All that we are
Is all that you'd love to be
All that we know
Is hate and machinery
-Gary Numan, "Engineers"
We reject kings, presidents and voting.
We believe in rough consensus and running code.
-David D. Clark
It was the worst elevator ride of Alan Bradley's life.
He'd once been stuck in one for over half an hour, twenty minutes of which he'd spent fending off Kevin's advances ("c'mon, man, when are we ever gonna get another chance like this?") while Roy giggled to himself in the corner. At the time, he'd told himself it couldn't get any worse. He'd been wrong.
The hand on Alan's throat shifted, black-gloved fingers digging under his chin. His captor pressed himself against Alan's back, close and deadly, his curved helmet only inches from Alan's ear. Alan could hear the sound he made, a constant in-and-out rumble that was more like growling than breathing. That animal noise had been frightening enough when Alan had a disc-weapon in his hand; now he was trussed and helpless, and the nearness of it was terrifying.
Alan gulped down a breath, flicked his eyes to the side, and caught a moment's glimpse of his captor before he was jerked upright again. Beyond the open edges of the elevator platform, a riot of color spread before him. Burning steel-blue lines sketched out the wide bowl of an arena, in which thousands and thousands of spectators still roared, each a speck of light in a sea of blue and orange. The glass compartment Alan had fought inside revolved in the center, nearly level with Alan's eyes. It was empty, now, but the sting of the wound in his shoulder reminded him just how close he'd come to death within its walls.
"User," his captor had called him, gripping Alan's shoulder as it bled. User, just like in Kevin's game. Just like in Tron. The memory nagged at him, echoing in his mind; there was something about that word, or that voice, something that resonated with him. He sighed, shut his eyes, and remembered.
The Grid is the perfect setting for a game, man! Beautiful yet deadly, unimaginably vast -- a world within our world, hidden within the computers we use every day. It's full of program-beings with their own lives, their own struggles: machines of loving grace, all watched over by their Users. By us, Player One and Player Two. When the kids see this they'll go crazy!
Alan opened his eyes again, gazing down at the impossible vista before him. Every surface burned neon-bright, as if the world itself had been crafted of light. He thought of the vehicle that had brought him here, an actual Recognizer straight out of Space Paranoids; he remembered the booming, distorted voice that had stayed his captor's hand, calling down from above.
Kevin Flynn had done it. He'd actually done it. Alan was on the Grid. And Kevin...
Well, Alan had a pretty good idea of where he'd disappeared to.
The elevator car slid to a stop, merging with a larger platform with a cheerful *ding*. A grey door stood in front of him, with a small, stylized "2" in one corner. It slid open, Star Trek style, and his captor shoved him through it before he could react.
The sleek visor-thing that had replaced Alan's glasses gave everything a blue overtone, but even so, the room he'd entered was overwhelmingly orange. Two thick stripes ran around the perimeter, broken by dashes every meter or so, and a set of thinner lines ran around the edges of the wide window on the other side of the room. Before it stood a helmeted figure, dressed in a long black coat. Its edges were piped in yellow gold, brighter than any Alan had seen so far; it burned a vivid circle upon the man's back, where his disc-weapon was.
Alan's captor pushed him forward and then took a step back, leaving him standing alone in the center of the room. The man at the window didn't react.
"What is this place?" Alan asked. When the robed figure didn't answer, he spoke again. "Is this the Grid?"
The other man turned, stepping forward with casual ease. He was large, shorter than Alan but broader in the shoulders, and his black-mirrored helmet gave him an intimidating air. The front of his coat was even brighter than the back, royal in its splendor. His arms were marked by wide yellow lines, fierce and angular, and there was an odd pattern of slashes on the left side, like a mark of rank or a blazon above his heart.
"Who are you?" Alan asked. He tried to sound braver than he felt.
The helmet folded back and away with quick, mechanical precision. Alan's heart stopped as he saw what lay beneath it. It was Kevin, just as he'd looked all those years ago. He wore the same knowing, eager grin he had that final night, the night Kevin had told Alan about his "miracle". The last night they'd made love. His hair was the same, too, sandy-brown and maybe a little too long for a former CEO, and he still looked like he needed a good shave.
Kevin. For half a second it was all Alan could do not to reach for him, to pull him into his arms. He wasn't sure he was still breathing; the whole world seemed to shrink down to a single image of his long-lost Kevin, dressed in that ridiculous coat. Then Kevin moved, spreading his arms in welcome, and icewater filled Alan's veins. He shrank back in horror, and the hairs on the back of his neck prickled like needles. His lips pulled away from his teeth in a snarl.
This wasn't Kevin. It was almost Kevin, but something about it was wrong, wrong, and the difference was awful. Alan took a step back, then another, but was stopped by a gloved hand on his shoulder.
A soft, steady purr filled his ears.
"Hm," not-Kevin sniffed. "Guess there's no fooling you, Bradley."
Alan leaned forward in the enforcer's grip. A lifetime in the boardroom had taught him to take the offensive whenever he had the chance, and he did so now despite his fear. "Who are you?" he demanded. "What've you done with Kevin?"
Not-Kevin smirked, spreading his hands. He inclined his head in a mock-bow. "I am Clu, Administrator of the System."
Clu. Of course -- Kevin's avatar, his own persona in his games. He'd always liked to talk about Tron, Clu, Ram, and his other characters as though they were real people, with lives of their own beyond the game screen. Alan had written it off as a benign fantasy, another of Kevin's eccentricities, but it wasn't. Flynn's programs were real.
Clu was real, and the haughty look on his face spoke of danger.
"Where is he?" Alan asked. His voice grew quiet. "Where is Kevin?"
"Wouldn't you like to know," Clu said. He gestured toward his enforcer. "Rinzler. Disc."
Alan's captor -- Rinzler -- held him still with one hand and pulled the disc from Alan's back with the other. A sensation ran through Alan as it left him, a tingle of electric potential that danced between his shoulder blades, just as it had when the disc had first been attached. His vision went white. Half a second later the feeling faded, leaving him empty in its wake.
When Alan came back to himself, Clu had his disc balanced in his hands. Its light was a crisp white against black, framed by the yellow stripes along Clu's index fingers. The sight of it nestled there gave Alan an innate feeling of dread.
"Let's see," Clu murmured. A three-dimensional image rose up out of the disc, drawn in fuzzy white light: Alan as a young programmer, walking through the Encom lobby in his suit and tie. The image danced, incomprehensible for a second, and then came together again. This time it was Flynn, wriggling back and forth before an arcade machine as if his life depended on it. Then it was Lora, grinning as she dangled a set of car keys from her fingers; Roy smiling beside Alan in the front row as Kevin made his first speech as CEO; Jordan laughing as she cut the cake at Sam's third birthday party. Clu lingered on that image for a moment.
"Please don't," Alan murmured. Clu didn't listen. The images changed, became dark: Alan's pager going off out of nowhere, the ugly, sterile walls of the hospital as he ran past. He saw Kevin Flynn, hysterical with anguish, his hand tight around his wife's beneath the cold white sheet.
Alan saw death, burial, renewal. He saw Kevin laughing at the FlynnOS release party a year later, one arm around Alan, the other wrapped around a beer. He saw the after-party, too, and what had followed: Kevin's hands on his chest, Kevin's warm body against his, Kevin's mouth around his--
"Stop this," Alan grated. "Stop it!"
"Relax. It's nothing I haven't seen before. Besides, you needn't worry about your privacy here... programs don't have any."
Mercifully, Clu moved on. Alan watched as the years passed. He and Kevin grew closer, ever more intimate within the image -- secretly, of course, but with the unspoken blessing of Kevin's parents, who'd hoped that Alan would be a stabilizing influence on Kevin's increasingly unpredictable behavior. They spent night after night together, even as Kevin began to spend more and more time away, scribbling in code-filled notebooks and muttering about his Digital Frontier. Alan watched as Encom's board of directors began to winnow the company away from the two of them, watched as Sam began to spend more time with Alan than with his own father, watched as Kevin Flynn's life rushed toward disaster.
He saw Sam as an eight-year-old boy, sobbing in the rain outside his father's arcade, shouting the same words over and over.
Dad promised, Alan! He promised, he promised he'd come back!
Alan took half a step forward, only to be yanked back. "No! Stop this, damn it!" he cried, enraged into rare profanity.
To his surprise, Clu did. "Good enough for now," he muttered, shaking his head. "I'll just hang onto your disc for you, Bradley. For... safekeeping." He smacked the disc against his palm, and the image guttered out. "Rinzler. There's a spare circuit on the port side. Take our guest there, and make sure he can't get out."
Rinzler gripped Alan's shoulder hard, but with surprising care; Alan yelped as he touched his wound, and Rinzler shifted his fingers so as not to disturb it. Then he pulled Alan backwards, out of the room. His purr echoed all around them, and the red lights on his fingers were bright in Alan's peripheral vision.
"Wait!" Alan cried. He struggled, but in vain: Rinzler's grip was strong as a vise. "What've you done with him? Where's Kevin?"
Clu turned away, regal in his bearing, facing the Grid once more.
"I wish I knew," he said, and then the door slid shut in Alan's face.
Rinzler pushed him down the short, narrow corridor, which opened up and out into an expansive room with windows on every side. Before they reached it, Rinzler turned and pressed his palm to the wall. A rectangular hatch opened up, wider than it was tall. Rinzler gave him a nudge, and Alan climbed through. His height meant he had to step through and then bend down, but Rinzler flowed after him as if he'd done it a thousand times before.
Inside was another hallway, perhaps three or four times longer than the one outside. Alan looked up and down and suppressed a shiver. Such a long corridor didn't seem to fit with the one outside: the doors on either side ought to have cut right through the rooms he'd just seen. The discrepancy gave Alan a powerful sense of displacement, but Rinzler reacted not at all. He walked Alan up the hall to an open door and pushed him inside.
"Wait!" Alan cried. He turned back toward the door, hands raised in supplication. "You can't just leave me here."
Rinzler's growl dropped in pitch. "User," he said again. The word seemed to grate its way out of him, heavy with distortion. It struck Alan as painfully familiar, but he still couldn't place it. As the sound of it faded, Rinzler raised one palm and pushed it toward Alan in an unmistakable gesture: stay here! Then the door slid shut, and Alan was alone.
He gave a shout of frustration, thumping the door with his fists. Half a second later he felt ashamed of himself; losing his temper wasn't going to get him out of this. He sighed instead, letting his breathing settle, and then took off his glasses -- visor -- and rubbed his temples.
Think, Alan, he told himself. Keep your eyes and ears open. There'll be some way to solve this.
He reached out, testing the door with careful fingers. It was hexagonal, with two asymmetrical halves which nested together with a barely-visible seam. It felt and sounded sturdy when thumped, and no doorknob or switch was apparent. When Alan turned, the rest of the "circuit" was much the same: a small room with two obtuse corners and a flat wall opposite the door. In front of it was a low bench, not quite as long as Alan was tall. Everything -- bench, walls, and even the floor and ceiling -- had a bright orange stripe running across it, and every surface was slightly reflective, leaving him surrounded by fragmented embers and vague Alan-ghosts.
Alan sighed again, sat down on the bench, and examined the visor in his hand. It was about three fingers wide, a smooth, single arc of what looked and felt like glass but probably wasn't. Its edges were beveled, and it, too, had vaguely hexagonal endpoints. It had no visible bridge nor earpiece, but when he lifted it back over his eyes it stayed there regardless.
Floating glasses struck Alan as the least-strange thing that had happened all day, and that was a very bad sign.
He huffed, stood, and paced for a moment, fuming silently. Here he was, locked away in a violent computer-world with his lover's doppleganger as the jailer, and it was all Flynn's fault. His shoulder throbbed (could he get an infection on the Grid? Were there computer bacteria as well as viruses?), and he ached all over from his exertions in the Arena, especially where he'd fallen. The situation seemed massively unfair.
After a minute or two he slowed, stopped, and sat back down on the bench. Reality set in: he was here, he was alone, and his own world was far, far away.
Alan gave one last sigh, curled up on the bench, and waited for sleep to take him away.
He woke sometime later. The room looked just as it had before, giving no indication of the passage of time. He'd dreamt of the sun, big and bright in the sky, and now he could see why: the stripe on the bench was only inches from his nose.
He sat up, stretched unthinkingly, and pulled up short as the move tugged on the cut on his shoulder. It began to throb again, sharper this time, and he thought about infection once more. He probed at it with his finger, but his suit seemed to have closed over it as he slept. He couldn't find a zipper or even a seam on the front of the suit, either. It was as if he'd been dipped in liquid leather and sprinkled with armor.
He looked up at the wall, where his reflection swam. It occurred to him that he hadn't looked at himself, really looked, in a long time. He was shocked at how little brown he had left in his hair, and the rest was edging past grey into silver. The lines on his face had grown deep to match. The leather-stuff that covered him was skin-tight, just as it was on Rinzler, Clu, and almost everyone else he'd seen on the Grid. He was in great shape for his age, but not that great; the sight made him long for his overcoat.
He drew closer, squinting at the white lines of light that covered his body. There was a Sierpinski triangle just below his throat -- Kevin would surely have described it as an "upside-down triforce, man", and Alan would surely have smacked him on the arm -- and from it radiated six wide, jagged lines, like a digital sunburst. Two of them ran down his arms to his hands, and then spread up his first three fingers in a pattern which struck him as unpleasantly similar to Rinzler's. The bottom two arched down his chest and onto his thighs, then down to his feet.
The pattern felt familiar somehow, more so than the grey in his hair. The feeling frightened him. He looked just like one of Kevin's game-warriors -- how could that be more familiar than his own face?
He was still thinking about that when the door opened. He bolted to his feet. Before him stood a man bearing a glass of water on a platter. He was utterly bald, and not quite as tall as Alan. He wore red-lit armor with a pair of odd, skirt-like panels at the bottom. A visor, like Alan's but much wider, sprouted from the crown of his head and arched down to cover most of his face.
"Breakfast time," he said. His voice was dry and sarcastic.
Alan tensed, every muscle on edge. His instincts screamed at him to charge, to knock the man over and run, but he managed to rein in the impulse before he made a fool of himself. Rinzler was out there, along with Clu, and Alan would have no chance against either. Clu's guards were armed with staves, too. And while the man before him was thin to the point of frailty, he carried himself with such arrogance that Alan had to think twice.
"I'm not going to say it again," the man sniffed. "You can drink or go without until the next shift. Your choice, User."
Alan nodded. He was thirsty, come to think of it. He took the glass, raised it, and sipped before he stopped to think.
It wasn't water. Whatever-it-was bubbled inside of him like extra-fizzy soda (or acid, his mind helpfully filled in, it could be acid), after which Alan Bradley checked out and his hindbrain took over. He spat, dropped to his knees, and clawed at his throat like a mad ape. The rest of the "water" spilled out over the floor.
"That's a waste of good energy!" the man said. "You're not going to get another glass."
Slowly, Alan came back to himself. The mystery stuff (not acid) hadn't hurt; in fact, he felt fine. Better than fine. He could still feel it bubbling, tickling inside him like a benign swarm of bees. Warmth spread from his belly into his limbs in great, wide waves. The ache in his muscles subsided as each one flowed over him; he could actually feel his bruises fade from black to purple.
"What..." he gasped. "What was that?"
"Energy, of course." He said it much the way Alan might have said "water", as if he couldn't believe Alan was unfamiliar with it.
Alan glanced away, distracted by the sensation in his shoulder. His wound itched unbearably for the space of a minute. He scrabbled at his suit, but the tips of his gloves refused to catch. Then the itch subsided, fading to a dull tingle.
Somehow he knew that if he looked, he'd see a half-healed cut where Rinzler's disc had torn into him not twelve hours before.
Alan wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "What is that stuff?" he asked again.
"It's energy," the man said, as if to a particularly slow child. "If you drink it, you live. If you don't, you derezz."
Alan nodded. "Derezz" was understandable enough: he'd heard the crowd chanting it earlier, when Rinzler had put his disc to Alan's throat.
"You're not much of a User, are you?" The man bent down, picked up the glass, and put it neatly back on the tray. "So much for religion," he sneered, and turned to leave.
"Wait!" Alan cried. He threw his arm across the doorway, blocking the way. The other man gave him a scathing look, but stopped where he was.
"Who are you? Where is Clu?"
"I am Jarvis. And the Leader is busy as always; he'll come and play with you another time." The way he said "Leader" suggested that "Clu" was much too presumptuous.
"Another time? I've been here for hours. How long do you intend to keep me in here?"
Jarvis blinked. "I haven't been told. But I'm sure the Leader will attend to you within the cycle."
Jarvis heaved a great, patient sigh. "You've been here for roughly a millicycle. There are 1024 of those in a cycle. We're more than halfway through the current one, so surely that's not too long to wait. Is there anything else you'd like me to explain?"
"No," Alan whispered, barely hearing his own voice. Jarvis stalked out as he staggered back to the bench. The door shut behind him.
One thousand twenty four, multiplied by somewhere between six and twelve hours. He double-checked his math, and it was still nearly a year at best, which left perhaps six months before the end of the cycle. The rational part of his mind told him that people survived six months of near-solitary confinement all the time, but the emotional part insisted that if Clu left him alone in here for that long, he'd go insane. He could see it in his mind: the froth on his lips, the dull emptiness in his eyes, his bloody, ruined fingers as they scratched at the door.
Alan felt cold despite the perfect body-temperature in the room. He wrapped his arms around his legs, rested his head upon his knees, and did his best to wait.
Alan slept deeply that night, despite having taken a short nap of the kind Lora liked to call a "pity party". Jarvis returned in the morning, served him another glass of energy, and left him alone again. This time the liquid's effects were not as pronounced. It felt as satisfying as a hearty meal, but seemed to do little for his aches and pains.
He spent that first day exploring his cell again, running his hands over every surface. He could feel the thrum of engines somewhere close, confirming his impression that the room he'd been taken to was part of a ship, but he found no means of escape.
After Jarvis left on the second day Alan waited, cross-legged on the bench. Every moment made him wish he'd paid more attention to Kevin's "Zen Thing".
On the third day it occurred to him that there was no toilet. He hadn't even had the urge to use one. He thought about that for a while: did he even have a bladder anymore? Intestines? He had blood, that much was certain... and he felt thirsty every morning, just as he had in the real world, so it seemed as if something still existed inside him. Still, three tall glasses of energy over three days should've had him hopping up and down. He felt nothing, nothing but a steady sense of well-being.
It was probably a good thing, because he still had no idea how to open his suit.
Alan slept through Day Four, curled on his bench. He dreamed of Sam: he was walking through Alan's apartment, calling and calling. Alan woke with tears in his eyes. Kevin Flynn had vanished in his youth, at the height of his fame, and at a critical juncture in his career. Most had believed he'd simply run away. But Alan Bradley? He was old and alone, a relic of the past, and he'd been no more than that for at least ten years. Mackey was looking to get rid of him at Encom, and everyone knew it; Lora and Roy watched him with sadness in their eyes, but neither of them could manage to bridge the gap. Even Sam had largely moved on, leaving him as the last, the faithful one. The only one who still believed that Kevin Flynn would come back.
When they found his car outside Flynn's arcade, with his pager -- the one Kevin had always told him to sleep with, just in case -- sitting on the seat, there'd be no search. No brave mission to carry on his memory, no t-shirts emblazoned with Bradley Lives. It looked too much like suicide. He wasn't entirely sure he hadn't meant it to be suicide, at least until he'd found the door hidden behind the Tron machine. He wasn't sure what he'd been doing there, what he'd wanted to find. He knew only that he'd seen Kevin's number on his pager, as if returned from the dead, and he couldn't stay away.
I should have told Sam, he thought to himself as he drifted back to sleep. He would've known what to do. This is his father's world, his father's legacy... Sam should have been the one to find it. Not me.
Alan spent much of Day Five shouting and pounding on the door.