Good judgment comes from experience; experience comes from bad judgment.
-Jim Horning, via Mullah Nasreddin
Rinzler lifted Alan with care, as if aware how easily he could break. One gloved hand was bright against Alan's ear, cradling his head like a child's, and the other supported his weight. Each step still tore at Alan like a knife. He gasped out every shallow breath, and then hissed in the next as though he could filter the pain out of it. He could feel the rumble in Rinzler's chest, and even that hurt, like tiny fingers tapping against his busted ribs.
They boarded the Recognizer an eternity later. Alan kept waiting -- hoping -- to pass out, but it never happened. He was painfully conscious as Rinzler laid him down on the floor. The thrum of the engines was just like Rinzler's purr, only a hundred times bigger and a thousand times more terrible. As it soared into the sky Alan had to choke down a scream. It felt like someone had lit his chest on fire. At one point he looked down and saw himself burning, incandescent with pain.
A minute or more went by before he realized that he was looking at the lights of the Recognizer.
The Recognizer lurched as it docked, and Alan did scream then, a single, helpless cry. The sound made him burn with shame. His heart told him he should be strong, as if will alone could make him the hero he wanted to be, and no amount of reason could quiet it. He lay there, silently snarling, and held his tears back even as Rinzler gathered him up and brought him inside. He kept his eyes squeezed shut through the corridors, and made no sound as Rinzler rolled him onto the bench in his room. Rinzler stood over him for a moment, inscrutable behind his helmet, and then he turned and left. Alan watched him go. He lay sprawled on the bench for some time, as still as he could manage, but the pain only grew worse.
The door opened. Jarvis knelt by the edge of the bench, and then his voice hissed close to Alan's ear. "I don't know what it is you said, but you're lucky to be alive right now. Are all Users so stupid, or just you?"
Alan opened his mouth to speak, and Jarvis' hand shot out. He caught Alan's jaw and pried it open. Alan spluttered and struggled, but a vial pushed past his teeth; then Jarvis tipped it back and squeezed his nostrils shut.
If the energy had bubbled before, now it boiled. It didn't hurt, but the feeling was so alien it might as well have. He could feel it rearranging things inside of him, as if his guts had come alive in their own right. He clutched his chest, curling in on himself, and ground his teeth to cover the sound of his ribs popping. After a minute or two it stopped, and Alan took a careful, half-hesitant breath. His lungs filled nearly all the way, but then he had to stop. Breathing still drove spikes of pain through his ribcage.
When he looked up again, Jarvis had gone. Alan's heart stopped hammering, slowing beat by beat. He could think more clearly now, and so he did: it occurred to him to wonder whether he truly needed air inside a computer, or whether his brain just thought he did. Either way, he cherished each breath. He concentrated on that for a while, breathing in and out despite the pain. He tried rolling onto his side, to see if that would help with the pain. It didn't, but he couldn't stand to roll back again, so he stared at the stripe on the wall and blinked whenever his eyes filled up.
After a while the door opened again. Someone came to stand over him, motionless and silent. Alan didn't turn, but the hairs stood up at the base of his skull, prickling up and down his spine. Then a broad, warm hand settled onto his neck.
"Sorry, User," Clu murmured. Fingers stroked through Alan's hair, skimming his ear. "I forget how fragile you people are."
Alan froze. He was still trying to get his mouth to work when something hot and heavy pressed into his upper back, down onto the port he carried there. Clu turned it with a click, and white filled Alan's vision once more. It seemed to flow out into his body from there, like a blanket of soft, numbing snow. His pain faded, one nerve after another. He could still feel it, but it seemed distant and irrelevant, as though it belonged to someone else. His fear dissipated in its wake, replaced with a gratitude so deep it filled him like sunlight. Each muscle relaxed and let go, with an almost audible flood of relief -- he hadn't realized how much his body had locked up in its effort to protect itself. Alan stretched out on the bench as if asleep back home, safe in his bed, and his disc hummed upon his back.
He could hear Clu chuckle, from someplace far away. Then the door closed, and Alan's mind retreated further still.
Red lines. Dark eyes behind a blue visor. Another vial against his lips, cold.
He dreamed strange, disjointed dreams: scenes from the past, replayed like films within his mind. He saw his childhood one moment and MIT the next, his first home computer and his first corner office. He saw Kevin (we're gonna do things our way, man. It's our company now!) and Lora (we'll always be friends, right? Take care of Kevin) and Sam.
I know why you do it, why these pranks are so important to you. Believe me, I do. I'd walk into that boardroom and rip your father's company right out of Mackey's hands if I could. But you're going to kill yourself one of these days, kiddo. Don't you know that?
Yeah? Maybe I'd do the world a favor.
Bubbles again, and light within his mind. White light burning inside the disc upon his back, blazing like fire.
He woke to a presence against his back. It thrummed against him, warm and alive.
It's just Gort, he thought. Just his quiet, serious little Gortster: soft orange fur and paws that kneaded Alan's shoulder in the night.
Gort drew closer, purred louder. Soon Alan could hear it all around him, filling the small space. It had an odd hitch in it, that sound -- there was something off about it, something a little broken.
I'll take him to the vet in the morning.
Right now he was too warm, too safe and happy to move, and the rumble against his shoulderblades told him that Gort felt the same way.
Later he remembered: Gort died in 1990, six months after Kevin disappeared.
Things started making sense later on. He looked up at the ceiling and wondered how many days it had been. The pain in his chest was nearly gone, but he still felt stiff and sore, as though he'd been on the bench for a week or more. He tested each of his limbs in turn, frowning at the way his joints creaked.
Bet Roy would enjoy this, he thought to himself. Roy was the one who'd spent half his life shadow-boxing with Interpol and the FBI; Roy was the one who stayed up late at night, peeking through curtains and muttering about things like "rubber-hose cryptanalysis". All Alan ever did as ISOlated Thinker was post to the message boards, say the right things to the right people now and again, and show up with suitcases full of cash. He didn't know how to do this -- how to endure torture, to resist tyranny. None of this was in his skillset, and thinking about it made him feel small and incapable.
He'd always wondered about that. Kevin had given his "Hero of the Grid" Alan's face, Alan's program-name, even Alan's hair -- Alan finally had to draw the line at putting his own voice in the Saturday morning cartoon. The stories Kevin spun about Tron's battles made him sound braver than anything, stalwart forever... but Alan was no fighter, not like that.
He was not Tron.
He sighed, rolled over, and thought to himself: I'm going to have to learn.
He was sitting up when Clu came in.
"You look better," Clu said. Alan glared at him, but Clu didn't seem to notice. He just walked up, gripped Alan's shoulder with his right hand, and tore Alan's disc away with the other. Alan cried out at the loss. The emptiness was worse this time, a chasm that yawned inside of him. The sight of his disc in Clu's hand triggered rage and nausea all at once.
"Don't worry," Clu told him. "You'll have a chance to get it back... if you're smart enough to cooperate."
"Aw. You haven't even heard what I was going to say."
Alan stared him down. "You hurt Kevin. You almost killed me. And you're brainwashing your own people. There's nothing you can say to me, not anymore."
"Good, because I'm just about done talking." Clu paced twice within the small space, turning Alan's disc between his fingers. Then he came to a stop in front of him, close enough to touch. "Thanks to you, my little... 'private initiative' is finished. But I still need Flynn's disk. The Grid won't survive without it; it was never designed to go this long without an upgrade, and the cracks are already starting to show. If you won't help me, it won't matter that I 'brainwash' my people. They'll die, and I'll die along with them."
He paused. "Kevin Flynn will die along with them."
Alan shook his head. "You're lying," he said. "You're just feeding me a line again."
Clu looked down at him. "I would give anything I have -- my life, my position, anything except the System itself -- to make that true, User."
Alan shivered. He thought again of the server beneath the arcade, still chugging along on 1980s technology. Kevin had bought the very best, he didn't doubt that... but how much longer could it run? He and Kevin could live another twenty years or more, if they ate well and stayed healthy. But the server?
Clu broke the silence. "I meant it when I said I'd give you anything, Bradley. Help me now, and I'll give you the most valuable thing on the Grid -- the most valuable thing in your pathetic little life. Help me, and you can take Kevin Flynn. All I want is his disc."
Alan thought about that for a moment. Then he shook his head. "I don't believe you. You'll never let him go."
"I might. I just might. But if you don't help me you'll never see him again. After what you pulled at the Rectifier I think I'd like to stake you down in the Outlands and see who comes for you first, Kevin Flynn or the gridbugs." He flashed a grin. "And nobody's seen Kevin in a thousand cycles, so..."
Alan clenched his fists at his sides. He wanted to say no, wanted to throw Clu's smug "offer" right back in his face. A long time ago he would have said no; he'd been young and strong once, and had lived only to do the right thing. Years in the boardroom had taught him patience, though, and years of watching Sam and Roy do the wrong things for the right reasons had taught him the value of rebellion, of defiance.
Alan's mouth was dry as ashes. "What do you want me to do?"
For once, Clu didn't tease, didn't insult. He simply nodded, and then spoke. "We must find Flynn. We think he's hiding somewhere in the Outlands, or in the wasteland between the city and the Sea, but it's impossible for programs to operate out there. Tron City provides a constant charge, but the plates the city is built on are wired to ground -- no matter how much energy you bring with you, you can't survive on the surface for long." Clu paused, waiting for Alan's nod. "None of Flynn's creations can do the job. Only one program on the system can move freely out there, because only one program can reduce its energy needs to near-zero without derezzing."
Clu said nothing more, and after a second Alan realized why. None of Flynn's creations can do the job.
"Tron," he said. "You want me to bring back Tron."
"You're a User, Bradley. You can create, unlike any other being on this server, and I can provide you with a backup of Tron's code. You'll be in for some work -- Tron was never much of a search program to begin with, and many of his subroutines are... missing. But you can do it. You can bring Tron to life again."
Alan steepled his hands. "And if I do, you'll give Kevin to me." He paused, and then met Clu's eyes. "No strings attached?"
"You can take him to Bermuda for all I care," Clu said. Then he blinked. "Wherever that is."
Alan's eyes narrowed. He didn't believe that Clu would ever set Kevin free, promise or not. He seemed even less likely to let him leave the system, not when he could end everything simply by pulling the plug -- but then again, Alan still wasn't sure whether Clu knew what a plug was. Maybe he and Kevin could convince him together... one way or another.
Kevin always had an ace or two left to play.
"All right," Alan said. "I'll do it."
"Good." Clu smirked. "Now get some sleep. You have a big day tomorrow." He turned to go, with Alan's disc still in his hand, and the door closed behind him. Alan stared at it. He sat motionless, devoid of thought. It was a long time before one came to him, and when it did he wished it hadn't.
Tron would have said no.