A police helicopter was circling above the street and black-white cars blocked the intersection a couple of blocks away. From the distance it was impossible to tell if they had caught someone or if there had been an accident.
“What happened?” he asked from the security guard who was standing at the gates.
“Some cokehead jumped down from the top of a building,” the guard replied, without looking at him.
“So someone died?”
“No, they caught him,” said the guard and made an impatient gesture with his hand, hurrying him to drive through the gate, even though there were no other vehicles behind.
“Then probably the fellow isn’t a cokehead,” he said. “If he managed to stay alive.”
The guard shrugged and he drove out from the garage, turning in the other direction to avoid the blockade. His cell phone was in its case on the dashboard; he had a message from his wife, the call had gone to the mailbox during the meeting in the ENCOM building. It was too late to call back: it was after 9 PM, which meant it was after midnight in Washington D.C. Tomorrow.
He left his car on the driveway; walking to the house he picked up the mail. It was dark: the surrounding buildings were dark and his home was unlit too except for the light in the living room – that lamp had been left on by the maid who had been there earlier that day. He put down the keys and took a quick look at the letters: Alan Bradley – his mail - , Lora Baines-Bradley, Our Valued Costumer; and then he just left the whole stack on the table in the living room. He sat down and turned the television on.
Soon he found himself not paying attention to the news, but holding his pager in his hands. The number was blinking on the tiny screen – the first page since years, from the only number it just could not come. For some reason Ed Dillinger Jr.’s unpleasant words came to his mind from earlier that evening.
“The idea of sharing the software or giving it away for free,” his words had been, “disappeared with Kevin Flynn.”
“Smartass,” mumbled Alan to the empty room. The problem was, Dillinger Jr. had been right: Flynn had been gone since twenty years – and that somebody sent a page to Alan from his old office. He woke up to the small beep, not realizing at first what it was; and then sleep was gone for him for the rest of the night. He was thinking about it all day, considering going to the closed Arcade, thinking about calling Sam Flynn – but he could not get away from the office on this prominent day and the younger Flynn did not pick up his phone. Alan was reaching for his phone again to try once more, when he heard the familiar name. His attention turned to the newscast immediately, just to see a grinning Sam Flynn on the screen, being put in a police car – his parachute that he had used for the jump from the top of the ENCOM tower, was still hanging from a pole. Alan Bradley buried his face in his hands.
The street where Flynn’s Arcade was located was dark and deserted. He stopped his car under a streetlight and turned the engine off. He was watching the shadows outside. From the house he called the police department and learnt that the bail had already been posted for Sam and he had been released; but the young man still did not answer his phone. Despite of the sleepless night and the busy day before, Alan felt restless and nervous. He got back to his car and started to drive in the direction of Sam’s place. He was not mad: twenty years of that excessive behavior taught him not to get mad swiftly – and Sam was rather listening to him if he was not yelling with red face. One could get used to everything; Alan could get used to the extreme pranks, the hospital visits and calls from the police, summoning him to pick up his protégé. He could do that – what he could not take, that was the waiting, not tonight. He did not want to wait for Sam at the house by the river, alone with his thoughts. He turned the car the drove to the Arcade.
He opened the door with the keys he had wanted to give Sam and entered the building. The wind swept some trash and fallen leaves in as the door opened. The air was dry and dusty in the dark playing room; some light came in through the windows and Alan found the switchboard on the wall. He opened the box: the switches read “SIGN” and “INSIDE”. He was actually surprised when he gave it a try and the lights turned on. Loud, blasting music started. He looked around: the Arcade game machines were standing next to the walls, covered with plastic. Dust was on the floor and there were no footsteps – nobody had come here before him since years.
The office was upstairs: Alan went there. The sofa set there was covered too and the personal items were gone, still, the place woke memories in him. The very first time when he set foot here, almost thirty years before – everything had been different then, simple and definite. He was hoping to get a fine choice of improvement when he was hired at ENCOM, he was not expecting finding love and the most implausible friendship. They were invincible, so they reached for the sky and fell back. And then – death, loss. Time.
Alan found the telephone and picked up the receiver. The line was mute. He turned and walked downstairs. It was late and nobody was around here. His leather shoes got dirty and he even managed to mess up his jacket. He looked at the machines once more and he caught sight of the TRON game. Alan went there and lifted the plastic cover. He was wondering if Sam would want to take any of the machines once the Arcade was gone. He could share the passion that his father had had for these things – Alan had never understood it. He touched the coin slot and glanced down. There were deep cuts on the concrete floor in front of the machine, as like something heavy had been dragged along there. As if the machine itself had been moved repeatedly. He checked the sides of the machine and then he tried to move it. It slid aside slowly and revealed a metal door behind. It was an old, unpainted door; one could see why they had moved the machine there to conceal it. Was it an entrance to some storage room or it was not an entrance at all? Alan tried the handle and it gave in, much to his amazement. He was standing there, looking inside.
A dark staircase led down: as he was taking the steps he was trying to remember if he had torchlight in the car. He was not sure about that, so he kept on going, slowly. In the dark it seemed to be a long walk – even though it was only two flights. At the end there was another door, with the key in the lock. It was open and there was another office behind the door. There was some light in this room, from the outside, coming in through the small window close to the ceiling. Computer parts and other gadgets lay scattered around and there was a dusty sofa in the corner. Old family photographs were glued to the walls and something that looked like a map for… He did not know. The Grid, read the title above the colums of numbers. Alan was looking for a telephone here to check the line. He walked in the middle of the office, just then he spotted the table under the window. Thick layer of dust covered the surface of the table and there were blinking numbers under that.
20:11:20:16:22:14…15…16… Dear God, this screensaver has been running untouched since almost twenty-one years…
He brought out a handkerchief and wiped away the dust from the slick surface. The screensaver disappeared and a touch screen terminal showed up. Alan was glaring at it: he was wondering if he would find anything useful by going through the digital notes. A suicide note? A plane reservation to Costa Rica? He sat down on the chair and looked at the command prompt.
He tried to login, unsuccessfully. Then he recalled the last command that had been typed in.
LLLSDLaserControl – ok 1. It did not have a meaning for him not it rang a bell. He gave the same command and the system activated itself. There was a deep, grumbling noise and a window popped up on the terminal.
Aperture Clear? < Yes > < No >
The cursor was on the ‘Yes’ answer. Alan pushed the chair back. There was not anything here and these commands did not make sense. Yet, he knew that had Sam been in his place, he would have pushed yes, just because. But he was not going to push any button; he was going to walk out, get in his car and go home.
And Kansas was going bye-bye.
After a sudden flash the look of the office changed. All the dust disappeared, as well the gadgets, the sofa and the photos from the wall. Something roared outside on the street; he thought it was a helicopter, but the sound was louder, intimidating. Alan jumped to his feet and began to walk out of the room. To his greatest surprise the stairwell outside had disappeared: the door opened straight to the street.
It was dark outside, but otherwise everything else had changed there since he had entered the Arcade. The streetlamps were gone, now the source of light was light blue panels on the buildings and on the road. His car disappeared too. He turned around and saw that all the surroundings were different now – Alan did not even know where to start. The black concrete was wet though it had not been raining that day. A circle of light fell on him and he lifted his gaze. A giant aircraft was floating above; it descended and landed quickly. A platform came down; there were several people traveling on the strange looking vehicle. Two of them walked to Alan with quick steps.
“I want explanations,” he said. “Immediately.”
The two men that wore black uniforms with red neon stripes and helmets grabbed him by his arms.
“This program has no disc,” said one of them in an automatic voice. “Another stray.”
“What?” asked Alan, but he was already taken to the vehicle. There was one more empty spot for a last passenger on the aircraft; he was tossed there and some glowing lock closed around his feet. The men in uniform returned to their own stands and the vehicle lifted up.
An unbelievable cityscape unfolded as the aircraft was making its way ahead. Buildings and streets with glowing lights, under a stormy sky of lightning – and most of it defied the rules of gravity; real constructs could not have those angles.
“This is not the real world,” whispered Alan to himself. He looked at the people on his sides: they were young men in dark clothes with extravagant neon stripes. Many of them had tattoos on their faces and they wore makeup. Alan really hoped that they wore makeup – otherwise he had to draw the conclusion that they were not humans at all. “He actually did it.”
They approached a monumental building; several other flying aircrafts landed in the same area. Alan looked up at the pilot of the vehicle and saw that he was standing on a similar glowing platform than the passengers, only that his feet were not fastened there. This gave him an idea and he bent down as much as he could safely. The aircraft hit the ground and the board started to descend. He touched the shiny lock around his feet; it seemed to be solid, but for the second tap a small panel appeared. Alan was fascinated: it was such a simple yet effective code that kept the passengers of the vehicle entrapped. There were a few other men in uniform on the ground – they approached the platform as it touched down. One of them walked to the first passenger and stared at his face. Alan was almost ready with the code. He heard the word ‘rectify’ repeatedly and then ‘games’. He unlocked the coding of the lock around his own feet and straightened himself, just to see one of the men on the platform running away and jumping down from the end of the ramp. From where he was standing he could not see the fall, but he took a step ahead out of surprise. The men in uniform glanced at him intently. The one who had been evaluating the passengers of the aircraft, walked to him now.
“Identify yourself, program,” he said.
“Excuse me?” asked Alan. He saw his own reflection on the surface of the soldier’s helmet. A hand lifted and two men dragged him away.
They were making a short trip inside of the building; Alan sort of lost track in the labyrinth of corridors. All the people, if they were people at all, wore the same style black outfit with distinctive neon stripes – he was the only one there in white shirt, suit and a tie. Earlier that day he had felt decent in that attire; now, at this odd place it seemed to be rather unfitting.
Finally they reached a room that must have been their final destination: there were armed guards everywhere and the two men on Alan’s sides bowed their heads reverently as they crossed the opening door. The room was spacey: there were several people inside and a large window that overlooked a huge field that was similar to a sports arena. The people were occupied with their tasks, except for one, who was standing apart, turning to the newcomers now. Alan felt his knees going wobbly. It was his rival-turned-friend, looking just the way he had the day he had gone lost twenty years ago. He wore the same futuristic outfit that the other people around and there was a curious look on his face. Alan stepped ahead: he was not even sure if he wanted to punch or to hug the man. He ended up falling on his neck, mumbling incoherently.
“Flynn, you madman,” he said. “What are you doing here? For twenty years we have been looking… Your family… Your friends…”
There was no reaction from the other side. Alan straightened himself and looked in his friend’s face closely. The man had not aged a bit since they had seen each other for the last time and yet he was different: tidy, too calm. He looked at Alan with a lopsided, amused smile on his face. He did not return the warm embrace, but his hand was raised – Alan just realized that he ordered the guards back from pulling him away.
“You look…” started Alan, “the same.”
That smile became wicked, ironic.
“And you look…” he replied; he did not finish. He had the voice of the young Kevin Flynn.
“Old,” said Alan, laughing. His friend did not laugh, only his smile widened. At that moment Alan knew that something was wrong. His arms fell to his sides.
“Who are you?” asked Alan. For a moment the other man seemed to be disappointed at the question.
“Didn’t you just say?” he asked.
“You are not Flynn,” replied Alan. The younger man glared at him for a long moment and then he shrugged.
“No,” he said. Despite of his confidence Alan had hard time to cover his delusion.
“Who are you?” he asked.
“My name is Clu.”
“What does that mean?” asked Alan. The name did ring a bell; he just could not remember exactly in which context he had heard it before.
“It means, Codified Likeness Utility,” replied the other one.
“A digital copy,” said Alan. Clu seemed to be irritated at the comment.
“That was how I started,” he said; he did not offer any more explanation.
“Where is he?” asked Alan. Clu pointed at the window with a wide gesture.
“I don’t get it,” said Alan. “Is this a virtual reality? Are these people around players or part of the simulation?”
Clu seemed to be surprised.
“You don’t know anything about the Grid,” he stated. Alan shook his head slowly.
And so he was told the story.
Alan was facing the window; he hid his trembling hands in his pockets in an attempt to cover his anxiousness. If he had not been aware of the gravity of his situation – now he was. He realized that not long after Clu had begun to talk, and it was not just about what he had said, but the way he had done it. The conclusion was always the same, the controversy built up around the same point every time: it was “he said”, “and then Flynn”, “he was the one, who” and so on. Alan knew these words very well, because he had heard them from Sam, Kevin Flynn’s other issue countless times: but Sam lived in the real world, in a society, between other human beings, and his feelings had never deteriorated like this. Clu’s actions had not been under such a control, his frustration did not know any barriers: Alan was wondering if the program had ever considered how far he had gotten from his original directive.
Disturbingly enough, there was something well known, something familiar in the fashion Clu talked and behaved. Even though he seemed to be calm and measured, his appearance and behavior were still absurdly similar to Flynn’s, to the man’s whom Alan had known. He had had the same eccentric style and uproarious expressions – but Flynn had been talking about inventions and video games with this excitement, while Clu was depicting mass murder and tyranny with that mischievous smile on his face. Alan found himself feeling sorry for the both of them, for the Grid itself: how admirable the idea would have been, how lucky Flynn and how special Clu, had the things not been out of control, had his friend paid more attention to the fact that his digital clone was closer to a human when it was about emotions and rather a machine when the job needed to be done. Sam jumped down from the top of buildings out of frustration, Clu was committing a massacre.
“Fair enough,” mumbled Alan.
“What is your answer?” asked Clu. Alan glanced at him.
“Was there any question?” he asked back.
“The system needs a User.”
“The system had a User. But you exiled him into the recycle bin of a computer.”
“He was not thinking logically,” said Clu.
“Logical? Is it logical to lead a coup against the only User of a system that receives the power from the outside? As far as I am concerned, the only reason that the Grid is still here is that Flynn was cautious enough to assure that the electricity bill of the Arcade would be paid continuously. However, I would be worried, if my existence would be up to the Department of Water and Power.”
Clu was not impressed by the monologue.
“Well,” he said. “That is the reason, why you are here.”
“I’m not doing anything, until I don’t see Flynn,” replied Alan.
“Did you pay attention to what I was talking about not long ago?”
“I did, but still, I’m not doing anything,” said Alan. He took his hands out of his pocket: he found it hard to try and be determined with hands in pocket.
“I can derezz you, if I want,” said Clu casually. Alan felt alarmed: could he? If he would get hurt, would lose a limb, would he return in his own world with the injury? Should he die here, would that mean his death and disappearance at all?
“Good luck for that,” he said. “And then keep on hoping that somebody finds the office again, activates the laser and gets here. Considering that it took twenty years for the first person to do that, I would say a technician will pull the plug way before than that.”
Clu was standing there, seemingly noncommittal; then the mask of unconcern melted off of his face. He lifted his hand and the guards stepped ahead. Alan did his best not to show his fear. The guards grabbed his arms and brought him out of the room.
He was looking out of the window: the room was high above the ground, high enough to provide an amazing view of the city. When they threw him in the room and the door closed behind him he expected to see a cell: and technically it was a cell, with its Spartan look and closed door, but it also had a window. Alan went there and began to examine the view. He did not know how long he was standing there, hypnotized by the buildings, the tiny vehicles behind, the flying light jets and other aircrafts – and by the rain, again and again as it started to fall, sprinkling digital rain drops on the glass. Such detail; how much work?
“Flynn, you fool,” he said loudly. “You should have told me.”
He went to the bed that was placed next to the wall. He put down his jacket and his tie, he sat down. The mattress was comfortable enough: there was a pillow but there was not any blanket. Alan was thinking about the situation, about the possible outcome of the events. He was still worried and also somewhat hopeful – it did not seem to be logical from Clu’s part to hurt him. He looked at the window again: what was the point to put a prisoner in a cell with a view if not to give him the chance to see the system, to convince him without words?
The light in the room decreased slowly; Alan could not be sure if someone was monitoring his actions from the outside or if there were sensors that noticed the lack of activity inside and adjusted the light settings. He put his legs on the bed and closed his eyes. He was pondering, trying to figure what would happen in case he would not make it back to the Arcade. They would find his car outside on the street and that would make them search the building – this time probably watchfully enough to find the secret office. But would they find out the purpose of the laser or would they just notify Sam or some people at the ENCOM? They could simply disassemble the laser and shut down the electricity; that option seemed to be rather terrifying for Alan. And what if Sam would find the room? He could simply send himself to the Grid, out of curiosity and venture. He would be captured right away – and Alan preferred to avoid thinking about what would happen then, considering Sam’s abrupt nature and Clu’s experiences with Flynn. And as for the system’s leader, Alan could not have been more confused: he knew that he was not supposed to think of him as sentient being and yet he did. He felt certain that Clu had no idea how much he resembled Kevin Flynn, the way Flynn had behaved during the years between his wife’s death and his own disappearance; when he had been nervous and frustrated all the time because of the endless and fruitless battles with the board at the company and because he had never had enough time for his son. Flynn was like that during those times, seemingly moderate and still, but it took only an unguarded word and the yelling started and objects flew in the air. Alan sighed and closed his eyes.
When he woke up the room was still dim and it felt warm. Alan was lying on his stomach and he heard the rain splashing against the window. This was odd: earlier he had not heard it, even when he had been standing right next to the glass. As he was wakening he realized that the sound in the room was not coming from the outside and that there was somebody else along with him. A light hand was fumbling on his back and there was pressure on the back of his upper thighs; somebody was sitting on him, straddled, yet not putting the full weight on him. Alan made a startled move and tried to rise, just to be pushed back on the mattress with the same easy, but insistent hand. He turned his head on the side and saw a hand in black glove, with red circuits. He did not recognize those patterns; they did not belong to a program he had seen before.
The sound he thought was the storm came from the newcomer: low, feral grumbling. The hands touched him again. For the first time now he felt fear again, recognizing the possibility that this program might have been sent to wound or to kill him. But the touches did not hurt so far; the fumbling actually felt good. The gloved fingers were exploring, touching his back through his shirt lightly. They were moving up and down, and then scratching airily – his muscles prickled from the stimulation. The hands slowly slid on the back of his shoulders. Alan closed his eyes while the intruder worked on his upper arms. It was soothing: it was like the stranger wanted to give him a massage. Something solid and smooth pressed against his nape and the grumbling grew louder; so his guest wore a helmet. Despite of the pleasant ministrations Alan started to feel uncomfortable.
“Could you…” he said. The hands came still. “…stop.”
He turned around; he felt the stranger retracting enough to give space to him for that. He could see the lit up stripes on the program’s dark outfit: there were not that many as on other creatures he had seen earlier and these were orange red. The suit covered a male form; the face was hidden behind the dark visor of a helmet. The program lifted his hands again. Alan laughed wryly. The stranger tilted his head; the sound that came out from the audio output of the helmet – “kekekeke”- first startled Alan, and the he realized that the program mimicked his laughter. Alan saw the ceiling above the program’s shoulder and that a panel was missing from there. This was surprising: had his guest come without permission? Was he a regular program or some kind of virus? Or, most importantly, had he been sent from outside of the city, possibly by Flynn?
Suddenly the gloved hands descended on him and palmed his face. The faceless figure bent ahead and the smooth surface of the visor pressed against Alan’s forehead. He reached there and touched the sides of the helmet; the grumbling grew louder, blissful. His fingers slid backwards on the black plastic and Alan felt a small trigger activating. The helmet retracted and Alan screamed.
The program slipped away in the blink of an eye and Alan jumped on his feet. He stared at the dark figure that flattened himself against the wall and glared back at him with a startled look on his face. On his face, which was Alan’s face, the way it had looked thirty years ago.
“Who are you?” asked Alan. He intended to yell, but his voice was raspy and he lowered his cry in the last second, not to alert anybody that might be monitoring the room. There came no response: the stranger was still glaring at him, pressing his back to the wall. Thoughts chased one another in Alan’s head – he remembered Flynn’s tales, the stories that he had believed to be tales and wild fantasies: that some programs bore resemblance to their creators. Clu looked like Flynn; but Clu was a digital clone, not a written program and Alan had not participated in the construction of this system anyway. Or did he? He looked at the glowing symbol on the dark suit.
“Tron?” he asked doubtingly. The stranger did not reply, though he appeared to be nervous at the question; there seemed to be some sort of inner struggle as his hands first reached behind his back and then fell down empty.
“What is that?” asked Alan. The program snarled at him aggressively and pressed his back to the wall. Alan was standing there, waiting. The stranger eased up slowly and stepped ahead, turning his back to Alan. For the first time now Alan saw the round disc that everybody carried on their backs around the Grid.
“What do you want me to do?” he asked. A quiet, pleading groan came as a reply. The program’s hands were locked in front of him; Alan was actually worried that he might receive a blow, had he touched that disc. He looked at the slender figure, at the dark blonde locks – had he looked like exactly like this? He lifted his hands; wrinkled hands, had gotten old during the long wait, while he had been waiting for years for people who had never come, wanting to tell words that had never been voiced. This was another opportunity to wait, not to take action. He grabbed the disc and replaced it promptly.
The program walked away from him without turning back. He was trembling as if he was forcing himself not to attack. He sat down on the floor, cross-legged; his palms were resting on his knees. Alan focused on the disc: surprisingly the plate parted and there were two slim, glowing discs. Alan sat down on his bed. After some fumbling he managed to access the information of the first disc and despite of his suspicion he did feel surprise to recognize his own work. All the information was familiar; yet this disc was subordinated to the other one. He reached for that piece quickly: he kept an eye on Tron - whose name was not Tron -, and saw that his fingers curled in a fist; he could not be sure how much time he had left. The other disc contained the commands and directives that overrode the original programming. After short consideration Alan tossed this disc aside, got back to the first one and erased all the data that had been lately added, including the links to the other disc. The program trembled one more time and started to rise. He was growling threateningly. Alan stood up quickly, went to him and returned the disc to its port. Tron fell ahead without uttering a sound and collapsed on the floor; the lights on his suit flickered once more and then went out.
“Jesus Christ, I killed him,” whispered Alan. He crouched down and rolled the program on his back – just as Alan touched his shoulder, the circuits relit, this time in a faint blue color. There was silence in the room, nothing moved. Alan lifted his gaze: it was still raining outside.
Tron was looking at him from the floor. It was a straight and calm look – and Alan knew that the program recognized him even though they had never seen each other before. Then his lips parted and Alan barely had the time to clasp his hand on the program’s mouth to muffle his scream. It was an outraged, painful sound and Alan glanced up to see if the lights altered; but it was still dim and silent.
“Easy,” whispered Alan. Tron’s fingers squeezed his wrist: it was a strong, almost painful clench and Alan was aware of that those hands could crush his bones, he had seen on the disc what his creature was capable of. Then those eyes closed and the muscles relaxed. Alan’s hand was still on Tron’s lips – seeing his regained composure he slowly retracted. Tron sat up and for their physical resemblance Alan felt now as if he was facing his never seen son.
The program jumped on his feet and looked around the room. Alan straightened himself as well. Anger distorted Tron’s face again; he took his own his disc from its port and hurled toward the removed panel on the ceiling. Alan did not understand everything of their mime play, but sensed enough to grab the program’s arm and pull him back almost violently.
“You will have yourself killed,” he said. Tron was still raging, yet he did not fight Alan as he was trying to slip away. “You will have both of us killed.”
This seemed to have a greater effect; the program became still and put his disc back to its place after some short pondering. They were staring at each other again.
“Do you know who I am?” asked Alan. Tron nodded, the hostile expression disappeared from his face once more.
“Do you want to help me?” went on Alan. There was another nod, quick, desperate. “Do you know where Kevin Flynn is?”
The program shook his head, sadly.
“Can you find him?”
Tron spread his arms and nodded at the same time.
“Then go and do that,” said Alan. “Get him to the portal, if it is possible.”
Tron nodded and took Alan’s wrist; he began to move toward the removed panel again.
“Wait,” resisted Alan. The program turned back to him. “Can you get the both of us out without being noticed?”
Tron glanced up and shook his head.
“Then go alone,” said Alan. “Find him and take him to the portal if you can. I stay: I’ll try to sort out things with Clu.”
Sheer horror appeared on the program’s face. Tron was shaking his head and he resumed dragging Alan toward the spot where he had sneaked in.
“Listen,” said Alan. “Listen, we won’t make it. What good would that do if we get caught while attempting to run away? And if you can’t take Flynn out and the portal closes? Go on your own. I’ll be fine and I’m pretty much sure that I can do more from here than I could if it would come to a fight.”
Tron’s eyes were still pleading, but his hands released Alan: logic and practicality were leading his actions, not emotions. Alan was proud – after his short presence on the Grid he could not be sure exactly how things worked here, but he could not refuse the idea that he and this creature did have something common. He was watching the panel sliding to its place on the ceiling and then he walked to the window slowly. He was looking at the view of the system; the life outside seemed to be undisturbed. Shortly after Alan saw a smaller, blue jet departing from an upper level of the building and crossing the view – then the aircraft changed route and sailed away in the direction of the dark hills outside of the city.
When he woke up for the next time he had company again. He was lying on his side on the bed, his fingers curled around Tron’s discarded disc. Alan looked up. Clu was standing above him with unreadable expression on his face. Alan sat up and put his feet on the floor. They were alone in the room.
“You stole my program,” stated Clu. Alan glanced at the disc in his own hand; it was sort of pointless to deny the allegation.
“Well,” he said “I created him originally. So it was you, who stole him. I just took him back.”
Clu smiled at him – and that look sent goosebumps down Alan’s spine.
“Alright, User,” the program said, turned on his heels and started to leave. Alan had the impression that he would regret it bitterly if he had let Clu leave like that. He rose.
“What does that mean?” he asked. Clu slowed down.
“It means that I’ve sent the sentries after him,” he said above his shoulder. He took one more step toward the door and then he turned around as if he changed his mind and wanted to talk to Alan face to face. “And they’ll bring him back; don’t have false hopes about that. While you are waiting you can try to break out of here, attempt to mess with the codes as you have done it before. It won’t work, but just go ahead and try. And once your halfwit program is back, I’ll throw a party for the two of you. When I’m done with you, you will be derezzed or hoping that you would be.”
Alan was staring at Clu. The program was telling him the details of his plan with the same mischievous grin that had been on Flynn’s face when he had admitted that he had been tampering with the ENCOM system. But Clu was not talking about hacking a computer, he was threatening Alan with killing him. Alan was stunned, yet he hid his emotions as he had done it throughout his whole life. The program was examining his face and seemed to be dissatisfied with the lack of reaction. He stepped to Alan and grabbed his shoulder.
“Why don’t you say something?” he yelled. “You’ll never see your own world again!”
Alan did not reply.
“This is what you are, Users,” said Clu. “Lying, cheating and breaking your word. I did everything he ever asked! He broke his promise. I gave you another chance, and this is what you did, this is how you returned my trust in you.”
“What kind of trust?” asked Alan. “I’ve been sitting here, in a cell.”
“And you still managed to make a mess,” raged Clu. “And that’s all you can do. That’s why there is no place for your kind in a logical system.”
“System of logic?” he asked. “You cut the system off of the real world, even though it can not exist without it, it can not exist without Users. What sort of logic is that? And now you are trying to lure in people and disappointed that I’m not behaving as you’ve expected. You’ve been acting like an egocentric kid who’s never been spanked.”
He laughed again. Clu’s grip was crushing on his shoulders and the program looked at him with a stunned look on his face. Alan was aware of the threat: yet the words came out on their own, after so many years of silence.
“Do you really think, that your actions would never have consequences? You trapped Flynn in here, this is kidnapping. And now you want to kill me, without even thinking of what would come after that. The number of the office phone is on my pager and my car is parked in front of the Arcade. You will not even realize what’s happening when they shut down this whole Wonderland.”
The grip on his shoulders eased somewhat. It was not fear on Clu’s face, it was surprise. It was sad, thought Alan, that he had never talked to Flynn honestly, that they had never given out themselves; and as the things were right now, they were not going to have another conversation ever.
“Do you think,” started Alan, “that it is easy to carry on and never to fight back? To be laughed at, humbled and just to take it, while others would make a fortune of your efforts, while the inventions that you’ve been worked for would be sold despite of the original conception? Can you imagine that, to take it, without turning into a maniac, without killing and threatening people, without even taking action? I wish you could try, you would be forced to try it just for a day, and then, then I would ask you to tell your opinion about Users. If you dare.”
The hands released him and fell down. Now, thought Alan, Clu would start yelling again or he would storm out of the room – that was what Flynn would have done. But Clu did not move. That stunned expression was still on his face and there was something else too: deep disappointment; it was the look of somebody who had been forsaken in every aspect of his existence.
“I’m sorry,” said Alan, though he was not sure for what he was apologizing – or for who. “I understand that he tried to create perfection. But that is not our nature. We fail and then stand up and move forward. I’m sorry that he failed and let you down. But killing, destroying things is not the answer. I regret to say, but sooner or later everybody meets the consequences of their actions and you will see that too, either in the form of a new coup or in just simply being erased.”
That betrayed look was unbearable: and Alan finished talking anyway. He turned around and walked to the window. It was easier now that he had taken out all of that. The city outside sparkled like a turquoise gem on a black velvet pillow. He felt great sadness: it had been probably worthy, he thought, even with the fall and the exile; it had been worthy to create this world, with all the fight and passion, much rather than his own life of constant waiting and restraints.
The arms were heavy around his neck, heavy and warm. Alan forced himself not to jump, not to fight; it would have been pointless anyway. But then he realized that those hands were not searching for the most vulnerable spot to tug at: they were just wrapped around him from behind and the program’s chin came to rest on his shoulder. It was comforting.
“You look like him,” said Clu. “And you talk like he had talked before I took his voice.”
Alan felt the fear returning; yet it was different now, not that straightforward threat that it had been before. He was waiting for the program to talk some more, but no other words followed – and it took Alan to feel the first hot tears to fall on his neck to realize, that for the first time since a long while he had been listened to and understood.
He was standing in the middle of the glowing light beam. It was warm and glaring. He held his disc in his hands; his disc that had been associated with him earlier in the city – his key to leave the system. Alan was about to leave, to secure the connection between the two worlds and keep the portal open. He looked at the Outlands once more, where his old friend was hiding, probably together with Tron by now. They were not chased anymore: the Recognizers and light jets had been ordered back to the city. Now it was Alan’s duty to come back for him once the portal had been opened up again.
The energy waves intensified. Alan looked at the single figure outside of the beam: that familiar and yet unfamiliar face, that once unforgiving and now ready to forgive creature. Clu was standing there, almost casual, like someone who was not really concerned about the events that took place around him. Alan blinked. That one outside was not human – but was not a program either, not entirely. Then what was he? It was up to Alan to find out too.
Slowly, reluctantly he lifted his hands and held the disc above his own head.