Chapter 1: I
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 -
- - 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 -
--- 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!"
"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?
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 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...?"
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'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.”
“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 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. “
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.”
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."
Chapter 2: II
Three programs waited for them as the ship disconnected from the beam and glided to its place in the hangar. They were all Security, going by the uniforms that mirrored Rinzler’s new light patterns: there were still fewer lines than what he’d seen on most other programs, but the ones they had were bold enough. Flattering, too, once Sam was close enough to see that they were all women — and all good looking.
He turned briefly to shoot Rinzler an amused, approving look. “This what the whole force looks like?”
He thought his brow waggle was as unsubtle as it got, but the program responded flatly. “Each of us is chosen for a certain skill or function.” Rinzler nodded at the middle one who gave a curt, military twitch by way of greeting. “This is Sudo, who’ll be your guard and decoy should there be any trouble.”
Between her dark-skinned colleagues the program looked Siren-pale, almost ghostly with her grey eyes and off-white hair. She fixed Sam with a look that was much more businesslike than the nonchalance and curiosity he picked up from the other two. And Rinzler sounded like he expected trouble, but before Sam could even roll his eyes at what he suspected was the Bradleys fussing over him by proxy, he saw himself standing where Sudo had just been. He jerked back and stared.
“Speak, User,” his double demanded in a vocoder tone. Sam blinked at it. Him. Her. “Decoy, huh,” he managed. “Jesus. Is this necessary?”
He thought he was asking Rinzler, but Sudo answered instead. “We are going live, in User terms, in less than two days.” The voice was eerie, his to a tee. How was Dad not freaked out by this stuff? “The laser returns in five. We have a list of possible threats and as long as you are here —”
“Okay, okay.” Sam waved a hand in what he hoped was a
[pause]; the other Sam nodded and changed back to the smaller program. “We’ll discuss this later," Sam said. "Two days, huh?” Another nod.
So that’s why Q never showed up; she was working on his wi-fi. Sam could see her program logic working through that one: he very nearly got himself killed for this project, so it must be important. To make it worse, he just as easily see her figuring out a risk-free solution. He felt redundant. Worse: a burden.
“Perk up, User. That’s two days no-one’s breathing down your neck. I hear you have a problem with us, so you should be okay.”
This program was short and curvy, with a smile that only widened when Rinzler’s face went stern and eyes flashed in warning. “Time’s up, Lex,” Rinzler ground out. “You have -”
“— work to do.” She recited this with a bob of her head, and her curls swayed in rhythm. “And I wasn’t scheduled to be here anyway. I know, I know. But you have to admit, Chief, he’s the first interesting thing that’s happened in a —
[ok], fine.” She raised her hands in a human show of deference. “Come on,” she told her silent friend, baton half-cracked. “You’ve seen him now.”
“Wait,” Sam said before either of the two could rezz a bike. Lex folded hers back. The unnamed program stared at him, slowly backing away even as she tried to stand to attention. She looked like an Indian goddess and he was lost for words. “Um,” he tried. “Hi.”
The program now focused on his outstretched hand. Sam caught sight of Lex and Rinzler exchanging looks, and wondered what kind of a faux pas he committed already. “Hold on, Sam,” Rinzler said. “That’s not how we greet.”
He walked over to the program and tapped a quick message against her arm, a gesture Sam knew was a comment line. Her eyes flew open and she beamed, squashing Sam’s hand in a strong, friendly grip.
Rinzler tried not to smirk at Sam’s pain. “Not every program needs to communicate with the Users,” he explained, “and methods certainly don’t. That’s about enough, Astra.
“You’re a function?” Sam gasped, released. He’d seen methods before; they didn’t look like people.
“I build myself,” she said. She looked brightly at Rinzler, who smiled back like a kindly parent. Sam’s eyes narrowed. This sure as hell wasn’t Clu’s hellhound, unless the faceless helmet hadn’t actually harbored a benign mentor to all those Blackguards. Somehow, the scenario didn’t quite sell.
“All my officers are part of Encom’s corporate package alpha,” Rinzler said. “I think your phrase for Astra would be ‘big gun’.” He grinned. “And Lex is experimental, a fifth gen algorithm.”
“Lectrix,” she said, cutting in. “Means ‘reader’. I can tell your purpose in a tick, or your intent if you’re a User, and I can tell if something’s gone wrong before any of these guys do. But we can swap datasheets some other time, SamFlynn. I have work to do.” She saluted with her baton, and threw it to get the bike going. Even if she wasn’t Sudo, that was a damn good Tron she did.
Rinzler, who didn’t even need Clu around to go after him.
### [time: # error retrieving data | please select format]
- he was trying to help you, Sam! Those bugs would’ve -
- - so next time he knocks me out, you’ll think it’s fine because -
Sam shook himself back to reality. Something was demanding his attention, like a song stuck on mind radio that just won’t stop. He looked down; Lex was still there, frowning.
“Are my pings bouncing? All right, have it User style: Astra’s bundled. Shh, I saw you. Keep your hands to yourself or Shaddox will get on your ass, if she doesn’t shred you first. Friendly warning!” And with that she was gone, charging after her friends with a speed that hurt Sam’s eyes.
“Charming,” he muttered.
“She’s just excited to talk to a User again,” Rinzler said. Behind him the hangar dock went dark, while three others lit up for new passengers. Sam didn’t just see this, he knew it in a way that such a random detail didn’t really merit. But that wasn’t what nagged at him.
“I swear I wasn’t —”
“Don’t mind Lex,” Rinzler insisted, guiding him out. “She knows what Users are like. It’s her job.”
What we’re like? Just what did these people think he was going to do, now that he was here? He kept away, for fuck’s sake —
— but had no chance to protest before Rinzler motioned with a nod and disappeared behind his lightcycle’s unfolding plates. Sam followed him without question, a little tired and a little anxious to get on with work and pass the time before Lora beamed in again.
Bearing good news, hopefully.
The program led him downtown and parted ways when Security’s dome came into view, squat but monumental among the city’s elegant high rises. Sam spent the rest of his ride home ruminating on the rhythm of Marvin’s daily walks, wondering if it was time yet for his first morning jog, and whether he taught Quorra enough to leave the pooch in her care. He was missing the damn dog already.
He made a note to send Q a list of Marv's favorite bites, blinked when another
setup request followed that thought, and turned onto the ramp that curved around Bradley Central, guiding him to the top.
Sam first lit up the entire penthouse, rooms as well as the studios. After a few hours' work he turned everything but his desk off and watched the panorama pass slowly before him. Three revolutions later he called up a map of the city.
The first thing that filled the window consisted of scattered hexagons of varying sizes, hovering over a uniform hexagonal mesh. He could almost read it, recognition flickering in and out of reach at the periphery of his mind, but it felt like trying to remember a dream: no use. He couldn't tolerate the mental itch it created so he gave up and dug around the archives until a User-friendly map showed up. San Francisco took more searching but once Sam got both maps going and overlaid them correctly there was North Beach and yeah, it did sit atop the northbridge link.
What other milestones of his father's life ended up here? Curious, Sam toyed with the idea of asking a search program to see if any other system landmarks matched up with something on the outside; he could get Quorra to import maps and photographs if needs be — or, hell, he could just ask Rinzler to show him around. He’d offered, after all.
Yeah, right. Sam scrunched up a few redundant files and threw them in the bin where they promptly disintegrated with sound effects; he groaned, and set to fixing that back to dignified silence while he tried to sort out his thoughts.
Alan did a good job with his old program; denying this was a crappy thing to do. The floppies he’d have had to unearth to get to Tron’s original code were a proprietary format, Sam remembered even now, and he wouldn’t be surprised to hear that Alan had to dig on eBay to find something that could still read them. He'd put a lot of work into it, as did Lora. If Sam multiplied the hours they spent digitized by Grid time...
Even Quorra was involved, so much that she let Rinzler hurt her again as she fought to unlock his old self with Alan’s matching code. The result? A perfectly normal program. That was it: normal. All Sam saw of Rinzler after that stunt — or Tron, or whoever he was now — was a quiet manager who ran his corner of the Grid and helped other programs find their footing after import. Hell, he was probably doing the same for Sam by trying to be friendly.
Not exactly the world-saving hero of his childhood days, but no villain either.
But he could wait; what Sam needed to focus on was transport between the central, old city, and the budding ones he saw on his way back from the portal. It was getting more vital the closer the system got to opening the ports that would bring new traffic in. This was Lora's domain, but thanks to him she was now occupied elsewhere; before his godparents left they spent a good few days - milicycles - reorganizing priorities, reassigning tasks, and moving numerous programs around. Quorra took on most of Sam's work since the bulk of it had to be done from the outside.
The shuffle made his new direction a no-brainer, but how he’d go about it was open to debate. Lora's big idea was a Grid-wide teleporting network, something she confessed she swiped from Encom's lightcycle game. There was no reason not to take Kevin's in-game tales as gospel truth, she'd said, and if that was so she wasn't going to be outdone by an angry, talking cylinder. Sam didn't feel like throwing in the towel either, but when his thoughts returned to the notes on his desk he saw he'd sketched more vehicles than teleporter designs.
Yeah, well: that's what he was good at.
He wanted to call it a night, ignoring that he didn't really know whether it was night-time or not, but sleep wouldn't come. He cursed his lack of sync with the outside world and went in search of the calculator Lora wrote, helping her keep track of work and flights and time zones. Soon enough he had a complex but elegant contraption on his wall, describing the time gap in bright concentric trails. The looping of it helped him think.
He'd wrecked the billboard - and himself - late last evening. All this commotion, adjustments, and arguments, and all passed was a couple hours. Alan and Lora would be getting up soon for a new day's work; Sam wouldn't check in. He’d have a day or two of outside time before his new-found dedication to Encom was questioned, and then he'd have to spin his disappearance into something that wasn't an eerie echo of what happened with Dad. He really needed to get the ‘net link going, not just for Quorra any more.
He saved the drawings on his desk and wiped its screen clean with a broad sweep of his hand; the void filled up instantly with chatroom windows. It was his first attempt at linking the Grid up with a remote server — his old phone, now Q's — but it wasn’t the real thing, not yet: somebody still had to sit at the arcade terminal if they wanted to talk.
Q wouldn't be there at this hour but it was worth a shot; she was still adjusting to the rhythm of her new body clock and regularly got it wrong. Sam had even given her an old college sweatshirt to complete the picture.
There was no User online but the chatroom was far from dead. Programs had somehow gotten wind of it and were using it relentlessly, reams of text filling window after window. It looked like junk at first sight, everyone logging in as sequences of numbers and talking in streams of random character strings. But they weren’t random; they teased at Sam’s thoughts and gave him that itch again, inbuilt understanding trying to break free. He was tempted to log off but resisted, and continued to watch in fascination. If he couldn't give the programs their teleporter yet, at least they had this.
>917779 # hello SamFlynn
Now that sure as hell wasn't random.
>SamFlynn # hello
>917779 # you are scheduled to run @ transport.beta in .008c
>917779 # confirm
He could, but...
>SamFlynn # not sure who i’m talking to
>917779 # 917779
>SamFlynn # you have a name?
>307020 # hello Sam
>307020 # Astra wants to visit your workshop
>307020 # we checked your timetable
>917779 # transport.beta in .008c
>307020 # sorry Sam, still learning your language
>307020 # we can't just import User syntax
"Sam," huh. And how many times did he enter that particular sequence of numbers to unlock the most coveted lightcycle in the game? The serial had even been his first password. You had to earn it.
But he always thought Dad made it up.
>SamFlynn # hey
>SamFlynn # sure i’ll be there
>307020 # try that again
>SamFlynn # confirmed 917779
>917779 # OK SamFlynn
>307020 # there you go, everyone is happy now
Sam laughed. He wanted to ask where they were but hesitated, and by the time he got to typing Rinzler and Astra had both logged off. He wanted, needed to get out, get some air even if there wasn't any, talk to someone, but he'd always been self-sufficient and was frankly feeling a little embarrassed that he didn't want to be alone.
Screw it. He cleared the desk and brought his drawings back to life. Work it was.
The Grid messed with more than just his sense of time. Transport.beta, or ‘warehouse’ to Lora, was a vast expanse of vaguely defined space whose distant walls and ceiling — if they even existed — were little but featureless fields of pure white light. Whatever its size, it housed an entire stadium's worth of test tracks, obstacles, and loops of dark grey glass, complete with massive three-dimensional projectors showcasing the Users' designs as if suspended in zero-G.
Perhaps this was to be expected considering the dimensions of the place, but it was remarkably quiet. All activity centered on the single projector that was active at the time and rotated a model that resembled an extruded, upside-down Recognizer. Sam was half sitting on a long and narrow workdesk, as white and unadorned as sixties sci-fi; he drummed the fingers of one gloved hand against its top and spun a sphere in the other, a mouse built of the same dark glass as the tracks. Every now and then he’d press his thumb down to watch the model stretch or squeeze.
Several programs busied themselves around the desk, making the whole thing look like an assembly line. They all wore plain white coats outlined with even brighter light, so Sam followed suit even if it made him feel like a lab tech. No-one talked much; the programs were Lora's and exhibited the same focus she did in her work. They acted with purpose but were far from robotic, body language conveying a zeal for their job that Sam found inspiring without feeling pressured. He was so into the rhythm of the place that he jerked and nearly slid off the table when the attending personnel list refreshed with a low buzz.
He glanced at it and saw two familiar numbers slot in at its ends: a brand new serial, and a very old one. Right.
Time for a break.
Astra didn't only sound like a Siren, clipped and to the point, she walked like one: measured, even steps, posture not exactly rigid but not relaxed either, determined but guarded. She looked around as she approached, hair swinging like a jet-black cape that reached down to her behind. Next to her Rinzler looked human, surveying the place with an air of understated authority. The warehouse programs perked up with excitement when they saw him, male and female both; he smiled in turn and went to greet them.
Astra however beelined for Sam with an open face and eyes wide like Quorra's. Without warning she stepped up close and pressed her palm against his abdomen, fingers bending in the keyboard language position he recognized, god knows how, as an inspection query; she was curious about the pseudo-Reco. Before he realized what he was doing he placed his hand over hers the way he remembered Quorra describing the
It worked: Astra stepped back and walked over to the projector. Sam lagged behind, taken by the speed of the exchange and how natural it felt to talk that way.
He should have been alarmed. He knew from Quorra that there was nothing untoward in these dispatches but his User frame of mind had trouble believing that Sirens didn't move seductively or that — judging by the rhythm of the conversation nearby, the intermittent laughter, and what gestures he could see — Rinzler wasn't just flirting with ten programs at once.
Astra must have been aware of Sam's distress because she halted the step she was about to take towards him and code-switched to User, pointing at the projector instead of poking at Sam. "What's it for, SamFlynn?"
"I was about to ask that," Rinzler said behind him. "Is it a freighter? Because I wanted to talk to you about the traffic problem."
Sam reached for the mouse; traffic problems he could deal with. He spun the model around to show its depth, rolling the sphere between his palms. "It is, actually. What do you want to know?" It wasn't really Security's business.
"It's the teleporter," Rinzler said. "I wanted to know if you had any alternatives."
"Got a problem with it?"
"Yes," Astra said with conviction, scrutinizing the model's details. "This looks good."
"Uh, thank you," Sam said, unsure of who to talk to.
Rinzler picked up. "Like my deputy says, we have our concerns. I’d prefer to discuss them while you’re standing in for Lora."
"She'd chew you right out, is that it?"
"She is protective of her work."
"And I'm what, full of program code so you expect me to roll over?"
Rinzler looked at him incredulously. Sam screwed his eyes shut and pinched the bridge of his nose. "All right," he said. "Didn't mean that. Been up a long time."
Astra looked at him sharply. "Uptime?" she demanded.
Rinzler signaled to her to stand down and took Sam aside. Sam thought of protesting but didn't want to cause a scene. He looked at the warehouse workers; their attention was back on their tasks and no-one seemed to think anything was out of the ordinary. "What is it?"
"Sam, what's your uptime?"
"Ain't got one...? User, and all that?"
"May I look at your stats?"
At least he learned to ask. Sam detached and handed the memcard over, feeling a little like a grouchy teen. The program took it carefully and tapped it on the side, making its surface come alive with readouts. He held it for a while without moving, watching the glyphs flash by in a speed Sam couldn't follow. "You're fine," he said after a while. "You just need to power down."
"See, I told you," Sam said, taking his card back. "I keep telling everyone I'm okay and nobody listens."
Rinzler wasn't listening either, apparently, because he veered off to a different subject. "I see you're working on individual transport too." He pointed to where Astra was going through an array of lightcycle batons, sliding each one open to inspect the settings. She seemed interested enough but the impression Sam got was one of a program learning, not indulging a hobby.
"Uh, yeah," Sam said, drawing in breath as the card registered in his mind and resumed its work. "It's a thing."
Rinzler grinned. "I can appreciate it." He walked over to Astra and, without looking, picked out a slender piece of ware with a single strip of light running down its side. Sam nodded like a car salesman; he'd have gone for that one too, a sturdy number that he'd only just finished but had a good feeling about.
Rinzler flipped it open like a Starfleet communicator. "Have you road tested it yet?"
"No, but..." Sam gestured at the test tracks politely. "You're welcome to it."
"That's not what I had in mind." Rinzler tossed one of his Security standard-issue batons to a warehouse program, replacing it with Sam's prototype. "Time to go," he told Astra. "Sam, come along."
"Wait, what? I thought you wanted to talk about the teleporter."
"I do. But let me ask you something: have you done anything but work since Alan brought you here?"
Sam gave no response.
"Didn't think so. You're tired; that makes you a system weakness and that —" dramatic pause "— makes you my business."
Sam let out a prolonged, pointed sigh. Astra observed the ensuing silence and staring match for a few drawn-out moments before slapping Rinzler on the shoulder in excitement. "This is funny!"
He gave her a deadpan look. "We try."
Sam snorted and hung his head in defeat. Maybe he was just so tired he was delirious, but he was starting to like the company of these programs. They acted differently with no Users around, and as much as it unsettled him to think of himself as a local, the isolation he felt on the Grid had nothing in common with the safe, comfortable kind he’d built himself back home. Back there his life unfurled on his own terms; down here he had to play along.
He turned to his team with a what do you say? shrug. The few who tore their eyes away from their work gave him a cheerful half-wave, half-salute. Great, so they were working for Tron.
Sam still followed him out.
"Welcome to our proving ground, SamFlynn."
Shaddox was an impressively built program, effortless in communicating authority and purpose. He looked the definition of how Sam would fashion Security officers if he had to design a system from scratch, except he wasn’t one. Or at least not originally, as he was happy to explain on Sam’s tour of the complex. He came from a CAD package and helped structure the city’s landmarks.
HYDECKER-337-CANAS — Sam could just hear the all-caps — had been one of his Users. He said the names helped him remember what he stood for when times no longer called for building and he had to fight instead. Sam had nodded and said nothing.
"I hear you're head of Transport now," Shaddox said as they climbed up a dimly lit staircase and onto a cantilever platform. The platform opened to a spherical hall which rivaled the warehouse in size but contrasted it in almost every other aspect: the bare, dark space echoed Security's distaste for the light show that defined the rest of the Grid.
"Just standing in," Sam said, trying to take in the view. The hall was much larger than what the dome suggested from the outside; its membrane consisted of countless hexagonal panels and rippled with suppressed movement, facets bobbing and bumping gently against each other as if floating on water. What illumination there was came from whatever lay on the other side of the plates; light broke through the shifting gaps as the panels moved, flickering in the darkness and making Sam think of a night out at the planetarium.
Sam tried not to think of the planetarium, or the coffee place nearby that was okay with dogs. He turned to Shaddox. "What's on?"
"Defense drill," the program said. "We run simulations based on probable threats to see if we need to improve our response. It’s just data aggregation so no real harm if we fail, but we have to give it our best because it won't be a drill when this stuff bursts in from the outernet."
"It's the internet, actually," said a program new to Sam. "I did some reading."
Shaddox gave him a look of death. He turned to Astra who was hovering nearby with the rest of their team. "Does that make sense to you?"
She shrugged in that way that said ‘Users‘. Sam saw it often.
"Hold up," Sam said. “I thought you were all used to this.” He swallowed as all eyes turned to him. “You know, the internet? I mean, you’re all modern, right?” He looked to the new programs for support.
Lex’ laughter broke the silence. “You’re funny, User. This system wasn’t built for that. A networking program would go crazy in this place! We all have to get ready together.”
Sam instinctively looked for Rinzler; knew enough about the actual program by now instead of the game character, and remembered Alan’s confusion when they found him. ‘What did Flynn want with a firewall on a —’
Their eyes met for an instant, but Rinzler’s attention was back on his terminal before Lex could pick this up.
They don’t know.
The program was by his side in a blink, with a big friendly smile and a friendly, painful grip on Sam’s shoulders. “And what better way to get ready than to have a User test us,” Rinzler announced. “Not that I can order you to, obviously.”
Sam’s brow and posture arched in sympathy with all that deference as he found himself marched over to the terminal. “Obviously.” But if he was going to conduct a test, he didn’t feel out of place in his lab gear. He frowned at the controls but the thing spat out a lightcycle baton before anyone could see how new he still was.
He turned, head cocked to the side. “I’m the bad guy?”
Rinzler beamed — “I heard you want a rematch” — and slapped Sam on the back so heartily it sent him flying.
Instinct kicked in and Sam yanked the baton open before his brain could catch up. The bike’s mesh exploded around him, encasing him in a heartbeat. Instructions flooded his feeds as he fell, infoboxes popping up with names and header files and all the crap he had no use for. He turned them off - how did he know how to-- and before he was even aware of what he really wanted, targets and trajectories took their place.
Okay, yeah. That was more like it.
Four on four, the UI said, with programs he barely knew materializing by his side to join the offense. He recognized Sudo; another was the ‘outernet’ wiseguy by the name of Raz and the third, Ampu, was a blank. Sam could only hope they weren’t new to this.
All around them panels cascaded down the sphere's distant walls. Most stacked up and along to form a maze — a filesystem, he breathed to himself as the landscape rose up in deafening clacks — but some turned transparent and scattered through like Gunner points.
Sam went for the nearest one. Aimed, threw, and crashed it in a gratifying shower of noise. He sped on, targeting oncoming files with gleeful abandon, and nearly collided with a cop.
The cycle landed straight in front of him, leaping off from god knows where. It was larger than any other he’d seen around, and it definitely wasn’t his warehouse prototype. The lane disintegrated with impact and Sam fell deeper and faster now, pulled by the weight of his own cycle. He hit a lower level hard and skidded, showering his pursuer with the panels he shook loose. Serve him right.
Her. His vision filled with stats and corrections and he lost a crucial moment to marvel at the first fat program he ever met, giving her ample chance to charge at him anew. He swerved the best he could, trying to cut her off with his lightwall. No joy; she sailed over it like a pro. Shaddox was right, this was child's play to these guys. Sam had to think fast.
He spared a moment to check everyone's position. He was aware, in detail not provided by the stats dotting his field of vision, of Sudo angling in to distract the cop. He saluted, whether she could see him or not, and sailed off a cliff to drop between his fellow villains weaving around Shaddox and his mate. The pairs mirrored each other in the attacker-and-shield config and Sam regretted splitting from his backup, even if she was holding well against the massive cop. But hey, he gave his teammates some advantage, unless – wait.
Wait a minute.
He pinged the two. “Where’s Tron?”
“Hey, User,” Lex chirped instead. He looked up to locate her platform, and gave up at once; his path alone was dizzying enough, evading discs while he whirled up as much chaos as he knew, growing bolder and throwing viral code in the mix. Let them sort through that; instead of vanishing the files multiplied, overwriting one another and cracking under pressure as they clogged up the lanes. Sam got a thumbs-up and watched his cronies separate for the joy of spreading this as widely as they could.
“Chief doesn’t play if we’re good,” Lex said. “Which means you’re not much of a threat to standard defense measures. Pity. And I had my money on you, you know.”
“You have no money,” he sighed through the comms. And the other thing just stung. “So what do want me to do? I got the team working and I don't even know them —”
“User,“ she sighed in turn. “Since when does malware cooperate?”
Fine. Fine. He knew he was being tested on something, and if they wouldn’t tell him what...
### [time|1282988259] [loc|missing] [ref|SamFlynn]
I’m a User. I’ll improvise.
His grip on his disc tightened. He’d need an interface and a quiet corner if he wanted to edit someone else’s ID, but programs were one and the same with theirs, right? He focused on the changes he wanted to make to his own and willed for them to write, as naive as that felt. Besides, he barely knew what he was doing with the viral code and that had worked, so...
There was a tug on his arm, the pain of pulled muscle. He jerked back on impulse and clamped his good hand over the cramp, legs and torso going stiff to keep him steady on the bike.
Why’d it have to be the right? He wasn’t even sure if he had that shoulder any more or if it was all replacement code. But when he weighed the disc again, its configuration had changed. He couldn’t see it, no, but he knew. He grinned; heavy stuff.
He twisted his body to the side to get closer to a wall; he couldn’t yet throw. Hoping no-one was on his trail and he wouldn’t have to duck, but still aware of the commotion outside his lane, he scraped the side of the dark glass wall with the disc and kept on going. There were no sparks, no cracks of light; just a groove that deepened, and a shudder.
Then the shudder deepened.
Sam nearly whooped as the entire wall fell apart in hexagonal tiles, sliding loud and massive across the maze floor. He pushed away as fast as he could, laughing and shaking together with the bike skipping on uneven ground. None of it would stop anyone for long but none of it was going back up either, and all the good work herded by the cops to a nearby quarantine flew out triumphant. He registered a flurry of dismay -- but that was it. No-one changed course to chase him.
“System failure,” he whispered, well enough now to cast his disc and collapse more walls, smashing all the files in the mock-up system to a single rotting heap. “Come on, you son-of-a-”
Just as he thought.
New boss, same as the old boss. And holy shit he even --
Sam hit the gas. “Lex! You see a process called Rinzler?”
“Sure do, User! Now we’re getting somewhere!”
“What the - it’s on my ass! Is that supposed to be there?”
“Watch your language, SamFlynn. That’s my boss.”
Sam leaned his bike so low his fingers grazed the floor. A quick, painful touch, just enough to stack up a few walls and buy him maybe ten seconds. “You’re kidding me.” He was sure, sure he didn’t have a heart down here, not the living muscle he had back home, and blood still thundered in his ears.
The analyst’s upbeat tone was a universe of its own, nothing at all to do with the sick green glow of Sam’s world and the shadow gaining on him. He was distantly aware of his crew’s cheers as they wrecked more of practice data and turned on the cops. “Nope,” Lex said. “That’s Chief’s safemode. Means you finally did something that —”
“I know what it is,” Sam growled, hand on his disc so taut he wasn’t sure what would break first, his fingers or his blade. Wait. “-- the hell do you mean, ‘safemode’?”
“Well,” she began, and Rinzler overtook him; turned to observe him. No mask, no change of color, and no soul in his face. The thing was as blank as a well-wiped drive.
Sam swerved into freefall, just to get away. “Some help here, guys!”
He felt more than saw the new lane assembling itself below, but regretted the incline that eased his landing as it did the same for his nemesis, and sped him up. On the one hand, Sam could congratulate himself on that lightcycle. On the other, he would die here and everyone would think it was an accident because Clu’s handiwork was reformed --
-- and when it yanked him off his bike it was just to help him, or some bull like that. Sam yelped, but there was no protesting the silent machine that sat him in front of its own ride and wrapped around him like the bike's back plates. He watched his cycle wobble without a wall to keep it up, then fold up without a driver’s weight.
“No way,” the comms cracked with Lex's voice. “I’m not listing you as neutralized. Do something!”
Easy for her to say. They were headed straight for the melee, and Sam plastered himself against the seat even harder to avoid the stuff whizzing through the air. Tiles more than discs, sure, but damn if he was going to get hit by that. He struck out with an elbow. Rinzler slid aside in perfect sync, tilting the bike dangerously. Fuck it; Sam struck again, seizing the chance to pay the bastard back for everything, Alan and all be damned.
When he was wrestled down effortlessly nanos later, his ID docked and his arms trapped snug behind his back, he shook with frustration and fury; Rinzler had indulged him letting him attack.
They were close enough now for Sam to pick up the cops’ correspondence, though whether he heard it or read it somehow, he wasn’t sure. They’d managed to avoid corruption themselves but the files were collateral, and the list of failures was long enough for him to feel a measure of glee. “How about that,” he told the bike flat up against his face.
The hand that kept his wrists pinned together clenched in the signs of
[valid] and a modifier he didn’t recognize. Sam got the gist of it, though, and turned his head around despite the sting in his shoulder. “’Good’?”
He twisted back. “I’ll show you ‘good’.”
His bike, his rules. He kicked at it with the same code he used before, still clear and bright in his mind. He hadn’t expected it to manifest as a bomb but Rinzler didn’t blink, the infernal boy scout; Sam was pulled again, flew again, and got wrapped in program before he hit the ground. He tried to look up but couldn’t, Rinzler’s free hand heavy on his helmet and holding him firmly down. But the sound...
Worse than nails on blackboard, whatever it was it kept on going, higher and shriller until it was physical pain bursting in Sam’s ears. It drowned out a gasp from Lex and scrambling from both teams, pings so dense they made him nauseous. But Rinzler, latched close and heavy, that grim and implacable force -- Rinzler laughed.
If Sam hadn’t been reeling from the traffic in his head, he could’ve sworn there was a comradely squeeze on his good shoulder. He flexed his arms and found them free, so he rolled over in time to catch the dying glint of explosions battling it out in green and blue. Every surface he could see was full of shards, shrapnel driven deep and worryingly close. Programs folded shields as they picked themselves up, filing damage reports along with colorful commentary.
Rinzler was nowhere in sight. No, scrap that; the program still loomed over Sam, telling others that that’s what they can expect from a User. His voice was clear, lined with laughter instead of a broken purr. And the designation Rinzler wasn't in the list, or the scans, or anywhere on the system as far as Sam could read. Jesus H Christ.
Sam’s helmet retracted and he shook his head. He pulled the latest records from his disc and sat back to watch, twitching in reflex as the ghostly bulk of his prototype slid half-through him, pushed off by the program’s legs. He was aware of himself pivoting away in Rinzler’s hold but he was mesmerized by the sight in front, the cycle’s stabilizing wall splintering as the whole thing spun, deadly shards flying — firing in all directions.
They took the infection out in one blinding sweep, with programs taking cover and shielding their mates with no regard to allegiance. The wiseass one tried to brave the splinterstorm but disappeared at once, pulled behind a bike by someone with more sense.
Sam could see why Tron chose this lot. He turned around with care, mindful of his shoulder and the pain tracing the precise contours of the damage from his billboard fall.
“What part of this,” he said slowly, “was supposed to prove you’re not a psycho?”
He was met with a grin, and a nod in the direction of the wreckage. “Can you make that bomb a feature?”
The never-published second edition of The Digital Frontier had three chapters devoted to sentience in the digital domain, or whatever Kevin Flynn had called it in his notes. When Sam went through his father’s archive, restored with great care at User Central, he could see why the book had trouble getting reissued.
Most of it sounded spaced out — more so than the first one, which already had mention of programs’ personalities — and from what Sam could remember of the arguments at home, Dad was becoming a mess himself. Sam's grandparents blamed it on grief. Sam, armed with hindsight, blamed it on a lot more. But for all that they were a mess, the notes were not untrue.
The programs were alive, and they were nuts.
Chapter 3: III
When Rinzler's crew agreed on ‘progress’, Sam had not expected a really crap pun.
The place didn’t even have the decency to stop at the name, bright and blue in that strange round typeface the Grid was so hot on. The letters also had to turn on one by one like a cheap neon sign, shine together briefly, then start anew. Progress fucking bar.
No wonder it was half empty, or that Sam couldn’t keep his mouth shut about it. “That always happens to me,” he said, seating himself at the bar and indicating all the vacant space. “If it’s something I really want it’ll download half – and then it’s tumbleweeds.” He picked at a bowl of something that looked like bits. “Actually, it’s worse if it’s ninety percent.”
”You say that, User,” the big girl said, unfazed by his idiom, “but we like having a quiet place.” She hailed the server and recited the names of her fellow officers. The guy nodded and set to mixing drinks, then turned to Sam. “Would you like to save your preferences?”
”Uh,” Sam said behind his hand, furtively trying to spit an octahedron out. The thing was condensed energy, stronger than any drink he’d had. “Not sure I have any.”
He bit through it when a hand clamped down on his neck, and his eyes squeezed shut while the ingested power boomed through the remnants of his nerves. “Load up, programs,” a new voice said as the grip shook him. “We’re in for five megs' worth of analysis. At the least.”
Sam turned. It was his former fellow virus, the one who knew better than to stand like Freddie Mercury while everything around him went up like fireworks. Sam recalled the list of names. “You’re Ampu, right?”
The program froze, wide-eyed. “User,” he sputtered, blinking with the force of his drink. “I’m sorry, you – you registered as –“
”- as a program, yep.”
Sam felt six pairs of eyes on him. Five rapid but politely reined-in scans, and Shaddox. The older program must’ve known what happened to him. Sam pushed himself away from the bar and followed Ampu’s lead to a booth. “We’re trying something out,” he said, nonchalant, and exhaled when he felt attention diffuse away from him.
He’d gotten to know the team by the time Lex strode in with a stack of datapads. She huffed at Sam as she handed them out but Shaddox looked like a macro of the cat that got the cream, so Sam pegged him as the collector of their earlier bet. Not that he could figure out what programs even had to trade aside from power, which was free anyway.
"For what was just messing around,” she declared, “you weren't bad. But had this been a Level-One drill, your chance of success would’ve been eighty-nine percent." She tapped at her pad and the wall behind Sam burst to life in intricate graphs. "And I’m not even touching the file on data loss."
”Thank Vivek for that,” Ampu muttered to his glass. Sam frowned; these guys were really young if they still called on their own Users. The program’s pal, the wiseass Sam now knew as Raz, elbowed him silent.
”Your format isn’t fair,” Raz said, addressing Lex. “That’s all good for a normal drill but SamFlynn wiped the whole
[dir] structure. That’s not how it –“
Shaddox laughed — a deep, large voice that suited him well. “’That’s not how it goes’?”
The newer program didn’t flinch. “
[Y][confirm]” Damn right it isn’t.
Shaddox sat up and raised his glass to Sam. “We’ve been trying to demonstrate the nature of guided attacks for half a cycle now. But it really takes a User to make it work.”
”Yeah, about that,” Sam said. “Where’s Tron?”
Lex put her pad down. “User, I’m not a search. You can tag him, it’ll be quicker than pinging us about it every quarter milli.”
[ignore] that”, Raz said. “She’s just glitching ‘cause she’ll have to rewrite her report forms.” He high-fived Ampu with a spark, and downed his drink. He pointed the glass in the direction of Security’s building. “You’ll find Chief in our
[root] folder. He’s not coming out until he’s figured you out, I’ll tell you that much. Gotta be prepared for any trigger or event, and I think you pulled about twelve new ones back there.”
Sam shrugged sceptically. “I don’t even know what I did.”
”... You’re a User,” Sudo tried. “Your actions –“
”Woah, woah.” Sam waved a hand to
[stop] her before this turned into a replay of Dad’s notes. “’User’ means I’m allowed to do a lot. Doesn’t mean I know what I’m doing.”
”Now that,” Shaddox told his team, “is an advanced lesson.”
He’d wanted to ask them there and then but the topics just scrolled on, from the analysis – which turned out to be seven megs’ worth, and required twelve rounds of which Sam drank four – to the lightcycles, because Sam was asked about his workshop and Astra was dying to share all.
So he’d let her, and worked out a mental ticket system as the orders started to roll in. They were nowhere as eccentric as Tron’s, never mind that Sam said yes when the program asked for right-angle turns.
Of course he’d ask for that. And Sam’s inner kid would’ve followed him to the ends of the earth, but that kid was grounded while Sam dug around for any dirt on Rinzler.
The thing was so out in the open though, he didn’t know what to do. Its records were publicly stored, and each logon matched a logoff time for Tron complete with locations and any relevant actions. Rinzler didn’t do much: there were occasional sector sweeps with attached reports, but apart from that it seemed to come on only when —
Sam sat up. Pulled up the portal logs. Matched them up. Checked again.
Quorra wouldn’t be up yet, dammit. A week barely added up to three hours of normal time; half a day was nothing. He needed to tell her now and he was forced to wait.
At least she wouldn’t be beaming in any time soon, with the laser still in bits. She was safe.
Sam ran his checks again and found that Rinzler had no interest in him, or either of Tron’s Users. The only time Sam’s online time intersected with the program’s was that little demo at HQ, to show him who was boss. But if Rinzler was little more than a tool then that meant Tron had the reins, and the only way that made sense --
-- nah. Quorra would’ve told him. She would’ve told him, right, if she had some weird compulsion to come back here and —
### [time|1285408959] [loc|σ] [ref|307020]
heard you want a rematch
— deal with a thousand years’ pent-up rage in a way that made sense for people whose self doubled as a weapon, but still. She could’ve just said, and instead of sending her shopping or whatever it was that women did, Sam could’ve bought her membership in some martial arts club. He still had his contacts’ numbers. But they obviously had to learn a lot about each other yet.
And whatever Tron got out of that deal, Sam didn’t want to think about.
So, naturally, he thought about it until the issue gained sentience and escaped.
"This is easier with your crew," Sam groused when another TDU focused more on his client than on him. "They don’t mess with any of mine."
Sam glared at his flock of helpers. The Transport Design Utilities went guiltily back to work — or so he chose to think — but they probably did because they overcompensated for the next few micros. Soon enough though they were back to being that well-oiled machine that Sam was so grateful for. Lora would skin him if he left the place in shambles. Tron, on the other hand, remained unapologetic.
"We're friends," he offered tersely, resting patiently on a still cycle that lay on a massive conveyor belt, paused for the time being. He'd been sitting there immobile for a quarter-milli already and didn't seem to mind.
Sam brought his datapad over to the conveyor and held it against the program's back like a rule. “I can tell,” he said. “Everyone likes you. Your alter-ego friends with them too?”
The program stirred. “What –“
Sam pushed the pad down. ”Don’t move." But he knew, as soon as he’d asked, that he set off something he couldn’t pause or queue for later. He stepped back to let the unyielding frame unfold, and held eye contact as he readied up for trouble.
He only let himself relax when the weapon Tron undocked lay between them unengaged. The program held it open to inspection, and hit the display switch in clear frustration when Sam made no move to take it. “Everything’s here,” he said. “All my history, my structure –“
”All I want to know –“
”— is here.”
Sam counted to three and tried again. ”-- is what on earth you’re doing with -– wow.”
He took no notice of the display at first but something about it jarred, and it took him a beat to see that there was no bust in digital sparks floating above the disc, but the lines of a header file. The thing was two steps from ALGOL; Sam almost whistled. “You really are the real deal.”
The program wouldn’t budge. ”What I’m doing with...?”
Sam snapped back to attention. “Quorra.”
”Quorra,” Tron sighed, and turned the disc off. “I’m afraid that information is not mine to share.” He docked it safely and melded back with the bike. The gesture forbade discussion, an easy act of authority. Get back to work; he didn’t even have to say it to reset the hall to its usual buzz. And even Sam obeyed, not that he had the slightest intention of letting this slide.
He waved a half-conciliatory, half-dismissive
[clrall], adjusted the settings of a standalone wall generator he'd placed by the conveyor's rear, and snapped his fingers. “
The machine howled like a distant klaxon and released a sheet of clear blue glass that molded itself snugly around the program and lightcycle both. Sam checked for any points of impact and, finding none, hit the retract key. Tron pulled himself up smoothly. “Is this necessary?” he frowned. “It could slow us down.”
Sam waved at his logger and the program scooted over, happy to produce a stack of sheets that proved there was no lag. If his work was going to get questioned, Sam could retaliate in the dullest bureaucratic way. He’d actually picked this up from Hardington’s yes-men when he went through their expenses, looking for a way to clear the upper echelons of clutter.
But try as he might, he couldn’t keep the blank Boss Face on for too long, or the detachment he felt at Encom proper. He could play CEO for Alan’s sake until he got a trusted team in place — and he would, no question there — but this was the stuff he knew. He listened to the back-and-forth and nodded, pleased, when Tron went quiet in the face of evidence. It was the satisfaction of stumping a professor back in college, a victory he didn’t know he missed.
Except he actually cared for this one’s opinion, but damned if he’d let that show.
”I’m not risking any of you,” he said, entering the prelims for the next test. “If you’re going to break your walls that’s fine with me, but I won’t have programs bounced around like objects on my watch. Lora would kill me.”
Tron grinned. “Alan says that often.” He sounded proud.
Sam ordered him to lock in again and Tron obeyed, starting his own generator on Sam’s mark. The conveyor matched his speed, keeping him seemingly in place. At Sam’s next signal he kicked off, vaulting away from the cycle’s disintegrating frame as the thing backed into its own wall and became a bona fide shrapnel bomb.
The scatter was impressive, collision points flashing throughout the membrane of the safety shield that rezzed up at once. Sam still flinched. He barely registered the blur of Tron’s landing but his attention was on the program fully when Tron walked over, eyes and grin wide with thrill. “Nice.”
Sam didn’t know whether to be worried or proud. "Which one are you," he whispered.
He should've set the volume lower. "It's always me," the program said with palpable frustration in his voice — or maybe pleading. Sam looked up. "How can you say that?"
It made no sense. It was like saying Dad and Clu were one and the same, and Sam was never buying that.
He put a hand on the shield to get his mind back on the job; he had an analytical visor like Lora and Alan did, but found it easier to read straight from the environment.
Tron cocked his head. "You can do that?"
Sam made a mock ta-da! pose. "User," he announced, but grew back serious under Tron's suspicious stare. "Listen," he said. "I read Lora's interviews with you, when you were still - when you --"
"While they worked on me, yes."
"That's right," Sam said. "And let's be realistic here,” he went on with a pointed stare, “you said some weird shit back there."
This close up there was no mistaking him for human, or a clone of Alan's for that matter. He looked too sculpted, from the short, severe cut that said ‘military’ more than ‘office’, to the deceptively youthful features that defied guesswork. Thirty, maybe? He didn't look a day over any of his lieutenants.
He felt like it though, hundreds of cycles over. Old and sharp and dangerous.
"I know you did," the program said. "I get alerted any time I’m sought. Your search strings came up fourteen times in the last three hex."
Fourteen times in two days? OK, that could come across as creepy. So Sam did the honorable thing and owned it, not batting an eye at the unstated query.
"You have two options," Tron said. "
, you can track me like you're common spyware, or
, you can take a look. I have nothing to hide from you, and I have nothing to explain to you. Anything between Quorra and me — that you took no part in, have no blame in — you leave that to us. Anything else..." He shrugged, left it open.
Sam cleared his schedule. "Okay," he said. "I'll take a look. I want to see what it is that you two do. No," he added, reading Tron's chagrin in acute realtime, "not with Quorra. She has her privacy and I respect that. But I need to know that you’re no threat to her."
Tron laughed. "Check your logs, SamFlynn. I never said I was no threat. What kind of release would she get if that were true?"
But before Sam could answer, he
[approved]. When he spoke next, it was oddly personal. "You two are very alike," he said gently. "You're not like Flynn at all, either of you, but you are alike."
Sam faltered. "She —"
"I understand," Tron said. "I had family too."
"Jeez," Sam said. "Bring a cheerleading team next, willya?"
They weren't in the arena. For reasons Sam wasn't told but could easily guess, Tron took no part there even though the games looked as popular as ever. No derezzings, just a show of skill; Quorra had great fun with this and installed half the stuff from her new phone. There were still races of course, and a fair bit of combat, but there were also courts in which trebuchets tore down carefully set-up towers, and missiles made of bits puffed up in angry red spikes.
But not in this place.
Sam was given a sector pointer etched with alien design, and followed it to the induction halls, the lone piece of Iso architecture on the rebuilt Grid. The complex was a work of filigree compared to the solid blocks of downtown, and fanned out from the installation portal – the programs’ point of arrival - in a wide semicircle, down a slice of the gradual plateau that enveloped the old city. Its low, wide buildings shimmered like a cascade of fine dot matrix boards, and housed the system’s latest residents while they got briefed and trained for dealing with the Grid.
It was beautiful. Sam knew that Quorra built it at Tron’s request, but that was it. The whole Fight Club thing came out of nowhere.
Or he just wasn’t paying enough attention. Dad’s Greatest Mistakes, number one.
He had to focus.
True to form Tron had made his booking public so there were programs new to Sam in attendance, dwarfing the familiar black and white-clad groups. He spotted a handful of methods he knew and a couple of applications, but the rest he couldn’t place. He nodded to the warehouse crew, saluted Security, and wondered who put their bets on him.
”We’re the cheerleading team,” Raz called out. Next to him Astra beamed and Niven flat out hooted. The girl was big in every way and loved to make her presence known. If she really liked the quiet places as much as she had said, she didn’t keep them such for long. “Team User!”
Sam was under no illusion that they liked him as much as they were there to josh their boss, but he bowed in graceful recognition anyway. And hey, maybe he wouldn’t get his ass handed to him this time.
He knew a lightstaff flew his way before it came into his line of sight. He thanked his Escrima class for that but he’d never had stuff thrown at him in vectors back then. He caught it with far more grace than he exhibited with his first disc, but it still felt embarrassing.
”Why not discs,” he asked again. Tron had warned him to lock his in, and turned his lights off just in case. Sam had grouched, feeling wrapped in cotton and suspecting strongly that this was not how it went with Q. He rubbed his shoulder absent-mindedly and weighed the balance of his staff.
”You’re not ready for that,” Tron said, circling him to clear the room of plugins. It would be just the two of them, no tricks or springload traps. Sam’s mind went to cheats anyway; if Tron could hold his staff so steadily as to tap commands to the room’s terminal with its barest tip, Sam was in trouble. And if he wasn’t, his mouth would get him there.
”Excuse you, I did damn well with those things! Shoulda seen me mop up guards on that ship of yours.”
”You lasted 3.5 microcycles in my court. And I did see you.”
The terminal sounded its blip of acknowledgement. “Oh, yeah,” Sam grinned. “Quorra kind of kicked your ass there.”
Tron nodded with a smile, as pleasant as a shark. “That’s why Quorra gets the disc.”
Then his head dipped, and when he moved again Sam didn’t have to check the active programs list to know which name was there.
It wasn’t that Rinzler looked that evil, or that there was anything deliberately menacing about him like the mask or the broken growl. He was silent and his face was calm, but there was a focus to his moves that let Sam know this was a machine, not a program that would play or jab or interact in any way that wasn’t combat.
Tron would talk to him on his visits, something Sam took for granted until the n-th smack on his neck and back and legs, until it finally dawned on his bruising self that being clever wouldn’t help, that he too would have to shut the fuck up and sink to single-mindedness. He was aware of Security’s shouts and helpful gestures but any second spent on them meant a blow from Rinzler, so he shut all input like he'd shut his lights, and narrowed his world to that one program.
And maybe it wasn’t fair to route his loss and rage on this one remnant of Clu’s might, especially since it shared its body with someone he wanted to spare, but life wasn’t fair to him either and it wasn’t fair to Dad and it wasn’t fair to Quorra. Sam let vengeance stream like blood with every hit, every bright blue crack on Rinzler’s armor. If it hurt him like it hurt Sam – and god, he was grateful for going dark because he didn’t want to think about the agony of staff ends touching living lights – then it didn’t matter that Sam got more than he dished out. He was a User; he could last.
He did, too, more than those few micros in Clu’s court or any later attempt. The burn of injustice must’ve made one hell of a fuel because he lasted past the ridiculous, like the instance where he was sure he damaged Rinzler good, yet the program swooped to handstand to wield the staff with his legs. How the hell he got that thing to sweep like death’s own scythe with his ankles Sam couldn’t tell, but he was sure it owed little to human anatomy. And when the program shrunk to crouch like a large black locust, spear at the ready while Sam stumbled on, it was clear what Clu had done.
Perfect system, huh.
Well; time for God Mode. Sam had practiced realtime coding since his HQ hack, unable to stop poking at his new-found skill. Every new attempt made him sway a little, nauseous like he’d had a bug, but the thing was like a superpower and really, wasn’t that the reason this whole place was built? He squeezed the handle and ignored the pain, and swung to gain momentum because Rinzler was a shadow and the only way to hit him now was force, the sheer flow of splines and curves and vectors that spun around and—
-- his staff was taken from him taken from him and he willed it back but before he felt the sting of materializing objects in his itching hands, there was an
[override] and such a flood of credentials that he had to go sit down while his disc worked it out.
A blocking hold on him, excitement everywhere else. Arguments; a flutter of conflict, probably about the lost odds. Interest: keen, keen interest, from numerous programs at once. Headache, backache, a lightning bolt of pain down his side and leg. A box of cubes, pushed into his hands. Sam peered at it.
”That’s my popcorn, User,” Niven said. “Take it, you’ll feel better.” She smiled and retreated, making room for a resource manager and shouting at the rest to keep the noise down. The gold-lit woman flashed Sam a brief smile but her eyes were those of a program at work, focused on his ID rather than on him.
Sam felt the disc detach and get passed over, and leaned to look up with a drunken grin.
”Whenever I get ahead, you call it quits. See a pattern here, Chief?”
The hold on his neck and dock stayed firm. “I could’ve hurt you,” came the gruff voice.
Sam considered this with a thoughtful look. “Uh-huh. And these are what, accidents?” He lifted his arms and legs trying not to wince. But the bastard held him in place with no regard to his state.
”Those were within parameters. If you hadn’t overridden my settings I would not have been in danger of impacting here, or here – or here.”
Tron’s hands didn’t move but his fingers invisi-keyed coordinates in 3D that outlined Sam’s program code in fairly accurate blocks. Sam looked down, half-expecting to see himself pierced and sectioned by laser mesh. Nothing; it must’ve been in his head. But there was still some kind of semi-corporeal itch…
He twitched. ”Hey, hey! That tickles.” The manager looked up, impassive, and went back to reading Sam’s disc. DNA strands coiled projected in its particle show, broken up by simpler shapes. Basic code. He tried not to feel embarrassed about it, and failed.
There was a subwoofer sigh right above Sam, and a tug at Lora’s card. “Use this,” Tron said, swapping it for the disc over Sam’s good shoulder. “It’ll be quicker.”
”This is User-formatted,” the program said. Sam raised a hand to help but got ignored. “The figures are universal,” Tron said. “His output is strange but he’s a User. I’d be looking at the usage stats at –“
[-0.0002c],” she completed. “I know. Let me copy what I need.” She said it in a way that was genuinely polite and openly irritable at the same time. A manager all right.
But so was Tron. ”He registers on both lists,” he reminded. “You’ll need a mod on source control, and request development from
firstname.lastname@example.org to help him out while he’s here. Quiet, Sam.”
Sam hadn’t said a thing.
He'd sat stoical through this whole duel, a veteran in foster parents arguing like he wasn’t there. He thought of shutting them both down but then Lora would get on his case and he’d rather mine for bits in outlands ditches.
Lex saved him, of all programs. She apologized on missing another near-win of his and dragged Tron away. Sam gave the manager the most charming smile he had; she returned his card matching lie for lie, and stalked off. He pushed himself up and, when the ground stayed level, walked over to Security.
”-- every right to be here,” Tron was saying.
”Yeah, okay,” Lex said, “but when’s the last time you saw one outside of those three sectors? You chose me for a reason, sir. This is an anomaly and I’m reporting it.”
Tron relented with an
[ACK]. “But let Shaddox deal with this,” he added and copied it in a comment. “He’ll decide if anything needs to be followed up on. If he says no, you drop it.”
She saluted, and did the same to Sam as he approached. ”What am I missing?” Sam said.
”You’re all sorts of miracle worker, User,” she grinned. “I’ve never shared a folder with a native before. Present company excepted.”
Sam’s brow furrowed in surprise. “Native? Here?”
He’d never seen one either.
Sam had pretty much handed the Grid over to Alan after Dad died, and listened to him rant about its sorry state in meetings that were supposed to be about the company.
There were only a few hundred original programs remaining of a system that had run millions. Sam didn’t know any more about that than Alan, but there was evidence of a blast wave that had wiped out most of the city – here they’d had to stop, and resume when Alan agreed to break out the booze – and from what information Lora could get out of the survivors, the only ones who made it did so only because they’d been turned off. Whether inactive by punishment, subterfuge, or luck, they avoided death by being halfway there already.
And that was all Sam knew. They feared the Users, or mistrusted them, and the only thing Alan could do was let them have the city back, and hope. They made no noise when he announced repopulation but they didn’t mingle either. The new programs knew about a cluster of sectors held by their older brethren; they couldn’t visit and they couldn’t ping, a disappointment for beings that fed on information. But those were the rules: Shaddox was the only one who ventured outside of the secluded sectors so he acted as the intermediary, the interpreter, and got Alan to agree with their requests.
These came down to leave us alone and Sam figured they’d had enough of Clu and they’d had enough of Dad as well.
And Tron, by all accounts. Rinzler was the lone survivor from the other side, and reintegrating with his older code didn’t help to make him any dearer to them. He could’ve been a hero ten times over before he switched but since he did, his fate was sealed. 511 was a different universe, a different age, and likely only mattered to Sam.
No-one got a good deal out of the old Grid.
”Whoever it was, they’d probably seen you when you first came here,” Tron said.
”Hold up,” Lectrix said, eyes on the User. “You were here before?”
Sam glanced at Tron who had a resigned look on his face. Probably never told them a damn thing and wanted to keep it that way, but there was nothing he could do if Sam felt like sharing his impressions of the old regime. And Sam nearly did, but it wasn’t really his story to tell.
”Uh, yeah,” he said, wincing a little. “That’s why we’re here in the first place. I found it by accident. Sort of. My, uh. My dad built this system.” How much did they actually know? Or rather how little. Sam glared at Tron in helplessness.
Lex coughed. Programs didn’t cough. Sam looked at her, eyebrows up by way of question.
”Behavior analyst here, remember? If you look at him that way I know there’s some trouble you’re not telling me about. I was given video chats when I was new, not just logs of Users typing. It was done for fun and wasn't used in any way, but I learned.”
”And that’s why we chose her,” Tron said.
If she could’ve beamed any further her lights would’ve given out, but she turned on her boss regardless. ”So what’s the trouble, Chief? What’s the story with you two?”
Sam barked out a laugh before he could stop himself. Seeing Tron having to explain Rinzler beyond the ‘safemode’ bullshit was even better than getting to square up against him again.
”Not much,” he cut in before Tron could say a word. “He tried to kill me when I first got here.”
Lex didn’t blink. “But you got here unscheduled, User; you just told me so yourself.”
Sam closed his eyes. Programs. First they sound like people, then they tell you it’s OK to kill a guy if he stumbles in by accident.
”I’m not a virus,” he sighed. “I just play one on TV.”
”Well, you sure attract attention. I need to know what that program wanted -- if Deputy Chief says it’s all right,” she added pointedly. “But I have to go back to my own schedule now. See you around, SamFlynn. You owe me a story – put that in your tasklist!”
Sam waved back, watched the thinning crowd. “I think you owe her one.”
Tron was silent for a long time. “You don’t need a disc to destroy me,” he said flatly.
”And lying’s OK? Why don’t you just tell her? You got these programs working for you ‘cause they’re smart; don’t blame me when they figure you out.”
”All my records are public.”
”Sure,” Sam said, ignoring the tone, “but you’re coasting on the fact that no-one will look for as long as you’re working fine. Why would they? It’s a waste of resources at best, or a glitch if an action is done without a proper trigger. I’m not stupid.”
”No,” Tron agreed. “But you’re thinking like a program now. Go home and rest until Resources say you’re fine. You haven’t slept at all since -”
Sam cut him off. “OK, look,” he said. “I don’t know if Dad asked you to babysit for me a million years ago or something, but that’s over. You are what you are and I am who I am, and things didn’t work out the way they should have, and I appreciate you trying to fix this and give me – I don’t know – whatever you give Quorra, but...”
The program handed him the hall’s cron list. “Same time, square hex from now?” He’d already put in a new booking for a match.
Sixteen by sixteen hours: ten days. Sam looked at him over the datapad’s rim, trying to find something to say, but then he just signed and handed it back.
Except if this got any more popular, they'd have to move it to the arena.
Chapter 4: IV
>SamFlynn # q
>SamFlynn # q
>SamFlynn # q do i have to say acknowledge
>SamFlynn # or open sesame
>deja_q # SAM!
>SamFlynn # Q! oh man
>deja_q # Sam is everything OK?
>SamFlynn # yeah. this place is weird but i'm good
>SamFlynn # is the phone working
>deja_q # not right now. I need to set WarpDrive up for video
>deja_q # is something wrong?
>SamFlynn # no, no
>SamFlynn # how's that going
>deja_q # Dr Bradley is helping me
>SamFlynn # q dude just call him alan
>deja_q # but he says he has a friend who is better with workarounds
>SamFlynn # hahaha
>SamFlynn # workarounds
>SamFlynn # i know who that is
>SamFlynn # flynn lives
>deja_q # Sam?
>SamFlynn # yes
>deja_q # what do you mean, Flynn lives?
>SamFlynn # sorry
>SamFlynn # it's just a name
>SamFlynn # it's a group of users who
Sam's hands hovered over the keyboard. He had to be delicate here.
>SamFlynn # they were loyal to dad
>SamFlynn # when things weren't good
>deja_q # like us
>SamFlynn # exactly
>SamFlynn # that's roy, you can trust him
>SamFlynn # he's even better than me at times
Sam signed off a quarter milli later. He still needed to talk to her, really talk but he didn't want to commit half the stuff he wanted to say to a text file someone else could find. Not after the bombshells she dropped.
Not that he didn't expect the big one. It didn't take a rocket scientist to appreciate the complexity of the laser, and for all that Lora was the best and in many ways the only person capable of handling it, she was still new to the idea of passing people through its algorithms. Dad had been the closest thing to a veteran, but the only mention of damaged or dead tissue they could find concerned the impossibility of getting a good sandwich to manifest on the Grid.
Baloney, literally, and a dead end.
So it would take longer to sort it out. Weeks, perhaps? They were lucky Lora was there on her own time and money, and answered to no-one. Quorra was on call too, still awaiting a legal identity that was the joint project of Flynn Lives and a good few friendly programs.
A week was a cycle. A week was a year. More, actually, with corrections and calculations manifesting uninvited in Sam’s brain to let him know just how long he'd have to hang around without the light of day.
He wanted to talk to Dad so bad he couldn't breathe — if he even did breathe down here; he was never sure. But the phantom choke was real enough, and without thinking he kicked a script to life, a macro he'd made to get his mind back to something useful. He only wrote it to ease the itch of needing to work that was probably a side-effect of program code, but damn if it didn't come in handy. He was pretty much ready to leg it back to the warehouse when the chatroom flashed again.
>307020 # storm headed your way. stay where you are
How the fu- OK, whatever. If the program tagged him somehow they'd talk about that later.
>SamFlynn # got a bike. you know the bomb shelter thing on wheels?
>SamFlynn # that shit has shields on shields by now. relax!
>307020 # I'm coming over
Except Tron whooshed through the place like the storm he'd announced, and yelled at Sam to get moving or he'd miss it. By the time Sam made it to the roof the program was well into a call with some unit or another, pacing the perimeter and looking out across the city. He waved the User over and talked all the while, sector codes mixed with a good dose of slang that Sam didn't get. For all he knew, each subsystem had its own language. He too began to use the TDU shorthand when working at the lab.
The air was charged. This wasn't rain; Sam was used to the rain and the way sound moved faster than the weather, a subtle patter descending on the city before any actual drops. That was a soothing sensation, a low-level sweep that tidied up stray files and left the place defragged. This, if anything, felt like the opposite. But while the rain made people pull umbrellas out of their all-purpose sticks and huddle in doorways, the warning of a storm drew them out en masse. Each balcony in sight shone with suit lights, and the streets were packed like a digital Mardi Gras.
”I just talked to Quorra,” Sam began, marvelling at the rivers of light between the monolith blocks. The density of traffic reflected in the smooth facades, making the streets almost painfully bright. Sam was acutely aware of the darkness of the Grid but he wasn’t sure if he could take this kind of glitz for very long either; Quorra’s building felt easier on the eyes. His gaze drifted upwards, both to rest from the blinding spectacle below and to follow Tron’s wave even as the program ranted on, issuing directives as fast as he argued with another admin.
”Did she say anything about the ports?” Tron said, only to hiss at the phone the very next moment. “No, what you need to do is open those files so we can route – no, it’s an issue of – you’re inviting conflicts --- would you like to talk to the head of Transport? I have him right here.”
His headset was whipped off and thrust into Sam’s hands before Sam could
[N]. He put it on with practiced calm. “Sam Flynn here; proceed. Yes. Yes, ‘the User’ –“ He looked away so as not to laugh at Tron’s resigned gesture, and carried on listening. “Uh-huh. Well, if he says it is, then – sure, I’ll – wait, wait, let me stop you there. You just said there’s a safety issue.”
Sam stared at the distance, semi-aware of the excitement at street level and the borealis shimmer coating the skyline. This call was like being back at Encom. He hmed and uh-huhed dutifully, and refused to give in. “My authority,” he told the data pusher, “comes from lora at baines dash consulting dot com” – here he waited for that to sink in, and acknowledged Tron’s solemn nod; Lora’s name was the Tetragrammaton to the old-school program – “and the fact that I own the entire system, hardware and software, so unless you want me to come over there and – thank you. Yep, that would be good. The coordinates Security gave you. Yep. You too.“
He gave the headset back. “The things I’ll do for you.”
He was answered with a grin. A section of the tilting plates that served as the roof’s windshield already acted as a large console, with each present program marked with a miniature disc. The circles bobbed around like bubbles, numbers intensifying as the system Sam talked into obeisance assigned more space to cache. “I don’t know why you put up with it,” he muttered.
”Put up with what?”
”This,” Sam said irritably, sweeping a hand over the last-minute traffic adjustments on the map. Around and beyond, the tallest buildings already hummed with static and there was more color in the sky than he’d seen in all his time on the Grid. “Any two-bit unit thinks they’re in charge, and they’ll mess with anyone else’s job just to feel big. It’s like the whole damn company; I don’t know how Alan gets anything done.”
”I used to have a much larger hold on the system,” the program said. “But I don’t think you’d approve of that either.”
Sam gave a heavy sigh. “Look, I just… Why can’t anything just work?”
Tron spared him a moment, keeping a link with the map but taking his eyes off it to regard the User with something approaching pity. “That query had less than thirty bytes in it but it read like a meg,” he said. “What did Quorra tell you?”
”That they’re not – no disrespect to Lora, okay, but the laser isn’t working right. Looks like I’ll be here for another… I don’t know. Cycles.”
“You said this could happen.”
Sam watched the map flicker as the air - or whatever passed for it - got sharper and almost bitter. If he were in the mood for jokes he’d say he felt it in his joints like an old man, but truth was he sensed it on his disc and in the lines of code that kept him alive. And yeah, he had confided his worries to Tron; it surprised him how much he was willing to share with the program after a few rounds of beating each other senseless. It wasn’t all that healthy but there it was.
”Well yeah, I kinda figured, this kind of stuff takes time. But it’s different when you see it spelled out like that. Anyway,” he said after a beat, too quickly for the pause he gave it, “I got stuff to do. It’s no big deal.” He looked out to the horizon where network ports thrummed with preps. “What are we waiting for, anyway?”
Right on cue, the skies shook with an unholy offspring of a cannon blast and the buzz of a million wasps. Terrifying, but the crowd roared with the same welcome they gave arena stars. “Indulge me,” Tron shouted over the noise. “Testing something!”
He grinned when he said that, and Sam had by now learned to expect pretty much anything from the whacko software. Their duels had rules but with proving grounds all bets were off; at one point Tron used him as a missile, something Sam still had to forgive him for. Or for having to keep up with a tornado of laser shots not to get caught in the ricochets, or for flying a jet upside-down because... because. It made sense at the time.
Or he was just pissy that the program had come up with it first, but that was another matter.
The almost oily shine to the clouds, with its strange slick hues, bathed the city in surreal light. “Testing what,” he echoed slowly. Beneath, a sea of discs rose in anticipation: rock concert or church, Sam could not decide. He jerked a thumb in the direction of the roofs where clusters of programs enacted the portal routine, except they had no beams to receive them. Not yet, anyway; Sam looked at the clouds, suspicious. “Should we –?“
”Do what you like,” Tron said, focused on his impromptu console like he’d seen this pass a thousand times – which he probably had. “I’m on duty.”
Sam shrugged. If he was going to spend that much time trapped in here, he might as well try whatever. He weighed his disc in his hand, spun it once, and held it in a skeptical mirror of what he saw others do, one hand high and the other on a railing.
This had better be -
Lightning cracked right through him and he laughed - surprise, relief, bewilderment in one - and he kept on laughing even if he couldn’t hear himself over the noise in his brain, the static and the spooky whine of longwave stations he’d get on his crappy radio way back when, chasing aliens under bedcovers. And when that sped up his sight was gone as well but that was fine because the world was joy, it was a tidal wave of power crashing down on him. He was so, so tempted to let go, and it nearly whipped the disc out of his grip --
-- but he held on because it was a game, a dare, and excitement carried on the wind in voices he didn't know but they were close and teasing and there and he shuddered - with the wind? the current? were they one and the same? - but then he whooped and he didn’t give a fuck, and he knew exactly how many people were out there and didn’t need a map to feel the weight of the cloud roll through the street and charge the discs and the buildings there and -
- the Grid was a latticework of silk, thin thin lines burning harder than they seemed capable, pulses of light racing off into the darkness, bursting in the nodes and spinning further out. Programs moved as patterns and networks that made sense if he could just reach out and -
”- you’re missing out!” he shouted, printed, manifested thoughts in a new and User-white string of binary code, no, a cord of infinitely delicate strands of -
- if he could just -
- but that impulse exploded in its own polyhedron and fizzed away to nothing when he looked to the side to tell Tron to drop whatever he was doing -- and saw a sheath of transmissions, the locations and predictions and realtime stats rising from the streets to spin together in a massive cable, live and bright and heaving until it met this – this -
what the hell are you
-this structure that tamed it and threw it back, like waves crashing against a cliff, all the power and the burn of the crowd outside relenting before a steady, ancient force -
it’s a filter Sam it used to be a firewall you know what it does
- and damn if he didn't want to be a part of -
- but just like it struck the thunder vanished, the rush and the noise and the living math that was unlike any trip he'd had on normal drugs. Maybe he breathed; maybe he froze.
”I’m not missing out, I’ve done this enough,” Tron said like he was just some guy at work and not a what-the-fuck-was-that-thing. Sam unclamped his hands from the railing, from the disc, and flexed them to get some feeling back before he docked his ID. He hoped the shaking didn't show. “I’m still surprised it worked for you,” the program added. “I suspected, but... ah, if Resources ping you?”
Sam slid down to rest against the windshield. “Yeah?”
”Just blame me and they’ll leave you alone.”
Sam rubbed his eyes with the back of his hand. Faintly, he was still aware of the multitudes outside, a collective euphoria that lingered with a feeling he could not define. But oh, he’d liked it. “And why would they call me in the first place?”
The windshield buzzed; Sam turned to look at the display and saw a pretty impressive spike hit the power grid on the last saved micro. “That’s the storm,” he said.
”That’s the storm,” the program said as different sections peeled off the map to hover highlighted in midair, then vanish. The spike remained. “This is you.”
Sam just looked at it. “Good news? Bad? Let me guess: bad,” he deadpanned. It wasn't like the day could have gotten any worse after Quorra's news. He wasn’t even annoyed to have his hair mussed fondly in response, like he was a kid.
”I’d leave that judgement with the Users,” Tron said diplomatically, folding his maps back to a file. By which he meant: not you.
”You know,” Sam said, just to change the topic, “you look really weird in Grid-o-vision.”
And with the look that got him he learned Kansas was so far gone, it was a different planet.
/* request data filters; see: /tmp/rev/r/SamFlynn/2010-9-27/alt/files */
/* request limits on power distro else probability of failure approaches 1*/
/* compromised formatting re: input; raw input reported at: [see file] */
It went on. Sam Flynn: the Error Log.
Well okay, maybe that was harsh. They were trying to help, both the programs who monitored him and the AIs who helped write the log in a way that would make sense to humans. He hoped Lora could read it, anyway, and was anxious to hear what she made of it all.
There was also a formally structured request in the heap of files that basically begged for her to go tell Sam to get some goddamn rest since he wouldn't listen to the programs. He snorted when he found it; she couldn't get him to do jack when he was twelve, let alone now.
Nice try, though.
And resting was for wusses anyway. There was loads to do, from the traffic issues that were still a chore to the excitement surrounding the advent of the internet. He'd even gone to say hello to the Grid's first browser, a small and purposeful woman who called herself Viola. His inbox was full, but that had less to do with demands - a fair heap at any time - than it had with spam, thank-yous and pictures and even reports from Security crews who were going nuts with joy now that they had work to do.
Real work, they said, with badass bugs and not the flimsy glitches that Sirens handled on a micro basis. And was he serious about the malware? Real, actual malware, written by unknown Users? Astra and Niven and Ampu had all lined up in his office with weapons designs, and for all that Sam had zero plans of writing tanks or anything he'd seen in Clu's hangars, he had to admit forewarned was forearmed - and forearmed was just good thinking.
So they said, anyway. Some millis later there were files in his 'in' tray, stuff that was Clu's design, with a short note saying they were Sam's to trash or take. He considered it for a good long while, then filed it all away.
It was a gesture of… something. Trust? Goodwill? He couldn’t tell which of the two programs sharing a single shell the package came from, but he didn't have the heart to nix it.
Was it like this when the Grid was new? Before it was all fear and war and eliminations in the Games? Sam could see the appeal it held for Dad, but he couldn't shake off a weird unfulfilment. It wasn’t exactly boredom, it couldn’t be, but there was an itch he couldn’t scratch, an impatience he believed he could sense in other folks as well. But maybe that was just the thing that kept Dad hooked and away from -
He tidied up his mail and stopped to snort at a picture of Shaddox. The old program posed with a shattered bug, one leg propped against the massive husk. Sam didn’t think the dude had a sense of humor so seeing this was good. If they were happy, Sam was good.
And then it struck him, the thing he missed. And he facepalmed at himself because this kind of shit had never bothered him back in the world where he built his own house and kept his own company, give or take a pooch. It was him and Marv and he was fine but then back home he wasn’t looking at a thousand years of solitude or whatever that book was called that a girl had tried to get him into and he only took it because he was hoping to score and – look, okay, he was nineteen. He didn’t have to justify this to himself.
Point was, he had no friends. Not like the rapport he saw on screen, with laughter and banter he imagined as a .wav file attached to the mail. He got on great with his warehouse crew but they treated him like they would treat Lora: endless ease and dedication, but there was no mistaking who was worker and who was boss.
Security on the other hand was staffed with independents. Which it had to, clearly, because who else was gonna run into unknown stuff and learn on the go? All of the system had to be reliable but there was the confidence that rose from constance and then there was intelligence, Encom’s point of pride and the reasoning behind so many of their global labs. And here it was, derping around with bugs and squirming with impatience as it waited for the ‘net.
Dammit, Dad. You had a beautiful thing going here.
To hell with it; Sam shut his lab down, passworded it, and rezzed his bike to see this for himself.
His ghost caught up with him a mere mpx outside of city limits. It didn’t look like she’d tailed him but wherever she'd been she was on him fast, throwing queries and persistent pings.
”Check your calendar, Su,” he sent back. “I’m good until the ports go live.”
”The ports aren’t safe,” she insisted. “I was instructed –“
”I’m sure you were! And it’s not your fault if a User doesn’t listen. Anyone gives you a hard time, ma’am, just send them to me.”
He sped on, glib and comfortable in his exec role like he’d grown up at Encom. She kept pace with him no problem, making him half annoyed and half proud of his work.
He’d single-handedly renewed Security’s fleet, two full months of solid coding and improving and not letting himself stop. It made time fly, and made him shudder when he thought of Dad - and Quorra – in that Spartan little house, centuries of doing nothing for fear of losing her to Clu. There was no way Sam could live like that, and he too was getting eager to see the ports go up. Yeah, it would be a mess but at least it would be lively without the spur of war.
Which was what Dad was really after all along, Sam was sure, even if the Grid was built when the internet was new and rough. He imagined Dad just wanted to have everything done right before he hooked the system up; except he wanted it done perfect and that went down so well that Sam was almost willing to push things on, open them in beta just to see what happens.
Bugs, of course. Bugs would happen. Big SOBs, like the ones in pictures he was sent.
See if Rinzler tries to stop him this time around.
Su was on his heels when they got to the elevator, and spoke before he could once they reached the top. But Tron cut her off with a calm
[OK] and, not caring that Sam could actually interpret signing on the fly, added something along the lines of
[repeat instance]s and attributes of
$flynn. “Besides,” he said as he turned to Sam, “this is probably about our work.”
He wasn’t that far off.
“Kind of, yeah. I did all I had back at the office and, hey, never been here. And it’s kind of my domain, actually.”
”Not yet,” Sudo tried behind him, to no avail. Sam had already made his way further into the glassy landscape, oddly angled and Eschery where the Grid ran out of space. This was literally the edge: planes folded back onto themselves and he had no idea how the future gates even managed to stand up. The space beyond was void, a dizzying nothing that was deep and cool and endless. Sam was reluctant to move on but mesmerised, and it took a discrete ping to stop him from hanging.
”Sorry, yeah,” he said, clearing cache on auto. “But it will be, soon, so I thought I’d come help out. Not that you don’t look like you got it covered, if y’all got time to pose for pictures, but you know. I can handle bugs.”
Silence. There was a steady flow of data somewhere he could sense, but he wasn’t gonna spy on their internal memos. Not to mention that this was miles more civilized than the first time he tried to help and Rinzler simply knocked him out, then had Alan drag his sorry ass back to town.
Sam still bristled over that.
”Decide quickly,” Niven said. She bounced her disc between her hands, leaning forward slightly with her feet apart like a basketball player ready for a strike. Some kpx away Astra did the same, and Sam could sense the other two programs reaching for their discs. “New wave in
 –  –“
The gigantic gate shook in its frame, a skyscraper’s worth of potential debris loosening along its edges. Its lights went out but cracks lit up, and Sam had seen gridbugs before but that was a freaking elephant that broke through --
What was earlier a ping became a strong hard grip as he was yanked aside, flattened belly-first against a rock, and felt his disc detach. He shouted in surprise but the blade was in his hands before he got a full word out, and a foreign weight settled down between his shoulders. He grasped behind to feel it, and paused in shock to see his arms and hands sheathed all in black. There was no trace of his lab coat even if his disc was still in white. He shook his head and reached behind, again, but Tron slapped his hand away.
“No touching,” the program hissed. “It’ll keep you safe so leave it as it is.”
”But – wait,” Sam stuttered, looking at the ID in his hand as if he’d never seen one before. “If I get to keep my disc and wear yours as a shield, what –“
Oh sweet Jesus. The program had a stretch of rope, a burning wire coiling in his grip. He wrapped it around each hand and tugged, looking like a hired gun on a strangling mission. He smiled, feral and inhuman; Sam didn’t dare look at the process list. He could deal with Rinzler, just about, but the thought of Tron on that maniacal high was not something he was ready for, not just yet.
And then Sam was alone, and an absolute colossus towered overhead. But before he could even aim the thing collapsed, a leg derezzing in a flash of green and one thin slice of blue. The rope scythed through the air like a neon lasso or a bizarre flail, and did away with another limb as the gridbug’s body tumbled down, now within the range of discs. Two went for it and pulverized its bulk, and the landscape shimmered with resultant dust.
Sam breathed for a micro before another monster filled his sight. He was ready now, and hurled the disc at it with all the strength he had; he got better in the drills, never obviously coached but improved nonetheless. The ID hit the creature square on the head, the weird little searchlight crowning a crane-like form. The thing went down in a cascade of blocks and when the disc came back it was thrumming with the extra charge. Not the thrill of plugging into a storm but not far either, and Sam could see why no-one opted for a bomb. He took shelter while the buzz dispersed, only to be met with Niven’s blatant ogling.
”Suits you,” she said with a confident nod and didn’t wait for his response. She had three bugs down while he finished off his second, shouting curses that were as hilarious as they were disconcerting. Then she elbowed him, which was the moment he was truly glad he had some proper armor on. “Chief must like you if he gave this up.” To illustrate her point she flipped her disc; the ID was so loaded that it left a trail behind, an afterimage of looking at the sun.
This didn’t happen the last time he was here. He’d used the blade before, boy, did he ever. And he’d used it on programs - sure, they were Clu’s clone army, but still alive – and he hadn’t felt a thing. Was it because he was a User? Would it be different now and – oh, god, please somebody tell him it was different when it came to programs. Please tell him that it wasn’t like Highlander and you didn’t get a rush when you terminated someone else.
The next time he threw he felt sick – and really, really good. Worse yet, it was fun because each shock of impact made him see in
[raw] and figuring that out was like a game. The landscape switched to actions and addresses in unsteady bursts but each time it did it was a little clearer, and if Niven was a whirlwind of quick repeat decisions Astra was like fireworks, writing and wiping across five gates at once. But they worked in tandem, all of them, and he was dying to join in.
With each problem crushed he felt renewed; bolder. He could see alarm ripple through the team the more he got involved, sense Sudo’s shields get that much tighter, but where he’d normally have shrugged them off now he was fine because it was her job that was what she was and besides, they did it for each other – a dense, blazing network of checks and assurances that went with each new strike. If he ever doubted they knew the meaning of families, now was the time to be ashamed.
Back to normal.
”Stick to User-friendly, User,” Sudo shouted, running alongside him and taking out chunks of debris raining down on them. “You lag when you’re in raw!”
”No, it’s just –“
- and there it was again, just as his hand closed on his returning disc. The ground shook with one gate failing and all support crashing down, but that wasn’t what made him lurch. He must’ve smashed a big one because his blade was still aglow, and the power was enough for him to watch the system without the ‘User-friendly’ layer that gave it weight and hills and cities and lightspeed bikes - and faces.
Nothing like that now. Sudo was around him, a creature of statistics and predictions and a wave of allocations moving him away, well out of trouble. He resisted, of course, and then there was Niven with her massive strength, pulling folders like a rug underneath his feet to toss him into something safe. Well, tough fucking cookies, he was coming back —
-- to a scene that would’ve given Nostradamus an explosion in his pants.
That was the last wave, Sam knew somehow, the information trickling like sweat down his back to pool in his port and the foreign disc resting there. Or maybe that’s where it came from because it wasn’t he who had to know this stuff, but either way that was it, the bugs were dying and Alan’s program was a hurricane whipping through the lot.
The thing was everywhere, and the idea that there was a landscape or a horizon or a city to protect was laughable in the face of sheer force. Action was all Sam saw, life where there shouldn’t be life, numbers and decisions and a process that could never be called human and yet -
- it was.
Even if it was only User-friendly.
And then Niven thanked Sam’s lag, and punched him out.
”I hate you all.”
”Greetings, User,” she grinned. “Glad to have you back with us.”
Next to her Astra looked tiny for all that she was tall, but her smile was just as big. She greeted him with a booting sequence tapped against his leg, more in solidarity than for any real effect. He smiled weakly back and tried to consolidate this picture of innocence with the cannon he saw earlier, detonating targets in a sequence that made his head spin.
He sat up. “Was that necessary?”
”Hey, User, you helped,” Niven said without regret. “That’s what you wanted, right? But there are still priorities.”
Someone snorted. Sam looked around and found Sudo seated on gate rubble next to Tron, both engrossed in a datapad resting on her knees. Tron's disc was back where it belonged. Behind them, a phantom image of the working gate lingered on, a stubborn projection in lieu of scaffolding. The programs were slow and worn but reports wouldn't file themselves; Sam knew this all too well. He leaned against a rock and watched the beam mesh glitter in the clouds above.
Since the ports were this much trouble, he had no excuse at all to let them fail. He'd get this done, one way or another.
They would've taken themselves back to town but Astra had a wistful look on her face as she followed Sam’s gaze to the map in the sky. There was no junction near but he could do that much for her. He moved to kneel, eyes closed, and pressed down on the ground instructing it with little but the basic coordinates. He only needed a rudimentary stop.
Above him, Niven whistled; Sam looked up as he rose, then down, following her gaze. They were standing – or sitting, rubble and all - on a solid field of dim blue light, the rest of the ground falling away at a steady pace. He picked up some approval but not much more with all four programs winding down.
A lone train crept along the nearest beam, header sails disengaged as Sam’s platform sent out a stop signal. It slowed down further as the platform aligned with its course but didn't halt, gliding instead slow enough to board. The entire train was a string of neatly formatted data packets and trailers, almost entirely vacant. Only a scatter of quietly conversing programs took up a few front seats. They paid no attention to the User and his company.
Sam looked at the cops by his side and pinged them as gently as he knew. They were next to unresponsive with their resources out of whack, and he had a feeling that their libraries could do with some light defrag as well. Thankfully, they didn’t have to wait long for the first idling pod to reach them. Astra started towards it, then paused. "SamFlynn?"
"What?" She signaled a
[try again] at the same time.
"User classes," Sudo said, together with
[ignore]. Sam shrugged while Astra waved a cheerful
[OK] and loaded herself into the pod.
Seven empty trailers passed by until another pod showed up. Invalid class or no, Niven made use of Sam's User gallantry and snatched it with a flourish. Another twelve, and Sam started to feel hypnotized.
"Remind me again why we randomized this."
"Crowd control," Tron and Sudo said, palpably on autopilot.
Sam bit down a laugh and ushered Su in when the train slowed down again. It didn’t look like there was anything left after that but plain old seats, but he figured him and Tron could tough it. Or at least Sam could; the program was next to crashed, but he did own half a sector all at once, not a quarter-milli prior.
Sam nudged him forward with a simple line, commenting it with an apology. “I'd teleport you over, buddy,” he muttered as he secured them both, “if you’d only let me.” But that argument could wait because they had it time and time before, even if Sam maintained that strangers zapping themselves back & forth to destabilize the Grid was scifi anyway, with the system still offline.
He watched the temporary platform deconstruct as the last of the trailers brushed past, and sank back against the bolster. The train accelerated gently, passing through two real stops and underneath a goliath freighter, Sam’s own work. Once out it picked up speed and, wings unfurled, glided along the beam aimed at the city. It was a quiet ride, almost lulling, until Sam felt compelled to shake it off and woke to Rinzler staring back.
He only ever saw the program in their scheduled rounds, but dodging death by staff and disc taught him the difference quickly.
Sam tensed, then realized what happened. Where normal programs went to sleep in their weird downtime ways, Tron - who refused to idle - simply fell to safemode and turned off anything that wasn’t essential to the situation at hand. Sam had no idea what this situation was, but the sun went down and the moon came up and with it all the things that lurk in the dark.
”Patch me,” Rinzler said.
”Patch –? No," Sam said. “That’s done from the outside. With the damage you guys took we’ll queue you up, find replacements, and wait for–“
There was only one way to handle this. “That’s the routine.”
”Not for me.”
Sam met the level gaze. ”Too bad.”
Silence. Rinzler looked taut, intense, but not so much ready for a fight as he seemed to access something. Eventually he spoke again, and it was in the same strained voice that set him apart from Tron. “Please.”
Sam never knew why he agreed.
But there he was at Repairs, stuffing his face with a handful of transparent, icy dodecahedrons. He still hated that stuff but for all that he could whip up buildings from thin air, a working Jägerbomb was still outside his reach. Sam had seen rectification and understood Rinzler's demand to stay awake; none of that made his task any easier.
His patient was already drugged with distilled power. The program was aware of him, Sam made sure of that, but he was out of it enough not to be a danger when things got real.
Sam slid the disc into a console and got to work. The scanner bed was familiar, identical to the thing that Alan used to sort and sustain Sam's own mangled body. But the stuff it showed had nothing to do with nerves or veins or any human organs and Sam thanked his system code that he knew his way around. As the disc projected its particle show he was guided by instinct, reaching for jumbled data even before color gave it away.
He kept his eyes locked on the whirling sparks and did not think about the sound of fingers and feet scraping against the bed, or the rattle of a bug claw shard as he pried its lines out of healthy blocks of code. But there was no voice, not from Rinzler or Tron, and that just made it worse. Laid out open as the program was, his decision to keep quiet was a traceable spark. Sam could watch concern for him pulse its way through surrounding torture, and nearly called it quits.
He was going to need that booze if this was bound to happen often.
When the program booted up, dazed in trial run and in no condition to take himself to storage, Sam walked him down to what he labeled ‘server room’: a chill, silent floor where rows of capsules held the programs Security didn’t need at that time. The large dark casings were no creepier than a row of Crays but Sam still didn’t want to linger. He followed numbers to Tron’s own pod, loaded him in, and stayed until its dark glass closed and status lights blinked to life; tapped the screen by way of salute, and escorted himself out.
He knew the crazy bastard would be out of there in no time because Sam couldn’t keep him out of trouble any more than the reverse was true, but he hoped he did good work. And now, with the ports cleared up, he could do some more. The outside world soon catch up, and he wasn’t giving Alan’s rivals any more ammo now that he was back in charge.
Time to build a brand new Sam.
Chapter 5: V
No response, and she wasn’t lagging either. Sam tried again. “Dee. Level twelve circuit diagrams. The little floating islands? Does that help?”
She nodded in time with the music, Iron Butterfly on full volume slugging their way through the garden of Eden. “I’m indexing this file,” she said, and made no move to get his stuff.
There was nothing to index in the song. But Sam went to fetch the files himself because he’d tried bossing her around before and it was just embarrassing, not least because two microcycles in she’d just go back to doing what she wanted to in the first place. And she looked like Lora so all she had to do was stare at him until he wilted. It was easier with her army of subordinates.
Transport Design Utility D wasn’t the first program Lora wrote for the Grid – wasn’t even the first of the TDUs, obviously enough – but she came to this world between the phase in which Lora was unaware of the whole lookalike thing, and the one in which she actively worked on some variety in her programs’ looks. Very few remained now that resembled her at all, physically at least, but Dee was a solid reminder of who really ran the place.
And she drove Sam nuts, but that was another story. He had a theory that Lora had deliberately injected D with intense personality just to mess with him and Alan: the few times he’d seen the women work together were uncanny, and he was glad not to have to deal with that again. At least Dee had no remarks on his looks or his dating fails, not that either mattered any more.
For now, he reproached himself, and wiped this persistent fear. For now.
He cleared his tablet and his mind and got to work, fresh new files popping up in crystalline patterns to describe themselves in the Grid’s peculiar GUI. He dimmed the lab and watched the system rise in glorious 4D, structures blossoming along the elongated plate of the main island and the scattered archipelago of its far end. Far above, and higher than they originally stood, the floating rocks bobbed level with the highlighted
[level-12] and Sam moved to the middle of the map, reaching out to flick the rocks about until they made a wide, gentle sine undulating down the length of the Grid’s X axis.
That part was easy. What came next never failed to give him an almost physical rush while also making him regret all those times he believed himself too smart for school. He let his focus drop as he scrolled through the songs he’d uploaded - a lifetime ago, it felt - and nodded to Dee with a grin when the Rocky soundtrack filled the endless hall.
The mini-Grid’s skies darkened with the force of Sam’s will, dense and heavy with the amount of paths running from the rocks to the ports, no less daunting than their full size counterparts. Sam tagged the ones he needed the most -
 - and let the rest wait.
These ones alone would keep enough people busy as it is, if the tired but happy faces of Security were anything to go by. And once this stuff was open to any and all programs wandering by, things were bound to get interesting. Hell, Resources were grilling him about it already. But he ignored that and focused on the figures and the links and the math that held it all in place, triggering conditions until he felt the CPU strain.
There was more to the ache but the pain in his arm was a background sensation by now, a faintly nauseating tug. He’d learned not only to expect it but he used it as a gauge: if it hurt, the magic worked.
”So. How’s this look?”
D shimmered over, bright and delighted like Lora herself. She was short enough for the rocks to float at eye level so she inspected them with program scrutiny, tapping here and there to correct Sam’s calculations on the fly. The twin beams that rested beside the islands came to fuller view, curving like an expert skier’s trails. It was ridiculously complicated, this network of junctions that made it work but damn it, he had all the time in the world and if there was a chance to give Quorra a view worthy of the Orient Express, she’d get it.
”Now it works,” D said, redundantly and unrepentantly. Sam clicked his stylus, and a miniature and unusually wide train unfurled its sail to glide along the beams. Not a hitch; the thing jumped node to node as seamlessly as if its path really were a Bezier curve. Sam stared at it with breath held, timing ticks in his head and drawing inexplicable fulfillment from each completed line. By the time the simulation ended he was nearly giddy, and what started out as pain was morphing to a high.
Dee’s laughter snapped him out of it. “What?”
She shook her head and smoothed the front of his lab clothes. “You had the look,” she said. “I haven’t seen it on a User yet. Don’t worry,” she added with a pat to his cheek, “it looks nice. Nothing wrong with you.”
She wouldn’t have to say that if there were really nothing wrong. But he had no chance to press her on for detail because their tasklists both updated and while he had e-mail to think about, and how he wanted to play Where In The World Is Sam Flynn with anyone who might be poking at his sudden disappearance, she had company.
He expected Archie. No, delete that: he hoped it would be Archie. Like Viola, the program was old and straightforward and weirdly charming, and had apparently indexed the neighbouring servers already. The Grid was left for last because it was a mess of uncombed folders, accounting for half the scrapheap that the outlands were mostly made of. Sam wanted to talk to him about the snippets of Dad’s notes that he had found, and told himself that the only reason he had yet to do so was that he’d found so much else to do – not because the stuff in there was like a blueprint on how to mess the system up.
One: Don’t pay attention. Two: Act like God. Three: _
Sam was sure there was a three. Never mind, it would show up on its own, probably to bite him on the ass the way it did with Dad. And no, no Archie; it was Security instead, and the euphoria that had bubbled up with the flawless test turned to something else as he watched Tron and Dee go through the moves of their acknowledgement routine. They didn’t seem aware of it, or they didn’t care – they’re programs, they’re made of routines – but there it was, a preset dance: one-two-three and step, hold, her head dips to the crook of his neck, his eyes close and face beams. They smile, every single time as happy as the last that they’re together.
The map surrounding Sam broke up in a shower of fine mist. “Get a room, would you,” he told the air. It was as bad as being at the Bradleys’, and extra weird with Dee looking twice Tron's age yet barely making up a fraction of it in runtime.
But they didn’t care, this much Sam knew, because the User notions of age and sex and what not else made for an empty set while the factors he barely understood made all the difference. Applications didn’t go for system software, system shunned installers, indexers shacked up with editors like the world was ending, and memory management would mack on anyone while pretending they had better things to do. Or so he was told.
He’d have to quit Progress and its chatty clientele if his disc kept saving stuff like this.
”Good idea,” Tron said over the music with an earnest smile. “We won't be a micro.”
Dee barked a “hah!” but followed him out regardless, amused and confident. Two more TDUs fluttered past to join them; Sam rolled his eyes hard enough to hurt, then felt stupid sulking on his own.
Having nothing else to do without her, he went back to drafting instructions for the e-mail clients. He outlined his plan and had it
[cc:]ed internally to all the relevant programs by the time the ménage returned; it already looked like he’d need a good part of the Grid co-conspiring along if he wanted to maintain the image of a globetrotting young visionary following in the steps of his genius father. No-one needed to know about the way he really followed.
The giggling girls found things to do before Sam could issue them with some. Tron on the other hand walked up to his desk and with a “now you” dragged a command across Sam’s shoulders that the User actually obeyed. Sam only managed a “hey, wait” when he was already on his feet and following the program to the alley of monumental displays.
They stopped in front of a model that Sam couldn't explain any more adequately than “it does what it has to”. In truth the contraption came to him after six or so weeks of zero sleep, and it resembled nothing human where vehicles were concerned: an armillary sphere, a bundle of thick and bevelled rings that spun endlessly like a psychotic cage. And that’s what it was, really, a thing he’d devised for Security to chase and trap anything suspicious because it was a lot easier to slip inside than it was to come out – at least in one piece.
Sam ordered it to
[pause]; the concentric rings aligned, falling flat to a massive hoop much like an ID. Its controls were visible now, etched into the inside edge in the same blue lines that typified the force of law and order. Sam glanced at the program to make sure he’d seen enough, then let the construct spin. And to be honest he was also looking for signs of awe or wonder or preferably both but what he got was... interest, definitely, and an expression he could not define. It didn’t look like Tron was stumped, exactly – though that would have been good – but the cogs were plainly turning in the ancient program’s code.
”This isn’t one of ours,” Tron said softly. He looked mesmerised in the flickering of shadows.
”’Ours?’ You don’t mean ‘Clu’s?’”
”Yes. Ours.” No excuse, and still he stared like his memory was running out. “Or Flynn’s.”
”Yeah, well,” Sam grumped. “It’s mine.”
”How did you do that?”
How? Sam waved at the case. “Form follows function, right?” Any car or chopper catalog would say the same. Sam had a house full of them; he knew. He could bullshit sales talk like a pro. “In fact,” he offered, “I’d like to see you run this through your proving ground. See if anyone tries something funny with it like I don’t know, blowing it up. Or breaking suspension to see if it’ll magically turn into a jet. Or, wait, what was it – oh yeah, backing up into your own wall. I mean,” Sam turned, gesturing broadly at the cases, “if you really want to know why I do all this, I’m just looking for something you can’t break.”
The smile he got was nothing like the one reserved for Lora’s crew; it was broad and tense and a little bit manic, and for all the seven thousand Kelvin of warehouse light Sam was back in the pitch black pit of Security’s dome, waiting to be caught.
The program was on him in a breath, clasping his shoulders in a too strong grip. “I’ll take it.” He looked towards the case, fingers digging into damaged flesh. Sam winced but wouldn’t shrug out, and even laughed a little. “Okay, I figured. It’s –“
“But I’ll have to report it.”
Sam let his skeptical brow speak for him. “Say what?”
”You’re not making it easy for us. This is not a construct a User would make.”
Tron looked past him, in the direction of the lab. “She tells me you’re acting like a program. Your readouts tell me you never rest. Your power signature is random and alarming, and this... ” His hands finally slid. The displays behind him were a step-by-step guide to SamFlynn’s wares going from User-styled to crazy, bike to slice’n’dice.
Sam rubbed at his upper arms. “I’m fine,” he said. “And the TDUs have work to do. Send someone else to spy on me.”
“It's because we care for you -”
Sam could see why the first Grid failed. You gave these guys an order and they followed it with slavish zeal; good for computers but a minefield if you wanted a society, and Dad was trying to blend the two together. And in those earliest days Tron learned Sam was a kid, the charge he was promised and was ordered to protect, and he was never going to know better.
”That’s great,” Sam said. “Alan and Lora baby me through the two of you now. You know what? I'm almost happier with Rinzler. He doesn't give a shit, just treats me like any other program."
Tron observed him with a hint of that detachment. “Is that what you want.”
”Frankly? Yes.” Sam was still nursing his injured arm, gripping like he wanted to feel the sting again. “It’s obvious what you’re doing. You’ll let me play along but you get to set the parameters. Everything’s a controlled risk. Everything’s a demo. As soon as things get hot, you pull the plug. ‘Sure, Sam, come along. Break this track, kill some bugs with us. But we’ll throw you out when it gets real.’ Even with these one-on-ones it’s just a show.”
He sighed. “I get it, you know? Alan’s this calm and reliable old guy, so you’re calm and reliable. And I know that loads of programs want to see you hang so you keep your head down and repent –“
”I don’t repent.”
Breathy; strained. Bingo. Sam held on to it like a lifeline, live wire though it was. “Yeah?” he said with another skeptical nod and taunting grin. “I can see that. You don’t piss around with Quorra, no, she gets the real McCoy. And me you trust enough to let me cut you open, but heaven forbid that I get hurt.”
”You’re hurt enough.” Back to Tron. Huh, maybe they were the same program.
Sam followed his gaze and let go of his arm. “Yeah, okay,” he said, smoothing at his sleeve’s circuitry that hid the mess below. “That’s what got me here. But I’ll tell you something: I had a lot of time to think about my life and my choices,” – he drenched the line in sarcasm but really, how long had he gone on without sleep, again? – “but this is who I am, and I’m not going to sit at this desk for all eternity. I gave Alan hell when I was growing up. You’ll just have to deal.”
He turned to get back to the lab, and paused only to detach the armilla’s passcode from his pad. He flung it over his shoulder. “Help yourself. If I have to hand you back to Alan in slices, that’s your problem. My stuff’s not for amateurs!”
The only sound that followed him back was the hum of the cooling vents.
Sam was an accomplished workshop apprentice by the age of six. By the time he was twelve he’d managed to assemble a bike out of spare parts, just to ignore his grandparents’ worries over his troubles in school. By twenty he had a workshop of his own, and by twenty-six he’d built himself a house – out of containers, sure, but it worked. Power, gas, water, he got it in.
Twenty-seven, and he built a city.
It was the only way of dealing with the wait. He could sit around doing nothing just like he did back home, but if he tried that he could feel the seconds drag, each a minute in Grid time. On quiet days he could hear the thrum of the hard drives and that too was stretched, a distant desert howl that gave the city its base beat. He could only tune it out when he worked, so he worked until the skies lit up and there was little on ground level that wasn’t lit by scaffolding.
That the Grid was a massive building site showed best from way up high. Sam was giving his latest train its final trial run before the ports were set to open and the route became a non-stop thing like the rest of the system. It was packed nonetheless, and he suspected this was mostly due to the bar that took up half the space. That this line serviced the ports necessitated the size of the carriage; the size then called for a double beam, and twin beams meant power. It made the energy available pretty much on tap and if you could swig that while you wallowed in the view, well, there was no better welcome.
He was congratulated; toasted. He wrote himself a macro to say “wait until it actually works” at every hasty mazel tov or however they expressed it in keys. But no, the event was an Occasion and before he knew it a gaggle of sirens cornered him to edit his plain clothes into something far more formal. They left the lab look on but damn if the longer coat didn’t make him think of Dad. He could even tell which programs in attendance were his father’s because the look they gave him was one of awe and recognition, and by awe he really meant concern. Fear, the original meaning.
Shaddox showed up right on cue, suited up in sober Security gear. They tried to look civilian but Sam could still pick them out by the all-matte black and the modest blue highlights. Only the Lex the AI loosened up enough to sport a million braids rounded off with beads. She blended in the most, ironic for someone built to mimic Users, but the place was swimming in glitz: programs couldn’t wait to show off patterns swankier than normal, all supported through the generous flow of power. This drew the attention of the managers but Sam was not a novice to that particular script, so he put his Charity Event face on and charmed them until they went away.
Eventually he signalled an
[F1] and Shaddox sauntered over, drink in hand like a spy in a casino. He ‘needed’ Sam's opinion on some priority queue violation - which had probably occurred, even if it would’ve been fixed by then – and led him out to freedom, or at least a portside booth.
”Something wrong, SamFlynn?”
”I just need some space to think.” Come to think of it, Sam could’ve done with an expansion card. The one that sat beneath his disc recorded his health stats dutifully and was likely nearly full. “I see your friends are here,” he said, waving his own glass nonchalantly towards a group of natives.
”It’s a delegation,” the program said. “They want to know what this new traffic means for the system.”
”My door is always open.”
Shaddox considered his surroundings and his drink, then zeroed in on Sam who was suddenly self-conscious in his Jedi threads. “Users aren’t trusted. The new ones are fair, but so was Flynn – that’s not the issue.” He put the glass down. “It’s impossible to know what’s scheduled for us next. You can set
[cron] jobs and take them away, you can
[delete] anything you please. Faith is the only thing we have where you’re concerned. When it comes to trust... we rely on each other.”
Sam leaned back and watched the gates move past. The view was slow and majestic and the train hit its junctions as smoothly as its simulation had done. Sam caught himself timing it regardless, and finished his drink to relax. “And if I were just another program?”
Shaddox laughed but the sound died quickly; he saw that Sam meant business. “I’d advise against it,” he said. “You’re still a Flynn.”
Sam looked up; Shaddox frowned. The newcomer who’d cut in was not just stylish, he was pushing for a gen-Y User look with his Chris Bangle glasses and an honest-to-god gridsuit take on the jacket and long-sleeve combo.
The graphics suite. Quorra had installed a multimedia package to help Sam fake his outside world shenanigans, but he didn’t rush to check it out. The whole thing was moot anyway until the WarpDrive was in place.
Sam raised his glass, and a server whizzed over to refill it. ”How’s it hangin’?”
The program ignored him. “I need to speak to the CPU.”
”CEO, right here,” Sam said. “How can I help you?”
The program glared at Security; Shaddox just blinked back. “We can’t work without these files,” the new guy said while brandishing a datapad densely packed with text. Sam’s eyes glazed at yet another EULA but he knew, the way he never cared with his computers back at home, that there’d be no end of trouble unless he really read read the thing.
”You were given all the folders that you need,” Shaddox said, “and your wizard was denied because we know what we're doing. You are not on your typical User’s system.”
Sam was almost regretful he got to miss this, now; he imagined the installation wizard striding around like Gandalf and had to look away before he laughed.
The program seethed and produced an address card from somewhere in his pad. “It also says I have to collect a plugin from your holding cells? What’s this nonsense? Even our OCR gave up on your correspondence.”
Sam peered at the card. The format was familiar – Quorra got him into trouble with one of those the first time they met – but he’d never seen a black one before. The card was then plucked out of the guy’s hand and Tron inspected it with a frown of recognition. “You tried to install a toolbar,” he said, passing the card to Astra. “The browser was upset and filed a ticket.”
Sam downed his drink at once and waved to stop him there. “Wait a minute. So you’re saying this toolbar’s friends have to bail him out?” He leaned down, shaking, until his brow bopped against the table. “I live in Toontown.”
Everyone ignored him. The program was sent off with Shaddox and Astra both, who probably had real work to do along the way. Sam watched them disappear through the prism of his glass as they mingled cheerfully, her arm around his shoulders and his hand under her dock. He lifted his eyes by a fraction when the two were out of sight, and snorted at Tron’s formal garb. “Thought you were s’posed to be faster than the Sirens.”
The program put his hand out in a familiar gesture. Sam detached his card and handed it over, only distantly annoyed. “Third time this hex I had that checked.”
”With good reason,” Tron said. “You’re being flagged as a destabilizing factor in this sector.”
”You’re kidding, right? I wrote this sector.”
Tron barely looked at him before he returned to the stats, but his expression was clear: and that’s supposed to mean something? Sam groaned and buried his face in his arms again. “No rest for the wicked.”
The program wrestled the empty glass from Sam’s grip and called up its reload count. He looked less special ops and more like the secret police in that reconfigured suit, which was doing nothing for his disapproving face. “Sam, what are you doing.”
“Getting drunk. I earned it.” Sam made to snatch the glass but failed, so he coded up a new one and felt far more accomplished about that than he had any reason to be. But the energy helped with his perception; even tired and feeling somehow off, like he was badly calibrated, he was aware of the guests around him as the sums of their actions, and of Tron who trailed some way behind even if he was seated right there.
The program was a weather front rolling across the city at a languid pace, yet somehow tense and apprehensive. Sam watched it scan folder after folder until it slowed down and moved like a shadow over him. He sat up and shook the feeling off; Tron’s human render still stared at him from across the table, then returned his memcard wordlessly.
”Jeez, Chief,” Sam laughed. “Who pissed in your Cheerios today?”
That actually softened the program’s expression. He shrugged almost apologetically. “These gatherings never go right,” he said. “They generate trouble.”
Sam looked around. The heightened presence of Security suddenly made sense, seeing how the firewall they had on duty for this delicate occasion was a standard Encom package.
Alan had used enough of Tron’s original code during restoration to let him break past Rinzler, but not enough to roll him back to what he was before Dad - or Clu - adapted him for the Grid. He promised the gates would be entrusted to Tron and his crew as soon as all was good, but for these very first attempts the network filters and protection ended up entrusted to imported crews. The decision was reasonable enough; Encom seeded servers globally on a daily basis; a peripheral backup wasn’t even a blip on the internet radar.
Sam got up. “Come on,” he said. “Let’s have a look. You’ll tell me if I missed anything.”
About five percent of the Grid at most was really there and used. It went up to thirty if one counted all that was being built or rebuilt, but the rest was either the rough terrain of the outlands, or the sea that battered at the islands’ shores. The sea accounted for an unusually large percent of the entire system, but Sam figured anything less would never have structured itself into algorithms capable of generating brand new code and life.
He had no idea how to kick-start it again, and had a sinking feeling that he never would. Ever since Quorra manifested on the outside the system registered her as a User, and the programs she wrote – and only did so to help Sam, because what she really wanted to write was books – were plain old programs, not new life. WarpDrive was certainly impressive, a set of quantum calculators that could have given her an Abel prize, but they were chiefly there to correct the time lag for the conferences Sam planned. He forgave the dorky name because for once it actually made sense.
But yeah, no Isos. He figured the internet was his best bet, just by throwing everything into the mix and seeing what came out. He imagined Dad had done the same in whatever way he could, from Lora's oranges to scanning himself in, over and over again. Well okay, Sam had one other theory on how the Isos came to be, but that alternative was... unfair. It was unfair on Shaddox and on Tron and all the survivors who wanted nothing more to do with Users.
But whatever he wanted to ask Tron when they emerged onto the deck was interrupted by Transport Design Utility J who was rightly there and rightly thrilled to see the lab team’s work shine for real.
The programs embraced like Tron always did with the TDUs, and just like that was a routine so was Sam’s averted gaze. Never mind that it was technically the same thing as it was with Dee, the closeness, comfort, and the intimacy; Jay was newer and consequently not a complete clone of Lora. The program congratulated Sam on behalf of the entire warehouse, laughed sincerely at Sam’s tired macro of a reply, and moved on to boast about his contribution to the ports to everyone in sight. Sam waved weakly.
“Jesus,” he said once the TDU was gone. “You really are friendly with everyone.”
”Security has to be,” Tron answered reasonably. “How can we protect if we are feared?” He pointed at the next gate that came into view. “This side, we’re friendly. Outside...” He smiled. “You'll be lucky to string two lines together once we're done with you.”
Sam laughed easily this time. “Glad you're on my side.”
Alan’s voice came on the train’s PA. A friendly enough announcement and intended mostly for Sam, but everyone had stopped to listen to the voice of God. And while what little Sam had seen of Tron in his writer’s presence made it look like he was Alan’s peer, here the program stood with a look that wouldn’t have been out of place on an old world prophet. He belonged in a church, or on top of a mountain.
Sam could feel the deck’s railing bend under the grip of dozens of excited programs. Alan chuckled in incongruous contrast to this awe - “I’m about to dial out, I hope that you can hear” - and with the noise and whistle of a 56k modem, it was on.
Sam didn’t know what he expected, but it wasn’t... that. He thought he would see ships, jets with glassy contrails, ethereal bridges carrying new folk: an Omni vision of futuristic skies. Instead, the view cross-hatched with dozens of gigantic ribbons of light and if they reminded him of anything it was literally the inside of a desktop tower, PATA cables twisting and folding between this board and that.
They didn’t do much to alleviate the Grid’s eternal night but that was fine, the sight even beat the quasi-polar lights. Their lines were gold, and white, and every shade of blue and green. Sam could learn to tell which ones were mail and which were Usenet just by following the sparks that raced along.
Only the silence rubbed him wrong.
It wasn’t that Sam expected applause but he was used to the murmur, the low noise of a working drive. The Grid never shut up; from the mayhem of the storms to the bustle of the clubs, the programs loved to talk and shout until they either clashed or made things work. But this here made them quiet and Sam wasn’t sure if it was delight or if the natives were right and he’d opened up the hellmouth.
Time would tell. He hated to experiment because that’s what they resented but he had no choice, and he hoped they’d understand. But even if they didn’t he’d defend this anyway because it managed to shut Tron up, and the look on the program’s face pained Sam and fulfilled him at the same time. He wasn’t sure whether to go over with drinks, or apologize.
And then the gates shook and the lines became blood-red.
Chapter 6: VI
Sam gripped the railing as the feeds flooded in. Alarms, stats, thirty thousand pop-up boxes in his field of vision. He swatted blindly to shoo them off and swayed, unsure if it was just him or the train sank.
Panic took the deck. The only data that still cut through the noise was the bellow of some Security program in the back - ordering guests to move inside - and the hand on Sam’s shoulder, firm and reassuring. Tron’s fingers barely moved but his messages were clear, orders on which processes to close to give Sam room to breathe.
Sam sputtered a half-yelp, half-cough full of phantom bile. “I’m okay,” he rasped with a feeble wave, and pushed himself back up. “Thanks.”
The grip relaxed into a pat, two to the shoulder and one to his cheek for good measure, a benevolent slap. Sam bore it with a sigh and scanned the situation afresh.
The air was free of foreign packets, as the traffic was all Encom. Which was just as planned, except it went like crazy and a deep itch down Sam’s spine insisted it was wrong, invasive – and was proved right when the first red lines detached to coil atop the floating rocks, and started to copy.
Everything. Everything would go back to the bastard waiting on the other side, an entire world ensnared in red mesh. Sam pictured the hacker like a spy cliche, staring at his progress bar as the Grid downloads. It would be over in seconds of real time.
The bile returned when he realized he’d get copied too.
He grabbed Tron by the arm as the program turned to go, making slicing motions in a sign that was pretty universal. "Cut it!”
The first shock of feedback was frustration, as strong in his mind as if Tron had keyed it in, and Sam backed off at once. But the look he got was kinder, resolving to a confident smile. “Already there,” Tron said, and on that weird raw level that drew Sam in and terrified him at the same time, the demi-User became aware of the security program latching itself onto the broken gates.
Elsewhere, entire buildings shimmered and stretched in RGB channel splits before they copied and zipped, and even though Security discs shattered most duplicates before they could transfer, the horizon was getting too War of the Worlds for comfort.
And where the hell was the firewall? It was Encom, he could vouch --
It was Encom.
”— someone who can get past us, yes.” Tron’s eyes were dark as he surveyed the scene below, and his lights dim with the strain of seeking out any free space to write to and think. But then he grinned, swinging over the railing to hold on loosely. “We could use that. I have to go.”
Sam reached for his baton on impulse and halted mid-snatch; programs were exact and ‘I’ did not mean ‘we’. “Wait,” he said, realizing what the program was about to do. “Wait.”
He hauled himself up and over, praying to the spirit of good old Dad that he knew what he was doing, and reached for the thin but infinitely bright beam that flanked the side of the train. He sensed Tron stall to hanging point with some heavy duty task – Sam hoped it had to do with the gates rather than him courting death – and closed his hand around the track.
It hurt. It hurt.
Tryout paths lit up at once. Sam tugged, wincing, and the train sailed along the rippling web to bring them closer to the outgoing threads. He held on until, hyperaware, he knew the coordinates were right the very nano Tron sent a
[stop] signal. “This do ya?”
Any further, and they’d end up in the war zone. Sam could barely look at the sector ahead with its filescape shuffling at dizzying speeds. And then there was the power line, burning through him until he could feel the copper taste of blood in his mouth. He tried to swallow but found nothing, no blood or spit, just the dry and ice-cold rush of the system’s driving force.
It took away his User sight. He could tell an
[OK] and an
[EOT] brushed from his dock to the line of his hair and that was that; Tron was gone. Sam only knew the shield he built for Security's cycles engaged because he saw its code execute alongside everything else that passed on the Grid, millions of lines firing up at once.
The path Tron took was another line committed to records, just like the curve of his drop. But from there on Sam could only trust that the wave of transmissions took him to the ports; all but the data linking to the train faded back to noise.
Until the noise exploded.
Whatever hurled towards Sam crashed before it reached the train. He tore away from the edge and the raining shrapnel, orienting himself by the process list. His own people stood out brighter but Sudo was larger – closer? – and worked the folder that contained them as furiously as the invading scripts. She must have pushed him or dragged him by the hand because the directories they rushed through listed as if scrolled through. And they were full to the brim, and heavier on his mind than all the traffic data piling up.
”We gotta clear this place,” he hissed, yanking her back. “Evacuate!”
Her “yes” was just as brisk. “Get us back to the hub.”
”We’ll never make it,” he said. “This is a pleasure cruise, not a freighter. It’s not built for speed.” He ignored the sting of her attention and the tightness in his chest. At least some of his normal senses were returning. “Wait,” he said slowly.
”You’re not making this easy, User.” Sudo’s frustration was as palpable as Tron’s. No wonder Security held him as their template.
”Story of my life,” Sam said. "Come on!”
To her credit, she followed. Whatever directives she had gave way to her need to keep him in sight and out of trouble -- if she could. “What are we doing?”
He rode down filepaths like a pro, racing for the largest folders where programs huddled, unable to switch off. He flashed her a conspirer’s grin. “Hitching a ride.”
How he did what he did next, he wasn’t sure. But whatever Tron had done to summon Sudo worked on Sam's crew too and for all he knew J and L manifested to carry his instructions out. They sorted through the programs on the train, filed them up in two neat queues, and slotted themselves last. The only thing remaining was to get the transfer going and, predictably, the start of line just wouldn’t budge.
He cussed and ran to the front. The admin who ended up fronting the queue stared entranced at the chaos outside, clutching at the railing in a death grip. He answered without looking at Sam, before the User even said a thing. “I don’t – I don’t know where to –“
Sam suppressed a petty spike of glee for seeing a manager lose his smirk for once. They were legion and kept putting him through hell, all the freedom that was promised to the programs throttled once again through a digital embodiment of corporate waste. It couldn’t be helped, of course, it was either that or dictatorship, but he could get his own back here if he lost his chance at Encom.
”Downloads,” he said. “You see the stream below?”
He couldn’t blame the guy if he didn’t. The vista offered endless junk, half-copied and truncated code shipping back and forth; mountains multiplied no less than simpler objects did and it was worse than seeing double -- more like forced to watch 3D without the stupid glasses. Everything was sort of there but not, and even the thick transmission thread that Sam was aiming for seemed to dance before his eyes.
But the admin gave a quick, tight nod. “There,” Sam growled and the program leaped, swallowed by the stream as soon as he touched down. The others followed with varying degrees of heart and Sam timed them like he’d counted every node of the journey even when he schmoozed around. This was his turf, moving things around, and even if it made him more of a traffic warden than it made him any kind of god he was fine, he was here and things were getting done.
”Move!” he yelled. They could still be faster; he turned to look for Su but she was one step ahead, so he saw himself shepherding the other queue out.
He was never going to get used to that.
She did a great job though, much as it still creeped him out to see how much he was observed. If she trailed him she did it like a shadow, never more of a presence than a quiet background process. Tron’s orders; at least the program learned to give him some respect.
Better earn it, then. Sam watched Su nudge her last program out, then turned to his own; Jay looked at him pleadingly, more aware than the rest of what it meant to be zipped up on the go and stuffed by force in an active transfer. Sam tilted his head decisively towards the stream, then roared at the program when J still hesitated. When the screaming speck joined the pulsing river of light, safe and sound, Sam could breathe again.
”What did that program do to you?” Sudo said, peering from behind. She’d crept up again like a digital ninja. “Nothing,” he said, trying not to feel weird talking to himself. “But when I say ‘go’ I expect a TDU to go, not stand there like a moron. And we better scram, Su, or we’ll end up stashed with the porn on some jerk’s drive. I’m not saying that wouldn’t be fun, you know,” he grinned as if she’d understand, “but not right now. Let’s go!”
The pseudo-Sam was faster, airborne before the real deal could switch from jet to bike on his baton. It would've been easier to evade the bright red snares if he flew, perhaps, but piggybacking on a massive data transfer meant that he was harder to detect. His stomach lurched when he landed, both with impact and the knowledge that he rode a wave of disassembled data, fragments of programs he might have known scattered in loose packets to revive back at the hub.
He tried not to think about the ones going out.
The stream dipped; heaved. Sam flattened himself against the bike, giving silent thanks for the shields that gave it bulk. It stayed upright but the stream bucked again and dropped, and he pressed on every pedal he put in to gain sufficient speed. Sudo was a mirror of his moves but was only doing what it took to stay alive, and didn’t care so much about playing a good Sam. He revved up again, and when he found himself atop a crest of a titanic wave he took a risk and looked around.
Tron had closed the gate and was moving on. Far behind Sam but catching up quickly, the threads of the blinding ribbon fluttered interrupted, half-derezzed in empty space and unraveling further; what momentum the transfer had the nano it had snapped was falling away sharply.
A choked, shameful sound escaped Sam’s lips and he whipped his head around, locking his sights on the solid track ahead and hoping to god Sudo didn’t hear. This was easy, it was Vice Squad and he’d had a fucking degree in that when he was eight. It would have been even smoother if he could wipe the image of that enormous machinery battling it out at the gates, program versus hacker and Tron winning, but there was fat chance of that.
The chasm boomed with another conquered gate. Sam flinched to evade debris but Sudo was still faster, and her disc sliced through the unsalvageable parts that broke off the shimmering threads above. Sam gave them a quick send-off, for his own peace of mind as much as the peace of their unlikely souls. Then another gate shut, and another, and by the time Sam reached the solid ground of the Grid the rhythm still pounded in his chest.
He could have slid off his bike and just lain there on the ground; he doubted anyone would care. The wastelands glittered with life, dazed and bewildered programs unzipping in no order at all among the remnants of whatever else had FTPed in. The trail of aborted transfers stretched towards the horizon, the stream broken and scattered like God’s garden hose had burst.
He unpeeled himself from the bike’s controls and tottered as it folded back to its default baton. Remembering that a User had to have some dignity, he waved Sudo down, let her carry on directing the rescue mission, and smoothed his coat where it had bunched up under the pressure of the cycle’s plates. Then he walked into a wall.
"I’m okay,” he gasped under the crushing pressure of Tron’s embrace. Didn’t even question how the program caught up as fast as he did; must’ve known the Grid like the back of his hand.
Tron looked at him like he hadn’t loaded up right. “I know you are.” But the program's puzzlement gave way to an honest, open smile that made him look unsettlingly young, and excitement in the face of all the terror radiated off him to the point of contagion. Sam stepped away, gesturing at the surroundings while he got his breath back. “Look at this. What happened?”
"You tell me,” Tron said, gaze hardening to a more familiar intensity. “Our defenses didn’t stand a chance. Your friends knew what they were doing.”
”I understand you were wanted before you went missing, out in your world.”
Sam frowned, head tilting in a program gesture that he couldn't stop. “Petty offenses,” he said incredulously. “Unless you’re offended on some deep cop level, I don’t even know what that’s got to do with —“
Tron laughed. “Come with us,” he said, throwing an arm around Sam’s shoulders the way that made the whole fiasco feel like an ordinary drill. His grin was frustration and thrill in one, a look that Sam learned well from all the times they spent one-upping each other at Security’s grounds.
“We have guests.”
Sam turned an icy cube between his teeth and tongue, careful not to bite. If he let the energy dissolve he could just about handle it. ”Sho hat’s wha’ it lookth like fhom the other shide.”
[repeat?],” Niven said, mouth too full of what she deemed was popcorn to talk to him in Human.
He swallowed and regretted it at once, then reached into her box for another byte. “I’ve never been on this side of the screen,” he said. “I’m usually the guy they bring in.”
He kept a poker face as the programs’ attention zoned in on him. The trick was that he didn’t have to lie much - none of the stuff he used to do called for interrogation rooms with the one-way mirror, apart from that one time in North Dakota – but the point was, he knew cops in his old life and these weren't that much different. And even when he had a Situation on his hands, like for instance now, he still had to poke.
”So it’s true,” Sudo murmured. She sat with a slight hunch forward as if she wanted to hear everything at once, and pulled a perfect mimicry of Sam’s normal pose, attentive and distant in one. She even flexed her fists and let her fingers dangle in a tic he only recognized when he saw it from an outsider’s view. “You’re User malware.”
Sam sat up, hands raised. “Whoa, back up,” he said with a nervous laugh. “I wouldn’t go that far.” He looked around for help, feeling his hopeful face fall as theirs were locked in expectation. He could sense them crunching through the data, while Niven started and aborted a few pings before delving back into her box.
”But you have a… record,” Sudo said. “A log with all the damage that you caused.” She picked up a datapad and scrolled with no real goal before tossing it aside. It was at least as eerie as it was encouraging to see a backup of oneself, a reserve SamFlynn for if he ever needed one - even if just for a ruse. It helped that she maintained her neutral look, though, a Quorra bob of light grey hair and a plain though pleasant face.
”Who doesn’t,” he began before he stopped himself abruptly, realizing in a flash where this would lead. How did Dad get hold of Encom, again? And Alan and Lora had both helped, and he could explain to the programs that some crimes were for the greater good until his buffer overran but they wouldn’t get it. This wasn’t the Grid of legend where rebels rose up against usurpers and right battled wrong; this was a Grid that worked.
He tried another path. “I know you tattle like I breathe, guys, but that’s not what Alan said.”
He could’ve used the help of an interpreter. The little they had heard of Alan in the time since the attack was choppy and interspersed with hour-long gaps; the rhythm was old hat to programs used to doing their own thing between commands, but Sam was itching to get the WarpDrive back online. No joy, though: the only programs he knew who could handle User talk without a blink were Tron and Lex and they were both elsewhere. Heavens knew what they were doing to the captives.
Neither Sam nor Alan would know the score before interrogation was complete, but what Alan griped about — and Security got to hear — was that Sam had signed his pranks writ large, from the theft of the company jet to fly a Flynn Lives banner, to replacing the data for Nikkei with a caption of his dog. Sam had no-one but himself to blame if it turned out he was tracked and anything he did was carefully collected to be used against him at the nearest opportune moment. And ok, yeah, Alan had a point -- but like Tron had said, this could all work in their favor if Sam played his cards right.
If he knew what he was dealt.
The 360’ vista of the city faded out, replaced by maps and records in a wave of clatter of hexagonal plates. The Solari board effect of Security HQ's dome was weirdly retro but once the thing lit up, unusually in that Spartan place, the view that took the centerpiece was nothing Sam expected.
”Uh,” he said. Looked around. Made a face at Tron and Shaddox who walked in and didn’t seem to notice anything strange about the programs in containment cells. Shaddox sat down next to Sudo with a nod, while Tron whipped a seat around and pulled it up behind Sam’s bench. There was a rustle and Niven’s box was gone, the last few unprocessed cubes stashed hastily away.
”This is a job for Intelligence,” Tron said, resting an arm casually in the dip between Sam’s port and disc. “Won’t be as much fun for us.”
”I wouldn’t bet on it, Chief,” Niven grinned. “They all look ready to bolt. One of us will have to shut at least one of them down. If I were Intelligence I’d let them have a go, just to see what they would do if they thought they could escape.”
Sam turned around; Tron was considering it. He was still on the high of having fought an army off and looked like he could do with more destruction. “Let them do what they do best,” he said however. “We’ll see how it goes.” His free hand traced the holster of his baton and stilled, as if fighting the urge to jump back into the fray – or start some. “What do you say, Sam?”
Sam cleared his throat. “I’d like to see what we’ve got here. Are these guys Encom?”
If they were, he couldn’t believe it. The oldest looking program wouldn't be allowed to drive; was the company employing kids these days? Then Sam remembered how old he was the first time he released a questionable program into the wild, and decided to keep quiet.
Tron smiled at him, and something terrifying clicked into place. Rinzler was the calm, do-this-task half; no emotions past said task, and all the drive and relentlessness came from fulfilling a directive. That was it and sure it made him scary, but Tron – Tron was the fulcrum. He was right, they really were the same program: everything that Rinzler was had been there from the start.
“We’ll see.” He patted Sam on the arm and withdrew, and something in the brain that left Sam’s skull to settle in the circuits of his dock protested with the loss.
Micros later, Sam was glad that Niven had stopped acting like she was at the movies. She sat sober and quiet next to him, a light-limned silhouette; he took strange comfort in her bulk, remembering that looks were nothing and those weren’t real kids pulled to pieces by Lex and Raz’s questioning. Their discs were confiscated and like nothing he had seen, thin and see-through plates etched with red once the Grid-like features got stripped off.
”The discs are Encom,” he heard Tron say; wasn’t sure who it was for. The program shifted forwards and spoke with volume set on low, the timbre of it working into Sam’s mind faster than words did. “I know this but I’ve never seen them before. They’re new – latest.” He paused. “Of all my programs, only three are advanced enough to have worn anything like it.”
Sam leaned back and felt the pressure of Tron’s arm return to his dock. The edge of his vision was lined in blue from the soft glow of patterns on the program’s suit. “Yeah but these are little kids,” he said, perplexed and not a little alarmed. “Don’t you see that?”
He turned around fully and felt the hand slip from his port to rest on his hip. Tron cocked his head to the side with a questioning frown and keyed a
[?] that made Sam twitch. “They exhibit traits that tell me they’re not Encom,” he tried. He ignored the impatience that carried with the query and struggled to explain. “So the best guess I can make is that someone's keeping tabs on me, and they think they're really clever.”
“Proxies,” Tron muttered by his ear.
“Exactly!” Sam jumped in his seat and shushed at Tron’s immediate
[mute]. Niven spared them a glance, then went back to the action on the screen and the multiple extractions unravelling on side displays. “Nothing here is legal but this just takes the cake,” Sam said. “If we can prove the connection...”
”Without giving you away,” Tron said. “You’re forgetting that.”
”Whatever, Alan can do the outside stuff. I just want to know who’s behind this.”
Sam thought about it. “If I find out it’s Ed I’m gonna get inside his hipster phone and brick it.”
Tron’s eyes narrowed, flickering in memory retrieval. “Is this –“
”- his son,” Sam said. “Dude’s as much of a douche as his old man; wouldn’t put a damn thing past him.”
"Why is he -"
Sam blinked as he said it. There was no way he could be sure ‘working for Encom’ would be Tron’s next words but he knew, and the program wasn’t correcting him. “I never...” he began and faltered, unwilling to admit to paying no attention to company structure. “I never wanted any part of it.”
”You don’t have a choice now, Sam.”
”Yeah, I’m getting used to that.” Sam’s hands rushed to interrupt whatever Tron intended to key in; he didn't need the pity. “It’s okay,” he said. “Priorities, remember? This first, then me.”
Tron shot him a resolved glare, the one from all the posters. “I know my priorities.”
Sam drew a breath to argue, then spun at the crash of shattered voxels coming from the screen. One of the intruders had derezzed but not from either Lex or Raz, going by their visible dismay. “Chief, they’re timed,” Lex growled, clenching fingers around the disc she'd pulled in self-defense.
Tron was up already. “We suspected that,” he said as he strode out. “Suspend the other two. You did well; we can extrapolate the rest. SamFlynn will brief you with his own input.”
Shaddox followed him at once and Sam slumped back, jealous over the immediacy of rapport he still had to build as genuinely as that with his warehouse crew. And he was never gonna get there unless -
Niven slapped his back. “No rest for the wicked, User. Isn’t that what you say?”
Sam cradled his head in his hands. “I’m tired.”
He was; the last time he slept was – well, it wasn’t on the Grid at all unless he counted the coma that brought him there. He felt Sudo flank him on the other side, clearly at a loss. Nothing she could do; his power issues were the managers' business, and although he gallantly acknowledged all suggested fixes that came from their end, there was no way in hell he was locking himself for millis inside those idling pod tombs.
He stretched and perked up to set the girls at ease. “What do you guys do to let off steam?” he said, following them out to wherever the quarantine was kept. Tron was ridiculously paranoid in that regard and had Shaddox and Astra reallocating cells every other hex, his reasoning being that if malware found a plan for busting out they’d have to come up with a new one in the time it took to carry it through. Sam had called him worse than Sark and earned himself a wallop.
"'Steam',” Sudo echoed.
”'Relax'," Sam tried. "Wind down. Get rid of surplus power? I’m not a dictionary but you get my drift.”
”Find another program,” Niven said. “Failing that, Iota sector. That's where you go to calibrate but it's better if you have someone who knows you. Iota's kind of dull.”
Sudo signaled agreement and Sam paused, running a version compare with the list he had. The managers never mentioned any of those options. “You sure about that?”
Niven made the sign of a full progress bar. “One hundred percent, User. I’m as WYSIWYG as we come.”
That she was. Uncomplicated and to the point, she was Security’s battering ram and didn’t bother with subtleties where she could avoid them. But the Iota sector was designated as a ‘gas station’ on Sam’s mental map of the Grid, inherited from Lora, and sounded like the opposite of what he'd asked.
But it was starting to make sense, so he quickly disregarded it. Especially the part about the 'other program'.
The low, wide doors hissed open to what amounted to a conference room. Sam recognized most of Security, greeted two auxiliaries of his own, felt relieved upon the sight of a WarpDrive method waving excitedly back, and winced as the same admin he pretty much kicked off the train – thereby saving his life and his integrity – fixed him with an irritated stare. “Hey,” Sam said by way of entrance. Only Quorra’s program smiled.
Well, her and Tron, but the latter looked more like a fox let loose in a chicken coop. He guided Sam around like he owned the Grid, and talked him through the list of attendees like he'd written them himself. He ended by planting Sam next to Mr Graphics Suite, but thankfully the program had become too twitchy around Security to argue over anything.
”You got your buddy?” Sam asked as he plopped down.
”Your toolbar pal. You missed out on the fun, though. We had an emergency up there.”
”So I hear, client.” The program jerked his head towards the loading screens. “I didn’t sign up for this.”
”None of us did,” said a program seated near, observing Sam with care. A native; rebel. Survivor. Tron had introduced her formally to Sam and while she was certainly pleasant, he couldn’t push down a feeling of reserve, of constant calculation on her part. She smiled at the graphics guy. “You’ll get used to it.”
Sam found himself agreeing with Tron’s apprehension over crowds. Structure was the essence of any healthy system, and for all that chaos was a good thing he remembered that the rebels usually kept to themselves, that the system and the application software kept apart, and that anything that wasn’t Encom got installed carefully and in partitions. It was nothing like the powder keg Dad had had to deal with, but he couldn’t risk it anyway.
He stood up as soon as the results came on. His superadmin status helped; no one even blinked. He felt the pressure of attention and badly suppressed pings but that had been the state of affairs ever since the ports went up, since he took up the projections Lora had to leave behind. And hey, what better practice could he get for the meetings coming up that involved the board? There’d be no test runs for any of Sam's video chats; their power uptake was insane. Not as bad as the portal, no, but they could last a hell lot longer than the eight minutes that regularly tested the laser’s strength.
He ditched the intro. ”Here’s what’s going on.”
"Nobody knew we were going live. We’re incognito, zilch -- no offense, guys, but we gotta keep a low profile.”
Sam considered his next words. What was he thinking of doing, an AA round? Hi everyone. I’m Sam Flynn, I’m a User and, uh, I’m kinda stuck here and nobody must know. And there’d be a wave of shared experience and commiseration. Tell us about it, buddy. But how much did he really know about the programs in attendance? The fresh installs had all agreed to join the Grid and had to pass a screening process Tron had designed, so at least one program knew how it felt to end up here with a slim chance of return. But what about the rest – the natives?
And what were they still hiding from?
”You all know how it was set to go. Few links, few programs” – he acknowledged Elm – “and only tested and pre-filtered traffic. Routine stuff; peripheral.” He motioned at the screen. “Skip forward 0.0005c, and this happens.”
The map of the Grid rustled, its hexagons flipping through a lively diagram of the last few centicycles of action. It whooshed through the changes that were scheduled and cleared, and slowed down whem the ports rezzed up to life and their sectors imploded with invasion.
Lectrix slid a red-veined, transparent disc across the table and Sam picked it up with care, mindful of its needle-thin edge.
“Some of you will know what this is,” he said. “Encom OS 12.6, the latest our mothership has to offer.” He ignored the automatic queries that got triggered by the User phrase, and carried on. “So whoever sent our friends to check on us works close by. And I hate to say this but uh, it looks this was a tracker.” Sam slid the disc back to Lex; she stopped it with a slam of her hand, eyes never off the User.
Sam however looked away. “They were after me. Don’t ask me how I know; we’ll be here all night. Or hex, whatever. We don’t have the time. They’ll strike again.”
The rebel swiveled her chair to look at Tron, so deeply in the shadows he made a pictogram of blue lines. “How, if we dropped the link?”
Here we go.
”We need to get back on,” Sam said before either program could pick up. He wasn’t sure what spurred him on but there was something he wasn’t told, a tension between the two he could’ve bet was due to Rinzler. “If we don’t, the attacks will stop -- which is great,” he added, hands in the air in partial submission, “but then our life support will go.”
Silence, again, where he was primed for rage. The programs’ patience and need for input was a feature Sam was still getting used to. Users would've thrown a fit. Or maybe, despite the obvious distress, programs were simply used to death... which was a place Sam didn’t want to go with his human mind and his human heart.
”I have to talk to other Users,” he said. “And they can’t know I’m here. That’s why we’ve got the graphics guys, and why WarpDrive is away right now. When they come back they’ll be able to do a lot more with the laser.”
”For as long as the company is happy,” Sam continued, “we’re good. Encom thrives, our Users remain safe; they get their funding, we get left alone.” He paused. “I'll need a dictionary, won't I?”
Lex coughed, waved a hand. “Leave that to me, SamFlynn.” He
[ACK]ed absently, trusting that if anyone could explain legal concepts to the programs, or what Encom meant outside, it would be her.
”User,” said the rebel program. “Why don’t you just leave?”
His gaze met hers. “I can’t.”
And, liftoff: the room erupted. Sam waited until the noise died down before he tried again, still talking to the rebel. “The previous Flynn would go. The Creator, the User who built this system. You know what I’m talking about.”
She was flustered for a nano but composed herself quickly. “Yes. He had tasks in the Users’ world that were higher in his priorities list.”
”That’s one way to put it,” Sam said. “One of those tasks was me.”
He wouldn’t let them calculate whether he was worth it in the end. “I have my share of duties out there too but I can do it all from here, with your help. And you get a User on call 24/7, no gaps, no abandonment. Sound good?”
The manager spoke up with a sign of
[false]. “That is not the reason you are here, User. The system lists you as a program too; that is your hardware lock. And any sector that you’re in throws up glitches in energy flow –“
”That’s not why we’re here,” Sam said. “Fine, so I confuse you. Throw a few things out of whack. Our bigger problem –“
He had a finger pointing in midair, aimed at the worst-off ports on the map, when the rebel spoke again. I can see why Clu -, Sam thought and immediately moved to delete it. “Yeah?”
”We were promised independence.”
”Not by me,” he said, growing irritable. “And if you look at the pile of support tickets I get each shift, it doesn’t look like this office is ready to go paperless just yet, if you know what I mean.”
Lex got busy again.
It took far longer than he’d have liked; longer than the press conferences he had given, or even that agonising first run with Legal where he brought up the issue of moving the management around. It had been easier to learn Invisi-Keyboard and work out flight paths for linking up three entire cities than it was to talk to them.
And it wasn't any easier to convince the programs that Sam knew what he was doing. His temper didn’t help but come on, what were the chances of his past catching up with him here when he'd managed to dodge it so consistently back home?
”That was informative,” Lex said when they were done and everyone but Security had cleared. Sam stared at her impassively, and she beamed back brightly enough to light up Vegas. Tron too looked unreasonably pleased.
”Watching a User get decompiled? I’ll bet. If you want to do this next time, be my guest.”
”I’ll be happy to. I’ve seen enough.”
Sam rose unhurriedly from his seat. “And I thought I was a smartass.” He stretched and guided himself out, as familiar with Security's turf as he was with his lab. She followed, nearly skipping with delight.
”You are,” Tron stated without malice, falling effortlessly into step with him. “It’s a pleasure watching you work.”
”That?” Sam said. “That was torture, same as what you guys did to our little guests. You want to see me work, invite yourself over to my sector like you normally do. What made this so special?”
”Learning how you act under pressure,” Lex said. Her eyes and circuits flashed with the amount of data she had stored. “I must remember to be crankier if I ever have to do this. I’ll just copy you, Chief!”
Tron advised her to get lost and she did, laughing as she turned a corner and vamoosed. He and Sam walked on until the dark matte walls fell back and the riot of color and light that defined downtown commanded the full view. It could have passed for an evening in Center City.
Tron disappeared, then swung Sam up to a platform as narrow as a ledge. Sam whistled once he got settled; should’ve gotten used to this, really, but the city never failed to impress. He accepted the flask the program offered and only questioned its contents when they seemed to wipe a good few gig off his internal space. He made the noise of a reverse sneeze and swore at Tron in unfiltered User.
”It’s a calibration script from the Iota sector,” the program said. “It should keep your power steady for a while. My lieutenants have their lines set in the right place but I wouldn’t send you there myself; I doubt Users are compatible. Is it working?”
”Uh,” Sam said. “I guess? Am I drinking antifreeze or something? ‘Cause I got that sector on my map and it looks like a place to take my bike, not mys-“
He was cut off by a burst of laughter that went on for a while. “I’ll have to save this. Sorry, Sam.” Except Tron didn’t look sorry at all.
Sam finished off the antifreeze. “Glad someone’s having fun.”
Tron looked at him like he was 8-bit. ”How couldn't I? You gave me my job back.”
”The network? ’S all Lora.”
”The trouble’s all you.”
Sam felt the mental hatches batten down for another round of fire, then relaxed when he gave Tron a better look. “You’re welcome.” He returned the emptied flask.
”Want to see?”
The disc was out at Quorra’s speed; Sam didn’t even have a chance to do that ándale motion he picked up from Tron, in smug retaliation of all the times the program did the same to him. He just took the disc without a word.
He was still surprised at how heavy the thing was, despite the times he’d gone through it in less pleasant circumstances. He loaded the right file, fingers curling defensively against the burn of power from the disc’s freshest victims, and watched with envy as the playback flung him gate to gate, charging at the tendrils of malicious code to strike here, slice there, leap and burst through voxel mist.
”Nice stunts,” he muttered. “Meanwhile I got to tell some people to get off a train. So, uh,” he said, changing topics before he went too sullen, “what’s the deal with the gas stop then?”
Tron blinked at him, then signed an
[override]. “The word you need is ‘brothel’. I doubt you’re compatible, that’s all. You’re welcome to try.”
It was Sam’s turn to get lost in translation. He failed his first attempts at a reply and cycled through his options until the only one that seemed likely to parse was a plaintext ‘what’. But it wasn’t like he hadn’t suspected, and it explained why the place was so busy all the time. ‘Gas stop’ never really covered it, what with any vehicle drawing power from its rider. So that made sense.
Wait. If that made sense, Sam was fucking gone.
”Dude.” Sam pinched the bridge of his nose. “I get lasered into a computer, okay, and then some software tells me I gotta go get laid. Do you see my problem here? See what I’m working with? And you wonder why I’m...” He waved a hand uselessly, and gave up. ”Lines in the right place, huh?”
“Right down to the indents.”
Sam couldn’t take it anymore, and laughed. He was tired and dizzy and fed up in ways he couldn’t even hide, and he sat on the roof of a system folder with a program by his side and that was the routine part of his day. That was it, he’d signed the end packet to sanity and wasn’t sure he’d ever pick it up again. Or, alarmingly enough, if he even wanted to.
But that was just the lack of sleep.
Chapter 7: VII
Sam looked at the boot swung up nonchalantly to rest on his knees. Didn’t blink.
The act had taken further toll on the already damaged structure, and four voxels rolled off to shatter on the floor. Sam waited for the garbage bins to come collect them. ”Get a ticket,” he said, returning to his screen. “I got work to do.”
”Same here,” Tron said, “and if I don’t do it, everything else gets threatened. Including this.” He looked around the lab, leaning back in the closest thing to an office chair the Grid would yield, and grinned as if that would help. A myriad concurrent tasks ran smoothly in the background for once, and Sam was keen on keeping it that way. He got everything to work; everything.
Sam didn’t halt what he was doing. “And that makes you a top level interrupt, Chief?
[try again].” He indicated the busiest screens with a nod. “Over in that corner, WarpDrive; power pull is off the scale. Over here, management, trying not to blow us up. It’s not just the outside threats.”
Sam cringed at himself despite Tron’s calm statement of fact, but got an out as soon as another voxel peeled off never to be seen again. He looked the damage over with professional curiosity and noted a lengthening crack along the shin. “That’s got to hurt. How’d you get yourself in this state?”
Tron perked up. “Getting a recruit out of trouble. That Encom firewall is all over the place but they have potential. I’m glad we could restore them.” He winced when Sam prodded him to test the crack, then pretended it was nothing. “Besides. I learned a lot about how things are now.”
”At Encom?” Sam kept his tone conversational as he grabbed hold of the program’s boot and the back of his knee, and pushed. Data rushed as fast as thought: the address of the problem, the miswritten bytes, the backup, fix, and cleanup. He let go with some indulgent thrill - he only got to test the procedure on objects, prior to this chance - but Tron had asked for it, showing up uncalled when Sam had made it clear he was going to be busy for the next
[undefined] unit of time. ‘Forever’ had looked good.
The program pushed away, chair sliding halfway down the room before he made it stop. “What did you do?”
"You like it? Warehouse functions,” Sam grinned. “Just a few. And don’t worry, I worked it all out: how much space I got, how much memory, yada yada. Saves me dragging you to Repairs every time this happens.”
"Sam.” The name was a hiss, an accusation and plea in one. Tron didn’t even check if his leg was fine. “Lora works non-stop to get this code out of you. Copying functions like this -- you just integrated further with the system. Why?”
Well, what other choice was there?
It was fine. For a while, Sam was fine. Worked, went out, talked to Q, got stuff done, sent off e-mails that made him look like he was all over the world scouting for talent. He’d snuck in a note or two about recovering, so that anyone who knew about the emergency calls Alan had made that night - or could put two and two together and not simply assume another flake-out on the younger Flynn’s part – didn’t get any more suspicious on that front either.
But if they did, all the better.
Sam had a Twitter, a Facebook account, he had updates and followers and a whole army of programs making it look legit. He had photos and a Youtube clip or two, thanks to the FX crew from the video and graphics suite. It all took forever and it kept the Grid on its toes thanks to its demands, but on that deep level that never stopped trolling just to keep the company unnerved, Sam had fun. Whatever he’d done in previous years was child’s play compared to this mother of all pranks. It was as delicate an operation as forging Quorra a legal identity from scratch, and it was great.
And it gave him an excuse to be left alone.
[busy] was his permanent IM status, Gridwise and outside. It worked; he worked.
He'd figured it out.
So it took four full hex to discharge and go back to safe and normal: fine. It meant he had to spend sixty-four hours at a time doing absolutely nothing, but it was not only an officially approved fix -- signed and documented by the admins and the ACPI drones -- it was preferable to entrusting himself to an upright sarcophagus plugged into his brain. Or doing what the Iota girl had told him to.
Sam was certain she'd meant well, and she was gorgeous and he didn’t regret checking the place out one bit if he had to be honest. But their whole tryst had been as hot as being kept on call to tech support, for all that it was pleasant, and in the end he was glad that nothing came of it.
Apart from her advice.
Sixty-four hours of slowly going crazy. He'd give up every single time and then, desperate, dive back in, until he figured that the part that couldn’t cope was human. He didn't try to repress it after that, hell no, but he learned how to keep it calm.
He let the code do the work, let his sense of time work by ticks and shifts and hexes, let the feeds go raw and keep his mind alert as inputs fed straight into him and out, background noise and the hum of the system’s drives. He could swear he heard it, sometimes, on the rare moments the city went quiet due to rain; the grind of hardware a laser beam and a universe away.
He missed having drugs but there wasn’t a damn thing he could write that didn’t also charge him up, so he waited for the rains and the storms and let them numb the air or draw it out. He’d watch lightning come down upon the eager crowds – couldn’t see them, but he knew - and breathed easier when his body reset along with the city and the departing storm. Wondered what it would be like to stand outside with the rest and really be one of them, not a ‘destabilizing factor’ or however his hybrid signature got him tagged.
But he learned, and grew strong and confident; so much, in fact, that he relaxed and started improvizing again, working through shortcuts and hacks until one time he happened to leave the date field blank on a bulk search for his work.
A reasonable omission, no error in itself; and the indexer took it to mean all the time that Sam remain logged on, and combed diligently for
[SamFlynn] until the stack of models and projections waiting on Sam’s desk grew hefty and tall. Sam inspected them with well-earned pride, enjoying even the older, buggier ones; then a batch signed with
a.bradley came up and he said
[run] before his brain caught up and hit the brakes.
The trainwreck proceeded in excruciating detail and Sam was back at the arcade, the point of entry hastily rebuilt to save his life. Whether it was memories or records loading from his disc, he didn’t care; Alan was there looking each and every one of his years, and before he was asked to leave, so was Tron.
### [time|1285227617] [loc|α] [ref|a.bradley]
“Look, kid, I'm sorry, I don't want to give you details here.
Every simulation failed.”
And there they were. The laser had no idea what to do with Sam and broke down to chance, throwing up projections that were hilariously, grotesquely reminiscent of rendering glitches in video games. Sam had to think of it that way: clipping errors. What else could it be with the flesh caved in so bonelessly in one, stretched improbably in the other, gaps filled with something approximately organic in a third, clogging up his veins instead of blood?
He pushed his chair away and considered his next move. His body came up with one but to no avail because he hadn’t eaten in a year; he calmed the retching and the heaving down, released his grip on the desk to turn the damn thing off, and dropped the idea of calling Q. What would he tell her? Would she even be up? Would she alarm the Bradleys out of bed and into deeper guilt and stress if Sam woke her first?
He could have called Tron, sure, but he couldn’t because -
”I didn’t think it would do anything, all right? Not without opening a whole other can of worms.”
The second half was muttered but it should’ve been mute. Tron stared at him. “'Worms'?”
Sam put a hand over his eyes. “It’s a thing Users say. You won't find anything suspicious.”
”Leave that to me,” Tron said. His whole stance was that of a program fully at work, both scanning folders and trying to parse whatever the User went on about. He relaxed marginally when his task completed and found no worms or Trojans or anything wrong; Sam felt it in the walls of the complex and everything within, breathing when the scan withdrew. Understood a little why the program was concerned about his self-administered upgrades, but what was the point?
He knew Sam never stood a chance.
”No. You should have called me, and I would have called you a bit-brain.” He frowned, invisi-keyed
[find|[timestamp]][delete?][try again?] over Sam’s sternum and, when Sam wouldn’t
[N] in reply, pulled his lab coat closed and resorted back to User. “Help me out, Sam. You ask me to trust you and I do, and then the micro I leave you alone this happens. What am I supposed to tell my Users?”
”Nothing, I’ll handle it. I'm not hiding behind you for this.” But Sam knew a report would be finding its way to Lora this way or another, and had to act quick. He stuck his hands in his pockets and headed out. “You want confidential information, you better sic your lieutenants on me -- or you can bribe me. The booze is on you.”
”I had these toys when I was a kid. Action figures.”
Tron looked up from his datapad. Something in his eyes was unexpectedly cold and guarded, but the way he held himself was a classic ‘continue’ so Sam did. “You and Clu, in your old Grid suits. Actually, he was dressed like Dad.” Sam prodded at the ice in his drink. “I don’t remember. Could’ve been yellow? It got lost before I lost yours.” Prodded it some more. “Sorry about that.”
It had been a big deal to little Sam, though. “I had that thing for years,” he said. “I don’t know; I moved a lot. But Dad gave them to me and you guys were like my friends and we got up to all kinds of crap when he was away. I really bought the whole spiel about going to the Grid and having my own adventures. Our adventures. You wouldn’t believe the shit I threw you up against.”
Tron quirked a smile. “Like now?”
”More like Darth Vader. Serious villains: Skeletor, Decepticons, the whole Saturday morning set. But you had advanced articulation and disc-throwing action.” Sam mimicked the excitable tone of the ad and laughed behind his glass. “The whole Imperial Fleet couldn’t handle you.”
He drank quietly, wrapped up in nostalgia. Tron stored his pad away. “Is that what those toys are for?”
”What else? They’re for kicking ass. I honest to god worshipped you.” Sam wished for real ice, not the decorative bits that got in the way of getting drunk. “Clu was okay. He was Dad; I always imagined him sitting in his office and dressing us both down for...” He swung the glass around. “I don’t know. Having fun.”
Tron laughed, disturbing the few other patrons. “I wish we’d had that chance.”
”Like hell. I was a menace.”
”That’s what I’m built for.”
Damn him and his confidence. Sam swigged and brought the glass down. ”Well I’m here now, and I’m not going anywhere. How’s that?”
”Screw that and be honest.” Sam waved a passing server away, but kept the refill. “You saw those sims, right? You were there. But could you read them? Did Alan tell you what they meant?”
He got a slow, hesitant ‘no’ executed entirely in posture. Sam could read the strain of processing User info, the program writing and rewriting furiously in the space it had in order to keep up. And he could have felt sorry for Tron but instead he felt angry, because this amazing thing would always be in a cage, dependant on what crumbs the Users saw fit to spill. And nobody would ever get how sentient and alive it was within its means, not really; for a brief dark moment Sam wasn’t sure if even Quorra could.
”Alan would’ve told me,” Tron said quietly, and Sam didn’t have to be a monitor to sense the usage spike. “He’s not – he said he wouldn’t –“
He’s not Flynn? Wouldn’t treat his family the same?
Sam waved to stop him, and put his drink down. “It’s not what you think; nobody’s hiding anything. This is just how Users work, and I’m sorry we’re so pathetic. We can’t admit a damn thing to ourselves, so we screw things up.” He thought as quickly as Tron, felt his ID itch. “Take Dad: never wanted to admit anything was wrong. ‘No problems, only solutions,’ right? Alan is different, but he’s still human. They’re not bad people, none of them are. They’re just afraid.”
### [time|1285763043] [loc|ι] [ref|997947]
”I'd love to do more for you, User, but it looks like I’m locked out.”
The way the Iota girl had said it. The look that said she’d seen this 1024 times already and thought it cute. Sam knew what she was going to say next; he’d picked up enough gossip and tease to learn about permissions and who could write to whom and all the ridiculous double entendres programs traded between shifts. He still wanted to die there and then when she did.
”Talk to the program you gave access to. You’ve already set it up, look – “
”Me?” Sam huffed a clipped, bitter laugh, drink back in hand. “I’m as chickenshit as the rest of them.”
”You should have called me.” The line had clearly never left Tron’s active memory, just waited for a chance to reprint. “You mustn’t be alone in here. Clu was alone.”
”Man,” Sam said, the weird sting of jealousy swooping back in at the worst of moments. “Is there anyone you don’t care about? You’re like a big brother to everything that’s ever been installed here.”
”You need me.”
”Modest.” Sam burbled it, halfway through the drink, but it carried.
Sam shook his head, nose still deep inside the glass. He could’ve sworn he exhaled the power with how much he had, but he was no less lucid. Maybe Dad was on to something with the whole Zen deal. Did he teach it to the programs, or the other way around?
That’s right, Sam. Keep running.
Tron, for his part, had moved from frenzied calculation to a disconcerting calm. Sam knew the look and the poise; it was the point at which the program gathered all the information he needed to proceed and win every single game they tried. Sam never stood a chance at this either.
”Tell me about our adventures.”
The trick was in the light, Sam concluded.
He could put it down to nothing else. He'd written scores of rooms and open places on his own and filled them up with everyday objects; it just wasn't the same. And he’d gotten real good too, even if he said so himself: got the textures right, the colors, got the sizes and proportions down to a tee and it was no mean feat since he only had pictures to work from, and what real-life stuff he’d thought of beaming in before the laser went kaput. It was still all stuck in some weird uncanny valley because try as he might, he couldn’t get that last touch right to make it look real the way it was back home.
But he knew now why the graphics suite was as expensive as it was.
He walked out to the balcony to marvel at the vista. A city exploded beneath and around, cascading down to a busy seafront. Further along, the villas thinned out to a tropical forest, and the sound of birds and gas-guzzling cars carried on the breeze. He probably imagined the smell but he didn't mind; it had been a few years even without the stretch of time spent on the Grid since he last lived anywhere like that, but it felt right. They nailed it, and the only way he could explain was the highly tuned light sim. He spared a thought to worry about the processing power and whether this would end up competing with the WarpDrives where the CPU was concerned, but then decided to enjoy the view. He was the only one around who could appreciate it anyway.
”It’s Virtual Studio Max, client,” came the exasperated voice.
No reply, other than an increase in busyness somewhere in the back; probably clearing out. Sam checked his watch, commenting out the instinct to query the system clock. “Come on, Alan.”
The room inside was bland the way he wanted it, a hotel chain type designed to lull the mind. Bulk-bought art on the walls, small desk, laptop. The last item was introduced to most as a comms terminal – which it technically was, wrapped in a prop - after a more in-depth debate induced existentialist errors in two curious programs.
The set was complete, and completely encased; no open roof for stage lights to flood, no missing walls with curtains and cables trailing behind. There'd be no help that he could see. But Sam was aware of it, from the pulsing of power through the system’s mains to the presence of programs on the other side. Observing this in raw took effort compared to the overwhelming bursts he still experienced, but he’d gotten to the point where it was useful rather than a blinding, overriding feed.
So okay, he’d had help in honing it down that fine, and practice, but that train of thought was distracting from his task. He shut it down for later and sent out a call, then rubbed at his eyes in an early morning ritual of his old life, aiming for a look that could’ve owed to a party as much as late-night work.
Then it was on.
Sam leaned back in his chair. “Alan.”
This part was harder than he thought: suppressing the urge to check on the man, avoiding crucial details in their chat... but where it had been pushing seventeen months for Sam, on the outside it was a matter of last Thursday. And Sam was a better actor, and had to bite down a chuckle when Alan visibly relaxed, exhaled almost – only to sober up when it hit him that a week and short change couldn’t have passed any quicker to his godparents than a year and a half did here. “All good?”
”You tell me.” Alan patted a thick stack of documents laid out in front. “We have a lot to do. Are you ready?”
”Whenever you are.”
Alan gave a ‘heh’ with a lopsided grin. “Kurt’s getting coffee,” he said, and only betrayed his tension by his restless left hand. “Nobody else is in; maybe some kids down the lab. No secretaries, Sam, and we’re still here, so I hope you understand how important you are.”
Sam laughed, loud and honest. The outgoing boss wouldn’t have moved a finger without a flock of helpers rushing forth with a cushion; Sam shook him up all right. He'd worked his way up the corporate ladder, knocking minions off until he got to the big guns, and Mackey had been happy to take a pile of cash and walk. Would’ve been better if Sam had managed without killing himself halfway through the process of ‘taking a new direction’, ‘moving things around’ or whatever suit speak was for taking the company back, but it could still work out.
It had to. He owed it to too many; understood too late just how many lives depended on his own.
No pressure or anything.
He saluted the screen with a cup of coffee when Hardington joined the scene. He had a lawyer with him but so did Sam, a Bradley family friend who ensured years ago that the name would retain its place in the annals of the firm, and so would the man behind it. She was every part as battle-hewn as Alan and looked it, fixing the other side of the table with a cold firm stare so Sam wouldn’t have to.
”Sam,” Hardington said.
”Mr. Flynn,” Sam corrected.
An incredulous titter. “I’ve known you since you were this b–“
“What have we got?” Sam nodded at the files, sipped his pretend brew, and ignored the sight of Alan stamping out pride in favor of his signature frown. He really sucked at acting, and Sam loved him for that.
Hardington pulled the papers towards him.
For a split second, too fast for human eyes, the video froze and jerked. Sam smiled in benevolent patience at the man he had to oust, trying hard not to ping the Warps at the same time. The last thing he needed was a flicker in his retinas; it was difficult and painful enough to compress his dock, and he still hoped he wouldn’t have to get up or turn away from the camera too much.
”Your management restructure,” the shyster said as his client looked for the right file, “is very thorough. It includes, however, people who were dismissed for a reason –“
Flynn Lives. But it never took that much to let people go, and Sam doubted Encom even knew; it was daring to speak out, to ask about the original values – hell, about what Walter Gibbs had started the company for. Sam knew all this; had ample time to learn.
Alan’s lawyer cut in before anyone could mention anything contraband. ”We’ve been through this,” she said, and indicated Sam with an elegant swoop of her shoulders and hair. “Make your point.”
”The point, son,” Hardington told the screen, pushing the semi-formality of the gathering as well as his old school charm, “is that you are a liability too, and I don’t just mean that you showed up out of nowhere after dropping out of school.”
Sam gave a tight smile. "We're not here for me.”
”The hell we aren’t. I don’t care how much money you’ve got; you can run the company into the ground, and the board knows it. Half our investors have a foot out the door already with this hippie stunt you’re pulling.”
Alan slid his phone towards the man; Sam couldn’t tell what was on the screen, but he could guess. Hardington snatched it. “Will you stop doing that?”
”Share prices,” Alan said. “Speaking as a board member, we do know what Sam’s worth.”
Hardington was talking to Sam again, eyes on the screen. ”Headlines. Once the gossip dies down you’ll have to face the music, and learn some things about work instead of making grand announcements. We’ve been through this all right, with Kevin Flynn. Nearly tanked the company with all that voodoo talk.” He turned to Alan. “And Dr Bradley here would’ve done the same if we hadn’t stopped him, and now he’s back. The only thing keeping you here, Alan, is her.” He waved irritably at the venerable laywer, who barely blinked.
The video stuttered, badly. Sam leaned forward to stop himself from glancing at the room every two seconds to make sure the feed wasn’t showing him inside a bare holodeck all of a sudden. Max couldn’t crash, not now, and neither could Quorra’s crew. Sam allowed himself a nano to check on Tron, and got an ‘away’ note in return.
[# This program is busy. #]
Well. He knew what that meant.
But best let them point it out. “OS12,” Sam said with a vicious tone, as if there were nothing wrong with the video link. “Alan, a lot of your work’s in there. Was it a gift to the public, like we said in the statement?”
In for a penny, in for a pound. And damn if there wasn’t a clear flash of triumph in Hardington’s eyes before the feed hitched again.
”No,” Alan said, distorted. "Richard -- clear on that. The idea of giv------- for free died -- Flynn."
"-- right," Hardington said. "This --- working. Can either -- you fix --------------"
Sam raised a hand, and his butt from the chair. "I’ll do it; gimme five. You all got that?"
Alan agreed; Hardington said something that ended in "third world"; the link went bust.
”What’s going on?”
It was all Sam managed to get out before the headache caught up with him; he knew, technically, the size of the adjustment field that kept the time-warped sector cushioned away from the rest; it was still a pain to run through. Out in the clear, the whole system seemed to be on alert: every screen that he could see ran diagnostics and monitored the power spikes.
“Ain’t me,” he wheezed and put a hand against a wall to keep himself upright. His clothes reconfigured to their normal state, together with the port and its docked ID. Thank fuck.
”It kind of is, User,” Lex said, looking up with a mixture of concern and thrill. She had a headset and a visor on and juggled four datapads in the absence of her usual station, this far from the hub. “They’re after you again.”
”We got proof?”
”They picked up the right set of baits.”
She was worryingly joyfully smug, but then again she'd written some of those e-mails herself. “We’re down to six possible scripts for you. You’ll know what’s up as soon as I hear from our trackers.”
”Yeah? I think we’ll need your party trick in a minute. Wanna bet against?”
[printf] to Nkoli’s terminal, SamFlynn,” she said, heartfelt. “It's a bet I'd be happy to lose, if it meant I got to take the test. Can you think of a better challenge for a program this awesome?”
She winked at him and went back to analytics. But to get a go at her ultimate Turing she had to work in tandem; Sam wanted to ask where Sudo was, then became aware of a masking field that had followed him around since he emerged, cocooning him as safely as the WarpDrive wrapped the set. That Su felt confident enough to cover him remotely was a good sign.
Lex let out an inhuman sound. “Got 'em!”
Sam unfolded from his wince. “What, Starsky and Hutch?”
She gave him a puzzled look. “If you say so. Team
[β], Niven’s guys. They’re on their way.”
”That’s them.” Sam watched the skies, strangely dark now that he got so used to the psychedelic patterns lighting them up so often, like thunder made of data instead of the usual power blasts. But Tron wasn’t letting anything in unless he’d read it eight times over, so the programs’ spider was easy to make out against the faint cabling of traffic, latching on to it with weirdly organic grace.
Sam was never sure whether to be proud of spiders given that he basically built them in the shape of gigantic bugs, but it made a certain sort of sense. The thing came down on spun threads of light, folding its limbs to allow its drivers out. Lex ran out to meet them, storing pads away to catch their discs, one in each hand. She couldn’t fight that way - Sam saw no-one who could, as even Rinzler had to contend with one - but she could read them fine, and retreated to give herself more room to work.
Sam didn’t wait. “Well?”
”It checks out,” Raz said. “The trail took us to where you said it would, but that’s as far as we got. This glitch here wanted to go in —”
Ampu ignored him and spoke to Sam first. ”Just to see what it was like!” Then he rounded on his pal: “In, out, bam: wouldn't leave a ping! What kind of intelligence unit are you anyway?”
”An intelligent one.”
Ampu gestured some remarkably vivid stuff. “Besides,” he said, all out of ammo, “they know well enough where we’re from; the path stands out like a glowstick in the outlands. You could track down it on auto, there and back.”
[confirmed]. “It’s the inside I’d be more concerned about, but leave it to the tactical crew to barge in -- Sir.”
Ampu snorted at his colleague's hasty switch even as he too stood to attention. Sam followed suit, and was no closer to figuring out Tron's shortcut trick unless Tron was a bastard, which he was, and used the teleporter while calling it unsafe. Integrity was never a strong suit with him, what with Rinzler still around.
Tron didn’t break his stride, didn’t need to steady himself when the ground buzzed with a power surge. “What about the inside? What’s there?”
The program must’ve been unnerved if he was as irreverent with his boss as he would be with a friend. Tron didn’t care. “You sure?”
”Put it like this, Chief: It felt familiar enough.”
”We didn’t stick around to check,” Ampu added, and grinned as Raz glared at him. The lights and screens around them flickered, then started up again.
”You want to go back?”
”The gates, then,” Tron said. “Take my place. And take Astra and the rest with you, but destroy nothing. I want it all classed and quarantined by the time I’m back. Suspend them half-derezzed if you have to, but I want the evidence alive. Raz, that’s yours. Sam, this way.”
The spy and the gunner
[ACK]ed and fell back; Sam jogged to keep up. “Lex says she’s got it down to Plan A through F. What’s your guess?"
”Those Encom maps you gave me,” Tron said. “Why do you have them?”
Ah. There was nothing wrong with playing Robin Hood until you hooked up with a cop. “I was testing their security. Our security. It’s my company, I’m allowed to.”
Tron shot him a withering yet slightly amused look. Sam still died on the inside.
”And that got you the interest of our friends. Don’t
[deny] it, Alan told me about you. Flynn told me about you.” Thankfully, he went on before Sam could bury himself any deeper. “So you managed to bypass it, right?”
”Yeah, but I was inside the building. It was more a matter of User security, and that was this one guy...”
”That’s what I’m thinking. Lex!”
The program was barely visible behind the particle streams of data, unfolding from the discs resting in her lap to orbit her and mesh with incoming feeds. She was nonetheless alert, a live command prompt. ”Sir!”
”What are we talking about here? Center City Encom tower?”
”I’m afraid so. Chief, you won’t like this.” She waited for acknowledgement and permission to proceed, and drew breath like a human. “It’s your User’s folder.”
”Alan’s office,” Sam echoed. Where else? That was the only terminal inside the building that was able to access the Grid. Sam thought it would’ve been a roundabout job but no, they were just that brazen. In truth, though, he’d have done the same.
He didn’t dare look at Tron. The program emitted a need to dish out justice, preferably by way of a burning disc. He looked ready to take the Grid apart and the laser, and storm out there in the flesh even if he never showed an interest in the outside world. The will was there. He spoke slowly, however, almost Alan-like with the suspicious squint and the sibilants. “And you’re absolutely certain it’s not him?”
[100%], Sir,” Sudo said, rezzing up to assume her role of an identity whizz. “It’s
a.bradley’s address, but the signature is forced. He never made a mistake. Would you like to see his logs?”
Tron mellowed a little at her eagerness. “I have his logs, he’s my own User; that’s why this isn’t adding up.” He loaded up his bike and gave it a critical look. “Can you swap signatures with SamFlynn while I go
[get] something? We’ll take our cue from our guests.”
Su broke into a grin, unusual on her normally temperate stance. “No problem.” Her voice was already Sam’s.
Lex handed her her own disc. “One SamFlynn to go. Attitude, vocabulary, a whole set of libraries and handy cues. Have fun; I know I did.”
Another priority clash shook the walls; must have been Security taking resources away from the video link. No-one flinched though. ”You guys are creepy,” Sam said, trying not to draw his disc. He had to tell himself these were aftershocks, not attacks.
”Su can fool a User with her logins,” Lex said, perfectly conversational. “To talk to one, though? You need me. We’re all charmers here, I know, but even Chief can only output
[yes/no]s to the other side. I thought you knew, seeing how you two have history together.”
”That was all down here,” Sam said. “And we never exactly talked.”
”Yeah, well,” Sudo said, a flawless copy of his conference looks. But did he really cackle like a dork? “Now’s your chance to catch up.”
Sam followed his twin’s gaze. The trap he’d built and given to Security rolled up to them in a wide, confident curve. The armilla was half a dare when he made it, a test for his skills as much as theirs. He knew they'd tried themselves against it - they had to come to him for repairs when no other User was around - but how well they did was up for debate. Predictably, Tron had won; probably had to.
”Guess I’m driving,” Sam muttered. Wouldn't, on pain of death, admit how accepted it made him feel to be invited along for this even if he knew that he was indispensable and that, of all things, it was his questionable past that could get him out of this mess as much as it had gotten him in. But before Sam could get inside the sphere the world groaned with another blast, lighting up at once in the worst electric shock of his life.
Sudo giggled, to Sam's dismay. Lex whooped. "I knew a program that could do this," she confided to the group. "Got you all nice and tingly."
"Creepy and gross," Sam said, and got roundly ignored. Pseudo-Sam leered. "Yeah? So who was it?"
The three programs howled. Sam rolled his eyes at what was patently a well-worn joke, and climbed in. “This is scarier than I remember.”
”What was that again,” Tron said from above. “‘Not for amateurs’?”
Sam slipped in just before the armilla started to move, and kept his legs in one piece. “Funny. I’ll take it from here.”
He turned towards the gates, scouting for a suitable stream. The Grid sped up around him in rivulets that resembled rain on a windshield except there was no windshield and no rain, before the strands resolved into a seamlessly enveloping screen. He couldn’t see the spinning hoops any more, hidden away behind Security reports. Tron had been at work in here.
Sam welcomed the silence, as it let him pretend he needed to focus. Wasn’t sure what he could say, so he settled on “thanks”.
”Please. You earned it.”
”I’ll believe that when we’re done,” Sam said. “I need something Alan can take to court if it comes to that. Hardcopies, evidence. We don’t have that much time.”
”We have plenty.” Tron moved over to lay a hand on Sam’s working ID; details of his team’s skills merged with the data being read, assuring Sam with facts where touch alone already did the trick. “Trust my crew. They’ve waited a long time for a chance like this. Their Users would be proud.”
”And yours is gonna wipe us both if he finds out. I told him your spooks were on this case, not us.” Sam swerved and hooked onto a tight, healthy data stream. “How’s that for a gamble?”
His grin was answered with a close-to-literal gigawatt smile. Sam turned his attention back to the gates, looming up ahead and looking busy. He shook his head, grateful for the rendering quirk that stripped his skin of color. “You're a crazy son of a bitch, you know that?
Tron stepped back. “Get ready.”
Up close and functional, the gates looked even weirder than the Lovecraftian geometry of their inactive state. Sam’s first instinct was to look away but he resisted, warned and trained about the perils of not being distracted. Fat chance of that: the scene filled up with walls and trajectories of hurled discs, putting him once again in mind of a video game. There was too much going on, too much, and when the
[zip] descended to push him through a sieve and crunch his body and his mind, he couldn't even tell.
Decompression was a different beast; there were his feet — not that he could feel them — and a mesh underneath with a screen below; if he lifted his head a little there were his hands, deep inside the simulated perspex of the control bar. He shook them loose, pulling finger by finger out and testing if they worked; the bar reassembled by itself.
”Okay,” he said. “Okay. I know I asked for this, but now I kinda want to quit.”
”Yeah. No. Give me a nano here. What are the loss rates on this thing? Does anyone even know?”
There was a tug on his disc, and he let himself be pulled back slowly to take in the view.
“Okay,” he said. Or maybe squeaked.
Outside and everywhere, everywhere in the sense the Grid couldn’t begin to dream of, in dimensions that Sam registered only when his CPU requested a divide by zero so that it could quit, in the spires of his father’s legends and the maze that stretched beyond the caches of the mind, lay Encom.
Sam’s evidence was out there --
--- and Encom’s guns were here.
Chapter 8: VIII
Sam placed his hands on the controls again and sent the ident with Sudo’s keys. “These are not the programs you are looking for,” he murmured, and hoped.
”Maintenance,” came security’s ping. “You can only login from an on-site terminal. Please check that your details are correct and try again.”
”And that,” Sam whispered through the lightest of invisikeys, “is why I was inside the building when I let Dad’s OS loose. Encom isn’t stupid.” A string of approximations really, but it got his point across.
”That’s right, we’re not,” Tron said calmly and drew his disc. “
[goto] plan B.”
Sam would’ve congratulated himself on biting his tongue, except he couldn’t help commenting. “Let me guess, you got teleporter functions.”
The program looked far too pleased when the disc lit up and he replaced it. “Just keep talking,” he said. “I got this.” The smug ass even tickled it across.
Sam managed to keep security on hold while he glared at Tron; they’d agreed to cooperate, not compete. ”When we get back I’ll end you,” he sent in binary, just to make it clear.
”You’ll thank me.”
Tron’s disc whined and outlined itself together with the program in a neat bright grid, too reminiscent of deresolution patterns and the laser. But it sent him somewhere and Sam made a new attempt at logging in. “C’mon.”
”Maintenance,” said security again. “You can only login if you promise not to break into Encom again, or drag innocent programs along.”
”Just open the damn door.”
The guns trained on the armilla withdrew and folded back. “Welcome,” said the pleasant, neutral voice of the system, and proceeded to inform Sam that he was now signed in as some tech guy he’d never met. She sounded like the PA on the Grid; must’ve come with the firmware. Tron was back before she finished reeling off the checks and permissions, slithering through scything hoops with a gymnast’s grace.
”That was quick,” Sam said. Maybe too easy. “Should I worry?”
Tron responded with a dubious growl, which worked a little too well with his newly acquired Encom colors. “I knew where they’d be.”
Sam kept his grip on the controls firm so he wouldn’t have to keep his eyes on the road just yet. “Okay...?”
”Precisely where I’d put them.”
Sam looked at the endless cityscape surrounding the sphere from all visible angles. If the building’s server room dwarfed Dad’s basement by several lengths, the size of this was exponential compared to the Grid. It would’ve been a task even if they did have ‘plenty of time’, but if their suspicions were correct...
”’In, out, bam,’” Sam said. “No heroics. You got that?”
He got a look that distantly resembled sheepish in return, but was a closer relative of pouty. Sam tried not to snigger. “Payback’s a bitch,” he hummed under his breath, happy to turn the tables for once. He wouldn’t have the upper hand for long but this was his ride and his experience. He’d been here before, he knew it, he owned it -- and he planned to keep it that way.
”I’ll give you payback.” Slow, subsonic, and straight to the disc. Sam pretended he didn’t hear it, and dismissed the buzz of static that had tingled up like goosebumps. He found the looming danger every bit as exciting as Tron must’ve done, except he didn’t have the spark of madness that spurred it on. And Tron sure as hell didn’t get that from Alan. Sam shook his head to sober up, and vowed to credit Dr Baines more in the future.
If he got to talk to her again.
He indicated the vista with a shrug. “Any of this look familiar?”
He’d be surprised if it did. He figured old game graphics had been faithful to Dad’s experience of Encom 511, but this out here was futuristic even to Sam’s eyes. It brought those shard-sharp see-through discs back to his mind; this entire world was crystalline, like model cities chiseled out of glass. But despite that it felt real, an impression only fortified through the streaks of red and white that embodied its flow of traffic.
Information highway, Sam thought, a buzzword brought to actual life. And that’s what Encom was: corporate culture given form. The programs he could see belonged in offices with the kind of suits they wore.
”Nothing matches yet,” Tron said, still a whisper. He leaned on the armilla’s inner frame, arms crossed like a tourist looking out from Center City’s Exhibition Tower — if tourists came fully armed and armored. “The maze, maybe.” He fell quiet for a while. “It looks like isometric cities.”
”What, like Civili- oh.” Sam’s chuckle died. “Is that what they looked like? Do you think —?”
[no]” came in reply. ”All of this is User-built. But it’s like the MCP: if enough Users work on it, it starts... advancing.”
”Okay, yeah,” Sam said, accelerating semi-consciously. “Let’s just get what we’re here for and get the fuck out. I think I know where I’m going.”
He took a turn towards the nearest gargantuan tower, spanning the space between one layer and the next. It made sense that the city felt like a living board stack and if he squinted Sam could almost see it, but it didn’t help with the sense of being microscopic. He pushed on, rolling the sphere up the side of the tower and spiralling around it to keep out of any Recos’ way. The thing acted like a gyroscope and kept them level but some of the rollercoaster feel remained; the vertiginous landscape rose and fell, waltzing around them in a slow, languid beat.
And there it was. The monolith cluster was no more remarkable than anything else in this expanse, except for the rows of butte-sized slabs that thundered with action like the clouds back home. But there were no skies in Encom, none that Sam could see: electronic conurbations spread and branched, and if there was anything about the sight that seemed familiar, it was the parts where the landscape shimmered. Too distant to pick out details, the sheets and blocks of clear grey slate flashed like the sea whenever lightning struck.
The city-world of Encom had no sea to speak of either, but it was hard to shake off a sense of the Kraken moving in the depths. Sam reminded himself that he’d been warned about that, put the warning on repeat, and focused his attention on the active paths below. Half a dozen sectors stood out from the dormant rest, far along the Y axis: kids down the lab. Sam ignored them in favor of a more secluded sector right ahead, and judging by the way Tron stirred out of stealth to reach out and scan, using Encom's own security that he'd managed to rope in, Sam was right.
”Just so I know,” Sam said. “how many guards did you take out?”
Sam reached back to key an
[EOT], going through his logs to retrieve the number of words the program had used since they made the jump. If the frequency and syntax rate fell below a certain point, things were about to get ugly.
He relaxed when a new transmission tapped against his palm. A pretty complicated one in hex, but as soon as Sam decyphered a “not getting rid of me so easily” he allowed himself to laugh and
[OK]ed a few times in deferral. Rinzler might not have to show up at all.
Damn, but it was quiet. Sam imagined the scores of Encom’s programs embedded in their pods like Clu’s sirens and data ops, waiting to be used. Traffic was alive enough, and easy to blend with under the guise of system tech, but it didn’t make the place feel any friendlier or any more his. No wonder Alan felt like an outsider, or that Lora left. Sam still had a lot to do.
When the targeted high rise finally showed up and the noise of activity livened up the graphs, he turned the whole screen off and carried on by feel. He didn’t have to look up headers to know that the
[dir]s ahead stored Alan’s files; he spent a good deal of his time living in that stuff.
He let Tron take the wheel and busied himself with the lockpick. When the program settled on the best point of entry Sam called up
stargate() and held on for life when the armilla’s entire structure collapsed to press against the building’s outer wall. Quorra’s thirst for sci-fi had inspired him for this; the concentric rings started to rotate, sliding soundlessly against each other until the outermost one locked. Then the next.
Two down, four to go.
Sam squeezed as much of himself as he could inside the shallow alcove. It looked safer hanging off the walls of his warehouse; with five Grand Canyons stacked below he figured he could make the next one somewhat deeper. “Some other time,” he sighed.
He checked the progress of his lockpick. Tron was leaning back to do the same, but the showman had one foot on the ring and the other dangling over the abyss, supremely unconcerned about falling off. He wasn’t even holding on to anything, arms crossed instead like -- well. Like he trusted Sam to do his job.
”If this were my Encom,” Tron said, “your logic probe would be a lot bigger.”
Sam had defeated the MCP enough times ages ago, and remembered the graphics in the game. ”Dude,” he said. “You have no idea how wrong that sounds.” But he felt at ease, fully aware that the program was keeping him distracted. Tron must’ve been the same with his recruits: criticism laced with praise, demands offset by banter.
The glass inside the ring fizzed out. Tron’s serious stance was back full on and he sent a single
[go] before slipping through to land as softly as a cat. Sam followed, timing steps to the beat of data being read, disc drawn and set to
It didn’t take them long to find the perp but Sam didn’t recognize him from behind; the hacker’s User could have been any of Ed’s goons, or just about anyone. But whoever the guy was he robbed Sam of the chance to deliver a punch to Junior’s face, and Sam had no more use for him.
The program had assumed the pose of techies everywhere, lounging bored in a see-through office chair. Sam could tell there was a box of snacks in his lap going by the noise, and his feet were not only up on the console, they were tapping repetitive
[OK]s down on the controls to check and store each file. Sam glanced at the screen above: anything that mentioned him, any email that he’d sent, anything that Alan had that could lead them back to him was meticulously filed and ready to ship out.
”You can go now,” Tron said. “We’ll take that.”
The program jumped. His disc was out and aiming at the copied files; blink and it was on the floor, and his arms were twisted behind his back. Where he would’ve normally had the pressure of a loaded disc he had Tron’s knee, and Sam figured that having his face smashed against the lights of the console wasn’t helping either - at least judging by the sound of frying voxels.
”I said you can go.” Tron’s voice was remarkably level. “Why are you acting incompatible?”
”Can’t go back,” the program half-spat, half-drooled onto the light. Or bled; Tron wouldn’t let him derezz but the burned and damaged code released its power this way or another, and the console was soon blinding. “If I’m useless I’ll-”
”You’ll what? End up worse than this?” The knee pushed further; the program gurgled.
Sam moved in. He didn’t dare order Tron around — or Rinzler for that matter, whichever of the two was on — but he would’ve made one useless User if he couldn’t sort this out. “Program,
[go],” he said, slow and clear. The guy looked back at him in panic, clearly at a loss on what Sam signed.
“Walk,” Sam said. “So you’re empty-handed. Big deal! The User on the other side will simply have to tell his boss there’s nothing there, just like you’ll tell him.”
The program twitched. Sam looked at Tron - or Rinzler - behind this struggling bulk, then signaled for release. The hacker switched to furious invisi-key as his shoulders nursed his injured head and his hands curled to fists, crooked fingers working just as fast as the splayed, piano-playing gestures of the Grid. Sam waved him off, uncomprehending. “Talk normal, it’s just your face got burned.”
The program quit his twitching, outraged, and felt gingerly for damage. He didn’t ask for his disc back, just nodded at it in Sam’s hands. “I spent too long here, looking,” he said. “He’ll want results.”
“How’s this,” Sam said, opening the guy’s ID by a lucky guess. The thing was a damn iD, all sleek and seamless; all it needed was a coating of white. “Say I add a few blank files, a few irrelevant hits, and some outdated mention of your keywords because let’s face it, you know that
a.bradley still has the mail from his Pine days.” His fingers danced on the surface and taunted the hacker with the offer, dummy files waiting for permission to download.
”Deal,” the program hissed; he wasn’t built to be stupid. Sam wrote the files at once and threw in a patch for free, so when the program synced his face repaired. Security behind him rolled its eyes and Sam smirked, relieved; Rinzler had no use for commentary.
”Dunno what you’re looking at me for,” Sam said as the program fled. “I know what these guys are like. His User, I mean. Check out what else he tried to
[get]; I’ll bet you twelve shifts he tried to mess with Alan’s accounting.”
He pushed down glee when Tron emerged from the shadows; the program was so easy to bait with Sam’s godparents’ names. “What did I tell you,” Sam went on, humming ‘fraud and related activity in connection with computers’ in mock sing-song as he scrolled through the evidence he saved off the hacker’s emptied disc. “This shit could put you away for a few years. It’ll keep your old man busy when we hand it over.”
"That’s accounting,” Tron said with a nod. He was looking at arrays that meant nothing to Sam even if he’d stored them on his own disc. Then, since it was obviously looping in the program’s mind: “How do you know all this?”
”Not again,” Sam pleaded. He squinted at the disc and its whirly code, trying to figure out whether it was money transfers or what. “You know I’m not a newb to quarantines. So I learned stuff in jail and courts, so what? Besides,” he said, glad to change the subject, "how do you know all this? You sure it’s Alan’s bills?” Money wasn’t something Sam ever had to fuss about, having had a lawyer and an accountant since age nine.
”You’re not the only one who learned in jail,” Tron said with a shady grin. “Are we done here?”
Sam put the disc away. “Jeez, Chief. You just can’t deal with anybody else getting stuff done.”
”Sure I can, if they do. Checking on our friend right now.”
Sam fell silent, waiting. Tron was in his ready mode, feet planted firmly on the ground but his whole body tensed as if ready to whip his blade out and strike. His hands hung deceptively loosely too, fingers of his left drumming on the air in the one tic he inherited from Alan. In raw view, triggered by Sam’s paranoia, he manifested as a network — or a part of one. If the Grid played tricks with Sam’s sense of scale, Encom fucking trashed it.
“He nearly got himself caught,” Tron snarled, “so I threw an alert in another sector. He has precisely four nanos to get... out. Okay, he’s in the clear. We should get the hell out too.”
Sam raised an eyebrow at the User phrase but fell in without question. It wasn’t until Tron halted for half a step, and the swathe of links that trailed behind him in raw view seemed to pull him back, that Sam spoke up. “
”You’re good,” Tron said unguarded. “It was just a status check. Keep going.” But he lagged again, and whatever hold he’d had on security sweeps looked ready to take its toll. He was hot to the touch, felt brittle, and had to take a break. Sam said as much, taking no joy in bossing him around this time. He made a swipe for the program’s baton and extracted a flask, setting it to negative values.
”There, cool you down,” he said. “Been studying those calibration scripts.”
Tron accepted it with no complaints. “Bet you have” was the only thing he said before he upturned the thing and took a few long micros absorbing the flow and the corrections. But when he put it back he looked like he was calculating more if anything, and grinned like he had a plan which had fuck all to do with the ones they’d cooked up at HQ.
”Before you do anything,” Sam warned, “I’m the one who improvises around here, and -”
Up against a wall, arms trapped behind, Sam went down as quickly as the hacker. There was a
[pause] keyed between his wrists and a hand over his mouth and he stilled, willed himself invisible while this patrol — he hoped that’s what it was — went past.
Whatever it was that guarded Encom, it was big. Sam could tell just from the way the tower dimmed; that much resource pull could’ve easily powered a regiment of thirty-two. He struggled to stay on the ball with a stronger program holding him in place, so close that Sam was reading him without prompting: the operations and actions waiting to be called, the usage stats, the power cycling within.
He pressed his forehead to Tron’s shoulder and issued a basic request from program to User, so old it was either what next or do something, a prayer for any kind of input. He even sent an
[ENQ] with it; he would’ve been less anxious if they just attacked but this wait, with an undefined something creeping up his spine as it crept up the building, he wasn’t built for that. Couldn’t Tron turn it away?
The response tangled in his fingers was a map; the start of one. The rest of it waited behind a request in turn and that came as a whisper, so startling in its proximity that Sam shuddered and would’ve kicked at the floor if Tron hadn’t reined him in firmer. Let me in.
[no],” Sam said. No way.
He was way too new for that, for the bewildering ways in which programs split and merged, scattered themselves across the sectors or pooled their strengths. Sure, he let Tron invade him and take him apart in the safety of the Grid, a world he’d half built himself and knew he could trust. This, here? If he let go he wasn’t sure he was ever coming back.
And he must have said that somehow because the next reply he got was the same request, which he expected, but enforced with a drag of thumb beneath the lights of his dock -- which he feared. He bit in retaliation at the hand that kept him muffled, embarrassed by the weakness the program found so easy to exploit, and felt approval nuzzled down his neck and shoulder. Trust me.
And so help him, Sam did.
Back when Sam was semi-exiled to Brazil on a journey of self-discovery — or just learning how to avoid exploding at people — the only discovery worth a damn for a good long while was the daughter of one of the martial arts trainers. Claudia had hair that swung down to her legs, laughter that was cackly and weirdly cute, and skin that made him give praise to the tropical sun. She had this idea once where she took Sam to the sea, and in the middle of a pretty good kiss pulled them both underwater to breathe for each other and listen to their heartbeats.
Schmaltzy as fuck, yeah, but it stayed it with him, and he had no other base for comparison when he sank through the layers of Encom to its machine language core, the data drumming in his ears like the ocean. He was held under, heart and lungs overwhelmed, but where he remembered a light hold on his wrists there was an iron grip, and where Claudia’s hair had coiled around them to tickle at his shoulders there was nothing but the cool flow of power - and a presence in his mind that was never meant to be human.
And it made no difference, which was terrifying in itself — but that was a discovery Sam had set aside the first time he'd given in like that, and knew by now how to proceed. He was fine staying calm until the Kraken-thing he’d sensed caught up with them and made its way to the file room floor. Except he could see now what it was because Tron took on Sam's login and had the luxury of User sight. And it wasn’t like Sam didn’t know — wasn’t warned what to expect; it still took effort not to freeze on the spot.
The shadow was upon them, scouting; and what advantage Tron had bought by linking them up into an entity that wiped their registries off the radar with its brand new signature, it was about to run out because Sam found the map loaded to his disc together with instructions and the shortest path that would take him back to the armilla. The only thing missing was a
[run] but he felt it written bit by bit as Tron’s hand let go of his to trail up the sleeve of his coat, never breaking contact with its light. Sam felt his disc detach not a nano later, and when he heard it engage it was as if he himself was holding it.
In a way, he was. But life snapped back to normal when Tron let go, reality flooded in, and the
[RUN] got punched into his plexus with a force that left him with no choice.
Half-thrown, half-bounding down the path lit up ahead, Sam slid and ducked when he heard the sound of his disc flying straight at him. He let it whizz through the air above his head and caught it, intact, when it swooped around to boomerang back to Tron. He docked it in a flash and kept on running, checking as quickly as he could from its records that his hunch was correct, that Tron used the disc as a weapon to distract from its loot, and that the program whose throat it singed was in fact a near-mirror of the Grid’s Security chief.
Just Sam's luck.
This other Tron looked what, a few years older? Sam counted as he ran, pulling dates from the disc, anything on the history of Encom that he’d scrounged from Dad's old records and the archives of Flynn Lives. When was it that Alan had to step in instead of Dad, '86? The Isos would have been around already, so... shit. Shit. Sam cussed out loud as he dove to evade another throw, a hostile one this time, and slid between the filestacks to reset the map and clear his vision of clutter.
Alan’s work belonged to Encom, right?
Of course it did. Dad moved Tron without asking, so what was stopping any of those fucks from copying something none of them could best. Sam could bet it got adapted, too, because Alan got bumped up and others took his place, and... Swerving clear of shrapnel coming from behind, Sam added up the cycles Encom spent to get to version twelve and staggered with nausea and conflicted pity when he realized it wasn't Trons duking it out at his heels, it was Rinzlers.
One Clu’s, and one... worse.
Sam read this in the diminishing hold the original program had on him - withdrawing from Sam’s mind to focus on its task - and in the look the Encom version gave him when he emerged as himself.
In that moment Sam truly appreciated that Tron’s strange safemode never paid him any attention when it was on the job; but this Rinzler, this T12 had shown interest and a lazy smile, the look of one assured of its domain. It would’ve probably hunted him down like a panther playing with its prey had he been alone.
But he wasn’t, and Sam almost cheered for the swell of noise and destruction catching up with him.
The armilla’s ring came within sight, still keeping the impromptu window open. Four sentries were trying to pry it off the wall but Sam wasted no time in wiping them on the spot while their boss was still distracted, engaged in combat with itself. He fired off a prayer with each cast of his disc and got so close by the time he finished the last guard that he jumped through the ring in a spray of voxels, a gruesome curtain drop upon his exit.
The ride detached as soon as he was in, flying into empty space with its hoops spinning back into a sphere. His disc was safe, the evidence was safe, and he speedy scan he risked in the nanos that he spared found no integrity faults. And then he booted up completely, by himself, as himself, and the world became as infinite and distant as it’s always been.
He was alone.
Sam was barred from even thinking of going back but did so anyway because he was human and screw it, that’s how he was wired. But as soon as his disc registered his intent he closed his eyes and counted calmly to three; it beat yelling at the void.
The teleport was there, the return half of the ticket, integrated as seamlessly with Sam’s disc as the map. And its release codes were with Tron, of course, because the moment Sam thought up some heroics that deviated from the plan he was getting booted out, he knew. There was no way for him but out and whether he did it in tandem or alone was up to him. That sneaky sonnuva---
Served Sam right for giving triple-seven access to anyone other than himself. He knew it was a risky thing to do and Tron had given him hell for it instead of thanks, but he had no idea how to change it. Anything he tried was as easy and successful as telling his lungs what to do, or anything else that acted on its own. He was human, and impulsive, and since he gave the program the full set of privileges, of course Tron went and used it.
So much for trust.
And then it hit him — as the sphere hit the ground or the closest thing to it, and he led it through the maze half-blind, thinking only of the exit — that he could have been ejected and sent back to the Grid as soon as the data they had come for had been transferred to his disc. But he wasn’t.
Some hope yet, then. Some -
Sam switched to raw on instinct, happier to see more than faster if he had to choose. User senses had no lag but they would have missed the sight of two immense torrents of actions storming his armilla, both trying to claim it. They threw exceptions, tore lines off each other, set off processes just to slow each other down, and drew so much power from the sectors Sam passed through that the near-dormant state of Encom fell to blackout in their wake.
And he’d done everything to look legit. What the hell had that hacker done that Sam missed, to fly under the radar?
It wasn’t ‘Sam’, not in raw; but it meant him. “What?”
”What,” Rinzler flung right back, like he’d bounced a packet, “is - this - made - of?” He held on to the fixed parts of the armilla’s frame with one hand and swung his disc with the other, either keeping T12 at bay or trying to bisect it. Him. It.
Sam couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “What kind of a-- what difference does it make?!”
Code: the frame was made of code, like everything else around: expressions, variables, comments, what kind of a question was that.
What kind of code: the stuff Sam used in his Nokia lockpick, the hacks that had launched OS12. He’d reused them because he knew they worked, and he was pretty certain about his plan once he’d learned that programs couldn’t tell one’s age or sex, let alone recognize anyone by their face: if he looked like the software from his phone, security was never gonna put that two and two together.
But the algorithms...
The armilla wobbled, tossed side to side by a program trying to delete it and another pushing it aside, throwing up virtual folders to throw off the pursuer and lose it in the maze. And they were both still hacking at each other, discs given way to heavy-booted feet and plain brute force. They weren’t out for the kill but an override, nesting in each other to erode the other from within and take over, byte by precious byte. It hurt less to watch it in full render, not that Sam wanted to watch but they were there, streaks of black splashed across his screen.
Red, too. If it wasn't easy to tell the two apart by face, badly lit in dying streets, it was impossible to tell by color as they both bled Encom red. And one of them had managed to push the other close to the moving parts of the frame; any closer, and the rings would shave slices off before they minced them completely. Sam turned the sphere sideways, ninety degrees, to try and shake them off, and the only thing that did was turn someone’s hand into a jet of bursting red. Sam hoped to hell it was T12 but hope was all he had.
The fight moved to where he couldn’t see, but that just meant that the screen now filled with backup forces, Reco shapes that had plagued his dreams when he was small.
They weren’t getting any friendlier, so he had to think quick. He could smash easily through walls and lightjet contrails; these however trumped his ride in the digital take on paper-scissors-stone because they were huge, and he wouldn’t make a blot on the bottom of their legs once they spun around and met.
On the one hand it meant T12 was losing, or they wouldn’t have been called. On the other, Sam and his cargo were getting squashed like bugs unless he played this maze with all the fervor of his kiddie self.
”Should’ve brought a tank,” he griped and started maneuvering, trusting as hard as he could that Rinzler would hold his own. There’d been no point in putting guns on the armilla because its weapon was right there, and the moment it was free of its descendant it would swing up to a Reco to blast the others with its bombs. But he wasn’t free just yet, and when he flung his double over to land once more atop Sam’s screen his amputated arm destabilized right up to the shoulder.
Thankfully, T12 had a crater spreading from his middle to his neck...
... before it started to repair.
There was no MCP behind it, no single god. But Encom had cloud storage, it had server farms, it had enough juice to keep an army respawning and Rinzler had to be quick, faster even than Tron's legendary speed to bring this program down. So Sam took the sphere out in the open and put himself in Recognizer sights as he took his disc off and waved it at T12. “Over here, buddy! Miss me?”
The program cocked his head like an animal; like Rinzler. And Sam shouted in triumph when his vectors proved correct and a blast shot straight at this freeloader, narrowly missing the frame of the armilla... only to halt there, bathing everything in bright red light. The bastard thing had taken over.
But the look the program gave him, smug and pitying in one, vanished when his circuits sprouted three new lines, swift and splashed across his torso like the Zorro cuts. They tensed like strung wire and disappeared, sucked between the voxels of his suit, and his image was a scattering of mist clearing way for his older, ragged self, soulless and triumphant.
Rinzler reeled the whip back in with the crook of his arm, secured the transparent disc still glowing with the power of the captured detonation, and slipped between the armillary’s rings to crash on Sam when the sphere rolled sharply to the side with the force of another blast.
Sam was fast to recover, drawing strength from being so wound up. He held one hand on the controls and the other one out to help his soldier up, careful not to disturb the already compromised frame. The only thing that kept Rinzler together was his disc, and Sam had no idea how long that would last. But Alan's crafty program was already a step ahead, replacing it with his twin’s ID, bright and charged and new. Even when Tron's discs were fused for good and Rinzler stowed away, assimilation was a skill he refused to surrender.
”Report, program,” Sam ordered, hoping he sounded firm instead of shaky like he felt. He got no verbal response, but as the program sat back to readjust — and take control over the system in a way that was a hell lot deeper than whatever hack he’d used to move security around — he passed his proper disc to Sam and ordered him to
[save]. The Recos fell immediately back.
Sam had yet to come down from his adrenaline high. "As soon as we're back I'm buying everyone a drink," he said. "The whole Grid. And then I'm calling a day off and I don't care what anyone says. I need a break, and you --- are you okay?”
The program looked healthy and restored but maybe too much so, almost in a trance. If he was in a world of his own because he kept the armies away then Sam had no problem, but an undefined alarm went off regardless between his brain and disc.
”We are,” Rinzler said; Sam hoped he meant the two of them, and not the whole of Encom. “You will leave.”
”That’s the plan,” Sam said, as level as he could. “You’re coming with me.”
He glanced again. It could have been a feature of the Encom system or Sam’s senses working overtime, but there was more definition to the program’s render. Caught between tired and at peace Rinzler looked distressingly human, hair whipping in the simulated gusts the way it never yielded on the Grid, skin and muscle almost flush. His eyes were closed and the hairline sliver of light between his lashes hinted at his nature but if he opened them, Sam would bet the pupils’ rim would be almost round.
And Sam had toyed with this in idler shifts, wondered what it would look like, feel like if ordinary programs had the power Encom did, the endless space and the memory to match. But where he’d selfishly thought he’d end up with something more, closer to human and to him, he only found a widening gap.
”Drop out,” he said, eyes firmly on the road. “We’re almost there.” But before he could check on Rinzler and see if the program was still with him, a message popped on screen.
>go_rays # dude what the frag
Sam stared weakly at the words. What the---
>go_rays # the net just went
>go_rays # lab called so im like steve’s on it
>go_rays # are you even in today? im like the only 1 here
How old was that IM? Sam converted on the fly as he typed stuff back, agonizingly aware that each second’s tick out there was a minute where he was, and he could see where this was going.
>email@example.com # yeah on it
>firstname.lastname@example.org # restarted firewall, should be ok now
Nothing was ‘ok’. Sam looked beyond his screens to the swarms of Recos going about their business, pursuit dropped but attention still on him. He couldn’t tell if Rinzler was linked up with them because he’d grown too vast, as much a part of the system as the core and the BIOS. Too old, and in too deep; his arm had started to repair and Sam had no idea if it was Alan’s code or what.
Didn’t matter; Sam just wanted them both out. He just had to get to the damn -
>go_rays # are you drunk
>go_rays # it rolled back to like
>go_rays # the frag is this, version 0.1?
Rinzler stirred. He pushed himself up, stern and ready but unfocused too, and Sam knew immediately what the IT guy had set to do. Rinzler would get shut down, one process at a time.
Tron was never going to survive if his safemode got swept up in a system-wide reboot. He’d end up overwritten, and the process would be far crueller than a swift death by disc; programs didn’t shatter if they shut down in increments, they’d just lock up and... stop.
And be aware throughout.
Sam hammered his next line down. Leave it, he said, eight bytes of supreme control. If he’d faltered Sam would have flooded the tech’s window with an image of his mental state, and no-one needed that much garbled data. He pleaded with Rinzler to drop out, leave a tunnel open and withdraw. He could’ve disconnected him himself but for all that Sam was reckless he wasn’t terminally dumb.
>email@example.com # it’s a scheduled test, look it up
And there was no way for him to plant a file in the right folder in the time he had, so he gambled on the time the bluff would buy him. Which was none.
>go_rays # is this bradleys stuff
>go_rays # does dillinger know
”Fuck Dillinger!” Sam’s hand slammed on the bar and it was sheer luck that the sentiment remained unsent. He was ready to leave, so close, and all he needed was the gates to be wide open. One jump, and the tech could set the server room on fire for all Sam cared, or go back to cheering for his hopeless team. Just--
>go_rays # man this thing blows
>go_rays # it just wiped half the filters
Sam could have gone and kissed the scary program by his side, if the latter hadn’t ground out something like a cough and shook, then sat back down in wooden moves. Grace and agility had been knocked out, and awareness followed. One who’d stood up to the MCP, and Clu, and even to himself in an unfair fight, he’d lose to someone who could barely spell.
Not on Sam’s watch.
He left a hand on the controls, loosely like a program would. He didn’t need to steer; with the gates unlocked — ‘filters wiped’ — he could launch them off to anywhere, so he crouched to face the program and get him to sign out before it was too late. “I’m sorry,” he said, unsure where to begin.
Sorry, but this place is not your home.
Sorry Dad took you away from here.
Sorry you’re the last one left.
”This isn’t the Encom you remember,” Sam insisted in assembly. “You told me that. We’re the intruders here, and the Users know. We have to go. Please.” His messages got shorter with each new transmission, each drop in accessible space. Rinzler was effectively becoming deaf and blind and any moment now the only things he’d understand were ones and zeroes, the bit-like yes and nos.
But the program sought him out even as the screens flashed an
id rather get sacked for doing my job right, keyed a response that went too far back for Sam to understand, and spoke. His voice was as cracked and ready to collapse as the code that had produced it – he didn’t move, didn’t blink, didn’t breathe - of course he didn’t breathe - and the word was a sigh, the hiss of a dying vent. “Drive.”
Sam didn’t have to be told twice.
The last thing he saw before the endless city gave way to the void and the
[zip] compressed his mind was the tantalizing world between: threads glimmering in the dark like rain on cobwebs, distant but colourful and countless, each a ray of sunless light spanning chasms from one server to the next. He’d brave it some day, he knew, but at that moment there was only one world he owed his loyalty to — and his life.
And then there was nothing.
Chapter 9: IX
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
### [time|1286038196] [loc|ω] [ref|917779]
>>invalid file or path>try again
>>######### invalid file or##
############nnnnn###no###noise, noise, pain, data, pain because Sam was so eager to get back online that his consciousness broke through before he was unzipped, and the last few files that slotted him back into the system, reinstalled, stung and burned so much he nearly crashed.
Going by the state of the armilla, he did.
It didn’t matter, as long as Tron was fine. Sam lifted the dazed and heavy program with the strength of the system he knew and knew how to use, swung an arm under Tron’s port careful not to touch the alien disc, and half-dragged him out — straight into the line of Astra’s aim.
She was terrified, peering at her boss behind the light of her engaged disc. Sam gripped him tighter, closer, and let go of the arm thrown around his neck to sign assurances at her. “I got him, it’s okay.” But she stepped back trying to stay calm, and passed
[bad checksum]at Sam in turn.
”I know,” he rasped. “We ran into trouble. Help,” he added, throwing
[ESC]s at her until she got over herself. He didn’t blame her for being cautious or panicky – he’d dragged in something that had Encom written all over it, in the middle of the Grid getting ransacked from the very same source – but dammit, couldn’t she see Tron was the same old program?
Of course not.
Sam reached back slowly, aiming to unhook his disc as elegantly as he could with the large, unresponsive bulk pressing down on it. “Here,” he said. “Here’s what we need. For Alan.”
He wasn't really keen on parting with his disc and would have preferred to deliver the evidence himself, but if Tron rebooted again he had no idea what would come online, or what would get lost. But Astra was thankfully new, new and fast, and
[OK]ed him as she accepted the ID.
”There’s a pointer on it that will take you to HQ right away,” Sam said, activating the release codes on Tron’s old disc. “Remember the first time you came ‘round to mine?”
He half-ranted to keep her at ease as he seated Tron by the nearest solid structure. Or Rinzler; the program was so detached Sam honestly couldn’t tell how much of him was left in there. Not that it made any difference. “Call Alan," he repeated, "I don’t care how. Get those programs pretending they are me to talk to him if the video link is still live. Tell him...”
She was already gone.
”Tell him everything is going to be fine.”
Alan focused on him, then on the space between the table and his own folded hands. Pursed his lips with that little twitch of his nose that used to mean Sam was in trouble, way back when - and probably still meant the same.
Sam gave him the look he gave Legal whenever he had to defend something, and ignored Lora’s equally stern gaze and Quorra’s bounce between concern and curiosity. One battle at a time. “Alan.”
His tension must’ve been apparent, and if that was the case it was certainly familiar; his godfather relaxed by a fraction and smiled in a way that betrayed exhaustion more than anything else. How much sleep did he get in all this time?
”I’ve worked with Flynns long enough to know how you think. Your father, rest his soul, gave me some of the best and longest years of my life. You’re not far behind.”
Sam waited for the rest of this, so Alan obliged. “You know best,” he said. “You don’t listen, because you don’t think the rest of us can keep up.”
Sam started. “That’s not –“ He looked to Lora for support, then Q when he found none. She smiled gorgeously and unhelpfully; Lora must’ve asked her to keep out of this. Okay then.
”Okay,” Sam said. “Let’s cut the crap.”
Lora. Sam would always be twelve to her, and so would Quorra if her adoptive sort-of-aunt’s stance was anything to go by. But keeping quiet was the whole problem. Ever since all three of them beamed in – earning a quizzical look from Sam, to which Alan laughed and confessed to his co-conspirer from Encom and Flynn Lives holding the fort in exchange for getting shown around the Grid at some future date, with Sam playing tour guide – no one touched upon the real issue. They avoided it, and Sam couldn’t believe such clever people could think it would go unremarked with him around, an expert in avoidance. Just who was kidding whom around here?
He dismissed a couple of pings that arose from the murmur that remained with him at all times, the background hum of the system. Junction locks, nothing he couldn’t relegate to another program to solve so he did, excusing himself with a feigned cough to get that private nano. Quorra saw him through, he was sure, but she didn’t bring it up. Maybe it was all that Iso wisdom after all.
“Sorry,” he said. “I get that you’re worried about me.”
”Damn right we’re worried,” Alan snapped. “We’d agreed that you’d keep safe. And look at you!”
Outwardly, there was nothing to see. But Alan wasn’t stupid, never lagged behind Dad or anyone, and had likely spent enough time around programs to see beyond their discs for any changes.
Lora took over, waving Alan down. “We just want to know that you’re all right. And putting yourself in danger like this…”
Sam’s disc clicked into action, listing all the instances Lora could have gotten that impression from. Walking towards the beam the micro the Users departed. Getting himself volunteered to test Security’s response. Rinzler, for crying out loud, and Sam’s first taste of editing on the fly, feeling the Grid respond and mould itself to his demands. Clearing the bugs alongside Security, test-driving every new path and vehicle himself; the list went on. And yeah, FTPing himself to Encom under the guise of some hapless tech.
It was fun. Up until the point where -
### [time|1286038256] [loc|ω] [ref|307020]
”Hey,” Sam said, tired but damned if he was going to let that show. “Made it. Payload’s on its way.” He kept his hands on Tron’s shoulders, keeping him from slumping, but wasn’t able to keep his own smile up when the program’s eyes showed no recognition. “You better be up. Don’t care which one of you, ‘s long as it’s the devil I know.”
”Son of a bitch.” Sam placed one hand over Tron’s still Encom-red chestplate lights, and felt around his dock with the other. “You didn’t get me this far to check out on me, you read? Whatever’s out there, it can’t be that good to wipe you out. Best program on the Grid, remember? Fucking prove it.”
He broke off, eyes stinging and throat dry, and let the program sag forwards as he looked for a way to detach the Encom data. The disc looked like it would break if Sam forced it, but it was too wide and sharp to hold with any comfort. But he tripped a wire somewhere because there was barely a shudder, a slip against his suit, and his wrists were trapped in Rinzler’s grip. “Watch,” the program hissed.
“Doing my best here, buddy,” Sam said, tugging his hands out gently. “And nice of you to show up. I’d rather talk to the boss but like I said, either does it. ‘S long as you’re you.”
The disc felt ready to yield. Sam left it there for a moment, and shifted to make for more comfortable support. “Listen,” he whispered. “You’re going to Alan, you hear? I don’t care if you have to blank out or shut down for a while. I have your disc and I’ll swap your ass and face around if I see you in my repairs room. Are we clear?”
He refused to provide any other options, but he also paused all of his processes until he felt a smile against his neck and a
[clr]that was stubbornly firm. He lifted the glassy, alien plate, pressing on it from both sides even if it cut into his palms. The lights went out, leaving behind a void he didn’t dare define.
“Take him,” Sam told a maintenance program he barely registered before, forcing himself to breathe and undo the tightness in his chest. He let his head drop to his knees as the cleanup crews spread out, and spent the next long micros resting there, listening to traffic and responding to no-one.
”It’s not about me,” Sam said. “It’s about them.”
”Fine,” Lora said. She’d worked with Flynns even longer than Alan, and knew better than to ask. “But how will you help with anything if you’re lying in pieces somewhere we don’t even know? We’re trying to get you out, and then you can do whatever –“
”I’m not going anywhere.”
The chorus of “Sam!”s was predictable and more comforting than he’d ever admit, but he had to put an end to this charade. “Here’s what no-one’s saying,” he began. “It’s been a week for you guys, or ten days, whatever. And I get that you’re upset because one day I’m mad as hell that I’m stuck here and then you’re back and what I’m saying sounds like I’m giving up. But you’re like the biggest brains I know and I know we’re all aware just how long it’s been for me. And I’m not complaining, okay? That’s not what I’m saying.”
He sighed. “I had a whole speech ready.” He jerked a thumb towards his back. “It’s all here. I could
[run] it for you.”
The silence that descended made him look up. “What?”
Quorra traced the edge of her plate, the food on it intact even though it actually tasted fine, amazingly enough. But it made sense that she’d be the one to crack that one at last; the burger she’d made him was fantastic and showed she knew her way around Center City’s greasy spoons. Which meant Marvin was in good hands.
”You acted just like them just now,” she said. “Like us.”
A slip; must’ve been as rough on her as it was on him, this business of finding their own feet. They’d have a lot to catch up on, more than either said. Sam whipped up a bit from spare storage and threw it at her; she caught it with a grin, then let it ‘no’ its way out to freedom before dropping her gaze away from him again. Neither dared to check what the Bradleys made of this.
But Sam had to and lifted his glass, swirling sparks as he did. “How long ‘til the laser gets this out? Even if I said a month because Lora’s a genius and you can take all the money you want, that’s three years I’m here. Give a year for complex objects, two for tissue? Hundred-twenty. I know Dad was trying and that Q can help, but… I don’t think I’m coming back; don’t know how I could. Here.” He tapped his temple.
Alan leaned forward, steepling hands under his nose then letting them drop to the table, clenching to half-fists. “Flynn was lucid,” he said. “A thousand years and he was still himself. Quorra, who was born here –“
”Q had nothing left to lose,” Sam said, glancing at her with regret. “I have my dad’s promise to these people. He said he’d be here for them.”
”They’re fine, Sam,” Lora said. “I’d leave it for days on end when you first brought it over, and it worked. We built new programs to help run it. And the old ones don’t even want us around.”
Sam closed his eyes. Yeah.
That was the whole reason he was getting good at fielding all these questions.
### [time|1286218212] [loc|ɛ] [ref|649661]
”Can’t wait to see this.”
Shaddox laughed, but the vista below really was spectacular.
They were far and up in the air enough for the plateau encircling the city to show its hexagonal shape. It looked so natural from ground level: not organic, no, but there were spots in the outside world where the mineral mesas wouldn’t have been out of place; Sam had trekked through one or two. But this view was riddled with hairline cracks, breaking the Grid’s tectonic plates up and winding from sector to sector like rivulets of bright blue lava. With the city sunken under clouds they really showed, and the rain with its scheduled sweep gave them an extra layer of depth, the proto-3D of the red and blue glasses of his childhood years.
“Then we mustn’t disappoint, SamFlynn. But I promise you, old programs like myself still have a trick or two worth a try.”
Sam blew a dismissive sound. “It’s you guys that scare me the most. You shoulda seen Tron out there.”
Shaddox raised a widescreen datapad and checked its map against the landscape below. When all the lattices aligned he sent a few commands and let Sam watch the world crack further, the canals overflowing and the power burning new conduits towards the carefully demarcated junk piles. All the copying that got aborted when the Rays fan hit reboot — or maybe even earlier than that, if the hacking program Sam sent back told his user the hunt was a dud — all of it was checked and double-checked, marked for deletion and cordoned off. Took ages, but it was worth it if they could scrap it all in one go.
”I don’t doubt it,” Shaddox said. “Sounds like the old days.”
”Yeah?” Sam shouted over the almighty crunch of thousands of redundant files getting derezzed at once. It carried all the way up, and Sam bet the hard drives at the arcade ground as well. “How did that go?”
”He showed off a lot! Familiar?”
Sam grinned back. He said nothing, though, because it snapped into focus that getting Sam to feel like he was among friends was largely a Tron-led campaign. Without him around, disassembled into separate files to take out what was Encom’s – as soon as Alan could get a moment out of meetings and investigations, anyway – programs didn’t cease to talk to Sam but they didn’t hang out either, and only Lex stopped by to get her fill of chatting with a User. Used to talk to her own User, she’d said, and eventually guilted Sam into letting her peek at Facebook to see how this Nkoli was doing. Then she left him alone.
Which was pretty much how he remained.
”And this wasn’t showing off,” Sam said when the noise died down.
Shaddox smirked. “It’s all thanks to you, User. It’s been a while since I’ve had a chance to build anything.”
Tron had said the same. You gave me my job back. Took Sam on a tour of the gates the first free moment he could spare, conscious of the envy the User couldn’t hide at having to stay back and do his part while Security had all the fun.
Tell me about our adventures, so Sam had – and centis later they were hurtling towards Encom in a prototype.
What details Sam divulged about their caper were already going public, copied from program to program and relentlessly retold. Sam came across a few text files, some truncated and some embellished, the system’s need for data manifesting in programs generating scripts of their own. He wouldn’t be surprised to find that Dee had planted some; there were few programs closer to either him or Tron, and true to her User she loved to mess with both.
He hadn’t asked her if she missed him. Hadn’t said anything to anyone; just worked.
Just like now.
”You’re welcome,” Sam said. “What else?”
Shaddox nodded. He appreciated a User who stayed on the job, something Sam liked to think he inherited from his mother. “Not much,” he said. “The graphics suite wants to know if they can stay.”
Well, that was new. They didn’t seem too hot on it the last time Sam was over. Max must’ve scored with a local, or found the Iota sector. ”If they want to, they’re welcome to. Saves us trouble next time I gotta show up in person.
Shaddox accepted the authorization and passed it on, but Sam sensed there was more to the lag than a mere data transfer, and repeated his request.
”It’s the natives,” Shaddox said. “They’re asking for another audience.”
”An ‘audience’?” Sam laughed. “What am I, Clu? The warehouse is always open, why don’t they just come by?”
”You’re a Flynn. He wasn’t as accessible as you are. They don’t know this.”
”Then tell them. I’ll tell them – screw it, I’ll go over there myself.”
Alan and Lora might have been okay with the deal that kept them out, but Sam didn’t like the thought of sectors he wasn’t allowed to check. He was grateful he had Shaddox, who’d been a rebel himself and was something of a community service officer as far as the programs in question were concerned, but it still nagged at him. Whatever Clu had done – whatever Dad had done - Sam wanted to put right.
”I’d clear this with Tron if I were you,” Shaddox told his datapad.
”Isn’t that what I’m doing? You’re the guy in charge.”
”Yeah,” Shaddox said. “And I’d listen to me if I were you.”
”That’s exactly what I’m talking about,” Sam said. “It looks like a working system, but it’s not. Not yet. You read Dad’s files, right? I mean, Quorra can tell you: you had partitioning going on. Hell, worse. They had these two systems running side by side and what kind of eighties tech can handle that? And these guys are doing it again. Even if we have the resources, it’s still messed up.”
Lora looked at Alan. “Then we’ll talk to them...”
”Let me handle it,” Sam said. “’bout time I redefined
$flynn around here.”
”Sam, I won’t break anything. I know my way around computers.”
”Did I say anything?”
He wasn’t. He just made sure the lab’s records were stripped clean, pristine, because Alan liked his folders tidy and besides, this was all his before Sam stumbled in. Or Lora’s, to be precise, which made it worse; Users help the program who messed with her files. He could hear her voice echo through the cavernous lower floor, barely distinguishable from a number of female TDUs.
’Catching up’, she’d said. More like inspecting. Quorra was catching up and likely doing terrible things to Sam’s aerial trains.
He was fine with that. The problem was keeping his mouth shut around what Alan was trying to do, so he kept his hands pushed deep in his pockets and his gaze unfocused, wandering aimlessly around the lab. He didn’t really want to be there, not like this, but whoever else he tagged along with was bound to notice his lack of attention.
”I don’t know, Alan. Maybe we should just –“
He shut up when his godfather turned around slowly to arch a sceptical brow over his shoulder. “Kid, you just deleted my lunch so I could hurry up.”
”It’s not -- the grub’s not that great down here.”
”There was nothing wrong with it.”
Sam poked at some sketches he left intact so it wouldn’t look like he’d nuked the drive to cover something up; Alan had a sixth sense for that. The particles scattered, disturbed, then resolidified as if gathering lost dignity. ”Can we just get this over with?”
Alan gave up and took his visor off to clean it, as if things ever got dirty in the city. The space behind him manifested text, reams of it overlapping on invisible screens. Sam looked away; even if he had full access to Tron's disc, which boiled down to the same, staring at it still seemed disrespectful. “I know you two don’t get along,” Alan said, “but you could’ve done without dragging him out to a barely compatible system. He's a tough program but that's all he is.”
That stung, even if Alan only said it out of concern for them both. Sam opened his mouth to argue and got stuck between a dozen rejected scripts; he’d sat down and worked out flowcharts for the talks he knew he’d have to win, but it didn’t cover stuff where he still had to come to terms with the turns his life had taken. “We get along fine,” he said at last.
### [time|1285865396] [loc|μ] [ref|307020]
Maybe turning himself into a programs’ M.A.S.H. wasn’t as brilliant as Sam first thought. He got to get out more and play cops and robbers outside of the confines of Security’s preset fields, but it also meant that the program he tried to patch could follow him around and offer unsolicited opinion on his coding skills. Tron was an absolute menace overcharged but he had to be kept overclocking to be able to adapt to changes on the fly.
How did Sam’s life come to this.
Him, perched on a rock overlooking a brand new settlement, housing a cluster of programs imported from an Encom 550 server set up in the arcade’s neighborhood. Everyone was safe, traces of activity evident in the steadily growing latticework of lights; not a single program gone collateral. Tron, splayed without a care over the selfsame rock, humming something otherworldly that might have been derived from the sounds of hardware whistling through the desert.
The problem hadn’t been the bugs, in retrospect; it was a bet that Tron had made, claiming he could scan the system by himself in under half a milli.
It sounded good at first but they lost the crowd along the way, partly for speed which even Sam found hard to keep up with, and partly because the energy taps in the city must’ve sounded better than scouting for springs in unmappable wastelands. Sam promised to make sure Tron wasn’t cheating, and sped cheerfully on.
And then they went from four batons to none because Sam’s bike died in the first recorded case of quicksand — which Tron had dutifully logged, commented, and had Sam sign off to show to Alan before he remembered to help. Tron’s ran out of juice when its stubborn driver did the same, refusing to slow down, and the spare ones suffered more creative fates: one ended up used as a bomb to trigger an avalanche so it could bury a pursuing swarm of bugs, and the other rammed inside a monstrous searchlight to aid in their escape.
They’d have to walk to the settlement to copy two new ones.
Sam queried the system clock, and sat back with a grunt. So much for breaking that record: they’d spend the time remaining waiting for the program to reset his power levels back to normal. As it was he oscillated between charging up and hyper, stats spiking on Sam’s raw view post-debug. He’d take less time than most other programs and certainly less than Sam to recover, but the time was still a waste. If he’d listened...
Sam flung a voxel – Tron’s, bug’s, who cared – at the program, who caught it without effort. There were more such missiles at Sam’s feet but he swept them up and let them tinkle all the way down to the rocks below. He had a suspicion that Tron was secretly glad they were here because the 550s were the closest thing to his old system, and he wanted one of their clumsy old bikes.
Could’ve just asked Sam to whip one up. He wondered why Tron didn’t since he had no trouble demanding anything else - then settled on embarrassment as the key factor. Those things were stone age.
”And still somehow faster than ours,” Tron taunted in response.
”What? Wha'the-- I didn’t say a thing!”
”I’m still scanning and you’re in my range,” the program replied irritably. “Do you think I‘ll let some bit-brain win just because I got delayed? As long as nothing else needs fixing I can still make it in time.”
”You lost your mind, that’s what needs fixing. I’ll put it on the list for Alan. Not that you haven’t caused a queue already.”
”I got you out, didn’t I?”
”After you made sure you formatted your report. Good to know your priorities, Chief.”
He looked to the side and made a face at Tron’s self-satisfied grin. “Still the fastest,” the program said. “You were never in any danger, Sam. Not with me.”
This far away from anything Sam could call a city, the program’s eyes were eerie hexagonal flashes in the dark, reflecting sparse ambient light in a way that was easier to ignore where everything glittered and beamed. And if that wasn’t inhuman enough, in raw view Tron was a cloak of shadow blanketing the landscape, pushing against the winds and burrowing through mountains without pause. Getting swept up in that wasn’t all unpleasant, and Sam did somewhat envy that subtle link that proper programs had with the system. A part of him would always be a tourist – like Dad, for all that he wrote the place from scratch.
The scan on him tightened, booting him out of his mood. “Hey!”
”Your fault,” Tron said. “You distracted me with all those memories you opened up at once. I have 11% left to go, so be quiet.”
Sam answered with a User gesture and watched the settlement spread out in a monolithic maze, substantially out of place in a detailed if rugged landscape. But then the Grid already housed two generations of programs if not three, together with an adjunct drive and him to top it off, so what difference did some retro graphics make? Live and let live.
Or hope, anyway.
”I’m glad you’re considering my wish for you to take your father’s place, but I never meant it to the detriment of your own integrity. You don’t need to solve everything.”
Sam counted to ten. "Don’t you have a bet to win? Reading others isn’t your job, it’s Lex’s.”
Tron ignored his tone and crossed his arms under his head, idly observing the screensaver skies. “It is now. Wasn’t the case when I was the only one around.”
”Man, that must’ve blown,” Sam remarked candidly.
The matchingly sincere hiss was almost human. “I hated it.”
Sam perked up despite himself. “Yeah? OK, that’s new. I can tell you’re not one hundred percent.”
”One hundred and seven and working fine, User. And in the early cycles I could cover the entire system in this time running at 40% capacity.”
Sam tried to picture the Grid bare, only the outlines of future cities dissecting its space. Was he even born back then? He couldn't really imagine how it must have felt. ”I’ll bet you can do that now.”
The silence made him look up from the scaffolded projections the 550s were putting up. The Chief of Security grinned back, lounging like outlands rock was a futon. “Is that a compliment, SamFlynn? I’d better back this up, just in case.”
”Must be out of whack myself,” Sam said, unthinking. He only realized he walked into a trap when the scan retreated - stopped - and the program’s vast attention spun back to zero in on him. He laughed, half in surprise and half from nerves, and let himself get wrestled down with ease that would’ve been embarrassing if he gave half a fuck. But instead he gave right in because truth be told, he didn't mind. At all.
The Grid was filled with gorgeous women and yet every time this bastard walked past, pulling shreds of an enemy out of his suit or brushing off voxel dust, the other programs lost. And it wasn’t the ridiculous badassery of it, because Sam wasn’t that far behind when given the chance; it was the carefree manner and Tron’s sheer joy in doing what he was made for. Like now, here, the entire horizon under his command and not a shred of focus or wonder lost as he waited for Sam’s disc to catch up, and ready the User for the rush of someone else’s energy coursing through his veins.
“You’ll lose,” Sam managed to key through laughter, irises igniting with the sync and body ceding to welcome pressure despite his show of resistance. Like the bet even mattered – but Tron’s smile only grew wicked in unearthly blue light.
“Makes a nice change, but I still don't see what you needed my help for,” Alan said, still bent over the virtual keyboards. “I made sure the programs are backed up regularly. All you had to do was mount the last saved image –“
Sam forced himself back to reality, grateful for the distraction. “That would’ve dumped the record of all that went down. I don’t wanna go up to the guy and say ‘hey, you kicked some ass back there, sorry you don’t remember’.”
Alan made a noncommittal sound and engaged the compiler. He lifted the Encom ID gingerly and held it up to the light. “Is this what we’re using now?”
”The whole place is a bad dream,” Sam said. “They dress like us, and talk like they’re on their cellphones all the time. It’s like walking into Junior’s mind. You sure you want him around?”
”You asked the same thing about him,” Alan said, nodding briefly at the compiler beam. “And that didn’t turn out so bad, did it.”
Sam stared at his back in silence for a nano or few, as if trying to read his disc. ‘What do you mean’ was not a safe branch of this decision tree, so he opted for a hum of acquiescence. One task at a time. Like Shaddox said, sometimes older programs knew what’s best.
He was reminded why he didn’t want to be here in the first place when the compiler did its thing and Alan put the glass disc aside to take the heavy, age-worn one and affix it to Tron’s dock. Sam had never, not once seen the program idle, motionless like this. Even dazed and half shut down he made sure to interact; some of that was childish look what I can do that centuries of runtime couldn’t grow him out of, but mostly it was putting Sam at ease.
Alan patted the lifelike statue on the shoulder and let the disc load up. “Keep an eye out, Sam; it shouldn’t take a minute.” He shouted something back to Lora as he found his way downstairs, leaving Sam alone. Sam could hear them talk – something about dinner on his ‘skyline express’ – just like he could tell what each TDU was doing even if they were out of sight. He was aware of everything in his domain, except for this one blank spot still booting up.
He tilted his head aside – like Quorra, like a program, he could hear in Alan’s voice, ghostly in his mind – and tried not to flinch when Tron’s eyes opened and their blades refocused, looking straight through him. “Identify,” the program said, sharp and menacing. But Sam had been present at countless installations and knew how to act, passing his name and checksum back as calmly as he could. If anyone needed identifying between the two of them -
Brand new programs didn’t glee like that.
”That’s it,” Sam said. “I’m putting you in storage. And you’ll stay there.”
”You should’ve seen your face, it’s –“
”I mean it.”
[quit] brushed against his side as Tron straightened up and acknowledged Alan with a friendly but sober smile. His writer responded in turn but didn’t fail to shoot them both a warning look. “You two play nice while I’m around,” he said. “I don't want you squabbling like children. We have work to do.”
”Jeez,” Sam said, settling on words as he had no idea how to put all he wanted to say in full invisikey format. He’d figure it out later in in-depth lessons, if what Tron signed back was any kind of promise. “I can see where you get it from.”
He fell back a step, content to observe the two as Alan brought his kid up to speed with all that Tron missed in the time he was offline, and coordinate their tasks; content to watch this peculiar family reunite as Lora put her own plans down and rushed to smother the program like he didn’t tower over her at all. She succeeded, too.
And yeah, they had work to do. But like Sam was promised a long time ago - cycles and years and all the ways of recording what had built him, and continued to build - the world was more beautiful than he’d ever dreamed, more dangerous than he’d ever imagined…
… and it was his.
Endless gratitude to all who helped me out with this, from Ejne7 to DragonWarden, Grey, Noctaval, ExpositionFairy, and Sed - and, of course, to the readers at the meme and ff.net and then here for their priceless feedback. Thank you for your patience!
Next up, the Grid's original populace still has some scores to settle... so let's see how that goes.