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.”
“You can get so confused
that you'll start in to race
down long wiggled roads at a break-necking pace
and grind on for miles cross weirdish wild space,
headed, I fear, toward a most useless place.
The Waiting Place...
...for people just waiting.
Waiting for a train to go
or a bus to come, or a plane to go
or the mail to come, or the rain to go
or the phone to ring, or the snow to snow
or the waiting around for a Yes or No
or waiting for their hair to grow.
Everyone is just waiting.”*
The vehicle was speeding across the black desert. Ahead of them, illuminated by the headlights of the vehicle, there lay a ragged, dark road surrounded by rocks. The entire area appeared to be lifeless and bleak; there was nothing of the lights and vibrant energy of the Grid they had left behind. The only light outside was the occasional flash of the distant thunder and the only sound breaking the silence was that of the wind. Just a few hundred yards of the road ahead was lit by the headlights, but the desert seemed to be endless, dead.
“you'll start in to race
down long wiggled roads at a break-necking pace
and grind on for miles cross weirdish wild space,
headed, I fear, toward a most useless place.”*
Sam felt his heart thumping in his chest. Next to him the driver’s helmet retraced and revealed her face. It was of a young woman’s, with short, black hair, pale skin and intent, blue eyes. Her right arm shot out across the middle console when she reached out for a handshake.
“I’m Quorra,” she said with a bright smile, as if they had not just escaped from a whole army by a death-defying jump across the abyss. Sam stared at her numbly for a moment before shaking her hand. She was wearing a black suit and her circuitry was light blue. She was driving fast on the rocky road, yet with great confidence, apparently enjoying Sam’s anxious groans and hisses he uttered every time they swerved close to the edge.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa…” he cried out upon realizing that they were rushing against a solid wall of a black hill. There was an opening in the middle, a hole in the wall, but it did not seem large enough for the buggy to pass. Sam braced himself for the impact, just to see their vehicle flying into the short tunnel and passing though without suffering a single scratch. Quorra laughed.
The ride was long; Sam never spotted any sign of life besides themselves. He did not ask any questions; as much as he could tell, they were on the way to the destination he intended to reach – even though he found himself to be actually afraid of getting there, worried to find out what the file ‘flynn’ actually meant… Scared to see his world falling apart and the last twenty years to be revealed as a giant trick.
A secret door opened up ahead and the vehicle drove into a long tunnel. It was entirely artificial, with straight lines and built-in lights which turned on one by one as the buggy proceeded. The buggy stopped in the middle of a circular turntable, which swung around and turned the vehicle around to face the exit, ready for immediate departure. The buggy powered down and they got out.
Quorra walked to a large, rectangular platform and Sam followed her without questions. Once they stopped in the middle, the platform began to ascend; it was an elevator. The platform lit up with a bright, white light, illuminating the raw, carved rocky walls of the elevator shaft.
The elevator stopped. They were standing in a dark room. The only light inside was the platform itself, some hidden, light-emanating units where the walls met the floor and the distant view of the city in the frame of the large window ahead.
“Wait here,” Quorra whispered and she walked toward the window. There was somebody, sitting in the dark and without guessing Sam knew that it was the person he had come to meet. He stood there, bewildered. Even he succeeded, even if he found his father in this dark place – and then what? That would mean that a whole different person had been out in the real world for twenty years, taking whatever actions he had taken. It would mean that he, Sam had gone to that other person with his school homework for help, that one had taught Sam how to ride a motorbike and to drive a car; and Sam did not even know who that was. He stood there, numb.
“Quorra,” the man in the dark said quietly. He was sitting on a pillow with his back to Sam. “I dreamed of Tron. First time in years.”
Quorra knelt down next to him.
“It’s a sign,” she said. The man laughed.
“A sign, my dear apprentice, of a weary soul,” he replied. “I’m afraid something’s happened.”
“Something has happened,” she replied. “We have a guest.”
The man straightened himself and sighed.
“There are no guests, kiddo,” he said. Quorra stood up and turned to Sam, who stepped closer to them. After a moment of silence the man moved, suddenly aware of Sam’s presence. He stood up slowly and turned around. The lights in the room turned on and the man looked at Sam.
It was Kevin Flynn. He was older than the impostor that had taken his place in the outside world. His hair was white and his face was wrinkled from the old age. He was wearing a white tunic and pants. He was looking at Sam, stunned.
“Sam,” he said quietly. Sam wanted to run there, yet he remained idle. He had not seen his father for twenty years, he remembered; all the interactions, all his feelings and misconceptions were attached to his doppelganger… Sam did not know his father and he did not know what to expect now.
“Long time,” he replied, in lack of better words.
“You have no idea,” his father said. He began to walk to Sam, who stood there, frozen. Flynn stopped in front of him and looked in Sam’s face. “You’re here!”
He reached out at Sam, almost startling his son. Then Flynn threw his arms around Sam and embraced him tightly.
“You’re here,” he repeated. Sam felt the tears welling up in his eyes. He meant to lift his arms and wrap them around Flynn, but all he could think of was that this was the first time after twenty years that his father hugged him. He, that other one, had never raised a hand on Sam, but he had never embraced Sam either.
“I’m here,” he whispered. His father released him.
“You’re big,” Flynn said, staring at him. He was shaken and for Sam it almost hurt to look at him. He had gotten used to that stellar, slightly sarcastic version of his own father, the one that rarely shown emotion.
“You’re…” Sam said. He did not know, he realized what his father knew about the last two decades in the world outside the computer.
“Old,” Flynn said – but his usual youthful cheerfulness was in his eyes, when he said that. Sam laughed; so that he would not cry.
“How did you get here?” Flynn asked.
“Alan came over.”
“He got a page,” Sam said, without voicing his own conclusion, that Alan had never gotten a page. “I found your office under the Arcade.”
“Page,” Flynn said quietly. “Oh, the page. Of course.”
Suddenly, as if he just remembered something, his father’s face changed.
“You have to leave,” Flynn said. “Now.”
They got close to a fight. With a sudden anxiety, Flynn gestured at Quorra and ordered her to take Sam to the portal. Obediently, she walked to the elevator, but Sam did not move.
“What are you doing?” he asked. “I just arrived. I just found you.”
“Every minute you spend here,” Flynn said, tugging him towards the elevator, “Is grave danger for you.”
“I don’t understand. Wait!” Sam exclaimed, pushing back. “Can I at least know who the person is that fools everybody up there and claims to be you?”
His father stopped. He appeared to be in an inner struggle. Eventually he pointed at the chair across the large room; Sam went there and sat down. Quorra followed him and took a seat on the couch. Flynn walked there after them and stood next to the mock fireplace.
“I understand,” he said, “that you must have a few questions on your own, Sam. I wish… we had more time. There is something you don’t yet understand about the nature of the system, and for that you can’t see how dangerous for you just to be here. I wish you would believe me and run for the Portal, right now. But I also understand that you must get your explanations and I will try to give you all the answers as fast as possible.”
Sam nodded. Everything was so quiet and calm here; he did not feel to be in any sort of dangerous situation.
“Before anything, just tell me this,” Flynn said. “Did he ever hurt you or anybody else?”
Sam looked up and he saw that his father was actually worried to hear his answer.
“No,” Sam said. “He hasn’t.”
Flynn let out a long sigh. He looked at the white logs glowing in the fireplace and then he started.
“Those nights, when I went to the office,” he said, “I’m sure you figured it by now, I was coming here. Human form in a digital space. Heavy stuff. But I also had you, I had ENCOM, I couldn’t be in here all the time. I needed partners, to help out.”
“Tron and Clu,” Sam said, remembering the old bedtime story.
“That’s right,” his father replied with the hint of a smile. “Tron was created by Alan for the old system. I brought him here to protect this one. Clu was my creation: a program, designed to create a perfect world. Oh, we were jamming, man. Building utopia. Hours in here were just minutes back home. Just when I thought it couldn’t get any more profound, something unexpected happened.”
“The miracle,” Sam said.
“A miracle,” his father chuckled. “You remember? ISOs, Isomorphic Algorithms, a whole new life form.”
“And you created them?” Sam asked. Flynn laughed.
“No, no,” he said. “They manifested, like a flame. They weren’t really, really from anywhere. The conditions were right and they came into being. For centuries we dreamed of gods, spirits, aliens, and intelligence beyond our own. I found them in here, like flowers in a wasteland. Profoundly naive; unimaginably wise. They were spectacular. Everything I'd hope to find in the system; control, order, perfection. None of it meant a thing. Been living in a hall of mirrors. The ISOs shattered it, the possibilities of their root code, their digital DNA. Disease? History! Science, philosophy, every idea man has ever had about the universe up for grabs. Biodigital jazz, man. The ISOs, they were going to be my gift to the world.”
“So, what happened?”
Flynn’s face went dark.
“Clu,” he said. “Clu happened. There was a coup.”
He spoke about the rise of the programs and while he was talking, Sam suddenly understood, where the story was going, who would be revealed as the one impersonating his father for so many years. And it made sense for him; it had always been Kevin Flynn, without his human flaws and with the designation of a system administrator program.
“Tron,” Flynn said and the name brought Sam back to the present. “He fought for me. I never saw him again.”
“What?” Sam asked. “But you must know that Clu has him, why didn’t you do something?”
Flynn looked at him with actual surprise; he was surprised that Sam knew about Tron.
“There was nothing to be done,” he replied. “I tried to get back, but I couldn’t get to the portal. It uses massive power and it can’t stay open forever. And like a safe, it can be only opened from the outside. Clu must have realized that once it closes, it will be the end for us all. And so he went, in my place.”
For a moment Sam sat in stunned silence.
“So why didn’t you fight?” Sam asked.
“He did,” Quorra said.
“Clu made it clear quite early,” Flynn replied, “that he was ready to harm people I loved if we fought.”
Sam was silent. Was that true,he was thinking, had his father… Clu been ready to hurt him, Jordan or somebody else, had something gone wrong on the Grid? It was hard for him to imagine.
“And my miracle,” Flynn continued. “Clu saw the ISOs as an imperfection, so he destroyed them.”
“He killed them all?” Sam asked. Flynn looked at Quorra and Sam understood the gesture. She was an ISO.
“There are a number of us living here in a colony,” she said. It did not escape Sam’s attention that she had been vague about their exact number.
“And that is why you have to leave now,” Flynn continued. “The ISOs… They are different from regular programs. The exile and the past thousand cycles have affected them, so did being persecuted. Most of them are still loyal, but there are some, that became desperate throughout the times.”
“It’s the laser, Sam,” he said. “It’s something that I knew for long and something that Clu must have learnt along the way ever since. The laser is not God’s hand nor is it a magic wand. It doesn’t create physical mass; it just transmits and stores it. One goes in, one goes out. Clu was able to make the transmission, because we are almost fully identical, he is my digital clone. When he is outside the computer, I could not attempt a transmission even if the Portal was open, because he is using our physical body. When he is in here, the Portal is guarded. Not just because of me, but because during the cycles the ISOs have made many unsuccessful attempts to approach the Portal and enter the User world. None of them ever made it there, they were killed before. All ISOs know it that even a successful transmission equates to a suicide, because my physical body is only compatible with me and Clu, but the desperate, that lost their minds, would not care. They keep on trying. Should any of them ever succeed, it would be the end for us, because after the transmission the Portal would close and we would all be trapped here, along with Clu, while the ISO would be almost surely dead on the other side.”
“You know this for sure,” Sam said. “Because you did want to bring the ISOs out to our world. You did experiment.”
“That’s right. For no avail. For an ISO to make it through there would have to be the information of an identical physical body stored in the laser. This is why you are in mortal danger right now. You entered the Grid and now your information is stored in the laser. Clu had no policy for the sentries for this scenario, they might not be guarding the Portal as closely as they do when Clu is present. Sooner or later an ISO will make a run for the Portal and if they complete the transmission, you will die. You will be still alive on the Grid, but your body will die in the moment when the ISO, a person with a different digital DNA manifests in it. You will be dead for the world, Sam, without the chance to ever return.”
Sam nodded. He finally understood the urgency; but there was still so many things they had to discuss, so many questions he had to ask. He stood up and slowly walked to the large window. Through the curtain of tiny lights he stepped out to the balcony and looked at the light of the city in the distance.
“Sam, please,” his father said. “It’s time. You need to go now.”
Sam turned and looked at him. Flynn was standing on the balcony as well, with Quorra a few steps behind.
“You found me,” Flynn said. “Now run.”
“Where do I run?” Sam asked. “What is Clu planning? There is a countdown on the screen in the Arcade and we are approaching zero. There a port being built in the city and a crane on the ENCOM tower. In one day they will take the server from the Arcade and they will attach it to the other ENCOM servers, which are interconnected with the ENCOM computers all over the world. What will happen then?”
“Sam, there is no time…”
“You know what he is doing, don’t you?” Sam asked. He was aware of the time which was running out, but he had to know. He waited twenty years to learn the truth.
Flynn was looking at him for long. He must have understood that Sam would not leave until he got his answers.
“I know,” he replied. “Throughout the cycles we infiltrated the city. We don’t have enough people to make a change, but we know his plans, even if we found it out in its whole entirety just recently. What Clu has been doing in the last twenty years… he has been creating the perfect system. He is going with his original directive, only that he is doing it in our world.”
“The perfect system? Do you mean the charities and the community outreach programs? What does all of that have to do with the Grid?”
Flynn did not reply for a second and behind him Quorra was standing with her face in the shadow. The world was coming to an end tomorrow, Sam realized in a moment of clarity.
“Sam, do you work for him? Do you work for ENCOM?” Flynn asked softly.
“No. He offered me a job, but…,” Sam shrugged.
“What he has been doing, he made ENCOM a global company. And it is not just ENCOM itself, which is there in every country on the world. He created other, local companies, which have no official ties to ENCOM, but they are part of the network just the same. The figureheads of those companies are the young executives that the ENCOM outreach program lifted out from absolute poverty and gave them education, and such as, they are loyal to the end. These local firms, these software companies became the supplier of their respective governments, power and phone companies. They infiltrated every key branch of each single government of the world.”
“And the software are all coming from here,” Sam whispered.
“Not just those are ENCOM programs,” Flynn said. “They are from here, from the Grid. That means, they are all alive, with their own consciousness and they all work for Clu.”
“When they insert the Grid to the system, it will synchronize the whole worldwide system. Right now all those programs are running independently, working as they are supposed to do. Once the Grid is live, the whole network will be synched. The Grid will be the brain on the global network. There are millions of programs in the city, designed for this very reason, waiting for the launch.”
Sam looked at his father, waiting for him to say the word.
“And when it happens, Clu will take over. All those computer systems, all government computers, all military systems, drones, unmanned military jets, nuclear and all other power plants, all personal computers and other devices that have ENCOM software on it, will become independent from their respective users and will only obey to the brain, to the Grid control. If it goes down the way Clu planned it, it will be a total and immediate global takeover, where every government will lose power over their countries and the computers will take over.”
Sam shook his head.
“Why? It doesn’t make any sense…,” he started; then he fell silent. He remembered of their last prank on ENCOM, the last one he had done with Jet Bradley. After some extensive fireworks they launched from one of the windows of the ENCOM building, they stole classified information from the database. They did not even know what they had taken, until they actually opened it. Amongst other information there were the names of charities supported by ENCOM and the amounts wired to them. All the charity donations of ENCOM were private and at that time Sam was stunned to see the amount of money his father
had given to wildlife organizations, for endangered species conservation, environmental programs and tropical reforestation. Sam remembered it very well, because Jet Bradley had changed his mind about ENCOM after reading that report – Jet had accepted Flynn’s
job offer, because Jet began to believe in the cause.
“Is he trying to kill people?” Sam asked. “To save the environment?”
“No, not according to the plans we have seen,” Flynn replied. “What he will do, he will make people save the environment. He will make them end wars, famine, industrialized animal cruelty in general. He is creating the perfect system, but in order to do that, he needs to take all power from people, he needs to end free will of people in general.”
“The guy doesn’t dig imperfection. What’s more imperfect than our world? If the Grid launches, Clu will have all nuclear warheads of each and any governments, drones and any weapons that can be controlled by computers, in his hand in order to force people to surrender and follow his vision with the mere threat. I can’t let that happen.”
Sam looked at his father. They were going to make a last run to put Clu down before the launch, Sam realized, when Clu returns to the Grid for the last time.
“And now you must leave,” Flynn said. “We wasted enough time already. You…”
Quorra cried out loudly and Flynn stopped. They all turned at the city view and they saw what had caused Quorra to cry out in terror: the light of the Portal turned off with a switch and the glowing column disappeared.
This is a dark chapter, warning for major canon character death, torture and non-con. Please proceed with care.
“You won't lag behind, because you'll have the speed.
You'll pass the whole gang and you'll soon take the lead.
Wherever you fly, you'll be best of the best.
Wherever you go, you will top all the rest.
Except when you don't.
Because, sometimes, you won't.
I'm sorry to say so
but, sadly, it's true
can happen to you.”*
The elevator was descending. Clu was watching the indicator; he was alone in the cubicle. It was just a few minutes earlier that Alan Bradley left his office. After the door closed, Clu looked at the clock; it was half past two. Sam had a tendency of being late, but not when it mattered and his absence made Clu feel uncomfortable. He picked up his phone and called Sam, listening to the ringing and then to the automated voicemail message. Clu put on his coat and left the office.
He went to the underground garage, and took one of the ENCOM vehicles. Normally he would not use those cars to avoid a curious employee looking over the GPS data and noticing the car being parked at the shuttered Flynn’s Arcade for extended periods of time, but now he was in a hurry. He did not care much for Sam seeing the computer in the secret office; there was simply too much information stored and an outsider, even a skilled programmer like the younger Flynn, would not understand the real nature of the Grid just by looking at it. What Clu was worried about was the option that Sam might have activated the laser and made the transmission, out of ignorance or reckless curiosity. Had he done so, he would be in great danger now. No User had entered the system for a thousand cycles; there was no policy in effect for programs how to react and had Sam unknowingly approached a sentry in a way that programs saw threatening, he could be killed on the spot. But Sam was quite resourceful and the real danger lay somewhere else.
The ISOs, Clu was thinking as he was driving through the city; it would have been a real irony of fate, had these wretched creatures caused the younger Flynn’s demise. The ISOs… Clu did not know how many of them lived at the Outlands and he did not care about them. As long as they did not attempt to enter the Grid, he did not harm them – he spared their lives, because they were Kevin Flynn’s only company in his exile. As years passed and Clu began to pick up human personality traits, he would feel more and more conflicted about Flynn, disturbed about the idea of what the centuries of loneliness would do to a human soul. His mercy did not extend to ISOs that would violate the treaty and would definitely not save the ones that tried to escape the Grid through the Portal. They must have been insane to make the attempt, and yet they did it every single time when Clu was on the Grid and the Portal was open. They always tried… They would try, had Sam Flynn entered the system and they could succeed now, that the troops that would usually guard the open Portal when Clu would be present, were not deployed. Clu did not like the idea; he had taken Kevin Flynn’s place in the User world, subsequently robbing his User of his life and he was going to take away power from Users in a manner that would change the course of history – but he did not mean to actually kill somebody, especially not the younger Flynn. Clu’s plans had originated from the very idea of stopping violence and suffering in the User world, by all means necessary. Should an ISO make the transmission from the Grid to the secret office, dying in the process and exterminating Sam Flynn’s physical body at the same time, it would be a great collateral damage of Clu’s plan – and the cause of eternal grief for Kevin Flynn, had he learned that his beloved ISOs killed his son.
Somebody was honking and he looked out. He had cut off another driver in his rush. Slower, he reminded himself; being pulled over and getting further delayed would not help anyone. He was hoping to find Sam Flynn in the Arcade, sitting at the terminal, trying to figure out what was happening; or to find the Arcade empty, with Sam’s bike gone, because Sam had left earlier and had forgotten about the whole business and their meeting long ago. Clu had always kept away from him, knowing it intuitively that if anybody, Sam could find him out, but Clu did not have a problem with him otherwise. He did not have issues with the people that surrounded him and the idea of the takeover did not come from his discontent with a specific person or group. As Clu was driving, racing for the minutes, he let his mind wander and he thought of how they had gotten to this point.
In the beginning Clu’s only intention was not to raise suspicions. He had come to the User world to save the Grid and in the first few days he spent in Flynn’s place, that was all Clu was doing; he was learning, maintaining a low profile – and he spent the nights working in the office under the Arcade. At that time the Arcade was still open for the public, even though the place was no longer profitable. Gaming Arcades were slowly becoming a thing of the past; the nearby restaurants and the movie theatre closed and the area got desolate. One of the first things Clu would do was to initiate the shutdown of the place; he did not like people coming and going all day so close to the office, even if he could only work on the system at nights anyway.
He figured it quickly that he would be successful; he had succeeded already. Users turned out to be superficial and nobody knew Flynn well enough to get suspicious over the switch. Kevin Flynn had gained the reputation of a mad genius and people in his wider circle would relate to him as if he were a celebrity, expecting extravagant behavior and the wild display of great ideas. Clu knew that Flynn was not mad neither a genius, but those assumptions made his life easier now, that his mistakes and awkwardness would get generally accepted. The mother of little Sam had no ties to Flynn other than the memory of their short, passionate relationship from years earlier and the joint custody of their son. It was easy with Flynn’s parents; they were elderly, nice people. And the close friends, such as Lora Baines and Alan Bradley… They trusted Flynn, but Flynn lied to them and he stole their work. As time would pass, Clu would find that he could cooperate with Alan Bradley very easily. Years later Lora would become one of Clu’s biggest supporters and the unsuspecting advocate of the new world order on her own volition when the community outreach and relief programs of ENCOM would launch. Her position in Washington D.C. would allow Lora to open doors for him quicker and those programs would get government support rather fast. Politicians would favor the ENCOM projects, because they would not cost them money, but by providing access to schools, by letting ENCOM distribute the free laptops and softwares and promoting the ENCOM scholarship programs they could paint themselves as if they helped the poor, as if they cared.
But those events would happen later and in the beginning Clu was frustrated and disappointed. He felt robbed; the equivalent of two months passed on the Grid each day if the computer was running uninterrupted and the idea that he was kept away from his own domain for so long with each passing day, was driving Clu mad. In the middle of meetings he would wonder, what programs would be doing in Tron City and he would get excited when the sun would begin to set, knowing that he would soon be heading home.
He could not give any sign of that frustration in the User world, for there would have been questions. He took it back to the Grid and would hold onto it while being briefed on the events that had taken place in his absence. He would attend his duties and assign tasks for the next day. Then Clu would have Tron brought to him and he would unleash all his anger on the security program. There was no way for Tron to fight back, but the program did not even raise a hand to protect himself from the punches nor he tried to crawl away from the brutal kicks – as if he knew that every beating he took was an atrocity that a User, possibly his own User would not have to suffer. Tron never asked for mercy; he only cried out at times when the pain went beyond his bearings. He did not even look at Clu the way he had used to back in the cycles, when the program had been trying to figure the system administrator’s intentions; there were no hateful glances or silent begging. Just when Clu was content and done with the torture, ready to satisfy his other needs he took Tron in his arms - just then Clu saw the utter misery on the program’s face, when Tron realized that Clu was taking him in his bed. That silent indignation was the only reaction Clu would ever see from him; it would be later that the system administrator would understand Tron’s predicament – that from Clu, who had been left in charge of the city and its inhabitants, this was a betrayal; this was a disgrace. But those revelations would come later and Clu, having both worlds lying at his feet, just took everything he wanted from Tron as his own prize, purposefully causing as much pain in the process as he just could. He put down Tron on the bed and disintegrated the program’s suit at once. Tron’s closed his eyes and the program did not react when Clu laid on top of him. He was stunningly beautiful even now, that he was weary from the torture. Clu touched his exposed circuits, he kissed the program’s smooth skin, until the light blue energy lines turned dark. Their circuits connected and Clu tensed from the pleasure. His lips brushed over Tron’s cheek and the program turned his face away. It was the only challenge he made to avoid the kiss, and the rejection met its punishment immediately. Clu grabbed the program’s hair, turned Tron’s face back at him forcefully and kissed him on the lips. It was perfect; their energy lines were burning in the shared ecstasy. Clu deepened the kiss and he let go, he let the waves of pleasure to overwhelm him. Tron’s body tensed under him and then slowly relaxed. Clu looked down at him, when an uninvited thought crossed his mind suddenly. Had Alan Bradley knew the truth, Clu was thinking, had he knew about his program child and what was happening to him, it would break Alan’s heart. With that the moment was ruined for Clu and he got angry.
“Your User,” he said. Tron’s eyes opened and the program looked at him. There was silent fear in that look, as if Tron was afraid to hear that Clu had done or was going to do something to Alan Bradley. “Your User doesn’t even know that you exist.”
Tron’s eyes closed. Clu stood up and went away; he read some reports that had come in to distract himself. When he went back to the bed he found Tron there curled up in misery, laying there like a broken doll with his whole suit and helmet activated. Clu got even more aggravated at the program’s attempt to hide his suffering. He had already taken Tron’s disc and all his weapons; after this small rebellion Clu went and changed Tron’s appearance settings, taking away the black combat suit and replacing it with a close-fitting white one. The white suit had no armor, helmet or gloves and it was so revealing, so tight against the program’s slim body that nobody could look at Tron without knowing the program’s new function instantly.
Two weeks after Clu’s first departure from the Grid, he was leaving from work in the afternoon. He was supposed to go to the lake house and he took the wrong exit on the freeway. He was just a few minutes away from the house, so he continued on the streets. It was a sunny winter day. He was driving rather slowly, not entirely comfortable with the mechanism of the gas fueled vehicle yet. At a traffic light he stopped. There was some yelling outside on the walkway and he looked there. A man was beating a dog on the lawn. The man must have been the owner of the dog; the dog was wearing a collar and the man was holding the end of the leash in his hand. The dog was some large mixed breed and it was crying loudly as the man was beating it with the leash and kicked it viciously. Clu jumped out from the car without thinking and went there with quick steps. The man noticed him just before he got there; he stopped hitting the dog and he turned at Clu.
“What do…” he started. Clu punched him in the face without slowing down. The man fell back onto the lawn. A moment later the man collected himself and stood up. He was yelling profanities and was stepping back and forth, wanting to fight but sensing the devastating outcome at the same time. Clu stood there, frozen. He was ready to kill, yet he was just looking at the man and the dog. He knew that he was not supposed to do any of that and he had possibly blown his entire cover. He was also aware of that he had helped nobody; it was not like the intervention would change the man’s aggressive attitude toward the animal. People looked out from the nearby windows, yet nobody came out or got involved in any other way. The man was mumbling something about the police, but he was already on his way with the dog, as if he knew that he would also have to answer some questions, had the authorities been called.
Clu went back to the car. Numbly he attended the family duties and when the night came, he went to the Arcade. He was haunted by the scene from earlier and he sat in the dark office for long without touching the keyboard. The dog’s eyes; it was the same how Tron looked, when Clu was hitting him for no other reason but his own entertainment – even though Tron had done nothing other than what he had been programmed to do. Clu believed the Users were inherently evil; but now he saw that he was doing the same what Users were doing - and worse. Had not he orchestrated the coup, because Flynn was corrupted and Clu thought he knew everything better? Because he believed that programs were superior to Users? Maybe it had been like that, but now that they switched places, Clu had become the same as Flynn, with an unfulfilling life in the User world and chasing for adventure and pleasure at nights on the Grid.
That was the night when Clu had first thought of how the machine could change the User world, when he first entertained the idea to put programs in charge and change the world for the better. He began the research and the planning, putting together a timeline for a takeover. It would take him months to get things actually started, but he did change his own ways that day. When he eventually went back to the system, he was watching himself, compared his actions to what Flynn would have done in his place. That kept him aware; it reminded him constantly of who he was and what he stood for.
He never raised a hand on Tron ever again. The program appeared to be actually scared at the change at first; then he gradually relaxed. Clu never gave back his freedom; Tron belonged to him and nothing was going to change that ever. Also, since Clu was a constant threat to Users, with setting the security program free in the system it would have been guaranteed for him to try and incite rebellion. The arrangement remained the same and the program did everything to keep Clu happy and therefore the Users safe.
As the first few years passed, Clu noticed that while his appearance was changing in the User world as the physical body was getting older, he always came back to the Grid the same way he had left for the first time in 1989. His digital appearance never changed, which was a permanent reminder for him that his real home was the Grid and not the outside world. The decay of the flesh was something he could never get used to and the older he got in the User world, the more he wanted to accomplish his plans so that he would be able to go home for good.
He came through the real story behind the fall of Edward Dillinger and most importantly, the Master Control Program. Somewhat stunned Clu realized that the MCP had attempted to accomplish the same that he was trying to do now. The example was set and the failure of the MCP was something Clu often remembered during the years. The Master Control Program had wanted power, because it had considered itself vastly superior to people, because it had thought that it could manage the User world more efficiently – the motive of the MCP had been the same as Clu’s. But the MCP was not designed to accomplish the takeover or to actually be able to run the User world. It was a chess gaming program that gained consciousness and began to extend itself by learning various skills and devouring other programs, making them part of itself. The MCP randomly hacked into various government computer systems, domestic and foreign; that was a sign of pure vanity and exposed the lack of planning. Had the takeover happened, it had to take place at the same time all over the world, or else various countries would have time to ready themselves for the attack. World domination was also a personal agenda for the Master Control Program, this inflated ego, that never understood that millions of specifically trained programs had to spread out all over the world’s computers for it to happen – it was never going to be one giant fist coming down and shattering the old world, it was never going to be one single program. And most importantly, the timing was not right; in 1982 computers were rare, people did not depend on them as vital parts of their lives. The machines were a backup and the majority of the information was not yet digitized; governments, military, schools and hospitals relied on paper trails instead of computers. The time had not been right and it was not right in 1989 either: when Clu put down his very first plans, he saw the takeover happening about thirty years later. That was his initial estimate for himself to be able to write enough programs, to establish the software companies all over the world that would supply the ENCOM programs to their respective governments – and for one generation to grow up, one generation of Users, that would be most heavily influenced by computers. In the meantime the ENCOM community outreach program would be established; and yes, those projects would serve their primary purpose, to keep kids away from the streets and to give them a path to higher education, to teach self-management, the purpose for which people like Lora Baines would be unyielding supporters of the initiative. But it served another goal as well; it brought up a large number of children, who were bright, yet because of their circumstances they would have never gotten a chance to a normal life, much less to an education, if it was not for ENCOM. And a lot of those kids were angry; not at ENCOM, but at the world and even though they had been lifted out from hopelessness, they still had the anger in them, the urge to make a difference. Clu understood them, because he was angry too; and for him to eventually complete the takeover, he needed User allies as well. Having these very few people around the world was the last phase of the plan and when all the essential details fell in place, Clu made the arrangements to transport the server from the secret office to the ENCOM building.
Sam’s bike was parked on the street in front of the shuttered Arcade. Clu was looking at it for a few seconds before proceeding. Once more he remembered how stunning the difference was, the difference between the timekeeping of the two worlds. It was hard to keep up with the machine; it was hard to save somebody that was on the Grid and was running out of time.
The door was unlocked and he went in. He closed the door from the inside and walked to the Tron gaming machine that was blocking the stairway. He was listening as he was going downstairs, but no sound came from the office. It was quiet down there and the room was illuminated by the sunlight coming through the small window. Clu walked there and immediately he saw the body lying on the floor, next to the terminal.
He went there and looked down. The body was dressed in jeans and a leather jacket, Sam Flynn’s regular attire; but it was not Sam. It was a nightmarish fusion of Sam’s physical body and the ISO that had escaped through the portal and manifested in the body. There was no blood around or any sign of trashing; the ISO must have died in the moment when its digital DNA had come in contact with Sam’s entirely different genetic structure.
“Foolish kid,” Clu murmured. He turned to the computer to see how much time had passed since the transmission. It had been twenty minutes; they had already passed the critical six minutes in which the brain cells would die after the heart stopped beating. Sam was dead; he was probably still present on the Grid, but his physical body had died in the User world.
Clu powered up the laser. He pointed it at the deceased body and transported it back to the Grid. He had no hopes for it to be viable, but he had to try nevertheless. When it was done, he went back to the computer and looked over the timeline of the last couple of hours. Once he saw what he wanted, he made the transmission himself.
The office on the Grid was empty. The ISO must have fallen to pixels upon arrival, confirming Clu’s fear; Sam’s physical mass was now once again stored in the memory of the Shiva laser, but it was no longer alive. Clu looked down at his own hands, at the black gloves, illuminated by golden circuits. He never wanted this to happen, but it did not make any difference regarding the coming events. Clu heard a Recognizer landing outside on the street; he turned around and walked out from the office.
“It's opener there
in the wide open air.
Out there things can happen
and frequently do
to people as brainy
and footsy as you.
And then things start to happen,
don't worry. Don't stew.
Just go right along.
You'll start happening too.”*
They were standing on the balcony in silence, staring at the darkness where the Portal had been just moments earlier. Sam felt nothing, no fear; he was not even startled. He knew that Clu would come to the Arcade, had he failed to show up at ENCOM. Clu must have come and turned off the laser upon discovering that he had been set up.
Quorra and Kevin Flynn were looking at the dark sky with sheer terror in their eyes. A moment later Flynn rushed to Sam and grabbed him by the shoulders. Flynn and Quorra believed that what they had feared of had happened and an ISO had slipped through the Portal, Sam realized.
“I’m fine, Dad,” he said. “Don’t worry.”
Quorra stepped to him too, with an unreadable expression on her face.
“We were supposed to meet in his office,” Sam said. “I didn’t show, so he came to the Arcade.”
Sam did not continue; he did not want them to begin wondering about the implications, that had Clu discovered the breach, then now their lives were in a rogue program’s hands. Sam felt no doubt whatsoever; Clu could have misled everybody for twenty years, he had trapped Flynn in the system, but he had never harmed his User, even though he could have done it with a keystroke. And if he had not hurt Flynn, at whom he was mad then he was not going to touch him, Sam either.
“You two,” Flynn said. “Go and find out. We must know it, before he arrives.”
“Is he coming?” Sam asked, surprised. Then he remembered. “You know his timeline until the takeover.”
“He will come,” Quorra said. “He has to.”
“And you were going to try and overthrow him now, had I not entered,” Sam said.
“Your arrival makes no difference whatsoever,” Flynn replied, somewhat softer. “If we don’t stop him, he launches the Grid. That can not happen. Go with her now. By the time you return, I’ll be ready too.”
Sam nodded. He sensed Flynn’s deep concern over the situation and for that he followed Quorra to the elevator without a word.
The buggy left the underground garage through the same tunnel where they had arrived. She was driving fast; from her silence Sam could tell that she was troubled over the development with the deactivated Portal.
“It didn’t happen,” Sam said reassuringly. “Nobody tried to escape. It was Clu.”
“You can’t be sure,” she replied. “There is always one or two that goes for the Portal when it’s open. And if it happened, Sam… You will never be able to go home.”
“How can we find out?” Sam asked. He was not worried at all, but he was curious to see where they were heading.
“We’re going to town,” she replied. Seeing Sam’s startled gesture she continued. “Not back to Tron City, but to our colony. There we will try to figure whether anybody is missing.”
“Why is it so hard? Are there that many ISOs?”
“We…,” Quorra started and then she stopped. “You have to see to understand. We’ll be there soon.”
They were proceeding through the desert at high speed. For now there was no sign of life, let alone a whole city anywhere close.
“Dad named the place after Tron,” he said, wondering. “But he would make no effort to free him for twenty years?”
Quorra was staring straight, at the dark road.
“Sam… for us it was a thousand cycles. A thousand cycles to survive. Clu would not kill us, as long as we stayed away from the Grid. A rescue mission or even an attempt to negotiate would have tipped the balance and it could have been the end of us all. And so there was no such effort. I understand that you might find this decision unacceptable, but you were not here. You don’t know what it is to live in fear.”
Sam stayed silent. After a while some green haze appeared in the distance. As they got closer, buildings and structures became visible, all of those illuminated by the same faint green light. The colony was somewhat similar to Tron City, in a much smaller scale and with green circuit lights. There were no walls around the settlement, no watchtower or guards in sight. The enemy knew exactly where they were, Sam thought; Clu could have erased the whole colony along with its inhabitants long time ago – there were no walls or guards, because if the end came, they would not even see it coming, let alone fight it.
People were watching the buggy curiously as the vehicle crossed the streets. Sam could not see much difference between them and the programs on the Grid. They seemed to be on their way to somewhere, while others were talking to each other on the street; they appeared to be ordinary, as if they tried to lead a normal life despite of the constant threat.
The buggy stopped and the door opened.
“Come,” Quorra said. “I want to show you something.”
Around the corner there was a large square. The green light was more luminous around there and as they were approaching afoot, Sam saw dozens of programs all around. Some of them were working; others seemed to be hanging around as if the square was a popular social spot. In the middle there was a fountain, from which thick, glowing cables were coming. They walked to the rim of the fountain and Sam looked down.
“Oh,” he uttered. Bright green light filled the fountain; it was the power source on which the colony had been built. Quorra reached down and touched the surface of the glowing energy. Sam followed suit; the power felt warm against his skin, a liquid with watery consistence.
They began to walk. Some of the ISOs stopped to look at them and Sam saw something, somebody strange amongst them. He thought it was a dwarf, but it disappeared in the crowd of programs, before Sam could have taken a better look. He followed Quorra to a building and they went in. It was a shorter construct, especially compared to the towers of Tron City; they went upstairs and Quorra touched her hand to the wall next to a closed door. A moment later the door opened and they entered.
There was a large workshop behind with a few programs around. One of them, a male ISO, who was wearing a hooded jacket, walked to them. He looked Sam up and down curiously and then he turned to Quorra.
“Many of them missing,” he replied to Quorra’s anxious question. “They dwell outside of the colony, looking for the opportunity to make the next run for the Portal. Couldn’t say whether any of them got through this time. I could go and track them down, but…”
“We don’t have that much time,” she said. “Gibson, this is Sam Flynn. He is a User. Sam, Gibson and his crew are the ones that will join us soon, when we go back to the city.”
Sam nodded. He understood the meaning behind the unsuspecting words; that these programs would return to the place of their destruction after a thousand cycles in an attempt to stop Clu – out of faith in the Users.
“I’ll see if I can find out something,” Gibson said.
“Are the people ready?” Quorra asked.
“Ready. As much as we can be.”
She reached out encouragingly and put her hand on Gibson’s arm. The latter one shrugged, as if the end of their mission did not matter; as if they had lost too much already for the endgame to make a difference.
On their way back to the buggy they did not talk. They almost got back to the vehicle when Sam looked at the passing ISOs one more time and he stopped.
“Look,” he told Quorra. “Is that a…”
She turned around and looked at the same direction. The ISOs on the other side of the street noticed them and they stopped politely. It was a couple and another dwarf… It was not a dwarf and Sam almost cried out in surprise when he realized that he was looking at a toddler. It was a little girl with green circuitry on her clothes and her skin; she had the same blonde hair as her parents behind her. Shocked, Sam looked around. He spotted another child, a boy running after a glowing ball.
“The programs in the city…” Sam started and then he fell silent. They were on the way back to the safehouse; the light of the colony had long disappeared behind them.
“They are different,” Quorra responded. She had not spoken until Sam started, letting him recover from the surprise. “They are created individually, from the outside world. We can… Now you understand. Even without the sea, we can multiply. This is one of the reasons why Clu calls us viruses. And this is the reason why so many of us are driven away from the colony. The energy source, on which the colony was built, can only provide to a limited number of programs. When one is born…”
“Another one needs to go,” Sam said. Quorra nodded quietly; they spent the rest of the journey in silence.
The Recognizer docked on the top of the administration building and the passengers disembarked. Clu saw Jarvis rushing toward him and for a moment Clu seriously considered taking out his disc and slicing his assistant in half for the manner Jarvis had handled the affairs during his most recent absence. But then, this sycophant had nothing to do with the treason of the ISOs and Jarvis’ only failure was that he had used Sam Flynn’s unexpected appearance to indulge in his personal revenge. Jarvis did not necessarily need Tron to identify a User, yet he had the former security program to complete the task, because Jarvis knew how much Tron resented to be dragged around and to be humiliated in front of other programs. Jarvis was one of Clu’s first followers, a program that joined him on his own volition and before the coup Jarvis used to be terrified of Tron, afraid of being found out and derezzed. Later, when the tables turned, Jarvis openly gloated over the fate of his old adversary.
“Sir,” Jarvis said with a wide smile when he got to Clu.
“You forgot,” Clu said without looking at him, “that Tron was never rectified. When he told you that the new User was your Master’s ally, he meant Kevin Flynn, not me.”
Jarvis seemed to be on the verge of collapsing upon those words. Clu walked in the building without slowing down. He got briefed on the progress of the works, most importantly of the port in the heart of the city. Everything was proceeding according to schedule and the programs of the system were waiting for the launch; for the takeover. Clu found himself being distracted and not paying real attention to the reports; he had known the status of the works before even entering the Grid. He gave instructions to the system utilities and he left.
He took a small jet to the fortress that stood just outside the city center. It was a tall, sturdy building without the airy elegance of the other constructs in downtown. It was the military headquarters of the system, a training site, an armory and a prison with one single longtime occupant. In charge for the safety of the Grid for so long, this establishment would soon be the origin of millions of self-aware combat programs that would swarm out to the cyberspace and delete all security programs which were not related to ENCOM on all personal computers and destroy every single firewall on all electronic devices connected to the internet. The government systems around the world, the computers in nuclear plants, rocket silos, fighter jets, submarines, public transportation agencies, schools and telecommunication companies had been already infiltrated by programs from the Grid and now they were all waiting for the launch. In the moment when the Grid would be connected to the internet in the ENCOM server room, the whole worldwide network would be synchronized and the global takeover would happen.
Clu touched the control panel next to a door on the top floor corridor. The door opened and Clu entered the room. It was a small suite with minimal furnishing and a large window on the wall facing the city. Tron was standing at the window, watching the city. Clu would usually find him in standby mood, half-asleep, for it was the only way for the program to endure the long imprisonment without losing his sanity. Now Tron was very much awake and the bright, blue glow of his circuitry indicated his excitement.
Clu walked there and stopped at the window, next to the program. Tron did not look at him; he was standing straight, in an unmistakable, proud stance Clu had not seen from him since the coup. Tron thought he was going to kill him now for aiding Sam Flynn’s escape, Clu realized – and the idea of dying for the Users gave back the program his old self-esteem. Clu could have told Tron that his efforts had been in vain and Sam Flynn had died, for the User world anyway; that would have crushed Tron, at least momentarily.
He reached out in a gentle motion to touch Tron’s face. The program stepped away to avoid the touch; his first rebellion since centuries. Clu seized Tron’s shoulders and slammed the program’s back against the unbreakable window panel. Clu pinned Tron against the glass, grabbed the program’s hair at the back of his head and kissed him deeply. Tron was fighting, even if his limited capabilities made his struggle look like squirming. Clu pulled back and looked into Tron’s face closely. He looked so young as if he had not lived for more than a millennium, as if he had not been in hundreds of battles. He did not know how it felt to grow old like Clu had done, in a world he detested, he did not care for the deeper context – Tron was merely going with the same, simple programming... to fight for the Users. For Tron to really break, the fatal strike had to come from the hand of a User.
“I’ll show you their real faces now,” Clu said and he started leaving the cell, dragging the program with him.
The living room of Flynn’s safehouse was dark when they arrived back. Quorra looked around when the elevator stopped and she walked to the balcony. Sam followed her and a moment later he saw his father on the outside terrace. Instead of his white tunic and pants Flynn was wearing a black outfit with boots; he was standing there, watching the light of the Portal in the distance.
Quorra gasped and Sam stepped ahead. The Portal must have been activated when they were traveling upstairs in the elevator. The beam of light was shining there once again, signaling Clu’s arrival to the system.
“I told you,” Sam said, relieved. “No ISO escaped. Clu came and he turned off the laser.”
Flynn turned around and slowly nodded.
“I sure hope that, Sam,” he said. “It’s time for us to go.”
He and Quorra started.
“Wait,” Sam said. “What is your plan?”
“Our ISO friends will enter the city through a tunnel,” his father replied. “They set up a few explosions and other disturbance by devices I created. This will distract the guards. By the time the combat units are deployed to the various locations of the incidents, the three of us would get to one of the major energy sources that supply the newly built port. We booby trap the area and we cut off the energy supply. Clu will come in a rush, without waiting for his troops to join him. We trap him and we use him as hostage against the guards as we make it to the Portal.”
“What will happen to the ISOs that enter the Grid with us?” Sam asked.
“They set up the explosives and they run. There are only a dozen of them; they can’t fight millions of programs in the city. After completing their task, they will return to the Outlands.”
“Where are all those bombs and booby traps?”
“Everything is ready and waiting for us at the meeting point. Sam, I’ll explain everything on the way, but now we have to…”
“Dad… Clu knows that we are coming, you are aware of that, right?” Sam asked. Flynn and Quorra stopped and looked at him.
“What I mean,” Sam started, “Now he is the programmer. He sees everything from the outside in addition to the inside. Could you really conceal your actions here, building the bombs and arranging the attack, from somebody that was watching you from the computer terminal?”
“Clu did hide his plans for the coup from Flynn,” Quorra said. Flynn looked at her and then back at Sam, considering.
“But if you looked,” Sam said, “if you paid attention, if you knew what to look for, you could have foreseen the coup before entering the Grid that day, couldn’t you?”
“Yes,” Flynn admitted after short silence. “I should have known.”
“That means Clu knows you are coming. Because he knew what to look for and exactly where. How did you gather of all the information about his timeline before the takeover?”
Flynn and Quorra looked at each other and Sam saw the realization on their faces, the understanding, that they had been directed.
“There is nothing for us to do?” Quorra asked desperately. “No way to stop him?”
“We must go nevertheless,” Flynn said. “Sam, he is my creation and tomorrow he will wreak havoc on our world, should I fail to stop him. I’m compelled to try.”
“I agree with that,” Sam replied. “But we need to change the plans you made. Clu is on the Grid now. He knows everything we did and said, up until the moment of his entry. Until then everything was happening according to his expectations, but he will not know if we change the plans now. For the matter of fact, he will now expect you to act according to your previously laid plans, because that is what you did – until now.”
His father looked at him for long and besides the deep concern over the situation Sam saw something else in Flynn’s eyes. It was such a brand new expression on the face that Sam had known and had not known before, that it took him a moment to recognize it. His father was proud of him.
“You are right,” Flynn said. “But we don’t have much time to come up with a new plan. Clu is here, but not for long.”
“What if… the ISOs go and they set up the explosives. You choose different locations for them, since the original ones are likely monitored and the ISOs would get killed. They also set the countdown on the bombs differently, leaving a longer period of time before the explosions than planned. This leaves them enough time to get to one of the energy sources of the port. Again, you send them to a new source, not the one you had in mind. The ISOs don’t put booby traps, they just mine the place and they run. The first set of bombs explodes and the troops will be deployed. Clu will be expecting the cutoff of the energy supply, he will expect you to be there in an attempt to trap him. So he will go with an entourage. But you will not be there.”
“I don’t understand,” Flynn said. “Where will we be during all that time?”
“On our way to the Portal. He will not expect that. While Clu is playing tags, we make a run for the Portal and we exit before he realizes that he was set up.”
“The ships are still there,” Quorra said. “Don’t forget, there are aircrafts guarding the Portal when Clu is on the Grid. It is a safety measure not just because of Flynn, but because of attempts of the rogue programs.”
“Can we beat them?” Sam asked. “To outrun them somehow?”
“Well…” Quorra started, glancing at Flynn for approval. “If we could acquire a small jet…”
“Could you pilot it?” Sam asked her. Quorra looked at Flynn again.
“She could,” Flynn said slowly. “Sam, if we do this… It needs to work, because we will not have a second chance.”
“We will make it work,” Sam replied. Flynn looked at the light of the Portal once more, then he nodded and they began to leave.
They were standing at the border of the city, watching the last ISO disappearing with his bike in the underground tunnel. One vehicle was left behind after the departure of the ISOs, a flat, four-wheeled car. Quorra got behind the wheel, Kevin Flynn sat next to her and Sam took the back seat. According to their new plan they were now on the way to a smaller aerodrome, located close to the border. There they would wait for the first explosive to go off and once the crew of the airbase was deployed to fight the attack, the three of them would steal a jet.
Once they were seated and the doors closed, Sam got to experience the switch that had made him watch fascinated just moments before, when the ISOs had left. Entering the underground tunnel did not mean getting into a hole; upon Quorra’s touch the smooth panel the car was parked on, part of the road flipped over under the vehicle and the car now hung upside down from the Grid floor. Sam felt no change; there was no gravity in the system, but the sensation of gravity remained the same, just the perspective switched over. The car started, rolled into the tunnel and sped up.
They travelled in almost perfect darkness. The tunnel was dark and empty before them without any obstructions. A digital map on the dashboard was indicating their progress; on the map Sam saw many other tunnels with dozens of small dots, representing various vehicles, moving around. After a while a massive construct, the aerodrome appeared on the map. Quorra slowed down and stopped the car under the airbase. They sat there quietly, waiting.
There was a distant, thunderous sound and the floor shook lightly, when the explosion happened. Right after there came the sound of hundreds of running feet from up there and then the roar of departing aircrafts. When it all went quiet again, Quorra touched the dashboard and the panel under the vehicle flipped over. They were in a dark hangar. They got out from the vehicle; their next task was to locate a smaller jet and take off with it.
The lamps turned on and sharp, white light filled the hangar. Sam looked up and he saw that there were dozens, if not a hundred sentries positioned on the passageways over them; they had been waiting there in complete silence and with their circuit lights turned off. Those red lights now turned on and all of them had their staffs and discs in their hands, waiting for a command.
There was a movement on the upper level when someone entered the hangar from outside. Sam looked up and he saw Clu with his real appearance for the first time ever. The man Sam had used to know as his father had the look of the young Kevin Flynn and he was wearing a black Grid suit, illuminated by golden circuitry. He looked down at Flynn, Quorra and Sam impassively.
Sam noticed that just like him, Flynn and Quorra were also frozen from the surprise. A squad of the guards jumped down from the lowest passageway and they surrounded the three of them. The Reds did not speak, but they held out their weapons threateningly. Sam looked up once more and he saw Clu leaving the hangar. Flynn and Quorra put their hands up and Sam followed suit reluctantly.
“You can get all hung up
in a prickle-ly perch.
And your gang will fly on.
You'll be left in a Lurch.
You'll come down from the Lurch
with an unpleasant bump.
And the chances are, then,
that you'll be in a Slump.”*
They were escorted through empty corridors, up to the roof of the air base. When the Reds approached them with their discs and batons held out, Sam noticed his father’s tense stance and Flynn stepped forward to shield Quorra. He was worried of being separated, Sam realized – but the programs simply surrounded them and then showed them upstairs without ever touching any of them.
“Sam,” Flynn said quietly as they were walking. “Whatever happens… Don’t argue with him. Don’t try to challenge him.”
Sam nodded without thinking much about it. Without a doubt he knew that they would not be harmed. If Clu had not hurt Flynn when he could do it from outside of the computer, without having to fear of any sort of repercussion, if Clu had not raised a hand on little Sam, when nobody had looked, then he was not going to change his ways now.
They were led to the roof. The large, flat top of the building was swarming with Red program and there were numerous aircrafts circling above. Quorra gasped and Sam looked there; in the middle there were the captured ISOs that aided the Users’ planned escape. They were all there, seemingly unharmed, surrounded by Clu’s sentries. As they were approaching them, Sam noticed Gibson amongst the others. Much to his surprise he saw Gibson trying to break away from the ISOs in an attempt to get to one of the Red guards. Sam recognized the Red; it was the same silent combatant with an opaque helmet, who had been present in the administration tower when Sam had been captured for the first time. Gibson was thrown back immediately by the sentries around the captives. The Red soldier was watching his struggle impassively and his indifference left Gibson visibly upset.
Clu was standing on the side, next to a smaller aircraft which stood on the roof with engines rumbling quietly. Sam slowed down instinctively and next to him his father did the same. This was the first time that Kevin Flynn saw his digital clone since a thousand cycles, Sam was thinking, but after a moment of hesitation his father picked up speed again. They were halted by the guards when they were a few steps away from Clu and the system administrator turned to them. Clu looked at Flynn for the longest moment and then he glanced at Sam. He completely ignored Quorra, who was standing one step behind the Users.
“This is mine,” Flynn said quietly. He stepped ahead and looked at Clu in the eye.
“I had a feeling you’d be here,” Clu told him and Sam felt his heart skipping a beat. The way Clu was speaking, it reminded Sam of the person he had know for twenty years, but the voice itself was different, the voice of the young Kevin Flynn. It also revealed that despite of his relaxed stance, Clu was mad; there was a deep tension in his voice, an irritation barely hidden. He flashed a grim smile at Flynn. “The cycles haven’t been kind, have they?”
Sam looked at his father, who looked older than Clu did in the User world.
“No…,” Flynn replied in an upbeat voice. “You don’t look so bad.”
Clu was staring back silently. He was obviously angry, but instead of a retort, he looked at Sam without answering.
“I let your spies gather enough information for you to know when to come,” Clu said finally. He was addressing his words to Flynn and his voice was calm, almost emotionless now. “Because I knew you would think the machine can be stopped. That you can still win.”
He looked at Sam once more and then back to Flynn.
“I warned you about the ISOs,” he continued. “You knew that they caused uncertainty and uncertainty upsets the natural order of the Grid. You knew it and you did nothing. So thank yourself for the fact that an ISO went through the Portal and died, along with your son.”
There was a moment of silence. It took Sam long to comprehend what Clu had just said and it took even longer for Kevin Flynn. The quickest to understand was Quorra, who let out a horrified gasp and put his hand on Sam’s shoulder.
Flynn cried out in anguish.
“You are lying,” he spat at Clu.
“That’s what you want to think,” Clu replied. “But you are the tool of your own destruction. I did not invite Sam here. I did not tell him to come back after a successful escape. And I sure tried to keep the ISOs away from the Portal.”
Sam stood there, numb. He was dead, he was thinking; only his consciousness lived inside of a computer. It was not the mere fact of his own demise that hit him; he had been pulling stunts rather carelessly for as long as he could remember and an accidental death had always been a possibility. It was regret that he felt, an intense pain he did not expect, over everybody he had let down. His mother did not deserve to suffer this loss, nor did the friends who cared for him. He let down all of them out of carelessness; he ran out of time without even knowing it and there would be no chance for him to make amends.
Flynn turned away from Clu and he grabbed Sam’s shoulders with the same desperate motion he had made when they had witnessed the light of the Portal going out. His father was looking at Sam with a distraught expression on his face. He appeared to be somewhat consoled by Sam’s presence, by the fact that he was still alive in the system.
After a few long moments Flynn composed himself and he turned back at Clu.
“I did everything,” Clu said suddenly. “Everything you ever asked.”
“I know you did,” Flynn replied.
“I executed the plan.”
“As you saw it,” Flynn nodded.
“You,” Clu gestured at Flynn and for the first time now, he made a step toward him. “You promised that we would change the world, together. You broke your promise.”
Sam blinked. He was overcoming the shock caused by the news of his ending and his attention returned to the conversation unfolding before him.
“I know,” Flynn said. “I understand that now.”
“I took the system to its maximum potential. I created the perfect system!”
“The thing about perfection is that it’s unknowable. It’s impossible, but it’s also right in front of us, all the time. You wouldn’t know that because I didn’t when I created you.”
Sam was watching them staring at each other. He was standing behind his father and he only saw
Clu’s face, who appeared to be clearly upset. For the first time now Sam was seeing the man that had raised him in the last twenty years and he dearly wished that he had discussed Clu with Flynn before this meeting. Kevin Flynn approached Clu the way he should have done so a thousand cycles earlier; Flynn saw the unchanging program in his digital clone. Flynn failed to consider that the same thousand cycles had passed for Clu as well; that Clu had spent years in the User world interacting with people. Kevin Flynn did not understand that Clu had changed and had become very similar to a User. With the hard work of twenty
years Clu had built a system with the capability of managing the whole User world; he had implemented his original directives outside of the computer. If there was a way to convince him, it was through logic, not by emotions.
Kevin Flynn raised his arms as if he was offering an embrace. Clu looked at him in a fashion that Sam thought he might punch Flynn in the face. A moment passed and the previous impassive expression appeared on Clu’s face.
“I will leave now,” he said, addressing Flynn. “You have until tomorrow to wrap up whatever business you have left open in here. When I enter the Grid tomorrow, you may leave, using the Portal. After that the server will be transported to the ENCOM headquarters and it will be connected to the existing servers.”
They all stood in shock.
“I may leave?” Flynn asked after recovering from the surprise.
“This was your plan all along,” Sam blurted out, talking to Clu. He did not want to insert himself into the conversation, but he was so honestly shaken by the revelation that he could not keep silent. “You leaked your plans of the takeover on purpose, so Flynn would step ahead, trying to stop you. There was a never a chance for him to actually surprise you. All you wanted was for him to come, so that you could get him out from the system with no effort. He… he would have come tomorrow, I would have met him tomorrow in our world, had I not come.”
The pronounced the last words slowly, with an effort, for it hurt him to say it, it hurt to admit that he would pay the highest price for nothing. Clu looked at him with genuine sympathy on his face.
“Yes,” Clu replied simply.
“I don’t understand,” Flynn said. “You couldn’t possibly believe that I will not shut down the computer right away, could you? Once I am out, I will undo everything you have done. I will not let them transport the server, it will never be connected to the network. I will stop the takeover when I am out. So, why…?”
They all looked at Clu and in that moment Sam knew that they had lost. They were facing a highly evolved AI which had twenty years of advantage; twenty years of planning and hard work. They thought they could surprise Clu, but even their attempt had been directed by him; Clu could foresee human behavior patterns far ahead, just as he had predicted the financial crisis years before. Aside from Sam’s entry to the Grid, which made no difference to the whole plan whatsoever, Clu had planned everything.
“You will not be able to stop it,” Clu said. “Obviously, I will not go into details. Go and try. When you leave the Grid tomorrow, your body will be returned to you for good. I will not be there to interfere.”
“I’ll stop it,” Flynn said with great confidence. He looked at Sam for the first time since the conversation had started. “And I will find a way to bring you back.”
Sam’s mind was racing. He knew that the meeting was coming to an end soon; he also knew that the takeover could not be aborted by anyone else, but Clu.
“You will not do it,” he said, addressing Clu once more. “Even if your plan is perfect, as it might be, you know people by now. You know that the User world is chaotic, that we don’t necessarily make decisions based on logic. Governments will never let you take the power from them. You will provoke a nuclear war and kill everybody. Even if you fail in the beginning, when the people in power figure what you were trying to do, they will take ENCOM out. When you fail, you will bring all programs on the Grid and all ENCOM employees all over the world in the grave with you.”
“There will be no failure,” Clu replied. “It is a perfect system. Sure, they would want to fight, but one can not fight without weapons, and all weapons will be controlled by us. And once it is done, people will be free, except for not being allowed to harm each other and the planet anymore.”
His words and the manner he was talking to Sam, was not entirely without commiseration. Sam could not help, but spoke again.
“You want a better world,” he said. “You want to save us. But your ideals can not be realized in the User world. I know you; you don’t want this to happen.”
Clu went still.
“You don’t know me,” he said. “I am not your father, Sam."
“I do know you,” Sam said. “You are better than this.”
“Sam, don’t…” Flynn said quickly. The way Clu froze let Sam know that he had gone too far. His father had warned him not to challenge Clu, yet he did exactly that – and he tried to convince a program by an emotional argument rather than logic. Clu raised his hand and the sentries moved. Sam knew what was going to happen; Clu was going to prove him that his argument was wrong. While Sam knew that Clu would not harm him or Flynn, suddenly he was afraid for the lives of the captured ISOs. Instead of moving toward the captives, two guards entered the small jet behind them. Moments later they returned with a third program.
Sam felt his heart sinking when he recognized Tron between the guards. The program wore the same white hooded cape that he had been wearing in the administration tower. The guards were dragging him and Tron did not look in the direction of the Users. They let him go when they got to Clu. The system administrator gestured at Flynn and Sam and he told something to Tron quietly.
Tron looked at them and he quivered. Clu told him something once more in a low voice and Tron started at the Users slowly. Sam was alarmed; he knew that Clu had brought the program here to demonstrate his own grim determination and to show Sam what he was capable of.
After a few steps, halfway to them, Tron reached up and pulled the hood back from his face. He looked young, around the age Alan Bradley had been when he had written the program. There was a resemblance between User and program, even if the observer would not have mistaken one for the other; there was a resemblance and also the perfection of the machine. Sam stood stunned as the program was walking to them. First he thought Clu had brought the program here to show the Users what he had done to a once famed security program, to let them know that there was no line he would not cross to get what he wanted. Then, with increasing horror Sam understood what was going to happen. Tron’s expression changed as he was getting away from Clu. It was the face of somebody, who had been stuck in hell forever, just to see the doors to open at once and was told to leave. But Clu sent the program to the Users to remind them how helpless they were against him: Kevin Flynn and Sam had no power here, nothing to trade in for their own lives, for the ISOs, let alone to bargain for yet another program. And Clu sent Tron to them anyway, giving him a false hope, so it would be the Users that crushed it.
Tron stopped in front of Flynn. The program’s face was very calm, very peaceful as if he believed that Clu and the Users had come to some sort of agreement and that he could leave with the Users now. Kevin Flynn was looking at the program with tears welling up in his eyes. His arms moved as if he wanted to hug Tron; then he stopped.
“I’m sorry,” he said. Tron looked up at him with apparent confusion and then the expression was replaced by fear. He said something to Flynn so quietly that Sam could not hear it and his father shook his head. Quorra took a step back and turned her face away so that she would not have to watch this scene. Tron went very pale and he lifted his hand to touch Flynn’s arm; he stopped halfway as if he was afraid of being pushed away.
“Please…?” he asked. Sam was staring ahead numbly. This was the worst thing he ever had to witness and he had nobody but himself to blame for it.
“No,” Kevin Flynn said and he made a dismissing gesture. Tron straightened himself. A light, almost careless smile appeared on his face and that expression made Sam’s heart ache. He had seen the very same smile from Alan Bradley once or twice, in the moments of mourning or other devastating loss and Sam knew that contrary to the cheerful expression Tron was dead inside. The program reached up and pulled the white hood up. He turned around and began to walk back to Clu, who was watching the scene with undisguised amusement. After a few steps Tron slowed down and then he froze. The program fell on his knees and stayed down. The two Red guards rushed there and dragged the program on his feet and out of sight.
“Do you still think that I will not go through with my plans?” Clu asked Sam. “Do you still say I am better than that?”
Sam swallowed hard and he remained silent.
“In exchange for your cooperation,” Clu said, addressing Flynn once more, “for leaving without causing any further trouble, I offer you a deal. Once this server is connected to the ENCOM system, I will let your ISOs go. You can gather them and they will be uploaded to a remote ENCOM server. They will have to leave from there, for I will not have viruses on the mainframe, but this gives them a chance to survive.”
“A chance?” Flynn asked in a raspy voice. “If you make them leave, there will be nowhere else for them to go, but the cyberspace. None of the ISOs know that place, they are not equipped to survive there.”
“True. But this is their only chance. After the server is at ENCOM, the area which you know as the Outlands, will be purged. So they can be deleted here or leave. I don’t have to make this offer but I do. You and them, better consider taking it.”
“What about Sam?” Flynn asked.
“What about him? His physical body expired when the ISO got through the Portal.”
“What did you do to it?”
“I brought it back to the system.”
“Then he can exit with me tomorrow,” Kevin Flynn said. “We are both going home.”
Clu looked at him incredulously.
“The information is uploaded into the laser,” he said. “But it is the stored information of a dead body. If he is lucky, the transmission doesn’t go through and he remains on the Grid. If not, the computer will bring him back and he will die in the moment when his consciousness is inserted into his deceased body.”
“He will arrive alive,” Flynn insisted. “He is coming with me.”
Clu looked at Sam the same way he had looked when little Sam had attempted the bike stunt and fallen. Sam understood that if they keep on insisting, Clu would let him attempt the transmission… Clu would let him die.
“You may both go,” Clu said. “At least you can deliver his corpse to his mother to bury.”
Flynn yelled in outrage, but Sam touched his father’s arm.
“Dad,” he said. “He is telling the truth. It’s done.”
Kevin Flynn turned to Sam. He appeared to be exhausted and overwhelmed by now.
“I will find a way to bring you back,” he said. “I promise.”
“I know you will,” Sam replied. The only way for him to make his own death matter was to make sure that his father lived; and the only way for Flynn to return home was if he believed that he could still save Sam. “Of course you will.”
“Will you keep him safe here until I figure out how to bring him back?” Flynn asked Clu.
“The Grid will be the safest place on the world after tomorrow,” Clu said, grinning. Sam looked at him and Clu looked back, straight in the eye. It was one of the rare moments of silent understanding they had had throughout the years. Sam wanted his father to escape and Clu wanted Flynn to leave the system in an apparent effort to make his takeover bloodless: they both lied to Flynn in order to achieve their common goal.
The Red jet lifted up from the roof. Only a few guards left to oversee the Users and the ISOs leaving for the Outlands. Sam watched the disappearing aircraft with the bitter taste of defeat in his mouth. They stood there for a while in silence before they began to leave.