The Portal was a maelstrom. The distant, star-like beacon had resolved itself into a massive vortex of light and wind, power crackling and channeling up and out with breathtaking force. Of course, the complex had been placed far from Tron City for that precise reason, but it was one thing to know and another thing to actually be in the middle of it.
Clu clutched the master disk in both hands, frozen on the bridge. A double-hex of steps forward, raise the disk as if the Portal was just another I/O tower, and he would be on the other side. No fuss. The translation process was, in itself, simple enough that the entire operation was controlled by a swarm of functions instead of a fully-realized program. Flynn had done it several hundred times. He was made to be Flynn’s copy, gifted with User code in his own matrix, and tenuously connected to the master disk itself thanks to carrying it this far. He could do this.
“Clu, you’ve got to actually walk in if you want to use the Portal,” Jalen said dryly, giving him a light shove forward.
“I thought you were waiting in the jet?” Clu said, tipping his head back to meet the taller program’s eyes as he dug his heels in. It was stupid. He was supposed to be going through. Had to, now, or Flynn was going to get stuck in the system and then where would they all be? The User could probably wipe the whole thing down to the last bit even without his disk. Getting trapped might be incentive to try, especially with the memory of that fleeting ugliness fresh in Clu’s files.
“I was waiting in the jet, but we have maybe an couple of microcycles left,” Jalen said logically, setting his hands and shoving Clu towards the column of searing light. The forward motion was unstoppable—Jalen massed quite a bit more than he did, and the sudden slide of his feet against the bridge argued that the ISO was using an exploit to alter the friction coefficient. He knew he shouldn’t have shoved Jalen in Tron’s direction when the architect had started making noises about competing in the Games. Tron cheated. Frequently.
“Wait! If you keep going you might--!” Clu started to say, the words nearly ripped away by wind as Jalen gave a last push forward and suddenly they were both standing in the beam.
“Just do it! We don’t have much time!” Jalen said, tugging at Clu’s arms, one of his rare intense stares focused squarely on the administrator. He was right, crash him, nanocycles ticking away faster than they ever had. With a muttered curse, Clu raised the disk, almost flinging it upward in hurry as his internal clock ticked down. They weren’t going to make—
The translation was instant.
Between one breath and the next, Clu’s senses folded inside-out, his awareness of the humming, living system around him blinking off like the sharp edges of a no-bit digging into his palm. What replaced it was silence, darkness, and a sense of weight that had not been there before. He held still, frozen and hoping that his senses were just temporarily glitched.
“Jalen?” he whispered, dread rising when he didn’t sense the other program’s energy in his proximity. There was no system link, no way to send a query or even something as simple as a ping to see if he was still in the registry. Was the Portal only made for one? Was Jalen fundamentally incompatible with the translation process? He was an ISO and there was still so much no-one understood about how they managed to function and interact with the system. Jalen could be derezzed and it was all his—
“Clu?” came the incredulous reply, and the admin could breathe again. “Where are you?”
“Here…” Clu said, cautiously sticking a hand out to feel around. Dim outlines were starting to resolve out of the darkness, a strange subliminal humming noise coming from somewhere in front of him. His seeking hand encountered something warm and moving, an internal cue pushing for more data as if he wasn’t quite getting full resolution from touch through his gloves anymore. Squinting, he looked up and saw the faintly reflective shine of Jalen’s eyes and the markings on his face, no longer glowing with their own energy. The ISO’s head was bowed to avoid brushing the low ceiling of the tiny room they’d materialized in, gold-washed light filtering in dimly from a window? lamp? near the hum’s origin.
“Oh,” Jalen said, “Sorry. I can’t ping you anymore.”
“So.. where are we?” Jalen said after an uncomfortable moment spent processing that. It was like a derezzed limb, functions already ticking over strangely without the data they were accustomed to. How did Flynn stand it?
“The User world,” Clu said a little more surely. The routine was firmly established and there was no reason to doubt that they had successfully translated. It was… oddly similar to the Grid so far—workspace dominated by a large terminal access point, the source of the humming noise and no doubt with a cluster of calls at the ready, and storage along the walls. The typical scatter of fragmented work-in-progress and cryptic notes that tended to accumulate in any workstation Flynn occupied for any length of time and… construction equipment? Or at least a miniaturized version, pointed at the terminal’s chair.
“This can’t be it,” Jalen said, running a hand back through his hair and making a face when his elbow almost ran into the ceiling.
“One thing at a time,” Clu said tiredly, “We need to find out what Flynn does here so that I can take his place.”
There was.. something pinned to the wall above the terminal, though it wasn’t any kind of display that Clu was familiar with. Scrawled boldly at the top was “The Grid” in Flynn’s handwriting, but it was like no system map Clu had ever encountered, even from the beginning. The User’s plans? There were other things pinned as well, colorful scraps of text that made little sense and a few image files. Hard to tell what would happen to the display if he touched it—did it work like any other call, or would the data be erased without a special password? The terminal was almost certainly secured, so there weren’t going to be any answers forthcoming there. Clu wasn’t sure what kind of authorizations he would need to hack in order to completely take over for Flynn, and with a regretful sigh he turned away to see what had absorbed his companion so thoroughly that there hadn’t already been an avalanche of questions.
Jalen had naturally gravitated to the construction laser. He handled it with the ease of long practice, humming absently as he took in the power cables trailing to the wall and the faint-glowing readouts at the back.
“I think this is the Portal,” he finally pronounced, “And it won’t be recharged for another… thirty minutes. What’s that in millicycles, though?”
“Three, assuming a steady system clock,” Clu said. That thing was the Portal on the User end? It seemed so… fragile. Jalen replaced it on the stand, making a face.
“Well, we did think this might take a while,” Jalen said after a moment.
“Let’s… look around,” Clu said slowly. The small workspace didn’t look likely to give up its secrets, and if it was partitioned logically the only information they’d find would relate back to what they already knew. Jalen immediately started looking for the door, ISO curiosity winning out, but Clu lingered, eyes caught by the strange system map again. It felt like a cipher, and if he could just understand it, he might be able to understand what was wrong. With everything.
“Ow.” Clu’s gaze went back to Jalen, where he was glaring at the door. It hadn’t opened automatically, but the ISO found the mechanism before Clu could point it out to him. The doorway was low, and Jalen ducked out with a noise of interest. Probably it was wise to follow. No telling how much trouble the architect could manage to get into, and that wasn’t factoring Jalen’s personal trouble magnet into the equation. With a last look back at the cryptic map, Clu headed out the door and into a narrow, dark staircase. There was a smear of light at the top through a small portal, and noise filtered down. Jalen was already nowhere in sight.
“Jalen?” Clu called, peeking out of the stairwell. It opened onto a cavernous room full of flashing, dizzyingly-colored lights and… boxes? that emitted the odd beeping and grinding noises he’d heard from the workspace entrance. They had strange, nonsensical labels, all except the one that hid the door to the workspace they’d materialized in. That was labeled Tron, and was apparently important enough that light proclaimed the fact the box with the security program’s designation was there right above.
Did Tron know about the thing? What was it for?
“Jalen?” The mishmash of color was giving Clu a headache, contradictory information flooding his processes. But this wasn’t the Grid and the boxes couldn’t possibly have allegiance to anything—they just sat there full of whatever mysterious purpose the Users had for them.
“Over here!” Jalen had located another stairwell, and Clu gratefully wove through the noisy, colorful confusion to follow. The ISO was the only normal thing around.
“It looks like these stairs lead up there,” Jalen said when Clu was closer pointing up to a bank of windows overlooking the floor of the room, “It looks like another workspace, maybe living quarters.”
“It can’t be any louder than here,” Clu said.
“Headache too?” Jalen said sympathetically as they clattered up the steps.
“I just hope we acclimate or it will be a long three millicycles,” Clu said.
“I hear you.. I’m starting to wonder what the attraction is,” Jalen said, a little more careful with the door mechanism this time. Thankfully the space—which turned out to be some kind of apartment—was proof against the sheer volume level of the place, which was worse than the End of Line.
There was a long, low couch at the bank of windows, a handheld call tossed carelessly among the cushions. More storage, much more ornate this time, that held a small collection of User clothes. Another terminal, locked, and what turned out to be file storage. Nothing seemed very well organized or collated, though at least the file storage indicated that Flynn’s function here had something to do with an entity named Encom and that he worked closely with a pair of Users named Alan and Roy… There was an entire small database of other Users on the desk, each logged by name and followed with a string of numbers and nonsensical phrases. Network addresses, maybe?
“It might take all three millicycles just to figure the data out,” Jalen said mournfully after he had taken charge of a rather large collection of files related to this Encom that Flynn was associated with.
“We don’t have anything better to do right now, and we can’t risk the other Users figuring out what’s going on,” Clu said, flipping through the User database again to bring it back to the start. At least the design of this file storage system made sense. “Besides.. you were the one who volunteered to come along.”
“Yeah, remind me not to do that in the future,” Jalen said, sticking his tongue out at Clu before diving back into the pile of papers.
“I will,” Clu said, sighing, “Assuming we get the chance.” A memory tag ghosted up through his calculations, marked as something appropriate to say in this exact kind of situation, and Clu blurted it without a second thought even though it was part of the ever-present junk data he carried around in memory from the way he had been compiled. Maybe it applied here.
“We’re not in Kansas anymore.”
“Where is Kansas?”
“I… have no idea.”