous in the dead of night and a dead old 'hood. The mess that was Sam, almost buried in debris, blood pooling dark in sparse sodium light. The paralyzing clash of relief on seeing Sam alive, and panic when he realized they’d get no help in time. He'd lose this kid. He'd -

"Hey," Sam said. "Hey. Alan." Whatever his godfather did, he did good. He needed to calm down; Sam was safe. If Alan had to beam him in to buy himself some time, that was fine. He could chill.

Alan went quiet, but the look on his face was miles from calm. He closed his eyes. "Chill?" He shook with silent laughter. "Sure, I thought the laser would buy us time. I thought, if I got you in, the system could hold you in stasis. Then, once the ambulance arrived, I'd take you back out and straight into capable hands."

"Right?" Sam said. "That's what I’d’ve done. I don't see-"

Alan hushed him with one raised finger. "We never sent any damaged tissue in. Didn’t know it wouldn’t hold. I didn't check this with Lora, I just..." He took a deep breath, let his hands drop. "She's going to murder me."

Wouldn’t hold? "But I feel fine," Sam said slowly. In Quorra's already worn-out DVDs, Lt Cmdr Data would be running internal diagnostics at this point. Sam's mind flashed back to the image of Alan staring at the wall where, he now knew, the system ran checks on the integrity of Sam's disc. He tilted his head, eyes narrowed. "What are we talking about?"

"The laser didn't know what to do with the information. It... treated all of it as..." Alan waved a hand vaguely. "Fused, I suppose..."

"Wait. Wait." Sam had steeled himself to medical horror but not grindhouse stuff. "This sounds like the goddamn Fly. Are you saying I’m-"

“You're clear,” Alan cut in, before allowing himself to meet Sam's eyes. "But we had to take the junk out, all the data that got scattered in the beam. And I didn’t know what to put there instead.” He winced as he said that, but carried on without allowing Sam to speak.

"Writing anything was out of the question; it acted like the wrong blood group. I tried to copy basic lines of your healthy code, like a digital skin graft, but even if our cells can work here, they don’t adapt. Maybe Quorra could’ve helped, but with this damned gap -- I was running out of time." He shook his head. "And I can't stop wondering if Kevin wouldn’t have known what to do."

"Quit that, Alan," Sam said. "Dad built this place and it still screwed him over. Whatever you did worked. Look, one piece." No faults, no holes, nothing sticking out like Alan had so attractively put it.

Another head shake. "I used the Grid," Alan said. "The native code. It was the safest option. So safe, so basic... it won't scan out. We've been trying since we patched you up, five days now. Or whatever that is down here."

"Trying..."

"Trying to send you back. Well, not you; we're running simulations. Lora's transport functions over on this side, Quorra on the other. I haven't woken Lora yet, I don’t know what to tell her."

"Alan... work with me here. What’s the problem?"

Sam knew the answer to this.

Alan’s jaw tightened. "Grid code doesn’t translate, Sam. Not like Quorra did. It keeps you whole here, and alive — but the laser hangs when we try to send you back. Those parts of you that were intact go through, but...” He stopped pacing and turned abruptly. “Look, kid, I'm sorry, I don't want to give you details here. Every simulation failed."

Parts. Parts of Sam went through. Parts.

Sam nodded slowly but he was really too busy reining in a panic attack to answer immediately. "Maybe," he ventured, once he was certain he wasn't going to hurl, "you just need me to look into it. Second opinion, two heads, all that...?"

"Won't hurt.”

But Alan didn’t sound or look convinced. Sam watched the streaming labyrinth he sat on without focus, trying to recall all he knew about the digitizing process. It wasn't much, admittedly, but enough to tell him one thing.

He was screwed.


Lora's verdict came in less crude terms, but it was roughly the same.

She chewed them both out. Alan was the better man and stayed behind to take it, but Sam threw in a dose of self-pity in the lashings — the kind he paraded as a lone wolf act so well back home — and retreated to his den, an empty set of rooms at Bradley Central. He never stuck around long enough to make himself comfortable on the Grid; never wanted to stay.

He should’ve scanned himself again, sat down to solve the thing and get the hell out, but found he was less than eager to see how far the damage went. He looked okay on first sight, no change at all. If Alan was to thank, the man was an absolute wizard.

Lora eventually announced that she was taking the Shiva out of commission. Just for a few days, just to see what to modify, but it didn’t take a genius to know that this meant months in Grid time. Sam took it stoically, trying to make Quorra proud while she fought her own battles in his world. Tried not to think of all the Encom red tape he had yet to cut.

She'd have no trouble in this solitary confinement. Whether it was an Iso property or something she picked up from his dad's 'Zen thing', Sam never knew, but he found the strength to smile as his fingertips traced the city’s skyline against the room-wide window. He’d only known Q a couple of weeks but she was already his rock. Perhaps he should consider this meditation business after all.

Do nothing, man.

If only he could.

This place. This place. He withdrew his hand from the window and brought it back with a slam, the ghostly lines he'd coaxed to life dissipating in confused frenzy. For a moment he saw the window's entire hidden circuitry flare with the force of his blow. It went out as fast as it showed up, giving way to the city’s dim ambient light. He sat back and plucked at the beads Quorra gave him. No use.

This was his father's prison, for fuck's sake. How did it get to be his too? There was a reason he stayed away if he could help it. Goddammit.

And to round it all off, Clu’s dog let himself in without permission. Sam could tell who it was and didn't bother turning; the thing probably had all the system's keys.

"If you keep looking in that direction," it said, "just behind those blocks coming up -"

Sam looked but didn't lift his head, and set the beads aside. Buildings, great. What about them.

"- you'll see San Francisco's North Beach on the day your parents met,” Rinzler said. “That’s where our northbridge is. A good deal of Flynn's life is here by design."

How dare he. Pretending he was Dad’s friend just because he wore an ancient disc. Sam wasn’t down with that whole experiment, he really wasn’t. But Alan had kept a pager with him for twenty years; of course he’d try to rescue ghosts. Alan spent his first two weeks here combing the place for any sign of Kevin Flynn, blind in the face of evidence. He lived on faith; Sam could only hope it wouldn’t come around to bite him.

"Great," he said. "How about you mind your own business? I don’t care if you can read Alan's mind, you can't read mine."

"The Users are ready to leave, Sam," Rinzler said impassively. Sam noticed he hadn't said 'other Users'. "Lora gave me report forms for you to fill out, to help her track her progress. She'll need one every four milicycles."

Lora, like they were pals. No other program called her that, and no program called him Sam either, apart from Quorra. "It's Sam Flynn,” he said, “and we call that a day; a daily report." He groaned and got up. "Fine. What do I have to do?"

Rinzler handed him a phone-sized tablet devoid of any features that would tell him what it was, or how to use it. Sam turned it back and forth and felt like the time Clu first presented him with a lightcycle stick. Great. But Rinzler didn’t mock him for it; the program stepped closer, took the tablet back, and reached behind Sam to slide it under his ID dock. It clicked into place, and Sam’s mind expanded. Wait---

"It's a disposable memory card," Rinzler said. "It will copy the relevant data off your disc so Lora can read it without troubling you. This is how you remove it." He stepped behind Sam, took his hand without asking, and guided it to the depression in Sam's suit where the card rested snugly against his back. A slight downward pressure and the card came free.

Sam ground his teeth but decided not to complain about the lack of respect for his personal space. From what he could tell programs didn't know and didn't care; he'd had a crash course in this in the first few days of having Quorra in the house. This here was actually less awkward.

Rinzler checked that everything worked, and took a step back. "They'd like you to accompany them to the portal, but they also said they’ll understand if -"

Sam was already past him. He called the elevator and counted the whooshing sounds it made as it passed each floor. As it came up and opened with a hiss Quorra copied from Star Trek, Sam looked back and saw the program hadn't moved. Which was fine by him, but he wasn’t going to give Alan any more grief than what the man was already putting himself through.

He held his palm against the call pad to keep the door open. "You coming or what?"


Their transport was a smaller, more compact version of the butterfly-winged freight ship. Sam sat in the front with Alan who surveyed the landscape below, glancing at his datapad every now and then to check if the work matched with the plans. With his mind on the job Alan looked every part the chief engineer, from the way he carried himself on the Grid to the lab coat severity of his clothes; he even kept his glasses which amused Sam to no end before he spied flashes of information in what he thought were mere reflections.

Sam was impressed, but not surprised, with the speed and ease by which the Bradleys acquainted themselves with his father's work. The few times he'd tagged along he regularly wondered what the place would've looked like if they'd been there from the start. But he kept that to himself.

He was quiet on the way to the portal too, grateful that Alan let him be. Their silence was the welcome, comfortable kind, until it was shattered by a burst of laughter from the back.

Sam turned in time to see Lora at the controls, shaking and trying to muffle giggles at whatever Rinzler had said. She caught sight of both men staring at her and waved them off, then swatted at the program. "Nobody's talking about you, Alan!" she called out before turning her attention back to the beam. Alan gave her a well-practiced Roger Moore look and went back to work.

Sam jabbed him gently with his elbow. "This doesn't... you don't think this is weird?" he said, jerking his head at the two in the back.

Alan switched his datapad off. "That they've taken a real shine to each other?"

"Well, yeah," Sam said. "I mean..."

"I'm glad you asked.” Alan stretched and rubbed at his eyes before pushing his glasses back up. “These programs are incredible. There’s more to them than what you first told me.”

"You know what they say about first impressions."

Alan sighed. "We keep putting off this talk, don't we? I wish I'd gone instead. Not that I would've survived that Circus Maximus you described, but -"

Sam grinned, gestured at the vista unfolding all around. "Don’t be so sure; you’d’ve turned the place upside down. But yeah, I'm glad you didn't. Imagine getting killed by… you know."

Alan put the pad away. He clasped his hands, leaning forward like there was a story ahead; it was a ritual they last did nearly twenty years before. "That's the thing, Sam," he said. "I know this is hard for you to see but to Lora and me, Tron... it was like meeting a child. Our child. And while we were out there, oblivious, he went through hell. A thousand years! Where do you even start —"

He faltered and shook his head. “You know," he said, "until your, uh, predicament came along, this was by far the most difficult thing I had to do here."

"What, sort him out? I'll give you this, he’s stopped trying to kill me."

Alan wasn't taking the bait. "Think about it," he said, embracing the comfort of work. "What am I dealing with? Methods, functions, libraries, loops... all the basic, familiar stuff. But what I have to do is combine the personality of the original program with all the knowledge of subsequent ones. Not data, Sam: knowledge. Where's this stored?"

”Man, Alan.” Sam saw where this was going. He took a lot after his mother but he could be the spitting image of his father when he wanted to. "All right," he said, easing into the trademark Flynn stance, smugness and excitement in one. "And where’s the soul stored in us?"

Alan nodded. "So you've been reading his books. I went through them six times since we first came here, trying to understand this whole metaphysical side. I won't lie to you and say I've made much progress. But then again I don't think Kevin understood it all either."

"I don't think he understood it at all. He was just happy to go along."

"Well, we can't risk doing the same."

Sam didn't need to be told this twice. He looked at Rinzler, who had a headset on and probably had Quorra on the line; Lora forbade all use of the digitizer without somebody waiting on the other end. Even though he was certain the program couldn't hear him, Sam leaned over to Alan and lowered his voice. "You trust that?"

"Like I was saying," Alan said, "it wasn’t easy. I could tell right away my Tron was in there, but these controls had to be pried off with a crowbar. And Lora figured him out long before I did so she came up with a scheme —”

“— to use Quorra as bait,” Sam said darkly.

“The plan was all theirs, Sam. Quorra’s been around longer than she looks.”

Sam said nothing, so Alan carried on. “My job was to give her that crowbar and since Tron - or Rinzler - wouldn’t exactly cooperate, I used the original files. Your idea.”

Sam’s brow went up. “Wait, you mean the —”

“The box of floppies I never let you touch, that’s right.” Alan laughed. Sam snorted, but he still regarded his godfather with surprise and a certain admiration. “That worked?”

It was his Holy Grail when he was ten. Alan never got rid of the files that helped him get Dad through the Encom system, and as soon as Sam was old enough to twig that it was Tron inside that box and that he could program, he laid down plans to liberate his hero. He even had a name ready for himself, the intrepid sidekick that he was. What was it...

He couldn’t remember, and gave up. "-- even after we put the old code in," Alan was saying. "But then Lora talked to him and somehow that did the trick. I don’t ask about her secrets, though.”

Alan fell silent, then remembered something. “Did you know that he dated her portal control program? I say 'dated', but it could be —"

"Yeah," Sam said. "Dad told me. He thought it was cute that the two of you were an item in both worlds."

"Imagine that, huh? We wanted to find this Yori too but it turned out Encom 511 ended up on a scrap heap before Kevin ever got round to bringing her over. You'll have to ask Lora about this, she knows her..." His voice trailed off to a sigh. "She knows her digitizing software better than I do."

"Alan, don't start."

"I wasn't."

"I'm just saying."

Alan nodded grimly. "So now we run the portal from this side through a swarm of functions instead of a fully compiled program. Tron's request. I couldn't imagine lines of code coming within miles of concepts like closure, but...” He paused in thought. “I suppose I should be proud of myself but let's face it, Sam, I just wrote a firewall. How it came to have opinions and accomplishments and regrets — and love, for crying out loud — that's beyond me. I don't think I'll ever stop marveling at it."

If Sam had a reply it was drowned in Quorra's time-warped voice; it echoed through the speakers now, slower and eerier as the portal docked the ship.


The farewells, plans and promises went as well as they could’ve, all things considered. The parting image was almost beautiful, with Sam’s godparents enveloped by the digitizer beam like the poster he grew up with. But when the light went out and left a vast abyss between Sam and all he’d lost, he started thinking of fries. And burgers. Mountain Dew, for some reason, and the piss-poor beer he'd sometimes get from that one place that would still be open on the way to his place, up at whack o’clock. Even dog biscuits, when there was nothing left in the fridge.

He had a feeling he wouldn’t see any of that for a long, long time, let alone taste it. His mind, ever helpful, threw more details in the mix. The smell of grease and engine oil, mixed with that perfume Tina wore. No, wait, that was Leanne, but she never liked the bikes. Leanne's face when she met Quorra. Now that was good; Sam grinned despite himself, even if he still felt guilty for never mentioning her to Dad.

Her and all his other disasters, not that it mattered any more.

With nothing left but sights and sounds, he listened to the beeps of the platform's dock as the ship was readied for its trip back. It sounded like a mobile phone, like Rinzler dialed their destination in; Sam half-expected Quorra to restyle the portal in the shape of a stargate the next time she came down. She was still hooked on exploration and Astounding Tales; adventure, like she hadn’t had enough.

He wondered for a moment, on a whim, what would happen if he took Dad’s cue and just threw himself into the vanishing beam. It worked before, and it wasn’t as if he’d known how to use the portal the first time around either: he just copied the pose from the game. He leaned closer, mesmerized, and was yanked away in a blink.

"- the fuck!"

Sam grimaced as the curse echoed around him too loudly. He hadn’t meant to shout but Rinzler grabbed him like a vice, completely by surprise, and it looked like he got dragged a good few feet before he even realized he was lifted. He tried to wiggle his arm free and failed. "The fuck? Let go!"

"What were you doing?"

"Are you serious? What are you, my nanny?"

"What were you doing?"

"How about none of your business? Are you missing a file or something? We’ve been through —" Sam was still trying to break free of Rinzler’s hold but the grip only tightened in turn. "Okay, that hurts now."

That worked. Released, Sam rubbed his upper arm and shot Rinzler an icy look. His resolve was somewhat weakened when he met the program's stare and read concern instead of anger, but not by much. "What's it to you, anyway? You don’t give a shit.” Unless… “Did Alan tell you to? Because he thinks it's his fault I'm stuck here?"

The program straightened, shoulders pushed back in childlike offense. “I operate autonomously.”

“Like fu-”

“It’s a gift,” Rinzler hissed. “By the mercy of the Users, the same that brought you back.”

Sam gave him a look of are you kidding me. The words ‘I’m family‘ slid from his brain to his tongue, about to take a leap, but then he remembered something Alan told him more than once.

He’s my son.

And Alan never even knew this program, just like Dad never got to see Sam grow. He had Quorra to bring up instead and Sam was grateful, but no-one really came out right where families were concerned. Not here.

So Sam said nothing and that was just as well, since their conversation seemed to be over as far as Rinzler was concerned. He'd undocked the ship with the same 'well?' look that Sam had given him back at the tower, and waited silently for Sam to get in before checking the controls to make sure Lora and Alan materialized safely back in their own world. He activated the beam, watched the ship's wings unfurl and lock into place, and left Sam to himself.


The barren landscape that scrolled down below lit up periodically with broadly sketched designs for future settlements, while file storage and cache towers radiated or spiraled away from residential hubs. Sam was grateful that it gave him something to occupy his mind; the alternative was working out how to improve the mood aboard the ship and that was just... unavoidable, really, not to mention necessary because he was about to take permanent residence down there and he didn't know anybody else around.

It was his own fault. Quorra was such a liaison that Sam never had to remember a program’s name, function, or designation; he only had to check that datapaths and control units did what they should. He built himself a bike or two in his spare time and took them for a spin, but he never really talked to anyone.

He was still greeted with respect and considerable awe, but Quorra inspired cordiality the way the humans didn't. Programs approached her with those brief power transfers that passed for handshakes, and spoke to her in something that looked like sign language except the signs were ways in which one typed, fingers bent as if calling up shortcuts. The keyboard must have been Encom's own design from the dawn of time, because Quorra mentioned keys he'd never even heard of when she first taught him some. He was beginning to realize just how much he relied on her to get around.

And now it was just him and Rinzler, and Captain Avast there was holding a grudge.

Sam threw his head back and groaned.

Seriously. It's code. It can go fuck itself.

So's Quorra, Sam Flynn. And guess what: so are you.


He got up and walked over to the ship's console. He considered querying the program for a restart of the conversation, Quorra-style, but couldn't remember how to say that in Invisible Keyboard. Good old talking would have to do.

"So, uh."

So much for eloquence. But Rinzler looked up, placing a hand over the readout screen. Sam wondered what there was to hide before it dawned on him that there was no reason for software to obey the limits of its human render: a program didn’t need eyes to see.

Kansas gone bye-bye.

"Look," Sam began, fumbling for words in the face of unblinking attention. "Can we just... wipe this slate clean and..." He gave up and drummed on the console. "I'm going to be here for a really long time and —"

"Have you no faith in Lora's work?"

“What? Sure I do, I just — wait, are you gonna rat me out to her?”

The program stared at him. Then, with his great respect for boundaries, Rinzler reached out and took Sam's wrist. Quorra did that, sometimes; Sam never asked her why because there was so much else they had to learn about each other, and if it was a program thing it wasn’t going to work on the outside. But it worked here; he felt like he’d stepped out for air and left a stuffy room behind. Was this an interrupt? Could he even register--

Grid code. Another thing that Sam had failed to do, check to see how much of it was stuck in him. He’d told himself that

##### what’s the point ##

but the truth was he was chickenshit.

And what the hell was that.

"Sam," the program said, head inclined towards the free seat next to him. "Please sit down."

Again the very model of concern. But with nowhere else to go Sam sighed, shrugged, and sat.

Rinzler remained standing, engaging the ship's autopilot before he leaned back against the screen. "Yes, I report regularly to the Users," he said. "I have to. But I don’t rat out and I don’t care just because I’m told to."

Sam totally bought that. “Yeah? Then what is it?”

“You were going to jump into the beam.” The program’s flat, level tone matched Sam’s. “You were going to leave half of you behind while the other half scanned out. You know how the beam works. If you’re so eager to know how it feels to get disassembled and rebuilt in parts, all by trial and error, all you have to do is ask.”

Something in Sam froze with belated terror; probably the code. “That’s not an answer.”

He could be a real shit when he wanted to. Something in him that was resolutely human vetoed this riposte but come on, it was Rinzler. So he had a vocabulary now; still had a record of assault, on Sam and Dad and Quorra. Even Alan, for crying out loud.

The program gave him another of his scan-like stares; Sam found himself wishing for the blank black mask even if this face wasn’t quite Alan’s and didn’t feel like a mockery of its writer. “Fine,” Rinzler said. “[retry]

Quorra signed that one a lot.

"You won't know this, but I remember the day you were born."

Sam looked up. He’d told himself he wouldn't do this, but he always fell for leads that looked like they could shed some light on his parents. And how ironic would it be if he got to learn about them here better than he ever did back home, and from Clu’s henchman of all things.

"I have a considerable library of information where you’re concerned,” the program said. “From my Users, and from Flynn. You were meant to come to us while you were still in beta. Clu would’ve taught you how to run the system.”

“Oh, yippee.”

Rinzler looked at him coldly. "Flynn hoped you would take his place as the architect of our system. He was certain you could do things he could only imagine. I happen to share that belief."

"So let me get this straight." Sam held a hand suspended mid-gesture, collecting his thoughts. "The reason you're so keen to keep me alive all of a sudden is because you think I'm some sort of a savior to this place like Dad was to yours, back at Encom? ‘Cause if that’s the case, forget it. If I hadn't fucked up out there I wouldn't even be here."

That knocked some of the smugness out of Rinzler’s stance, but Sam couldn’t tell what exactly replaced it. The program looked like he was battling with himself, left hand clenching into a sign Alan had warned him about: [conflict]. Sam tensed, but it was over quickly.

"I was meant to welcome you to the system,” Rinzler said. “I was meant to show you what you could do, what you could be here. It was going to be an honor —" He cut off and looked out to the horizon. "I couldn’t wait to meet you. Flynn said you’d test me to the limit, but —”

Sam stared at him. The program had trailed off, mind on some memory Sam was no part of though he should've been. This wasn’t Rinzler; it couldn’t be. But Sam was too wary to hope.

"There’s no undo for what I’ve done," the program said. His gaze was fixed on a cloud of glass slabs stacked together, a malloc in action. Sam wondered what kind of information the cloud carried, listening to the rumble of the stacks as they moved against each other. “We still need you, Sam; don’t punish others for the choices that I made.”

They spent some time in silence. It wasn’t as bad as before, but Sam wasn't sure what to do next. Like Alan often said, he knew the programs' logic but not their thoughts. "Okay," he offered eventually. "Okay. Here's a deal. I'll wait and see what Lora says, right? And I’ll help out. But that’s as far as it goes. I’m not planning on sticking around, so stuff your plans of turning me into another Clu and just... leave me be."

"Acknowledged,” Rinzler said. He didn’t even flinch at Sam’s jab. “But you’ll be taking over Transport which means coordinating with maintenance systems, including us. If you wish, I can assign a deputy in my stead to work with you. I have a few candidates on my team; I'll introduce you."

That didn't make Sam feel like an ass at all. "Forget it, you’ll do fine," he said. "A job’s a job."

The smile he got was so real, he had to remind himself this wasn't a person.

"You'll fit right in."