Today is your day.
You're off to Great Places!
You're off and away!”*
The hallway was dark upstairs. Light was coming through the glass wall of the large conference room; people were talking and clapping inside. The door of the stairway was closing behind Sam and he reached out to prevent it from locking with a loud noise. With the door secured, Sam hurried his way along the corridor. He glanced at the conference room. The board members were sitting around the large table, with their eyes on the giant projector in the other end of the room. A junior executive, a young, tall woman stood at the end of the conference table.
“Welcome, everybody,” she said. “Please, settle. I know it’s late, so I’ll skip the pleasantries and hand things over to our chairman, Alan Bradley,”
Sam was rushing. He did not meet anybody on his way to the server room. He opened the door with a forged ID card and he entered. The air was dry and cold inside. Sam pulled out a flashlight and took a look around. The room was larger than he had expected, filled by dozens and dozens of identical, black servers, with the ENCOM sign engraved on all of them. He walked through the room, searching for a specific server. Sam could not tell how much time he had left, but he knew that he could have triggered a silent alarm already. He found his server rack a few seconds later. He opened it quickly and attached his mobile device to it. The upload of the selected file began immediately.
The blaze of a flashlight appeared in the hallway, on the other side of the frosted glass wall which separated the server room from the corridor. The door opened with a beep and a security guard entered.
“I know you’re here,” the guard announced, panting. He must have run all the way here. “Let’s make this easy.”
Sam was staring at his device nervously. The uploading was still in process and the progress bar was moving excruciatingly slowly.
“Come on,” he whispered. “Come on.”
Finally the upload completed and Sam disconnected his device. He was running without closing the server rack: he ran across the towers sideways, to avoid the guard. Sam reached the door, pushed it open and he stormed out to the hallway.
On his way to the stairwell Sam passed the conference room once more. There was a commotion inside: on the projector there was Marv, Sam’s tiny Boston terrier barking instead of the flashy diagrams and digital maps, while the board members were leaning over their laptops and tablets, trying to locate the bug. At the end of the table Alan Bradley was standing and looking at the built-in terminal; contrary to the other board members he did not seem to be particularly surprised.
Sam was going upstairs. He doubted that he could make it to the street through the lobby or the back door he had used earlier and it had never been the plan anyway. The roof was empty. There was a newly installed crane on the top which Sam had no previous knowledge about. Were they going to install something big in the near future? There was no time to wonder about the question. Sam climbed up onto the crane and slowly made his way on the jib to the very end. There he stopped. He looked at the breathtaking view of the night city. The wind was blowing from the direction of the water. The sound of cars and a police siren filled the air.
Sam looked down. He was standing above the nothingness and from his perch he could see the glowing ENCOM sign on the top of the building.
“Hey dad,” he said to himself. “How are you doing?”
He let out a sigh and he waited.
“Where you gonna run to now?” the guard yelled at him. He was climbing up onto the crane to follow Sam.
“Hey, you don’t wanna do that,” Sam warned him. When he had made plans for tonight, he had not included the accidental death of an ENCOM employee.
“Didn’t anyone tell you? Stealing is wrong,” the security guard said. He was inching closer and closer to Sam on the jib.
“You can’t steal something that they were going to release for free ten minutes later anyway,” Sam replied.
“Now I’ve got you,” the security guard was gloating.
“Don’t sweat it, your boss is ok with it,” Sam said.
“The hell he is!”
“Your boss works for the CEO, and the CEO works for the shareholders. Now do you know who the biggest shareholder is?”
“Mr. Flynn,” the guard said with great confidence. They were close enough now for the guard to see Sam’s face. “You’re his son… Why? This is your father’s company.”
“Not anymore,” Sam said. He spread his arms and fell backwards. He turned mid-air and pulled at the toggle immediately. The parachute opened and his fall slowed down. Sam was yelling in excitement. He pulled at the steering toggle. The descent was quick and he expected to land close to his parked bike which he had left just around the corner.
His cheerful spirit evaporated a moment later when he realized that he was sailing directly toward a lamp post.
“Wow-wow-wow…,” he uttered as he was pulling at the toggles to avoid the collision. He managed to evade a direct hit, but the parachute became entangled with the lamp post and a moment later Sam found himself dangling above the street like a ripe fruit, ready for the arriving ENCOM security team to harvest. He saw a cab approaching from behind and he unlocked his west, just in time to drop on top of the passing vehicle. Sam grabbed the TAXI sign and was holding onto it when the vehicle did not stop after the impact. The driver looked up at him through the moonroof and cried out in frustration.
“What the…” the driver yelled and he began banging the moonroof from the inside with his fist. “Hey! No free ride! No free taxi! No fare!”
Sam laughed until the car started swerving when the driver began pulling the steering wheel left and right to throw off the unwanted passenger. Sam was hanging onto the TAXI sign for dear life. After a few seconds two police cruisers appeared ahead; each made a half-turn and they closed the street in front of the cab. The taxi driver hit the brakes and the cab came to a sudden stop. Sam was ejected and he rolled down on the hood and from there to the concrete. He was running: he jumped over the hood of the first police cruiser before the officers could have gotten out of the car and left the second one behind just as fast as well. Sam was running toward his bike. He had already accomplished everything he had planned for the night, including staying alive and being caught on the spot or getting arrested later did not make much difference, but he was running anyway.
A circle of bright light appeared around him and the deafening sound of a police helicopter filled the air. Sam looked up at the helicopter which was hovering above him. He stopped and the officers surrounded him.
“Hold it right there!” one of them yelled. “Freeze!”
“Ok, boys,” Sam replied. “You got me.”
An hour later he walked out from the police station with his helmet in his hand. It went quicker than he had expected; the station had gotten a phone call from ENCOM before the police cruiser with Sam had even gotten there, informing them that the company would not press charges. Sam walked downstairs and crossed the street to the impound lot. His bike was already staged next to the lot attendant’s booth; of course they knew the vehicle already… they knew him already. He would always be released in a matter of minutes, regardless of the sort of prank he had pulled, he would be let go as soon as the magical name – Flynn – would be mentioned.
The attendant was on the phone when Sam got there. He knocked on the window.
“Hey, Karl,” he said. The attendant hung up the phone.
“Hey, Sam. How are you doing?”
After a short stop at a grocery store he drove to the lake house. There was a car parked outside, which did not belong there. Sam sighed and went inside. Marv was lying on his pillow next to the shoe rack. Sam gave him the small pack of barbeque meat he had picked up at the store.
“Enjoy it, Marv,” he said. “You earned it.”
He went inside. Sam’s mother and Alan Bradley were sitting on the couch. Alan was wearing the same suit and tie he had had on for the board meeting. She was wearing jeans and flannel. They must have been waiting for him; and seeing his mother’s expression, Sam knew that she had been informed about the events that had taken place in the ENCOM tower.
“Hi, Mom,” he said. “Hi, Alan. Why are you here?”
“You don’t answer your phone and you weren’t in your apartment.”
“I got to stop by for Marv,” he replied.
“I heard you did a triple axel off a roof a few hours ago,” his mother said. She did not seem to be entertained.
“I’ve got all under control,” Sam replied. He had not expected to be cornered tonight and for now there was no way out in sight.
“Clearly,” Alan replied. “Jordan was telling me that your nightmares had started again.”
“Mom!” Sam uttered. He was rolling his eyes, but she was having none of it.
“I also thought that your message to the board was not very clever,” Alan said.
“You didn’t like it? It was Marv’s idea.”
“You know I guess what I find curious,” Alan said. “The crazy charities, the annual prank on the company. You sure have an interesting way of being disinterested.”
“He asked you to work for ENCOM. He’s been offering you the job for years. You know, might as well you could just take it, no need to try to get his attention by sabotaging a free software release and jumping off the roof.”
“Alan… Why are you here?”
Alan sighed and he stood up. He pulled out something from his pocket.
“I was paged last night,” he said, with the device in his hand. He was looking at Sam as if he was waiting for him to give himself away.
“Oh, man, still rocking the pager, eh?” Sam asked, relieved that the conversation took a different turn. “Good for you.”
“Yeah… The page came from your dad’s office at the Arcade.”
“That number had been disconnected for twenty years. Sam, is this part of your annual prank?”
“Will you believe me if I say no?”
“Right. Why don’t you just tell him about it, when he comes back from… wherever?”
“Tokyo. They are concluding their overseas meetings with our foreign associates. He will be back in two days. That would be a good time for you two to catch up and have a talk about your future.”
“I’m sorry,” Sam replied. “I’m tired, I smell like jail. Let's just reconvene in another couple of years, huh? What do you say?”
“Thanks for the tea,” he told her. “Good night.”
Outside the lights of the car turned on and the vehicle left a minute later. She was silent and Sam was waiting for the storm to start. But when his mother looked at him, her voice was calm.
“Are you alright?” she asked.
“Sure. They are just making a big deal…”
“He is right, you know,” she said. She was smiling, but behind the pleasant expression there was a tough surface, the face of somebody that had seen everything. So many years had passed, and even now, there would be journalists calling or showing up on her doorstep for an interview they would never get. Back in the days it was worse, with the headlines posted everywhere, “TECH MOGUL’S FLING WITH WAITRESS”, “IT’S A BOY FOR ENIGMATIC MILLIONAIRE KEVIN FLYNN AND MYSTERY GIRLFRIEND”, “JORDAN CANAS – WHO IS SHE?”
“Oh, Mom,” he said. It was getting really late for him.
“You’re having the dream again, huh?” she asked. Sam shrugged. “The same dream you used to have when you were seven.”
Sam shrugged again.
“It’s just a dream,” he said. His mother stood up and she came back with a can of cold beer. He accepted it happily.
“You know,” she said, “he used to talk a lot. Sometimes at night, when he would drop you off, he would stick around for a while and talk. He cracked it, he would say and would talk about genetic algorithms, quantum teleportation, how he was going to change everything, science, medicine, religion. As years passed he became less vocal, and we saw more of the action. People change. Then you started having the dream about him abandoning you. But he wouldn’t have done that… he didn’t do that. At that time the therapist said I should ask your father to be more involved, more present for you, which he did and eventually the dreams stopped.”
She reached out and touched his shoulder in a rare moment of physical affection.
“We never married,” she said, “because we didn’t want each other, not like that. But we both wanted you. He wouldn’t have left you, ever. Now it is you that’s keeping the distance by avoiding him, by not taking the position he offered. And I would understand that, if you simply didn’t want to be involved with the company; but then, why the pranks? Why the jokes that always has something to do with ENCOM? Which one will happen first, you getting along with him, or you, breaking your neck while performing some jump?”
Sam took a deep sip from the can. She let out a small laugh.
“It’s late,” she said and she stood up. “I put on sheets in your old room, you can sleep here, if you want.”
“Thanks,” he said. She went to her bedroom and it became quiet. Sam stood up and went to the window. It was dark outside, only the sound of the waves came from the direction of the lake. He was tired, but his mind would not stop racing and his thoughts were keep on going back to the conversation with Alan. Sam had not sent the mysterious page; he had not thought of the Arcade for years. It had been closed for twenty years now; when more and more people had bought home computers and games, interest had been lost for gaming machines. Flynn could never bring himself to sell the machines and the property, and the Arcade had stood shuttered ever since. Arcades were opening up again these days and would fill up with people once more – but Sam never heard his father talking about a possible reopening of Flynn’s Arcade.
Sam went to the large wooden chest at the wall. There was one drawer filled with old phone chargers and cell phones, batteries and keys. His mother had been planning to sort it out forever. After some fumbling Sam found a ring with the keys to the Arcade. He put his jacket on; patted Marv’s head on the way out and quietly locked the front door behind him.
Half an hour later he stopped his bike in front of the Arcade. Everything was dark and quiet; the surrounding buildings were all abandoned. Sam walked to the door and opened it with his key. He went inside. It was dark. He took out his flashlight and looked around. The fuse box was on the right. Sam opened it and turned the switches on. All the lights and gaming machines turned on at once, along with the music from the loudspeakers. Sam looked up. None of the lights were burned out and the floor… It was dusty, but it was not the dirt which would have gathered there during decades. Somebody was coming here, for routine maintenance, if nothing else.
Sam went upstairs to the office. It was empty; plastic covered the furniture and he could not see a telephone in the room. He went back to the first floor, ready to leave. As Sam looked around once more, a gaming machine in the back caught his eyes. The machine stood there under a large TRON neon sign which was applied to the wall. He walked there and pulled the plastic off the machine. ENCOM – TRON, the sign read on the top. On the screen a blue and a yellow light cycle were chasing each other. Sam smiled as if he was seeing an old friend. He took out a quarter and put it in the slot. The machine gave back the coin, which fell on the floor. Sam crouched down to pick it up and he felt scratch marks on the floor. The marks indicated that the machine was being moved aside rather frequently.
Sam straightened himself. He grabbed the machine and began pulling it. It slid aside easily, revealing a metal door behind. Sam took out his flashlight again and opened the door. There was a dark staircase and Sam went downstairs. He heard the music from the Arcade faintly though the walls. In the cellar there was a large door with the keys in the lock. There was a large room inside. Sam looked around and he saw shelves, computer appliances, servers and a workstation. On the wall there were pictures of Sam from throughout the years; on a few images he was together with his parents. He saw quite recent pictures there next to the old ones.
“Son of a…,” he whispered. The secret place belonged to his father, of course. Did that mean that it was Kevin Flynn that paged Alan? Flynn had been on his overseas trip for a week now; he could not have been the one. Or was this some sort of inside joke between his father and Alan Bradley, something that was meant for Alan anyway? Or possibly, could this be a prank they were pulling on him, on Sam, as a playful revenge for the headache he had caused to them?
He walked to the terminal. It was clean and black. Sam touched it and it came to life, revealing a digital keyboard. Sam sat down.
“$whoami,” he typed in the command prompt box.
“flynn,” the machine responded. Sam was sitting there, somewhat stunned. This machine, this room belonged to his childhood, to how things had been before he had grown up and he had learnt that heroes and magic did not exist, that there were only ordinary people, doing their best. He was working on the machine, trying get a log in or to locate a backdoor to figure out what sort of project his father was working on here. After a few minutes he managed to access the system history and a dialog box popped up.
< Yes > < No >
Sam blinked. He could never give a proper explanation to his mother or to Alan, he could never really tell them, why he could not make himself to take the job his father offered to him. He could not explain it to himself either, there was nothing tangible, except for the feeling he had first had when he had been a child, and which had poisoned their relationship ever since; the idea that they were not on the same team. But now, if he could just access the data on this computer, if he could just see what project his father was working on secretly – maybe that would give him, Sam some answers and a chance for a new start.
“You're off and away!”*
He pushed enter and the room disappeared.
“You will come to a place where the streets are not marked.
Some windows are lighted. But mostly they're darked.
A place you could sprain both your elbow and chin!
Do you dare to stay out? Do you dare to go in?
How much can you lose? How much can you win?”*
Sam gasped. He had felt a sudden pull and he must have blinked in surprise: and now, that he looked around, it seemed like as if the room had changed. His hands that were resting on the terminal moved, and he looked at the black surface. The keyboard had been clean when he had arrived, but it was now spotless. He saw bright light through the window and there came a roaring noise from the outside; but it was a strange, alien sound, not something of a car or a helicopter. Sam jumped on his feet.
He ran upstairs. Without looking around he stormed through the Arcade, out to the street. Sam was turning with eyes wide open. His bike was missing, yet this detail was his last concern. The streets… the streets had changed. The pavement was wet from the rain, but the surface was different now, smooth and black. There were bright lines of light on the road, on the sidewalk and on the surrounding buildings, as if the whole place was emanating energy from the inside – as if electricity was running though everything.
Sam looked up. The buildings were tall; skyscrapers replaced the two- and three-story buildings around Flynn’s Arcade. The walls were uneven with out-thrusts and breaks everywhere, defying gravity. On the buildings light blue energy lines were glowing; they reached up to the starless sky.
“This isn’t happening,” Sam whispered. He was standing in the middle of an intersection, with the dark Flynn’s Arcade behind him. He heard a sharp sound and he spun around. A vehicle was rolling down the street and the driver was honking at Sam to get out of the way. The car looked more or less like a real automobile, it was just flatter, with red circuits.
“Hey,” Sam said, waving at the driver behind the tinted windshield. He was hoping for the car to stop, so that he could ask some questions, but the vehicle started, went around him and left. There was lighting and an aircraft crossed the sky. Sam was staring at it with his head tilted back for long; he knew that it was a Recognizer, he knew that distinct shape from video games – yet it was different to see the giant ship now, hovering above. The Recognizer was floating there for a moment, with its searchlights scanning the area, and then it went away.
Sam looked after the Recognizer, somewhat disappointed. He was excited to find out more about this place, and he was looking for a hint. He could not even tell whether the car he had just seen had had a driver behind the wheel; what if there were only machines rolling and planes flying around? After a short debate he started walking in the same direction to where the car and the Recognizer had been heading.
He was walking fast, listening to the sound of his steps on the pavement, touching the walls of the various building as he went. It seemed real, it felt real.
“He actually did it,” he whispered to himself. “I’m on the Grid.”
This was the empire his father had used to talk to him about back in the days, in the days when everything had been so different.
“I tried to picture clusters of information moving through the computer,” Kevin Flynn would tell Sam as other fathers would tell a bedtime story to their kids. “What did they look like? Ships? Motorcycles? Were the circuits like freeways?”
Sam found himself recalling those words silently as he was walking down the street while catching sight of a passing vehicle here and there. He saw more traffic and he was hoping for an encounter with some of the locals... With a program? He could not even imagine. He had been around the age of seven when his father had stopped talking about the Grid. Little Sam would ask for more of the tales, but Flynn would just look at him with some incredulous look and would dismiss Sam as if his son was asking for something impossible or inappropriate.
“I kept dreaming of a world I thought I'd never see,” his father once said. “And then, one day…”
“You got in!” little Sam, who knew the story already, but enjoyed it every time anyway, exclaimed.
“That's right, man. I got in,” Flynn would laugh. “And the world was more beautiful than I ever dreamed, but also more dangerous than I ever imagined.”
Sam remembered and now, for the first time on the Grid after so many years of childish dreams, he considered those words once more. Was that a premonition, had something actually happened here, an incident, which had prompted his father never to talk about this place to Sam anymore? As Sam was growing up and was trying to make sense of the distance which was becoming larger and larger between the two of them, he thought that his father just changed – that Flynn realized that his tales of the Grid were silly and Sam was reaching an age when he would no longer believe or would be interested in such stories. But then, it was not just stories: the Grid did exist. Maybe, Sam was thinking, maybe his father did not want a child to get involved in experiments with a digitizing laser and rather than trying to convince his son, he would just lock Sam out. Or perhaps, just perhaps, could this place be really dangerous, was it possible that it was no actually safe for Sam to be here? Before he could have given that option a second thought, Sam spotted a few people walking ahead of him and he started running.
“Hey,” he yelled. The small group stopped and they turned at Sam, who caught up with them quickly. All of them looked like ordinary people, men and women, except for the circuit pattern on their clothes and on their skin. They were looking at Sam curiously, some of them even smiled politely. They were looking at his back, Sam noticed; contrary to him, everybody in the group was wearing a round disc, attached to a port on their backs.
“Hey,” he said again. “Are you guys…”
He fell silent, unable to find the right words at once.
“Does the name Kevin Flynn mean anything to you?” Sam asked the program closest to him. They exchanged some looks in a fashion people in Sam’s world would do when a drunken person would try to make a conversation with them on the street.
“Uh, sure?” one of them answered. They started walking again and Sam went with them.
“Where are you guys going?” he asked.
“To the port,” a woman answered. She was carrying a device similar to a data pad. Sam could not look into in without being obvious, but he made a mental note of it. He expected to see some sort of shore with ships and for that he was surprised when a few minutes later they walked out to a gigantic square, which was surrounded by tall buildings with no water or similar substance around. The construct in the middle was a large, horizontal stand with one deep, angular hole in it. There were hundreds of programs working on the site, which appeared to be a construction in its last phase. From under the stand there were thousands and thousands of cables coming out; they went under the smooth, transparent floor and connected the construct to the surrounding buildings. The towers around were all high-rises, similar to office buildings, just taller, larger than such structures would be in Sam’s home world. The most astonishing part of the picture was not the construct, the towers, the mere size of the project, the sheer number of programs working on it, but the large, red globe rotating above. It was the 3D projection of planet Earth; glowing red lines traced out the continents and the orb was rotating slightly tilted, counterclockwise.
“What the…” Sam whispered. The group of programs he had come with had left already; they had joined the workers onsite. He looked around and he saw some heavy equipment parked nearby. Sam walked there quickly and he climbed up onto a machine which resembled to an excavator. From up there he looked down at the construct in the middle, under the 3D planet. It was a port; a computer port, giant in its size, getting ready to get the Grid connected to another computer.
“There he is!” somebody yelled and Sam turned around. A group of armed guards were rushing toward him. They were wearing heavy armor, helmet and they were carrying long staffs. They all had red circuits and they all seemed to be very unhappy with Sam. He started climbing down from the machinery quickly.
Two guards grabbed his arms.
“This program has no disc,” one of them stated. “Another stray.”
“Wait,” Sam protested as they were dragging him to a nearby vehicle. “Wait, I am not a program…”
The guards did not stop; for the second time in one day Sam was thrown in the back of a vehicle.
The trooper stopped behind a smaller building somewhere in the city center. There was heavy traffic outside on the street and above. Sam saw several other vehicles arriving; they were all unloading programs that appeared to be detainees as well. The yard where the troopers stopped was surrounded by high fence and there were red guards everywhere. The captured programs were lined up. Some of them looked unusual; many missed a limb or looked sick. Others had more or less regular appearance. One of them was mumbling incoherently. Sam turned to the one standing right next to him, a robust program in a black cape.
“What’s his problem?” Sam asked. The tall program looked at him and he let out a feral growl. Half of his face was missing. Sam gulped and looked ahead.
A red officer walked there, followed by two armed guards. He went to the first program in the line and looked at them closely.
“Rectify,” the officer said and he moved onto the next captive. After a moment of inspection the Red gave out the same sentence to all of them. Most of the programs did not react to the verdict, while some bowed their heads – none of them was surprised. They were all stray programs, Sam figured, and they were about to get reformatted and put back to work.
“Okay,” Sam said when the Red got to him, “I know you probably get this a lot, but there’s been a big mistake…”
The officer was staring at him from behind his dark visor. For a moment Sam almost expected the same verdict to be announced, but the Red was just looking at him. Finally the officer stepped back and gestured at another program behind. The third program, a tall one with red circuits and a helmet that covered his face, came there. He was equipped with two batons; for those and for his assertive stance Sam thought he could be some sort of warrior. He looked at Sam and shook his head silently.
“Identify yourself, program,” the first officer told Sam.
“I’m not a program,” he replied. “My name is Sam Flynn.”
The programs did not respond. The two captives on Sam’s two sides pulled farther from him quietly and the officer looked at the two guards that were accompanying him.
“Bring him,” he said. The guards grabbed Sam’s arms and they led him inside the building. They took an elevator to an upper floor.
“I’ve gotta see the guy in charge,” Sam said when they were in the cubicle. Nobody answered him and the doors of the elevator opened a moment later. There was one single, large room occupying that floor. Programs were working at separate terminals and they looked up at the guards as they entered the place. The officer walked to a program in the other end of the room and they exchanged a few words. They came back to Sam and the program, that seemed to be in charge, looked Sam up and down with hostile expression on his face. The program was bald, he was wearing a transparent visor and he had red circuitry, as all the other programs in the room.
“Who are you?” Sam asked him. The program did not respond, but he reached out and touched Sam with one finger, the way people would inspect a weird-looking insect or rodent. They were trying to identify him, Sam thought, with no luck.
“Come on,” he said. “Do you know my father? Kevin Flynn?”
The programs looked at each other. Much to Sam’s surprise his words did not make them lighten up.
“Wait here,” the program with the visor told Sam and he walked away to talk to the guards. Sam had no intention to comply, but the two guards that had escorted him here stayed there and closed his way out. He shrugged and turned at the window, which covered the whole wall. From this upper level perch the view of the Grid was stunning and Sam was watching it quietly. The city was enormous and he could not see the end of it. Vibrant, blue light filled everything and the rotating red globe above a few miles away piqued Sam’s attention once more. The Grid server was in a remote location under the Arcade; yet it seemed like they were about to connect it to another system. Suddenly Sam recalled the moment when he had stepped out to the roof of the ENCOM building, when he had seen the crane up there.
He blinked and turned away from the window. He looked around and he saw that the red warrior was still there and was watching him curiously. Sam was wondering if he could ask him a few questions, but the program was standing farther away, and the guards were stationed between them.
“Are we waiting for somebody?” Sam asked loudly, without getting an answer. He turned back to the window, trying to kill time. He was watching the digital landscape and for the first time now he noticed the beam of light far away in the distance. It was a vertical column of light, so afar that he could barely make it out.
A smaller ship crossed the view and it docked on the side of the tower. A few minutes later the door of the room opened and a group of programs arrived. There were four heavily armed guards, each with two batons and several round grenades attached to their armor. Between them a fifth program was standing. He was wearing a white suit with grey accents; his circuitry was light blue. He was also wearing a short, hooded cape, which hid his face. They had been waiting for this program, Sam figured; for that fact and for the presence of the elite bodyguards he believed this program to be in charge here.
“Hey, you,” he pointed at the program, who looked at him. Sam could not see his face, but the program stopped walking. One of his guards reached out and hustled him roughly toward Sam. Those were not bodyguards, Sam realized – they were wardens. His impatience and anger evaporated at once. The small group crossed the room and stopped next to the bald program with the transparent visor. The latter one looked at the prisoner and then pointed at Sam.
“Identify him,” he said. After a moment of hesitation the program in white walked to Sam. He lifted his left hand and put it on Sam’s chest. Sam felt a tingling sensation, a tiny electric discharge.
“He is a User,” the prisoner said. He had a youthful voice, unknown for Sam, but there was something in the program’s posture or in the fact that he had reached out to Sam with his left hand, that gave Sam the impression that he knew this program. He reached out at the hood, which was hiding the prisoner’s face, but the program pulled his hand back and turned away slightly with a sad, resigned motion. The move was so much of a silent plea that Sam stopped.
“And?” the bald program asked.
“He is our Master’s ally,” the prisoner responded. “That’s all you need to know.”
The bald program did not seem to appreciate the answer. He nodded at one of the wardens; the guard reached out and grabbed the prisoner’s arm through the white cape. A moment passed, and then another one and the prisoner let out a painful little sound. The guard let him go, satisfied. Sam looked at the program in white. That small hiss came one moment late; the program had not given in because he could not stand the pain, but to allow the Reds what they wanted, to cut the scene short, so that Sam did not have to see this. Sam became very alert at once.
“If he is here,” the prisoner said, “then he is here for a reason. You already interrupted his mission and by now he must know not to trust anybody. Let him be on his way home.”
The program was talking to the Reds, but he was turned at Sam and Sam understood that he was speaking to him without actually addressing him. Just then Sam realized that the program was trying to save his life.
The bald program with the visor dismissed the wardens that took the prisoner and began to leave.
“Hey,” Sam said suddenly, talking to the program in white. “What am I supposed to do?”
The program stopped. He did not turn back, but he did answer the question.
The Recognizer landed at the end of the platform. The bridge got lowered and Sam stepped down from the vehicle. It had been a long flight from the city and now he was standing on an empty bridge, far away from the city. The Recognizer lifted up. Sam looked at the column of light glowing at the end of the platform, then down, at the stormy, black sea. The Reds must have thought that he would know what to do once delivered here; and there was no way for Sam to ask for instructions. He sensed that he had been lucky that they had let him go at all.
He began walking at the light, hoping dearly that he understood what he was supposed to do, that this was some sort of a way out from the Grid. He walked into the shining column of energy and he waited. He saw the Recognizer floating away and he let out a relieved sigh. A moment later he felt a sharp pull and when he opened his eyes, he was back in the dusty room under Flynn’s Arcade.
Sam gasped. He was turning wildly and then he reached for his phone. He wanted to dial Alan Bradley or his father immediately – then he stopped. He remembered.
“He must know not to trust anybody,” the nameless prisoner had told him, and Sam felt genuinely compelled to do so. He looked down at the touch screen. There were white numbers blinking on the black screen. Sam was watching it for a moment before he understood. It was a countdown.
“And IF you go in, should you turn left or right...
or right-and-three-quarters? Or, maybe, not quite?
Or go around back and sneak in from behind?
Simple it's not, I'm afraid you will find,
for a mind-maker-upper to make up his mind.*”
Sam stirred and he opened his eyes. The light of the early morning sun was coming from the living room downstairs. He sat up in the bed suddenly. The memories from the night before were vivid; the break-in to ENCOM, the fall from the roof, the Grid… Sam looked around; he instinctively reached out and touched the wall. It felt solid, ordinary.
He climbed down from the sleeping gallery. It was quiet in the apartment without his dog being around. When he had left the Arcade last night Sam had meant to drive to her mother’s house and tell her about his adventure. But there were many reasons why he had decided against it. It was late night, almost early morning and he would have woken her up with a story that was going to be hard to believe; and Sam wanted her to take him seriously for this one. And he needed some rest as well; he needed a very clear head. Later that day Kevin Flynn was going to arrive home from his business trip and by then Sam had to figure out what was going on. It had been years since he had had a real conversation with his father, but now time was of the essence. The blinking countdown was before Sam’s eyes ever since he had stormed out from the Arcade; the computer was counting to zero and at the time of Sam’s return from the system there was a bit less than 48 hours remaining.
What was going to happen, when the countdown reached zero, Sam was asking himself. But then, he knew the answer, after seeing the port in construction and the freshly installed crane on top of the ENCOM building: they were going to move the server from the Arcade to the ENCOM building and they were going to connect it to the network. And then, what? What projects the programs of the Grid could be working on? And more importantly, what effect would it have of inserting a whole society of self- conscious programs into the established computer network of ENCOM?
Sam was riding across the morning rush hour traffic. He was thinking of how he would present this story to his mother. She knew little about computers; she only had a smart phone, because Sam had bought her one – she had had Sam setting up her emails on the phone, but ended up not using any of the features anyway. She had few common interests with Flynn, one of those being the passion about bikes. Sam’s Ducati had used to belong to his father, but Flynn had stopped using it many years ago and it had been in storage until Sam discovered it. He became fond of the bike later, but initially he had taken it out of spite, because he had wanted to see if it would bother his father – just to find out later, that Flynn did not care about it.
It was like that all the time, Sam was thinking, as he was making his way through the city. There were no arguments, anger or any sort of aggression along the road as they had grown apart. It was always the small things, nuances, which made Sam feel that his father was not there for him anymore. He could never quite explain it when other people asked him about his constant aggravation. Did he hurt you, his mother would ask little Sam upon first noticing his uneasiness, did he say something to you? But the answer was always no, as Flynn had never even raised his voice at him.
There was an incident many years before: Sam was around eight and he had already started to feel the shift in their relationship with his father. Not being able to figure the problem, little Sam began to challenge his father in various ways. He talked back to Flynn in front of other people, he disobeyed his father’s requests, just to see the reaction he could provoke. One day they were out at the playground together. Sam was pushing his PK Ripper bike; he had been learning stunts and he had initially planned to impress his father. When they got to the bike and skate ground, Sam saw that many older kids were there already with their BMXs, performing stunts that he was yet to learn. With a sudden change of heart Sam pushed his bike to the edge of a huge concrete bowl.
“I’ll show you something,” he told his father. Flynn walked there, looked down at the deep practice bowl and he shook his head.
“Don’t do it,” he said. “You will fall.”
That was the first time since months that Flynn asked Sam not to do something. Sam glanced down; he had never trained at such a massive bowl, but his father’s resistance made him fiery.
“I’ll do it,” Sam said. “Watch me.”
“You can’t make it,” his father said. “Go to that other field with those rails.”
Flynn was talking to him calmly, without emotion. He must have been concerned, or else he would not have warned Sam not to go; but at the same time Flynn was standing there relaxed, as if he did not care all that much.
“I want to do it,” Sam said.
“It’s not a good idea,” his father replied. Sam turned away from him and pushed his bike ahead. There was a single moment, when Flynn could have caught him, had he tried, and when he did not act, Sam jumped on his bike. He knew that he would fall in the moment he crossed the edge, for the bowl was too deep and it was not for bikes anyway. He was wearing a helmet and protective gear, but the force of the impact almost knocked him out. Sam was sure that he had broken a few bones and from the shock he began crying. The other bikers and skaters gathered around him, asking him if he was alright. With tears of pain in his eyes Sam was looking for his father and he saw Flynn behind the crowd of kids. Flynn was there, laughing so badly that he almost collapsed. Little Sam got so angry at his reaction, that he forgot about the fall and his own panic and stopped crying.
Afterwards Flynn drove him to the doctor and he had Sam checked out – but save for some scratches and the shock, Sam was fine. Flynn did not say anything; he did not scold Sam for jumping, he did not complain about having to pay for the private emergency room. That was something Sam would notice again and again throughout the years; even though they were rich, his father had used to teach him about the value of money. But that changed; Flynn would just pay for whatever bills presented to him, doctors, schools, field trips, all the travels, charities, the container house, lawyers. He was generous and Sam would have appreciated that – except for he felt that Flynn did all that because it was easier for him to hand out the checks than to be emotionally present.
Later that day, when his mother got home, she noticed Sam’s scratches. She asked about his injuries and Sam told her about the fall.
“Wasn’t your father there?” she asked. She was still wearing her jeans and black leather jacket, her motorbike helmet was in her hand.
“Why didn’t he tell you not to go there?”
“He told me a couple of times...”
Jordan looked at him as if she was wondering whether little Sam had lost his mind.
“I see,” she said and she went to change.
Sam stopped his bike. He was standing in front of the lake house. He got off the bike, took his helmet off and walked to the door.
“Do you remember the last time you’ve been at the Arcade?” Sam asked. They were sitting at the dining table with their coffee cups. Marv was lying on the floor, satisfied with the bacon bits received from the breakfast table.
“It must be twenty years or so,” she replied. “It was still open at that time.”
She spoke casually, without looking at Sam. He felt assured that his mother had no knowledge of the server room downstairs.
“You should talk to him when he gets home,” she said.
“About what?” he asked, somewhat puzzled.
“I don’t know. Maybe about his latest offer to take a job at the company.”
Sam rolled his eyes.
“Jet…” Jordan started.
“The traitor?” Sam asked, but he could not suppress his laugh.
“Is he?” his mother asked. She laughed too. Jet Bradley, Sam’s longtime accomplice and partner in crime when it came to pulling pranks on ENCOM. But Jet caved in: a year earlier he accepted a job at ENCOM and he bought a suit. By now he was senior advisor at the company and he rented an apartment in one of the new high-rises in downtown. Sam would never understand his change of heart: Jet Bradley would still call him on the phone and invite Sam to places where they had used to hang out together and as time passed Sam felt that his reluctance only painted him, Sam as childish, someone that was unwilling to grow up. Jet was with Flynn on the business trip in Asia, both scheduled to arrive home later that day. But was Jet aware of the existence of the office under the Arcade? Sam wondered.
“No, not really,” Sam said. He put down his cup. “I think they are working on something new. Something different.”
“They always do,” Jordan replied.
“No, I mean…” Sam fell silent. He had not really listened to his mother, he realized. He had thought he knew it better, because he knew computers – but it was Jordan that had the answers. “Do they?”
“They do everything,” she said. “But you know that.”
“Yes. ENCOM is the main supplier of schools in the nation, public and private. The first operation system one learns is the ENCOM OS on their free ENCOM tablets.”
“But that’s not how they make money,” Jordan said.
“No, they charge schools for a nominal fee. So the money comes from all the other ventures. The stock market softwares, the tax calculators, the navigation and GPS programs for airlines and automobile companies and…”
Sam fell silent. He knew it – he had always known it, he had just never put the whole picture together. There was not a single aspect of life untouched by the presence of computers; and ENCOM had software for everything.
“They can not be proficient in so many different fields,” he uttered.
“But they are,” his mother said. “He is. You know… Three years ago your father did warn me not to start my own business.”
“Did he?” Sam asked. They never spoke about it, for it was a painful spot for her and now Sam was listening curiously.
“When I told him that I was quitting my job and starting my own restaurant, Flynn told me to wait. He told me that the market was going to crash and that it was not a good time to open a new place. But I didn’t listen. It was 2007, the city was booming, there was no sign of any sort of coming breakdown. I just saved up enough so that with the loans I could open the place I’d been wanting for so long. I was getting tired of standing behind the counter and I didn’t want to start my own business when it was time for me to retire. So I opened the restaurant. Came 2008, businesses crashed and people lost their jobs. Nobody had money to go out, let alone to support a new restaurant. “
Jordan fell silent. Sam remembered that time: she had not just lost the restaurant, but her apartment as well, when she had fallen behind with the mortgage payments. She would never accept any money from Sam; but soon after she moved in the lake house. The house had been empty since Flynn’s mother’s passing and when Jordan moved there, Sam began to think of his parents getting together. But then, Jordan and Flynn remained in the same friendly terms they had always been.
“He offered me the house,” his mother said, as if she figured what Sam was thinking about. “He said he was not going to sell it and that it was empty anyway. First I wanted to refuse, as I never wanted other people’s pity. But he wasn’t sorry for me; he would have accepted the refusal just the same.”
Sam blinked. The same thing had happened to Jordan and him, Sam, he realized: they would make a bad decision and his father would warn them against the misstep. But both Jordan and Sam would go against his rational advice; one would start a business at the wrong time and the other would attempt an impossible trick with a bike. And when they would fail, Flynn would simply be there to help them on their feet. It was more than most people would do for others, yet there was something wrong: that Kevin Flynn, the one Sam wanted to remember, the one that probably never existed, would have caught them before they fell.
“And the truth is, I didn’t want to start everything all over, not at that age,” Jordan said. “So I accepted the house, along with the annuity he attached to it. He didn’t have to give any of that and normally I wouldn’t have accepted it. But at that point I just lost all my life savings and my inspiration to go on in general. So I said yes, this time.”
Sam nodded. His father had proposed when they had found out that Jordan had been expecting – Sam was told that when he was bigger. But they were not even together anymore at that time and she refused. There was something bitter in the way she spoke now and Sam suddenly understood her.
“You love him!” he said, stunned. While he had seen both his parents to be happy and content with their independent lives, as a child he had sometimes wished for them to get together – when it had not happened, he had just forgotten about it.
“Right,” she said. “Twenty-five years late I learned that love is not necessarily an always burning passion, but to have somebody that genuinely cares. I always did have a great timing as you can see. And it really doesn’t matter anymore.”
“Well… maybe…” Sam fell silent. They rarely talked about their private lives and it did not feel appropriate for him to give advice to his mother.
“It’s gone,” she said. “Way too late, and that’s fine. Even if the timing would be right, he has somebody.”
“He does? The paparazzi are always sniffing around him and they never…”
“You just… know it. And again, it really doesn’t make any difference.”
Sam slowly nodded.
“So he knew about the stock market crash, before it even happened,” he said. “Only a few people predicted it, and those were financial professionals. So how did he know?”
“I’m sure they have programs for everything by now,” she said.
Sam looked at the clock and then down at his dog.
“Would you mind,” he asked his mother, “if I leave Marv here for just a few more hours?”
The abandoned Arcade was different now, at daytime. Some sunlight was seeping through the cracks of the shutters and the sound of traffic came from the street. Sam had parked his bike farther away, walked to the Arcade and waited until there was no vehicle in sight before he opened the front door. Kevin Flynn had kept the existence of the office in secret for many years, despite of being followed by fans and photographers most of the time – Sam had no intention of giving anything away without actually knowing what was going on.
He went downstairs and approached the terminal carefully. Sam felt admiration: whatever was this, whatever the Grid was doing, this idea, this invention was groundbreaking. Science could be cold, hard to grasp; and what Kevin Flynn did here reminded Sam how much his father had influenced generations of people. Flynn was a programmer; he had a job which was not necessarily associated with the spotlight, but he managed science to look… cool. Not by showing kids the wealth one could generate, not by flashing helicopters and sport cars, but by making studying, schools and doing math fashionable for the first time. ENCOM would give tablets to students, with applications instructing users how to use applications and eventually, how to write their own programs. There would be weekly Easter egg hunts; for kids to find the cues, they would have to solve puzzles and math riddles – and finding an egg could have very easily gotten one a scholarship. Flynn got people getting off the couch, going out, being involved, not by promising them a gift, but with giving them the sense of adventure.
Sam sat down and looked at the screen. Instead of initiating the laser transmission, he opened the root directory. After searching for a while he found the computer history files, dating back from 1983. That revelation stopped Sam for a moment: the Grid was as old as him, and Flynn had been coming here for twenty-seven years. Sam mumbled under his breath. There was an astounding amount of data and he did not have that much time; any minute now the ENCOM private jet would land at the airport. Flynn would know that Sam had come here and entered the Grid, and while Flynn would likely not be furious, especially now, that the existence of the computer would go public in two days anyway, Sam still needed answers.
He searched for the data stamp of his own arrival to the Grid last night. There were millions of pages of system history, names of uncountable programs: Sam had no way of making sense of the information without having a point of reference, without using his own short visit as a point of reference. He found the data: there was his entry and exit points, and within that, the words he had spoken, his actions and the list of the programs he had interacted with.
Sam scrolled down to find the transcription of the events in the office building. From the text he learnt that the name of the hostile, bald program was Jarvis – it did not mean anything to Sam. He read more and in the next moment he felt grateful that he was seated, for he would have likely dropped on the floor when he saw the name of the program they had brought to identify Sam.
TRON JA 307020.
Sam leant back in the chair. That name brought him back suddenly to the lake house, twenty years before.
“Now, I met a brave warrior,” Flynn told his usual bedtime story, while tucking little Sam in the bed.
“Tron!” Sam said happily. His father handed Sam his Tron action figure; the circuits of the doll lit up when Sam turned the switch on. “He fights for the Users.”
“He sure does. Oh man, he showed me things that no one had ever imagined, disc battles fought in spectacular arenas and cycles that raced on ribbons of light. So radical. And together…”
“You built the Grid.”
“We built a new Grid, for programs and users.”
Sam was staring at the screen. He was stunned; as a child he had always believed that Tron existed. Later, when he was growing up and his father would no longer talk to him about the Grid, Sam would slowly give up on that belief – as an adult he would find it laughable. Now, after last night’s adventure, after looking at the name on the screen, Sam felt as if a weight had been lifted off of his chest, as if something, that had been wrong with his world, was fixed at once. Yet, it did not make sense: sure, Tron was trying to save him, a User, but the program was imprisoned. Why would Flynn do such a thing to a friend, to somebody that had helped him building the whole place?
Sam was sitting there and his mind was racing. He was thinking about going back to the Grid now; he would be careful this time and he would get the answers he needed. With going in the system he would also win some time, time, that he desperately needed before encountering his father.
Once he made up his mind, Sam was getting ready for the departure. He was already activating the laser, when he remembered, that he could take a look at the system map before the transmission, to get a better idea of the layout of the system in order to avoid capture. He opened up the file and a large map appeared on the screen. In the middle there was the enormous Tron City, with the port in the very middle. Sam was scrolling through the districts, trying to memorize as much as it was possible. Beyond the bright city there was a dark, surrounding area, and some blurry dots toward the edge of the screen. The computer identified the area as the ‘Outlands’. Out of curiosity Sam magnified the section with the dots and he found some names that must have stood for various programs. Then…
Sam blinked. Then he blinked once more. He reached out and touched the name to see the last modification date. It was 20 years, 11 months and 20 days ago – in the year 1989. There was no other information popping up, no reference to whether the file was some sort of digital footprint of Kevin Flynn, if it was a program, randomly named Flynn, or… Sam shook his head. There could have been many explanations, yet there was only one, which was true and Sam had known the answer for twenty years. His father had been on the Grid since 1989.
Sam looked up at the small rectangle of the window, at the pale, filtered sunlight.
But who came back from the system 20 years ago? Who is there on that plane now?
Please note the new tags, warnings and the changed rating.
“Oh, the places you'll go! There is fun to be done!
There are points to be scored. There are games to be won.
And the magical things you can do with that ball
will make you the winning-est winner of all.
Fame! You'll be as famous as famous can be,
with the whole wide world watching you win on TV.
Except when they don't
Because, sometimes they won't.
I'm afraid that some times
you'll play lonely games too.
Games you can't win
'cause you'll play against you.*”
His eyes opened. The plane must have been hit by turbulence and it must have woken him up – or was it the nightmare? He had noticed that he dreamed of the coup when he was under intensified pressure, like recently. His single seat was next to a window, and through the glass sunlight fell on his hand on the armrest. He glanced down at the aged hand, sticking out from the sleeve of the bespoke suit.
He looked up. A flight attendant noticed that he woke up and she came there with a tray to offer refreshments. He accepted a glass of water; he thanked for it and the stewardess went away with a smile. He looked at the other passengers of the plane. They were all ENCOM associates, programmers, consultants and attorneys. Some of them were sitting and working on their laptops, others were dining and a few were chatting with each other. They had had a successful trip and now they all seemed to be relaxed. He could tell that most of them were flying on a private jet for the first time: they were making selfies, photos of the catered food and the view from the window to post them on social media. Because of the size of the group it had been an economical choice to use a private jet instead of flying them commercial. The associates did a good job: most of them were young idealists that wanted to be part of whatever vision ENCOM represented for them – they worked hard throughout the business trip. This was the endgame and they were not even aware of it. In a mere few days the world as they knew it was going to end and the new one these people had helped him to build would emerge.
His cell phone made a beep. He looked for the device and found it in the pocket of his overcoat, which hung from the seat. He rarely used that phone for calls and there were only a few notifications coming to this device. There were two automatically generated messages waiting on the screen; the first had come about seven hours earlier and the second one arrived just now. He must have missed the sound of the first notification; he had probably been talking to somebody in the ENCOM crew, away from his seat when it had come. The messages had been sent to him by the secondary computer system under the Arcade. He had built the back up computer system which was not actually connected to the Grid, in the beginning on the ‘90s. The new, much smaller and simpler system was there as an emergence measure: it would switch itself and the Grid on a battery, in case of a power outage, it would shut down the main computer before damage would occur in case of mechanical failure, such as overheating and it would activate the Shiva laser from the outside in case he was on the Grid and the Portal would close without him, exiting. It was also connected to the small, hidden security camera which was installed above the office door. The camera was motion activated; the secondary computer system would send out a picture and a notification to his cell phone. There were two messages on his phone, for there had been two entries. Sam Flynn had come the night before and then again this morning. He closed the phone and put it back to the pocket.
He leaned back in the chair. From where he sat he saw Jet Bradley talking on his phone passionately. He was probably talking to a supplier; he seemed to be impatient. Jet had been offered the job simply because he was good at it, not because he was trying to get Jet tangled in some obscure scheme; he was not making associations… or he did it rarely. Now, so close to the end, he let his mind wander and play with the idea, that Jet Bradley knew very little of the real purpose of this business trip – that Jet knew nothing of the Grid and its inhabitants down there.
He closed his eyes.
They were fighting. Clu was on the ground, getting punched repeatedly by the raging security program on top of him. For a moment he felt numb; not because of being overpowered for the time being, but because of the realization that his poor planning could cost him the final victory. He had brought only a few guards, when he could have brought an army: and he could have been dead by now, had Tron thrown his disc instead of tackling him.
From the corner of his eye he saw the User jumping on his feet and running away. Furiously Clu moved; he slammed the security program against the floor and he rose quickly. Tron was coming at him again already; Clu gave him a stunning blow of energy and the program collapsed. Clu unlocked his own disc, raised it and brought it down with full force. It all went silent suddenly. He turned around, scanning the area, but the User was gone.
He summoned the guards. After receiving their instructions, most of them left to track down Flynn. Others took off with orders they would deliver to the Red troops, which would now begin their long awaited duty and clean the Grid from the ISO virus. Before leaving the scene Clu saw two guards carrying Tron’s lifeless body away.
The tanks rolled out to the street, with the Red army marching along. Programs looked at them curiously, some of them with fear in their eyes. They looked at Clu, the system administrator for explanation. He stopped and the war machines followed suit.
“Greetings, programs,” Clu said. “We’re going to create the perfect system.”
And he watched the city being cleaned up from the infection; he watched the white tower of Arjia crumble. It was a task Flynn was too weak, too corrupted to carry out, even when he had seen the Grid breaking apart under the pressure the multiplying virus put on the system. They were being erased now – but as they were moving from block to block, district to district and the troops failed to locate the User, there would be new questions arising. Clu had expected to capture Flynn at the beginning and there was no backup plan for the scenario where they failed… where the Portal closed on all of them. Initially it was only a concern, as the army moved ahead and took control of larger and larger portion of the city – but what had begun as a disturbing thought, would become a real, terrifying option as time would pass and there would be no trace of the User. The light of the Portal seemed to be fading in the distance. There were Recognizers hovering around the brightness, ready to divert any approaching aircraft, should the User make a run for it – but there was not an attempt. As he stood there on the ruins of a building, which had been sheltering rebels just moments before, overlooking the empty Grid floor beyond the city limits, Clu were informed that Flynn had been seen fleeing to the Outlands.
They fought against the remaining ISOs and other rebels, programs that had been misled and had joined the insurgency. And it was rewarding; Clu felt the Grid becoming alive again, after cycles of overwhelming influx of ISOs. But he also knew that this victory could soon turn into the worst defeat, should they be unable to find Flynn, should the Portal close. There was nothing he could do anymore: the Outlands was vast, obscure; finding somebody there would have been a long, tedious task if not impossible – and there was very little time left before the light of the Portal would go out.
Clu watched the glowing column from the window of the administration tower with growing dismay. The city was silent in front of his feet. He had won, but now his worst fears seemed to becoming reality as the Portal was closing for good. Surely, the Grid would survive, but from that point the end would be inevitable, regardless of the way it would come, by losing power or by being discovered by other Users and being shut down.
He turned away from the glass and walked out from the room. His people would not dare to approach him as he was striding through the halls. Downstairs, under the administration building he stopped at one door and opened it. The cell behind was small and bare. Tron was lying on the floor unconsciously. There was a deep, open wound above his shoulder, where Clu’s disc had hit him, nearly severing his arm. His helmet was activated, indicating that the program had awakened earlier, but he had passed out again from his devastating injury. Clu went there and took the program’s disc. He was shaking from the anger, but he made the necessary adjustments swiftly and put the disc back to the program’s port. The deep cut on the program’s body began to glow and it closed; the blue circuitry gained strength and reached its normal intensity. The program shook and let out a small gasp. His face was hidden behind the helmet, but the frightened, little sounds he made revealed that he was awake now. He was almost fully paralyzed, for Clu had restricted most of his functions.
Clu reached there, grabbed the program’s helmet on both sides and slammed it against the floor forcefully.
“Why did you fight?” he asked, without allowing an answer. He knew the answer anyway; Tron was too corrupted to see other ways but the User’s. It had been always an annoying feature of him, but now it would be the very reason behind the destruction of the Grid. Clu slammed the program’s head against the floor once more and repeated the question.
Tron’s helmet deactivated upon Clu’s command. The security program’s eyes were wide open; he appeared to be in pain. The way Tron looked at him reminded Clu how he had used to envision his own victory. Those fantasies had always included this program, standing beside him, even if Clu had never been delusional enough to imagine Tron joining him at will. Kevin Flynn had created millions of programs, but never anything like this one. This program was always part of the perfect system Clu had been thriving to create and what Clu had imagined so many times throughout the cycles. But now the system was going to perish and with that he, Tron was going to die as well.
He put his hand on the program’s throat and the black suit dissolved under his touch. Tron’s eyes widened again; he could not speak, he was just glaring at Clu. He moved over the program and pressed his lips on the exposed skin. When he lifted his face, he met Tron’s angry stare. This was not how Clu wanted this to happen – but the end was coming and Clu was not going to go down without having this program for himself. He pressed his mouth on the frozen lips. His hands touched Tron’s exposed circuits; instead of favorable response the pale blue energy lines turned white, indicating fear. But Tron’s expression remained cold, the way he had looked at Clu for so many times throughout the cycles, for there had been no accomplishment great enough for this miserable program to change his mind – to even consider Clu. But this time there was no way out for Tron and that icy stare soon turned into fear and then into pain when Clu disintegrated his own suit and the flow of energy between them became unobstructed.
Shaking from the pleasure, Clu reached there and took the program’s throat in a crushing grip.
“Stop fighting,” he uttered. Tron could not respond, he was just making small, painful sounds, but he was still pushing back against the unwanted connection. The mixture of golden and blue light between them became more and more luminescent and Clu felt the program’s body tensing under him in agony. The security program was unable to move, but Clu grabbed Tron’s wrists and pressed them against the floor with full force; as if he could have broken the program’s resistance by sheer power. Barely coherent himself from the pure ecstasy, Clu caught glimpses of memories, data that was not his own. The vision of an alien, purple sky with angular clouds. A ship crossing that sky, so similar and yet so different from a sailer on the Grid known to Clu. A gigantic arena, with Recognizers hovering above; the sensation of the race.
Clu cried out and collapsed on top of the program. His face was pressed against Tron’s neck; he felt the wetness of tears on his own skin. He looked up. Tron was lying on his back; his face was pale from the suffering - if he had just given in, he could have saved himself from this torment. His eyes were wide open, full of terror. The program had tried to lock him out, but he had seen one picture, the one which was haunting Clu; the view of the closing Portal.
Tron lifted his hands slowly, with great effort. His gloves, along with most of his suit, were missing; Clu felt his warm palms on his own face when the program reached out.
“You…” Tron whispered. His voice was raspy from the cries of pain he had uttered. “You go…”
Clu was staring down at him. He knew what Tron meant: their minds had been connected just a moment before. Now the program was urging him to go, make a run for the Portal himself. There was no way for them to know whether a transmission would be possible for the system administrator; but had it happened, Clu could still win. And while for Clu it was maddening to know that Tron did not care about his victory or failure, whether Clu made it through or perished in the energy of the Portal – the program only wanted to keep the Portal open, to save the User’s life, - it was still his only hope.
The hands fell down and Clu saw that the program lost consciousness. He stood up slowly. He arranged his suit and looked down at Tron. Victory was so close and so far away; making no attempt was accepting defeat – but the Portal had not been built to transport programs. If anybody, then him, Kevin Flynn’s exact copy could make it, yet there was no way to find out the answer without actually trying.
Clu turned around and with large steps he walked out from the cell.
The light of the Portal was glowing around him. It was warm, full of energy; but he could not help it, and he was expecting pain and then the sudden nothingness. Far away, at the end of the structure he saw the Reds that had escorted him to the Portal and Clu thought he saw fear on their faces. He had never seen Kevin Flynn leaving the Grid and he did not know what to expect. He felt the disc on his back heating up and then…
He fell ahead. It was dark and cold and Clu could not see. He lost balance and tumbled over something. His whole body was aching. Sitting on the floor, he kept on turning his head, trying to orientate himself. Soon his eyes drew accustomed to the dimness and he saw the office, the lights of the computer, the laser. He looked at his own hands: they looked normal. He touched his face: the sensation was somewhat different from what he had used to… organic. The tingling in his body slowly ceased as the shock of being inserted into a flesh and blood body for the first time, diminished. He felt something new and immediately he knew what that was. The perception of smelling was something that was impossible to recreate on the Grid, Flynn had explained to Clu once, and now Clu sat there for a moment, stunned by sensing the smell of the light dust and the warm plastic from the server.
He stood up and walked to the computer. On the screen he saw the Grid; he saw his entire universe as he knew it until today. He glanced at the clock on the screen and suddenly he realized that already hours had passed in the system since his departure. He gasped. As quickly as he could, he saved the system and then shut down the computer. It took long for the process to finish and Clu could not tell if the computer had been turned off ever since its launch. But he desperately needed time to think, to figure his next move and he simply could not let events on the Grid unfold without his supervision.
After that, he sat in the office in silence for long. He considered restarting the computer and re-entering the Grid, or to start working on the system from the outside, using the terminal. Eventually he did none of those. The Grid was important… it was the most important thing on the world, but its existence depended on outside conditions – and the survival of the system relied on Clu, whether he could ensure its safety. And in order to do that there was one thing he had to do: to replace Kevin Flynn in the User world without anybody noticing it.
It was easier once he made the decision. He stood up and went over the office, looking for clues, to figure out what he was supposed to do now. He recalled his memories. Clu had been created six years earlier and he had retained the User’s memories up until that point, more or less intact. He found a set of keys on the table, which must have belonged to a vehicle outside and to a home somewhere in the city. There would be a family out there, friends, a whole society that knew Flynn. Could Clu do this, could he really pretend to be Flynn, without people that knew him closely, would figure that something was wrong? He closed his eyes and remembered Tron, lying is his arms, with tear-streaked face. Clu picked up the keys and left the Arcade.
There was an announcement and Clu opened his eyes. They were about to land and the pilot asked them to take their seats. He looked at the window and he saw the approaching land. There was a shade, as if a cloud blocked the sun and he saw his own reflection on the glass. Clu looked ahead. He had never been able to get used to aging. It took him a few days after his first arrival to the User world, to realize that he had gotten transported through as himself, and his consciousness had not been inserted into Kevin Flynn’s physical body. Clu had initially thought differently, because he had arrived to the Arcade wearing Flynn’s User attire, and it took him a while to understand what had really happened. Those clothes were slightly too large for him and in the next couple days he would hear jovial remarks from people that would cross his way, telling him how well he looked and how he should reveal what sort of detoxifying cure he had secretly gone through. But he had not changed; the laser had used Flynn’s stored physical mass for the transmission, yet it delivered Clu – a six years younger Flynn. This realization would lead him to other discoveries later, but no knowledge would save him from the shock he would feel upon seeing his first white hair and first deep wrinkles appearing – upon starting to get old.
There was a notification sound; a text message arrived to his regular cell phone.
‘Meet in your office at 2?’ the text read. It came from Sam Flynn. He had gotten similar messages from the younger Flynn many times, mostly when the kid wanted money for something. Obviously, this time it was about the office under the Arcade; Sam wanted to talk. And if he wanted to talk that meant that he had only discovered the office itself, and had not looked into the computer. Even if he did, there was not much Sam could have done at this point to stop the coming events, but it was easier this way. Now there was no need for him to rush to the Arcade; he could go to ENCOM and get some work done before Sam’s arrival.
The plane touched down. The ENCOM crew laughed and they awarded the pilots with applause. Outside on the tarmac cars were pulling to the plane already to take the passengers to the nearby aviation building to pass the immigration check and pick up their luggage.
‘Sure,’ he texted back. Right after he got a business related call coming in and he answered. He was talking on the phone for long.
Sam put down his phone and turned back to the computer. It took him long to figure what to do next; upon discovering the file ‘flynn’ in the system he had felt actually numb for a few minutes. He wanted to call Alan Bradley, to ask him to come and help him figure out this mess – then he called nobody. The phone lines of the Arcade were disconnected and the Grid was not hooked up on the internet. There was no way that Alan Bradley had gotten a page from here; Alan had not told the truth. He had sent Sam here to… Why had he lied? There was no time to go and confront him about that, and Sam could not get Tron’s warning out of his head.
By now he must know not to trust anybody.
He was thinking desperately, with his thoughts going back to his father again and again. His father; or whoever it really was. The idea, that some impostor would take Flynn’s place seemed more and more insane with each passing minute. This was something Sam simply could not present to anybody without real proof – it was an idea he could not even harbor himself without getting a proof. Yes, Flynn and he had grown apart during the years, but what was the more obvious reason to that? The fact that Sam had grown up and from a gullible little kid he had become a young adult, while Flynn had become more and more invested in his work, or that some kind of artificial intelligence took over his body? Sam shook his head in the silence of the office. He needed a proof; and the only proof was there, inside the computer.
After making the decision to enter the Grid once more, the next task was to win some time. Sam was sure that his father had been notified about his entry by now; after his arrival Flynn would come to the Arcade to make sure that Sam had not broken anything. Unless he would think that Sam was going to come and meet him in the ENCOM building in an hour. That would give Sam enough time on the Grid to locate the file ‘flynn’ and get his answer before an actual meeting.
He sent out the text and he noticed that his hands were shaking. He was actually anxious about the person on the other end of the phone. But then, Sam was thinking, Flynn, the person he had known as his father for the last twenty years, had never hurt him. He was not even mean to him, he was just… different. Most obviously, if Flynn had tried to hurt him, Sam or Jordan, he could have done that ages ago.
‘Sure,’ he read the text once more. Had he entered the Grid, Sam would have days to find the answers. He would, he reminded himself, days to get himself killed in there, just because he was obsessed with an impossible idea.
He looked down at the screen. It was not that idea, he thought, it was the need to return to the Grid to see those dark streets again; to locate the file ‘flynn’, whatever it stood for – and to find a way to free Tron.
Behind him the laser powered up.
“You'll look up and down streets. Look 'em over with care.
About some you will say, "I don't choose to go there."
With your head full of brains and your shoes full of feet,
you're too smart to go down any not-so-good street.
And you may not find any
you'll want to go down.
In that case, of course,
you'll head straight out of town.” *
The car dropped him off in the underground parking garage under the building. The chauffeur drove him there after spotting a television production truck across the main entrance of ENCOM. They knew that the ENCOM crew arrived home today and they hoped for something newsworthy. Clu had nothing to tell them; there was no press release planned in the next two days, and everything that would happen after that, was out of Clu’s circle of concern for now.
He went to the elevator and pushed the call button. He was alone; he had sent everybody home from the airport. Their work was done; all contracts had been signed, all servers were live and the programs had been launched. The building was busy nevertheless – it was a regular working day. Clu remembered the first time he had come here. He was stumbling, looking for clues, improvising. Later he would believe that it had been sheer luck and Flynn’s previous absentminded presence that had carried him though the first days, the way people had simply let go his impossible actions and remarks that had made no sense; because that was what they had gotten used to with Kevin Flynn. He kept away from people that he felt would know the difference; he avoided them as long as it was possible without raising suspicions. His heart almost jumped out of his chest when he first saw Alan Bradley at ENCOM; it happened on his first day in the User world. Clu was about to leave the building; it was only after lunch, but he was overwhelmed by the experience, by the people he was supposed to know and he did not, approaching him with questions he did not even comprehend, using terms Clu would not even recognize. There was much for him to learn and around one in the afternoon he felt it was safe for him to slip away. Little he knew that he could have left earlier or he could have stayed absent for the day; it was much later that Clu figured how unreliable schedule Flynn had kept previously. He was on the way to the elevator, hoping for not being stopped or asked another question before getting out of there. The elevator door opened and a group of people exited; they were on the way back to their desks from the lunch break. They greeted him in a choir as they went and Clu stepped in the cube quickly.
“Hey,” he heard and he turned around, pushing the button for the garage already. Alan Bradley was standing there, outside the closing door; he must have come with the cafeteria crowd. He smiled and waved goodbye before the doors closed. Clu was so stunned for the moment that he could not react, he just stood there as the elevator began to descend. Alan, obviously, looked older than Clu remembered him through Flynn’s recollection and there was barely any resemblance left between Alan and his program child anymore. What hit Clu, what left him almost shocked was the way Alan looked at him, with his head tilted and that half-smile on his face, an expression so similar to how Tron had used to look at Clu back in the cycles, before lies and betrayal had ruined the Grid.
In the evening he went back to the Arcade. He was not ready to start the computer, but his head was full and sitting next to the server was the closest he could get to being home. Clu was utterly confused, yet the plan, to take Kevin Flynn’s place in the User world and ensure the survival of the system, seemed to be manageable. But what was he supposed to do with Flynn? Sure, Clu could have killed the User now with one keystroke… Except for Clu had never intended to kill Flynn and he was not prepared to carry out such deed. Flynn was corrupted, but he was still the Creator – the idea of erasing him felt inherently wrong. Clu was mad at him; what he wanted was Flynn to pay attention to his reasoning, not the User to die.
He could manage this, Clu was thinking. The User world felt overwhelming, but so was the Grid at first. He could make other Users to believe that nothing had changed; did not they believe already? And once on the right track, he could restart the computer and rebuild the Grid the way it was always supposed to be. And then, he could finally go back home.
“Tell me a story,” little Sam asked. It was in the evening and the kid was sitting in his bed in his pajamas.
“About what?” Clu asked. He was bewildered; it had been only a few hours since he had met the younger Flynn for the first time, but he made so many mistakes and said the wrong things so many times that he felt he would be revealed. He was not going to go down because of mistakes he would make at work; he was not going to be found out by co-workers, but by this kid. Clu simply had no idea how to deal with Sam; he had no concept or knowledge of children whatsoever. He had been created before Sam had been born – he had no memory of this child and he only knew about Sam because Kevin Flynn sometimes had mentioned his son.
“A bedtime story,” Sam said and he patted the mattress next to him. Clu walked there and sat down. He was wondering what a bedtime story was as he was sitting there in silence. Sam grabbed his hand. “Tell me about Tron!”
“What?” Clu uttered. He was shocked.
“Yes! Tell me about the Games!”
Clu jumped on his feet and got out of the room quickly.
“Dad!” Sam yelled, disappointed. Clu stood in the dark kitchen, dumbfounded. Users actually knew about the Grid, he thought, about their lives there – it was only the matter of time for them to find out what had happened.
Slowly, throughout the next couple days he figured out that he misunderstood the case – and understood it just right at the same time. Flynn had told Sam about the Grid – but it was a story, a fairytale. It was real for the kid and upon realizing this Clu would find himself perplexed over the situation; that Sam Flynn and he were the only people on the whole User world that knew about the Grid. He could never find the words to tell Sam that it was not true, that Sam had been lied to; and the kid would have figured, that he, Clu was lying anyway. So he just ignored the questions and pleas to talk about the Grid, until Sam stopped. After that Clu would often find the child looking at him quietly and he would know that Sam, in a way, found out the truth. But then, Sam was a kid with no authority and growing up he became just like other people and he forgot; he forgot that once he knew about the Grid – that once he knew that he had lost his father.
“He’s having nightmares,” Jordan told Clu. He went to pick up Sam for the weekend and she offered him a cup of coffee in the kitchen. Clu had been in the User world for a month at that time and he was getting accustomed to it. “He wakes up screaming and he believes you left him.”
“It’s just a dream,” Clu said. At that time he was still full of resentment toward Flynn and he could not care less for the kid’s dreams.
“Sure,” Jordan said. “All I’m saying, you should go easy on him. He’s just a child.”
Clu looked at her. He was conflicted; he did not like being told what to do. On the other hand, the manner she was talking was not annoying him the way Flynn’s instructions had used to bother him. She was rather straightforward, blunter than the people at ENCOM. Had she been in Flynn’s place, Clu would think later, she would not have let things deteriorate on the Grid. Throughout his years in the User world Clu would not become fond of people in general, but he would learn to appreciate Jordan’s presence.
He would return to ENCOM and he would learn the User ways. Once he felt confident enough, he stopped avoiding Alan Bradley. Clu was not particularly surprised to find himself having a rather favorable opinion on Alan – even though never during the coming years he made the mistake to believe that Alan would accept the truth without trying to bring him down. Clu would never consider telling Alan about the Grid and about his real identity: he instinctively knew that just as Tron had accepted his, Clu’s authority once out of loyalty to Kevin Flynn, Alan Bradley would not hesitate to turn against him, had he learnt the truth.
Just then, when his status in the User world was established, just then he returned to the Arcade. He was sitting quietly as the computer powered up. For him it had been more than a month; but the system was shut down ever since his departure, and for the programs time stopped after the coup. Clu looked at the screen and then he reached out and did what Kevin Flynn would not do for the sake of his creations: he deleted all the ISOs in the city with one simple command. He did not erase the few hundred remaining ISOs that had escaped to the Outlands nor did he touch Kevin Flynn. Once done, he turned on the Shiva laser and he entered the Grid.
The ever unchanging black sky lay over the city when he exited Flynn’s Arcade in the system. Clu looked up. He had been staring at the sky in the User world every night, but it never gave him the sense of serenity he always felt on the Grid. He was home at last. His senses were no longer overwhelmed by noise, smells, irrelevant data.
A Recognizer descended on the street. There was a troop of Red combatants on board; they jumped down and positioned themselves around Clu. Once the aircraft fully docked, Jarvis disembarked as well and he approached the system administrator. He made a deep bow; programs outside the circle of Reds followed suit. Clu suddenly understood: he was a program that had rebelled against the User, won, left the system, cleaned it from the ISO plague and then he returned. There was no way, no point of denying his reign anymore.
Some did attempt it regardless. After his first return he did not shut down the computer anymore; the one day he was away left Flynn and his followers with the equivalent of two months to prepare. There was an ambush waiting for Clu when he entered the system for the second time. They walked into a trap; they only made it to the Arcade because the Reds allowed them to do so at the first place, based on Clu’s instructions. Flynn was not amongst them, the coward he was; he had merely sent dozens of his followers hoping for a surprise attack. Most of them were slaughtered on the spot, the ISOs anyway. There were some interesting captives, such as the last program Flynn had created before the coup. It was a system monitor, one of the few of his kind that Flynn had brought to the Grid and Clu preferred him alive and rectified rather than dead. Another one, some clerical program broke down before the interrogation and told them everything before even being asked. He spoke about the barren wasteland where Flynn and his remaining followers now lived, about the dark, cold Outlands, of the scarce energy resources. He talked about the User’s devastation.
“If he is devastated,” Clu said, “he should have come. He should have fought himself. Since he decided not to, he can have his peace right there, in the middle of the desert.”
The captured program was looking at him, terrified.
“I’ll let you live,” Clu told him. “Go back to your User. Tell him that he shall not be harmed. Tell him that he can keep the company he has chosen, that group of rebels, viruses and traitors. Lastly, tell him that should he ever set foot on the Grid again, I’ll go and destroy all the Users he holds dear.”
He sent the program back to the Outlands. And then… nothing. There came no answer, no attacks anymore. Was Flynn ready to die in exile in order to save the lives of his friends and family? Only time could tell. Clu looked down at the city; his empire, at peace now. He won; but the victory would not satisfy him. At that time he did not know what he was missing, he just felt the ambition, the need to accomplish.
When all was done, he sent for Tron. By then Clu was so thirsty for him that he could barely stand the urge. Clu had the guards bring the security program to the unit where he used to retract when he needed rest. When the two Red guards entered, they were dragging Tron between them; not because the program was resisting, but because many of his functions were still restricted and he could barely walk. The door closed behind them and Tron looked up at Clu. Tron’s eyes went wide and he began to struggle. Clu watched him curiously, wondering what change the security program could be seeing on him. He walked there and stopped before the squirming program. Clu reached out to touch Tron’s face. He remembered how programs had used to stop whatever they had been doing when Tron had been around; how they had used to watch him. Tron was trying to pull back, but the guards were holding him steady.
Clu dismissed the guards and Tron stayed there, standing shakily. Clu grabbed his wrist and dragged him inside the suite. He threw the program down on the couch forcefully, somewhat surprised by his own brutality himself. In his fight Clu had won facing much less resistance than he had expected and after that victory itself had not been satisfying, he realized. He wanted the winner’s trophy.
“I have gone,” he said, as if he was picking up the conversation where they had finished last time. He saw the fear on Tron’s face; the fear of what Clu could say. Tron had asked him to go, hoping to save the User’s life – and now he was afraid to hear that he had caused Flynn’s death instead.
“He is alive,” Clu said. “All the Users are alive… for now.”
Tron was still silent. His expression changed, from fear to consideration: to figure why this conversation was taking place at all. He had no power to stop Clu and yet the system administrator was talking to him as if he had a choice, as if the program could do something to save the Users. Tron’s face slowly changed and there was understanding: that the Users’ safety was something he could still ensure… something he could still buy. The program leant back on the couch, his hands coming to rest on his own thighs. Clu made a step toward him inadvertently. Tron looked up at him and his expression was alluring.
In a moment Clu was on top of him. He moved forward in a rush and pushed Tron down onto the seat. The program spread his legs obediently when Clu slipped his knee between them. Clu got rid of his own gloves and touched Tron’s face, now that he could. He was aroused and mad at the same time because of the way Tron looked at him. Was that how Tron looked at other programs, Clu was wondering, the ones that he had chosen before? Clu had never seen him with anybody, but there must have been others. Maybe he, Clu should take a look at Tron’s disc, he was thinking, to find out who they were. He could get them arrested and then make Tron watch them die. The idea eased his anger.
He bent forward and kissed Tron. The program’s lips were soft and warm against his own. Tron’s face was calm and expressionless; he looked at the ceiling over Clu’s shoulder. Clu’s fingers sank into the program’s wrists through Tron’s black suit. Tron’s eyes became focused from the pain and he looked at the system administrator. Clu touched his face again. He was yet to come to terms with the fact that this program, this perfect beauty belonged to him now. He disintegrated Tron’s suit and began to kiss the exposed circuits, down from the program’s neck and chest to his belly. He grinned at the vibrant glow of those circuits as they turned from light blue to purple. He glanced up and he froze. Tron was looking down at him, but despite of his surrender his face was not reflecting pleasure – the program was watching if he, Clu was satisfied with what he was getting, if he was happy.
Clu moved up. His suit dissolved, revealing his own burning circuitry. He took Tron’s wrists and pressed them down, putting his own whole weight on them. He kissed Tron on the lips, hard, as they circuits connected and grinned when the program cried out. The exchange between them was violent; this time Tron was not resisting and he was not in pain, but he was whimpering from the intense energy transfer. Clu lifted up and looked down at Tron, at his face in the burning, reddish light, the glow of their connected circuits. He had looked at this program so many times, watching him in his usual stoic mood or catching a treasured glimpse of a rare smile.
The light flickered and Clu cried out. He collapsed. Tron was lying under him motionlessly. When Clu collected himself and pulled back, he saw that the program was close to shutting down from the exhaustion. Tron was lying there with half-lidded eyes; his face was calm. A moment later the program fell asleep. Clu left him there on the couch and he walked to the window. He stood there, watching the city for long before moving.
Twenty years later Clu was standing in Kevin Flynn’s office and he looked through the window, surveying the User world from his perch for the last time in his life. Like many times in the previous weeks, he was wondering if there would be anything in this world he would miss after returning home for good. Would he be missing the view of the sunset, the taste of food, the smell of grass? The answer was no, with a quiet undertone of doubt.
There was a knock on the door frame and Clu turned around. He had left the door open when he had arrived and now he saw Alan Bradley standing there.
“Come on in,” Clu said. Alan was smiling and they shook hands.
“Jet called me,” Alan said after they sat down. “I am pleased to hear that everything went well.”
“I’ve got the right people with me,” Clu replied, knowing that it would make Alan glad. Clu had seen Alan’s happy surprise over Jet’s change of heart a year earlier, when the younger Bradley had accepted the job offer at ENCOM. Ever since Alan had been keeping an eye on his son from the distance carefully, as if he was afraid to find out that Jet’s choice was just the part of a bigger prank. Now, after a year and after the Asian trip Jet’s sincerity could not be questioned anymore. Or could it be?, Clu was thinking. There was something, something under the surface that he could not quite put a finger on – but in two days that question, along with many others, would lose significance anyway.
“So that’s it,” Alan said. “We’ve reached every market on the world. ENCOM is everywhere.”
“Do you remember what you told about it, years ago?” Alan asked. Clu looked at him curiously; he was not quite sure where Alan was getting to. “A digital frontier to reshape the human condition.”
Clu was silent for a moment. Those words belonged to Kevin Flynn; but they were true – as if Flynn had foreseen following the events.
“It’s happening,” Clu said. “Right now.”
“Yes,” Alan said. “Did you talk to Sam?”
“He’ll be here shortly.”
“Have you… heard about his prank he made last night on the roof?”
“I’ve been told about it,” Clu said. “That means he had a rather busy night, hadn’t he?”
Alan looked at him and in that moment Clu knew that Alan had sent Sam to the Arcade. He was almost entertained.
“I told him about the Arcade,” Alan said. Clu smiled. He liked the tact, the way Alan was beating around the bush so that he, Clu would give things out, believing that Alan knew the whole truth anyway.
“You did it, didn’t you?” he asked. What Clu knew for fact, that no User had entered the office under the Arcade aside from Sam; and that Alan did not know who he was facing now – or else Alan would not have been here, chatting with Clu.
“I understand if you are upset,” Alan said. “But he is your son. He should be part of this, just as Jet.”
Clu nodded. It was Alan, that had come here to figure out things; but it was Clu that possessed both human consideration and the sensibility to conditional statements of a software. And the result of the elimination process told him that Jet Bradley had been at the Arcade, even if he had not entered the downstairs office.
Jet had not told Alan about being at the Arcade, but Alan knew about it anyway. Maybe Jet had used an ENCOM vehicle to go there and Alan had seen the GPS data?
Jet must have followed him, Clu one night. So he was suspicious – but not enough to actually go inside and look. And since Alan had not challenged his son about his discovery, Alan believed that
Clu Kevin Flynn and Jet were working on a project together. Alan was now concerned that after the successful Asian tour Jet would gain even more importance, while Sam and Flynn would farther drift away.
“I’m not upset. Sam will be part of this,” Clu replied. “Don’t worry.”
Alan nodded. The secretary came in and brought coffee for them. Clu looked at the clock on the wall. It was almost two in the afternoon.
Sam was out of breath. The Red units were closing on him; and there was nowhere for him to run anymore. In the beginning things seemed to be working out; his arrival to the digital Arcade went smoothly. He knew that he had to make it out and away from the place fast – the light of the Portal would let programs know that somebody had arrived and they would be vigilant around the Arcade. After running for a few minutes, Sam noticed a few vehicles standing there abandoned. Sam could not tell if it was a parking lot and the respective owners had left the vehicles behind or if the bikes and cars were there for anybody to use. He was going to take one anyway and after a moment of consideration he chose a black bike. Nobody paid attention to him as he was fumbling with the buttons and controllers and he drove out to the street without problems.
Even though he was focused on his plan, to make it to the Outlands as quickly as possible, Sam could not stop looking around and admire the buildings, passing vehicles and programs. He recalled the map of the Grid that he had seen on the screen minutes before and he drove toward a
freeway which led to a series of outposts on the border. He was halfway when the first Recognizer began to chase him and he saw the closest outpost already when the land units appeared. He was still going to make it; except for just when he actually hit the border did Sam see that there was no straight transition between the Grid floor and the Outlands – instead there was a cliff and an endless abyss after that. He saw the rugged, dark terrain of the Outlands on the other side, but the gulch was so wide that Sam could not risk a jump.
He got off the bike and he was standing on the edge, turning his head desperately. More Recognizers arrived and the land vehicles were closing their circle around him. He was going to get arrested again, Sam realized, and this time he would have much harder time getting away.
“Oh, man,” he whispered. “This is not good.”
A vehicle was approaching with great speed. Contrary to the tanks and military vehicles that were coming from the city, this car, a buggy, was driving along the edge of the abyss. The buggy stopped next to Sam and the passenger side door opened. Sam saw a program with a helmet behind the wheel.
“Get in,” the program said in a robotic voice. Sam looked up; a Recognizer was descending upon them.
“Get in,” the program repeated and Sam jumped in. The door closed and the buggy made a wide turn. The other vehicles around them stopped so as the Recognizers. The masked program drove the buggy as far from the edge as it was possible from the surrounding tanks and then stopped, facing the abyss. The program then started the buggy, speeding toward the edge.
“Hold up man, we can’t make that,” Sam yelled. The Grid floor ran out from under them and the buggy was sailing across the air, hitting the desert floor on the other side, hard.
“Made it,” the program said. Behind them the land units made no attempt to follow. The Recognizers crossed the border, their searchlights lit up. The buggy was speeding through the dark land and the aircrafts appeared to have lost track on them quickly.
“Where are you taking me?” Sam asked.
“Patience, Sam Flynn. All your questions will be answered soon.”