This story pulls from every entry in the Legacy timeline, including Uprising and the Flynn Lives ARG. I've fudged a few of the canon dates to help with the story flow, but things should be internally consistent. Any events from non-film entries will be given enough of an explanation that you won't have to have read/played/watched them to understand what's going on, but it might help to be familiar. For those interested, since many of the old websites are down, an overview of the ARG can be found here .
Please enjoy the ride!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
If there was one thing Alan truly hated about his job at ENCOM, it was going over paperwork. He could work at it for hours and still have a mountain of files to review. He drained the last of his coffee and set the mug back on the table with a thunk, then looked at his watch and sighed; a quarter till three. He had to be up in a few hours to head into the office. He would be napping during lunch again, no question.
With a small groan, he took his glasses off and rubbed at his face with the heels of his hands. As he contemplated the merits of going to sleep now and trying to finish reviewing everything in the morning, the revving of an engine outside reached his ears. He dropped his hands and looked at the window; a headlight was shining through the curtains. He shook his head and pushed himself up off the couch, heading towards the window. Only one person would have the audacity to ride their motorcycle through Alan’s very quiet neighborhood in the middle of the night.
The revving stopped as he pulled back the curtain. By the light from his front door, he could see a familiar silhouette walking up his drive. The figure waved a little as Alan watched. He let the curtain drop back into place and went around to the entryway.
“Hey buddy!” Flynn was already grinning at him when he opened the door. His hair was a mess—no helmet, as usual—and his motorcycle jacket was already slung over his shoulder. “Can I come in?” He stepped inside before Alan could answer and immediately went into the living room from the entryway, leaving Alan to shut the door behind him.
“It’s a bit late for house calls, you know,” Alan said as he stepped back into the living room. Flynn was sitting on the arm of the couch, his jacket laying in the armchair a few feet away.
“It’s what, like one in the morning? That’s not that late.”
“It’s almost three, actually.” Alan nudged him as he slid by to take his seat again. “Sit properly, you’ll ruin the arm.”
“Sorry, sorry.” Instead of sitting, Flynn pushed himself to his feet and rounded on Alan with another wide grin. “Anyway, buddy, I—wait, are you working?” he interrupted himself, frowning at the papers spread on the coffee table. “What’s all that?”
“The proposed contracts for that shipping company you’re interested in. Legal’s been trying to iron out the specifics we talked about last week,” Alan said. He lifted a stack and held it up so Flynn could see. “They wanted you to look it over, but you haven’t been in the office the last two days, so they gave it to me.”
“Yeah? Sorry, man. Send me a copy, I’ll take a look when I go in tomorrow.” Flynn looked apologetic, but didn’t make any excuses about his absence. Alan didn’t expect him to—he’d long since given up trying to get Flynn to keep a normal work schedule. Flynn tugged the stack out of his hands and started flipping through it quickly. He glanced at the table again. “Is all of that contract stuff?”
Alan sat back with a sigh and took off his glasses, rubbing at his eyes. Coffee or no coffee, he needed to sleep soon. “No, it’s from a few other departments—programming sent me a few things to look at, too.”
“Ram’s new project? How’s that going?”
“Pretty well. Roy thinks they’ll be finishing on schedule, anyway. I’m just trying to double check a few things before we give them the okay to go into the next stage.” He started re-sorting the papers, trying to tame the mess into something slightly more manageable.
Flynn handed him the stack of contracts and watched as he put the papers into piles by department. He crossed his arms, tapping the fingertips of one of his hands against his elbow in apparent restlessness. “You work too much, man,” he said.
“One of us has to.”
Flynn didn’t even bother looking offended. “You’re the best guy for the job.” He smiled warmly at Alan, who couldn’t help but smile back just a little, annoyed and tired as he was. Flynn’s smile spread into a grin, but the tapping fingers moved a little faster as he said, “You’re a lifesaver, buddy. You been working on this stuff all night?”
“No, I talked to Lora for a while too.”
“Yeah? How’s she doing?”
“Busy, but fine. Same as usual.” Alan glanced up from rearranging the papers. “Which you’d know if you called her more than once every few months, by the way.”
Flynn stopped his tapping and frowned. “What? I called her a couple weeks ago!”
“She says it’s been almost a month.”
“No, no, no,” Flynn said, shaking his head, “I called her on the 30th, because you told me on the 28th she had just gotten that fancy award, so I called to congratulate her.”
Alan looked at Flynn over the rim of his glasses. “Yeah. That was almost a month ago. Today’s the 24th.”
Flynn stared. “The 24th?”
“Of July, yes.”
“Oh.” Flynn ran a hand through his hair, looking sheepish. “Woops. I guess this whole month kinda got away from me.”
“All the months get away from you,” Alan responded flatly. “You’d better call her soon, she sounded pretty miffed.” He finished shuffling the last stack, and sat it on the table. “So,” he continued, looking at Flynn, “Is there a reason you decided to barge into my house at nearly three in the morning, or did you just feel like stopping by?”
Flynn grinned again and dropped down next to him on the couch. “I was hoping you’d ask!” He leaned forward, a familiar glint in his blue eyes, and took a deep breath. “Alan,” he said, “I cracked it.”
Alan waited for clarification, but Flynn just kept grinning at him. “Cracked what?” he asked.
“It, man! Everything!” He took Alan by the shoulder and shook him lightly, still grinning. “I figured it out!”
Alan frowned, still lost. “Is this about that project you refuse to show me?”
“Yes! And I’m not refusing to show you, it’s just not ready yet. But it will be, soon.”
“Because you cracked it.”
“I’m still not sure what exactly it is you cracked, Kevin.”
Flynn shook him again, a little harder this time. “Everything. Everything! Not just computers and programming, either--we’re talking science, medicine, hell, even religion! This could be it, man.” His grin was wider than ever, but this close, Alan could see the dark bags like bruises under his blazing eyes. “I could change the world with this.” The hand on Alan’s shoulder gripped tighter, and Alan realized it was trembling.
“Are you okay?” he asked, watching Flynn closely in concern. “You’re shaking.”
Flynn’s expression darkened, and he dropped his hand. “Man, are you even listening?” he said, almost sullen.” I’ve finally figured everything out!”
“I am listening. I’m glad you figured it out, whatever it is. But when was the last time you slept?”
Flynn sighed loudly. “This morning, mom.”
Alan looked at him skeptically. “Oh? How much?”
Flynn pushed himself up off the couch. “I got like, four hours. Happy?”
“Look, it doesn’t matter—I’ll sleep later, I’m trying to tell you about what I found!” He ran his hands through his hair again, more agitated this time. “It’s incredible, Alan. I’m almost outta my element with some of the things I’ve been looking at, but it’s so…” he trailed off, then shook his head. “I don’t even know. It’s a miracle.”
Flynn’s reverence for whatever he had found was palpable, but Alan’s head was starting to hurt and he could feel his frustration rising again, so all he said in response was, “Is this miracle more or less important than the board meeting you missed two days ago?”
Flynn dropped his hands and gave him a disgruntled look. “C’mon, Alan, don’t be like that.”
“Answer the question, Flynn.”
“It’s more—” Flynn began almost heatedly, but after moment he deflated. He glanced guiltily at Alan before turning away. “It’s not about importance—you know I care about the company. But like, this is big, man, I can’t even explain to you—”
Alan crossed his arms. “Try me.”
Flynn stared at him for a long moment, and the expression on his face was more serious than Alan had ever seen him. He took a deep breath, looking like he was about to speak, but then let it out all at once, and sat down again, an apologetic smile on his face. “I can’t.” He held up placating hands at the look Alan threw him. “I know, I know. But it’s too complicated to just start talking about, not here. I have to show you. And I will, soon. Just not yet.”
“If you’ve cracked it, then what’s the hold up?”
“There are still a few things I gotta look into.” Flynn’s voice was casual, but he wasn’t looking at Alan as he spoke; instead he was staring a little to one side. There was a tightness around his eyes that gave him an almost hunted look. “Just a couple bugs in the system.”
Alan was heavily tempted to demand a full explanation then and there, Flynn’s reticence and his own lack of sleep be damned, but Flynn looked so uncharacteristically exhausted, all the fire he’d had minutes before extinguished, that he felt the fight drain out of him. He reached out and touched Flynn’s shoulder and said, softly, “It’s getting late.” He took off his glasses and rubbed at his eyes again, which were starting to burn. “And we both need to sleep.”
Flynn looked at him for a long moment, until finally he nodded, flashing him a tired little smile. “Yeah, we do,” he said. He got to his feet again, padding over to the armchair to retrieve his jacket.
Alan hauled himself up too, holding back a yawn. “There’s another board meeting tomorrow about those contracts. Do not miss it.” He added, less sternly, “But it’s not until four, so get some sleep beforehand, okay? And I don’t mean just another four hours.”
“Yeah, yeah, okay.” Flynn slipped his arms into the sleeves of his jacket and pulled it straight over his torso. He shot Alan another smile, more playful this time. “Make sure you sleep, too. Don’t work yourself to death, Bradley.”
Alan rolled his eyes as he followed Flynn to the entryway. If anyone was to blame for Alan working himself too hard, it was the man right in front of him. He watched as Flynn pulled the door open and turned to say something, but yawned again instead. Alan shook his head. “You could just stay the night here, if you’re too tired to drive.”
“Nah, I’ll be okay. I told Sam I’d make him pancakes for breakfast, anyway. Apparently mine are better than Gran’s since they come with chocolate chips in ‘em,” Flynn responded with another grin.
Alan smiled at that, but stopped quickly. In the harsher light outside, Flynn looked more exhausted than ever. Alan watched him for a moment, and then asked quietly, “Are you sure you’re okay?”
If Flynn understood everything Alan was trying to ask, he didn’t give any indication. He just shook his head, still smiling a little. “You worry too much, man.” He added, when Alan looked unsatisfied, “Look, do you still have that pager I gave you? Make sure you keep it on you—sleep with the thing if you have to. I’ll give you a page when I’ve got everything ready. It’ll be soon. Promise.” He reached out and grasped Alan’s shoulder again. “Everything’s gonna be fine, okay? I’ve got it all under control.” He drew Alan into a quick hug before turning to make his way back down the drive, throwing a wave farewell over his shoulder. The light from the doorway glinted on the shiny leather of his jacket before he slipped away into the dark.
Alan stood in the doorway and watched the Ducati’s light flash, the engine roaring back into life. As the bike rumbled off into the night, he wondered just which of them Flynn was really trying to convince.
Flynn showed up to the board meeting half an hour late, which was more than Alan had hoped for. He even stuck around for a few hours after to go over the papers from programming. Despite promising to review the shipping contracts again, he completely avoided the office the day after. Alan wasn’t surprised.
Two days later, a phone call from the board woke Alan from his sleep.
The next day, Flynn was officially declared missing.
The tires of Alan’s car rolled to a stop as he pulled up to the curb opposite the old arcade. It had been years since he last visited the place, but under the recent layers of graffiti and grime, the building still looked nearly the same as it had decades before. The huge sign above the archway was dark—as it should be, since the power had been turned off for years—but the memory of the sign as it had been, blazing as bright as its namesake, was fresh in Alan’s mind. He stared up at the building through the window of his car and almost absently reached into his pocket, closing his fingers around the small plastic form of a pager. Flynn’s words were still clear in his mind too: Sleep with the thing if you have to.
Alan jumped a little, suddenly back in the present. He looked down; his phone was face-up on his lap, the speaker symbol flashing. “Sorry, Roy,” he said, “I’m here.”
“No problem.” Roy’s voice crackled a little; the reception in this part of town was dodgy at best. “So Sam just threw the keys at you?”
“He didn’t throw them at me,” Alan answered, “he threw them to me.” Which was true; there had been barely any power behind the throw when Alan caught the keys again, though he had still nearly dropped them in surprise. He hadn’t expected Sam to give the keys back after their talk, no matter how unaffected the boy had tried to seem, and even now, hours later, the miscalculation bothered him. The look on Sam’s face had been unsettling too—he hadn’t looked angry, or even sad, but just plain tired. It reminded Alan a little too much of the expression Flynn had worn when Alan had last seen him. He pushed the memory away and added, “I’m a little surprised Sam didn’t want to look for himself, but it doesn’t matter. Anyway, I’m at the arcade.”
“Yeah? How’s it look?”
“Old and abandoned, as usual.” He took the keys out of the ignition and pocketed them, exiting the car. “I don’t see any signs of a break-in. The power’s off, too.”
“Just like we thought.” Alan could picture Roy’s contemplative frown as he spoke. “You sure you don’t want me to come with you? I can be there in twenty minutes.”
“No, it’s fine,” Alan said. “I can do it myself.” While there was a small, foolish trace of hope rooted inside him that he couldn’t ignore, the logical part of himself knew that despite the page he had received the night before, there was an incredibly low chance of finding anything in the arcade. He didn’t know if he could deal with hiding his inevitable disappointment from Roy in person, or at least not tonight—it had been a long day. “And anyway,” he continued, “you haven’t slept since I called you last night, right?”
He knew Roy had immediately gotten to work trying to figure out any and all possible reasons for the page. Their best working theory was that their most recent efforts with the Flynn Lives movement, involving a surprising number of volunteers and a hell of a lot of effort, had caused a power surge at the arcade and triggered the phone line into generating a signal, but the slim possibility that this wasn't just a fluke was too much to ignore, and neither of them was willing to give up that chance, sleep or no sleep. Alan hadn’t gotten much rest himself, but that was irrelevant. He wouldn’t be able to relax until he knew for sure there was nothing to be found here.
“I got a couple hours earlier,” Roy said. Alan snorted softly at the probable lie; he was pretty confident that the man had been fueling himself with far too much caffeine for the last twenty-four hours to allow for any naps. “I feel fine, though,” his friend added, as if he wasn’t due for a crash any minute now. “Are you sure you’re okay doing this alone?”
The concern in Roy’s tone made Alan feel a little guilty for refusing his help, but he still wanted to check things out on his own. “I’m sure. Get some rest. I might be a while—I wanna be thorough—but I’ll call you if I find anything, okay?”
“All right. Good luck, Tronski.”
Alan smiled a little at the old nickname. “Thanks, Ram. Good night.” He hung up and put the phone in his pocket, swapping it for the keys to the arcade. He slid his hand into his other pocket, his fingers brushing against the pager for a moment, and crossed the street.
The stale smell of dust met Alan’s nose as he pushed open the door to the arcade. Leaves lifted by the wind outside tumbled about his ankles, drifting a little before settling on the old floor-mat beneath his shoes. He stepped inside and closed the door, not bothering to lock it behind him. This section of town was pretty empty, and the alarms hadn’t been tripped in years. He peered through the dimness over his glasses. The flickering light from the street-lamps outside did little to alleviate the gloom. He could just make out the silhouettes of the game cabinets lined up in rows, shrouded in plastic tarps to protect them from the damp.
“Kevin?” Alan called. His voice was swallowed up quickly, any possible echo muffled by the layers of dust on the floors and walls. He huffed, embarrassed at himself. As if, after twenty years, Flynn would just come sauntering up the aisle out of the dark, his motorcycle jacket slung over his shoulder as it had been the night Alan had last seen him. He shook his head and looked around, trying to make out something more concrete than shadowy shapes. He vaguely remembered the presence of a breaker box near the door and reached into his pocket for his phone, thinking of the flashlight app he had installed. He had the real thing in the trunk of his car, but the bulb had burned out a while back, and he hadn’t yet bothered to replace it.
He switched on the app and blinked at the sudden brightness, every light on his phone blazing at full capacity. Lifting the phone above his head, Alan looked around at the walls near the door and spotted the breaker box, covered in dust, right where he had remembered it. He pried open the cover and, squinting at the row of switches, flipped the top-most one.
A cacophony of beeps and whistles sounded as the game cabinets lit up beneath their tarps; after a few seconds the jukebox came to life, blaring a familiar song—something off one of those Journey albums Flynn was always so fond of. A little disoriented by the sudden overload of noise, Alan blinked and looked around again, able to see much better thanks to the neon strips of lighting on the walls and ceiling. Other than the flashing of the screens and their marquees, he didn’t detect any movement. After a moment he held up his phone again, this time taking a picture of the rows of cabinets. He quickly attached the photo to a text message, addressing it to Lora, labeled simply “The Best” in his contact list. ‘Went to the arcade. Just like the old days,’ he typed, and hit send.
He didn’t expect Lora to respond; she would be on a plane around now, taking the red-eye from DC to Los Angeles. She'd been intending to fly out in a few days anyway, but after hearing about the page, she'd switched to the earliest flight she could get. Alan had told her not to worry, but he couldn't deny that he'd be glad for the extra time with her. She always liked to come back into town around the anniversary of Flynn's disappearance. They both always swore to each other they were fine, but Alan at least was grateful to be able to spend the days surrounding it with her. They had been long-distance for longer than Flynn had been gone, and while he would never want Lora to choose him over her job—actually, her work in DC made him proud beyond words—he missed her every single day. They spoke often over the phone and via his laptop, but it just wasn’t the same as having her physically close. He sometimes wondered if he should just quit ENCOM altogether and go to live with her in DC, but he rarely considered the idea for long. Someone had to look after the company for Sam, in case he ever did decide to get involved, and it may as well be Alan—no one else was going to do it.
Still looking around, his eyes drifted up to the loft apartment above the corner of the arcade floor, and he found himself moving towards the door to the stairwell, humming along to the familiar tune from the jukebox. Other than the tarps that were here, too, draped over all the furniture, the loft apartment looked much the same as Alan remembered it. He shined his phone light in the corners, not expecting much—a thick layer of dust covered the tarps and carpet. It was clear that no one had been there in years. He lingered in the doorway, remembering the first time he had ever sat on that low couch near the windows that overlooked the arcade floor. Sometime he still couldn’t believe that he had actually broken into a building two decades ago, much less his place of work. His free hand drifted to his coat pocket, fingers wrapping around the hard plastic of the pager. He took one last look around, shining a light in every corner of the room, but even as he looked he knew that he would find no answers about who had sent him the message.
He went back downstairs to the main floor and continued his search, moving up and down the few aisles methodically, searching for any sign that someone other than himself had visited recently. Anyone who had used the arcade’s line to send a page would have left some sign behind—a scraping footprint in the dusty floor, disheveled tarps, something—but the place was pristine, or as pristine as a building could be after two decades of neglect.
Alan sighed, lowering his phone. Despite the tiny hope he had tried to ignore, he hadn’t truly expected to find anything here. After Flynn’s disappearance, investigators had been over the arcade from floor to ceiling, looking for any hint regarding his whereabouts. Alan himself had visited multiple times in the weeks after, sometimes bringing Roy or Lora along, clinging to the absurd hope that Flynn had merely taken a sudden private vacation and would surely return soon. Neither they nor the police had ever been able to find anything useful.
Finally, there was only one more section of the arcade floor to check. Alan moved to the back, towards a lone cabinet set away from its siblings in a place of honor against the far wall. It too was covered in a dusty plastic tarp, but Alan didn’t need to see the cabinet to know which game it was thanks to the bombastic sign hanging above it proclaiming its title for all to see: TRON, the original. Alan had saved this area for last more out of a vague sense of embarrassment than anything; even beneath the tarp he could just make out an all-too familiar silhouette on the cabinet’s side. He sighed through his nose, and reluctantly reached up and pull the tarp away, letting it fall to the ground in a heap.
Flynn had, of course, asked to use his likeness for the cabinet’s design (”It’s gotta be you, man!” he’d said, emphatically gesturing in Alan’s direction, “You’re as close to the real Tron as we’ll ever get out here!” Alan had refrained from mentioning that the real Tron was just a string of code, not wanting to put a damper on Flynn’s excitement), but the sight of his likeness in that ridiculous outfit plastered on the side-panel always made him turn a little pink. Even so, a smile twitched at the corner of his mouth when his gaze fell on the figure in red beside his look-a-like. What had been the villain’s name? Spark? Sark, that was it. He had never discussed it with Flynn or even Lora, but Alan had always thought Sark looked a hell of a lot like a certain former senior executive VP. He doubted Flynn had ever bothered asking permission for his likeness.
He leaned a little closer to the game’s screen, his eyes drawn by the bright trails of light left by the tiny digital bikes zooming around in the darkness. Alan had never been very good at this game, which had for some reason amused Flynn to no end, though he had once come very close to beating Flynn’s high score on the Matrix Blaster machine. Flynn hadn’t been quite so amused by that, and he’d been even less amused when Lora actually did beat it on her next turn. Alan smiled at the memory of Flynn’s dumbfounded face, then stopped when he found himself reaching automatically into his pocket for change. He hesitated, feeling a little silly, before shrugging and pulling out a couple of quarters. Hell, he was in an arcade. He might as well have some fun, and even if he was a little rusty, no one was around to see him lose. He slid a quarter into the slot, his other hand already gripping the joystick in anticipation, but with a scrape and a clink, the quarter came rolling back out of the change slot and bounced to the floor.
Sighing again, he bent down to pick it up, then froze, still half-crouching. There were small black grooves dug into the concrete floor in front of the game cabinet. Alan stared at them, then up at the game cabinet, and back to the grooves. He leaned slightly to one side, eyes then fixed on the brick wall behind the cabinet.
There was no way.
Alan shot to his feet and pressed his shoulder to the cabinet’s side panel. He pushed hard, bracing his feet on the floor, and nearly stumbled when the cabinet swung quite easily to the side as if on a hinge. There, embedded in the wall that had been covered by the cabinet, was a rusty metal door. Alan slowly reached out and grasped the handle, pushing the door open gently. It swung in with a creak to reveal a dark passage. Had there been a basement on the arcade’s floor plan? He couldn’t remember. He quickly retrieved his phone from his jacket pocket and turned on the flashlight app again, holding it high to illuminate a hallway. He could just make out what looked like the top of a staircase at the far end.
He ducked through the doorway, his footsteps scraping quietly on the concrete. He was dimly aware that the door had swung shut behind him because the now-pulsing beat of the music was muffled, but blood was starting to pound in his ears in anticipation, and he paid it no mind. He shined his light on the stairs before quickly making his way down. At the bottom, he found himself at a landing with a door labeled “Electrical Room”; the keys were still in the lock. Taking a breath to steady himself, he turned the keys and pushed the door open.
Alan’s eyes widened as he took in the room beyond. “You sneaky son of a…” he breathed, staring around at not an electrical room, but what could only be described as a secret lab. Light from the street-lamps outside shined dimly through a grated window on the wall to his right, illuminating what looked like a desk covered in a thick layer of dust. Near the desk were roll-away shelves holding a number of electronic gadgets attached to wires that extended down to the floors and disappeared behind the desk. In one corner a couch with a dusty old blanket and what looked like an old Coleco handheld game on one of the cushions sat beneath a cluttered corkboard. The light didn’t quite reach the wall opposite the desk; Alan lifted his phone again to illuminate it. The beam fell on a complicated machine that looked rather familiar. He moved a little closer and frowned. It was, in fact, very familiar.
“Lora’s laser…?” he murmured to himself, bending down a little to examine the machine. On closer inspection, it did seem a bit different from the laser he remembered—this one, while undoubtedly based on the SHIVA laser Lora had developed when she still worked at ENCOM, was slightly newer, the machinery a bit more advanced. Alan’s frown deepened. Lora had continued working with the laser until she left the company in ‘85, and Alan vaguely remembered Flynn asking about her research in digitization once in a while, but he definitely didn’t remember anything about Flynn actually borrowing the laser, or any schematics.
He straightened up, still frowning at the machine. Was this part of Flynn’s special project? He turned the flashlight app off and snapped a photo of the laser, then turned and took another of the rest of the room, attaching them to a text. ‘Kevin was sneakier than even we knew, apparently. Found this room under the arcade. That laser sure looks familiar,’ he added before sending those off to Lora, too. He quickly sent a copy of the photos and message to Roy as well. After a second his phone beeped—there was no signal down here. He would have to resend the photos when he went back upstairs.
He turned and flipped on the flashlight app once again, shining the light towards the desk. Above it was a corkboard covered in a mish-mash of papers. One of the corners had a few old photographs of a much younger Sam, some of which Alan recognized from the copies on the mantle in his own house. A few smaller papers looked like scribbles of maps, one of which appeared to be of the section of the city the arcade was housed in. In the center of it all was another map, much bigger than any of the others, spread out over the majority of the board. It was titled “THE GRID,” in a familiar scrawl. Parts of the map were labeled with smaller scribbles, but before Alan could take a closer look, a blinking light below the corkboard caught his eye. He glanced down at the desk and had to adjust his grip on his phone to keep it from slipping out of his hand.
The desk wasn’t just a desk. It was a screen. A sequence of numbers was visible beneath the layer of dust coating the glass, slowly ticking upwards. Alan stared at it for a moment before realizing it was a timer—one that had been counting for nearly twenty one years. He quickly wiped his sleeve over the glass, trying to clear the dust, but the timer disappeared as the screen lit up, replaced by a series of windows and a keyboard set into the screen. In the corner of the display flashed the old ENCOM logo.
“This is Dillinger’s old desk,” Alan muttered, resting his phone on what he now realized was an old-fashioned computer server as he sat down. “Couldn’t settle for just his job, huh? I guess he stole that from you first, though…” He felt a little silly saying it out loud, but it also made him feel better to think Flynn was in the room. “So just what were you doing down here, Kevin?”
The front-most window was a command prompt. Alan leaned over the keyboard and entered a simple identity request.
“FLYNN,” the prompt responded.
No surprises there. He typed another command, this time a login request with a password he had seen Flynn use years ago: ‘reindeer flotilla’. The password was denied. “Worth a shot,” Alan murmured. He contemplated entering a few more passwords—Sam’s birthday, Flynn’s anniversary with his wife Jordan—but he didn’t want to risk the computer locking up on him. He settled for trying the backdoor. The command prompt responded to that, and Alan edged the chair closer to the desk, taking a deep breathe. “Let’s see what you were doing with all this equipment, huh?”
He opened the computer’s history bin, intending to view the files Flynn had opened when he last accessed the computer, but suddenly a long list of actions flashed into the command prompt window. Alan read them quickly, his eyes flickering over the commands. One of them he read with a pang—’last will and testament’. Well, at least Flynn had been prepared.
He frowned as he read the most recent file name. “Laser control?” He glanced over his shoulder at the laser, then looked back at the screen. He accessed the file bin for the laser control, and then another window popped up. “APERTURE CLEAR?” it asked simply, a small beeping noise sounding in time with the blink of the cursor. Alan looked over his shoulder at the laser again. The lights lining the edges of some of the rods were still dark, and it looked as dead as it had seemed when he first stepped into the room. He doubted it would still work, but he was a little curious. He selected yes, and hit the enter key.
For a moment Alan was nowhere at all. There were no sensations except the blinding, brilliant light searing into his vision, filling his entire being, burning up his very body. Then he was sitting in the chair again, in the dim basement of the arcade. He clutched the edge of the desk, confused at the sudden return of his sight. He shook himself a little and blinked, trying to force the world back into a sensible shape. His eyes focused on the patch of light shining on the desk surface. It took him a moment to realize that the light shining from the grating was not the warm yellow of the streetlamps but a cold, bluish white.
The other differences registered all at once. Gone was the rolling shelf, the books, the couch, clutter of computer parts, the laser—even the layer of dust and grit. The room looked as if ‘dust’ was an alien phrase never once uttered in its vicinity. Alan stared around, dumbfounded, before a roaring noise made him jump, and light flared through the grating above him. The roar continued, and he pushed himself out of the chair, stumbling out of the room and hurrying up to the main floor.
It was pitch black on the game floor, and though Alan couldn’t see much from the cold light filtering in from the windows, he knew that arcade cabinets were gone. The roaring noise was louder now. He crossed the floor to the front door and pulled it open. His breath caught in his throat as he stared outside.
This was not Mead Street. This wasn’t even Los Angeles—Los Angeles’s streets were never this clean, not in this part of town—and the buildings were just too tall. The street glistened as if from rain, but there had been no clouds in the sky when he’d pulled up, and a strange hexagonal pattern was visible in the concrete as lights flashed from a building nearby.
That was another thing—the light was so wrong, cold and blue-white and emanating from the very buildings and streets themselves. Alan realized that even the doorknob he was gripping so tightly was incandescent, the light shining through the skin of his fingers. He took a shuddering breath, hardly daring to even consider the possibility running through his mind, but what other explanation could there be? The laser had been part of the digitization project...
“You digitized yourself,” he rasped, his mouth dry. “This is what you found. We’re in the computer.”
My apologies for how long this one took. The next few chapters should be out much quicker. Enjoy!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
We’re in the computer. Alan had said it himself, out loud, but he still couldn’t quite believe it. This had to be a dream, or a hallucination brought on by a significant lack of sleep over the last two days. It felt real, though--the glowing doorknob in his hand was smooth beneath his skin, and even the air felt different, almost staticky, the same way it felt just before a thunderstorm hit.
A light flashed from farther down the street, and Alan stepped back, pulling the door in front of him. He kept it cracked open, staring through the gap as something big and black drifted closer. He widened the gap another inch, trying to figure out what the shape was, and as the massive shadow drew level with the arcade, his eyes widened, his glasses sliding down his nose as he stared up in utter shock.
"You're kidding..." he breathed. He had seen the shape so many times, too many to count, watched as Flynn destroyed ship after ship with a flick of his wrist: a Recognizer. Larger than he had ever imagined one, the ship hovered past the arcade. It moved with a low humming sound, more like the buzz of an old computer than an engine. The harsh scarlet lights lining the edges of the ship reflected in the rain-soaked street below. Alan watched silently as it passed, too dumbstruck to move. The Recognizer crept farther down the street, and he pushed the door open a little wider to watch as it turned a corner and out of sight.
That settled it. He really was in the computer; he remembered finding similar designs for upgraded Recognizers among Flynn’s files after his disappearance, and a ship like that would never function in the real world anyway. As Alan attempted to fully wrap his mind around the idea of actually being digitized, a soft ringing noise sounded across the square, emanating from the enormous tower to his right. Startled, he pulled the door in front of him again, peering through the gap.
Sliding doors set into the building’s base opened to reveal what looked like an elevator. A figure—a person—exited the elevator and started across the street. Alan’s mind jumped immediately to Flynn, but the person, whoever they were, was too small to be him. Their clothes glowed in places with a light similar to that of the surrounding buildings.
Alan watched uneasily as the person hurried across the square in front of the arcade and entered another towering skyscraper. It was good to know he wasn’t alone in this place, but who was that? Some kind of inhabitant of the computer itself? Would they know Flynn? Now that he was here, Alan was sure that this was where Flynn had gone. No one knew about the basement office, let alone the existence of an entire city inside a computer. Flynn had to have been here—this was what he had wanted to show Alan all those years ago, it had to be. Perhaps he was still here, just stuck, somehow. After twenty years, it was a long shot, but even so, now that he had thought it, the idea lodged itself firmly in Alan's brain.
"Don’t set yourself up for disappointment, Bradley,” he muttered to himself, but he could feel the tiny spark of hope again. If Flynn was here…he shook his head. He didn’t know what he would do if he did find Flynn, but either way, he wouldn’t find anything if he stayed here. He edged out of the building and shut the door quietly behind him, staring around the streets for any sign of movement. He needed to find someone he could question, but he was in no hurry to run into one of those Recognizers.
He stepped down onto the street, moving cautiously, and looked over his shoulder at the building he'd exited. It was a near replica of the arcade on the outside, too, complete with arches and giant sign, except for its size—like the other buildings, it towered into the sky. Alan knew as he looked at it that the resemblance to the arcade he knew was no coincidence.
The elevator dinged behind him again, and he whirled around. The elevator doors slid open, and two more figures emerged, this time wearing armored uniforms and helmets that glowed with the same scarlet as the Recognizer. This struck Alan as a bad sign, but it was too late to hide: one of them had already spotted him, and was heading right for him. Before Alan could speak, the man seized his shoulder and forced him to turn.
“Hey—” Alan began, but was ignored. The man turned him back around brusquely.
"Another program without a disc," the man growled to his partner. “And just before a Game, too. A stray.”
The other sentry grunted in agreement and took Alan’s arm, dragging him around to face him. The grip tightened painfully as the sentry stopped, tugging Alan a little closer. Alan couldn't see the man's eyes through the visor of his helmet, but he knew he was being stared at. The man reached up and, to Alan’s confusion, pulled his glasses off his face. Before Alan had a chance to ask what the hell was going on, the man spoke. "This one goes directly to his Excellency."
Alan snatched his glasses out of the man’s hand. “Excuse me,” he snapped, “but what the hell are you—”
“Quiet, program. You are being detained,” the first man said. The second stayed silent, but looked up, staring at something above Alan’s head. Alan turned and saw another Recognizer descending down onto the street a few feet behind him. Without a word, both sentries took him by the arm and half-marched, half-dragged him to the ship. Alan put up a token resistance, but not too much; he was pretty sure either of them could break him in half.
The middle platform of the ship dropped down to ground level as it landed, and another man in identical armor stepped onto the street. The second sentry holding Alan let go of him long enough to step forward and exchange quiet words with the new one. Alan replaced his glasses on his face and strained to listen. Their voices were low, but one word was distinct enough for Alan to hear: “…Tron…”
Tron? The video game? His old security program? What did either of them have to do with any of this? The guards fell silent, and both of them turned their heads to look at Alan for a moment before the third guard nodded. The man—program?--still digging his gloved fingers into Alan's arm pressed him forward, forcing Alan onto the empty platform. The platform began to slide upward again, and something clamped over Alan's shoes, locking him in place. He looked down to see what was holding him and immediately regretted it—the surface of the platform was transparent, and the ship was already rising. His stomach twisted as the street dropped away, and soon the ship was level with the top of the arcade skyscraper.
As they rose above the height of the buildings, Alan let out a breath in awe. The city was colossal in every sense of the word, stretching outward in all directions, and every street and structure shone with strange blue-white light. The ship drifted through a misty cloud-bank, and a small, ridiculous part of him wondered how clouds could form inside a computer. He didn’t have much time to contemplate; the ship quickly began to descend, aiming for what looked like a massive stadium near the edge of the city. Beyond the limits of the city lay an enormous mesa. Black mountains dominated the distant horizon, barely visible against the dark sky, but the stadium blocked the view as the Recognizer drew close to a docking bay set into the nearest wall.
The locks on his shoes released, and Alan barely had enough time to take a breath before the guards had him by the arms again. They steered him off the ship and down one long hallway, then turned him down another. More identically dressed programs lined the walls at intervals or marched past as his escort hurried him forward. Most of them continued to stare straight ahead as they passed, but others followed their advance with a slight shift of their helmets.
Finally, they reached the entrance of a large room. The opposite wall was a window that stretched from floor to ceiling, and the inside of the stadium was visible beyond the glass. Framed by the window was a program in sweeping robes and dark helmet, looking out at the bright arena while lounging on a low seat. The lights set into the robe and helmet glowed a deep yellow, as did the disc resting on their back. Beside the seat stood a pale, bald man in another strange outfit, his light lines orange. He held what looked like a tablet in his hands, surveying it with a worried expression through a transparent visor set into his scalp, but he looked up as the guards deposited Alan inside the room. The man’s brow rose a fraction behind his visor, and he leaned forward to murmur something to the robed program, keeping his gaze fixed on Alan.
The program looked up at the visored man, then got to their feet and turned to face Alan. They said nothing, though something about the way the helmet tilted told Alan they were surprised.
Alan waited, but when the program stayed silent, he squared his shoulders and said, “Are you in charge here?”
The man in the visor frowned at him. “Speak when you’re spoken to, User.”
“User?” Alan asked. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You are the User of the Tron program, correct?”
Alan stared at him, nonplussed. “I…well, I wrote a security program called Tron years ago, yes. What does that have to do with anything? It’s been ages since I even looked at the code for it.” He looked at the helmeted figure, hoping for some kind of explanation, but they only continued to watch him silently. Alan clenched his jaw for a moment, quelling his frustration, before continuing, “Look, my name is Alan Bradley. I don’t know what’s going on or what you want with me, but I’m not here to cause trouble. All I want is to find someone who might have been in this city a long time ago. His name is Kevin Flynn.”
That did get a reaction, but not from the helmeted program. Instead the man in the visor flinched, and glanced at his commander. The program ignored him, continuing to survey Alan for a moment more. Then, with a twitch of their head, the opaque glass of the helmet suddenly shifted, receding into segments that slid backwards until they disappeared into the collar of the robe. The face that had been hidden by the helmet looked at Alan, and smiled.
The expression was so achingly familiar that Alan felt his lungs empty as if he'd been punched in the gut. He took a small, shaky step forward. “Kevin?” he asked.
Kevin Flynn’s smile widened, a perfect copy of the one he had worn the last time Alan had seen him. He looked just as he had then, his face smooth other than the ever-present laugh lines, his hair the same shade of brown with no gray in sight. Flynn swept around the seat, the hem of his robe flaring over the tops of his boots. He was still smiling.
“Alan!” he said, “Man, what a surprise!” His voice was the same too, warm and expressive. He stopped in front of Alan, hands folded behind his back, and added, “Never thought I’d see your face again.”
Alan stared at Flynn. His voice didn’t seem to be working, which was just as well, because his thoughts were barely coherent enough for words. Flynn was alive. He was here. Here, right in front of him. Alan had spent so long clinging to the hope that he might someday hear Flynn’s voice, see his smile again, that it had almost become more of a habit than a belief. Now that day was here, and Alan didn’t know what to say.
Flynn was watching him, still smiling. “You okay, buddy?” he asked.
Alan blinked rapidly, ignoring the prickling at the corners of his eyes, and tried to speak. “Yeah. Yeah, I’m…” His voice died away, and then to his surprise a shaky laugh bubbled out of his mouth. He reached out and touched Flynn’s shoulder, laughing louder out of sheer relief. Alan could touch him, he was real, not a memory or a dream.
Flynn glanced at the hand on his shoulder and grinned, the corners of his eyes crinkling a little. “I take it you’re happy to see me,” he said.
Alan shook his head, still laughing a little. “You have no idea,” he answered, his voice cracking. He wanted to say more, but couldn’t find the words. Instead he pulled Flynn close and hugged him, hoping it would be enough. His glasses dug into his cheekbone as he held his friend tight, locking his arms around Flynn’s torso. Flynn slipped an arm around him and patted his back, chuckling lightly. Alan let out another quiet laugh, but the heat building in his cheeks told him he was close to crying. He continued the hug a few extra seconds, trying to pull himself together, before finally letting go. He didn’t quite meet Flynn’s gaze as he stepped back, a little embarrassed, but Flynn squeezed his shoulder.
“Better?” he asked, grinning again.
Alan smiled shakily. “Yeah. Better.”
The grin widened. “Good.” Flynn gestured at the two guards still standing behind Alan, who moved to stand against the wall. “I was pretty shocked when Jarvis told me they’d found someone with your description downtown, Alan,” he continued, nodding at the visored program still standing off to the side. “Wasn’t sure you’d ever find this place.”
“I got your page,” Alan told him. “Last night. I called Lora and Roy about it, but we weren’t sure it would really mean anything… ”
“My page? Huh. That’s cool.” Flynn looked contemplative. “Are they here with you?”
“No, it’s just me. I thought Sam should check out the arcade first, but he didn’t want to—it was late, and he was tired--so I did it myself.” Alan shook his head again. “Like I said, I didn’t think we’d find anything. Have you been here this whole time?” He didn’t give Flynn time to answer. Now that he’d had a moment to collect himself, there was only one question he really wanted to ask. “Why didn’t you come home?”
Flynn patted him on shoulder. “Long story, man. I’ll tell you all about it soon, but first, I’ve got a game to watch.” He flashed Alan another smile, and then he stepped away, sweeping back up to the—there was no other word for it—throne positioned in front of the wide window. “Come up here, Alan,” he called, settling languidly on the throne. “I want you to see.”
Alan blinked, a little bemused. Flynn had been gone for twenty years, and the first thing he wanted to do was show Alan a game? Well, maybe that wasn’t so surprising after all. Alan followed him to the window. It really was a stadium they were overlooking, more massive than any Alan had ever seen before. A huge crowd filled the stands, roaring so loud that Alan could hear them, standing this close to the glass. A strange mechanism floated above the floor of the stadium—a series of interconnected stages, holding small figures standing on either end of each stage. A flashing marquee hovered above the stage, showing what were apparently names, with a large number flashing next to each one.
“A competition?” he asked, glancing at Flynn.
“Disc Wars,” Flynn replied. He settled back, resting a boot on the edge of the throne. “It’s starting.”
A cool voice issued throughout the stadium. “All combatants, prepare for Disc Wars.” The crowd roared its approval, and all of the figures on the stages started moving at once. Flashes of light shot from a number of them, sparking and glinting . The topmost stage was visible from the window. The program on the left—someone named “Aurora”, judging by the marquee—leapt to catch the light speeding towards her, and Alan realized it was a disc, the same as the one on Flynn’s back. Aurora whirled and flung her disc again, sending it spinning through the air. It struck not her opponent but the floor of the stage, shattering a section before rebounding back to Aurora.
Her opponent—”Perlis”—threw his disc too, but Aurora rolled out of the way, flinging her disc as she found her footing again. The weapon hit its mark this time. Alan flinched, imagining how much the impact would hurt—and then he sucked in a breath in shock. Perlis didn’t just fall over—he disintegrated, shattering into hundreds of cubes that littered the glass floor of the stage. A few of them fell through the missing section of the floor, bouncing off the ceiling of the stage below.
Alan looked at Flynn, who was observing the matches with an air of casual interest. Flynn glanced at Alan and nodded back at the view. “She’s fast,” he said.
“She…” Alan’s mouth was dry. “Did she kill him?”
Flynn shrugged. “Every game has a loser.” He looked back at the stadium. The stages were rearranging, leveling out for new match-ups. There were fewer programs now. A greasy, heavy weight settled in the pit of Alan’s stomach.
“You call this a game?” he asked, watching as Aurora sent her disc whirring after a new opponent. “They’re murdering each other, Kevin.”
Flynn kept his eyes on the arena. “They’re conscripts. This is their sentence.”
Aurora’s disc ricocheted off another section of the stage floor as she dodged her new opponent’s attack. The opponent slipped as she tried to leap over the gap to catch her disc, and she slammed against the edge of the gap before tumbling down to the stage below. She too burst on impact, sending cubes spraying into the air.
Alan tore his gaze away to stare at Flynn, the skin of his neck growing hot beneath his collar. He struggled to keep his voice level as he said, “This is what you’ve been doing here this whole time? Watching people kill each other for fun?” His hands were shaking, and he clenched them into fists. “This is horrific, Flynn.”
Flynn looked at him now, just watching him for a moment, and then he smiled again. It was a particular kind of smile, almost a smirk—one Alan had seen hundreds of times before, at board meetings, in interviews, award ceremonies, even private dinners with just him and Lora and Flynn. It was the smile that meant Flynn was one, two, a dozen steps a head of you, and he knew it, and he loved it. He was winning whatever game he thought you were playing, and he couldn’t wait for you to realize it.
But this smile was different. There was always a warmth in the Flynn he remembered. When Flynn smiled at you like that, he knew he was winning the game, but it wasn’t out of malice, or a desire to watch you lose. If you were playing a game, it was one you were playing together. The Flynn before him now was smiling like he knew that winning was an absolute certainty, because he would crush anything that denied him his victory.
A cheer rose up from the crowd, audible through the glass of the window. Flynn turned away from Alan once more, his gaze directed at the stage. Alan opened his mouth to argue, but another voice drowned out his own—the announcer was speaking again.
“Initiate final round,” said the smooth voice. Alan couldn’t help it; he turned to watch, clenching his jaw.
Aurora was standing on one end of a single massive stage, holding her disc out in front of her defensively. Opposite her, a new program stood, his lightsuit and helmet almost entirely black save a few glints of red.
The announcer spoke again. “Combatant 12 versus Rinzler.”
The opponent—Rinzler—reached behind his back and lifted his disc, bringing it forward to hold it with both hands. With a twist, Rinzler’s disc split in two, and he lifted the twin discs in the air to the roaring approval of the crowd.
“That’s not—” Alan started, appalled, but Flynn interrupted him.
“Fair?” Flynn chuckled, glancing up at him. “Where’s your sense of competition? I like to think of it as...taking advantage of a unique skill-set. Oh, shh, it’s starting.”
He was right—Rinzler wasted no time, launching both of his discs at Aurora, who deflected one and spun out of the way of the other before hurling her own disc. Rinzler dodged it, leaping into the air with a graceful twist as the disc passed beneath him. He landed lightly as Aurora’s disc bounced off the wall behind him. The disc went whirling back towards Rinzler, and Alan thought it would catch him on the back of the head, but Rinzler ducked almost lazily. The disc flew over him and back to Aurora as the crowd cheered.
Rinzler rose to his feet, tensing to throw his discs again, but then he stopped and spun, now sprinting towards the wall. Aurora hesitated a moment before heading towards a platform on her left, away from her opponent. She took a running leap towards it—and kept rising, higher and higher until she slammed into the ceiling of the stage.
Gravity reversal? Alan frowned in confusion and glanced at Flynn, who was still watching the match. Flynn was holding two spheres in his hand, slowly rotating them in his palm. Alan looked at the stage, where Aurora was currently rolling away from another disc attack, and then back at the spheres. As he watched, Flynn reversed the direction of the spheres, and a shout rose up from the stadium. Alan turned in time to see Aurora fall to the floor of the stage, slipping as her boot hit the edge of a platform.
He looked back at Flynn, who was smirking as he watched Aurora struggle to her feet. Alan stepped towards him. “Are you doing that?”
Flynn turned his smirk to Alan. “Yep. Makes things a little more interesting, don’t you think?”
“More what? Flynn, stop it!” Alan made to snatch the spheres away from Flynn, but before he could move any closer, his arms were wrenched behind his back and he was forced onto his knees. He looked up to see a guard on either side of him, holding him in place. Flynn stood up, glancing at Alan before looking back once again to the arena.
On the stage, Rinzler was bearing down on Aurora, pinning her to a wall. She threw herself to the side, dodging a disc, and rolled back to her feet, but Rinzler was on her instantly—he swept her legs out from under her with a kick and pinned her to the floor, a disc glowing at her throat.
The crowd was louder than ever, and now Alan could hear them chanting. Derezz! Derezz! He tried to wrench his arms free, but the guards’ grips were like stone. The chanting continued, reaching a crescendo, and on the stage, Rinzler looked up towards their window, still holding his disc to Aurora’s throat, and waited.
Standing at the window, Flynn made a contemplative noise, gazing down at Rinzler thoughtfully. Alan looked between them, and knew what was about to happen.
“Don’t,” he said, staring up at Flynn in sheer disbelief. Kevin Flynn would never purposefully choose to execute someone. “Kevin, don’t.”
Flynn looked at him for a moment with those familiar blue eyes, then turned back to face the arena. “Finish the game,” he said. His voice echoed throughout the stadium, so loud it reverberated in the walls.
Below, Rinzler inclined his head momentarily before lifting his disc and punching it into Aurora’s chest. The woman didn't even have time to scream before she shattered, cubes rolling outward from the impact. Rinzler climbed to his feet, replacing his discs on his back, and looked up at Flynn again to thunderous applause. His helmet shifted slightly, and Alan knew the program was looking at him. He saw Rinzler tilt his head a little, but then the stage was hidden from view—Flynn was looming above him, smiling again.
The guards jerked Alan to his feet. Alan’s breathing was ragged, and when he spoke, his voice was rough with rage. “Who are you?” he growled, glaring at Flynn. “You’re not Kevin Flynn. He would never do something like this.”
Flynn’s grin widened, showing his teeth. “Finally,” he said. “Took you long enough.” He leaned closer, his gaze boring into Alan’s. “Name’s Clu. I’m not your friend, Alan, but I am very, very happy to see you.” He stepped back and gave a nod to the guards. “Take him to the lightcycle grid.”
The guards redoubled their grip on Alan’s arms and started steering him toward the door. Alan dug his heels into the floor, but they carried him along easily, implacable. “Where is Kevin?” Alan yelled over his shoulder as they reached the threshold. “What did you do to him!?” The guards pushed him through the doorway, but he could still hear Clu’s answer before the doors slid shut.
“The same thing I’m going to do to you…User.”
The thundering of the crowd was tumultuous as the guards marched Alan into the arena from the carrier ship. He stumbled a little, his new boots feeling unnatural as the guards propelled him forward; they had forced him into a lightsuit on the way into the stadium. Judging by the armor covering the suit, it wasn’t designed for anything pleasant. As they approached the center, the roar grew louder. Alan still couldn’t believe the sheer size of the stadium—it seemed to tower forever into the sky, every last seat filled with screaming programs. He almost regretted that he had rescued his glasses—they made it too easy to see the hundreds of faces jeering down at him.
His escort halted in the center of the arena, and Jarvis stepped forward. “Greetings, programs!” he called, holding his arms out to the roars of the crowd. Alan flinched at the familiar phrase. How many times had he heard Flynn say that? Jarvis continued, his voice echoing above the tumult, “Oh, what an occasion we have here before us! Our great leader has uncovered the presence of a vile interloper here in our city. Yes, programs, we have here in our midst…a User!”
The crowd’s roar turned to jeers. Jarvis nodded, pointing at Alan with a gloved hand. “A User.” Alan met his disgusted gaze with a flat stare of his own. Jarvis turned back to the crowd, holding out his arms once again. “And not just any User, oh no—this User claims to be the creator of the infamous, the nefarious, the notorious…Tron.”
Tron again? Why was the Tron program so important? Alan still didn’t understand, but the crowd apparently did—they shouted their disapproval. Jarvis nodded gravely. “But no matter. That abhorrent program was vanquished by our great leader cycles ago. So, what to do? What does this User deserve? Might I suggest,” he asked, smirking, “the challenge of the Grid?” A roar of approval met his words as he continued, “And who best to battle this singular opponent than the program who freed us all from the treachery of this repugnant User’s creation?”
The roar grew to mountainous heights as across from Alan, a spiral staircase started to descend, amber fireworks exploding across the sky above the stadium as it reached the ground. Jarvis’s narration continued as Clu descended the stairs, his armor accented with goldenrod circuitry. Even from his place in the center of the arena, Alan could hear the confident thump of Clu’s boots on the steps. More golden fireworks burst above the crowd as he approached. Jarvis’s narration was reaching a climax, the crowd almost beside itself in excitement, but Alan ignored them. Though he couldn’t see the program's eyes through his helmet, he knew Clu was watching him, and he refused to look scared in front of this imposter, who or whatever he was.
Clu paused just in front of Alan and leaned toward him a few inches, as if sharing a secret. “I’ve been waiting a long time for this,” he murmured, his voice slightly distorted by the pitch black helmet.
Alan looked up at the spectacle of the crowd, lit by the deep yellow flashes of fireworks still exploding in the air above the stadiums, then back at Clu, eyebrows raised. “A bit over the top, don’t you think?” he replied, and to his relief, his voice didn’t shake. Clu stepped back after a moment’s pause, and Alan balled his hands into fists to hide that they were trembling.
Jarvis held out a box to Clu, and exchanged quiet words with him. The crowd’s cheering was too loud for Alan to hear, but Jarvis looked a little cowed as he turned and held out the box to Alan, leaning away as if worried Alan might infect him with something. In the box was some kind of baton, with four buttons on the side. The ends of the baton flared with light when Alan lifted it from the box. Behind him, four blue-circuited programs were escorted to the arena floor, wearing lightsuits identical to his.
Without a word, Clu turned and began to run towards one end of the stadium, gaining momentum with every step. He leapt into the air, bringing the baton in front of him to grasp it with both hands, and then in a brilliant display of light, a shape akin to a motorcycle formed in midair, solidifying beneath Clu just as its wheels hit the ground. The gold of its circuits flashed as Clu turned sharply, a group of programs on red lightcycles forming up behind him. One of the programs behind Alan yanked him out of the way as the pack of red-circuited racers sped right towards them, missing the programs by inches. The slipstream was so strong that it sent Alan stumbling backwards.
The announcer’s cool voice sounded over the stadium once more. “Grid is live. Initiate lightcycle battle.”
The conscripted programs quickly materialized their bikes and set off in the opposite direction of the red racers. The program who had pulled Alan aside let go of his arm. “You’ve got no chance, User,” he said as he lifted his own baton. “Their bikes are faster than ours—use the levels.” And with that he took off, following his teammates.
Alan stood frozen in the center of the stadium, at a loss. He’d ridden a motorbike before, but that was decades ago—Flynn had practically begged him to take a spin on his Ducati, and Alan had eventually relented. It hadn’t been that bad, but it definitely wasn’t his favorite method of transportation. Still, he didn’t see that he had any other choice, and he didn’t want to know what it would feel like having one of those bikes run him over. Feeling a little silly, he took a running start and twisted the baton as he leapt, copying what he’d seen.
Light flashed, and the shape of the bike formed around him. The landing jarred his bones as the wheels of his lightcycle hit the floor of the arena. A helmet formed around his head, too, which he was extremely grateful for. He gripped the handles of the bike tightly, afraid he might crash, but the handling of the bike was surprisingly smooth as he sped up to join the pack of blue racers speeding towards the opposite end of the arena.
The pack split up just as he drew level with them, and he turned to follow one of them, still anxious, but fairly certain he'd played enough rounds on the Tron cabinet to guess where this was going. As they peeled off again down the center of the arena, a jet of light issued from the back of the cycle ahead of him. Alan swerved to avoid the jet, and moments later a similar ribbon issued from his own bike.
A voice sounded in his ears, coming from inside his helmet; it was the same program who had pulled him out of the way. “You have to run them into your light ribbon, User,” he said. “It’s the only way to win.”
“Won’t that hurt them?” Alan thought he knew the answer, but these programs seemed so fragile, and while he was pretty sure they meant to hurt him, he didn’t want to be responsible for killing one of them. The memory of all those programs in the disc arena disintegrating into cubes made him clench the handles of his cycle tighter.
Incredulous laughter echoed in his helmet. “That’s the point,” the program responded. “They’re not gonna show us any—look out, here they come.” A red cycle was speeding towards them up ahead, a light ribbon trailing behind it. “Don’t follow me, User,” the blue program told him, and veered suddenly to the right, hurtling away.
“Thanks for the help,” Alan muttered. He glanced behind him; the red racer was ignoring the blue program, instead aiming straight for Alan. Alan leaned to his left and dipped down a ramp to the lower level of the arena, heading for a section free of cycles. The red racer followed, and Alan leaned forward, hoping to gain some speed, but the blue cycles really did seem slower—the red cycle followed him with ease, drawing closer every second. It was almost on top of him now. Alan swerved up another ramp, intending to head for one of the arena walls, but as he reached the top another red cycle pulled in front of him, blocking the way with its light ribbon.
“Go right!” someone yelled in his ear, and Alan obeyed instinctively; he twisted his cycle to the right, and the red racer following just behind him smashed into the light ribbon as Alan sped away. Alan could see the shower of cubes from the corner of his eye. He gritted his teeth and drove on.
The blue program pulled up beside him, laughing triumphantly. “Just like that,” he said. “Come on, let’s take care of the next one. Follow me.” He raced off, and Alan followed close behind, ignoring the shiver that ran through him as he realized the blue program intended to kill another racer. The second red cycle was just ahead of them. They pulled up on either side of the racer, boxing him in.
“Speed up, User!” the blue program yelled. Alan leaned forward, gaining momentum. His newfound partner did the same, catching the red racer between them. The wheels of the red cycle skidded on the arena floor. The front wheel caught on Alan’s, and the cycle tumbled, sending its racer crashing to the ground. The blue program shouted something, but Alan didn’t hear—the red program landed directly in front of his wheel, and Alan’s bike flipped over. He lost his grip on the handle; the bike collapsed back into the baton, and Alan plummeted downward.
His head slammed against the floor of the arena with a crack. A starbust of pain flashed behind his eyes, and everything blurred as he rolled to a stop. He laid there, motionless and winded, staring up at the dark sky visible past the highest stands of the arena. He blinked slowly, only vaguely aware of a distant voice telling him to hold on. His limbs felt almost transparent as he pushed himself up. He shook his head, trying to clear it, but the motion only made it hurt more.
Something was speeding his way. The blue program was heading for him, holding Alan’s baton in one hand. Alan pushed himself up, trying to focus, and held out a hand to take the baton, but with a flash of gold, a new light cycle darted in front of him. Something sharp slashed into Alan’s leg as it passed, and he heard a vicious laugh as he fell to his knees. Clu streaked away, still laughing, his gold disc spattered with red as he dragged the edge along the floor of the arena.
Alan could still see the blue program hurtling towards him through the transparent golden ribbon. The program turned sharply, trying to avoid the crash, but it was too late. The blue cycle smashed into the ribbon and exploded with the force of the impact. The program derezzed instantly, sending blue cubes shattering against the light ribbon. The baton he'd held moments before spun away.
There was a shout from the crowd, and Alan looked around wildly, panicking. Clu’s circuits were a yellow blur as he rocketed back around toward Alan, gathering speed with every second. Alan struggled to his feet again, swaying unsteadily as the slash in his leg burned with pain. He fumbled for the disc on his back, not exactly sure what he was planning on doing with it, but he refused to go down with out at least trying to fight. Clu was almost on him now, just feet away, and Alan braced for the impact.
The sound of a motor revving reached him over the noise of the crowd. As his brain registered the noise, a black vehicle bigger than a light cycle shot in front of him, barring Clu’s way. The vehicle’s light ribbon was too big and too close for Clu to avoid; the front of his light cycle smashed into it, disintegrating into cubes, and Clu was sent flying as the momentum carried him onward. He fell heavily to the floor of the arena as the new vehicle pulled up directly beside Alan, who watched uncomprehendingly as a hatch on the car—tank—whatever it was--lifted up. A helmeted figure sat at the wheel, their circuits bright white.
“Get in!” the program called. The door of the passenger side slid open. Alan stumbled forward a little, wanting to immediately climb into the safety of the vehicle, but something held him back. How did he know this person wouldn’t try to kill him too?
“Get in!” the program yelled again. Alan hesitated a second more before dragging himself into the passenger seat. Better to let this tank driver kill him than die at the hands of someone who looked like too much Flynn.
The hatch lowered over him as the driver gunned the engine. Sweat was dripping into his eyes; he tore off his glasses—how had they not broken?--and wiped the sweat away clumsily with his fingers. When he lowered his hand, a scarlet stain was coating the fabric of his glove. He stared at it blankly. Whose blood was that?
“Are you okay?”
He looked to his left. The driver was looking at him. He tried to think of a response—his mind was moving so slowly—as the figure jerked the wheel of the car. The rear of the vehicle slammed into something, jostling Alan in his seat and sending a white-hot pain bolting through his leg.
“Hold on!” the driver yelled, and they slammed a button on the console next to the wheel.
“Who are you?” Alan asked, or tried to—his voice was slurred and too soft. His tongue felt heavy, his mouth dry. The pain in his leg was almost unbearable, and his head was pounding. He felt the vehicle shudder as something rumbled behind them. Was that an explosion? Somehow, he didn’t really care. His head was too heavy to hold up; he leaned over the partition separating him from the driver, trying to steady himself. The driver pressed another button, and something—his vision was too unfocused to see what—rose up from the hood of the vehicle.
A moment later another explosion rocked the ground beneath their wheels. The wall of the stadium looming ahead of them blew apart. Had they done that? A gray film was eating at the edges of his vision. He felt a sudden sensation of weightlessness as the vehicle launched into the open air, and then another bolt of pain snaked through his leg as their wheels slammed to the ground again. Bile rose in his throat and he choked it back, swallowing hard, but the nausea didn’t abate.
He dropped his head onto the partition’s edge. He was distantly aware of a hand on his back, shaking him. He thought he could hear a voice above him somewhere, but it was muffled and indistinct. Wanting to answer, he swallowed again and pushed himself off of the partition, but the motion made his stomach turn, and he slumped over. His face felt so warm, like he’d stuck his head in a furnace. The hand was on his left shoulder now, holding him upright. Alan turned his head, trying to focus on the driver, but everything was too blurred. He felt his head thud back onto the partition. As his vision dissolved to black, Alan wondered if Flynn had ever felt this scared.
The tires of the lightrunner skidded along the floor as Quorra pulled into the garage. Beside her, the User slumped a little more over the center partition, and she shifted her grip on his shoulder, trying to keep him upright. She parked the vehicle roughly, attempting to do everything one handed, and his head fell heavily on her shoulder as they came to a stop. The doors slid open, and she carefully leaned him against the partition before getting out and hurrying to the passenger side.
She hovered beside the vehicle and stared down at the User, at a loss. Calm. She had to be calm, or she wouldn’t be able to help him. A sticky coldness on her neck made her shiver, and when she touched it, red glinted on her gloves. She reached out and gingerly tilted the User’s head towards her. A red stain (blood, she remembered, Users bleed) had dripped from just above his left temple to his ear, smeared a little from resting on her shoulder. She carefully let his head fall back to the side, and glanced down; blood glistened as it seeped through the armor of his injured leg, too. How much blood could a User lose before it really hurt them? She wasn’t sure, but she remembered Flynn saying that older Users were more fragile. This one seemed as old as Flynn, though ‘fragile’ was not a word she would use to describe her mentor.
She moved her hand to his shoulder and tapped it with her fingers. The User didn’t move. “Hey,” she said, gently shaking his shoulder this time, “can you hear me?” Again, there was no response, not even a twitch of the eyelids. She gave up on waking him. Now what? Would moving him injure him more? She could probably lift him, but she wasn't certain about carrying him all the way upstairs. She lingered for a moment longer, then turned on her heel and strode to the elevator that would take her up to the main floor. She didn’t know what to do, but Flynn would.
The elevator rose far too slowly, and she stepped of the platform even before it clicked into place, her boots thumping against the white tile. "Flynn,” she said, “Flynn, come quick!”
“Quorra?” Flynn was seated in his usual place at the front of the room, meditating. He looked over his shoulder as she approached with a hand outstretched, ready to pull him up. The blood on the fingers of her gloves flashed in the light, and Flynn drew in a short breath. “What happened? You’re—” He broke off, and Quorra knew they were thinking the same thing: programs didn’t bleed, not even ISOs. He grabbed her wrist and stared at the blood, then looked up at Quorra’s face. His eyes flickered to the stain at her neck.
“What happened?” he repeated, allowing her to pull him to his feet.
“I found—well, Clu found him, I had to step in—follow me!” She tugged him along to the platform, the blood on her gloves sticking against his skin. When they reached the center of the platform there was another small click and it began to lower once again.
“Who did you find, Quorra?” Flynn asked, his voice even. The walls rose swiftly as they descended.
“I heard programs talking about it outside the Arena—it was all over the City, they said Clu had found another User and was challenging them to a game, and I had to see if it was true.” Her words spilled out quickly, clumsily; she wished she could be as calm as Flynn looked. The platform settled into place in the garage floor, and Quorra pulled him towards the lightrunner parked in the center of the room. “When I got there Clu already had him on the lightcycle grid, and I intervened—” She could see the body slumped over in the passenger seat again; the User hadn’t moved. “But I don't know if we should move him, he's hurt...”
She stopped. Flynn no longer seemed to be listening; he was staring at the User, his eyes wide and riveted to the man’s face. His mouth had fallen open slightly in surprise, and he murmured, almost too quietly for her to hear, “Alan…”
He stepped closer to the lightrunner and bent down to rest on one knee. His eyes were still focused intently on the User’s face, but the shock that had darkened his features was gone, replaced with its usual calm. Quorra stepped closer, looking between Flynn and the unconscious man in the passenger seat.
“He was talking when I got to him in the arena, but by the time we reached the Outlands he stopped answering,” she said. "I couldn’t get him to wake up.” She hesitated, not wanting to put her fear into words.
Flynn reached out and laid two fingers on the man’s neck, just below the jaw. He stayed that way for a moment, then dropped his hand. “He's just unconscious," he told her. "There's a heartbeat." He held the back of his hand just in front of the User's face, then added, "And he's breathing." He shifted slightly and tilted the User's head to examine the wound.
Quorra crouched down beside him. “They were saying he’s Tron’s User,” she said quietly.
“They were right,” Flynn said, gently brushing some of the man’s hair out of the way to take a better look at the wound. “This is Alan Bradley.”
Quorra looked back up at the User, a pang of excitement running through her. She had only seen Tron a few times from a distance, back before the Purge, but she knew all about his User. In her first cycles as his apprentice, Flynn had told her of his family, and how he had been close friends with the Users of Tron and Yori and Ram, the brave programs who had saved the old ENCOM System cycles ago. The Users had always sounded just as incredible as the programs they’d created. She’d loved to hear about the outside world, and he would fill the long cycles they spent confined in the hideout with dozens of stories about his old life. But that was a long time ago; the stories had grown less and less frequent, until they stopped being told at all. Flynn hadn’t spoken of his family for hundreds of cycles.
But Quorra still remembered them. This was Alan Bradley, Flynn’s business partner and one of his best friends, husband to Lora Baines, another close friend whose work had made it possible for Flynn to visit the Grid. According to Flynn, he and Alan had clashed often, but Flynn didn’t seem to mind. ‘He’s stubborn, and kind of a grump,’ he used to tell her laughingly, ‘but you can’t find a guy more dependable than Alan.’ She watched silently as Flynn tried to wake his friend, with as little success as she had. Her hands clasped together tightly, the excitement marred. If she had been just a little quicker getting into the arena, he would be awake now.
She looked up quickly. Flynn was watching her. “Yes?” she said.
“How did he get hurt, exactly?” he asked, climbing to his feet.
She stood up too. “Clu was making him race on the light cycle grid. I didn’t see all of it, but I think his cycle flipped and he landed…badly.” She glanced down as his leg again and added, “Clu went after him with his disc, too.”
“Hmm.” His expression was neutral, but she had been with him long enough to know that he was worried; she could tell by the set of his shoulders. “I’m not too concerned about the leg. The cut isn’t deep. But his head…” Flynn sighed through his nose. “That gash isn’t deep either, but he probably has a concussion.”
“A concussion?” She had never heard the word before, but it didn’t sound pleasant.
“If a User hits their head too hard, their brain can bounce against their skull. Sometimes it can cause a lot of damage. But we don’t have the equipment to see for sure…we’ll just have to wait until he wakes up.” He sighed again, and looked at her. “We should move him upstairs. Help me with him, please.”
He bent down and hooked his arms beneath Alan’s shoulders. Quorra quickly moved to raise his legs, and together they lifted him up and out of the light runner. Something clattered to the floor—a pair of glasses. The corner of Flynn’s mouth twitched, and he carefully set Alan down long enough to retrieve them. He folded them up and hung them off the collar of his robe. Nodding at Quorra, he adjusted his grip and lifted Alan up again, and together they carried him over to the elevator platform.
It immediately began to ascend. They set Alan down again for the short ride upward, Flynn propping him up against his shoulder. Flynn was staring at his friend’s face again, his brow slightly furrowed. Quorra couldn’t tell what he was feeling now. Even after all their cycles together, Flynn was still, at times, an enigma.
The elevator rose into place, and they lifted the User up again. “The couch,” Flynn said, and they hauled him over. Flynn detached the disc from Alan’s back before setting him down completely. “Let’s get you a change of clothes, man,” he said softly, holding the disc flat in one hand as the display shimmered to life.
Quorra watched, fascinated, as he manipulated the interface. She had seen Flynn alter his own disc information before, but every projection was unique, and a User's even more so. He worked quickly, his fingers moving with practiced certainty as the display flashed and morphed. After a few seconds he hoisted Alan up again, supporting him with one hand while re-docking the disc with the other. As he settled his friend back down, Alan’s lightsuit changed. The transformation radiated outward from his disc, the material shifting from armor to something more reminiscent of Flynn’s usual clothes, the color a light grey.
“There,” Flynn said, “he should be more comfortable that way.”
“How long will he be asleep?”
“Hard to say. Could be a few minutes, could be…” he trailed off, then sighed. “Longer.” He moved away, padding across the room.
Quorra stepped closer to the couch, watching the sleeping User. It was easier to see the rise and fall of his chest as he breathed now. At least he didn’t seem to be in pain. She watched him for a few more moments before realizing Flynn hadn’t returned. Frowning, she looked around and saw him standing outside at the edge of the terrace, staring out towards the city. Just above the tip of the tallest tower, a small, familiar pinprick of light was shining steadily through the clouds.
Quorra hesitated, then crossed the room to the terrace. She stopped beside Flynn, who glanced at her before turning his gaze back to the light. Quorra’s eyes were drawn to it too, almost irresistibly. It had been so long since she, or any other program, had last seen that light. They stood wordlessly as a cloud passed in front of it, partially obscuring its glow, but never completely eclipsing it. As the cloud passed and the light shone again in full force, she found herself wishing more than anything that she could finally see it up close--and the place beyond it.
A hand touched her arm, and she looked up. Flynn was watching her. After a moment he smiled, and she wondered if he knew what she was thinking. He usually did.
“Come on,” he said, “we should get him cleaned up.” He turned and stepped back inside, moving back to the couch. He glanced in Quorra’s direction before bending down to check on his friend, and she knew he was looking not at her, but past her. Quorra glanced back one last time over the Outlands, taking in the sight of the light blazing unwaveringly above the city, before turning away.
Alan awoke slowly, his senses returning to him in staggered bits and pieces. He was first aware of the softness of his bed, and then a gentle light shining through his eyelids. He kept them closed, wanting to drift back to the peaceful shadows of sleep, but a dull ache in his temple pulled him further out of his lethargy. He must have had another restless night, but he didn’t remember falling asleep. He didn’t remember much of anything.
His eyes opened blearily, and it took him a few seconds to realize that he was not in his own bedroom. His bedsheets weren’t black, for one, and he was pretty sure his floor didn’t glow. Where the hell was he? Maybe he was dreaming. He rubbed a hand over his face and froze as the tips of his fingers brushed his forehead. Was that a bandage? Why would he need--
All at once, memories surged into his brain. The arcade, the impossible digital city, Clu, the light cycle grid--he squeezed his eyes shut, trying to make sense of the rush of images. He could just remember the helmeted driver coming to his apparent rescue, but after that…a blank. Well, at least he wasn’t dead. He rolled over to his side; a sudden sharp pain in his calf made him grit his teeth. Now that he was fully awake, everything was starting to hurt. He ignored the pain and tried to figure out where, exactly, his rescuer had brought him. His vision was blurred—he prayed he hadn’t lost his glasses—but he could see enough to know he wasn’t alone in the room.
The slightly fuzzy silhouette of a woman was standing at a long window cut out of one of the black, rocky walls. Lines glowing a soft white were set into her clothing, stretching down her sides and arms all the way to the knuckles of her gloved fingers. One of her hands was resting on the sill of the window, the other balled into a fist at her side. Her shoulders were hunched beneath her short black hair. She looked strangely familiar, but Alan couldn’t place her. She was facing away from him; she seemed to be watching something outside.
He sat up, but his temple throbbed at the movement, and he made a pained noise through gritted teeth. The woman turned at the sound. As she faced him, he realized where he had seen her—this was the driver who had rescued him, now helmetless. She quickly crossed to his bedside.
“You’re awake!” she said, leaning over him. He squinted up at her, trying to bring her face into focus. She frowned for a moment before giving a small “oh!” of remembrance and reached for something on a table beside the bed. She held something out to him. “Here,” she said. “You might need these."
He took the proffered object and was relieved to feel his hand close over his glasses. He quickly slipped them on, blinking as the room came into focus. Someone had cleaned the lenses. He looked up at the girl, who was still hovering by his bedside, smiling expectantly.
“Is that better?” she asked.
“…Yes,” he said, “Thank you.” He paused warily, hoping she would say more, but she just kept smiling at him. “Uh…I’m sorry, but who are you?”
“Oh—I'm Quorra,” she said, and she held out her hand again. It was a moment before he realized she wanted him to shake it. He did so, bemused, and realized his hands were bare—the lightsuit was gone, replaced with soft clothes that felt vaguely like pajamas. At least they were more comfortable than the suit.
“Well, Quorra, I—” he started to say, moving to get up, but the motion made his head spin. The room tilted as he fell to the side; Quorra caught him by the shoulders before he could tumble out of the bed.
“Don’t try to get up,” she said, holding him steady as the world righted itself, “we don’t know how bad your…concussion is.” She said the word like it fit strangely in her mouth.
A concussion? He touched the bandage on his head again. Just what he needed. No wonder he was so tired, though his less than stellar sleep schedule had no doubt contributed, too…wait.
“We?” Alan asked, looking up at her. “Who’s ‘we’?”
She let him go, but kept her hands up cautiously in case he tried to get out of the bed again. “Just stay here,” she said. “I’ll be right back.” She straightened up, waiting a moment to see if he would try to follow her. Part of him wanted to do just that, but the rest of him that was all dizziness and aching bones won out, and he settled in the bed, nodding reluctantly. She gave him another little smile and left the room, shutting the door behind her.
Alan cautiously sat up straighter, looking around the room. It was small and sparsely furnished—apart from the bed and the nightstands on either side of it, there was only a bookshelf embedded in the wall with a few books (would programs read books?), a silver globe, and what looked like a very old-fashioned camera on its shelves. The floor really was glowing, too, the same white as the circuitry in Quorra’s clothes.
His temple pulsed, and he let his eyes shut. The lack of light helped with the pain somewhat. How long had he been asleep? He felt as if only a few minutes had passed since he climbed into that vehicle, but something about Quorra’s reaction to his awakening told him it might have been longer. Long enough to change his clothes and patch him up, anyway.
Low voices outside his door made him open his eyes again. He couldn’t discern the words, but one voice was definitely Quorra’s. As for the other—for a horrible moment he thought it was Clu, and the hem of the bedsheet bunched up beneath his fingers as his fists clenched instinctively. But while the similarity was strong, this voice was deeper, a bit slower, and just plain older.
The voices continued for a few more moments, then fell silent. The door opened, and Quorra entered the room, smiling at Alan as she moved to the foot of his bed. Behind her, a man stood in the doorway. His clothing lacked the lights so common to the rest of the computer’s inhabitants, and where every program Alan had met so far seemed to prefer black, the robes were as white as the hair pushed back from the man’s bearded face. His brows were drawn together in a frown, and the dark circles beneath his eyes hinted that he hadn’t slept in a while, but his expression lightened as he met Alan’s eyes.
Alan stared at him. There was no mistaking who it was, but he thought there had been no mistaking Clu before, either. As Alan continued to stare, the man stepped inside. After a moment, he smiled at Alan tiredly. Even with the beard and the years etched into that familiar face, the expression was one Alan had replayed in his memory hundreds of times, and it made his breath catch in his throat to see it again. He clenched his jaw, breathing in deliberately through his nose. This could be another trick. He couldn’t let himself be fooled a second time. But…
“...Kevin?” he asked.
The smile widened just a touch. “Hey, Bradley,” Flynn said.
Alan swallowed, his throat tight. There was only one person who ever called him that so casually. He didn’t say a word; he didn’t trust himself to. Flynn crossed to his bedside and, after a moment’s hesitation, reached out to touch Alan’s shoulder. Alan leaned away before he could stop himself—how could he be sure this was really him? Flynn made to withdraw his hand, but Alan caught his sleeve, and he went still, watching Alan cautiously.
“Sorry,” Alan said, “It’s just…it’s really you, isn’t it? This time?”
Flynn nodded. “Quorra told me you met Clu.” He sat down on the edge of the bed and looked at Alan steadily. “It’s really me. Promise.”
Alan met his gaze, staring at the familiar, warm blue of his friend’s eyes, and his grip on Flynn’s sleeve tightened. He looked down, nodding, and clenched his jaw again. He knew, without quite knowing how to rationalize it, that this really was Flynn. He swallowed again, trying to ignore the lump growing once more in his throat. His emotions were such a mess that he could barely tell what he was feeling. He took a breath to speak, but his voice failed him, and he pressed his lips together tightly.
“Alan,” Flynn said quietly, but Alan refused to look up, staring resolutely at his lap. His vision was blurring again, and he took off his glasses, huffing in embarrassment. Flynn shifted closer. “C’mere,” he said, and drew Alan into a hug.
Alan didn’t resist; he leaned forward and rested his forehead against Flynn’s shoulder. Flynn pulled him close, warm and solid, a hand curling at the nape of Alan’s neck. Alan took in a breath as the exhaustion of the last few hours lessened somewhat. He rested a hand on Flynn’s back, exhaling slowly, and made a noise almost too shaky to be called a laugh.
Flynn patted his back. “Keep it together, man,” he said, but his own voice sounded thick.
“Speak for yourself,” Alan shot back, a little muffled.
Flynn laughed softly at that, and Alan did too. Flynn let him go, and both of them carefully avoided each other’s eyes for a few moments. Alan straightened his back, his head still bowed, and scrubbed at his eyes with the heel of his palm. Flynn clasped his hands and cleared his throat quietly, looking up at the ceiling as Alan took his time replacing his glasses. When he finally lifted his head, Flynn was looking at him sidelong, a crooked smile on his face.
“Miss me?” he asked.
“Like a toothache,” Alan answered, rolling his eyes. Flynn laughed again, and Alan tried in vain to keep a smile from spreading over his face. It was strangely nice to know the man could still annoy him, even now. He glanced at Quorra, who was still standing at the foot of his bed, watching them with an almost fascinated expression. When she saw him looking, she smiled slightly.
“Quorra told me you’d woken up,” Flynn said. Alan looked back at him. The playfulness had faded, and he looked tired again. “I would’ve been here, but I…had a couple things to check on.” He hesitated for a moment, then asked, “Alan, don’t get me wrong, I’m happy to see you, but…how did you get here?”
“Oh, I…I got your page,” Alan said, only a little sheepish at admitting he’d kept a twenty year old pager. "From your office at the arcade. The phone’s been disconnected for years, so I decided to check it out." That seemed like ages ago, now. He added, sternly, “Thanks for telling me about your secret basement lab, by the way.”
Flynn didn’t respond to that. He was looking at Quorra, a small frown on his face. She didn’t seem much happier. Both of their gazes flickered to the window in the opposite wall. Alan looked between them, confused. “Kevin?”
Flynn looked back to him then, and flashed him a quick smile. “Never mind. It’s not important.” He glanced up at the bandage on Alan’s temple. “How’re you feeling, by the way, buddy?”
Alan blinked at the change of subject. “Well…like I got hit by a car. Not that far off, I guess,” he answered, reminded of his injury. The pain had faded somewhat, and he resisted the urge to rub his head again. “How long was I out?”
Flynn shifted a little. “Uh…about seven hours.”
“What?” Seven hours? Lora’s plane would’ve landed by now, she would see he hadn’t come home. She would be worried. He threw the covers off his legs, intent on getting up. “Lora will miss me—why didn’t you wake me—?”
“Whoa, whoa—hey, don’t get up!” Flynn grabbed at his arm. Alan shook him off and pushed himself up, but the sudden elevation made the room spin again, and he settled heavily on the bed. The landing jarred his leg, and he hissed in pain.
Flynn gave him a sympathetic look. “See? Bad idea.” He paused and ran a hand through his hair, then said, “Look, it hasn’t really been seven hours. Not outside.”
Alan rubbed at his thigh; there was another bandage beneath the fabric of his pants. “Outside?”
“Yeah. Our world. Time…moves a little differently here. Hours on the Grid are only a few minutes outside. It’s only been about fifteen minutes since you left.”
Alan stopped. “You can’t be serious.”
“Probably less,” Flynn said. “Closer to twelve.”
Alan wondered if that was supposed to make him feel better. “Why would time move faster here?”
Flynn shook his head, saying, “It’s not that time is faster, exactly, it’s just that your perception of it is different. The same amount of time has passed, but since the Grid is within a computer, motion is only limited by how fast an electron can move through a circuit board.”
“So you’re saying we’re very small and move very fast?” Alan said, raising an eyebrow skeptically.
“Kinda. We’re not really small…” He lifted a corner of his mouth when Alan just frowned deeper. “It’s complicated. Try not to think about it too much.”
“Right…” Only twelve minutes. He rubbed at his forehead again; it was starting to pound.
“Are you okay?” Both men turned to look at Quorra, who was watching Alan with concern. She stepped closer, asking, “Does your head still hurt?”
“Oh—no, I’m alright,” Alan told her. It was mostly true, anyway—he felt as okay as he could be after having his head slammed directly into the floor. “I mean, it does hurt,” he conceded, “but it’s not too bad.”
“It might hurt for a while,” Flynn said. “Clu gave you a real beating.”
“I’ll say.” Alan didn’t want to think about that coldly grinning face, but his curiosity won out. “Who is he? He looks just like you—like you did, anyway.” He worked his jaw, trying not to think too much about what had happened at the arena. “I thought he was you, at first.”
“I don’t blame you. You couldn’t have known the truth until he wanted you to.” Flynn stood up suddenly and added, “And he looks like me because I wrote him.”
“You wrote him?”
Flynn nodded. “Yeah. All programs look like the person who wrote them. I wrote Clu in the 80s, so he looks like I did back then. Programs don’t age.”
“Lucky them,” Alan muttered, but he didn’t put much thought into the response—things were finally starting to make sense. “So you’re saying a program looks like the person who wrote their code? Any program?”
“So the Tron program I wrote back in ‘82,” Alan said slowly, “would look like me.”
“Like you did when you wrote him, yes,” Flynn said. “Why?”
“They knew who I was—the guards who found me when I first got here. They kept mentioning Tron. I didn’t understand it at the time, but…” he paused, thinking. "I remember you asked to use the Tron program for your projects." That was right after Flynn had become CEO at ENCOM. “So you’re saying they recognized me because of it—him?”
Flynn nodded again. “Bingo. You still look similar enough that most programs would notice.” He looked away, his voice quieter. “He was pretty famous here.”
He fell silent. Alan waited, but Flynn wasn’t looking at him anymore; he was staring at something Alan couldn’t see, his eyes more tired than ever. Alan couldn’t imagine what would make the vibrant, lively man he remembered look so completely run down.
“Kevin,” he said quietly. Flynn lifted his gaze again. Alan hesitated, then asked, “What happened?”
Flynn looked at him for a long moment, then sighed. “It’s a long story, man. Complicated.”
“We’ve apparently got plenty of time,” Alan said. “And I can handle complicated. Try me.”
To his surprise, Flynn smiled, though it didn’t quite reach his eyes. “That’s exactly what you said the last time you asked me about it.” He took a deep breath, and let it out slowly before speaking. “Alright. You’ve probably guessed that this was the big project I was working on all those times I wasn’t in the office. I wanted to create a system of my own design, one I could experiment with without anyone looking over my shoulder, so I took one of the servers from the old ENCOM offices and moved it to the arcade.”
“And Lora’s laser,” Alan added. “Don’t think I didn’t notice that in your lab.”
Flynn at least had the decency to look contrite as he said, “It wasn’t exactly her laser—I just borrowed the schematics and made my own. The one she and Walter were working with stayed where it was until she left the company, you know that.” He paused. “How is she, by the way?”
“She’s fine,” Alan said shortly. He could catch Flynn up on how their family was doing after he had been given a full explanation. “And so is Sam, and Roy. Everyone is fine. Don’t change the subject, Flynn. Why did you need her laser?”
“Human digitization, man,” Flynn said, as if it was obvious.
“You already knew it was possible?” Alan frowned at him. That didn’t make any sense. “But you were working on your project for years before you found your ‘miracle’.”
“My miracle?” Flynn looked puzzled for a moment before realization spread over his face. “Oh—no, buddy, the miracle was…something else…” He trailed off at the look on Alan’s face. “Alan?”
Alan didn’t understand. Flynn couldn’t actually be saying what he thought he was saying. “You—you knew about human digitization before—you were already using the laser for…” His head was starting to hurt again. “How long had you…no. How did you even know it would work? Lora and Gibbs never moved past digitizing non-sentient matter before she took her work to D.C.” Surely Lora would’ve told him if they’d started working with sentient life. “So how could you have known?”
Flynn couldn’t quite meet his gaze. “…Because I’d already done it to myself.”
It took Alan a moment to process the words. “You what?”
“How? I don’t--” Alan started, then stopped, peering at Flynn suspiciously over his glasses. “When did you discover this, exactly?”
Flynn’s shoulders dropped a few inches, his expression beseeching. “Alan, don’t be like this.”
Alan narrowed his eyes. He’d heard that one before. “Answer the question, Flynn.”
“I…” Flynn hesitated. “Look, I didn’t think you would believe me—”
There was a long pause, and then Flynn sighed, resigned. “1982. The night we broke into ENCOM to get my files back.”
Silence fell in the room again. Flynn was watching him without a word as if waiting for his reaction. Quorra looked between them uneasily, her eyes wide and wary as they shifted from Alan to Flynn. Alan didn’t notice. He felt almost like he wasn’t truly present in his body. When he spoke, his words came to him sluggishly as if from a long distance. “Are you telling me,” he said slowly, “that you digitized yourself in 1982?”
Flynn hesitated. “I…yeah, man.”
“That’s how you got the proof you needed.”
“And after that,” Alan spoke over him, struggling to keep his voice even now, “you just…didn’t tell us. You got your job back, and they made you CEO, and you set up your own special little room in the basement of your arcade, and you built a laser and connected it to a server.”
“Look, I wasn’t trying to—”
“Because you already knew it would work, you already knew you could just—just digitize yourself and run around inside the server and experiment—”
“What the hell is wrong with you?” His voice was so fierce that Flynn recoiled like Alan had hit him. Alan didn’t care. He was definitely present in his body now—his face was burning, his head starting to pound. His fingers dug into his thighs as he tried to keep himself from shaking. “You knew all of that in 1982? You never told me about any of this!”
Flynn’s eyes were wide with alarm. “Alan, I didn’t—”
Alan cut him off, his voice growing louder with very word. “You kept all of this from me—from Lora, that’s her work, Flynn, and I know you didn’t tell her about any this because she would’ve told me—you kept this from us for seven years?”
“I…” Flynn just looked at him almost helplessly. “Would you have believed me if I told you?
“You don’t get to ask me that when you had proof, Flynn!” Alan’s voice was starting to shake too. “Is this where you were every time I had to make excuses to the board for you missing another meeting? When you would stay away from the office for days at a time? When your parents would call me asking if I knew where you’d gone—when Sam would ask me why he hadn’t seen you that day?”
Flynn flinched at that. “I—Alan, please, I wasn’t—”
“This isn’t just keeping something to yourself, this is—I asked you so many times what you were doing, Flynn! You had every opportunity to say something and you didn’t!” The ache in his head only intensified as he yelled, but he couldn’t stop himself. “You lied to everyone while the rest of us ran around trying to pick up the slack, and meanwhile, all you were actually doing was chasing some insane dream of a digital utopia and playing games! And don’t bother trying to deny that, I’ve seen your notes--”
The pain in his temple flared sharply, and he broke off, clutching at his head as he choked back a grunt of pain. Both Flynn and Quorra stepped closer, but he jerked away. His breathing was so ragged he was almost gasping. “Everyone,” he said, “everyone kept saying there was something going on, but I didn’t care. I knew if it was important you would tell me.” He hated how small he sounded now. “I trusted you to tell me.”
“Alan…” Flynn’s voice was low, imploring. Alan didn’t answer. The pain seemed to take an age to fade. He kept his head in his hands, not wanting to see whatever sadness or regret that might be in Flynn’s eyes, hear his explanations or excuses. None of it mattered. When his shoulders had finally stopped shaking, Alan took a long, slow breath, and spoke.
“I want to go home.”
His words were engulfed by the ensuing silence. He sat, his head still resting on his palms, and waited for a response. There was none. He raised his head at last. Flynn wasn’t looking at him; instead he stared at the floor, his face a mask. His eyes flashed almost imperceptibly to the window opposite him. Alan watched him, waiting for Flynn to say something, anything, but the silence stretched. He took another breath and said, “I want to—”
Both men turned. Quorra was still standing near the foot of the bed, her hands clenched stiffly at her sides. She seemed surprised at herself for speaking. Alan had nearly forgotten she was there.
“Quorra…” Flynn said softly. It was almost a warning, but when Alan glanced at him, he seemed resigned. He and Quorra shared a long look, one Alan couldn’t decipher, and Quorra took a step closer.
“To leave the Grid,” she said hesitantly, “a User has to exit through the code stream portal. But the portal is closed now.” She paused, waiting for Alan to interject, but he only stared at her. She continued, “When you arrived here, the portal opened, but…”
“It uses massive power,” Flynn said. Alan turned to him. He was watching Alan now, but his face was still strangely blank. “It’s only open as long as the laser is activated, and that can’t stay on for long. After a time it shuts itself off to save energy. And it can only be activated from the outside. There’s nothing we can do.” His voice was so even it was almost cold. “You can’t go home, Alan.”
The air had frozen in Alan’s lungs. He opened his mouth to speak, but no sound escaped him. He didn’t understand. He couldn’t stay here. Lora was coming home tonight. She would miss him.
Quorra and Flynn exchanged a glance. Quorra took another step forward, toward Alan, but Flynn spoke first.
“You should…rest,” he said. “You’ve had a long day.” He paused as if he might say something more, but then he looked away, and moved past Quorra to the door, pulling it open.
“Don’t—” Alan started. Flynn stopped and looked at him over his shoulder. Alan looked back, numb. Don’t you leave, he wanted to say. Don’t you just say all of that and tell me I can’t go home and then just leave. Instead, he said nothing, and after a long moment, looked down. There was no point. Alan knew he would leave anyway.
Flynn lingered in the doorway. “Get some rest, man,” he said softly, and he left the room.
Alan didn’t move. He continued to stare at his lap. There was a small noise, and a gloved hand timidly reached for his shoulder.
“Don’t,” he said. Quorra froze, her hand in midair. Alan didn’t look at her as he spoke. “Please just…leave.”
“Are…are you sure—?”
“Yes. Just go.”
He brought one hand up and leaned his head against it. It was hurting again. He closed his eyes. There was another small noise, and then the quiet shuffle of footsteps. After a long pause, the door scraped against the floor again, and clicked quietly into the frame as Quorra shut the door behind her.
My deepest apologies for how long the gap has been between this chapter and the last. I have a multitude of excuses, none of which really make up for a seven month hiatus, but suffice to say, I'm back now! The gap between chapters will never be nearly so long again. In fact, chapter 5 will be posted within about a day, as a thank you for waiting so long. I've also gone back and done minor edits to the first three chapters--nothing major, just to make things more cohesive further down the line.
Thanks for your patience and enjoy the chapter.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Alan didn’t know how long he slept, and he couldn’t bring himself to care. Hours passed in a haze, blurring together into the few minutes of consciousness he allowed himself. Every time he woke up enough to remember where he was, he hid his face beneath a pillow and focused only on taking the next breath, jaw clenched so hard it ached, until he could finally retreat back to the solace of sleep. When he was asleep, he didn’t have to think about Flynn, or the Grid, or Lora or Roy or Sam. He didn’t have to think about how he would never see them again. He didn’t have to think about anything at all. Sometimes, through the haze, he thought he could hear soft voices saying his name. He ignored them, not knowing if they were real or part of a dream. It didn’t matter either way. Eventually, the voices faded, letting him slip back into unconsciousness.
Now, though, it seemed he had slept himself out. He was wide awake, sitting on the edge of the bed with his elbows resting on his knees. He stared blankly up at the window set into the wall, trying to keep himself from thinking of anything in particular. The glass had gone opaque, and he wondered if that meant it was night, though he wasn’t sure if you could have a night without a sun. The lights had been dimmed when he awoke, too, though they’d brightened when he sat up. He felt strangely empty, and realized that he hadn’t eaten anything since before the meeting at ENCOM. That was hours ago, inside or out. He considered going to find food, if food even existed here, but decided against it. Leaving the room would probably mean having to see Flynn.
A muscle in his jaw twitched. That was the last thing he wanted to do. The mere thought of the man made his hands clench into fists, an attempt to hold back the bitterness that burned dully beneath his ribs, but there was no extinguishing it now. He pushed himself to his feet, ignoring the twinge of pain in his leg, and started pacing the short length of the room. If he moved around enough, maybe he could wear himself out and go back to sleep.
The glowing floor was warm beneath his feet as he passed in front of the door once, twice, three times, and kept going. He’d thought, after the argument, that sleeping might help to stifle his emotions, provide some distance from the situation, but it had only served to delay a real reaction. Now that he was up and moving, all the feelings were back in full force.
His leg throbbed, and he stopped in front of the darkened window, breathing hard through his nose. His reflection stared back dimly, and he realized, with grim satisfaction, that he looked more angry than tired. That was fine. He wanted nothing more than to just be good and mad at Flynn for a while. He’d spent plenty of time being angry over the last twenty years, and somewhere along the line, he’d gotten used to it, almost comfortable with it. Anger was, in some ways, easy. He could handle it.
What he didn’t know how to handle was betrayal. It was almost too dramatic a word, but there wasn’t anything else he could call it. Alan had a lot of experience with duplicity—Dillinger, the Board, the media—but those had been suspected, practically a given. He and Flynn hadn’t always seen eye to eye, but despite that, Alan had come to believe that Flynn was someone he could trust. They made a good team, and they’d become closer than Alan had ever expected. For all their disagreements, Flynn was his friend, and he thought he understood how Flynn worked.
But he hadn’t. The Flynn he thought he knew would never have lied about something like this. Not for so long. Not to him and Lora. There’d been too much trust between them for that, or so Alan had thought. Enough trust, at least, for Flynn to choose Alan as his partner, to ask him to help run the company.
Alan had done that and more. He’d kept track of everything, handled the press, placated the board, made sure everything was running smoothly while Flynn put his brilliant mind to bigger and brighter tasks. Alan was the best man for the job, after all, and it had been worth it to be able to do good work, to be a part of a company so incredible, to see someone like Flynn shine because Alan had been the one to help him do so.
His head was aching again. He sighed and sat back down, heavy-limbed. The worst of it was that Flynn had known all of that. He had known, because Alan had proved it again and again, that no matter how much Alan might have complained, no matter how often they argued, the work would still get done. Flynn was his friend, and Alan would help him. That was just who Alan was. Flynn knew it, and he’d taken advantage of it, so he could shirk nearly every responsibility and disappear off to his secret digital world.
And now Alan was trapped there with him.
Flynn must have gotten trapped too, a calmer, quieter part of him reasoned, in a tone that reminded him of Lora. He never got the chance to explain what happened to him.
That didn’t matter. This was clearly where Flynn wanted to be, after missing all those meetings and appointments and phone calls to carry on his work here while Alan kept the company running.
You read his notes. You knew there were things he didn’t tell you about, things he never told anyone. You know he wasn’t himself, at the end.
Alan grimaced. He hated admitting it, but that much, at least, was true. After Flynn’s disappearance, Alan had collected every scrap of information he could get his hands on, hoping it might help in the search. He’d had access to Flynn’s office for a while during his short time as CEO, and he’d even been able to smuggle an old server out of the office before the Board had the chance to go plundering through Flynn’s notes for ideas. It had taken ages to crack the server’s defenses, but once they had…
He didn’t like to think about it. The notes had started off relatively sensible, if ambitious. The earliest ones consisted of drafts of Flynn’s published books, along with sketches and designs for the latest iterations of Recognizers and light cycles. While some of the entries were characteristically Flynnish—Alan remembered pages and pages about the exhilaration of riding a motorcycle, and how a programmer might translate that exhilaration into code—there was nothing in them to suggest Flynn had much to hide.
As the dates grew closer to his disappearance, though, the notes took on a new tone. Drafts of unfinished books and newer reports regarding his secret project, what Alan now knew to be the Grid, spoke of a growing fixation, almost an obsession, with the idea of perfection. Alan had felt increasingly bewildered as he pored through the entries. He knew Flynn wasn’t always as relaxed as he seemed, but the increasingly palpable frustration the man expressed for the chaotic nature of reality was unnerving. That frustration only grew as the dates went on, and to Alan’s dismay, the notes dated just a few weeks before his disappearance were practically unhinged. Those final notes had only one focus: Flynn’s deceased wife, Jordan.
Jordan Canas. Alan didn’t like to think about her, either. When he’d first met Jordan, he’d wondered how a woman as reliable and pragmatic as her could have any kind of interest in someone like Flynn, but the more time he spent with the both of them, the more natural their dynamic became. Jordan had a way of listening like she wanted nothing more than to hear you talk, and she could direct any of Flynn’s haphazard thoughts and rambles into a viable idea with a few thoughtful suggestions. She had a sense of humor, too; the amount of times she’d willingly gone along with one of Flynn’s more ridiculous ideas just for the sake of making someone laugh, Alan couldn’t count.
Flynn had told Alan once that he’d fallen for Jordan because of her enthusiasm for her work, and Alan thought he understood why: even to someone with no experience in architecture, her designs were incredible, capable of expressing immense movement in a stationary structure. She clearly loved her job, and constantly created new designs. After Sam was born, she’d moved a drafting table into a corner of his room so she could continue to work while he slept. Despite his flightiness, Flynn had that same infectious enthusiasm. They complimented each other, and during their two years of marriage they’d seemed practically unstoppable.
Alan could still remember the night she died. The relentless rain, the frantic phone call, his shaking hands gripping the steering wheel as he drove to the hospital--only to be met at the entrance by Flynn’s father, who said simply that there was nothing to be done. The next few days were a blur as Alan tried to keep the company and media at bay while Flynn’s family made hurried arrangements. The funeral was small, subdued; Alan remembered only a sense of numb disbelief as he sat in the second row with Lora and Roy. Flynn, sitting in the front row next to his parents, spent the entire service in silence, clutching Sam in his lap as he stared at the closed casket.
The following week, Flynn announced that he was stepping back temporarily from his position as CEO to spend time with his family. The Board was sympathetic at first, but as Flynn’s absence stretched, their impatience grew. It was only in 1987, when Sam began school, that Flynn returned to the company in full capacity. Alan thought, hoped, that Flynn’s return meant that he was finally moving on from Jordan’s death, at least a little; but according to Flynn’s notes, her memory had been weighing upon him more heavily than ever before.
Alan gritted his teeth. That didn’t matter. Flynn had lied to him, to Lora, to everyone. He’d never said a damn word about any of it, and he’d left them all to pick up the pieces when he never came home.
That’s not fair. He still cared about the company, and his family. He went to that board meeting the day before he disappeared—he was still making an effort. And he never would have left Sam without a reason. You know that. Something must have happened.
“I don’t care,” he said aloud. The words were swallowed by the silence, and after a moment it was like he had never spoken at all. He sighed, and closed his eyes. The quietness of the room was no comfort; it only made it easier for his thoughts to overwhelm him. They jostled for his attention, but one flashed to the forefront, stark and incisive.
He wished he had never gone to the arcade.
As soon as the thought formed, he put his face in his hands, feeling sick. That wasn’t true. Not really. No matter how angry he was that Flynn had hidden so much from him, he couldn’t regret knowing, without a doubt, that he was alive. Even now that fact carried with it some faint relief—Flynn was alive, somewhere beyond this room. Alan had spent two decades just wanting to see him again, and at least, despite everything else, he had gotten that.
He looked up sharply, startled. The door to his room was open, and a face was visible through the gap—Quorra, peering in cautiously. Their eyes met, and she pushed the door open a little wider, balancing something in the crook of her arm. He straightened up, self-conscious, and hoped he didn’t look as run down as he felt.
“You’re awake! That’s good,” she said. “We were getting worried.” She stepped into the room, letting the door swing shut behind her, and now Alan could see that she was carrying two books. She followed his gaze and smiled. “I thought you might be a little bored.” She lifted them up so he could see the covers. “There are a few in here already, but between you and me, these are much better.”
“Oh,” Alan said. Reading was the last thing on his mind at the moment, but he added, feeling like he should at least try to be polite, “That’s…that’s nice of you. Thank you.”
Quorra smiled. “You’re welcome,” she said, and she set the books down neatly on the table beside the door. He thought she would leave then, but she continued talking, apparently unaware of Alan’s mood. “I hope you slept well. I know Users need a lot of rest when they’re hurt.” She gestured at the window, saying, “We dimmed the lights and the window so you would sleep better. I didn’t know if it would help, but you seemed to be asleep every time I checked on you, so I guess it did.”
That explained the lights, at least. And maybe the voices too. She continued smiling at him politely, waiting for him to talk. Part of him wanted to snap at her to leave him alone, but he kept it at bay. Quorra hadn’t done anything to deserve his irritation. All she’d done so far was help him. He tried, rather unsuccessfully, to smile, and lied, "It did. I feel a bit better now.”
“That’s good to hear. I wanted to wake you, but Flynn thought it would be best to let you rest, after…well, after everything.”
The muscle in Alan’s jaw twitched again. He really did not want to talk about Flynn, not right now. He cast around for something else to say. “I never thanked you for saving me in that arena. If you hadn't been there I would be dead now. So thank you for that, too, Quorra."
“Of course,” she said. “As soon as I heard there was a User in the arena, I knew I had to go help. But I don’t think Clu wanted to kill you.”
Her tone was so casual that it took Alan a moment to register what she had said. “Really?” he asked. “I thought it was a pretty good try.”
Quorra shook her head. “I don’t mean he didn’t want to hurt you, but actually killing you wouldn’t have helped him very much.”
Alan frowned. “What do you mean?”
“Well,” Quorra said, “Clu probably just wanted to make an example of you. If other programs saw him almost destroying a User, then it shows that Users aren’t really as powerful as we think they are. There’s still a lot of programs who believe in Users on the Grid. Injuring you and taking you prisoner is a lot more effective than just executing you.”
“So I’m more useful as a punching bag than a corpse, is what you’re saying?” Alan asked dryly.
Quorra laughed. The sound was diametrically opposed to Alan’s mood, but to his surprise, it made him feel a little better. It was a relief to hear something so lighthearted after hours of brooding. After a moment, he nodded at the space on the bed next to him. Quorra smiled and crossed to the bed.
“You’re basically right,” she said, taking a seat beside him. “He could make a big show of having a User for a prisoner. And if he had you as a hostage, it would be easy to lure Flynn into the City.”
“Clu knows he’s here?”
“Not here, exactly. The Safehouse is well-hidden. We’ve been here for dozens of cycles and he hasn’t found us yet,” she said, with a hint of pride. “But he knows Flynn is alive, somewhere on the Grid. If he let everyone know he had you, another User, Flynn would hear about it eventually, and it might be enough to coax him out of hiding.”
“I take it Clu is the reason he’s in hiding in the first place,” Alan said. It was the best guess he had, and while he wasn’t in the mood to give Flynn any sympathy, Alan couldn’t really blame him. His own experiences with Clu’s particular brand of hospitality were enough to send anyone running.
“Yes,” Quorra said. “Flynn and Clu initially ran the Grid together, but they…disagreed on what was best for it. I think Flynn would do a better job telling you about it himself.”
“I’m not so sure,” Alan said shortly. “But I’ll take your word for it. Can I ask you something else?”
She nodded eagerly. “I’ll tell you whatever I can.”
Alan privately wondered how much of what she could say would be mediated by Flynn’s influence, but any new information was better than nothing. He couldn’t stand being so in the dark about everything. “Well, first of all, what does it matter to Clu if Flynn’s in hiding or not? He seems to be doing just fine by himself.”
“Oh, he is. Clu has the entire Grid under his control, for the most part. It’s not really Flynn he’s after. He just wants Flynn’s disc.”
“His disc?” Alan looked at his own disc, resting on the nightstand where he had flung it while trying to get comfortable enough to sleep again. “But Clu has his own. I should know,” he said, brushing a hand over his calf. He could still feel the bandages beneath his clothes. “I got to see it up close.”
“That’s true, but Flynn’s disc is special. Clu is the System Administrator, but Flynn is the System Creator, so his disc has powers even Clu’s doesn’t.”
Quorra hesitated. “Like activating the codestream portal. I don’t mean powering it,” she said quickly at the look on Alan’s face, “just enabling a User to exit the system when it’s activated. No program’s disc can do that, not even Clu’s. And Clu wants out.”
“Out? You mean outside?” Alan asked. Quorra nodded, and Alan felt, if anything, more confused. “Is that even possible?”
“With Flynn’s disc, it might be. No program has ever done it before, but none of them have tried. Yet.”
“But why would he want to? Seems like he’s got everything he could need here.”
“Clu has been in power since he took control of the Grid. He thought he could run the System better than Flynn ever could. That was over a thousand cycles ago, though, so now, he’s getting…”
“Bored?” Alan asked with a nod at the books still sitting on the table beside the door.
“Exactly.” She smiled, but it faded quickly. “Clu’s function is to create the perfect system. With Flynn in hiding, he was able to guide the Grid’s growth without any interference. He believes that if he could leave the system, he could rid the User world of imperfection, too.” She looked away, gaze drifting to the still-dimmed window. “Flynn thinks so, anyway.”
Alan’s irritation flared. Flynn thought so, did he? Of course he did. So many thoughts in that head of his, but none he could be bothered to share with Alan. He hadn’t even stuck around to explain himself after the fight. He’d just left.
“Flynn thinks a lot of things,” Alan said, not quite keeping the bitterness out of his voice. “What do you think?”
Quorra’s voice was suddenly low, almost hard. “I think it sounds like something Clu would do.”
The change in tone was enough to derail Alan’s frustration. Quorra glanced at him for a moment before looking away. Alan hesitated, wondering if he had somehow said the wrong thing, and once again felt the oppressive weight of everything he didn’t know. “Quorra?”
When she answered, her voice was still low, but it had lost the hard edge. “You said that Flynn once told you about…a miracle?”
Whatever Alan had expected her to say, it wasn’t that. “Yes, he did,” he said, remembering their final conversation that night at his house. “A long time ago. I thought it was this place, but apparently I was wrong.”
“No, I don’t think it was the Grid.” Quorra looked away from the window and stared at him intently for a long moment, so long that Alan shifted under her gaze. Then something in her expression changed, almost imperceptibly. “Did he ever tell you about the ISOs?”
“ISOs?” The term had been scrawled a few times in some of Flynn’s old notes, though there had been no real indication as to what he’d meant by the acronym. It had stuck with Alan enough for him to use it as part of his own screen-name, but now it was just another thing Flynn had neglected to tell him about. “No, he didn’t. Why?”
“When Flynn first created the Grid, he populated it with dozens of programs. He didn’t create them all himself, but every program on the Grid has an original User, someone who wrote them, like how you wrote Tron. Flynn assumed that was the only way a program could exist, and for a while, that was true…until it wasn’t.”
Alan frowned, perplexed. “You lost me.”
“After Flynn had been working on the Grid for a while, he discovered a new type of program, one that didn't have a User creator. They were born spontaneously, out of the Grid itself. No User had written them, not even Flynn. They just…were.”
"That’s…impossible,” Alan said, though he found himself wondering how he could call anything ‘impossible’ anymore. “Even the most sophisticated computer can’t just spontaneously start forming new programs without any User input.”
"That’s what Flynn believed, too, but the ISOs were real, and Flynn was amazed by them. Since they weren't written by a User, ISOs had no directive. Any Basic program, even one as powerful as Clu, has a directive. A program can act outside that directive if they really want to, but they’re still written to fulfill a function, and many of them put their whole being into doing what their User intended them to do. ISOs were free of that influence, free of any influence. They could do whatever they wanted to.”
Alan nodded, trying to keep up. What Quorra was saying was incredible, but Alan was starting to believe it--now, at least, some of Flynn’s outlandish, more secretive notes were beginning to make sense. “You’re talking about artificial intelligence, but even those kinds of programs have to be written, they don’t just happen out of nowhere. Their code would have to be enormously complex to even begin sustaining that level of sophistication.”
"It was. Flynn said a single ISO’s programming was more complex than any code he had ever seen. It took him a long time to start understanding it, but apparently, it was comparable to User DNA.”
She nodded. “He had been theorizing it might have applications in the User world. He called it the next step in human evolution.”
“A digital frontier to reshape the human condition,” Alan quoted softly. It hadn’t just been a plug-line. If what Quorra was saying was true, Flynn’s claim to Alan the last time they had spoken about being able to change the world—science, medicine, hell, even religion--hadn’t just been a product of his own over-excitement. If Flynn could have somehow utilized an ISO’s code for human applications…
Quorra was nodding again, about to respond. Alan made himself pay attention—this was important. “He was very excited about it,” she said. “He told me once that he thought he might be able to use an ISO’s root code to cure User disease, or even prevent death.”
She continued, but none of it registered in Alan’s head. He nodded along with her words absently, trying to untangle his own thoughts. Even prevent death. A greasy weight settled in his stomach. He’d spent twenty years puzzling everything together—Flynn’s notes, his increasingly erratic and even obsessive behavior, their final conversation before his disappearance. Alan had tried so hard to force it into something he could understand, but he’d been missing too much of the puzzle. Now, at last, the final pieces were clicking into place, and the inevitable conclusion was taking a slow, horrible shape. He could think of only one reason for Flynn to be so affected by the ISOs’s incredible potential.
Alan blinked, startled, and realized his hands were balled into fists in his lap. “I’m sorry,” he said automatically. “I’m…a little overwhelmed.”
Quorra nodded. “You should rest. We can talk more later.” She hesitated, and added, “Flynn wanted to tell you all of this himself. We were just waiting for you to wake up again. Maybe I said too much.”
“No, no,” Alan said. “You didn’t. I appreciate you telling me, Quorra. Really. It’s just…” He shook his head, not wanting to think about his conclusion anymore. It made him feel sick. He swallowed, and said, “I do have one more question, if you’ll answer it.”
“What is it?”
“You keep talking about the ISOs in the past tense. What happened to them?”
Quorra’s eyes widened slightly, and once again, there was an almost imperceptible change in her expression. She didn’t answer immediately; when she did, her words were measured and slow.
“Clu didn’t see the ISOs as a miracle the way Flynn did. He thought they were a drain on the system. An imperfection. That’s what they fought about—Clu attacked him, and Flynn barely escaped.” Her expression was steely. “Afterwards, Clu purged the ISOs from the Grid. They were destroyed.”
“All of them? But that’s…that’s genocide.” Alan swallowed again, his mouth dry. “That’s why he wants to leave, isn’t it? So he can do the same thing outside.”
“Yes,” Quorra said. “We don’t know if he could, but…the possibility scares Flynn too much to even consider letting him try. That’s why Flynn’s stayed in hiding all this time.”
Alan nodded slowly, but didn’t answer. His head was starting to hurt again. He swallowed, trying to put his brain back in order, but there were too many things to think about now, too many things he didn’t want to consider. He was distantly aware of Quorra watching him, and he straightened up a little, trying to at least look composed. From the look on her face, it hadn’t worked.
“You should know,” she said earnestly, “some programs hate what Clu’s done as much as we do. After he took over, there were uprisings in dozens of different sectors.” She paused, and said, more subdued, “Clu put a stop to most of them. But we still get word sometimes about revolting programs in certain sections of the Grid. There are even rumors that some of them have taken up residence in the central city. Flynn hopes Clu might be brought down from the inside, given enough time.”
That struck Alan as almost foolishly hopeful, though the part of his brain that sounded like Lora murmured that he would know a thing or two about that. He guessed that was true, though he couldn’t help but say, trying to sound reasonable rather than rude, “Twenty years seems like a lot of time to me.”
“That’s true. But they haven’t stopped fighting yet. They still have hope that things will get better.”
Quorra didn’t answer the question; instead, she gave him a small smile, and rose from her seat beside him. “I’m sure you’re still tired,” she said. “You should get some more rest. But you can visit the rest of the Safehouse, when you’re ready.”
“I will,” Alan said, and he was surprised to find that he meant it. He watched her cross to the door, and spoke up just as she went to open it. “Quorra?”
She turned back, hand still on the knob. “Yes?”
“Thank you. For talking to me.”
“You’re welcome,” she said, and smiled again. She went out and shut the door behind her. It closed with a soft click, and Alan was alone again, with no company but his own unsettled thoughts.
A couple hours later, Alan stood at the door of his room, trying to convince himself to open it. He’d made a few fruitless attempts to fall back asleep, but there was just too much to think about, and too much he still didn’t know. He’d put off the inevitable, hoping Flynn might come to check on him, but Alan had never enjoyed playing the waiting game. Besides, the last two decades had taught him that sitting alone and dwelling on what he didn’t know was not a healthy past-time, so at last, he forced himself to make up his mind. It was time to go find Flynn himself.
His hand rested on the crystal doorknob as he listened for any sound coming beyond it, voices or otherwise, but all he could hear was silence. Tentatively, he twisted the knob and tugged the door open. It swung inward to reveal a corridor, the walls made up of the same strange black stone that lined his room. The corridor was dim, only partially brightened by the light emanating from his doorway. A few yards away, there was a gap leading to what looked like another hallway in the right-hand wall. He listened again, but could discern no sound from beyond the hall. He wondered where Quorra was, and just how big this Safehouse was supposed to be.
Pulling the door open further, he slipped into the corridor and made his way down it, trailing a hand on the wall. It had a similar warmth to the glowing tiles in the floor, and the stone was oddly smooth beneath his fingertips despite the craggy layers. When he reached the gap, he leaned over to peer around the corner—he didn’t want to run head-first into Flynn--but the room beyond was apparently empty, dimly lit and silent. The floors and walls were lined with the same white tiles as his room, and, to his bewilderment, a dining room table was set up at the end of the hall. The table was, like the rest of the small piece of the room he could see from the corridor, pure white, and it looked very expensive, but the utter ordinariness of its presence was oddly comforting.
He edged out of the hallway into the room beyond. It was big, much larger than his own room, and had more furniture, all white—a couch, another table and chairs, and a large bed resting in an alcove opposite the hallway. There was a bookshelf set into the wall to Alan’s left, with two gaps noticeable among the spines. Opposite the wall was a large, glassless window, stretching from floor to ceiling, that opened out onto a stone terrace. A vast expanse of dark rock and night sky stretched beyond it, illuminated only by a collection of lights glowing in the distance, but Alan didn’t spare the view much attention, because standing at the edge of the terrace, facing the darkness, was Flynn.
At the sight of him, a jumble of emotions twisted inside Alan. He couldn’t tell if he wanted to yell at Flynn some more, or take him by the shoulders and shake him, or, absurdly, disregard all of the anger and hug him. Alan closed his eyes for a moment, trying to even himself out. Unfocused anger wasn’t going to help, no matter how easy it was to give into, and letting himself be overwhelmed by the still-lingering relief wouldn’t be productive either. He was half-tempted to just go back to his room and stew a little more, let Flynn come to him, but he’d waited long enough. It was time to talk.
Opening his eyes, he stepped around the dining room table and crossed the room noiselessly. He was halfway to the terrace when the lights emanating from the walls and floor brightened without warning. The room filled with a soft white light as he looked around in surprise. On the terrace, Flynn turned, and froze as he caught sight of Alan.
The two stared at each other. Flynn looked for a moment like he was about to speak, but the moment passed, and he said nothing, just continued to stare with an expression Alan couldn’t quite read. After a few more seconds, it was clear he wasn’t going to say anything at all. Alan resisted the urge to roll his eyes—of course Flynn wasn’t going to say a damn word now, when he had been so hard to shut up in the past—and crossed the rest of the room to the edge of the terrace. Pinpricks of light hung motionless across the gap; he paused a moment uncertainly before stepping through them, the slightest resistance tugging at his hair and the hems of his clothing.
The stone beneath his feet was warmer here; gentle heat seemed to be radiating from a small pool set into the floor a little to his left. He stopped beside Flynn but couldn’t bring himself to look at him immediately; instead he looked out at the view from the terrace’s edge. From there, it was apparent that the lights in the distance were the lights of a city—the city he’d found himself in, he assumed. He hadn’t expected it to be so close by. Tinier lights drifted in and out of the city towards the mountainous horizon, almost invisible against the lightning flashing in the low-hanging clouds.
Flynn was still watching him. Alan wondered if he would try to continue their last conversation, but all Flynn said was, “I don’t know if you should be walking around, man.”
“I’ve been sleeping for…” Alan trailed off, uncertain. He had no idea how long he’d been in that room. The realization unsettled him. “…A while,” he finished. “It’s about time I got up.”
Flynn nodded, and looked away. Alan had expected him to argue, or at least respond, but he only resumed gazing at the glow of the distant city without another word.
Alan crossed his arms a little tighter. He’d spent the last couple hours going over everything in his head, but now that he was here, he wasn’t sure where to begin. It would’ve been easier if this was the old Flynn—he always had something to say, good or bad—but the man beside him was totally silent, his only movement the slight rise and fall of his shoulders as he breathed. Alan glanced at him, and realized he couldn’t tell what Flynn was thinking at all. The frustration that had been thrumming inside him the last few hours quieted, and left behind only a sudden, hollowing sense of loneliness.
“Where’s Quorra?” he asked, to fill the silence.
Flynn nodded, indicating the distant city. “Out there. She left a little while ago.”
Alan had barely expected him to answer. “Isn’t that dangerous?”
“Probably. There are more sentries out now than we’ve seen in a while.”
“And you just let her go?”
To Alan’s surprise, Flynn laughed. “Let her? If Quorra wants to leave, she leaves. I stopped trying to keep her here a long time ago. She can take care of herself, trust me.”
“I hope you’re right.” He glanced at Flynn again, who continued to gaze at the distant city, apparently choosing not to continue the conversation. Alan tried again. “She spoke with me, before she left.”
Something about his tone told Alan that wasn’t news to Flynn, and he wondered how much Quorra had said about their conversation. “She brought me some books. She thought I might be bored.”
“I noticed we were missing a few volumes,” Flynn said, with a hint of amusement. “Interesting choices.”
“She told me a few things you didn’t, too,” Alan said, knowing how petty it sounded but saying it anyway. “Like Clu wanting to use me as Flynn bait, for one.” He glanced at Flynn, whose expression was solemn again. “That’s true?”
“Most likely. He knows I would’ve come looking, if I heard about another User entering the system. Especially one I knew.”
“That’s fair enough, I guess.” The plan seemed sensible, even if Alan didn’t appreciate his part in it. “But there’s something I don’t understand.”
“You’re in hiding, and Clu wants to get to you somehow so he can turn on the portal, take your disc and go…outside, I guess. Fine, I’ll buy it. But it’s too convenient—to use me, he would’ve had to know I was coming.” Alan had been thinking this over ever since Quorra left, and had the horrible feeling he knew the answer to his next question. None of it made sense otherwise. He finally looked Flynn full in the face, and said, “You didn’t send that page, did you?”
Flynn shook his head. “No, it wasn’t me. If I could have sent a message to you, I would’ve done it a long time ago. I don’t know how he did it, but Clu has access to the entire system. He would’ve been looking for any opportunity to lure another User here, get a new piece on the board. Your pager just happened to be the key.” He glanced at Alan; there was something close to pity in his eyes, and Alan hated it. “I’m surprised that thing still worked after so long.”
“I made sure it did.” Alan didn’t feel like talking about how stupid or sentimental that was, not when Flynn was looking at him like that, so he asked another question, another he thought he knew the answer to. He had to be certain. “If he’s been waiting for an opportunity, why now? What changed?”
“I’m not sure. It’s hard to keep track of everything when I’m not in the city.” Flynn looked back out at the view contemplatively. “There was a power surge recently. We could feel it even out here. It’s possible Clu was able to take advantage of that, somehow.”
“A power surge?” That confirmed Alan’s idea, but it gave him no satisfaction. “I…think I might know what caused it.”
“I think…I think it was me.”
“You?” Flynn turned to face him, eyes narrowed in confusion. “What do you mean?”
“Well…I guess it’s not entirely me. But I’m part of it.” He shifted on his feet, once again uncertain of where to start. “We’ve spent a lot of time, over the years, looking for you. Me and Lora and Roy, I mean. None of the stories about your disappearance made any sense, so we decided we’d take matters into our own hands. A couple weeks back, Roy came up with a plan to try and use the electrical energy from your old workspaces and send you a message.”
Alan nodded. “You used to travel so much, and you had offices all over the place. We figured we could use the power generated by those terminals to create a signal and patch it through to wherever you were. Roy’s the one who planned it all out, I only really understood the basics of it, but we got the project up and running pretty quickly. It ended up working, for a little while, but the signal we created was too strong to maintain. It shorted out before we could do much of anything. We thought that was the end of it."
"Until you got the page."
"Right." That was still less than twenty-four hours ago, strange time difference be damned. It felt like months. “I guess it worked better than we thought.” Alan wished he could tell Roy how well his plan had really worked, but quickly pushed the thought away—he didn’t want to think about Roy, not when he wouldn’t be able to see him again. “Anyway,” he continued quickly, swallowing the sudden lump in his throat, “I think that might have been the cause. What we did.”
Flynn was staring at him again, but his gaze was no longer pitying or confused. He looked almost touched, his eyes soft. “You guys did all that to try and find me?”
That was not the reaction Alan had expected. “Well…yeah. We did a lot of things, trying to find you.”
“But, I mean,” Flynn said, “it’s been ages, man. I could’ve been dead for years. Hell, I thought that’s what you would’ve assumed. But you guys were still looking for me? Even now?”
Now it was Alan’s turn to stare. He didn’t know how to answer—he could barely believe Flynn had asked such a question. Of course he had kept looking, of course they all had. They never could have lived with themselves otherwise.
“We never stopped,” he said.
A slow, incredulous smile spread over Flynn’s face. “Wow.” He shook his head, laughing under his breath. “I didn’t think anyone would still be looking for me. Maybe Sam, but even then, it’s been so long.”
Alan frowned. “I don’t know why you’re so surprised. Did you think we’d just accept you were gone and move on like nothing happened?”
“Well, no, but…Alan, you even kept my pager.” He laughed again, and Alan thought for a moment Flynn was teasing him, but his expression said otherwise—he looked almost in awe. “You can’t tell me there aren’t better ways to send a message nowadays.”
“Of course there are, but you told me to keep it. So I did.” The frustration was starting to build again—why was this so hard for Flynn to understand? “You asked me to keep the pager, so I kept it. You asked me to help you with the company, so I did. You asked me to just trust you about your project, so I trusted you. I did everything you asked me to do.” Alan looked away, gritting his teeth. He wanted to do this right, to keep himself from blowing up, but every thought just kept looping around back to anger.
Beside him, Flynn sighed. “I know you’re upset--”
Alan snorted. “Oh, really? How’d you guess?”
“Well, you yelling at me might’ve given it away.”
“Do you blame me?”
“Not really.” Flynn let out a long, low breath. “Look, I want to try and explain. If you’ll let me.”
Alan looked back at him. Flynn looked somber again, but their eyes met, and he shrugged.
“You can say no. I won’t stop you,” he said. “But if you’re willing…”
Alan held his gaze over the rim of his glasses. “Are you going to tell me everything?”
“Everything I can.”
“That’s not a yes, Flynn.”
“I wasn’t—” Flynn broke off, then nodded. “Okay. Fair point. Yes, Alan, I’ll tell you everything.”
Alan wasn’t sure he believed that, but he figured it was as good as he was going to get. He nodded, giving in.
Flynn seemed to brighten a little. “Let’s sit,” he said, gesturing to the wall to his left, past the pool. A bench was carved into the stone, wide enough for two. “You should be taking it easy.”
Alan wanted to argue, mostly just for the sake of arguing, but instead he begrudgingly followed Flynn to the bench. The light of the main room glimmered on the surface of the pool as they stepped around it, casting flickers of light over the wall. Flynn sat down, Alan following suit. He winced a little, the cut on his thigh stinging as the skin of his leg stretched.
“Fine.” He crossed his arms again. “Explain.”
“Where should I start?”
That was a good question. Alan mulled for a moment, and decided the beginning was the best option. “Why didn’t you tell us about what really happened that night at ENCOM?”
Flynn nodded to himself, as if he had guessed Alan would ask that. “First of all, I didn’t think you’d believe me.”
“Proof, I know. But I didn’t—not immediately. I didn’t know exactly how the laser worked, or how to replicate what happened, and we were dealing with me getting my job back and all the lead-up to Dillinger finally getting fired. Barging into the laser lab and asking them to send me back was out of the question. It took me about a year to get everything set up at the arcade, and in the meantime…” He sighed, and said, “I knew Lora and Walter were still working with the laser themselves, and letting them know what happened to me—even if I asked them to keep quiet, there’s no way they wouldn’t have wanted to run trials. But human trials…they would’ve been wrapped up in red tape for years. I thought it would be better if I just let them keep going with their work. I could tell Lora about what happened when I knew more myself.”
“That’s a pretty flimsy excuse.”
“It’s not an excuse, it’s just an explanation. That was my thought process,” Flynn responded. His mouth twitched at the look Alan gave him. “I said I’d tell you everything. I didn’t say you’d be happy with what I told you.”
Alan shook his head. “You built your own laser, Flynn. That means you deliberately took the blueprints and all of the information Walter and Lora and the rest of their team put together and—what, just copied it over? Without letting them know at all? You thought that was just a fine idea?”
“I don’t really have a good answer for you, Alan. There was the red tape, and I didn’t want Lora or Walter or the rest of the company to get tangled up in it and have their work taken away. And I…I’m not gonna lie, part of me wanted this place to myself. The rest of my life was so chaotic—I had Sam, and the company, and my parents, and…a lot of stuff. But here--everything made sense here. I could make it make sense. I didn’t have to deal with what a board of execs or a bunch of shareholders wanted from me. I could just work the way I wanted to.” He smiled wryly. “Selfish. But that’s how I felt.”
Alan thought he knew what Flynn meant by ‘a lot of stuff,’ but didn’t press immediately. “At least you admit it.” He took his glasses off and passed a hand over his face. “You realize you did to Lora exactly what Ed Dillinger did to you?”
“What? That’s not true.”
“You stole her work without telling her—”
“I wasn’t going to just tell the world about it and take credit for it, man! I was just using it for myself, I wasn’t pretending I’d made it. If I’d ever thought it should go public I would’ve gone to her and Walter, told them everything, and let them decide what to do. It would’ve been entirely up to them.”
“How noble of you,” Alan said derisively. Flynn sighed again, a momentary admission of displeasure, and Alan felt a mean little jolt of satisfaction. “So you didn’t want to tell any of us about it at first. Fine. But even after the board started getting frustrated with you? Even after Sam started getting bigger, even after—” He broke off. It was incredibly tempting to bring up Jordan, to ask about what he’d guessed, but he couldn’t quite bring himself to. Not yet. He wanted to see if Flynn would do it himself. “Even after I asked you a dozen times what was going on, you never once thought it would be a good idea to tell us what you’d done?”
“Of course I did. I just wanted to wait—things weren’t ready. I wanted it to be perfect.”
“What had to be so perfect? What were you trying to do?”
“Where do I even start?” Flynn waved his hand at the city shining in the distance. “Me and Clu and Tron—we built that. A whole city, out of nothing, and that was just the beginning. There are dozens of settlements stretching to the edge of the system, filled with hundreds of programs I moved from the old ENCOM system, ones that were slated for deletion or abandoned in beta. I thought I knew everything there was to know about computers, but after actually working alongside programs, I realized I’d barely scratched the surface. Tron was the one who showed me that in the old system, and I borrowed him from you to help me protect this new one.” He looked sideways at Alan, and added, “I did ask permission for that, if you remember.”
“You said you needed it for your project. You didn’t tell me you’d actually be working with it—him, face to face. You didn’t tell me you’d be running around with my copy.” The idea of someone wearing his face, existing without his knowledge, unsettled Alan to no end.
“He wasn’t your copy, he just looked like you. I mean, you two were similar, but not the same.” Flynn smiled faintly. “You were both reliable, though, and that’s exactly what I needed. He and Clu ran things when I couldn’t—I had too much going on, Sam and the company and everything else. It was impossible to be here all the time, so I needed help from the inside. Partners, like how you helped me with the company. That’s why I made Clu in the first place. A program designed to create a perfect world. He ran the Grid, Tron protected it, and I designed it. A digital utopia.”
“But that’s not all you were doing.” Alan’s fingers tightened around his glasses. “Quorra told me about your miracle, too.”
“The ISOs.” There was a hint of caution in Flynn’s voice as he asked, “How much did she tell you?”
“That they were created by the Grid itself. And they were incredibly complex. Almost comparable to humans,” Alan said. He couldn’t quite voice his last guess, not yet.
“She wasn’t wrong. They were just…spectacular. I thought I had seen extraordinary programs before, but the ISOs, they were on another level entirely. Everything I’d hoped to find in the system—control, order, perfection…none of it meant a thing. I’d been living in a hall of mirrors. The ISOs shattered it.” There was a quality to his voice Alan recognized, the same strange reverence Flynn had shown when when he’d visited Alan all those years ago. “Do you remember what I was trying to tell you about, that last night I saw you?”
Of course he did. Alan had thought about that night so often it was burned into his memory. “Science, medicine, religion. You said were going to change all of it.”
“All that and more. The possibilities of their root code—that’s what I’d found, Alan. It took me years, but I was finally starting to understand it. The ISOs were capable of things I’d never even considered a possibility.”
“They certainly sound impressive,” Alan said bitterly. He got to his feet restlessly; his frustration was starting to mount again. He couldn’t help but feel that Flynn was going to avoid any mention of Jordan, any real explanation of his interest in the ISOs. “Was that what you cracked? Their code?”
“Yeah. Just barely. I still had so much I needed to check out, but just the glimpses I’d gotten were enough to throw everything I’d ever thought about life itself out the window,” he said. Alan tensed, waiting for him to continue, to tell him exactly what he’d found, but Flynn only smiled at him. “They were going to be my gift to the world. I wanted to tell you about it, that night, but it was too complicated—
“Only because you’d have to explain how you lied about everything else.” It came out louder than Alan meant it to, but giving into the wash of anger for even a moment was so spitefully satisfying that it was difficult to stop. “If you’d bothered to tell us about any of this in the first place you could’ve just shown me that night!”
“I’m not done,” he said sharply. “If I’d known about what you were doing none of us would’ve needed to spend twenty damn years praying you weren’t dead, Flynn. And Sam would’ve had at least one parent."
Flynn’s face darkened. For a moment Alan thought he would yell back, or get up and walk off, but Flynn took a deep breath, exhaling slowly, and the moment passed. “I didn’t do that on purpose, Alan, and you know it,” he said, his tone deliberately even. “If you let me finish, I’ll tell you—”
“I already know. Clu hated the ISOs, and he attacked you so he’d be able to get rid of them. Quorra told me all of it. But that doesn’t change the fact that you thought playing God was more important than letting any of us know what was really going on.”
“That’s not true either. But if you want to keep yelling at me, I’m not going to stop you.”
Alan said, through gritted teeth, “I’m not yelling yet, but you can bet your ass I want to.” The frame of his glasses cut into the palm of his fist, he was holding them so tight. “I’m trying to understand you, but you refuse to even tell me the whole truth.”
“I have told you—”
“No, you haven’t! You keep saying you wanted to change the world. Well, just tell me one thing, Flynn—were you talking about the whole world, or just yours?”
Flynn stopped short. “What?”
“Quorra told me what you’d been theorizing. About the ISOs, their root code—curing disease. Preventing death.” He leveled a stony look at Flynn, but received no response. Flynn still looked taken aback. “So much for telling me everything,” Alan muttered. Louder, he said, “I read your notes. I know you still missed Jordan.”
Flynn’s hands balled into fists in his lap. He stared at Alan with wide eyes, mouth slightly parted. His voice was so quiet when he finally spoke that Alan had to strain to hear it. “Jordan.” The corner of his mouth lifted, but the soft laugh that escaped him was joyless. “I haven’t said her name in years.”
Alan tried not to let Flynn’s apparent shock distract him from getting his answers. “What were you going to do?”
"I don’t know.”
Alan huffed in disbelief, but Flynn shook his head.
“It’s true. I didn’t have anything concrete, not yet. Just theories, ideas…dreams.” He looked away, and the lights from the distant city glinted in his eyes. “I thought I could do anything I wanted here, make any dream a reality. But then Jordan died. I wanted to change the world, but I couldn’t even change that. So when I started to see just how much potential the ISOs really had—she was all I could think about. I’d just started putting together the preliminary notes on their root code, but…”
Flynn smiled. It didn’t reach his eyes. “But I was so focused on my own ideas that I didn’t notice what was happening anywhere else. Not until it was too late. By the time I realized how bad the conflict between the ISOs and the Basic programs was, it had gone too far for me to be able to fix anything. Clu ran me off, and no matter what I did, he was there to stop me. He knew everything I would do before I even thought of it myself. It was impressive, really. And when he was done, he killed them. All of them.”
Flynn’s gaze drifted downward, and he stared at his hands, still balled in his lap. “I know it was my fault. I know I messed up. I should’ve seen it coming, I should’ve known what he would do, but I just—” His breath hitched. He looked up at Alan, and he was smiling again, but his eyes were over-bright. “I just wanted to see her again.”
Despite himself, despite everything else he was feeling, Alan’s resolve slowly drained out of him as he watched Flynn turn away, head bowed, and go silent. Alan stared at him, arms hanging limply by his sides. His glasses were still clutched numbly in his hand. The water lapped gently at the edge of the pool, the only sound in the stillness.
He sat back down on the bench. Flynn didn’t move. Alan continued to stare, helplessly; he wanted to take Flynn’s shoulder, to do something, anything to alleviate the hurt he knew would be tearing Flynn up from the inside out, because he’d spent the last two decades of his life being torn up by it, too.
“I know the feeling,” he said quietly. It was all he could think of to say.
Flynn made a faint noise. Alan hoped it was a laugh. He turned his glasses over in his hands, waiting, until Flynn lifted his head and straightened up. When Alan met his eyes, they seemed to be back to normal.
“Yeah, I think you do,” Flynn said. He was quiet for so long that Alan thought it was all he was going to say, but he eventually spoke again. “I know I should have told you. I wish I could change it, Alan. I’d give anything to go back and fix it, fix everything I messed up. I mean it.”
The two shared a long look. Alan said nothing, and Flynn eventually turned away, his shoulders hunched. In the light reflecting from the pool at their feet, he seemed older than ever. Alan turned away too, towards the radiant city, and exhaled slowly. He felt, all at once, incredibly tired, all the anger that had kept him going the last couple hours wasted away into a bone-deep exhaustion. At last he said, voice low, “You’re lucky I missed you so much.”
He felt Flynn shift beside him, and heard another faint noise. This one was definitely a laugh, if a shaky one. “I missed you too.”
Alan only nodded; he didn’t trust himself to say anything else. He continued looking out at the glimmering city. Flynn didn’t say anything more, either, and for once Alan was grateful that the new Flynn was so good at staying silent. He closed his eyes, his breath slowing. At the edge of his awareness, he could feel the telltale throb of a headache coming on, though whether from stress or his apparent concussion he couldn’t be sure. He rubbed his free hand over his face, sighing.
“You okay?” Flynn asked.
“Frankly? No.” He opened his eyes and looked back at Flynn. “But I’m getting tired, so I just have one more question for now.”
Flynn nodded gamely, though his hands twitched in his lap. “Go for it.”
Alan considered the dozens of questions still rolling around in his head—about the Grid, the laser, the ISOs, Jordan—but the exhaustion’s haze was starting to settle over everything, even his curiosity. He just wanted to rest, and he thought Flynn might have felt the same way. He wondered if Flynn had slept much, or even at all, while Alan barricaded himself in his room. The deep shadows under his eyes said that he probably hadn’t. A break would do both of them good. Alan decided to ease up on the tough questions—for now, at least. He unfolded his glasses, slid them back onto his face, and looked at Flynn seriously. “Got any food around here?”
“Food?” Flynn looked surprised, but relieved. “Look at me, Alan. You think I’ve been starving?”
“It’s just a question. I didn’t think programs would need to eat.”
“Programs don’t. Well, not like we do. But everything needs energy to run.” He pushed himself up and held out a hand. “I’ll show you. We can talk more while we wait for Quorra to get back. I promise I’ll tell you anything you want to know.”
Alan hesitated. He knew that wasn’t a promise he could trust—he should be questioning Flynn more, demanding answers instead of waiting for them—but he couldn’t help but want to believe in it anyway. He took Flynn’s hand, and let himself be pulled to his feet again. “You’d better.”
As promised, here's chapter 5! Time to get things rolling a little quicker. Again, I appreciate the patience.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Lora hid a yawn behind her hand as she made her way through the airport terminal, willing some energy into her tired limbs. It was nearly three in the morning, and her flight had just landed. Red eye flights weren’t her favorite, but after waking up to a phone call from Alan about his pager going off, switching to the earliest flight she could get had seemed like a good idea at the time. The switch had lost its luster a little now, though—she’d been able to grab a few hours of sleep, but it hadn’t been comfortable, despite her decades of experience with plane rides. At least she would be able to sleep in a little while Alan went to work.
Hitching her bag higher on her shoulder, she made her way through the terminal, ignoring the signs directing other passengers to the baggage claim. She still had plenty of clothes at the house, so she never bothered with anything but an overnight bag. A buzzing in her pocket made her pause, and she took out her phone. The signal had returned all at once, filling up the screen with incoming notifications. She smiled at the list: Alan had, as usual, sent her multiple text messages while she was in the air.
She quickly opened them, scrolling through the messages. The first was short, saying he would see her when she landed if he didn’t die of irritation at Mackey’s late-night board meeting first; the second was longer, saying Sam had ruined the midnight release plans for ENCOM OS 12, and also jumped from the ENCOM roof. This was quickly followed by another adding that Sam had, of course, had a parachute. Lora raised her eyebrows, remembering Sam’s most recent parachuting stunt at a press conference she and Alan had attended in San Diego a few months earlier. Considering how close it was to the anniversary of his dad’s disappearance, she wasn’t surprised Sam had pulled another prank.
The next one was about Sam, again. Apparently, Alan had gone to talk to him about the page he’d received the night before. That was a little worrying, if only because she wasn’t sure how such a talk would go. Alan had tried to seem nonchalant over the phone, but Lora knew him too well to buy the act—the page had him excited, and Lora couldn’t really blame him. She’d had done her best to keep calm herself, despite knowing it was most likely a dead-end. She had, thankfully, been able to encourage Alan to speak with Sam first before checking the arcade himself, though she had no idea if Sam would be as interested as Alan hoped he would be. Sam hadn’t spoken to Alan in months, despite a handful of texts from Lora hinting that it was nice to be reminded occasionally that Sam was, at least, still alive. He could be especially stubborn at this time of year. She supposed the conversation hadn’t gone well, because the next and final message was a note that Alan had gone to check out the arcade himself, with a picture of the game floor attached.
Lora frowned slightly, and scrolled through the last few messages again, fingers sliding over the glass. She had expected another message about finding something in the arcade, or more likely, a short text saying he had gone home and would wait up for her, conspicuously neglecting to mention that he’d been disappointed in his search, but there was nothing of the kind. The messages simply stopped at the picture of the inside of the arcade. She flipped through her contacts, searching for his number. Maybe some of his messages had been unable to go through while she was on the plane. That was fine; she doubted he would be asleep yet.
She dialed his number and held the phone to her ear, waiting for him to pick up. The line rang, and rang, and rang—and went straight to voice mail. She hung up, not bothering to leave a message, and tried again. Alan never missed a call twice. Even if he was so upset that he had gone to sleep without letting her know he was home, he always kept his phone by the bed. She waited again, expecting him to pick up immediately—the first call would have woken him—but there was no answer. After a few rings, the call went to voice mail again.
Lora hung up and stared at her phone. After Flynn disappeared, she and Alan had come to an unspoken agreement that they would always answer when the other called, no matter what time it was. The two of them had only missed a handful of calls between them in the last two decades. She ignored the faint tingling in her fingertips—there was nothing to worry about, he was probably just sleeping—and dialed the house number, silently grateful they’d bothered to keep a land-line.
The gratefulness ebbed as the house line rang and rang. There was no answer there, either, just the beginning of the voice-mail message. She quickly re-dialed, knowing even Alan couldn’t sleep through this many calls. She clutched her phone a little tighter as she stepped outside, heading for the rows of taxis waiting for incoming passengers. The line clicked, and this time she listened to the answering machine’s recording, adjusting her grip on the phone as she waited for the chance to leave a message.
There was a beep as Lora stepped up to the curb. “Honey,” she said, “it’s me. I just landed. I’m about to grab a cab, I’ll be home soon. I hope everything went okay at the arcade. Call me when you get this, alright? I love you.” Her voice was even as she left the message, and the hand she held up to hail one of the taxis didn’t shake. She loaded her bag into the backseat of the first one to pull up, and gave the driver the house address and a quick smile as she climbed in after it.
As the taxi pulled away from the curb, she unlocked her phone again and flipped through her contacts for another number. Once again, the line rang and went to voice-mail. She hung up and redialed immediately, trying not to feel frustrated. It was nearly 3 in the morning, after all—even Roy had to sleep sometime. She took a slow breath as she waited, and this time, the second ring cut off midway.
“Lora?” Roy’s voice was slightly muffled when he answered, as if he still had one side of his face smashed into a pillow.
“Hi, Roy,” she said. “Sorry to wake you.”
“Mmph. S’ok.” There was some static and a distant curse. Lora wondered if he’d actually made it to the bed before falling asleep, or if he’d ended up passing out on his couch, and felt guilty for robbing him of some well-deserved rest. He’d been very busy with the Flynn Lives movement lately, and from the timing of some of the texts she’d received in the last couple weeks, his sleep schedule was all over the place.There was more static, and then Roy asked, his voice a little clearer, “What time is it?
“Almost three. My flight just got in.”
“Three? Huh. Not that late,” he said, then yawned. “Sorry. What’s up? You still at the airport?”
“No, I’m in a cab. Listen, have you heard from Alan?”
“Alan? Yeah, a couple hours ago. He said he was gonna check out the arcade, see what he could find out about that page he got last night. He told you about that, right?”
Lora nodded to herself. “He called me about it this morning. He also sent me a text from inside the arcade, about an hour ago. You didn’t go with him?”
“Nope, he told me to get some sleep. I think he wanted to do it by himself, anyway,” Roy said. “Why? You haven’t heard from him?”
She answered as casually as she could. “Nope, not yet. And he isn’t answering his phone.”
“You tried him twice?”
“Of course. It just rings and rings until it goes to voice-mail.” She waited, but Roy didn’t respond right away. His silence wasn’t comforting. “He only said he was going to the arcade?”
“Yeah, he was already there when we hung up.”
“He didn’t say anything else to you? Anything at all?”
“Not really,” Roy said, and she could just picture him running a hand through his curly hair as he tried to remember the details. “I mean, he told me he went to Sam’s to talk to him about that prank he pulled—did he tell you about that?”
“He texted me while I was on the plane. He said Sam didn’t want to go to the arcade, so he was going himself.”
“That’s what he told me. I offered to go with him, but…”
“But he told you to sleep,” she finished. “He did send me a photo of the arcade floor--that must have been after he spoke to you. He hasn’t sent anything else since.” Her uncertainty lent a tightness to her voice as she added, “And now he isn’t answering. I tried the land-line at the house, too. Nothing.” Lora watched the lights of a passing car without really seeing them, waiting for Roy to speak. Again, the pause went on a bit too long for comfort, and Lora sighed softly. “This isn’t like him, Roy.”
“No, it’s not,” Roy said finally. “But there’s no need to panic yet, right? Maybe he just didn’t find anything about the page, and got upset about it.”
That was definitely a possibility—Lora had warned Alan not to get too excited, worried that they were all three just working themselves up to inevitable disappointment--but even an upset Alan wouldn’t have just gone home without a word. “He still would’ve said something to me, or you. He knew I was coming home tonight. And you know how he is about missing a phone call.”
“Yeah. He doesn’t.” He went silent for a moment, then said, “You’re on the way home?”
“Yes, about forty minutes away.”
“All right,” he said, as if that settled things. “I’ll meet you there.”
Lora shook her head, forgetting for a moment that he couldn’t see her. “Roy, you don’t have to—”
“It’s fine, Lora. I mean, he’s most likely at home, right? And if he is, and he’s not answering, then he might be pretty upset, and I wanna make sure he’s okay.” He added, a little lighter, “Besides, if he’s just asleep, this’ll give me an excuse to come over and see you.”
Lora smiled despite herself. “That’s true. Missed me?”
“You know it. Bad movie night just isn’t the same without you.”
“Oh, really? I think you just want my leftover popcorn.”
Roy laughed, and said, “I mean, you never finish your share, why let it go to waste? But that’s just a bonus, I promise. Your presence is definitely the best part.”
“Uh-huh,” she said, “I believe you.” She let the smile fade, continuing,“ I missed you too. But you really don’t have to come over--”
“Lora, come on. I’m already awake, it’s not a big deal. Besides, when we find him, we can both give him a talking-to about answering phone calls. We’ll get to lecture him for once.”
When they found him, not if. That was reassuring. “That’s true,” she said. “Thanks, Roy. Are you sure you’re okay to drive?”
“Give me ten minutes and some coffee and I will be. See you soon.”
“See you.” She hung up, and immediately looked to see if she had gotten any notifications while she was talking with Roy. There were none. She locked the phone and sat back, trying to relax. She refused to think about what they would do if they couldn’t find him; instead she occupied herself by watching the lights outside the car window, and periodically checking her phone for any sign of Alan. As the ride went on, she sent off a few more texts, and she even called Sam, though she was unsurprised when he didn’t pick up. He was probably asleep, and even if he wasn’t, Sam was never very reliable when it came to answering the phone. She sent him a text anyway, asking him to call her as soon as he could.
After what felt like hours, the taxi finally pulled into their neighborhood, the only car on the street at this time of night. The house came into view, and she tightened her grip on the strap of her bag—the windows were dark, and there was no car in the driveway. She quickly paid the driver and gathered her things before getting out of the cab and hurrying up the drive to the door.
The outside light was on, which was a small blessing as she fumbled with her keys, though it wasn’t enough to keep her from nearly dropping them. She caught them just before they slipped out of her fingers, and she shook her head slightly at herself. She must have been more tired than she thought. The correct key slid into the lock at last, and she pushed the door open and stepped into the dark entryway.
Something brushed against her legs, rushing past her into the house. She jumped in surprise, reaching for the light switch by the door. Once her eyes adjusted to the light, she dropped her shoulders, feeling silly: a small black cat was winding between her legs. It meowed loudly as it looked up at her.
“Hi, sweetie,” she said as the cat butted its head against her shoes. “You scared me. What’s wrong, huh?”
The cat meowed again, and ran to the kitchen. Lora followed, turning on lights as she did so. The food bowl in the corner was completely empty. The cat sat next to it, looking up at her expectantly.
“Alan wasn’t here to let you in tonight, was he?” she said softly. “Sorry. Here—” She retrieved the food from the pantry and filled the bowl. The cat immediately got to work emptying it, totally ignoring Lora now that it had what it wanted. Lora straightened up and put the food away, swallowing the worry worming its way up her throat. Alan’s schedule rarely varied; he let the cat out before he left for work, and let it back in for the night whenever he got home. If the cat had been left outside, it meant Alan hadn’t been home since he left for work almost a full day before.
Her fingertips were tingling again. Resisting the urge to start chewing on her nails, she left the kitchen and went upstairs, heading to their bedroom.
“Honey?” she called as she climbed the stairs, not expecting a response, but hoping for one anyway. She heard no sound from beyond the darkened landing, and the lights in the bedroom were off. “Alan?” she said, quieter this time, and flipped the light switch beside the door.
There was no answer, because there was nobody to give one. The bed was empty, the covers pulled up crookedly in a half-hearted attempt at neatness. In the far corner, the closet door was still partially open, a tie hanging off the knob, and a row of Alan’s shirts was just visible in the light. The room was still, silent; there was no sign that anyone had occupied it in the last few hours.
Lora stood in the doorway for a moment. A hand drifted up to her mouth, but she stopped herself, making a fist, and forced her hands back to her sides. She walked over to the bed and straightened the pillows and the covers, tugging up the blanket and smoothing it with her hands methodically, then stood back to look at her work. It looked at least a touch neater now. Taking even breaths, she slid her shoulder-bag down her arm and carried it to the dresser against the wall. Unzipping the bag, she took out the few articles of clothing she’d brought from her apartment in D.C., quickly refolding whatever had been mussed during her flight, and put them away in the proper drawers. After taking her purse out, she folded up the shoulder bag and set it in its usual place beside the dresser.
A mirror hung above the dresser. Lora studied her reflection; her shoulders were bowed slightly from tiredness, her hair a little limp from the long flight, but her eyes, at least, were alert. She considered taking her jacket off, but decided she might need if if she had to go out again. The way things were looking, she might be out for a while. She pushed the thought away, and pulled the jacket straighter over her torso. After a moment’s consideration, she retrieved a hair-tie from one of the drawers, and in one practiced motion, she gathered her hair into a neat bun at the base of her neck. Another look in the mirror made her nod to herself. There. That was better.
Then, all at once, Lora picked up her purse, turned from the mirror, and left the room. She strode back down the hallway towards the stairs, pulling her phone out of her pocket as she did so. Roy’s number was already half-dialed, a plan of action forming up in her mind, when there was a distant sound of the front door knob rattling. From the landing, she saw the cat streaking past the foot of the stairs towards the doorway. She hurried down the stairs, calling, “Honey?”
She heard the door scrape lightly against the floor as it swung open. There was a thump and a loud meow, followed by a voice. “Ow—c’mon, buddy, move out of the way—”
Lora stopped at the foot of the stairs, pushing down her disappointment. She knew the voice, but it wasn’t Alan’s. “Roy?” she said, turning the corner to the entryway.
“Lora?” There stood Roy, his hair a curly mess and wearing a hoodie thrown on over one of his old t-shirts, leaning with one hand against the wall as the cat twined itself around his ankles. He looked up hopefully as she approached, but her expression must have given her away, because his face fell almost immediately. “He’s not here, is he?”
“No,” she said, stepping around the cat as it disappointedly detached itself from Roy and walked back towards the kitchen. “No sign of him at all.”
“Didn’t think so. No car in the driveway.” He reached out and hugged her, adding, “Good to see you.”
She hugged him back, smiling for just a moment. “You too. Did you hear anything?”
He let go of her, shaking his head. “No, nothing. I called him a couple times but it went straight to voice-mail once, and then it didn’t even connect at all. I’m thinking he might be somewhere without much signal—I tried tracking his phone before I left, and I couldn’t get a location for it.”
“But where would that be? He still had signal when he texted me in the arcade.”
Roy shrugged helplessly. “I don’t know. Maybe his phone died and that’s why it stopped connecting on my last call.” He ran a hand through his hair, messing it up even more. “Did you try Sam?”
“Yes, but he didn’t answer either. It’s so late, he’s probably sleeping…” She glanced at her phone, then looked back up at Roy. “Even if he was upset that he didn’t find anything, Alan wouldn’t have gone off somewhere without telling either me or you where he was going. He wouldn’t do that to us.”
“You’re right. That’s not like him at all,” he said. He blew out a breath. “We know he was at at the arcade. We should head over there ourselves.” He gave a shaky little laugh as he added, “I mean, the last time we looked for a missing person there we couldn’t find a thing, but…”
“Don’t, Roy.” She reached for his hand and held it tightly. “This isn’t going to be like Flynn. Alan’s only been gone a few hours. We’re going to find him. There’s no need to panic.”
Roy smiled a little at the familiar phrase, and squeezed her hand. “Yeah. You’re right, we’ll find him.”
“Exactly. We’ll be fine,” she said, and smiled, as much for herself as for Roy. “And we’ll give him hell for worrying us.”
He smiled back, tired but determined. “You bet we will. C’mon,” he said, turning back to the doorway. “We should get started. I’ll drive—and there’s coffee in the car. You look like you need some.”
“You have no idea,” she said, hoisting her bag over her shoulder before following him outside and locking the door behind her. “Let’s go downtown first.”
“We should talk to Sam. He was the last one of us to actually see Alan—he might know something we don’t.”
“Good point. Downtown, here we come.”
The trip downtown was not going as well as Quorra had hoped. She crept down a side-street, itching to lift her disc from her back and arm it—the streets were still crawling with Blackguards in certain sectors, and a tank stood sentinel at every other intersection. Around every corner was a potential threat, and she felt defenseless without a weapon, but an armed disc would be a dead giveaway that she was somewhere she shouldn’t be. Still, even without her disc out, she was wary of being seen. Quite a few programs had caught a glimpse of her in the arena, and while she was fairly certain that none of them would be able to recognize her immediately, it wouldn’t be smart to give any of them the chance to be curious.
Not that any of that mattered—she’d spent most of her trip close to the city’s edge, away from most of the populated areas. She could barely get through the outer sectors, let alone the ones near the city center. She’d circled the entire city, sneaking through each of the outer sectors in search of a way in, but now she was on her way back to one of the remote bridges that connected the city to the Outlands. The lightrunner was hidden near it. She would return to the Safehouse, wait a few millicycles and try again. Maybe Alan had finally left his room. She was excited to show him the rest of the Safehouse, though she was a little nervous about speaking to him again. While it was nice to get a chance to talk with him a little more—she’d been worried he wouldn’t want to, after his argument with Flynn—he’d asked a lot of questions about the ISOs. She’d answered them as best as she could, but the bad memories had been uncomfortable to deal with. Taking the trip had been an opportunity to clear her head as much as it was a chance to check the situation in the main city.
She had, at least, been able to actually get into the city this time. She’d tried recently, just before the portal had closed, but there were so many guards and Recognizers roaming the city limits then that it had been impossible to even get close without being spotted. Clu had apparently assumed Flynn would make a break for it, since there were more soldiers out then than Quorra had ever seen, even during the early days of his occupation of the Grid. Clu had used as many programs as he had at his disposal to scour the city for any sign of the Users, but the portal had closed with no sign of Flynn, and now security had lightened, though not by much. She’d hidden the Lightrunner beneath one of the bridges leading from the Outlands without much difficulty, but it was obvious that Clu was still determined to find Flynn. Even from her place in the alley, she could see Recognizers drifting high above in the small gaps between buildings, soaring away from the City towards the horizon.
She smiled faintly. Clu still had no idea where Flynn might be. That had been the whole point of luring another User to the grid, and thanks to Quorra and Clu’s own penchant for violence, that idea had fallen through. There was a certain satisfaction that came with knowing they had ruined Clu’s plans—Flynn was still safe in hiding, and Alan with him—but even that was muted by disappointment. Flynn had been adamant about staying in the Safehouse to look after Alan and keep his disc safe, but it was hard for Quorra to forget the quiet devastation on his face as he watched the portal’s light flicker and finally fade to black, a mirror of her own dismay.
Quorra shook her head slightly; she needed to focus. Now was not the time to think about what she couldn’t change. She moved noiselessly, keeping close to the wall, and peered around the corner. At first the street seemed clear, but just as she was about to cross to another alley, a flash of scarlet made her freeze. A few blocks down, a tank rolled slowly through an intersection, accompanied by a squad of guards. Two guards broke off from the tank and started down the road, heading right for her.
She pulled away from the corner and pressed herself flat against the wall, hoping she hadn’t been spotted, but quickened footsteps and rumbling voices told her she had. She took off down the side street, hoping she could lose them in one of the alleyways. She could fight them if she had to, but that would draw more attention, and getting captured was not an option. Her boots pounded against the glistening pavement as she rounded a corner and flung herself down another alley, head whipping from side to side as she searched for a hiding place.
The buildings here were mostly empty—non-essential programs had resided in this sector cycles ago, but Clu had repurposed many and driven out the rest—and some even lacked illumination, their edges a dull, powerless grey. She shot around another corner, the sound of stomping boots close behind her, and spotted a darkened balcony at the far end of the narrow alleyway. Without breaking her stride, she snatched the baton from its holster on her boot and pressed a button on its edge. It thrummed with energy as a cable shot from one end, a grappling hook rezzing up at its tip.
She kept running as the hook slammed into the wall above the balcony. Another button press, and the cable went taut. Quorra’s soles left the pavement, and she was hauled into the air, zipping upwards. Just before she hit the wall, she yanked the baton; the cable disintegrated along with the hook as she grabbed for the balcony’s railing. Her momentum carried her over the rail, and she landed with a muffled thump on the balcony floor just as the pair of guards came tearing into the alley.
Quorra quickly ducked out of sight, grateful for the momentary cover, but she kept a hand on her baton, ready to rez up her blade if need be. The thunder of heavy boots grew closer, but slowed before they reached the end of the alley. She gripped the baton tighter. A deep voice, resonating through the filter of its helmet, drifted up to her hiding place.
“They entered this sector. Should we split up?”
“Negative,” said a second, similarly filtered voice. “Customary sweep. We should alert the rest of the—”
A flash of light reflected in the glass wall above the balcony, and the voice broke off, turning into a muffled grunt that quickly glitched into nothingness. A familiar hum sounded in the alley—the buzzing of an armed disc. A third voice spoke, clearer but just as deep, echoing off the walls.
“You two won’t be alerting anyone.”
“Halt, program!” the first guard yelled, and another disc hummed to life. “You are in direct violation of—”
To Quorra’s bewilderment, a fourth voice cut him off. “Yeah, yeah, we got it.”
There was another flash, and the first guard screamed. Quorra could hear the gentle clink of cubes as they hit the ground and rebounded off the walls of the surrounding buildings, the scream dying away. For a moment there was silence, and Quorra forced herself to stay still, pressing against the balcony wall. Be patient, Flynn would tell her. Wait to see what happens next.
Finally, the clear voice spoke again, ruefully. “We shouldn’t have done that.”
The lighter-voiced program was quick to respond. “Come on, you went after them first. Who’s gonna miss a couple of guards? And I know you’ve been itching to derezz a few of them since we got out of the End of Line.” His boots scuffed the pavement as he moved deeper into the alley, stopping just beneath her balcony. "Clu's too busy looking for that User to care about a couple derezzed programs, anyway. He's probably halfway to Gallium right now with that big fleet of Recognizers we saw, ready to level half the Grid." More clinks sounded, and Quorra guessed he had kicked at the pile of cubes left behind by the guards, sending them tumbling along the ground. “I guess we could’ve just captured them instead,” he remarked casually. “Might’ve been easier to get intel out of ‘em.”
“Anything they could have told us will be on their discs.” A metallic scrape echoed dully, and the first program sighed. “This one’s busted.”
“Let me look at the other one.” Some footsteps, and then another metallic sound. “It’s still intact. Well, mostly. Let’s see if it works.”
A silvery light glinted in the glass of the wall above Quorra’s hiding place. The second program laughed in victory. “All right,” he said, “let’s see what we’ve got here…”
The light wavered, then brightened again. It began to flicker and distort, and the two voices fell silent. Quorra waited, hoping they would find whatever they were looking for in the disc and leave quickly. From their conversation, they were rebel programs. While she sympathized with any program who wanted to take down Clu, some of the rebels would find any excuse to fight, and fighting would bring unwanted attention. She could hear a slight murmur of voices, very faintly, and then the muffled but unmistakable roar of a crowd.
“Hey,” said the second voice, “this one was on the light cycle grid.”
“There’s the User,” said the other voice. After a moment he added, “He could use a few lessons.”
“No kidding. Oh—there he goes.” The second stranger hissed sympathetically. “I bet that hurt. Kinda surprised he didn’t derezz.”
“Users don’t derezz. They’re stronger than programs are,” said the first. The light dimmed, then flared again. “The rescuer.”
Quorra smiled despite herself. The second program made an appreciative noise. “Nice ride. I’ve never seen a vehicle like that before.” A flash, and Quorra thought she could hear a muted explosion. “That User’s lucky,” the program continued. “Clu would’ve annihilated him.”
“Maybe? C’mon. He was nanocycles from getting killed. If that program hadn’t gotten him out of the arena, he’d have gotten a disc to the chest, no question.” The light flickered again. “Off into the Outlands. Let me see if there’s anything else…” The reflection in the glass shimmered. “Just before deresolution. Looks like they were following someone.”
The shimmering ceased, and the two were silent. Quorra closed her eyes, a hand creeping instinctively for her disc. She didn’t want to hurt them, or bring any attention to herself, but if they started looking around, she wouldn’t be able to stay hidden for long.
“Huh. Those light-lines…” The second program was speaking again. Quorra’s fingers grazed the edge of her disc. “That look like the rescuer to you?”
The first program took a moment to answer. “Too hard to tell. This one didn’t get a good look at them. Keep going.”
Quorra kept her hand on her disc, but opened her eyes. The light was flickering again, the memory playback continuing.
“That’s you,” the second program said.
“And that’s you.” The light flared brightly, almost painfully so, before finally fading to darkness. “Looks like that’s it.”
Quorra relaxed slightly. Maybe now these programs would leave, and she could make her escape. Boots thumped quietly beneath the balcony, paired with the gentle sound of cubes scattering along the ground.
“Hey,” said the second program. “This one left a baton behind.” Something whistled through the air. “Think fast!”
The whistling stopped suddenly, and the first program sighed. “Nice try,” he said wryly. “I can still see, you know.” More whistling, louder this time—he must have thrown it back—before it stopped again.
“Just testing you,” the second program said. “Think we should bring that disc to the Commander? She might be interested. She could probably take a look at your eye while we’re there, too.”
“What? You want your visuals to short out? I’m not gonna lead you around by the hand, you know.”
“As if I’d want you to! I just don’t want her yelling at me. You know we’re supposed to keep a low profile.”
“Aww, you’re still afraid of her? I thought you could handle anything, Mr. Mastermind.”
“Of course I’m afraid of her,” the other replied bluntly. A scuffing noise echoed in the alley, and two pairs of footsteps started to resound as the programs moved away. “And so are you. Don’t think I didn’t notice you sending Rasmus to meet with her last cycle instead of going yourself.”
“Hey, Rasmus volunteered!”
“Uh-huh. I believe you.”
“C’mon, you don’t really think I’m scared of her, do y—ow! Hey!”
“What? I’m not scared of her!”
“That’s not what I’m talking about! Look up there.”
Quorra froze. Her fingers tensed on the edge of her disc. There was a pause, and the second voice spoke again.
“Is that a hole?”
“In the wall. Looks like it came from a cable hook,” said the first softly.
The second didn’t answer. There was no more movement, no boots thumping or cubes rolling. The silence stretched so long it was agonizing, and then the twin hums of two armed discs filled the alley.
Quorra acted without thinking. She pressed a button on her baton and swung it high above her head, rezzing up the light cable again. A section of the building jutted out over the alley; she aimed the baton for that section and fired. As the hook buried itself in the wall, she tugged on the cable; simultaneously the buzzing of the discs grew much louder. The light cable retracted, yanking her upwards just as the two discs crashed into the balcony wall, sending cubes of data flying past her boots as it shattered.
The cable hoisted her through the air. The two programs were shouting below her; she glanced down at them long enough to see the paler, shorter of the two catch his disc and throw it again as his taller, darker friend raised an arm to shield himself from the rain of cubes. She kicked off the wall, aiming herself for the low roof of the building to her left. The cable derezzed as she flipped swiftly over the roof’s edge, but not swift enough—a searing pain sliced into her shoulder as the shorter program’s disc whirled into it.
The disc whizzed away, the blow too shallow to leave it lodged in her arm, and she tumbled onto the roof. The cubes in her shoulder ground against each other painfully, but she rolled out of the tumble and into a run, dashing across the rooftop. She didn’t know if the two programs would follow her, but she didn’t give herself the time to check. She leaped across the edge of the building to a neighboring one, heading for the edge of the city. She didn’t have far to go; the edge was only a few buildings ahead of her, one of the bridges connecting the city to the rest of the Grid just beyond it. A thrill of relief ran through her—if she was right, that was the bridge she had hidden the Lightrunner under. All she had to do was make it to the bridge, and she could disappear into the Outlands.
She continued leaping from roof to roof. It was dangerous to be so out in the open, but quicker than dodging through alleyways. The city limits were only two buildings away now. There was a guard tower farther down the bridge, but if she could just make it to the vehicle she could use the bridge itself as cover until she moved out its range. She halted at the edge of her current rooftop long enough to check that the street was empty before dropping down to the pavement. The landing jarred her shoulder, but she kept moving, sprinting towards the bridge that was visible at the end of the road.
She heard a shout behind her. “Hey! We just wanna talk to you!” It sounded like the second, shorter program—she hadn’t lost them after all. She ignored him and kept running, not bothering to look back—the pain in her shoulder made her doubt talking was all they wanted to do. She veered off to the right just as she reached the base of the bridge, and bounded over the low barrier wall lining the edge of the empty outer street.
There was the lightrunner, parked just where she had left it under cover of the bridge, a few yards out from the barrier wall. She hurried towards it, but just as she reached out to activate the door, an explosion blew her off her feet. The force threw her forward and she crashed against the vehicle, her damaged shoulder banging into the door. She slid down a couple feet until the ground connected with her boots, and then her knees. The world seemed fuzzy at the edges; she reeled, and had to grab at the lightrunner’s frame to keep herself from toppling to the ground. Had one of her pursuers thrown a light grenade? Did they not care about any guards who might be near by? Rebels should want to avoid them as much as she did.
There was another shout from above her—it sounded like it was coming from just above the barrier wall. She glanced back and saw the two programs watching her; the shorter one was yelling something to her, but she was too disoriented to discern the words. She dragged herself to her feet and pressed a hand against the door. It lifted upwards, and she stumbled into the driver’s seat, pulling the door down after her. The vehicle hummed into life at her touch.
Through the windshield she could see the two programs still standing at the wall. The taller one lifted his arm and lobbed something at her; still disoriented, she didn’t realize it was another light grenade until it was almost upon her, flashing red. She widened her eyes and gunned the lightrunner into reverse, speeding backwards, but too late—the grenade struck the nose of the vehicle and erupted, the brilliant flare forcing her eyes shut. One of her tires lifted off the ground from the shockwave, and she clutched at the steering grip, still reversing, trying to keep steady. The wheel slammed back downward, the impact jarring her shoulder again.
She opened her eyes, blinking the daze away. Fragments of incendiary data clung to the frame of the vehicle, illuminating it. “Come on,” she groaned as she took in the damage: a crack of damaged code was spreading from the nose of the vehicle towards the windshield. The two programs were small glinting figures now; as she watched they disappeared from view, leaving the top of the barrier wall.
Quorra threw the lightrunner out of reverse and swung it around, not waiting to see if they were going to pursue her. As long as she had the lightrunner, there was no way they could catch her in the Outlands. As she rocketed over the craggy rocks, the crack in the frame inched closer to the windshield, a few cubes of data streaming from the nose. She squeezed the steering grips, praying the code would hold together long enough to get her home, and sped away, leaving the City behind her.
Apologies (again) for the wait...and the length. Hope y'all enjoy it. Comments are, as always, appreciated!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
When Flynn had promised to tell Alan everything, Alan hadn’t really expected him to follow through. He had gone back into the Safehouse expecting more silences, more carefully blank expressions, and any new information only being given with extreme hesitance. Now, though, just a short while and a surprisingly filling meal later, Flynn was talking to him freely, as if there had only been a couple weeks’ absence to make up for instead of a couple decades. They sat together at the crystal-white dining room table, sipping from pale mugs what tasted to Alan like a fairly decent cup of coffee, though he still wasn’t exactly sure how Flynn had conjured it up. The whole meal had built itself up out of the table with only a touch of Flynn’s hand, and while Alan had wanted to ask how the hell he’d done it, the sight of food reminded him just how hungry he was, and all questions were put on the back-burner. After they’d finished, Flynn started recounting the night they’d broken into ENCOM to retrieve his files, passing over the familiar parts to fill Alan in on what had been kept secret.
“So Lora parked me at her terminal and I got to work. The MCP got wind of me pretty quick and tried to keep me out, but I threw him a couple logic puzzles to stall him. He didn’t appreciate that. The laser was right next to Lora’s workspace, so there was a big flash of light and next thing I knew, I was wearing a glowing suit surrounded by a bunch of weird-looking dudes threatening me and calling me ‘program’.” As he spoke, Flynn pressed a hand to the table, and within seconds the remains of their food was just…gone, everything down to the plates fading into a grid-like pattern that quickly dissolved out of existence, leaving the table as pristine as it had been before they ate.
Alan was too curious to not interrupt. “How did you do that?”
“What, get digitized? Same way you did.”
“No, the food! How did you do that?”
“Oh, this?” Flynn looked down at the table, and shrugged. “Perks of being a User, man.”
“But how’d you do it?” Alan persisted. “You barely touched the table, and it just disappeared. Where’d it go? And where did it come from?”
“It’s energy. Just programmed to look and taste different.” Flynn pointed out to the terrace, indicating the glowing pool set into the floor. “That’s what it looks like in its natural state. Tastes pretty good, but let me tell you, drinking that for weeks on end gets incredibly boring. So I started messing around with it. Took me a while to get the hang of it, since I can only compare it to what I remember, but I think it usually turns out okay.”
“Alright, but is it just mental? Or are you actively changing the—the coding, or—”
“You wanna talk about the fine details of food programming, or you wanna hear the story?” Flynn asked, sounding exasperated but looking more amused than anything else.
Alan sighed. “Both. But keep going,” he said, worried that if he got Flynn off-topic they would never return to it.
Flynn was still half-smiling. “I’ll show you how it works later. Anyway, I know you were shocked when you got here—back then, I was just as confused as you were. I thought I was dreaming. Then they threw me on the game grid, and I was too busy trying to stay alive to worry about whether it was real.”
“But you made it out.”
“Yeah, with some help.” Flynn paused, and reached up over his shoulder. “You know what? I can show you.”
He tugged the disc off his back, and held it flat in both hands. The air above the disc shimmered faintly like heat radiating off of a road, and then the particles rearranged themselves, forming a three-dimensional shape—a head, one identical to that of its owner. Alan leaned closer, fascinated, but the particles shifted almost immediately, flattening into the image of a face. It took him a moment to realize the face he was looking at was his own, thirty years younger.
“Tron,” Flynn said quietly. “I met him on the game grid. That’s where the MCP was keeping him, after it acquired him from you.”
Alan watched as the image of Tron moved, saying something Alan couldn’t quite make out, but he recognized the timber of his own voice. It was a little unsettling. “He helped you escape?”
“Him and another program.”
The image shifted again, and formed into another familiar face, smiling widely. Alan nearly dropped his mug in surprise. “Roy!?”
“Close! His program. I didn’t know Roy back then, remember? I only met him after I got out, but man—the first time I came down to visit you in your cubicle, I couldn’t believe it. Took me ages to stop calling him Ram.”
The images continued to shift and transform as Flynn resumed his story, displaying brilliant neon landscapes and old-fashioned lightcycles and quite a few more familiar faces. The sight of Lora’s program in particular—her name was Yori, apparently—made his chest tighten. Had Lora’s plane landed by now? Would she have come home and found him missing? Was she worried, scared? The thought of her searching for him was too painful to consider for longer than a few seconds, so Alan tried instead to focus on Flynn’s voice as he continued talking about all the extraordinary things he and Alan’s program had done.
Even hearing about Tron was difficult, though. Alan couldn’t help but feel a little swell of pride towards his old creation’s endeavors, but he wasn’t a fan of having to hear about it almost thirty years after the fact. Still, he continued to listen quietly, worried that an interruption would derail Flynn’s newfound eagerness to talk. There were a few moments where Alan was fairly certain Flynn wasn't telling him every last detail--Ram seemed to disappear about halfway through the story, and from the look on Flynn's face as he quickly moved on, the reason why hadn't been pleasant--but he was in no mood to push. Flynn would have to live up to his promise of honesty on his own.
Eventually, Flynn replaced his disc on his back, story finished. “And then I was back at Lora’s terminal, and you know the rest,” he said.
Most of it, anyway, Alan thought. “I still have questions,” he said aloud, trying to sound reasonable instead of bitter.
“Go for it, man.”
“Well, if you met so many different programs in the ENCOM System, why was Tron the only one you brought to the Grid?”
“He wasn’t,” Flynn said, as if it were obvious. “I brought over as many as I could, all different kinds of programs. I was even able to recover a few that had been deleted from some old backups.” He paused, and stared down at the contents of his mug, expression suddenly withdrawn. “Doesn’t really matter now. I doubt Clu let any of them go free for long.
Alan sipped from his mug, a little reluctant to ask his next question. “Including Tron?”
Flynn did not respond immediately. He sat his mug down, and looked back up at Alan. “He’s dead.”
Alan’s hands tightened around his mug. He had figured that was the case—he remembered what Jarvis had said about Clu ‘vanquishing’ Tron during his speech on the lightcycle grid—but having it confirmed was a bigger blow than he’d thought it would be. It would’ve been nice, to have met his own program. “You’re sure?”
“When Clu came after me, Tron was there. He was supposed to escort me back to the portal.” Flynn’s voice was soft and full of regret. “He fought for me. He bought me enough time to escape, but I never saw him again after that.” He smiled wryly, saying, “Clu wouldn’t have let him survive. They didn’t get along as well as you and me, man.”
Alan nodded wordlessly, uncomfortable. He didn’t much like the mental image of their doppelgangers trying to murder each other. Flynn obviously wasn’t enjoying the conversation anymore, either, because he cleared his throat and said, “You still hungry?”
“No, I’m okay,” Alan said, grateful for the change of subject. “A little tired, I guess.”
“You should rest, man. Unless you’ve still got questions.”
“I do,” Alan said, “but we can take a break.” He said it as much for Flynn as for himself; the dark shadows under Flynn’s eyes were more apparent in the bright light of the main room than they had been on the terrace. “You look like you could use a nap.”
“Nah, that’s just how I look now that I’m ancient,” Flynn said, cracking a smile.
“If you’re ancient, I must be at death’s door.”
Flynn chuckled at that. “You turned sixty this year, right? That’s not so bad.”
“Tell me that when you actually hit sixty, Flynn.”
Flynn laughed again, but only said, “We can compare notes when I get there.” He stood, pressing his hand to the table once more, and the two empty mugs disappeared. “I’ll sleep later. I’m gonna knock on the sky for a bit. Take a nap if you want, I’ll wake you when I’m done.” With that, Flynn left the table and settled on a pillow at the center of the room.
Alan watched him go, frowning—what the hell was that supposed to mean, knocking on the sky?—but after a few moments, Flynn closed his eyes, and Alan realized, with some surprise, that he was meditating. He laughed quietly under his breath, shaking his head. Flynn had been almost bewilderingly interested in things like meditation and Zen philosophy back before he left, and Alan had never quite figured out why. Flynn had usually been so full of energy that taking time for mindfulness just didn’t seem to fit with his image, but Alan remembered walking in on Flynn supposedly meditating in his office a few times over the years, although he was pretty sure that Flynn was actually just napping at least once. That Flynn had apparently kept up the interest after all this time was surprising, but a little relieving, too. At least one thing about him hadn’t changed.
Flynn’s face and posture relaxed, and the lights in the ceiling and floor panels darkened slowly, leaving the main room comfortably dim. Had Flynn done that consciously, or did the Safehouse automatically respond to his mood? Alan folded his hands in his lap, still watching Flynn, and supposed it amounted to the same thing. The panel beneath Flynn was still lit, dust floating lazily through the air above it—or was that dust? The particles floated upward in uniform strands, and after a moment Alan realized they were strings of code, just small enough to be indiscernible.
He leaned back in his chair, and wondered if that was another User perk, or just a Flynn perk. Quorra had called him the Creator. Perhaps this was a side effect. He watched the strings of code idly for a while, and eventually considered going back to his room for a nap—he really was getting tired, his head aching a little—but found he didn’t want to leave the main room. Here, Flynn was just in his line of sight, exactly where Alan could keep an eye on him. It was silly, but he couldn’t quite shake the feeling that if he turned his back for even a moment, Flynn might vanish into thin air.
Alan shook his head, annoyed at himself—where could he go? Flynn was clearly not willing to do anything that might put his disc in jeopardy. He couldn’t leave if he wanted to. Alan supposed that should have been another relief, but it only reminded him of his own lack of freedom. They were both stuck, and there was nothing either of them could do about it.
He sighed, trying to empty his head of troubling thoughts. It wasn’t difficult—the stillness was making him sleepier, and he hid a yawn behind his hand. Besides, the chair was fairly comfortable, and Alan had perfected the art of dozing sitting up during long days at the office, so he let his eyes close, and eventually drifted off.
He didn’t sleep for long, or at least it hadn’t felt like it, but the stiffness in his neck and back when he awoke sometime later told him otherwise. Maybe the chair hadn’t been such a good choice after all. He sat up straighter, stretching a little, and took his glasses off to rub the tiredness away from his eyes. The lights around the room brightened, and he blinked a few times, disoriented.
“Sorry,” said Flynn’s quiet voice from across the room. A dark shape that Alan assumed was Flynn moved slightly, and the lights dimmed again. “You know, there’s a perfectly serviceable bed right down the hall, man.”
“Yeah, well, I didn’t feel like getting up,” Alan said, slipping his glasses back on. “How long was I asleep?”
“Couple hours, maybe. Not long.” Flynn was on his feet again, facing the terrace, and while his voice was even, there was something in the set of his shoulders that spoke of worry.
Alan got to his feet, stretching again. “Something wrong?”
“Quorra’s not back yet.” He glanced over as Alan joined him. “She doesn’t usually take so long.”
“Could we see her coming back from here?”
“Maybe.” Flynn passed through the floating lights suspended in the space between the main room and the terrace, walking to the stone’s edge, and Alan followed. The city was still glittering in the distance, though not as brightly as before—dark clouds hung low between the skyscrapers, obscuring some of the buildings.
They stood together without speaking, and it reminded Alan uncomfortably of the silence before their big talk just a couple hours past. He resisted the urge to cross his arms, and glanced at Flynn. The other man was staring out at the view with surprising intensity, eyes flickering back and forth, and Alan realized he was watching small pinpricks of scarlet drifting away from the city towards the mountainous horizon.
“Are those ships?” Alan asked.
“Yes. They usually just go in circuits around the city,” Flynn said, still watching the view, “but more have been heading out into the Grid. A few were pretty close by, about an hour ago.”
“Looking for us?”
“Probably. They’ve been patrolling farther and farther since the portal closed.”
Alan’s hand twitched at the mention of the portal. “You said you could see it close from here?”
“Yeah. It’s to the east, past the city and the Sea of Simulation. When it’s open, you can see a light shining—just about there,” Flynn said, lifting a hand to indicate a point above the tallest skyscraper.
“And you’re sure it’s closed, now?”
Flynn dropped his hand. “I watched the light until it went out again,” he said shortly.
Alan did cross his arms then, wrapping them around himself, wishing for home. “You should’ve woken me. Maybe we could’ve made it before it closed.”
“We tried, Alan. You were out like a light.” Flynn glanced at him, his gaze flickering up to the bandage on Alan’s temple. “I’m worried about that. I didn’t think you’d sleep so long, and you’re obviously still tired.”
“I wasn’t asleep the whole time. Just most of it.” Still, Alan had to admit that a day and a half, nearly two, was pushing it, and he DID still feel a little out of it. Maybe his concussion was worse than he’d thought. Or maybe he’d just been plain tired—he hadn’t slept much the night before; he was too focused on the page to rest. Flynn was still watching him, and Alan looked away, uncomfortable.
“It’s not like I can go visit a hospital,” he said. “Besides, with the portal closed, what does it matter how long I slept? I could’ve stayed in bed for a week, and outside it only would’ve been a few…hours…” He trailed off as his words registered. “Flynn?”
“How long has it been outside since I left?”
“Outside? Probably a little over an hour.”
“An hour.” Just a single hour. “Flynn, if you’ve been here for almost twenty-one years,” Alan said slowly, “how long has it seemed to you?”
Flynn looked at him a moment, then smiled crookedly. “I know you can do the math, man.”
Alan could, but the result was just too much. Way too much. He did the mental calculations again, then again, increasingly uncomfortable with the answer. “If an hour there is about two days here, then a year would have to be…that’s almost fifty years. In just one year outside.”
“But--but that means you…no. No, no,” Alan said, shaking his head emphatically. “Flynn, you’ve been gone for over two decades, and that would be…that’s over a thousand years.”
“One thousand and…almost forty-eight, I think?” Flynn shrugged. “I could be a little off. Sometimes I lose track.” Flynn’s smile broadened as Alan continued to stare at him, but in the dim light on the terrace, it just made him look even older. “It’s cool. Don’t worry about it.”
“Don’t—don’t worry?” Alan spluttered. “Are you—you can’t just tell me not to—” He grabbed Flynn by the shoulder, still trying to fathom it.The last twenty years of his life had felt, at times, like an eternity. To experience an actual eternity, almost completely alone, sounded to Alan like hell on earth. “Kevin,” he said, “are you okay?”
To his frustration, Flynn laughed. “Am I okay? Alan, I’m fine.”
“You can’t be fine. There’s no way you’re fine,” Alan said. He knew his grip on Flynn’s shoulder must be almost painful by now, but he couldn’t bring himself to let go. Flynn just kept smiling, which only made Alan feel worse. “This isn’t funny. I’m serious.”
“So am I. I mean,” Flynn said, nodding his head as if conceding a point, “some of it’s been rough. But after the first couple centuries, you get used to it. Mostly, anyway.” He reached up and patted Alan’s hand. “It’s okay, man. I think I’ve held it together pretty well. It’s not like I was on my own. I have Quorra. She’s good company.”
“That’s not the point, Kevin,” Alan said, but he could tell that was all Flynn was going to say on the matter, at least for now. He let go of Flynn’s shoulder, still trying to wrap his brain around it all, and decided to just stop trying, for now—it was making his head hurt again. “No wonder you’re so…”
“Oh,” Flynn said. His smile faded a little. “I guess I am. Time has a way of moving you past all the things you used to be.”
“I guess so.” Alan supposed a twenty years was enough to change anyone, let alone a thousand. “I don’t think I’m exactly the same, either, if it makes you feel better.”
“I don’t know about that. You’ve still got a hell of a temper, man. I didn’t expect you to yell so much.”
“Yeah, well, who’s fault is that?”
“Damn straight.” Alan tried to sound stern, but Flynn just laughed at him. Even now, despite everything else, it was nice to hear that laugh again. Alan looked away to hide a smile—unsuccessfully, he knew, but it was the principal of the thing. “You’re still a pain in the neck.”
“And you’re still grumpy as hell. Although,” Flynn said, “you did start calling me Kevin again. That mean you’re not mad at me anymore?”
“Nice try. You’re not getting out of it that easy.”
“Worth a shot.” Flynn smirked at him, and Alan shook his head. They lapsed into another silence, but it was more comfortable than the one that had preceded it. There was a low rumbling in the stone beneath them, and Alan looked up. Dark, roiling clouds had gathered in the sky, stretching from above their mountain to the lights in the distant city. As he watched, jagged lines of lightning streaked down to the ground, throwing the rocky terrain of the Outlands into sharp relief. A few moments later a sheet of rain swept down from the clouds, pattering against the rock and blowing in the wind, though none of the rain seemed to reach the terrace itself. Lightning flashed again through the rain. With the city in the distance, framed by the dark clouds, the scene was, in its own way, strangely beautiful.
“This really is a hell of a view,” Alan said softly. “Sam would like it.”
Flynn stirred suddenly at the name. “How is he?”
“He’s fine,” Alan reassured him. “I saw him before I went to the arcade, actually.”
“Yeah? He’s okay?”
“Well, I went to see him because he jumped off the roof of ENCOM Tower.”
“Don’t worry, he had a parachute. It was a bit of a rough landing, but he’s had worse.”
Flynn shook his head, incredulous. “Man. Why’d he jump off the roof?”
“It’s just what he does. He likes playing pranks on the board around this time of year. It’s about the only time he actually shows interest in the company.”
“He’s not working with you?”
“With me? Definitely not. I tried to get him interested in the company—maybe too much, I guess. He says he doesn’t think he’d be a good fit.” Alan sighed. “He might have a point. I think I pushed him too hard in that direction, and now he doesn’t want much to do with it. But he’d probably do a better job than the crowd running it right now.”
“What crowd? You’re not running the place?”
“Nope,” Alan said. “I was CEO for one year after you left. I tried to run the company the way I thought you would want me to. But the Board was scared—profits were falling, and the shareholders were getting nervous. So they fired a bunch of the old crowd to bring in new blood.”
Flynn’s mouth fell open. “They fired you?”
“No, no. I mean, I’m sure they tried,” Alan said, with a steely smile, “but my contract is pretty air-tight. No, they just fired about half the programming team, including Roy.”
“What!? He was the best programmer we had!”
“That’s what I told them. They didn’t care. They ransacked your office, too, since none of ‘em had half an original idea between them. I got so mad I nearly quit the whole damn company, but Roy and Lora convinced me to stay. They said if I left, there would be no one to make sure the company was still around when Sam grew up, and they weren’t exactly wrong.” He shrugged. “So I just resigned as CEO, and stuck around. They kicked me off the Board, too, but they couldn’t get rid of me, so they shuffled me off to Resource Management.” Alan laughed at the look on Flynn’s face, and said, “I know. That’s where they thought I could do the least damage, I guess. It wasn’t too bad—I got to work on the environmental projects you were so fixed on. Took me ages to get back on the Board, though. I don’t think they like me very much.”
“Oh, definitely. I’m, uh,” Alan said, trying to decide how to phrase it, “not very popular with the company these days. Not with the executive crowd, anyway. I’ve been told I muddy the waters. I think it’s code for ‘talks about Flynn too much’.”
“Yeah?” Flynn was wearing that same warm, half-awed smile he’d had when Alan had told him about the pager situation. “How much do you talk about me, Bradley?”
Alan’s face flushed slightly, but there was no point denying the truth. “As often as I can,” he said, only a little embarrassed. “I’m not about to let them forget you—they threw you under the bus after you left, and it really steams me up the way some of them talk about you. Sometimes I bring you up just so I can tell Lora and Roy about the board’s reactions after the meeting, though. They get a kick out of it.”
“I’ll bet they do,” Flynn said, chuckling. “They doing okay, too?”
“Yeah, they’re both fine,” Alan said. He paused, trying to figure out exactly what to say, but realized that maybe there was an easier way. “Could I just show you? Like you showed me?”
“On your disc? Yeah, you should be able to.”
Alan nodded and reached over his shoulder before realizing the disc was not there—he had left it in his room, on the bedside table. “Hold on,” he said sheepishly, and hurried to his room to retrieve it.
“You really should keep that on you,” Flynn said as Alan returned to the terrace, disc in hand.
“I couldn’t sleep with it on.”
“You get used to it after a while.”
Alan supposed you could get used to anything in a few centuries. He held the disc out in front of him as Flynn had done to his own. It hummed quietly in his hands, and the air above it shimmered until he was looking at an approximation of his own face. “How do I, uh,” he said, holding the disc gingerly, “do what you did?”
Flynn shrugged. “Just think about it, man. It just happens.”
“How helpful,” Alan muttered, but he tried to concentrate on Lora anyway. He had barely thought her name before the display shimmered once more, distorting into a familiar image—Lora, beautiful Lora, sitting on the couch in their living room, her feet tucked under her with a laptop balanced on her knees. Flynn’s shoulder brushed Alan’s as he leaned closer, staring intently at the flickering memory. The image of Lora looked up, saying something too quiet to catch, and laughed. Flynn let out a breath, half a laugh and half a sigh.
“That’s recent?” he murmured, still staring at the image.
“Last time she came to visit,” Alan said quietly.
“She’s barely changed at all.” They watched as Lora put the laptop on the coffee table and stretched, still speaking too low to hear. “She still live in DC?”
“Yeah. She visits a lot, though. It’s not so bad. This was just last month.” It was a good memory. The visit had been very short, just a weekend trip while Lora was in town for a conference in the city, but they’d still managed to get dinner with Roy before she left again. As he remembered, the image warped for a moment before solidifying, and there was Roy, cleaning his glasses with the hem of his shirt as a waitress’s hand set a drink in front of him. The image of Roy looked up at her and smiled, mouthing an inaudible thanks.
Flynn laughed again, breaking into a grin as he watched. “Oh, man,” he said, “he hasn’t changed either. He did okay, after they fired him?”
“He does pretty well for himself. I’ve helped him out a few times over the years, but lately he’s been running an arcade machine restoration service. They’re getting pretty popular again, so he’s got quite a few clients.”
“Yeah? That’s awesome.”
“Uh-huh. He was working on a Space Paranoids cabinet a couple weeks back.”
With that, the display changed again. They stood together and watched a dozen different memories: dinners, movie nights, holidays, some of them recent, some older. They were laughing quietly at a scene from a couple winters back, when Lora and Alan had bought Roy the ugliest Hanukkah sweater they could find (and Roy had promptly pulled it on over another equally hideous sweater), when the display shifted to Christmas dinner a few nights after that, as Alan remembered that Sam had actually taken them up on their invitation that year.
Suddenly, there Sam was, sitting on the arm of Alan’s couch in his usual leather jacket, taking a neatly wrapped package from Lora. Alan heard Flynn suck in a breath, leaning even closer to stare wide-eyed at the display. Alan tried to think of something to say, but couldn’t. He stood silently as Flynn watched his son hand out a few clumsily wrapped packages and laugh at his own lack of gift-wrapping finesse. Flynn brought a hand to his mouth, another half-laugh escaping him.
“He’s so big,” he said, his voice as shaky as his smile.
“As tall as you,” Alan said quietly. Flynn nodded, but didn’t say anything else. They spent the rest of the memory in silence, and watched together as, at last, Sam sped away into the night on his motorcycle, Lora and Roy looking on from the doorway. As the image dissolved into static, Alan lowered the disc and held it at his side to hide his trembling hands.
“Thanks,” Flynn said after a moment, voice still not quite steady. “For showing me.”
“Sure,” Alan choked out. It was suddenly difficult to speak. The edge of his disc dug into his palm. “I—need to sit down.”
Without waiting for a response, Alan went back inside and settled heavily into one of the crystal-white chairs, dropping his disc with a thunk onto the table. Flynn didn’t follow him immediately, and Alan was grateful for the extra time to compose himself. He stared at his disc, trying to take steadying breaths. Finally, Flynn joined him at the table, sitting down quietly. He folded his hands in front of him, and looked at Alan as if waiting for him to speak.
Alan had a feeling about how this conversation would play out, but he needed to have it anyway. “Kevin?”
“You said there’s no way to activate the portal home from inside the computer.”
“You’re sure, absolutely, that there’s no way to—”
“Alan, if I could have done something, I would have done it by now,” Flynn said tiredly. “There’s no way out. There just isn’t. I didn’t give myself a back door. I never thought I would need it.”
“Okay. Fine. There’s nothing you can do about the portal. But Clu was able to send a message outside—”
“I don’t know how he did that. If I did, I would have done it myself.”
“But if he could do it—”
“Alan, he has resources I don’t! I have no idea how he took advantage of your efforts to contact me—it could have been a fluke, for all we know. But there’s nothing we can do. We can’t get outside, but neither can he. That’s going to have to be good enough.”
“To hell with that,” Alan said harshly. “It’s not good enough. So we can’t turn the portal back on, I get that—but you’re telling me there’s no way, at all, to do—anything?” Flynn shook his head, but it just made Alan angrier. “I don’t buy it! What about your desktop? Lora or Roy will come looking for me, and this time they’ll find your lab. They know I went to the arcade. You’re telling me there’s no way to at least send a message up top, let them know where we are?”
“No, man, there’s—” Flynn began, and then he stopped. He was still facing Alan, but his eyes were distant, his brows drawn together in a frown that was more contemplative than upset. His gaze drifted down to the table, settling on Alan’s disc. He looked for a moment as if he was about to speak, but his expression darkened, and he shook his head.
Alan stared at him. “What?”
“Don’t give me that. What? What is it?”
“It’s—it’s nothing. It wouldn’t work. I guarantee it.”
“What wouldn’t work, Flynn?”
Flynn held his stare, then looked away. “It’s…there might have been a way. To put a message on the desktop. But it won’t work now.”
“How? How do you know? What is it?” Alan clutched the edge of the table, fingernails scraping against the glass. “You can’t say that and not tell me.”
Flynn shook his head. “You never know when to give up on something, do you?”
“No, I don’t. Tell me.”
“…All right.” Flynn leaned back in his chair, staring at his folded hands. “Back before I figured out how this place worked, when I was still learning the ropes, determining the limits of what Users can do, sometimes I had to build things the old-fashioned way. Writing code, or even making something here and tweaking the code when I got back out, messing with the results, seeing how it effected things both inside and outside. It took me a while to figure out how certain things translated. To do that, I rigged up a way to send myself build notes and lines of code from the inside so I could take a look as soon as I got outside, without having to dig through a bunch of files and folders to find what I was looking for. That’s what the arcade copy on this side is for—it’s an I/O tower. I’m the input, the stuff I sent up top was the output.”
“Okay…” Alan said, fairly certain he was following along. “So, you can send a message using the terminal in here to the actual terminal outside?”
“I could, back then. I just had to activate the digital terminal with my disc. Pretty easy stuff. I didn’t use it very much--things got moving pretty quick, and I was able to learn most of it on the fly. I ended up just using the digital arcade as an entry-point, and placed the exit far enough over the Sea that no program would wander into it accidentally. Eventually, I stopped using the digital terminal. There wasn’t really any point to it after that.”
“Would it still work, though? Did you disable it?” Alan asked, trying to sound calm, and barely succeeded.
“No, I didn’t. Frankly, I forgot about it. I only used it for a couple of weeks.” Flynn locked eyes with Alan, and said firmly, “I know what you’re thinking, but there’s no way, Alan. There’s no guarantee it would even work, and to try we’d have to go to the city center. It’s too dangerous. If I go, Clu could find me, and I can’t risk that.”
“Some things are worth the risk.” Alan leaned forward, adamant. “And if you’re not willing to risk it, I am. Does Clu know about the terminal?”
“No. I created him later, way after I stopped using it. But—”
“Okay,” Alan kept on. “So would my disc work? On the terminal?”
“Alan, I’m not gonna let you—”
“Would it work, Flynn?”
“…Maybe.” Flynn sighed. “Probably. You’re a User. You’d have the right permissions. But—Alan, I shouldn’t have even told you about it. We don’t know if the digital terminal is still active, and the city is a hotbed right now. Quorra hasn’t come back yet, and you don’t understand how worrying that is. She never takes this long. That means that she was held up, and that means that things are even worse than I thought. You wouldn’t stand a chance.”
“I don’t care! This is the only chance we’ve got!”
“You’re too caught up in this, Alan! You need to take yourself out of the equation.”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
“It means that your emotions are clouding your judgment. You want to go home so bad that you’re not thinking straight. This is not a good plan, man.”
“My judgment is clouded? What about you? You’re too scared to leave, fine, but I’m not!”
“Alan, you—!” Flynn’s voice was louder than it had been during any of their previous conversations. It wasn’t quite a shout, but it was getting there. He paused, looking surprised at himself. Alan braced himself, ready for a fight, practically wanting it, but Flynn only took a breath, and then another, and eventually said, at a much lower volume, “You don’t understand. You have no idea what Clu can do, what he’s already done. He’s willing to do anything to get the results he wants. If you go, and he finds you, he’ll find the Safehouse, on your disc, and then he’ll get my disc, and then he’ll just have to wait for an opportunity to leave. Game over.”
Alan opened his mouth to argue, but Flynn cut him off. “Tell me something,” he said. “Did Quorra tell you what Clu did to the ISOs? Did she tell you everything?”
“She told me he killed them all, but—”
“That’s not all. Alan, he didn’t just kill them. He made it impossible for any ISO to form ever again. They came out of the Sea of Simulation, and do you know what he did? He created a virus, and he poisoned the Sea. There are no more ISOs, and there never will be.” Flynn’s mouth was a grim line. “He can’t tolerate imperfection. He’ll do whatever it takes to eradicate it. What’s more imperfect than our world, Alan? I can’t give him even the slightest opportunity to leave. I won’t.”
“I…” Alan tried to process that, the instinct to fight flickering away. “I didn’t know.” The tips of his fingers were numb. He relaxed his grip on the table’s edge at last. “Kevin,” he said, attempting to sound as rational as possible, “I’m sorry. I know…I know that you’re just trying to do what you think is best. But I still think that trying to send a message is worth a shot. I want to go home. ”
“I know you do,” Flynn said tiredly. “I don’t want you to be stuck here with me any more than you do, believe me. But I just can’t let you go back there, Alan. Clu will be waiting for you.”
A noise from the far end of the room cut off any potential response. Both men turned to look at the platform that, according to Flynn, led down to the garage. It had slid out of sight, leaving a yawning gap in the floor in front of the bookshelves. Flynn rose with an eagerness that Alan blamed on a desire for their discussion to end, but the pang of resentment fled as the platform rose up and clicked into place. Quorra was standing at the center of the platform, but not for long—she stumbled forward, clutching her left shoulder, and landed with a thud on one knee. A few dark cubes rolled across the floor. Alan’s stomach turned as he realized they had fallen from a gash sliced into her arm.
“Quorra!” Flynn was at her side in seconds, steadying her as she swayed. Alan followed quickly, alarmed but unsure of how to help.
Quorra looked up at both of them and tried to smile. “I ran into some trouble downtown.”
“Blackguards?” Flynn asked.
“No, rebel programs. I don’t think they followed me. I didn’t see anyone on the way back.” She touched Flynn’s sleeve, and added, worried, “But the Lightrunner was damaged and I was trying to keep it from falling apart, I might have missed something—”
“I doubt you did,” Flynn said firmly. “I trust your instincts. Let’s deal with that arm first, okay?” He took her uninjured arm and looped it over his shoulder, encircling his own around her waist, and lifted her back to her feet. Quorra took a step forward, unsteadily, and a couple more cubes clinked gently against the tile as they toppled from her arm to the floor.
“Here—” Alan grabbed a chair from beside the table and dragged it over. Quorra gave him a grateful look as she lowered herself carefully onto it. Flynn began to inspect her injury, and Alan couldn’t help but stare at the wound. An uneven mass of tiny cubes was visible beneath the fabric of her gloves, light glinting off of the angles of each remnant as she moved. Individual sections ground against each other in flashes of blue and white. It looked very painful.
Quorra noticed him looking and said, a little shakily, “I’ve had worse. It’s really not as bad as it looks.”
“I don’t think I want to know what worse looks like,” Alan replied.
“Hopefully you won’t have to,” Flynn said. “One sec.” He reached behind Quorra, and undocked her disc. He held it out to Alan and asked, “Can you give me a hand?”
“Me?” Alan took the disc uncertainly. “What do I do?”
“Just hold it for me.”
Alan did as he was told, holding it flat in his hands. Just as his own had done, Quorra’s disc lit up with a faint hum, generating a construction of her face. Flynn reached out and tapped the display, and her face was replaced by a spherical matrix, certain sections flashing as the display rotated. Alan thought he could see bits of coding language, almost comprehensible, in the matrices, but they flashed by too quickly to discern them. The light from the display gleamed on the metal surfaces in the room; some of it refracted disturbingly off the edges of Quorra’s injury. From this angle, it was clear that the gash’s depth almost reached to the underside of her arm.
“Is that fixable?” Alan asked uneasily.
“Should be,” Flynn murmured, tapping repeatedly on the display; with each touch the display flashed and warped into a new matrix. A particular section of the matrix enlarged with a glide of his fingers. “I have to identify the damaged code.” He glanced at Quorra, who was watching them through hooded eyes. “Stay with me, kiddo.”
“I will,” she said quietly, and sat up straighter in the chair. “I’m just a little tired.”
“What happened?” Alan asked, hoping that talking would keep her awake.
“I tried to get to the city center, but there were too many guards,” she said. “Not as many as there were before, but they’ve kept up the increased patrols. I had to circle back around, and I was spotted by a couple of sentries, but they couldn’t catch me. I hid, until the rebel programs showed up—they derezzed the sentries before they could alert anyone else, but they found me and chased me to the edge of the city.”
“Are they the ones that damaged the Lightrunner?” Flynn asked, still focused on the display.
“Yes,” Quorra said. Maybe it was Alan’s nerves, but her voice sounded a little softer now. “They stopped pursuit at the city edge, but they threw a few light grenades after me.”
“They’re getting bolder,” Flynn said. He tapped the display again, and the matrix warped once more, forming into a twisting spiral; a section of the spiral glowed a sickening scarlet. Alan watched, fascinated despite himself, as Flynn reached into the matrix and plucked the glowing section out of the spiral, gently tugging it away from the display. The segment flickered, trapped between Flynn’s fingertips, and Flynn’s mouth twitched when he saw Alan’s stare. “Pretty radical, huh?”
He relaxed his fingers, and the segment drifted into the air, fluttering like a moth towards the terrace window. Flynn leaned forward and blew gently on the disc display. Sections of the spiraling matrix detached and rearranged themselves, settling back into the space left behind by the damaged segment.
“Is that it?” Alan asked.
“Probably. Let’s see.” Flynn took the disc back, and gestured to Quorra, who leaned forward. Flynn snapped the disc back into place, and as Alan watched, the cubes making up the center of Quorra’s arm glowed a hot white. Out of the white, a translucent layer of cubes appeared, slowly filling in the gaps, the new material turning opaque as they settled into place. The edges of the fabric of her glove glowed too, a small grid pattern overlaying the wound, before it too went opaque, and then it was like the gash had never been there at all. Quorra settled back in her chair, still tired but clearly in less pain, and Alan let out a breath he hadn’t realized he had been holding.
Flynn glanced at Alan. “Told you it was fixable. How’s it feel, Quorra?”
She ran a careful hand over what had been a mess of grinding cubes just moments before. “Good as new.”
“Cool. Let me get you something to drink.” Flynn got to his feet and crossed the room. Alan stayed put, watching Quorra closely as he tried to shake off the remnants of worry. She seemed alright, for now, but there were still a few cubes lying dormant near her feet, cubes that had just moments before been a part of her arm. The idea of Quorra shattering into a cascade of cubes, just as those programs in the disc arena had done, made him shiver.
“You okay, man?” Flynn had returned, holding a glass of shimmering blue liquid. He passed it to Quorra, who took it gratefully and gulped some of it down.
“I guess,” Alan said. “I don’t know how either of you handled that so calmly.”
“She really has had worse.” Flynn looked at Quorra, frowning slightly. “But not by much. I hope you gave ‘em a run for their money, kiddo.”
“Well, they did have to chase me for a while,” Quorra said, lowering the glass, “but I didn’t want to draw any more attention. They had to turn back at the city’s edge, since they couldn’t follow me in the Outlands, but not before damaging the Lightrunner.”
“How banged up is it?” Flynn asked.
“It’s…bad,” Quorra said guiltily. “The frame was coming apart when I made it to the garage.”
“I’m just glad it got you back in one piece,” Flynn said, putting a hand on her shoulder. “I’ll go take a look. Stay up here, and make sure you drink all of that.” He turned and headed for the elevator platform. “Alan, if you come with me, I can show you some of those User perks you’re so curious about,” he said over his shoulder.
That sounded intriguing, though part of Alan wondered if Flynn was hoping to distract him from their interrupted conversation, and he was still concerned about Quorra. “Should we leave her alone?” he asked.
Quorra waved at him with her newly repaired arm. “It’s fine. See? I’ll be alright.”
“Well,” Alan said, “if you’re sure.” She nodded, taking another sip from her glass, and Alan nodded back reluctantly before following Flynn to the platform. As soon as he stepped up beside Flynn, the platform disengaged from the floor and lowered silently, a dark wall quickly overtaking their view of the main room.
After a few moments of nothing but grey-black rock, the passage opened up once more, revealing a spacious tunnel, an exit just visible at the far end. The vehicle was parked on a platform nearby, but only because being parked was about the only thing it looked capable of doing. The frame itself wasn’t just damaged, but almost totally disintegrated on the left side, with blueish lines jutting out where the edges of the vehicle would be. It looked more like a half-finished model for a video game than something substantial, which made the cubes dropping with quiet clinks from the frame to the metal floor below seem all the more surreal.
“Huh. Worse than I thought,” Flynn said as they approached the vehicle. “This isn’t going to be an easy fix.”
As Flynn did a quick walk-around of the Lightrunner, expression intent, Alan took a closer look at the fading frame. A long scar of damage spread from the windshield to the nose, with sections apparently having broken off in large chunks, judging by the piles of cubes below the frame. The front left tire was connected to the body by only a few half-faded inches of metal. Curious, Alan stooped to touch the axle, and nearly jumped a foot in the air—a shock sparked against his skin, like static but a dozen times stronger, as his fingers made contact with the metal. He tried to pull his hand back, but they stuck to the axle like a magnet. Heat flooded down his arm into his fingers, and the axle suddenly glowed a burning white-blue, new cubes forming up to recreate the lost sections. Panicking, Alan wrenched his hand away, stumbling backwards.
“Careful!” Flynn caught him by the shoulder, barely. “You alright?”
“What the hell was that?” Alan asked shakily, clutching his hand against his chest. His fingers were freezing, a chill spreading up his hand to just past his wrist.
“User stuff,” Flynn said. He took Alan’s hand, inspecting it as he had the vehicle, and said, “Everything around here runs on energy, and Users can hold a lot more of it than programs. You just gotta learn how to control it.”
“How do I do that?”
“You just feel it. Go with the flow, man.”
“That’s a lot less helpful than you think it is.”
Flynn laughed, and let go of Alan’s hand. “Well, I’m not sure how else to explain it. It’ll make more sense with time.” He knelt down beside the vehicle. “Just keep your hands to yourself for a sec. I don’t want you getting exhausted again.”
Alan crossed his arms, tucking his hand beneath his elbow in an effort to warm it back up. Flynn pressed a single finger to the edge of the scar. For a moment, nothing happened, and then, slowly, the edge of the scar glowed just as Quorra’s wound had, and a small section began to knit itself back together. Flynn frowned, and pressed the full weight of his hand against the frame. The glowing section grew slightly, a few more cubes solidifying, but the majority of the damage was unaffected. Flynn hummed quietly, and took his hand away. The glow faded, and after a few seconds there was a scraping noise as part of the frame buckled. Alan watched the remains of the axle turn translucent before fading entirely, and the frame collapsed with a thud as the axle severed from the wheel. The tire rolled a few feet away before toppling over and disintegrating into cubes.
“Well,” Flynn said, “that wasn’t supposed to happen.” He made another noise, sounding displeased. “The code’s been blasted to bits. It’s going to take more than some energy to get this back up and running again.”
“But you can fix it?”
“Maybe. If not, I’ll build a new one. Either way, it’ll take a few days.”
“Inside or outside?” Alan asked automatically.
Flynn laughed quietly, turning back to the platform. “Inside. Still a long time for us.”
Alan followed with gritted teeth. It hadn’t really been a joke, but he was too tired to say so—he felt suddenly like he’d sprinted a couple hundred feet, and his hand was only just started to warm back up again.
Back upstairs, they found Quorra on her feet, still drinking from her glass, but looking much more like her normal self. She turned to them as the platform settled into place.
“How is it?” she asked.
“Not good,” Flynn said, stepping off the platform. “It’ll take a while to repair. The light grenades really did a number on it. Honestly, I’m still surprised they went after you in the first place.”
“I think they recognized me from the lightcycle arena,” Quorra said, with a glance at Alan. “I overheard them talking about that.”
“Which means they recognized the Lightrunner, too,” Flynn said. “Did you overhear anything else?”
“Not much. They were unhappy about the increased security, but that’s not unusual.” She went to take another sip from her glass, and added, “They said Clu left the city, too. He’s looking for us, but we already knew that.”
Alan, who had been lingering near the platform, still trying to get some feeling back into his fingers, snapped his head up to look at her. “He left? Clu left the city?”
Quorra nodded, surprised at his sudden interest. “That’s what they said,” she told him. “Why?”
Alan opened his mouth to tell her about the digital terminal, but Flynn interrupted before he could even take a breath.
“Alan, that doesn’t mean anything,” he said firmly.
“If he’s left—”
“If he’s gone to another part of the Grid, there will still be dozens of programs searching for you. It won’t be any safer, man, trust me.”
“Why would you want to go back?” Quorra asked, looking between them uncertainly. “You’re safe here.”
“There might be a way to send a message outside,” Alan began, but Flynn cut him off once more.
“Alan, I told you, there’s no guarantee the arcade terminal will even work anymore! You need to drop it. I’m not letting you go back out there.”
“But you’ll let Quorra go?” Alan asked heatedly.
“I can’t stop her, man, I told you that too.”
“You can’t stop me either.”
“Alan, come on,” Flynn said, louder now, “you can’t be serious about this.”
“I am serious,” Alan said, louder too. The anger had sparked back up, burning hot. “If we can’t figure out how to let someone know what’s happening in here, everything could go to hell in a million ways! What if Lora finds your lab and gets herself digitized?”
“Lora knows how the laser works, she wouldn’t make that mistake.”
“Roy, then—he doesn’t know anything about it, since you never bothered to bring it up,” Alan said scathingly. “If one of them ends up here, Clu or his guards will find them, and we’ll be back at square one. Or are you saying you’d just let them stay hostages while we wait things out here?”
Flynn shook his head adamantly. “Of course not, man, but—”
“But nothing. I’m not going to sit here and wait for something like that to happen.”
“Yeah? What are you going to do, Alan? You have no idea where the arcade is, you don’t know anything about the layout of the city--you don’t even know how to protect yourself!”
“I could go with him.”
Once again, both men turned to look at Quorra. She had drained her glass, and was watching them both with determination in her eyes. “I could,” she repeated. “I know the city, and I know what sector we’d need to reach.”
“No,” Flynn said immediately. “Sorry, kiddo. Not happening.”
“Quorra, no. You just got back from a trip there, and it nearly cost you an arm.” Flynn turned to Alan, and said, “And the last time you were in the city you nearly died. And don’t tell me you’re fine, because you look dead on your feet. It’s not safe. For either of you.”
“I don’t give a damn!” Alan said hotly. “I’m not going to wait for something horrible to happen if we can prevent it.”
Flynn threw up his hands, at a loss. “Since when are you so willing to commit to something you aren’t even sure is going to work?”
“If you’ve got any other ideas, I’d be happy to hear them! Maybe you’re willing to sit around another thousand years waiting for things to change, but I’m not!”
Alan could tell he struck a nerve, because Flynn went completely silent. Quorra looked between them uneasily, looking as if she was anticipating another fight. Alan ducked his head guiltily—his temper was getting the better of him.
“Look,” he said, much quieter now, “I’m sorry. I know you’re trying to keep your disc safe. I understand that you can’t leave. But I can. I can go, and I can see if the terminal still works, and if it does, I can send a message and come back here, and we can wait to see what happens together. This could be the only chance we have, and I’m not going to pass it up. I can’t, Kevin. I have a life to get back to.” He placed a hand on Flynn’s shoulder, giving it a small shake. “And so do you.”
Flynn looked at the hand on his shoulder, and then at Alan. Alan wished he could know, just for one second, what the other man was thinking. Flynn let out a breath, and murmured, “You’d go even if I begged you stay, wouldn’t you?”
“If there’s even a chance we can get out and go home? Yes.”
The corner of Flynn’s mouth lifted in a tired smile.“You really haven’t changed at all, you know. You’re still so damn stubborn.” He fell silent, frowning again, and then he leveled his gaze at Quorra. “And you’d help him even if I told you not to, huh?”
Quorra at least had the decency to look apologetic. “Well…”
Flynn shook his head. “I don’t even know why I asked.” He folded his hands and looked up at the ceiling, his expression slowly fading into the almost blank look that was starting to grow familiar. “Will you at least wait a little longer? Quorra needs to rest before she goes back out, and so do you.”
“I feel fine,” Alan said. It was a lie—his head was hurting again, and he didn’t know if it was the arguing or giving up some energy to the Lightrunner, but some quiet time alone was starting to sound very good indeed.
Flynn gave him a knowing look. “Uh-huh. Well, I would still feel better if you waited. Just a little longer, alright? Even another millicycle would only equal about ten more minutes up top, and you said it would take them at least a few hours to find the basement. We've got some time. Quorra can make sure she’s feeling alright, you can rest, and I can see if the Lightrunner’s totally bitten the dust or not. And we can come up with a plan. You like plans.”
Alan snorted, but he had to admit that he would feel a little more secure in his conviction to leave if he knew exactly what he needed to do. “Fine,” he said. “We’ll wait. But I’m not going to let you stall me too long, Kevin.”
“Yeah,” Flynn said. “I know you won’t.”
The next few hours passed without incident, though much too slowly for Alan’s taste. Quorra retired to her room, saying she would only need a little rest before she was ready to go, but Flynn threw Alan a look, and Alan gave him a short nod—as eager as he was to get going, he agreed that leaving immediately after such a recent injury was not a good idea. Even Flynn conceded to the need for sleep shortly after, retreating to the bed in the far corner of the main room, dimming the lights behind him and leaving Alan alone to pass the time.
He returned to his room, thinking of taking another nap, but the prospect of going into the city was nerve-wracking, despite how fervent he had been about doing so. He found himself pacing again, anxious—would this plan work? Would he be able to get a message to Lora or Roy, somehow? Would they really find the basement lab in the first place? He sat down on the bed with a sigh, trying to reassure himself. They knew he had gone to the arcade, they both knew that, and he’d yanked the tarp off of the Tron cabinet. That would be enough for them to notice, and find the hidden door. Wouldn’t it?
Worrying isn’t going to solve anything, murmured the voice in his head that reminded him of Lora. He hummed in annoyance—he knew that, but it wasn’t going to stop him from worrying. Casting about for something to distract him while he waited, his eyes fell on the books that Quorra had left him. They were as good a distraction as anything else, he supposed, and rose to retrieve them.
“Journey Without Goal, huh?” he muttered to himself, studying the cover of the topmost book. “And Les…Les Voyages Extraordinaires?” He was grateful no one was around to hear his terrible French, and set that one aside, making a mental note to let Quorra know he was sometimes shaky with English, let alone another language. He flipped through a couple pages of the first volume, and was simultaneously surprised and strangely amused to find it was a collection of Buddhist meditations. He skimmed a few lines before wincing—reading made his head twinge. He set the books down, giving up, and went back to the bed with a sigh. After what felt like a long while, still worrying and eager in turns, Alan slipped into a fitful sleep.
He awoke to the sound of conversation echoing down the hall to his room through the cracked door. He pushed himself up, looking around blearily, his glasses laying crooked on his nose. He took them off to clean them with his sleeve, rubbing at his eyes, when the conversation grew suddenly louder. He frowned at the door that he had neglected to shut, listening hard, but the voices had quieted again to almost inaudible levels. Eyes narrowing suspiciously, he got to his feet and left the room as quietly as he could, slipping his glasses back on as he entered the corridor.
In the hall, their voices were a little louder, suddenly decipherable. “…not sure this is a good idea, Flynn,” he heard Quorra say.
“It’s not up for debate, kiddo.”
Alan moved quickly down the hallway. Whatever they were discussing, he didn’t like the sound of it. As he turned the corner of the corridor, Quorra spoke again.
“You know Alan’s going to get upset about this,” she said, her voice low. “He won’t like it either.”
Alan took that as his cue, and stepped into the room. “What won’t I like?”
The two turned to face him, both looking like they’d been caught breaking a rule.They were near the fireplace, Quorra sitting with a disc resting on her lap, and Flynn standing above her, leaning against the mantle. Alan glanced down at the disc in Quorra’s lap, then back up; they were both wearing theirs. “Is that mine?”
“Yeah,” Flynn said. “You left it out here, so I took the liberty of modifying it a bit.” He took the disc from Quorra, and held it out. “Here. Put it it on.”
“What did you do?” Alan asked, taking the disc gingerly.
“Nothing major. Just put it on, man.”
“Alright, alright.” Alan reached over his shoulder and attached the disc to its dock, a little clumsily. As it clicked into place, a shiver ran through his spine, and he rolled his shoulders, trying to counteract the sensation. A flash of black at his collar caught his eye, and he made a surprised noise as the black spread down his sleeves and over his torso. The texture of the cloth was suddenly rougher and thicker than the grey clothing he had been wearing moments before. In seconds, the previously soft shirt lengthened into something that vaguely reminded him of the coat he had been wearing when he had visited the arcade a few days—a few hours?--before, just longer. His pants changed too, and his bare feet were suddenly clad in boots that glowed in white slashes at the ankles. The hems of his sleeves and collar glowed too, similar to the light-lines in the outfits he had seen on programs, in a simple pattern. Alan looked up, bewildered, to see that Flynn was smiling, apparently very pleased with himself.
“Lookin’ good, buddy,” he said, giving Alan a thumbs up.
“I’ll take your word for it,” Alan replied, eyeing his new outfit self-consciously. “Do I really have to wear this?”
“You can’t go running around in your pajamas, man.”
“I look ridiculous.”
“Yeah, so you’ll fit right in.” Flynn clapped him on the shoulder. “Seriously, this is for the best. If you really don’t like it, we could always throw you back in the body-suit.”
“This’ll be fine,” Alan said quickly.
“Knew I’d convince you.” Flynn reached behind Alan’s shoulders and flipped something up and over his head—a hood, one that hung past Alan’s face, leaving it shrouded in shadow. Flynn chuckled again as Alan tugged the hood back down, disgruntled. “It’d be bad news if anyone recognized you,” he said, “but wearing your helmet would be a dead giveaway that you’re up to something, so you might wanna use that.”
“I’ll keep it in mind,” Alan muttered. “If this is what you thought I wouldn’t like, you weren’t off track.”
“Oh. No, that’s…something else.” Flynn glanced at Quorra, who met his eyes for a moment before looking down at her lap, hands clasped tightly together. Flynn cleared his throat, and said, “I added a couple other things, too.”
“Like…things that might make it a bit easier for you to defend yourself, if you have to.” Flynn held out his hand for the disc, saying, “I can show you—”
“Don’t bother.” Alan took a step back, out of Flynn’s reach. “I’m not hurting anyone, Kevin.”
“Alan, you might not have a choice.”
“Of course there’s a choice.” He crossed his arms tightly, staring stonily at Flynn. “And my choice is to get in and get out without hurting anyone.”
“Alan—” Flynn started, and then he stopped, and sighed. “I’ve never known you to be this naive, man.”
“It’s not naivete. I’m not doing it, okay? End of discussion. We’ll go to the arcade, send a message if we can, and come back. We’ll be careful and we’ll go slow. It’s going to be fine.” In the back of his head, Alan knew he sounded ridiculous, but the mere thought of having to reduce a program, even one of those guards, to a pile of dull cubes beneath his feet made him feel sick to his stomach. “So just…drop it, alright? We’ll be fine.”
Flynn looked at him for a long moment. Alan clutched his arms a little tighter around himself, not wanting to fight again but determined to stand his ground on this. Flynn shook his head, incredulous. “I guess you were right, Quorra,” he said, and then looked back to Alan contemplatively. “Since when are you the one going around telling people everything’ll be fine, man?”
“Since when are you the one acting like everything’s going to go wrong?”
Flynn shrugged. “Touche.” He looked to Quorra and nodded. She got to her feet, shoulders set, hands in fists at her sides, as Flynn continued, “If we’re going to do this, you should get going now. Ships have been leaving the city at a pretty steady pace, as far as I can tell—Clu might be seriously considering the idea of us being much farther away than we are. It would be best if this got done before any of those ships start coming back. ”
He lead the way to the elevator platform, the other two following him. He turned to look at them both as they reached the platform. “Once you get to the arcade, all you need to do is hold your disc over the terminal. It’ll be pretty obvious how to proceed. Oh, and one more thing, Alan.” Flynn reached into his robe and pulled out a white baton. “I know you’re not a fan of lightcycles, but you’ll be needing wheels, and I didn’t have enough time to fix up the Lightrunner or make you a bike of your own, so you’ll have to use mine.”
“What about Quorra?”
“I have my own,” Quorra said. She bent down and detached a black baton from its place on her boot. “The Outlands can be treacherous, so you’ll need to stay close.”
“I’ll do my best,” Alan said, turning the baton over in his hands uneasily.
“Stick with Quorra,” Flynn said. “She knows her way around.” He looked at both of them seriously. “Stay together, and don’t rush. There’s no point to any of this if you get caught. When you get to the arcade, send a message if the terminal works, but leave as quickly as you can. Try to keep out of sight, but don't do anything suspicious if you can help it.”
“I was planning on being as noticeable as possible, actually,” Alan said dryly.
“I’m not kidding, Alan. You need to be careful.”
“We’ll be as careful as we can,” Alan assured him. He wanted to seem optimistic, for himself as much as for Flynn, though optimism had never come to him easily. Flynn was still staring at him with sober intensity, and it wasn’t doing anything to help his nerves. “We’ll be back soon,” he said, trying to sound confident. “It’ll be fine.”
Flynn continued to stare. For a moment, Alan thought he was going to reach out and hug him, but instead Flynn just nodded, and stepped back from the platform. “Good luck. Both of you. Be careful,” he said quietly.
“We will,” Quorra said, and stepped onto the platform. Alan followed, and with a soft click it began to descend. Flynn still looked solemn, eyes tight with worry.
Alan wished he would smile. “See you soon,” he said, hoping it was true.
Flynn nodded, and after a moment he did smile, just a small one, but at least it was there. He raised his hand in a wave, but before he could say another word, the dark rock overtook them, and Alan could no longer see Flynn at all.
Maybe it was just his own paranoia, but the dark streets of the city didn’t seem any more welcoming to Alan now than they had when he had first arrived. The eerily glowing buildings, stretching up into the dark clouds far above their heads, loomed unnaturally over the wide streets. The perpetual night didn’t help, either. Alan had done his fair share of walking around city streets in the dark, but knowing this city had never seen daylight, never had its gloomy corners illuminated by the sun, was unnerving. As they traversed deeper into the city, he wasn’t sure which was better—the empty outer sectors or the crowded inner ones. Quorra led the way through the streets, Alan following close behind, avoiding the gaze of any program they passed.
“Couldn’t we stick to the empty streets?” he whispered to Quorra.
She shook her head once. “No,” she murmured back, “It’s less suspicious to use the more common routes.”
“If you say so.” Alan found himself longing for the comparative safety of the lightcycles they had rode through the Outlands on. He still wasn’t fond of them, but least no one would be able to see them through the darkened glass. Quorra had quickly ditched his baton, however. (“Flynn’s lightcycle is too iconic,” she’d said as she took the baton from him to hide it near the edge of the city. “If anyone sees us using it, we’ll be recognized instantly.”) Maybe that was true, but it didn’t make Alan feel any more secure. He lowered his head as they passed a trio of programs chatting by a building entrance, a tall program in armor glancing his way, and hoped it was only his mounting nerves that made him feel as if they were watching him. Why had he thought this was a good idea? Flynn was right: he had no clue what he was doing here, no way to defend himself or help Quorra if they were recognized. He had the horrible feeling that Quorra would fight to keep him alive no matter what, and hated it.
They kept onward, Quorra moving quickly as Alan hurried to keep up, occasionally cutting through an alley to avoid an upcoming patrol, but sticking mostly to the wide roads of the main sectors. They passed another pair of programs, and Alan had to force himself to not do a double-take. Hadn’t he just seen that program a few streets back? The tall one? He clenched his hands at his sides, but stayed silent. He hadn’t gotten a good look at either of them, and didn’t want to seem jumpy.
The third time he saw the tall program, Alan knew it wasn’t a mistake of nerves. He sped up to walk at Quorra’s side, and muttered, “I think we’re being followed."
Quorra kept walking, and Alan wondered if she had heard him, but then she gave a short, almost imperceptible nod. “I know,” she said, before turning sharply into an alley.
Alan followed hot on her heels as she sped down the alley. Rain started to fall in patches, blocked by outcroppings of the buildings on either side of them. “Are those the ones that followed you before?”
Quorra glanced back at him, but didn’t answer. Instead she led him farther into the alley, moving quickly. They took a turn, cut through an empty street, and then another. They veered into another, narrower alley when a voice called out behind them.
“Hey, you! Program!”
Quorra’s footsteps didn’t falter; instead she picked up the pace, and Alan followed close behind, hands balled into fists.The rain was falling harder now, their boots splashing through shallow puddles at they neared the end of the alley—and then a large silhouette blocked the way. It was the same program Alan had seen before, tall and broad with dark skin and short-cropped hair. A pixellated scar was slashed across one half of his face, cutting into his right eye, which flashed an icy grey.
Quorra stopped so suddenly that Alan almost crashed into her. There were footsteps behind them, splashing through the alley, and Alan turned. A shorter, paler program, similarly armored, was coming up behind them, looking triumphant.
“See? Told you,” he said to the taller program. He gestured past Alan at Quorra. “Same circuits.”
“I heard you the first time, Hopper.” The taller program glanced at Quorra for a moment, then resumed staring at Alan. Alan forced himself not to flinch back, jaw clenched. The program narrowed his eyes. “Then this might be…”
He lifted a hand, reaching for Alan’s hood, but Quorra knocked his arm back, drawing her disc immediately with a fierce glare. The program glanced at her, seeming almost amused. “That’s unnecessary,” he said.
Quorra didn’t respond, but her disc did lower a fraction of an inch as she frowned in confusion. Alan looked between them cautiously, wondering what the hell he was supposed to do if they started fighting, but then his hood was yanked back off his head, and the shorter program—Hopper—edged around to get a look at his face.
“Whoa.” Hopper stared at him openly as Alan backed away. He turned to his partner. “Definitely him, right, Bartik?”
“Definitely.” Bartik gave Alan a long stare as if sizing him up, and then nodded to himself. He stepped to the side, and looked at them expectantly. “Walk.”
Alan and Quorra exchanged a glance. There didn’t seem to be much of a choice. She started to walk, Bartik keeping pace beside her, and Alan followed, heart hammering in his chest. Hopper reached up and tugged Alan’s hood back over his head as they left the alley and entered another wide road.
They followed muttered directions from Bartik as they traveled the streets. Alan wasn’t sure, but he thought they were getting closer to the center of the city. That was slightly encouraging—the arcade was at the center, he knew—but not by much. These two programs didn’t seem immediately hostile, but they had still attacked Quorra on her last visit, hadn’t they? What did they want with them? Questions raced through his head as they walked. At one point, as they paused in a dark alley waiting for an enormous scarlet-lined tank to pass by, Quorra reached out and touched his hand, just for a second, and gave what he thought was supposed to be an assuring nod. He nodded back, heart in his throat.
Finally, Bartik murmured for them to stop, halting them in a sidestreet. A long staircase at the edge of a building lead to a small outer landing above them. Bartik paused, and then looked at Hopper, who had leaned casually against a wall, still staring openly at Alan.
“It’s your turn,” Bartik said.
Hopper scoffed. “What? Come on!”
“I went up first last time.”
“Yeah, and she told both of us to get lost!”
“She told us not to come back without a good reason. This is the best reason we could have.” Bartik crossed his arms, and looked at Hopper expectantly. Hopper pulled a face, but started up the stairs anyway. Bartik watched him reach the landing and turn the corner, and, gaze still focused upward, said quietly, “I wouldn’t do that.”
Alan frowned, confused. He hadn’t moved, and wasn’t planning to if he could help it—and then he realized that Bartik had been speaking to Quorra. She had one hand frozen in mid-air, and Alan guessed she had been trying to reach surreptitiously for her disc. She did not lower her hand, face pensive as she stared at Bartik, as if trying to determine which of them could move faster.
Bartik lowered his gaze to her, and the corner of his mouth twitched. “You might be able to take me, but I don’t know if you’d be so lucky with them,” he said, with a nod upwards.
Alan and Quorra both looked up, following his gesture. Two programs lurked at the edge of the nearest rooftop, barely visible as they peaked over the edge. As they watched, another three made themselves visible on the opposite roof, looking down at the trio on the ground. A few of them leaned over to get better looks at Alan and Quorra, seeming more curious than hostile, but every single one had their discs drawn and armed, glowing faintly at their sides.
“Six against two,” Bartik said. He looked at Alan contemplatively, and said, “Or maybe just one. Pretty bad odds.”
Quorra’s hand clenched into a fist, but she slowly straightened back up, eyes blazing as she glared at Bartik, who nodded once at her approvingly and resumed watching the landing. Above, the programs on the rooftops continued to observe them silently.
Alan gritted his teeth, but Bartik was right. He hadn’t let Flynn show him how to protect himself, clinging to some bizarre sense of decency, but now he knew that had been a mistake.
Faint voices echoed down from the landing. One was Hopper’s, but the other was unfamiliar—it was a woman’s voice, low and rather irritated. Their words became more intelligible as they approached the landing.
“I know you said to stay away from your place, but I really think you should see this, Commander,” Hopper said.
“I thought I told you to stop calling me that, Hopper,” said the woman. At the sound of her voice, Quorra looked up suddenly, staring towards the landing with a confused frown. Alan frowned at her, about to ask if she was alright, but then Hopper rounded the corner, a new program following behind him.
“Sorry, sorry. Old habits. Anyway, take a look.” Hopper paused at the top of the stairs and gestured down at them, moving aside so the woman could see.
“This had better be good—” the woman began, but as she looked down at their group, she froze. Beside Alan, Quorra let out a quiet gasp. The woman, long-legged with sharp features half-hidden by flowing hair, stared down at them, her one visible eye fixed not on Alan, as he had expected, but on Quorra. The woman was as unfamiliar to Alan as any program, but Quorra’s own eyes were wide with shocked recognition.
Alan saw Bartik frown, glancing at Quorra before looking back up to the two on the landing. Hopper met his gaze with an uncomfortable shrug, and shifted uncertainly. “Well?” he asked, looking at the woman. “You wanted a good reason. The User’s the best we got.”
The woman’s gaze shifted to Alan at last, and a wave of recognition passed over her face, replaced by a contemplative frown. Alan didn’t know what that look meant, but he didn’t like it. There was a noise beside him as Quorra moved towards the stairs, still wide-eyed, and stood a little in front of Alan, blocking the woman’s view of him.
“…Paige?” Quorra asked softly. Her voice shook with what sounded like fear.
Bartik and Hopper exchanged another, more bewildered look, and Bartik uncrossed his arms, glancing at Quorra with obvious unease. He took a step towards the stairs and said, “What should we do with them?”
The woman—Paige?—looked at him, and then at Hopper, before turning away. “Bring them inside,” she said, and left the landing.
Hopper watched her go, looking puzzled, before shrugging and heading back down the stairs. “C’mon,” he said, reaching for Quorra. “You heard her.”
Quorra jerked away, throwing an arm in front of Alan in protection, but Hopper grabbed her roughly by the shoulder and started pulling her up the stairs. She struggled in his grasp, looking back at Alan; the worry in her face scared him. He wanted to say something, ask her what the hell was going on, but there was no time—Bartik took him by the arm, and together the two rebels hustled them up the stairs, around the corner, and out of sight.
A short while later, somewhere over a distant sector of the Grid, Clu stood in the central room of his ship, studying the scene visible through the wide window in front of his throne. Below, a fleet of Recognizers advanced in squads toward a small settlement—Palladium, it was called. The fleet descended, individual squads splintering off in orderly, precise patterns, to land in the streets of the city below. Already, troops of Blackguards were gathering the residents of Palladium for inspection and interrogation, small dark figures glinting blue or red as they marched through the streets. Above, Clu surveyed it all, and found it satisfying.
This was the first stop on a course for every major settlement in the surrounding area, spiraling outward from the main city, in a systematic sweep.Though every sector on the Grid had eventually submitted to Clu’s enforcers since the fall of Argon cycles ago, there were still occasional reports of dissident activity in certain areas, of which the distant Gallium was the main hub. Perhaps the programs who resided away from the central sectors thought themselves safe, far as they were from Clu’s direct presence. Until now, Clu had been content to send additional disciplinary forces to mitigate these rebels, aware that even in his own city there were those who opposed his rule, though that opposition had rarely amounted to more than short altercations which were quickly brought under control by his Blackguards. Now, however, he was embarking on a tour of the Grid.
He had been hesitant to leave the city, if only because leaving would mean having to allocate more personnel to manage it until his return, but it had been necessary. His initial plan to capture Flynn and acquire his disc had been unsuccessful. Alan Bradley’s rescue by that helmeted program was unforeseen, but not unwelcome; Clu was certain he knew the program’s identity—she had never been as subtle as she thought, and periodic sightings indicated that she most likely was never far from the city. Clu had assumed Flynn would not leave his last precious miracle to survive on her own, and that Flynn must therefore be nearby, out of sight. He had thought that Flynn would still attempt to escape the system, his old friend and his pet in tow, but the portal’s light had disappeared without a sign of the Creator. It was a deep disappointment, almost infuriating, but not catastrophic. He could wait a little longer. He had done so for cycles now. He would simply have to alter his plan, and search Flynn out himself.
Still, the displeasure lingered. Alan Bradley had been such a disappointment. After all of the stories Flynn had told them, after everything his own program had done, Clu had expected more from the great User of Tron. He grimaced slightly, remembering his encounter with the User in this very room. He had seemed so impassioned, full of anger and revulsion—misplaced as it was—that Clu had underestimated how fragile he might be. Perhaps the lightcyle arena had been too much for him to handle. It was possible he had yet to recover from his injuries, making it unlikely that Flynn or the girl would leave his side. Clu knew that despite their considerable power, Users were much more delicate than many programs assumed. How often had he seen Flynn injure himself out of carelessness, catching a stray disc incorrectly or stumbling on uneven terrain? An older User would be even more prone to hurting themselves, and Alan Bradley was undoubtedly old.
Programs aged, of course, though the effects of time manifested differently in Users. The sight of that unpleasantly familiar face so marred by the passage of time, wrinkled and thin, had been almost amusing. Would Flynn look similar, grey and frail? Clu couldn’t wait to find out.
Behind him, at the opposite end of the main room, the door slid open with a whisper of noise. Clu turned, frowning. An interruption was unexpected. Jarvis strode inside, looking harried but oddly pleased. A shadow followed his steps: Rinzler, silent as usual, the faint purr of his processors the only noise that accompanied his movements.
“Sir,” Jarvis said, pausing for a moment to salute before hurrying to Clu’s side. “We just received an alert from the main city—it’s top priority.” He held out his tablet, a small light flashing in the top corner of the screen.
Clu took it, gloved hands sliding deftly over the display. He opened the information packet, read the short transmission, and read it again. His fingers pressed into the surface of the tablet, the pressure warping the glass, but Clu was far from angry. He hadn’t felt this satisfied in hundred of cycles. His plan had been flawless after all. He looked up; his two programs were both watching him, awaiting his reaction. Jarvis stood at attention, hands folded behind his back, but his eyes were alight with anticipation.
“Perfect timing.” Clu returned the tablet to Jarvis. “Alert the fleet. They will continue carrying out their orders, but we’re leaving immediately. Reverse course, and head for those coordinates.”
Jarvis nodded eagerly and left the room. Rinzler remained, waiting expectantly, but Clu had no orders for him. Not yet. Clu surveyed his best enforcer, gratified as he always was by the impeccable results of rectification. Rinzler simply stood silently, ready to fulfill Clu’s every command with emotionless obedience, expression hidden from view as always. He hadn’t removed the helmet in dozens of cycles now, but the face beneath the black glass was as clear in Clu’s memory as it had ever been.
Clu smiled. It was a face he would soon be seeing again.
Another long chapter, after another long wait. Enjoy!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Lora’s fingers tapped restlessly against her leg as Roy’s car edged along the road that, according to the vague directions she had rescued from her text archives, lead to Sam’s current address, such as it was. ‘Empty lot on the river next to the train tracks, big shipping container, can’t miss it’ was, somehow, not specific enough for her phone to pinpoint on a map, but she was fairly certain they were in the right area. The distant whistle of a train confirmed her assumption, just audible beneath the soft music issuing from the radio. The lack of streetlights on the road, however, made it a mystery as to just how much farther they had to go. She splayed her hands flat in her lap, one resting on her phone, to quell the urge to start chewing on her nails.
“Sorry,” Roy said with a glance in her direction. “I can speed up, I’m just trying to avoid getting us dumped into the river.”
“I know. It’s fine.” They continued onward through the dark, the pavement turning to dirt. The trees on either side of the road cleared up slightly, and through Roy’s window the lights of downtown were visible, still bright despite the late hour. She could just make out ENCOM tower, its iconic sign cutting a vivid slice out of the darkness. A few windows were lit, and she wondered how many people were pulling late nights, or starting long days, as she had so often during her time with the company. She realized it was now about the same time of night as it had been when they’d broken into the ENCOM building to rescue Flynn’s stolen files, all those years ago. She was just as nervous now as she had been then, but the thrill she always remembered when she thought about that night was absent. She swallowed hard to clear the sudden tightness in her throat, and looked away from the window.
“Are you sure,” she asked, for the third time that drive, “that the page had something to do with that side-channel attack of yours?”
“Not totally sure, but it’s my best guess,” Roy said patiently, also for the third time.
“That was days ago, though.” Over a week, to be precise. Lora had quietly helped set up a few of the East Coast gatherings for the event, though she hadn’t attended any personally—none of them had, for fear of being recognized—and gathered reports from various attendees on the ground. Sneaking around always made her feel on edge, but it was also, she had to admit, a little fun. “I thought we decided it was a bust.”
“I know. But I looked back through the logs, and the strongest signal was definitely coming from somewhere nearby. We wrote it off as being from the server Alan took—I mean, it’s still hooked up in my basement—but we were never able to get an exact location, remember? The signal fried pretty fast. Maybe Flynn had a workstation set up at the arcade, too. He was already keeping secrets, so it wouldn’t really surprise me.”
Lora agreed, but she didn’t want to discuss Flynn’s secretive behavior. Finding his private notes, and realizing there had been so much Flynn had never told any of them, had hurt more than she wanted to admit. “Did Alan talk about any of that with Sam?”
“No-o,” Roy said, a little shamefaced. “Don’t think so. We all agreed to keep Sam out of the less-than-legal bits, right? I mean, he doesn’t even know we’re on the forums. It’d be hard to call him up and be like, ‘hey Sam, we’re trying to contact your legally dead dad who you avoid talking about at all costs using an untested hacking method we aren’t even sure will work, you in?’” He glanced over at Lora again. “The kid gets himself into trouble without our help, anyway. You know he was arrested tonight, right? For breaking into ENCOM tower and launching himself off the roof?”
“Alan did text me about that, yes.” Lora glanced down at her phone automatically; there were no new messages. She hadn’t really expected any. “I don’t know if we did the right thing, keeping all of this from Sam.” They had all agreed, a long time ago, that Sam was far too young to involve in anything related to the Flynn Lives movement, which had quickly involved much more covert efforts than any of them had anticipated. After everything that had happened with Flynn, protecting Sam from any connection to illegal activities was first priority. Sam had found the forums on his own, desperate for any information about his father and finding solace in others who believed in his return, but his posts had slowed along with the movement in the intervening years. The three had kept their screen-names, and every other connection, a secret. There was safety in anonymity, after all, and Roy was right: Sam got into enough trouble as it was.
“It’s not like there was much to tell until recently,” Roy said as the car slowed. The bridge was looming in the distance, and a structure was visible in the gloom just beyond it. “And if this goes south, we might end up having to tell him all about it tonight, so you won’t have to feel bad about keeping things quiet much longer.”
“You don’t feel guilty about it?”
Roy kept his eyes on the road, but she could see him frown slightly. “A little,” he said. “But it was for the best, right? He had enough to deal with on his own.”
The glare from the car’s headlights glinted off the metal walls of Sam’s so-called apartment perched on the riverbank as they came to a stop. Lora still wasn’t quite sure what had possessed Sam to borrow a shipping container and convert it into a living space, but it did at least seem like something a Flynn would do. She hadn’t had a chance to visit him here yet; the last time she’d seen him was at Christmas a year and a half ago, and they’d only spoken a handful of times over the phone since. He at least made an effort to call back whenever she phoned him, which was something. She knew Alan wasn’t usually so lucky, but then, she generally avoided talking to Sam about the company if she could. He seemed to appreciate that.
They peered up through the windshield at the DUMONT SHIPPING label on the side of the container. The name always made Lora smile—Flynn had been surprisingly adamant about naming the new shipping company after one of Gibbs’s old programs, and Alan had been sure to follow through when the project fell into his hands.
Roy whistled softly at the sight. “Sam really lives here?”
“Yeah, for the last year or so.”
“Wow. I mean, Alan told me about the company just ‘losing’ a shipping container,” he said, making air-quotes with his fingers, “but I’m surprised the city lets him stay here.”
“He bought the lot, so he can do whatever he wants with the property,” Lora said. “And the container was apparently due to be scrapped anyway, so technically, it’s recycling.”
Roy laughed at that, and Lora let herself smile back. Alan had done his best to sound exasperated when he told her about that, but Lora privately thought that he’d also sounded a little pleased. She wondered if Sam knew that Dumont Shipping had been the only major project Alan had seen to its completion during his year as CEO. She hoped he did.
“Whatever works, I guess.” Roy took the key out of the ignition and got out of the car. Lora followed suit, and they approached the apartment, the heels of Lora’s shoes sinking a little in the dirt. They hesitated in front of the metal wall, glancing at each other.
“Doesn’t look like the lights are on,” Roy said. “Should we knock?”
“He didn’t answer my calls, so we might as well,” she said, and tapped sharply against the wall.
Her knocks reverberated dully through the metal. Almost immediately, a muffled bark sounded from inside the apartment. At least Marvin had heard the knocks, even if Sam hadn’t. The barking continued, high-pitched and insistent, and after a moment a dim light began to shine through the windows at the top of the wall. The barking stopped, but the light stayed on.
Lora glanced at Roy, who shrugged. Hoping she was loud enough to be heard through the wall, she called, “Sam? It’s Lora.”
There was another bark, and the light in the windows brightened slightly. With a great scraping noise, the wall in front of them starting to rise, folding into the ceiling of the container to reveal the interior of Sam’s apartment. It was impressive, in its way—minimal but functional furniture, most of which looked re-purposed and built for durability. A small dog-bed laid in the corner, on top of which Marv trembled in excitement, letting out a short yelp as he caught sight of the visitors. A significant amount of space was dedicated to a little workshop full of automotive parts and tools in one corner of the apartment. Lora realized with a jolt that the dusty motorcycle resting on the platform of the workshop was Flynn’s much-cherished Ducati, half-restored. Another, newer bike was parked directly in front of them, leaning on its stand in front of a low couch.
Sam was sitting on the arm of the couch, still in jeans but looking sleepily disheveled. He opened his mouth to speak, or maybe just to yawn, but Lora cut him off, striding inside.
“We need to talk,” she said.
Sam looked at her blearily. “Good morning to you too, Aunt Lora.” He waved a hand in greeting at Roy, who was still staring around the apartment and looking fairly impressed. “Is this a normal hour for you, Uncle Ram, or did you finally fix your sleep schedule?”
“Still pretty nocturnal, actually,” Roy said, waving back. “Nice place, by the way.” Behind him, Marv let out another little bark, and Roy bent down to scratch the dog behind the ears.
“We don’t have time to joke around, boys,” Lora said. She stifled a yawn of her own, and leveled a look at Sam. She wanted to get straight to the point—she couldn’t help but feel they had a long night ahead of them. “Have you heard from Alan?”
“Alan?” Sam rubbed a hand over his face, yawning. “Yeah, like, three hours ago. He stopped by after I got out of lock-up. If this is about that page he got, by the way, I’m not interested,” he said, with a slight edge to his voice.
“It’s not,” Lora said.
“Well,” Roy said, standing back up, “kind of.”
“Not interested,” Sam repeated flatly. “What I am interested in is going back to sleep. I’ve had a long night.” He yawned again. “You guys look like you have too.”
“Sam, trust me, I would love to be asleep right now,” Lora said. She tried to keep her voice as neutral as possible, but it was difficult—Sam could be just as flippant as his father. “But we need to ask you a few questions. We know Alan was here a few hours ago, but you haven’t heard from him since then, have you?”
Sam sighed, but reached behind him for his phone. “No, don’t think so,” he said, tapping the screen. “I just have a couple calls and messages from you two.” He scrolled through the notifications for a moment. “Okay, a lot of messages.”
“I’ve been calling you since I landed,” Lora said. “We can’t find Alan.”
“You can’t find him?” Sam asked, lowering his phone. “You mean he’s not at home?”
“No, he’s not. I don’t think he’s been home since he left for work this morning.”
Sam stared at her blankly. “Are you serious?”
“Yes, Sam,” Lora said. “The cat was still waiting outside for him when I got there, and I didn’t make it to the house until about half an hour ago.”
“We know he went to the arcade after he left you,” Roy added. “He called me on the drive over, but hung up once he got there. And he sent Lora a photo of the game floor. That’s the last either of us heard from him.”
“Did you call him?”
“Of course we did,” Lora said. “I’ve been trying to get in touch with him since my flight got in, but he hasn’t responded at all. No messages, no calls, nothing. You can try yourself if you want to.”
Sam narrowed his sleep-heavy eyes at her, but started dialing anyway. Lora watched, arms crossed, part of her hoping maybe Alan would pick up, and they could all just go home and stop worrying. She glanced at Roy, and from the look on his face, and the way his hands were shoved into the pockets of his hoodie, she could tell he was thinking the same thing. Sam rubbed at his eyes, stifling another yawn, as he held the phone to his ear. After a long moment, he lowered the phone, frowning at it tiredly.
“Nothing?” Roy asked.
“Nothing,” Sam said, still staring at his phone.
Lora sighed, hands clutching at her elbows a little tighter, and stepped closer. “You know he always answers his phone, Sam. Especially if it’s one of us.” Especially if it’s you, she added silently.
“…Yeah, he does.” Sam looked between them, expression neutral, but one of his hands was balling into the hem of his shirt. “Maybe he just got upset he didn’t find anything,” he said. “He could be out driving around, blowing off steam. It’s what I’d do.” He looked away. “I don’t know what he was expecting. That pager’s what, twenty years old? Maybe older? That alert he got was probably just a fluke.”
“Maybe not,” Roy said. The other two looked at him, and he hesitated, glancing at Lora, before continuing. “Alan wasn't going to check out the arcade just for kicks, Sam. We don’t think the page was an accident.”
“What do you mean?”
“We can explain more later,” Lora cut in. “We need to get going.”
“Oh, no. Come on,” Sam said, in a way that reminded Lora all at once of Alan. “Aunt Lora, I’m not an idiot. You both know more than you’re saying. What’s going on?”
Roy shared a look with Lora before answering. “Well, we’ve been...looking into a few things lately,” he said carefully. “About your dad.” Sam’s expression darkened, but Roy plowed on, “There’s been some, uh, weird signals coming from the arcade in the last week or so. We didn’t really think anything of it until Alan got the page last night.”
Sam frowned. “What kind of weird signals?”
“Well, uh, that’s a little complicated. You know the Flynn Lives movement?”
“Yeah, we all do. I know you guys have looked at their forums before.”
“Okay, well,” Roy said, “see, we’ve been…” He made a frustrated noise, running a hand through his hair, and asked Lora, “Can I just say it? I’m too tired to put it delicately, and we’re wasting time.”
Lora hesitated, not looking forward to the potential blow-back from Sam, but Roy was right—they needed to get moving. “Go ahead.”
“Great,” Roy said, then turned to Sam. “Look--I’m ZackAttack.”
Sam stared at him. “You’re ZackAttack.” Roy nodded, and Sam broke into a disbelieving grin. “Like, the ZackAttack? The guy who runs the whole movement from behind ten different IP redirects?”
“It’s only six redirects. And yeah. That’s me.”
Sam shook his head with a laugh. “No way.”
“Way," Roy said. "Sorry. We didn’t think it was a good idea to drag you into it with us.”
“Us?” Sam turned to Lora, still grinning. “What, are you ISOlatedThinker, or something?”
“No, I’m the forum administrator. I don’t post much,” Lora said. “ISOlatedThinker is Alan.”
“What?” Sam looked back and forth between them, the grin sliding off his face. “You’re joking.”
“We’re not,” Roy said.
“We’re really not,” Lora said.
Sam’s eyes were narrowed again, and Lora knew he was piecing things together. “But—I joined that forum when I was like, nine! I told Alan about it!”
“Yeah, you did,” Roy said. “We all knew you were on there. Broke my heart to see you posting all the time.” He shrugged, a tired smile tugging at his lips. “Felt even worse when you stopped.”
“I—of course I stopped, what was the point—” Sam stopped himself, a flash of guilt crossing his face. He fell silent, staring at the phone resting in his lap. A train rumbled by, the clanking of its wheels echoing down to the river below; it had passed by almost completely before Sam spoke again.
“You know,” he said, “I always wondered if Alan spent more time on that forum than he said he did. They were the only ones still looking for Dad, after all this time. Perfect place for him. But I gotta say, I didn’t expect him to be hiding a bombshell like this. You two, either. Did you guys ever think maybe all of this was something I should know about?”
“Sam, when we started looking for your dad, you were still only a kid,” Lora said tiredly. “Some of the things we were doing—some of the things we’re still doing—are dangerous. It wasn’t safe to tell you about any of it, not if it meant you might get into trouble. You had enough to deal with on your own.”
Sam laughed again, humorlessly. “I think I know a little about danger, Aunt Lora. And I haven’t been a kid for a long time.”
“We know,” Roy said quickly, “but Sam, there wasn’t really much to tell you by the time you got out of school. Things have only just started moving again.”
“Moving?” Sam repeated. “You mean Alan’s page?”
“Well, something like that. See, we found a few of your dad’s old files, and there was this particular hacking technique he wrote about that—” Roy was speaking quickly, and Lora knew he was intending to explain everything then and there, but she cut him off. This was taking too long.
“We can explain all of it on the way to the arcade,” she said. “We’ll tell you everything, but we need to get going now.”
“The arcade?” Sam asked. “You think Alan’s still there?”
“Maybe,” she said. “It’s the last place we know he was at for sure. It’s the best place to start.” She refrained from adding that it was the last place Flynn had been heading for, too, though from the look on Sam’s face, he had made the connection on his own.
“Come on,” Sam said, his casualness forced, “you guys are making too big a deal out of this. Alright, so you've all been in on the whole Flynn Lives thing for…forever, I guess. Great, whatever. But Alan’s only been out for what, a couple hours? Maybe his phone died, maybe he’s just--”
“Sam, listen.” Lora’s voice was still quiet, but so fiercely insistent that he stopped and stared at her openly. “There is no way Alan would have left that arcade without letting me know he was on his way home. He always tells me when he gets home for the night, especially when I’m flying in. He knew exactly what time my plane was landing because he keeps track of every flight.”
“And even without all that stuff with the pager, we all know what he’s like about answering the phone,” Roy said quietly. “Especially with us. You said it yourself, Sam.”
Sam didn’t answer. He wasn’t looking at either of them anymore, wearing a stony expression that reminded Lora far more of his mother than his father, and she silently wished he’d inherited some less stubborn genes.
“Sam, look at me,” she said.
He raised his head to look at her. His eyes were watching her with far more worry than the rest of his face betrayed, and all at once she felt as if they were twenty years in the past, the same troubled eyes staring up at her from a face that was far too young. Lora didn’t look away.
“I’m scared, Sam,” she said. “This isn’t like him. I know you’re upset with us, and I don’t blame you, but I need you to trust me when I say that right now we’re telling you the truth.”
“We’ll explain everything on the way to the arcade,” Roy added quietly. “You don’t have to come with us. But if you wanted to, there’s room in the car.”
Sam didn’t answer, only looked at them both in silence. Lora sighed, and looked to Roy, nodding in the direction of his car. He nodded back, and with a last glance at Sam, turned to leave the apartment, digging his keys out of his pocket. Lora followed, the whistle of yet another train muffling her footsteps.
The whistle was not quite loud enough to mask the sound of Sam’s voice. “Hey—”
Roy looked back over his shoulder, and Lora turned on her heel, wondering if she had imagined it—but Sam was on his feet at last, grabbing his jacket from a nearby chair. He shoved his sockless feet into a pair of boots, quickly doing up the laces, and when he looked at both of them, his eyes were bright, all traces of tiredness gone.
“I’ll go,” Sam said, “on one condition.” He held his hand out to Roy, palm up. “I’m driving. You both look like you haven’t slept in a week. I like living on the edge, but I think we should probably play it safe tonight.”
“Deal,” Roy said instantly, and tossed him his keys. “There’s coffee in the car.”
“Badass,” Sam said. He reached down to pat Marv as he passed him by. “Watch after the place, buddy, I’ll be back.” The dog yipped at him once, and with a quick smile, Sam straightened up and exited his apartment, slamming a button on the wall as he passed by. The folding door began to lower once more, and Sam lead the way to the car, twirling the keychain on his finger. Lora and Roy shared a momentary look of relief before following, all three leaving the apartment behind them.
Alan stumbled over the threshold of the corner apartment as he was shoved unceremoniously across it, the heel of his boot catching on the frame in a meager attempt at resistance. He was pushed along anyway, Bartik ignoring or perhaps not even noticing his efforts, and then they were inside. Just ahead of them, Hopper had already steered Quorra further into the room, maintaining a firm grip on her shoulder. The front door slid shut, and they were left in darkness for a moment before small square lights on the ceiling flared up, revealing the apartment’s interior.
The main room was sparse, almost depressingly so, save for a few small pieces of furniture—a round table, on top of which was what looked like a box covered in small, square buttons and a few chairs arranged around the table, as well as a low couch against the opposite wall. There were no windows, the bare walls pressing inward on them all, and the only other door stood in the corner, slightly ajar. Near the door, a panel was mounted on the wall, its four sections gently glowing. As Alan pulled his hood back, trying to get his bearings, the door swung open and Paige leaned out of it, the lights on the ceiling glinting off of her suit.
“I need to finish a data packet for the boss,” she said. “Don’t let them leave.” She glanced at Alan, and then at Quorra, and narrowed her eyes for a moment before going to pull the door closed once more.
“Hey—” Hopper started, but too late; she shut the door without another word. He huffed, looking at Quorra. “You two know each other? She seems pretty mad.”
“Not much more than usual,” Bartik muttered, and to Alan’s surprise, released his grip on Alan’s arm. He stepped away, but gave Alan a warning look as he did so, as if to say that trying anything would end very badly. Alan glared back, rubbing at his arm, but stayed put. As uncertain as he was about the whole situation, he wasn’t stupid enough to go looking for a fight he probably wouldn’t win.
Hopper was still watching Quorra, who was staring at the floor silently. “Hello?” he said. “Anyone in there?” When Quorra didn’t answer, head bowed, he shook his head. “Fine, whatever.” He turned her around, reaching for her disc, and muttered, “I can just find out from this. I was gonna confiscate it anyway.”
Quorra didn’t struggle as he undocked the disc from its port, nor did she move when he bent down to retrieve the baton from its place on her boot. Alan watched in growing alarm as he realized she wasn’t going to resist at all. Was she so thrown by running into someone she apparently knew? Or was she scared of these two programs who had injured her just a few hours before? If Quorra was scared, Alan was pretty sure he should be terrified.
Hopper straightened up, hefting the baton and disc in one hand. “Yours too, User,” he said, with a gesture at Alan.
Alan took a step back, but Bartik was still standing nearby. The program cleared his throat and gave Alan another warning look. Alan looked from him to Quorra, who did not lift her head, and realized he didn’t have much of a choice. Begrudgingly, he reached over his shoulder and unhooked his disc, then held it out to Hopper.
Just as Hopper’s fingers brushed the edge of Alan’s disc, Quorra moved without warning—she lifted her head, eyes flashing, and drove her elbow into Hopper’s abdomen. Alan pulled his disc back in alarm as Hopper doubled over, wheezing. Quorra grabbed at the collar of his suit and dropped to one knee, dragging the program down with her. She let the momentum carry him over her shoulder, and Hopper went tumbling forward, the disc and baton flying out of his hand as he crashed into one of the chairs.
Quorra made a dive for them; as she did so, Bartik took a step forward, already reaching over his shoulder, but Alan swung an arm out instinctively. He stopped himself just in time, his disc halting at the base of Bartik’s throat. Bartik glanced down at the disc, then met Alan’s eyes, looking skeptical. Alan glared, and his disc thrummed to life, the edge illuminating as he adjusted his grip. Bartik raised his eyebrows, and then to Alan’s surprise, he slowly lowered his hand back to his side, giving Alan a look of quiet approval. Alan only continued to glare. He didn’t plan on actually using the disc, but Bartik didn’t need to know that.
Out of the corner of his eye, Alan could just make out Quorra springing to her feet, her baton in hand and her disc cradled safely against her chest. A few feet away, Hopper rolled to his knees dazedly amidst the remains of the half-destroyed chair, reaching for his own disc. Quorra extended her arm, and a long glowing blade sprouted from one end of her baton. The blade swung upward and Hopper froze, one hand in midair. The reflection of the sword’s blazing edge burned in the rebel program’s eyes as it hovered inches from his face.
“Hey,” Hopper said shakily, his eyes flickering from the blade to Quorra, “take it easy.”
“Stay down,” Quorra said, blade still pointed at his throat. Hopper stared at her uneasily, and then snuck a look at Bartik, who gave him a short nod. Hopper grimaced, but held up his hands in surrender, still eyeing Quorra’s blade cautiously.
Bartik spoke up, directing his question at Quorra. “You really think this is necessary?”
“Take our discs, and we’ll find out,” Quorra said. She spared a moment’s glance over at Alan, and edged over to him, her blade still trained on Hopper. Alan reached out his free hand and placed it on her shoulder, unsure if the gesture was for her sake or his own. Her eyes flickered to him again, no longer than a fraction of a second, and she asked, “Are you okay?”
“Fine,” Alan said, sounding more relaxed than he felt. “You?”
“Better now.” Her disc was still held protectively to her chest, unarmed, but she didn’t lower her sword. “No matter what happens, don’t let anyone take your disc from you.”
“I won’t,” Alan replied. He remembered what Flynn had said about someone being able to locate the Safehouse through his disc, and gripped it even tighter.
Bartik didn’t seem interested in trying to snatch it, however. He just sighed through his nose, and leaned back against the wall, crossing his arms. On the floor, Hopper made a frustrated noise. Alan felt Quorra’s shoulder tense beneath his hand, but Hopper just settled more comfortably on his knees, looking up at them with a sort of annoyed resignation.
“Look,” he said, “the whole disc thing is just a precaution. If we wanted to hurt you, we would’ve done it by now.”
“Oh really?” Alan scoffed. “Last time she ran into you two, she nearly lost her arm!”
“Oh.” Hopper considered that for a moment, then shrugged. “Sorry,” he said to Quorra. “That was an accident. I was aiming for your grapple line, but you moved faster than I thought. And it looks like you got it fixed up, so no harm done, right?”
Alan let out disbelieving laugh, about to ask how much Hopper would like it if they just started chipping away at his arm, but the door in the corner swung open. Paige stepped out, about to speak, but she stopped as she surveyed the scene. She passed her gaze over each of them, ending on Hopper still sitting on the floor next to the remains of the chair he had destroyed, and looked thoroughly unimpressed.
“Put your discs down,” she said sternly. “And stop destroying my apartment.”
Alan and Quorra exchanged a look, but didn’t move. “What do you want with us?” Quorra asked.
Paige looked at her sharply. “I don’t want anything from you,” she said. “I’m only interested in him.” Despite her words, she glared at Quorra a few seconds longer before turning her gaze to Alan. “I was asked to find you at any cost, User, and I’m not—”
She stopped, eyes narrowed again, and stared at him. It took Alan a moment to realize she was looking at the bruise that was no doubt still spread across his temple. “Are you injured?” she asked.
“Oh,” Alan said, perplexed. “I—it’s nothing—”
Before he could say another word, Paige rounded on Bartik, looking from him to Hopper with deep displeasure. “What did you two do? You weren’t supposed to hurt him.”
“That wasn’t us!” Hopper protested. “We found him like that. He probably got it when Clu was throwing him around on the lightcycle grid.”
Paige looked suspicious of his answer, but turned away from him, facing Alan again. “Do you need medical attention?”
“Uh,” Alan said, still bewildered, “I don’t think so.”
“Good.” She crossed the room, stepping around Hopper without a second glance, and dragged the two chairs from their place in one corner to the center of the room, side by side. She pointed to the chairs and said, “Then sit down.”
Alan glanced at Quorra, who seemed just as uncertain as he was. After a long moment, the blade of her baton receded, and she lowered her disc, though she did not put either away. Alan lowered his disc too, reluctantly, and shot her a questioning look. She answered with a twitch of her shoulders, as if saying his guess was as good as hers. Alan supposed it would be easier to just go along with the situation for now, though he was far from happy about it. At least it seemed like these programs weren’t looking for a fight after all.
The two settled down on the chairs, both keeping their discs in their laps. Paige raised an eyebrow, and Quorra hesitated for a moment before lifting her disc and docking it, though she kept her baton in her lap. Alan did the same, docking his disc behind his back. Paige nodded, and Alan folded his hands in his lap tightly to hide his nerves. Maybe they weren’t out to hurt them, but just who the hell were these people?
Bartik crossed the room and helped Hopper to his feet. They both took up a place against the wall, Bartik looking unworried, Hopper still a little peeved. Paige touched one of the sections of the panel set into the wall near the corner door. For a moment, nothing happened, and then the wall itself pulsed, and began to change. Translucent glass spread across the whole of it, and Alan quickly realized it was a screen—an interface made up of a few small windows rezzed into existence. Paige took her hand off the panel and started tapping away at the screen.
Alan tried to make sense of the interface, but Paige moved through the windows too fast for him to read, and trying made his head twinge. He looked instead at Quorra. She was watching Paige intently, a small frown on her face.
“You know her?” Alan murmured. He tried to keep his voice low, but saw Hopper perk up slightly in the corner of his vision.
Quorra’s eyes flickered to Alan, and she nodded. “A little,” she whispered.
“That was a long time ago.” Paige was facing them again, apparently done with whatever she had been doing with the screen; a small red square in the bottom corner of it was blinking dimly. She watched Quorra with an unreadable expression. “But we aren’t here to relive the past.” She looked back to Alan, and just stared at him for a long moment before asking, “Why are you here, User?”
Alan leaned back in his chair, crossed his arms, and did not answer. If she wanted information, she was going to have to try harder than that.
Paige gave him a calculating look, and took a step closer. “I’ll be more specific,” she said. “Why did you come back to the city?”
Out of the corner of his eye, Alan saw Quorra look up at him, but he continued to scowl at Paige, slowly gritting his teeth. They were the ones who had dragged them up here off the street. He wasn’t going to give them the satisfaction of playing the cooperative prisoner.
“We know you were in the Outlands,” Paige said, still watching intently. “You were safe there. Clu’s forces wouldn’t have found you easily, and neither would we. Why would you come back here?”
Alan looked at her over his glasses, and still said nothing. Paige shook her head, her hair falling in front of her face.
“I’m not going to play this game with you, User,” she said. “I need you to answer my questions.”
For a second, Alan considered keeping up with the silent treatment, letting her badger him with questions until she was blue in the face, but he was uncomfortable, scared, and no small measure of irritated. “Why should I?” he asked. “You’re the ones who dragged us up here. I’m not telling you a damn thing, so you may as well let us go.”
Hopper laughed incredulously, but Paige shot him a dark look, and he quickly shut up. Bartik was watching Alan closely, another strange look of approval on his face. Paige fixed her glare on Quorra instead.
“How about you?” she asked, her voice suddenly cold. “Do you have anything to say to me?”
Quorra flinched at being addressed, but did not answer, matching Paige’s stare with a resolute one of her own.
“Didn’t think so,” Paige said icily. To Alan, she said, “The programs I work with are very interested in you, User. We need to know what you’re intending to do.”
“Why?” Alan asked. “What does it matter to you?”
“It matters because ever since you got here, things have been getting worse and worse for every single program on the Grid. I know you’ve met Clu. You saw how he runs the Games. Security has been increased ever since that portal closed, and now programs can barely leave their homes without being snatched up and interrogated, or thrown into the arena.”
“But…” Quorra spoke up, looking confused. “We didn’t run into any trouble on our way here.”
“Thanks to us,” Bartik said. “We received word that a program of your description had been spotted entering the city again. So my faction got to work. When we figured out which direction you were heading, they started leading sentries away or eliminating them, while Hopper and I kept an eye on you.”
“You were herding us?” Alan asked.
“You got it,” Hopper said. “You two were trying too hard to look normal, User. Made it easy to push you towards certain areas.”
Alan’s jaw was starting to hurt. “So you manipulated us into coming this way. Great. Doesn’t really endear me to you.”
“We're not here to endear ourselves to you, User,” Paige said. “We're here to get information.”
“I have a name,” Alan said, as Quorra spoke simultaneously.
“If you want us to cooperate, we need a reason to trust you,” she said.
“I think the fact that we haven’t tried to derezz you yet should be reason enough.” Paige narrowed her eyes. “And I don’t think you, of all programs, should be preaching to me about trust.”
Quorra’s eyes widened, and she looked away, her fingers tightening around the baton still in her lap. The hurt in her face only made Alan angrier.
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” he asked fiercely.
Paige pushed her hair out of her face as she looked back at Alan. “It means that you should think twice about trusting her to tell you the truth, User.”
“I trust her a hell of a lot more than I trust you,” Alan said, gripping the arm of the chair tightly.
“That’s your mistake.”
Alan opened his mouth to argue, but a ringing noise interrupted him, emanating from the screen set against the wall. The red square in the bottom corner was now a light blue, blinking gently as the ding repeated itself. Paige looked over her shoulder at it, and then crossed the room and tapped the square, saying, “Fine. If you won’t tell me, you can tell my boss.”
Alan’s anger flared again, half-ready to tell her exactly what her boss could go do, but then a new square lit up in the center of the screen, filling the majority of the wall with a blurred image. Alan recoiled a little—the change in light made his head twinge—as the image brightened slightly, and garbled audio issued from the screen.
“—hear me? Paige?” said a distorted voice. Parts of the screen cleared somewhat, and Alan realized he was looking at a person, their circuit patterns currently the clearest thing about them. A fuzzy triangle glowed just beneath their collar.
Paige slid a hand across the screen, and tapped it twice. “Repeat that,” she said.
“—blocking communications,” the program said. “I might not be able to speak long. Ra—”
The voice cut off, still distorted, but the image was solidifying. Alan could just make out blonde hair that reached down to the program’s shoulders. Paige tapped a few more buttons; the image went black, and then came back all at once, finally clear. Alan winced at the sudden light, and then he registered just who it was he was looking at, and his mouth dropped open in outright shock.
The face, the hair, even the posture of the program on the screen was as unmistakable to him as his own reflection. She was not looking directly at the screen, but watching something off to her right as she spoke.
“…has left Palladium,” she said, the audio much clearer now, in a voice that made Alan homesick. “We’re not sure why yet, but most of the fleet stayed behind. I think—”
She broke off as she looked back at them, her expression transforming from a tired seriousness to shock as she met Alan’s eyes. They stared at each other, wearing nearly identical expressions of astonishment. Alan found his voice first, a name slipping out automatically.
He knew as soon as he said the name that he was wrong, that this obviously wasn’t Lora—she was too young, her hair too short, her eyes too tired, to be Lora. Before he could correct himself, the woman took a short breath and straightened up, her shock replaced by soft fondness.
“No,” she said. “I’m not Lora-Prime. But she was my User, a long time ago.” She paused, and gave him a small, achingly familiar smile. “Greetings, Alan-One. My name is Yori. It’s an honor to finally meet you.”
Alan couldn’t help but continue to stare. “Uh,” he said, “right. It’s—It’s nice to meet you too, I…” He trailed off, at a loss. Flynn had been so reticent about his program friends once his story was finished that Alan had quietly figured they’d all shared Tron’s fate. Perhaps that was only what Flynn had assumed, after staying in hiding all this time. It was a relief to know he had been wrong.
He must have been silent for too long, because Yori frowned in concern. “Are you okay?”
“Oh. Yes, I—I’m fine. I’m sorry, I know you aren’t Lora.” He was still having trouble stringing coherent words together. “Sorry,” he said again. “This is…very surreal.”
“It’s all right,” she said. “I know the resemblance is strong.”
“It is,” he said. “You look just like she did when I first met her. But even more than that—I was told about you, obviously, but—well, I thought you were…”
“Dead?” She smiled as she said it, but there was a hint of fierceness in her eyes. “Don’t worry. I’m very much alive.” She paused again, and she seemed to just be taking in the sight of him. “I’m glad I can say the same for you, Alan-One. We’ve been searching for you for a while now.”
“Of course. After we heard about your arrival to the Grid, we got to work looking for you immediately.”
“Who do you think?” Bartik said from his place against the wall.
“We’ve been looking all over for you, User,” Hopper added. “That’s why we went after her.” He gestured at Quorra, who frowned. He shrugged. “What? We really did just want to talk to you. We figured you’d know where he was.”
“I asked Hopper and Bartik to watch out for any sign of you, and get us in contact with each other if at all possible,” Yori said. “I asked Paige to search for you, too.” She finally look away from Alan to the rest of the occupants of the room. “Paige, if you had been more specific with your message, I would’ve gotten back to you sooner.”
“I didn’t want to risk it being intercepted,” Paige said. “We aren’t the only ones looking for him.”
“That’s true,” Yori said with a nod. “Thank you. Bartik, Hopper, it’s good to see you both. Paige informed me about your incident on one of the Solar Sailers a few millicycles ago. I hope you’ve visited a medic about your eye, Bartik.”
“Leda took a look at it. My vision is mostly unaffected. It’s fine,” Bartik said. Unlike the way he had spoken to Alan and Quorra, or even to Paige, his tone was one of utmost respect.
“I’ll watch his back, boss,” Hopper added.
“I’m sure you will.” She gave them a smile as well, and then she looked at Quorra. “I don’t believe we’ve met, but I think it’s safe to assume you’re the program who rescued Alan-One in the lightcyle arena?”
“Oh—yes,” Quorra said, who had been watching Yori looking almost starstruck. “I’m Quorra.”
“That was very brave, Quorra. I’m glad you were there to assist him,” Yori said. “There’s no telling what Clu might have done to him if you hadn’t intervened.” She was still smiling. If Alan hadn’t known her face almost as well as his own, he would have missed the momentary hesitance that passed across it before she met his eyes once more. “Which is why I’m very surprised to see either of you back in the city. Security has increased substantially since your arrival on the Grid, Alan-One. It’s unsafe for you to be so close to Clu’s sentries.” She tilted her head thoughtfully. “But I’m sure you know that.”
“I do,” Alan said. “Trust me, I wouldn’t have come back here if it wasn’t necessary.”
“And why is it necessary?”
“I—well…" Alan caught himself, suddenly uncertain. Part of him was completely ready to trust Yori—and whether that was because of her similarities to Lora or the general aura of calm sincerity she gave off, or maybe a mix of both, he wasn’t entirely certain—but the rational part of him couldn’t help but remember that he didn’t know her, not really. He didn’t think any program of Lora’s could be untrustworthy, but he wouldn’t have guessed it of any program of Flynn’s either.
Yori nodded in understanding. “I know we’ve only just met, Alan-One,” she said. “And I know your experiences on the Grid haven’t been very pleasant so far. I’m sure you’re suspicious of our motives.” She paused, and Alan recognized the expression on her face as the same one Lora always had when she was trying to figure out a particularly tricky problem. “Let me ask you this: you already knew that Clu had left the city, didn’t you?”
“Yes, we did.”
“Do you know why?”
“Well,” Alan said uneasily, not quite willing to tell all of these programs about Flynn’s disc just yet. “To look for us, I guess.”
“Yes, exactly,” Yori said. “But…Alan-One, I need you to understand the extent of what Clu’s doing in order to find you. A short while ago, he and his fleet arrived in the settlement of Palladium, where I’m currently located. It’s one of the closest settlements to the main city, so he decided to start his search there. The result has been…” She hesitated, and then lifted her hand, touching a few places on her own screen. “It might be easier if I just show you.”
Yori’s window faded from view, and after a moment was replaced by another: it was a video, an aerial view of a city square. Yori’s voice continued, “This is from about a millicycle ago.” The streets were filled with people, red-circuited sentries marching unyieldingly through a crowd of civilian programs. A handful of programs, their blue light-lines flashing as they ran, attempted to escape into an alleyway, but were pursued and taken down quickly, derezzed on the spot. The remaining civilians were loaded into waiting Recognizers, squads of heavily armored soldiers overlooking it all from crimson-lined tanks.
Yori spoke again. “This one is current.” The video blinked, and there was another aerial view, this one much higher; a few skyscrapers were visible through the grey clouds, a small city ranged out below them, but some of the lower buildings and the bases of the taller ones were lost in a bluish haze. It took Alan a moment to realize the haze was being caused by the heat of blazing fire. Sections of the city were aflame, red and blue sparks rising into the air and dissipating. There were more scarlet specks floating up from the city, and these didn’t dissipate as they rose—an entire squad of Recognizers climbed into the sky, heading away from Palladium as the city burned.
As the footage continued, Paige stood with her arms crossed tightly, face turned towards the screen, but her hair hid her expression from view. Hopper and Bartik, still standing at the wall, were watching the devastation with increasing discomfort. After a moment, Hopper bowed his head, staring at his boots. Bartik continued to watch grimly, the red glare of the Recognizer circuits glinting in his silver eye. Quorra, in her seat beside Alan, stared with wide eyes, her fingers clutching her baton so tightly it was a wonder it didn’t snap in her hands. Alan watched the whole thing in disbelief, mouth agape. He had known, from everything Flynn and Quorra had told him as well as his own short experiences with the program, that Clu’s rule of the Grid was violent and cruel, but seeing how far he was willing to go first-hand was something else entirely.
The video faded to black once more. Yori’s window filled the screen, her expression solemn.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I know that might have been difficult to watch.”
“I don’t…” Alan breathed, at a loss. “I don’t understand. Why would he—why would he just…”
“Burn a whole city to the ground?” Hopper suggested bitterly. “Good question, User.”
“He’s done it before,” Quorra said. She faltered slightly as everyone turned to look at her, but she spoke again, voice low. “The same thing happened during the Purge.”
“She’s right.” Paige was no longer glaring, or even frowning. She was watching Quorra again, but her face was almost empty. It reminded Alan of the blank expression that was starting to become so familiar on Flynn’s face. “During the war, ISO settlements were leveled, and any sector even rumored to have held an ISO was destroyed.”
“Clu did the same to our home sector,” Bartik said. “Rebellion was starting to spread, and he put an end to it. We had to run. We lost a lot of programs that cycle.”
“When the Grid isn’t operating the way Clu wants it to, he destroys the parts that don’t satisfy him and replaces them until they do,” Paige said. “This is what I meant when I said things had been getting worse since you got here, User. Clu will keep doing things like this until he finds what he’s looking for.”
Alan took his glasses off and passed a hand over his face. Knowing that he was partially to blame, however unintentionally, for the turmoil they had just watched made him feel sick to his stomach. “I didn’t ask for this to happen.”
“We know you didn’t,” Yori said quietly. “But it is happening. The majority of the fleet is moving on, towards other settlements. Palladium is only the start.”
Alan took a deep breath, replaced his glasses on his face, and looked up at her, hands clasping tightly together in his lap. If anyone was going to listen to him, he hoped it was her. “That’s exactly why you need to let us go. What I’m trying to do, if it works, I could help. I could stop Clu from doing something like that ever again. But we need to get going as soon as we can. The longer you keep us here, the more time Clu has to keep leveling cities and rounding up programs and—who the hell knows what else. We need to go.”
“Alan-One, we’re not trying to hold you captive,” Yori said, looking abashed at the mere thought. “I asked my friends to get you in contact with me because we want to help you. We assume you have a good reason for coming back here, and whatever it is, we want to assist you in any way we can. I know you don’t have a lot of reason to believe that. I don’t blame you. But right now, I need you to trust that I’m telling you the truth.”
A very small, very bitter part of Alan murmured that truth seemed to be in pretty short supply these days. He looked into Yori’s eyes, wanting so badly to trust her. She didn’t look away. The sheer determination in her face as they looked at each other was so familiar that after a few seconds, despite everything, Alan found himself nodding. Maybe it was her resemblance to Lora, or maybe it was just his own desperation, but he did trust her, for better or for worse.
“I believe you,” he said. “But I’m not the only one who needs to.” He looked to his right, at Quorra. “What do you think?”
Quorra held his gaze for a long moment, and then finally, she nodded too. She straightened up in her seat, and said, “We’re trying to reach the center of the city.”
“The center?” Paige asked, frowning. “The only notable area in the city center is the End of Line Club’s tower. I doubt either of you are looking for a place to unwind.”
“Hardly,” Alan said, although he privately felt he could do with a drink, or five. “I don’t know about any club, but we’re trying to get to the arcade. There’s…something there I need to access, something that might help me get home."
“Home?” Yori asked, taken aback. “To the User world?”
“Yes,” Alan said. “Frankly, I’m not even sure it'll work, but it’s my only shot.”
“The arcade is the laser’s designated entry point…” Yori tucked a stray lock of hair behind her ear, looking thoughtful. “Do you think you could access the laser directly from there and reactivate it?”
“Not exactly,” Alan said. “I think I can send a message outside. Lora’s going to be looking for me when she realizes I’m not at home, and I’m pretty sure she’ll check the arcade, the one in the User world. There's a copy of the terminal inside this version of the arcade--if I can access the terminal on this side, I might be able to get in touch with her, and get her to turn the portal back on. If not her, then Roy. We never found the terminal in our world when Flynn disappeared, but they’ll find it this time, I know they will,” Alan finished with conviction. They had to find it. He couldn’t contemplate the alternative.
“I see,” Yori said. “One question. When you say Roy, do you mean RKleinberg?”
“Oh,” Alan said, a very old memory from his first couple of years at ENCOM reminding him that RKleinberg was Roy’s old username. “Yes, actually—how did you…?”
Before he could finish his question, a soft scraping noise of something sliding open—a door, perhaps—and light footfalls sounded from offscreen. Yori looked to her left, and her expression lightened a little. Whoever it was she was looking at, they started speaking almost immediately.
“I’m back. We were right, Clu’s already gone. Couldn’t get a read on where he’s headed, but I’m sure we’ll get a report soon,” they said. Their voice was almost too quiet to hear, but Alan leaned forward in his chair at the sound of it. It was just as familiar as Yori’s, and just as welcome a sound. “Zed pinged us, he said he and Mara are sticking around Gallium, so if Clu heads that way we’ll know—oh, are you doing a call? Sorry.” The voice grew in volume as the person moved closer, and then a second program was visible on the screen as he leaned down next to Yori, pushing a few strands of curly brown hair away from his face. “Is that Paige? Did she—whoa.”
The program looked, if possible, even more shocked than Alan felt as he took in the scene. For his part, Alan couldn’t help but let another name escape his lips. “Ram?”
“You know my name?” Ram looked at Yori, a wide grin spreading over his face. “He knows my name!”
“Uh—well, of course I do,” Alan said quickly, though he wasn’t totally sure if he had meant the program or the old nickname. He wanted to say something else, but seeing those two programs, side by side, looking for all the world like Roy and Lora had when he’d first met the pair of them, made his heart ache.
Ram didn’t seem to mind Alan’s reticence—he just beamed, his entire face lighting up. “It’s incredible to meet you, Alan-One! I’m so glad you’re okay. We were worried we wouldn’t be able to find you after that program took you into the Outlands.” His eyes flickered to Quorra, and he gave her a nod. “I guess you both decided to come back. Makes our job a little easier.” He paused, and just smiled at Alan, the corners of his eyes crinkling the exact same way Roy’s did when he laughed, which Ram did a moment later. “I still can’t believe you know my name!”
Alan did smile then, saying, “Well, yeah. Flynn used to call Roy that all the time. And anyway, he told me all about both of you, eventually.”
“Really?” Yori asked. “I didn’t think Flynn had told the other Users much about his time here.”
“Oh, he didn’t, not before he left. Actually, he only bothered to tell me about any of this a little…while ago…”
Alan trailed off as every face in the room turned to stare at him. Paige, Hopper, and Bartik were all wearing identical expressions of shock, while Quorra was giving him an alarmed look that told him maybe he had said too much. Yori had grabbed Ram’s wrist, and Ram leaned closer to the screen, almost breathless as he asked, “Flynn’s alive?”
Alan hesitated, ready to make up some story about Flynn having mentioned the programs in the past, but instead he sighed, making a different decision. Keeping secrets hadn’t helped anyone so far. Maybe honesty would.
“Yes, he is,” he said. “I was with him before I came here. I’m not going to tell you where he is, I’m sorry, but he’s alive. That’s how I learned about you both, and how I know I need to get to the arcade.”
Yori and Ram looked at each other, and then Ram broke into a grin again, and Yori smiled in turn, covering her mouth with her hand in a gesture of shaky but unmistakable relief. “You have no idea how happy we are to hear that, Alan-One,” she said. “It’s been so long since we’ve heard even a rumor about Flynn that we had assumed the worst.”
“I think he assumed the same for the both of you,” Alan said. “He was pretty tight-lipped about what happened to all of his program friends.”
“Well, I already derezzed once,” Ram said with another laugh. “I’m not gonna let it happen again if I can help it.”
“You—you what?” Alan stammered. He didn’t know what was more bewildering, Ram’s words or his incredibly blasé tone.
“Oh. I guess Flynn didn’t tell you that part. Sorry,” Ram said. “I got derezzed in the old ENCOM system. It’s not a big deal,” he said quickly at the alarmed look on Alan’s face. “I just ended up coming to the Grid a little later than everyone else, after Flynn recovered me from a system backup. I still have most of that version’s memories, though.” He said all of this very casually, and Alan wondered if maybe he wasn’t quite as comfortable with the subject as he seemed—it reminded him of how Roy would talk about being fired from ENCOM—but Ram just shrugged, smiling again. “I’m sure Clu would’ve been happy if I’d stayed derezzed in the first place.”
“He’s certainly tried his best to keep us from causing him trouble,” Yori agreed. “I think he’d like to get his hands on us almost as much as he would you, Alan-One. We’ve had to be very cautious. But I think the time for watching and waiting is over.”
“I know that tone,” Alan said. “You’ve got a plan.”
“I do,” she said, almost mischievously. ““You need to get to the arcade, but that’s a very difficult proposition on your own. The closer you get to the center, the harder it will be to stay undetected—there will be sentries at every corner looking out for you, and the End of Line Club is a popular destination for Clu’s forces during their downtime. It’s directly across from the arcade, and if you’re spotted entering it, it’s a near certainty that you’ll be caught.”
“I’m sensing a ‘but’ coming on,” Alan said with a smile.
“But,” Yori said, with a smile of her own, “if my friends were to create a diversion and distract the nearby sentries long enough, I believe we could provide you with enough cover and time to get into the arcade, send your message, and leave without being detained.” She looked to Paige, Bartik, and Hopper. “We won’t be able to reach the central hub for a while longer, so I’m afraid we’ll have to leave the planning to you all. If you’re going to be near the End of Line anyway, it might be a good idea to try speaking with the owner again.”
“We can try, but no promises, boss,” Hopper said. “I dunno if Zuse will cooperate with us.”
“Zuse?” Quorra asked, suddenly alert. “You’ve met with Zuse?”
“Tried to,” Bartik said. “We couldn’t even get past his lackeys last time we visited. You know him?”
“I did, a long time ago,” Quorra said. “We were friends.” She sat forward in her chair, looking more confident than she had the entire time they’d been in the apartment. “If you tell him you’re trying to help us, he might agree to meet you. He fought against Clu during the war, he'd probably be willing to again.”
“I can arrange another appointment with Castor. I need to go into work anyway,” Paige said. “He’ll be a pain to deal with, but if he can get us in with Zuse, it’s worth a shot.”
“I agree,” Yori said. “The quicker you all can formulate a plan, the quicker we can get Alan-One and Quorra to the arcade.”
“I guess that’s our cue,” Bartik said, pushing off from his place against the wall at last. “We’ll round up the usual crowd.”
“Try to get in touch with the other factions, if you can,” Yori said. “We’ll need as much help as we can get. And be careful.”
“Speaking of help, Paige, did you ever get in touch with that renegade of yours?” Ram asked. “We’ve been pinging him for a while now but we haven’t heard a thing back.”
“He answered me a few millicycles ago. Three words,” Paige said. “’On my way.’ I haven’t heard from him since.” She gave Ram a pointed look, and added, “And he’s not my renegade.”
There was the sound of a muffled snicker from near the door. Hopper was grinning; Bartik nudged him with an elbow, but he seemed to be having trouble keeping his face straight too. Paige shot them both a glare, and they left the apartment in a hurry, not quite managing to muffle another laugh before the door shut behind them. Paige rolled her eyes, and glared again at Ram, who grinned.
“Sorry,” he said, though he didn’t sound it. “Anyway, we’ll be heading out of Palladium as soon as the routes out are clear. We might not be able to communicate until we reach the central city, but if you need us, send word as soon as you can, and we’ll try to get in touch with you.”
“You’re headed here?” Alan asked. “Is that safe? I thought Clu was searching for you too.”
“He’ll be looking for us in outer settlements,” Yori said. “That’s where we spend most of our time. But we’ve been trying to reach the main city since we heard about the portal opening again, Alan-One. It’s just taken a bit longer than we thought it would—the increased security’s made it hard to move around openly.”
“Well, I appreciate the concern, but please don’t get yourselves caught on our account,” Alan said. “I don’t want either of you getting hurt.”
Yori smiled. “We haven’t let us catch him yet, and we aren’t about to start now. I promise we’ll be as careful as we can.”
“I’m sure you will,” Alan said, smiling back. “I mean, if you’re anything like Lora, you’ve got about five different ideas for what to do if things go bad.”
“Six,” Yori said. “And counting.”
“See?” For a moment Alan just smiled at them both. “You two remind me so much of them. Your Users. I knew you would be similar, but it's incredible just how much..." He sighed. He had tried hard to keep himself from thinking of home these last couple days, but he hadn't been very successful. Still, he couldn't help but feel a little better just looking at the two programs on the screen. "I’ve only been away from them a few days, but getting to see you both, it’s…it’s nice. I’m glad I was able to meet you.”
“Same here,” Ram said. He hesitated for a moment, glancing at Yori, and then continued, “Alan-One, I know you’ve probably heard this already, but…you really are just like Tron. Your mannerisms, your expressions—you even sound like him. Not just your voice, but the way you talk.” He was smiling too, but it was bittersweet. “It’s been good to hear it again.”
“It has,” Yori said softly. “I’m glad we got the chance to speak with you.”
They both sounded so wistful, their smiles so melancholy, that it was almost heartbreaking. Alan knew the kind of pain they must have been feeling, and tried to think of something to say that might help, even a little. “From everything I’ve heard about him, he sounded like an incredible person,” Alan said, as sincerely as he could. “I’m sorry I never got a chance to meet him. I wish I could have.”
“Don’t wish too hard,” Paige said. She sounded suddenly bitter, almost angry. When Alan looked up at her, frowning in confusion, she looked away, saying stonily, “We might run into him before this is all over, and he’s even worse company now than he used to be.”
“Run into him?” Alan asked blankly. He looked from her to Quorra, who was frowning at Paige, looking just as baffled as Alan felt, and then to Yori and Ram. “But isn’t he—?” He stopped at the looks on their faces—neither of them was smiling anymore. Alan continued, unnerved, “Flynn—Flynn told me Tron died.”
Ram and Yori stared at Alan, and then looked at each other uneasily. “Alan-One, Tron isn’t dead,” Yori said.
“He’s—what? What do you mean?” Alan stared between the two of them, but they both just glanced at each other again. Neither of them seemed to know what to say. After a long moment, Yori spoke, in carefully measured tones.
“Alan-One,” she said, “I was informed that you took part in the Games. Did you happen to witness any of the Disc Wars competition?”
“Disc Wars? I…yes, I did,” Alan said, even more confused now. He remembered the horror he had felt watching the death-matches, and his hands curled into fists in his lap. “Clu made me watch them.”
“Then you’ve already seen him,” Ram said quietly. “If you watched to the end.”
“The end?” An image flashed into his mind—Aurora, that poor program who had fought so hard, struggling in the grasp of another program with scarlet lights. Alan felt himself go cold. “No. No—that—you can’t tell me that was…”
“It was. I’m sorry.” Yori sounded detached, almost clinical. “His name was taken from him, but we all know who it is beneath that mask. Clu never created a more effective weapon than Rinzler.”
Rinzler. At the sound of the name, Alan was back in Clu’s throne room, staring in horror down at the stadium floor below as a crimson disc plunged into a screaming chest. Alan squeezed his eyes shut, then forced them open again, but the memory lingered, the screams and cheers echoing in his ears. His hands were balled so tight that his fingers were numb. Beside him, Quorra laid a tentative hand on his arm. The weight of it helped drag him back to the present, but the coldness in his core remained.
“I…I don’t understand,” he said helplessly. “Kevin told me Clu killed him.”
“No,” Ram said quietly. “He repurposed him. If Clu thinks you’re useful, he’ll take over your functions and reprogram you to do whatever he wants. Clu made sure everyone on the Grid knew Tron wouldn’t protect them anymore.” He was no longer looking at Alan, his voice distant. “We were there. We saw it happen.”
“We did,” Yori said. “There was nothing we could do. He's not himself anymore--the real Tron would never derezz innocent programs, or follow Clu's orders so viciously." Unlike Ram, she had not turned away; she was watching Alan with tired eyes, looking far older than the youth of her appearance suggested. She was silent for a long moment, and then nodded to herself as if she had made a decision. “Alan-One, I know you said you would do whatever it took to stop Clu once you got home. I appreciate that. It’s what we’ve been working towards for so long…but I need you to promise you’ll do one more thing for us.”
She hesitated, her lips pressed together tightly. It was a familiar expression, and Alan knew, despite the steadiness of her voice, that Yori was very close to tears. Ram laid a hand on her shoulder, and she bowed her head. “I’m sorry,” she said. “It might be too much to ask for.”
“It’s not,” Alan said, despite his own misgivings. He thought he knew where this was going, and he wanted to tell them that they shouldn't place their faith in him, that he just couldn't promise them what he knew they wanted, but he also couldn't bring himself to refuse. He looked down at his lap, the desperation in their faces almost too much to bear, but said, “Just...just ask.”
“Help Tron,” Ram said simply. “Please. We’ve tried before to see if we could revert the repurposing process. It’s never worked. But you’re a User. You have power we programs just don’t have. If anyone could bring him back to us, it’s you.”
"I--I'm sorry, I just can't make you any promises." Alan stared at his hands, still balled up uselessly in his lap. “I know I’m a User, but I don’t have any clue about the power that’s supposed to come with it. All I know how to do is write code.” He looked up, meeting their eyes. The sheer exhaustion in their faces was so familiar--it was the same he had seen over and over again on the faces of their Users--but he knew innately that neither of them were going to give this up. Roy and Lora would both go to the ends of the earth for Alan, and these two would do the same for Tron. That was just who they were. He clasped his hands together, and said, as seriously as he could, “But I…I’ll try. I will.”
“That’s all we’re asking, Alan-One,” Yori said. “Thank you.” She took a deep breath, letting it go slowly, before speaking again. “We should get going. We’ll need to move quickly once the roads clear out. Paige, send us a message as soon as you all have figured out what you’re going to do. I leave the rest to you.” She studied both Alan and Quorra for a moment, then said, “Good luck, both of you. Please stay safe.”
She gave them both a small smile, and nodded to Paige. Ram smiled at them too, genuine despite the fatigue still obvious in his face, and gave them all a quick wave before reaching out and tapping the screen. After a moment, it went blank, and the two of them were gone.
As the command ship neared the designated coordinates for the recovered lightcycle’s point of origin, Clu had to wonder how he had let Flynn remain so close to the old city without detection for so long. The stony terrain of the Outlands stretched out below, the horizon barely distinguishable from the inky sky, but to the east lay the city that Clu had left behind him on his intended tour, just visible through the window of the command room. It was almost absurd, how near they were—close enough to see the the minuscule scarlet glints of Recognizers traveling their designated patrol routes, moving in perfect harmony through the sky.
One of those pinpricks would be Rinzler, patrolling in his own ship with a squad of blackguards. Clu had nearly brought him to assist in Flynn’s detainment, but thought better of it as they approached their destination. It was unlikely Flynn would venture out into the Grid himself, but if his lightcycle had been found in the city, it was possible that Flynn’s little miracle, or even Alan Bradley, had gone in his place. Perhaps they were looking for assistance from rebellious programs. If so, they would be disappointed. The factions had always been too disparate to unite under one force, and after Bradley’s pathetic display in the lightcycle arena, he was unlikely to inspire any confidence. As for the girl, she would be foolish to remain among the general population for long. They would discover her secret eventually, and even the most rebellious among them would remember how hazardous interaction with an ISO could be.
Still, preventing either of the two from causing trouble was the simplest solution, so Clu had dispatched Rinzler to retrieve whoever it was that had gone into the city. As satisfying as it would be to get his hands on the last ISO, a part of Clu hoped it was Bradley. There was something appealing about the notion of the User being delivered back into Clu’s possession by his own creation, improved as Rinzler was from his original programming. An odd kind of symmetry. Perhaps Clu would even allow Rinzler to face Bradley in the disc arena, a reward for a job well done. He imagined the look Bradley would wear as he faced his former program, terror in his eyes, and laughed quietly to himself. The User could learn first-hand what fairness really was.
He heard the door slide open behind him, and a moment later, Jarvis spoke. “Sir? We’ve arrived at the proper coordinates.”
“Good.” Clu turned from the window. “Take us down.”
The entrance to Flynn’s apparent hideout was small, cut into the rock and hidden in shadow by the crags of the mountain above it. The entrance opened onto a long, empty hallway which penetrated deep into the mountain, finally terminating into a small chamber that was almost a disappointment. All it held was a small platform near the back wall, waiting for passengers to carry to an upper level, and the remains of what appeared to be an incredibly damaged vehicle. Clu was certain he recognized it, and smirked as he passed it by. A squad of blackguards followed in trained silence, Jarvis obediently bringing up the rear.
He took his place on the platform, his soldiers ranged out behind him, and folded his hands behind his back as it began to rise. The darkness above held so many possibilities, and he peered up at it hungrily, eager to discover what laid above. How had Flynn been living all this time, so close to the city of his creation but so utterly apart from it? Slowly, the shadows diminished, and the rocky passage was replaced by smooth white tile as it opened out onto a large room.
The tile lined the floor and ceiling in clean squares of white, providing enough light to illuminate the entire room; it was replaced at its border with more black rock that dropped off to reveal a view of the Outlands, the city gleaming in the far distance. Clu spared the view only a moment’s glance. His eyes were drawn instead to the man standing at the far end of the room, gazing into the blue flames burning gently in the fireplace in front of him. The man turned to look at them as the platform clicked into place. A brief emotion—shock? Apprehension? Clu wasn’t sure—passed across his face, and then he sat the mug down on the mantle beside him. As their eyes met, Clu’s hands curled into fists behind his back.
“Clu.” Flynn’s voice was deeper, rougher, than it had been before, an audible sign of the aging evident in the rest of his appearance. It was quieter, too. Weaker. “Nice of you to finally visit.” His eyes flickered to the programs behind Clu, adding, “And you brought friends. That’s cool.”
Clu moved off of the platform. His soldiers made to follow, but he glanced back and lifted his hand. They stopped and maintained their positions, as did Jarvis, who was staring at Flynn with obvious awe, though he snapped to attention under Clu’s gaze. Clu ignored him, and stepped up onto the raised main floor.
“Flynn,” he said. “It’s been a while.”
“I had a feeling you’d be here.”
The corner of Flynn’s mouth twitched. “Yeah. Saw you coming from the terrace,” he said, with a nod towards the window. “There’s no mistaking that ship of yours. I thought I might have time for one last drink, but I guess my timing was a little off.”
“There’s no rush,” Clu said, but he took another step forward.
Flynn watched him over the rim of his mug. “Take a seat, man.”
“Nah. Think I’ll stand.” Clu folded his hands behind his back and began to slowly walk the length of the room, taking it in. It had some of Flynn’s signature touches: too much furniture to be practical for so few residents; ornamental figures on the tables and mantle which served no function other than aesthetics; stacks of books that took up so much room when a data tablet would have easily sufficed; the fireplace Flynn was standing beside, though the room’s temperature was as level as it was in any building on the Grid. Purposeless and meaningless additions, so familiar even after all these cycles that Clu hummed in amusement. “Cozy place.”
“Thanks. I’ve had a lot of time to work on it.”
Clu laughed quietly. “I guess that’s one way to fill a thousand cycles.” He could just picture Flynn carefully crafting every inch of this place, mimicking life in the User world as best as he could, trying to replace what he had lost as he played house with his adopted miracle. “It must have been so lonely out here. But I guess you did have some company…though I wouldn’t call it good.” Clu stopped at the edge of the terrace, looking out for a moment at the glimmering city in the distance, before turning back to Flynn with a smile. “Where is she? The girl?”
Flynn didn’t answer. He took a sip from his mug, still watching Clu unblinkingly.
“She must be with your old friend,” Clu persisted. “Did you send them into the city together? Smart move. The old man wouldn’t last a millicycle on his own. I should know. I had the chance to face him myself.” He looked back at the city again, watching the Recognizers soar purposefully through the sky. “We found your baton, though. Maybe not such a smart move after all.”
Flynn murmured so quietly Clu could barely hear him. “The baton. Of course.” He spoke up, saying, “I know what you’re here for, Clu. But I can’t let you have it.”
Clu laughed to himself. “I’m not really giving you a choice.” He moved away from the terrace with a smile, and wandered towards an enclave to his left. There was a neatly made bed, and a shelf inset into the wall beside it. A framed photo rested in the corner of the shelf: a blonde woman and a young User with dark, messy hair, both smiling. Clu had never seen them before, but he knew instantly that they were Flynn’s family, the ones who had constantly distracted him from his work. Clu studied the photo, and wondered for the thousandth time what was so special about them that Flynn would choose them over the Grid, every single time. Even the ISOs, as diseased as they were, had been fascinating in their own way, but there was nothing special about these two at all.
He reached for the photo, saying over his shoulder, “It’s over now, Flynn. End of line.”
There was a distant thunk as Flynn set the mug down again. “We’ll see.”
Clu’s hand was an inch above the picture frame when the wall to his left exploded.
The force of the blast carried Clu off his feet, sending him twisting through air that was abruptly filled with sparkling shards of half-formed rock and metal. He landed with a thunderous crash on the tile below, his weight cracking it beneath him. Another explosion from the back wall buffeted him into one of the white low chairs, already half-derezzed from the force of the first explosion, and he toppled to the floor. Emergency protocols kicking in, he rolled to his hands and knees, cubes crunching beneath the heels of his gloved palms. As he hauled himself up, ready to fight, a grin spread across his face. Flynn had finally made his move.
The room was chaos. Light flashed from the still-intact floor and ceiling tiles, but it was fading fast as the destruction ate away at their edges, taking visibility with it. Cubes rained down from the ceiling as a section of it splintered, forcing Clu to cover his face with an uplifted arm. A shout from a Blackguard made him turn on his heel. Light flashed again, and for an instant he braced himself for another explosion, but his eyes widened as he realized its source—not a bomb, but a set of light-lines, striking white in the blooming darkness.
Another cascade of voxels dropped heavily to the floor, but Clu bounded through it, climbing back up to the main platform. One of his soldiers threw a disc, scarlet streaking through the black, and there was another flash of white as Flynn dove for the lower level, taking cover behind the glass dining table. Clu made to follow him, hefting his disc, but another explosion from the back wall sent tremors through the floor, and he fell to one knee. Voxels scattered across the floor; whether from program or building it was impossible to tell, but a quick glance told him that he was down to just one soldier still on his feet. Two more had been thrown against a wall, and were attempting to regain their footing; Jarvis crouched in the left corner, disc in hand, but holding his arms above his visored head to shield him from debris.
White flashed once more—Flynn was on the move, heading for a dark corridor to his left. There was no telling how big Flynn’s hiding place was, and letting him disappear down some hidden passage was not an option. This was going to end now. Clu heaved himself to his feet and yelled, his voice just audible above the clamor, “Jarvis!”
Jarvis lifted his head, eyes wide in terror, and for a single moment, Clu thought it would overpower him, robbing Clu of this one chance at victory—but then Jarvis flung his disc with a wild, fearful yell. There was another flicker of white, dodging back, away from the passage, and Clu took his chance. He threw himself forward, free hand grasping, and felt it close on a robe-clad shoulder. User and program plummeted downward; they landed on the long glass table, the impact shattering it to cubes beneath them. The landing loosened Clu’s grip, and Flynn tried to pull himself away, but Clu was too quick. He clamped down on Flynn’s collar and hauled him backwards, sending him sprawling against one of the silvery chairs. Clu lunged forward, disc raised, and closed his free hand around Flynn’s neck.
A still-intact section of the floor flickered back to life, providing enough light to see by. Pages ripped from their bindings floated through the air, slowly derezzing as they drifted to the floor. Damage from the explosions was still spreading through the hideout. The floor itself began to buckle as another deluge of cubes poured down from a corner of the ceiling. The rock above and below creaked noisily, the mountain itself reeling from the blasts, and one of his Blackguards was grunting in pain, but Clu ignored it all. He felt only the heaving throat beneath his fingers and the weight of the disc in his hand, heard only choked wheezes issuing from a gasping mouth, saw only the lined face in front of him, so altered by the thousand cycles that had passed since he had last seen it this close. Only the eyes were the same: blue, wide, and fearful.
Clu grinned broadly as he took in the sight of the aged Creator. “That was too easy. The cycles haven’t been kind, have they?”
Flynn only rasped wordlessly in response. Clu lessened his hold, and Flynn inhaled sharply, breath leaving him in ragged coughs. “No,” he choked out when he had at last regained his voice. “You don’t look so bad.”
Clu continued to grin, still just watching Flynn squirm beneath his weight, attempting to take in another breath. He clutched at Clu’s wrist, strands of hair falling into his face as he struggled. It was as white as as the light emanating from the collar of his robes, as white as Alan Bradley’s had been. Clu had wondered if Flynn would be more impressive, and knew now that he was not. There was no power left, User or otherwise, in the shaking hands that tried ineffectually to loosen Clu’s grasp. Flynn had exhausted himself in his efforts to escape, and the realization made Clu laugh. “So much for the mighty Creator.”
Flynn coughed again, wetly. “Clu.” His eyes left Clu’s, and raked over the destruction beyond, taking in the remains of his last safe haven. “Don’t. Don’t do this.”
“Sorry, man. Too late to go back now.” Clu rose to his feet, hoisting Flynn up with him. Flynn tried to find his footing, but Clu dragged him towards the platform, gesturing at Jarvis and his remaining soldiers with his disc. They moved at once despite their injuries, a Blackguard taking up a place on either side of Flynn as Clu finally released him.
Flynn pulled away, but one of the guards grabbed him by the arm, holding him upright, and after a moment Flynn sagged in his grip with another weak cough. A spatter of red flecked the remains of the white tile below. The second guard removed the disc from Flynn’s back, and held it out reverently to Clu. Flynn didn’t struggle, but he did look up, eyes imploring.
“Clu,” he murmured faintly. “Please.”
“The game’s already won, Flynn,” Clu said. He replaced his disc on his back and took Flynn's, and allowing himself a victorious grin before lowering it to his side. As the platform began to descend, he took one last glance at the ruined hideout, and then looked beyond, to the city he had left only a few millicycles before. His gaze traveled to the top of the highest tower, and then, slowly, to a point just above it. “All that’s left is the prize.”
Forgive me. (For so many things.) That being said: enjoy!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Alan and Quorra sat quietly next to the table in the corner of Paige’s apartment. It was where they had been sitting for the past half hour or so, waiting for the rebel programs to get on with their planning. Paige was at the far end of the room, her back to them as she pored over whatever it was she was looking at on that screen of hers. The silence was punctuated by the occasional visitor, sometimes in pairs, sometimes alone. They were ostensibly there to ask questions or check in before leaving to gear up for whatever they were instructed to do next, but that seemed to be more of an excuse to catch a glimpse of Alan than any real need for a visit. Some of them only glanced furtively in his direction, while others stared openly, curious or almost reverent.
Alan paid them no attention. He didn’t bother even acknowledging their presence, keeping his gaze fixed on the table, fingers interlocked tightly in his lap. He had pulled the hood of his coat up to hide his face, grateful for the semblance of privacy it provided. His head was pounding dully once again, a counterpoint to the repeated images that kept running through his brain. Jeering programs, scarlet discs, a malicious grin in a too-familiar face.
He vaguely registered movement as Quorra glanced at him for the dozenth time, and knew she was worried about him. He hadn’t said a word since Yori and Ram had signed off, too upset to do anything but sit and stare at his hands until Paige had asked him, in a slightly softer voice than normal, to move over by the table, out of the way. Quorra had followed him to the corner, angling her chair to put herself between him and the rest of the room. She was still holding her baton at the ready. He wondered vaguely if he should tell her he was okay, but he refrained. Talking would just give the unknown programs more reason to stare. Instead he remained silent in his corner, staring down at the table, waiting for someone to tell him that it was time to leave.
The door slid open again. Paige turned from her place at the wall-screen, not bothering to hide her irritation as she let in yet another visitor—a woman in a white suit, her black hair pulled into a tight bun at the crown of her head. They were only a few feet away, but they may as well have been in another room for all that Alan registered their words. The pulsating pain had filled his head almost entirely. In the corner of his vision, he saw the program turn her head towards him a few inches, sneaking a look. Whatever it was she was expecting to see—a powerful User, or maybe the creator of the legendary Tron--Alan was in no mood to give it to her. He ducked his head a few more inches, wishing he could just be alone for a little while. He was tired of being looked at.
As he bowed his head further, a glint of light on the floor caught his eye. A handful of cubes were piled at his feet, formerly part of the chair Hopper had crashed into, reflecting a flicker from the screen across the room. His mind flashed to the arena once more, to piles of cubes rolling across the dark glass as shouts of approval roared from all sides. He tore his gaze away, lifting his head. Quorra glanced at him again, surprised at the sudden movement, but he ignored her, focusing instead on the sensation of his fingernails digging into the skin of his hands as he clasped them even tighter in his lap. Maybe that was what all these programs were trying to see—a glimpse of that dreaded, ruthless figure, a spark of cold viciousness, any possible sign that perhaps Alan had a bit of Rinzler in him too.
A sudden touch made him jump—a tentative hand on his forearm. He looked up. Quorra was watching him, and there was the concern he had been hoping to avoid, obvious in the way her brows were drawn together beneath her slanted bangs. He realized after a moment that she had said something to him, but he hadn't processed the words at all. “What?”
“You can put your hood down,” she said. “We’re alone.”
He blinked, looking around. The apartment was empty save the two of them, and a little darker now, too. The screen had disappeared, leaving the wall bare and dull once more. “Where’s Paige?”
“She left,” Quorra said. “She said she needed to go to work, and arrange a meeting with Zuse, if she can. It’s just us for now.”
“Oh. Good.” That was something, at least. He pulled his hood back down at last and leaned his head back against the wall with a sigh. “Finally.”
“Are you okay?”
“Sure. Fine. I’m fine,” he said. He took off his glasses and scrubbed at his face, sighing. “I’m just tired.”
She nodded, but looked unconvinced. “You should rest until Paige gets back.” She turned the baton in her hands end over end, then did it again, almost nervously.
The tic did nothing to assuage Alan’s own nerves. He watched her flip the baton a third time. There were plenty of things for her to be worried about, he knew, but only one was sticking in his mind. She flipped it again, and glanced at him, perhaps noticing his silence. When she saw him watching her, she hooked the baton back on her boot and folded her hands on the table.
“Sorry,” she said. “I don’t like waiting. I’d rather be on the move.” She smiled a little. “Flynn tells me I need to have more patience.”
“That’s rich, coming from him.” Or maybe it wasn’t, anymore. Things were so different now. Alan started polishing his glasses on the hem of his coat, needing something to occupy his hands as much as she did. “Did you know?” he asked abruptly. “About Rinzler?”
“No,” Quorra said immediately, as if she had been waiting for the question. “I had no idea. I visit the city a lot, but I stay far away from Clu’s enforcers. And even when I was looking for rumors, the only thing I ever heard about Rinzler was just…fear. Programs avoid mentioning him if they can. I guess now I know why.” She leaned forward a little, looking him right in the eye. “If I had known who he really was, I would’ve told you, Alan. I promise.”
The vehemence in her voice was enough to convince Alan that she was telling the truth. “…Okay,” he said at last, “I believe you. But…” He hesitated for a second, but he had to know. “What about Kevin? Is it possible he knew and just didn’t tell you--?”
“No,” she said again, with a firm shake of her head. “He hasn’t left the Safehouse in hundreds of cycles, Alan. Flynn can sometimes sense major shifts on the Grid, but something like this…he would have no way of knowing. The only news he gets is what I can give him. And Tron’s death—what he thought was his death…it’s one of Flynn’s biggest regrets.” She looked down, and added quietly, “He used to have nightmares about it.”
The lenses of Alan’s glasses were digging into his the palm of his hand. He slowly unclenched his fist, and gave Quorra a short nod. The thought that Flynn might have been hiding yet another secret from Alan was not something he wanted to contemplate. He supposed he would just have to ask the man in person. “As soon as we’re done here, we’re going back to the Safehouse,” he said. “I need to talk to him about this. I just…I need to see him."
Quorra nodded, but kept watching him worriedly. He looked down at his glasses again, avoiding her eyes. “I’m okay. Really,” he said, knowing how unconvincing he sounded. He didn’t know how to explain to her what he was feeling—how he couldn’t help but feel a strange connection to Tron despite never meeting him; how nauseating it was to know that Clu hadn’t just killed Tron, but that he’d…brainwashed him, someone who was supposed to be his friend, into becoming a killing machine; how enraging it was that Clu had made Alan watch his own program—a program he’d made to help others--murder innocent people for kicks. He didn’t know how to tell her how much it horrified him to know that the face beneath the black glass was his own.
He gritted his teeth reflexively, but instantly regretted it. Tensing the muscles in his jaw only made the bruise at his temple hurt worse. Trying to force himself to relax, he changed the subject. “Did Paige say how long she'd be gone?”
“No, only that she would be back soon. We’ll just have to wait and see.”
Alan nodded again. Quorra seemed to take that as enough of a response for now, and leaned back in her chair. They lapsed into silence. Alan closed his eyes, the dark helping his headache a little. He was desperate for a little peace, but despite the quiet it didn’t seem to be forthcoming—there were too many thoughts crowding around his head. He thought maybe he understood why Flynn had taken up something like meditation after all.
A sudden sound broke the silence: a short, four-note electronic melody. He opened his eyes to see Quorra drawing her hand away from the small box that still rested at the corner of the table, looking startled. She drew her hands back to her lap and said, sheepishly, “Sorry. I didn’t think it was on.”
“What is it?” he asked, eyeing the box. It had a grid-like pattern of raised buttons, and this close, he could see that whatever it was, it was old. Unlike the rest of the objects in the apartment, the corners of the box were slightly scuffed in places, as if it had been moved around quite a bit in the past.
“An instrument,” Quorra said. “Look—” She touched one of the buttons, and it lit up beneath her gloved finger as the box issued another short melody. “I don’t know how to use it much, but Paige is really good with it.” She took her hand away, looking at the instrument pensively. “Or she used to be.”
“How do you know each other?” Alan asked. “You seemed pretty shocked to see her.”
“I was." She paused, and it went on for so long that Alan wondered if maybe he should just drop the subject. She looked at him, and something in her expression changed, as if she had made a decision, before she spoke again. “A long time ago, after the first major wave of the Purge, I used to go out looking for refugees in dangerous sectors."
"That’s right.They were being hunted...and I wanted to help. I used to be friends with a lot of ISOs. So I would find programs on the run and take them somewhere safe. I had to go through a lot of settlements that ended up like Palladium."
Alan remembered how upset Quorra had looked as they were all watching the footage from the decimated city. “I’m sorry. I can’t imagine what that must have been like.”
Quorra shrugged. “It’s okay. I got used to it. I got good at it, sneaking around, fighting off sentries.” She glanced again at the music-box. "That's how I met Paige."
"She was a refugee?"
"A medic. One of the programs I was escorting was injured, and Paige helped her recover, but we let her think we were both Basic programs. I hated to lie, but it was impossible to tell who would be sympathetic to an ISO. Programs were turning in anyone who’d ever even associated with ISOs in the past.” She sighed, staring down at her lap again. “So we kept it from her, until we couldn't anymore. We convinced her not to tell anyone, but we left as soon as we could. We couldn’t risk getting caught.” She looked back at the instrument, her expression more drawn than he had ever seen on her. “Afterward, we found out the sector she’d been working in was destroyed. Clu’s forces put the word out that ISOs had derezzed everyone in the vicinity, but we knew the truth. We hadn’t touched anyone.”
…Any sector even rumored to have held an ISO was destroyed. That was what Paige had said earlier, Alan remembered, with that expression that had seemed so empty. “So she—she blames you? For losing her home?”
“I guess so,” Quorra said. “I didn’t think any program had made it out of her sector alive. Clu’s always been relentless.” Her voice was low, and her shoulders were hunched beneath her dark hair. “If we hadn’t been there, he might have left it alone.”
“But—that’s not your fault,” Alan told her. “You didn’t do anything wrong.” She didn’t answer, only continued to look in the direction of the instrument. He leaned forward and touched her hands, still folded in her lap. “Quorra,” he said, “you were only trying protect a friend. You didn't have to go out and help ISOs, but you did. That's brave. If Paige doesn’t understand that, that’s her damn problem. You didn’t ask for Clu to destroy her home—you didn’t ask for him to be a—a genocidal dictator, or for him to go hunting the ISOs. You didn’t ask for any of that at all. You were just trying to help someone. She has to understand that.”
Quorra smiled, but it didn’t reach her eyes. For a moment she looked as tired as Alan felt. “I’m not sure Paige sees it that way. If we’d told her the truth from the start, we might have been able to get the help we needed without endangering anyone else. She hates lying as much as you do.”
Alan paused, a little startled at the comparison. He did hate lies, but even he knew that the truth wasn’t always the safest option. “Yeah, well…sometimes,” he said, thinking of Sam and what they’d kept from him the last two decades, “you have to hide things from people to protect them. It’s not…great, but it’s better than putting them in danger.”
You sound like Flynn now, murmured the Lora-like voice in his head. Alan ignored it. That was different. Flynn had lied about other things, too. “Anyway,” he said aloud, “she can be mad at you all she wants, but once we’re done here, we can leave, and then neither of you will need to deal with each other again. You won’t have to worry about old lies anymore.”
Quorra nodded, but she didn’t look any happier. She was staring at her lap now, and Alan suddenly had the distinct feeling that she was avoiding his gaze. Before he could say anything, however, the front door slid open once more, and the pair of them looked up. Alan expected to see Paige again, stepping inside with an irritated expression, but instead, Hopper and Bartik entered. Hopper didn’t bother waiting for the door to close before speaking.
"Hey," he said to Quorra. "The commander--Paige, she wants you to come to the End of Line."
Quorra sat up straighter in her chair, frowning. “Me?”
"Yes,” Bartik said. "She got us in touch with Castor and we told him about you. Only your name, don’t worry,” he added at the look on Quorra’s face. “Actually, he wouldn’t take anything we said seriously until we mentioned you.”
“We told him we’re trying to help you, and a few others,” Hopper said with a glance at Alan. “So he went talked to Zuse for us, but apparently the guy says he won't do a thing unless he sees you in person. Just you, he says. So Paige sent us to escort you there."
"I’m not leaving Alan here alone,” Quorra said. Her shoulders were still hunched, but defensively now, the muscles in her shoulders and arms set.
Bartik’s mouth twitched in a flicker of a smile. “Save your determination for Zuse,” he said. “There’s still some of our people outside. We wouldn’t leave the User defenseless. It’ll be safer for him to stay here. We’ll get you there and back as quick as we can.”
“We don’t have much time,” Hopper added. “If Clu’s left Palladium, he could be heading anywhere on the Grid right now. Including back here.”
“But…” Quorra looked to Alan, and this time she did meet his gaze, her brows knitting in concern again.
Alan hesitated before answering. The rebel programs seemed trustworthy enough—Bartik and Hopper had got them in contact with Yori and Ram, after all, which was definitely a positive in Alan’s book, despite everything else. If Quorra went to help them, it might improve Paige’s opinion of her, too. And besides, he had wanted a little peace. "It's okay," he said. He put his glasses back on and folded his hands in his lap, trying to look, if not comfortable, at least somewhat at ease. "Go ahead. I won't be much use out there until we can get into the arcade.”
“Are you sure?” Quorra asked.
“Positive. Go on. Now you can get on the move, right?” Alan gave her a small smile, but Quorra but she still seemed reluctant as she nodded and rose from her chair. She crossed the room as the door slid open once more, Hopper and Bartik leaving as quickly as they had entered. Quorra lingered in the doorway for a moment, looking back at Alan. He waved a hand at her, trying to look nonchalant.
“Don’t look so worried,” he said. “That’s my job.”
Quorra did smile at that. “Try not to worry too much,” she responded. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.” She waited for Alan to nod before exiting the apartment, the door sliding quietly shut behind her.
Silence fell. Alan sat back in his chair with a quiet huff of relief, grateful for the chance to just take a breather. It didn’t last long, however; with nothing to distract him, it was harder to ignore the ache that had been pounding dully at his temples. He took off his glasses again, putting them on the table before folding his arms and laying his head down. It helped, though not much. After a few minutes he let his eyes drift shut. At least with them closed, he could almost pretend he was home.
Quorra took her first steps out of the apartment on uncertain feet. As the door slid shut behind her, she had the sudden urge to turn right around, go back inside, and tell Alan everything she had been keeping from him for the last few millicycles. It was followed immediately by the desire to run right down the stairs, rez up her lightcycle, and ride as quickly as she could back to the Safehouse. She did neither, instead remaining just outside the door as she closed her eyes. Take a breath, kiddo. Flynn had told her this dozens of times, trying to teach her how to just be still, tranquil. She flexed her hands, clenching them for a moment before letting them relax again. You need to learn to remove yourself from the equation.
She opened her eyes. That was easier said than done. She forced herself to move, taking the few short steps across the landing before starting down the stairwell to the alley below. She had been struggling to keep her emotions in check this whole trip, but every moment so far seemed designed to make it even more difficult for her. The last microcycle was especially hard. Telling Alan about her first encounter with Paige had involved unpleasant memories Quorra hadn’t accessed for cycles, not to mention more lying. She hated to keep things from him, but the truth was just so hard to explain.
Sometimes you have hide things from people to protect them. She hoped Alan really believed that.
At the foot of the stairs, Bartik was talking quietly with a pair of programs Quorra recognized—they had visited the apartment not too long ago. Hopper slouched nearby, looking up at her as she made her way down.
"Don't worry about the User," he told her. "We aren't leaving him alone. And this won't take long, anyway."
Quorra didn’t answer, just giving him a quick nod. Bartik seemed to have finished giving instructions, because the two unfamiliar programs broke away to take places at either end of the alley. Quorra frowned—two didn’t seem like a very effective guard.
"There are two more on the roof,” Bartik said. She looked up; he was watching her with that flicker of a smile. “And lookouts a few traces away. We’re not amateurs.”
“I know,” Quorra said. “I’ve heard of you. Hopper and Bartik, anarchist revolutionaries. You’ve got a reputation.”
Bartik smirked, but didn’t bother asking if their reputation was good or bad. He simply said, “Let’s go,” and lead the way out of the alley.
The three of them made their way towards the central sector, their boots splashing through shallow puddles pooled on the roads. The rain had lessened, though short bursts of it still pattered the streets and buildings in certain areas. Quorra didn't recognize the route, but Bartik seemed to know what he was doing, so she followed in silence. She slowed before they turned a corner, meaning to wait and listen for the tell-tale sound of boots on pavement, or worse, the rumbling of a tank.
“You won’t hear anything.” Hopper had slowed beside her to match her pace. Bartik had continued on, crossing the street to another alley, and Hopper jerked his head, indicating for Quorra to follow. She did, Hopper right behind her. “Not that it wasn’t a good idea,” he told her as they entered the next alley. “You come into the city a lot?”
“I’ve never seen you around before.”
“I keep to myself.”
“Yeah, you don’t seem like much of a talker. That’s okay, neither is Bartik.”
Quorra looked at him sidelong. “I think you talk enough for the both of you.”
Ahead of them, Bartik let out a short laugh. Hopper threw him a dirty look, and Quorra couldn’t help but smile, just a little. She slowed again as they reached another street, out of habit, but Hopper shook his head.
“We’ve got the patrol routes memorized. We won't run into any trouble."
"Probably," Bartik murmured ahead of them. "The sentries are still jumpy.”
"Yeah, well, if we run into any, we’ll take care of ‘em,” Hopper said with a shrug. “No problem.” They crossed again, and Hopper glanced at Quorra as they turned another corner, waiting for a response, but she only nodded. He sighed. “Look, if you're still upset about us chasing you before, it was nothing personal. We were just getting a little desperate. It was starting to look like you two had disappeared off into the Outlands for good. "
"Especially with that vehicle of yours," Bartik added. "I've never seen anything like it, and we know a few impressive mechanics.”
"It was more impressive before you blew it up," Quorra said. “It’s inoperable now.”
Bartik paused long enough to glance back at her. “Oh,” he said. "That...was an accident. Sorry.”
“Can you repair it?” Hopper asked. “We could call in a favor from some friends. They might be able to fix it up for you.”
“It’s being restored,” Quorra said with a shake of her head. She didn’t feel the need to mention just who was doing the restoring. These two programs might have been her allies now, but the less people knew about Flynn, the better.
“Can you make it back to…wherever it is you came from without it?”
“It’ll be fine,” Quorra told them. "Our lightcycles are modified to handle the terrain if necessary." Well, hers was, anyway. Flynn’s was too, but that baton had been discarded. It didn’t really matter now. If things went according to plan--the real plan--they wouldn't be going back into the Outlands at all.
Ahead of her, Hopper and Bartik exchanged a look as she fell silent once more, and Hopper shrugged. They continued on without speaking, trudging through intermittent rain. At last, they turned a corner and stepped out onto a relatively busy street, programs hurrying along the sidewalks under the gaze of a handful of sentries stationed around the square at intervals. Quorra took a step back instinctively, receding into the shadows of the alley, but Hopper nudged her as he passed by.
“Keep moving,” he muttered, and followed after Bartik, who hadn't broken his stride at all. Not wanting to draw attention to herself, Quorra hesitated only a moment before quickly following them across the square.
She rarely ventured this far into the city, but this sector was just as she remembered it. To her right was Flynn’s old arcade, the sign mounted above the door gray and dormant, as it had been for cycles now. Programs passed it by without a second glance, just another building among hundreds. Across the street from the overlooked arcade was the central tower, taller than any other structure in the city. It stretched so high into the sky that its tip was hidden by clouds. A sentry stood near the entrance, and his helmet twitched as he watched them cross. Quorra kept her hands still at her sides, though she itched to take hold of her baton or her disc—she was unused to being so out in the open.
Hopper and Bartik, however, seemed totally unconcerned, heading for the elevator doors without even a glance at the guard. As they approached, its doors slid open with a soft ding, and there, arms crossed and expression grim, was Paige, though it took Quorra a moment to recognize her. Her hair was pulled back in a tight bun, though some of it still fell in front of her face, and her suit’s usual black was replaced with the white typically reserved for Sirens. She uncrossed her arms with a sigh as they stepped up to the elevator platform.
“There you are,” she said sternly, though she kept her voice down. “I was about to go and get her myself.”
“We came as fast as we could,” Bartik replied. “Security’s still tighter than normal. We had to take an alternate route.”
“You talk with Zuse?” Hopper asked quietly, taking a step forward, and Quorra wondered if it was only a coincidence that the way he had positioned himself hid her from view of the guard.
“Of course not. Castor’s the one who does all the talking, you know that. No one talks to Zuse.” Paige finally looked at Quorra then, eyes narrowing slightly. “Except you, apparently.” She stepped to the side, and said, “Get in. We’re going up.”
“Should we wait?” Bartik asked.
“Don’t bother,” Paige answered as she punched a few buttons on the elevator’s wall panel. “I’ll take her back myself.”
There was just enough time for Quorra to see the two programs exchange a look of surprise before the door slid shut, cutting off any possible response, and then it was just her and Paige, standing side by side in the elevator as it rose. It traveled quickly, passing floor after floor as it ascended towards the apex of the tower. Paige didn't say a word as they climbed, nor did she look at Quorra. She seemed determined to look anywhere else, in fact, staring resolutely out at the city stretching all around the tower. Quorra sighed inwardly. She could barely remember the last time she’d been able to interact with Basics so openly, let alone one she actually knew. Hopper and Bartik seemed alright—for the most part—but Paige…the hostility was disheartening.
“So…we’re going to see Zuse?” Quorra asked, just to fill the silence.
“You’re going to see Zuse,” Paige said. “I’m only bringing you to Castor.”
“Zuse’s assistant. He's the face of the End of Line now. Zuse doesn't make public appearances these days. I don't even know what he looks like." She glanced at Quorra before looking away again. “We’re going up to the top block of floors, and then Castor will escort you to Zuse. You’ll be meeting with him on your own. But I guess that won’t be a problem, if he’s really an old friend of yours.”
There was something accusatory in her tone, and Quorra wasn’t sure how to respond to it. She fell silent again. Zuse really was an old friend, but now that she was on her way to speak to him for the first time in what must have been hundreds of cycles, she wasn’t sure that would be enough. She’d told Paige and the other rebels he would want to help her, but would he? Or would it be too dangerous, after all this time, for Zuse to help someone he’d had every reason to believe was dead? The fact that he’d apparently requested to see her was a good sign, or so she’d thought, but that didn’t guarantee anything. She glanced at Paige again. She didn’t seem to be having much luck with programs from her past lately.
The elevator began to slow, and finally stopped a few floors from the tip of the tower. The doors slid open with another soft ding, opening to reveal another program in white—a Siren with hair as pale as her suit, standing alone in the short hallway that stretched beyond the elevator landing.
“Gem?” Paige took a step forward out of the elevator, but as Quorra moved to follow her, she placed a hand on the door frame, blocking the way. “What are you doing here? I thought you were on arena duty this cycle.”
“I go where I’m needed,” Gem said. Her eyes flickered to Quorra for a moment, and then back to Paige. “You’re looking for someone.”
“What makes you say that?”
“Intuition.” She stared at Paige unblinkingly. Paige didn’t look away. Suddenly Gem smiled, and said laughingly, “And Castor told me you were meeting with him. Unfortunately, something came up, so he asked me to escort Zuse’s guest instead.” She glanced at Quorra again, and smiled.
Paige took a step forward but hesitated, hovering uncertainly in the elevator’s doorway. “I’d rather wait for Castor, thanks.”
“You’ll be waiting a long time,” Gem said. “He’s a busy man. And there are other programs who need that elevator.”
For a moment Paige didn’t move, and then, with a sigh Quorra would have missed if she hadn’t been standing so close, she exited the elevator. Quorra followed suit, wondering with no small amount of worry whether this Gem program was to be trusted or not. Paige didn’t seem upset, however—or at least, nothing more than irritated by the change in plan—so Quorra gave Gem a nod and stepped up next to her.
Gem smiled at her again, and glanced at Paige. “I’ll bring her right back. You’re free to wait here.” She didn’t wait for a response, instead taking Quorra gently but firmly by the arm. “We should go. Zuse’s time is precious.”
Paige gave only a short nod as her answer, and looked at Quorra as if to say something, but stayed silent. Quorra barely had enough time to meet her eyes before Gem pulled her away, starting off down the hallway at a steady pace. At the end of the hall was a short staircase. Quorra glanced over her shoulder as Gem led her upwards; Paige was still standing resolutely by the elevator, her arms crossed, as she watched them go.
“Watch your step,” Gem said, hand still on Quorra’s arm, as they reached the top of the stairs.The stairwell lead to another, shorter hallway with an opaque crystal door at the opposite end.
“Where are we going?”
“Zuse’s private office. It’s just through here.” Gem guided Quorra down the hall, past two long narrow windows that showed only cloudy darkness—they were too high for even the rain now. When they reached the door, Gem pressed her hand to a small panel beside it, and it slid down into the floor, making not even a whisper of noise.
The room beyond was small but lavish, with thin lines of circuitry spanning from the doorway to the walls, outlining the furniture: a few seats, a compact but fully stocked bar glowing with the light of its contents, and a desk in the center of the room, illuminated by the same circuitry patterns that glimmered on the floors and walls. A high-backed, pitch black chair stood on the other side of the desk, facing away from the door.
Quorra stepped inside, the heel of her boot clicking against the glass floor. The chair, and whoever it held, did not move. She looked to Gem, who only smiled again before the door slide shut without a sound, leaving Quorra alone. Quorra stepped forward uncertainly, uncomfortably aware of how loud her footsteps sounded.
The chair spun, revealing its occupant: a program all in white and silver, pearly hair slicked back from a face that was just as pale. His expression was drawn as he turned to face her, but it brightened immediately as their eyes met, a wide white grin stretching across his face.
“Quorra!” he exclaimed. “My dear girl!” He shot to his feet and strode around the desk, coat flaring behind him. He reached for Quorra's hand and took it in both of his, then raised it to his lips, still smiling. “I’m so glad to see you safe!”
It was such a relief to see a familiar, friendly face after so long that Quorra laughed, for what felt like the first time in ages, and pulled him into a hug. Zuse laughed himself, patting her on the back before moving away, his hands on her shoulders. He looked her over a moment, and laughed again.
“You haven’t changed, my dear,” he said.
"You have," Quorra replied, and it was true. It wasn’t a drastic change, but enough—his clothes were altered, his hair longer and whiter. The white cane leaning against the desk was a change, too. “I like the new look.”
He placed a hand over his chest. "You're too kind. After the Purge, I needed to reinvent myself, and, well….” He straightened and spread his arms, looking down at his clothes as if admiring his own work. “ It’s been successful so far. I’m rather fond of it myself, truth be told. I even came up with a new name. I believe you were told that Castor would bring you to me?”
Quorra nodded. “Gem said he was too busy.”
“Yes, yes,” Zuse said. “Busy preparing to see you! Castor and Zuse are one and the same, you see. A little diversion of mine. If everyone knew I was Zuse, I would never get a moment to myself. Castor is a perfect proxy. And just as handsome, though not quite as charming.” He bowed with a flourish, and she giggled. He grinned again, and gestured to the chair in front of the desk. “Please, sit.”
Quorra did so, settling into the chair that was far more comfortable than it looked. Zuse didn’t retake his seat, busying himself at the bar. “Drinks!” he said gleefully. “We must celebrate. It’s been too long since I was able to entertain an old friend.” He turned and handed Quorra a glass of glowing greenish-blue energy, which she gratefully accepted. Just a sip was enough to rejuvenate her a little, steadying hands that she hadn’t even realized were beginning to shake with worry and weariness.
"So I've been told you're in need of my assistance," he said, taking his seat again. "When I heard your name, I must say, I was shocked. I’m happy to know you’re alive, of course, but I do have eyes and ears all over. I didn’t think there was anything that could surprise me anymore. I hadn’t thought any of your kind had survived Clu's efforts."
"Only me," Quorra said. "I...had some help."
"Ah. Very special help indeed, to have kept you hidden for so long." He gave Quorra a significant look, tilting his head. Quorra only looked back at him, her expression as impassive as she could make it. Zuse laughed, and said, "I will allow you your secrets, my dear. We all must keep a few. What matters is that you survived. Now, as for the help you're needing..."
Quorra leaned forward in her chair. "What exactly were you told?”
“Merely that some mutual acquaintances of ours had been in touch with you, and that you required my services. I’m afraid your friends were rather tight-lipped.”
That was good to hear. The fewer people who knew what was going on, the better. “All we need from you is a distraction. If you could keep help keep the attention of the sentries in this area for a while, we can do what we came to do.”
“Well, putting on a show is certainly a specialty of mine,” he said, “but I’m afraid I’ll need you to be more specific.”
Quorra hesitated. "I…can’t tell you the details." Zuse was a friend, but she couldn’t help the reluctance. She had spent too much time in hiding to be comfortable with giving out specifics of her situation.
“Ah.” Zuse surveyed her a moment, his smile a little diminished. “I understand your hesitance, but if I’m going to assist you, I need something in return. Some information—not all,” he said as his grin widened again, “as I said, I’ll allow you your secrets—but a few details are necessary. Consider them a payment for my services.”
Quorra paused, uncertain what to offer up in exchange. “…Alright,” she said. “I’m trying to get into the old arcade.”
"Flynn's arcade?" Zuse's surprise was obvious in his voice. "Whatever for? It's been dormant for cycles now."
"I can't say, I’m sorry. Some of the rebel programs have agreed to help us out, but since your tower is so close by, we thought you might be able to help things go a little smoother. It’'s very important that we get in and out without being spotted.”
“We? You and your insurgent friends, I presume?”
She didn’t blink. “Is that payment too?”
Zuse let out a laugh, high and loud. “Sharp as ever, dear Quorra! I don’t recall you being this secretive before, but I suppose the cycles have changed us all.” He eyed her slyly, grinning again. “I think your reticence speaks volumes, regardless. I had been wondering where that poor User from the lightcycle grid went.”
Quorra stiffened, her hand tightening around the glass. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said, aware as she said it how useless the words were—Zuse was watching her with an amused but knowing expression.
“Indeed,” he said, “I’m sure you don’t. Not to worry—my club’s lounges are filled with theories on his whereabouts. Half the city is convinced he left before the portal closed, never to be seen by mere programs again. A few others think he’s gone off with Clu on his tour of the Grid. His actual location is practically irrelevant—just his presence on the Grid has been enough to rouse nearly every program in the city. I don’t think I’ve seen so many programs come through my doors since I first opened them cycles ago.”
Zuse sounded pleased, but Quorra wasn’t sure that was entirely a good thing. The more programs there were out and about, even sympathetic ones, the less safe it would be to move around the city. She needed to get things in motion as quickly as she could. She set her drink down and looked Zuse in the eyes. He raised his eyebrows, but put his drink aside too, and waited for her to speak.
“You know what I’m trying to do, and who I’m trying to do it for,” she said. “Can you help us?
“Hmm.” Zuse leaned back in his chair, steepling his fingers. “This is a difficult proposition, I’m afraid. Keeping the sentries distracted without any undue harm to my patrons, potential property damage, not to mention all the discs that will need modifying afterwards…a difficult proposition at best.”
Quorra clutched her glass. It wouldn’t be impossible to get into the arcade without Zuse’s help, but to have come so far only to be refused…she imagined the suspicion in Paige’s eyes as she returned empty handed, the disappointment in Hopper and Bartik’s, the distress in Alan’s. “Please,” she said, “I don’t know who else could—”
Zuse raised his hand. “I didn’t say it was impossible. We’ve both been through much more difficult things in our time, Quorra.” He smiled, and then got to his feet, offering her his hand. “I will do whatever I can to help you, my dear.”
Quorra stood and took his hand in both of hers, squeezing it gratefully. “Thank you,” she said, “You have no idea what this means to me.”
“I think I have some idea,” Zuse said with a grin. “Let those revolutionary friends of yours know that they can make arrangements with me as soon as they are able—with Castor, I should say,” he added with a wink. “I rely upon your discretion on that subject, by the way.”
“Don’t worry,” Quorra said as he lead her to the door. “I’ll allow you your secrets.”
Zuse laughed gleefully. “My deepest thanks!” He touched the panel beside the door with his hand, and the door descended again. Gem was waiting in the hall; she smiled at Quorra as Zuse waved her outside. “Gem will show you back to the elevator,” he said. “Good luck, my friend.”
“Take care of yourself,” Quorra said.
“Oh, I intend to,” he said, smiling widely, and then he pressed his hand to the panel again. The door ascended, and Zuse was gone.
Gem nodded at Quorra, and they both set off down the hall once more. “Did you find what you were looking for?” she asked.
“I did,” Quorra said, and she couldn’t help the smile that spread over her face. She was just so relieved—her limbs still felt a little unsteady, but the energy pulsing through her made her feel like she could run the whole length of the city without stopping. Gem smiled back, and lead her past the narrow windows, down the stairs, and into the elevator hallway. At the end of the corridor stood Paige, her arms still crossed tightly over her torso. She looked up as the two made their way to her, standing up straighter, but didn’t smile as Quorra approached.
“What did he say?” she asked.
“He’ll help,” Quorra told her. “He said any arrangements can be made with Castor.”
“I’ll find him,” Gem said. “You can send your friends to the End of Line. He’ll meet with them there.”
“Good,” Paige said. “Then let’s go.” She turned back to the elevator and pressed the button. Moments later, the doors opened with a soft ding, and she stepped inside. Quorra followed her quickly, and the doors slid together once more, leaving one last glimpse of Gem’s smile before shutting entirely.
As the elevator began its journey down, Quorra took in a deep breath, and then another, still trying to shake off the excess energy. She allowed herself to savor the feeling, though, knowing it would most likely fade quickly. She smiled to herself and gazed out through the glass doors at the glittering buildings beyond. It had been a very long time since she’d truly been able to appreciate the city from such an angle, and though her trips away from the Safehouse had long since forced her to associate any major settlement with danger, the sight was still, in its way, beautiful. She snuck a glance at Paige, wondering if she should say something, but Paige wasn't looking at her. She was staring out at the city too, and unlike Quorra, she looked tired.
“I can make it to the apartment myself,” Quorra said. “If you need to go back to work.”
“I found someone to cover the rest of my shift,” Paige said shortly. She didn’t look Quorra’s way. “And it’s not safe to be in the city alone right now.”
Quorra couldn’t help the feeling that Paige blamed her and Alan for that. She kept on, hoping she could find a subject that didn’t make Paige upset. “You aren’t a medic anymore, are you?” she asked. “I saw your instrument on the table in your apartment. Do you still play?”
Paige finally looked at her then, and there was a hint of surprise in her visible eye as she studied Quorra for a moment before answering. “I make some of the music for the clubs,” she conceded. “Not all of it, but some.”
“That’s great!” Quorra told her, and she meant it. She could remember the way Paige had looked when she played for her and Ada so many cycles ago, the focus in her eyes and the embarrassed but obvious pleasure that had practically radiated off of her when the song was finished. She smiled broadly at Paige, but the other program only looked at her a second longer before turning away, facing the city once more. Quorra hesitated, wanting to try again, but she didn’t want to push too much. She sighed softly and turned back towards the city too, smile fading. If Paige didn’t want to talk to her, it was something she would just have to accept.
The tops of the smaller buildings drew level with the elevator car, then higher as they continued to descend. They drew near to street-level, and Quorra readied herself to exit, but then the car kept going, past the street and down into the dark tunnel below. They past one hatch, and then another, until finally the elevator came to a stop, opening out onto the sub-level below the city’s main sectors. A solar sailer dock loomed nearby, glowing pulleys quietly loading freight into its many occupants.
“The sub-level?” Quorra asked. She had only been down here a few times, and usually only under duress. There were few programs down here, but those that did come down to the sub-level were usually sentries, and there were so many docks, storage units, and energy wells to navigate around that progress from one end of the city to the other was slow.
“It’s better to take varying routes. And I know a short-cut,” Paige said, and she set off without another word.
Quorra followed quickly, trying to glance around without seeming out of place. There was movement across a short bridge leading to the docks—two sentries, one holding a data tablet, emerged from one of the sailers. Quorra looked away, but Paige lifted a hand and waved, as casually as she would any other program. The sentry holding the tablet waved back, and he and his partner continued on, heading in the opposite direction down the docks without even a backwards glance.
“Do you know them?” Quorra couldn’t help but ask, stunned.
“I know a lot of people,” Paige said. “They’re the ones who gave us the sentry patrol schedules. I knew they’d be on duty here, so we’d have an easier time getting through. Come on.”
Paige lead the way across a short bridge to the docks themselves, turning right and walking along the platform just below one of the sailers. Quorra kept close, still a little rattled. It had been a long time since she had seen sentries as anything other than a threat. “Do you get most of your information from soldiers?”
“Some of it.” Paige glanced at her. “Not all of them are happy with how things are.” She looked for a moment like she might elaborate, but then she gave a little shake of the head and continued onward.
Quorra followed, glancing around occasionally. She half-expected another pair of sentries to come walking around a corner, but they encountered none as they traveled the length of two sailers. She stared up at them, a little awed. She hadn’t been on a sailer in ages, and she had forgotten how beautiful they could be, the sails refracting light as energy flooded through them. High above the sails, on the ceiling of the sublevel, she could see pulsating lines that marked the alleys and roads of the main level above, and thought she could just make out the path they had taken on the way towards the central tower.
They reached the end of a third sailer and turned away from the docks, heading towards another, smaller elevator shaft. “We’ll be close to the apartment once we get topside again,” Paige told her as they entered the elevator. This one moved a little slower than the last, taking its time as it climbed the comparatively short distance to the main level. Paige seemed unconcerned, so Quorra folded her hands behind her back and waited, watching the sublevel fall away.
The doors opened onto an empty street, and after a moment Quorra recognized the buildings across from them—they really were only a couple traces away from Paige’s place. She made to take a step forward, but a yell down the road halted her. Beside her, Paige leaned slightly forward, looking past the doors of the elevator towards the direction of the yell. Quorra looked too, and felt another burst of energy start coursing through her at the sight. A patrol of sentries, their backs to Quorra and Paige, was advancing on a group of cornered civilian programs, weapons drawn and armed.
"More friends of yours?" Quorra murmured, through she thought she already knew the answer.
Paige made a noise of disgust in response, and Quorra shared her sentiments. Even from a distance, it was obvious that this wasn’t going to be a fair fight. There were five civilian programs and only three sentries, but the numbers weren’t the problem—only one of the civilians had their disc drawn, and he was shaking visibly. The other four shrank back against the wall fearfully. One, a girl with short-cropped hair and the green circuits of a medic, glanced in the direction of the elevator, but did not call out. None of the sentries noticed, all of them too focused on corralling their targets. One of them swung a staff at the shaking program, who yelped and held his disc in front of him two-handed to block it. The guard laughed and swung again, hitting the program’s torso. The program didn’t derezz, but he did collapse to the ground, dropping his disc.
Quorra looked at Paige, and Paige looked at Quorra. Neither of them spoke, but from the burning look in Paige’s eyes, Quorra knew they were thinking exactly the same thing. She drew her disc, helmet rezzing up, and gave Paige a short nod. Paige nodded back, her own helmet encasing her head as she did so, and took off across the street, heading for the alley across it.
There was no time to wait and see what Paige was doing—the sentries were advancing on the group. The collapsed program received a kick to the chest, and he curled into a ball, groaning in pain. The noise was loud enough to cover the sound of Quorra arming her disc, but she didn’t bother to approach quietly. She ran towards the sentries, boots pounding against the pavement, and was almost on top of them before they could turn around. She took a running leap and crashed into the closest one, shoving him to the ground before using her momentum to roll back to her feet. Another sentry’s staff whirled down, but she brought her disc up just in time to ward it off. Spinning on her heels, she kicked the fallen disc still lying on the ground back towards its owner before ducking another swing. The fallen program snatched it up, but didn’t rise to fight, only stayed on his knees, looking as shocked as his companions did. Quorra didn’t blame him. Not everyone could fight.
But she could.
She plucked her baton from its holster and rezzed up her blade, blocking the swing of a sentry with her disc as she slashed at another. The sentry bore down, trying to push her to her knees, but suddenly he jerked forward with a choked gasp. She shoved him away, and now she could see the disc lodged in his back, and a blur of white over his shoulder: Paige was hurtling down the alley after her disc, already reaching out for it. The sentry derezzed, and Paige caught her disc just before it fell to the pavement. Another guard charged her, but she seized his arm and whirled around, hauling him over her shoulder and into a wall.
“Nice!” Quorra yelled as she spun to block another blow. She thought, under the grunts of the sentries and banging of weapons, that she heard Paige laugh. Quorra let herself get lost in the movement, parrying and dodging, trusting Paige to watch her back. It had been a long time since she’d fought alongside another program, but the flow of it came back to her easily, the shifts and swerves so familiar. They made short work of the second sentry, his disc spinning away into the air as he derezzed. The last of them skirted away, though, still clutching his staff. He brought it down with a yell, slamming the end on the pavement, and the hexagonal tiles in the street before him began to descend.
The civilian programs had nowhere to go, still pressed against the wall. The tiles beneath them fell away, sending them all tumbling into the pit. Quorra backed away, moving out of reach of the receding tile. Paige backed up too, but not quick enough. The tile beneath her feet gave way, and she slipped on its edge. She flung her arms out, trying to regain her balance, and the edge of her disc lodged itself in a tile, halting her fall as she clung to it.
Quorra dropped to one knee at the edge of the pit, discarding her baton to free up a hand, and reached for Paige’s own. Paige managed to grab hold of her wrist, and Quorra rocked back on her heel and pulled as hard as she could. She hauled Paige up and out of the pit, falling backwards with the force of her own pull. As her back connected with the ground, Paige kept moving forward, bringing her disc with her as she tumbled right into the final sentry. Circuits flashing, Paige slashed at him, and with a yell the soldier derezzed, cubes plummeting to the pavement below along with his staff.
Paige straightened up, docking her disc, and without a work she held a hand out to Quorra, who took it and let herself be pulled to her feet. She retrieved her baton and put it away, but kept her disc armed, keeping watch while Paige retrieved the fallen staff and slammed it into the ground again. The road tiles quickly ascended, carrying the civilian programs with them. A couple looked relieved, but others looked cautious or even scared. One stepped forward, about to say something, but Paige raised a hand to stop them.
“It’s not safe to be out right now,” she said, her voice distorted by her helmet. “Go home, and don’t come back out unless you have to. Get going!”
The programs didn’t have to be told twice. They hurried off, splitting into two groups. A couple of them looked over their shoulders at the two—the one who had drawn his disc, and the medic—but none of them stopped, and soon they were gone, disappearing into the city. Quorra watched them go, letting her helmet derezz with a smile.
“Hey,” Paige said suddenly. She had removed her helmet too, and was watching Quorra with that almost calculating look again. “Thanks. For the save.”
“Oh,” Quorra said. “It was nothing.” She shifted on her feet a little, unsure. She hadn’t expected to be thanked. “We should go,” she said, and Paige nodded, turning and leading the way back down the alley.
It didn’t take long to reach the apartment. They made the short walk in silence, Quorra trying to figure something out. Paige had mentioned tightened security, but none of those civilian programs had seemed threatening at all, and it was still before curfew. There had been no reason to detain them.
“Is that what you were talking about before?” Quorra asked as they reached the stairwell. “Programs being rounded up?”
Paige nodded. “Even before the User showed up, programs were disappearing. Not just those in rebel factions, but the ones who kept their heads down and just tried to go about their lives, too.”
“But why would Clu be rounding up programs indiscriminately? He always had a reason before, even if it wasn't a good one.”
“He probably has one now. We just don’t know what it is.” She sighed bitterly. “I don’t care what he’s trying to do. I just want it to stop. If this keeps up, soon none of us will be left.”
Quorra couldn’t help but flinch, just a little, her hands seizing up before she could stop them. Paige froze as she registered what she had said, then hesitantly looked over her shoulder, her visible eye wide.
“I didn’t mean—” she said, sounding horrified at herself. “I just meant that…sorry.”
“Don’t. It’s okay.” Quorra smiled at her, but Paige shook her head, mouth pressed into a thin line.
“It’s not,” she said. “I’m sorry.”
“…Thanks.” They stood together on the stairs, both of them watching each other tentatively, as if meeting for the first time. Quorra took a breath, and said, “I’m sorry too. About before, when we first met. I heard what happened to your sector after we left. I need you to know—that wasn’t us, Paige. Ada and I didn’t hurt anyone.”
Paige pushed her hair out of her face, and now Quorra could see both of her eyes. They weren’t angry, or even irritated. They looked almost sad. “I know," she said. "I found out about that cycles ago. I just...seeing you, I didn't expect it. It brought back some memories I never wanted to think about again. Feelings I thought were long gone. And I didn't think you'd survived."
"I didn't think you had, either," Quorra said quietly. "We assumed everyone in that sector had been eliminated."
"Almost. I was the only one who made it out. Clu's soldiers eradicated every program who had been in contact with the ISOs. Everyone except me. I guess I should thank you--if you hadn't knocked me out, I would've been derezzed too.” Paige's grip on the stair tightened. “When I woke up, the program who murdered my friends told me it was the ISOs, and I was so hurt and lost that I believed him. It never occurred to me that he would’ve lied.” She laughed mirthlessly, and said, “ I was so naive. I believed whatever anyone told me without bothering to wonder if it was true.”
“You weren’t naive. You were lied to,” Quorra said. “You put your trust in other people. It's not your fault you were taken advantage of." She went up another step. "We should’ve told you what we were. We just wanted to be safe.”
It took Paige a moment to answer. “You know,” she said slowly, “I didn’t understand that for a long time. I couldn’t wrap my head around it. I had helped you, so why lie? But after everything I've seen...I think I get it now.” She looked down, some of her hair falling in front of her face again, hiding her eyes. “That time in my life—I don’t like thinking about it. After my sector was destroyed, I…I went down a path I never thought I would take. Those sentries we derezzed—a long time ago, I would’ve been fighting alongside them.”
“You were a soldier?” Quorra asked, shocked.
“I was. For a little while. After my sector was destroyed, I wanted to—to get stronger, to stop anything like what happened in Gallium from ever happening again. So I went to Argon, another little settlement on the edge of the Grid. I thought this time, I could protect it.” Paige’s eyes were distant and cold. “But Argon burned anyway. It didn’t matter if I was a soldier or not. I couldn't protect anything. So I quit.”
Quorra didn’t know what to say. Even she had heard about what happened in Argon, cycles before—there had been rumors of renegade programs, riots, even whispers of an uprising…until the whispers had grown too loud, and Clu had sent his forces to quell them. There was no Argon anymore, only a scorched-out husk that had once been a city. “I’m sorry,” she said.
“So am I.” Paige sighed. “I tried to disappear after that. I didn’t want to be a part of any of it anymore. But this really stubborn program wouldn’t let me go without a fight, and I couldn’t stop myself from trying to help people. It’s how I was programmed. So here I am.” She turned away, and started up the stairs once more. “It was a long time ago. I’m just doing what I can.”
Quorra didn’t respond—she got the feeling the subject was closed—but she nodded to herself as she followed. That seemed to be all any of them could do anymore.
The apartment was silent, the lights slightly dimmed, though they brightened as Paige walked inside. Quorra immediately looked to the table in the corner, expecting Alan to be waiting with his arms crossed uneasily, wanting to know how things had gone. Instead he was curled up in his chair, his arms resting on the table with his face buried in the crook of his elbow. His glasses were folded up just beside him.
He didn’t raise his head as the door slid shut, nor did he move when Quorra approached. Standing this close, it was clear he was fast asleep, his shoulders rising and falling slightly with his breathing. She reached out to touch his shoulder, but withdrew her hand after a moment. If he needed more rest, she wasn’t going to be the one to take it from him.
“Is he all right?” Paige was standing by the door in the corner, eyes narrowed in concern. “He’s injured, isn’t he?”
“He is,” Quorra said. The bruise on his forehead was just visible beneath his hair. “He took a bad fall on the lightcycle grid. We were hoping he would be better after some rest, and whenever I ask he tells me he’s fine, but I don't think he really is...”
“And he won’t admit it,” Paige finished. “Well, he’s not very good at keeping secrets.”
“Not as good as me,” Quorra said without thinking. To her surprise, Paige only nodded, looking thoughtful.
“His program was better at it, too. Sometimes.” She hesitated a moment, then asked, a little quieter, “Does he know? Your secret?”
Quorra’s hands twitched again, but she was able to keep them uncurled at her sides. She shook her head shortly. “I want to tell him, but I don’t know how he’ll react.”
“If you want him to be honest with you, you might want to try being honest yourself.”
Quorra didn’t answer. Paige wasn’t wrong, and she knew it, but the thought of telling Alan the truth—about being an ISO, about everything—sent a thrill of terror snaking through her limbs.
Paige must have misinterpreted her silence, because she cleared her throat and said, “Well, it’s just a suggestion.” She glanced around, uncomfortable, and her gaze settled on the instrument still resting at the edge of the table. “Uh—do you want to hear a song I’ve been working on?”
“A song?” Quorra was grateful for the change in subject, but she couldn’t mask her surprise. “Really?”
“Sure,” Paige said, though the way she refused to look Quorra in the eye said that she was already regretting volunteering to play. “It’s not finished yet, so it’s not that good, and I don’t usually play demos for anyone, but—”
“I’d love to!”
Paige paused, and then she smiled, and retrieved the instrument from the table before going back to the corner door. “Come on,” she said, opening the door, “I don’t want to wake the User.”
“Good idea.” Quorra glanced one last time at Alan, still asleep, before she put aside her troubled thoughts and followed Paige out of the room.
A gentle melody tugged Alan out of the haze of unconsciousness. He kept his eyes closed for a moment, drifting along with the tune--the beat of it pulsed softly as notes overlayed themselves one after another, muffled but audible. He shifted a little, still half-asleep, and just listened to the melody, letting his breathing coincide with the rhythm. It was the voices that woke him fully, two familiar ones, and they sounded, against all odds, friendly. He slowly lifted his head off of his arms, propping himself up on one hand, and rubbed his eyes a little. Even with his blurred vision he could tell the door across the room was open slightly. The melodies, and Quorra and Paige's voices, were floating through the crack. While he was awake enough now to hear a sort of caution to their tones, there was no trace of anger or unhappiness.
“They must’ve had a hell of a talk,” he muttered. Now that he was mostly awake, the medley of aches that seemed to be ever-increasing made themselves known, though his head did feel a little better. As he rubbed at the muscles in his neck, strained from falling asleep at the table, the melody drifting from the doorway changed, now a little more upbeat. He heard Paige ask a question, and then Quorra laughed, her voice rising in volume before dropping away again. Maybe they were trying to stay quiet for him. He resolved to let them think he was sleeping a little longer. If they’d been able to work things out, all the better for everyone else, and besides, Quorra sounded happy. At least someone was.
Alan pushed the chair back from the table, stretching his legs, and heard a sound almost like marbles rolling across tile—he had kicked some of the remains of the broken chair, still piled up nearby. He tensed immediately, hands balling up, but forced them to open again as he reminded himself that these were just pieces of an object, not a program. It didn’t make him feel much better. Object or program, the remains still looked uncomfortably similar.
He shook himself a little, silently admonishing himself to get it together. It was just a piece of a chair, there was nothing to be upset about. They were just like the pieces that had broken off the damaged light-runner back in the garage. He flexed his left hand, remembering the static-like shock that had sparked against it when he touched the cracked section of the vehicle. Would these feel the same way? He leaned over, eyeing the pile, and reluctantly reached out a hand. He stopped just before touching the cubes, his hand hovering just an inch away, before making a frustrated noise and scooping up a handful of the tiny voxels.
There was no shock, which he half-expected—these remnants were inert, unconnected to a whole. They were strangely heavy for their size, and a little cold to the touch. He rolled them around the palm of his hand, the opaque cubes clinking dully against each other. They piled together in the center of his palm, and as he touched a couple with the fingers of his other hand, he didn't notice the warmth rising up from his arms until the cubes began, just barely, to glow. He almost dropped them in surprise, but close his hand just in time, keeping them in place. He opened it again to find the cubes had fused, still glowing warmly, into an uneven strip.
He stared at the strip, and then slowly reached down for another handful of cubes. His hand was still warm, and they began to glow slightly as he examined them. Shrugging to himself, he pressed them into the strip. They found their places easily, thin blue lines demarcating exactly where they were meant to go. He held onto the now-longer strip for a moment, letting the tingling warmth flow from his hands into it, before setting it down tentatively on the table. It held together, uneven but solid, and when he glanced downward to check, he could see that it looked very similar to the legs of the chair he was sitting on.
“Not bad,” he murmured to himself, running his fingers over the edge of his new creation. As he touched it, an image flashed into his head, but it wasn’t of the arena or the lightrunner—it was a partial line of code. No, not quite; it was more the feeling of code, the intention behind a line as you typed it. Each cube was one more little piece, filling in gaps, yearning to be useful. He laughed under his breath, wondering how an inert piece of data could yearn, but it was the only word that fit. He reached down for another handful, but stopped himself, remembering what had happened with the lightrunner. It wouldn’t be a good idea to waste all his energy playing with a handful of chair fragments, but he couldn't help but want to continue. He almost enjoyed way the cubes melded together so easily, the satisfaction of a new piece fitting just so into a gap.
Carefully, he scooped up one last handful, and pressed them gently to the end of the uneven bar. They quickly found their places, completing the leg of the chair. He turned it over slowly, inspecting his work, and felt oddly satisfied. It looked pretty solid, and matched the legs of the chair it had come from, which was still leaning against the wall nearby. He looked at the chair, and then at the leg, and got up out of his seat. Kneeling down, he took the chair in one hand and hefted the leg in the other, matching up the edges, before carefully pressing the uneven sections together.
More of the strange warmth rose slowly up out of his arms into the two pieces as he concentrated, trying to guide the energy along to the proper areas. Half-formed pieces of data found their missing sections, sealing themselves back together one by one. A smile tugged at the corner of his mouth as he watched chair become nearly whole once more--but then his head throbbed, a bright streak of pain right behind his eyes. The warmth disappeared from his hands as he brought his hand up to his head, dropping the chair. It landed with a loud thump on its newly-attached leg, which snapped, and the rest of it went down with another thud.
The door to the back room slid fully open, and Alan looked up to see Paige and Quorra staring down at him with identical looks of surprise.
“Uh,” he said, still on his knees, the chair laying on its side in front of him. “Hi.”
“Are you okay?” Quorra crossed the room to him and knelt down. “Did you fall? Are you hurt?”
“Oh—no, no,” he said, wondering if he really looked that fragile. “I just dropped this,” he continued with a gesture at the chair. “I was trying to fix it.”
Quorra laughed a little, sounding relieved, then looked up at Paige, who had moved her side. Paige glanced down at the chair, then at Alan, frowning.
“Don’t bother,” she said. She picked up the chair and leaned it against the wall, out of the way, before rounding on Alan again. “You shouldn’t waste your energy on something like that. You’ll need it later.”
“All right, sorry,” Alan muttered, bristling slightly at being scolded. He got to his feet and sat back at the table, a little peeved. He had only been messing around, and he really did feel fine. The feeling was already coming back in his fingers, the coldness dissipating quicker than it had before, and the pain in his head had receded as quickly as it had come.
“Just take care of yourself,” Paige went on, not noticing Alan’s irritation. She glanced at the bruise still lingering below his hairline. “If you get hurt, I don’t know if I’ll be able to help you.”
She sounded uncomfortable at the thought. Alan remembered what Quorra had told him earlier, that Paige had once been a medic. Maybe her brusqueness was just worry after all. Feeling a sudden wave of sympathy—he knew he could be just as snappy when he was worried about something--Alan nodded to her, and she seemed satisfied with that, because she went went back through the door again. It stayed open, and Alan could see a small bedroom beyond. On a little table near the door was the square instrument, the buttons still lit up. She tapped a section on the side of it, and their light went out.
As she stepped back outside, shutting the door, Alan spoke up. “Did you write that song?”
She stopped, taken aback. “What?”
“I heard music when I woke up. It sounded nice,” he said. “You’re talented.”
“Oh,” she said. She looked at Quorra, who nodded happily in agreement, and then away from both of them, and it occurred to Alan that maybe she was embarrassed. “Thank you,” she said, and then she suddenly crossed the room to the front door. “I’m going to check on things. I’ll be outside if you need me.” She was out the door before either of them could say another word.
Alan blinked, a little surprised, and looked at Quorra. She looked similarly mystified, but as their eyes met, she let out a small giggle. Alan grinned as she tried to hide her laughter behind her hand, and chuckled a little himself. It felt good to laugh. “I think I flustered her,” he said.
Quorra nodded, sitting down beside him.“I don’t think she meant for you to hear her play.”
“I only heard a little bit. It really did sound nice.” He looked at her over his glasses, still smiling slightly. “You two seem to be getting along better. Did you have a talk with her?”
“Something like that,” Quorra said with a returned smile. “I think we’re on the same page now.”
“I’m glad you cleared things up,” Alan said, and he meant it. Quorra seemed a little more spirited than when she'd left, which seemed like a good sign. “How about that person that wanted to see you—Zuse? How’d it go?”
“It went okay. It took some bargaining, but he agreed to help us.”
“He wanted some information in return. Don’t worry,” Quorra said quickly, “I didn’t tell him anything big. Just that I needed to get into arcade without being seen. I didn’t say who was with me or why.” She hesitated, then said, “I think he assumed you were nearby, but here are a lot of rumors going around about where you went after the lightcycle grid, so that isn’t too big a deal. As long as we can get this done, we should be all right. As soon as everyone’s in place, we’ll be able to get going. It won’t be long.”
“If you say so,” Alan said. He wasn’t sure he wanted to know the specifics of those rumors, remembering the rebel programs who had come with whispers and glances. He raised a hand to his forehead almost automatically to ward off the incoming stress-induced twinge.
“Are you feeling okay?” Quorra asked. “I didn’t expect you to fall asleep again.”
“Oh. I didn’t either, actually,” he said. “It just…happened. I feel a little better than I did before, though.” He smiled at her, trying to ignore the niggling feeling that perhaps she was right to look as concerned as she did. No matter how much sleep he got, he always seemed to need a little more. That was worrying, he guessed, but there was nothing he could do about it if he wasn’t totally alright, anyway. Once this was over, they would go back to the Safehouse, and he could rest up as much as he wanted while they waited to see what would happen next.
“I should probably take it easy after all of this,” he conceded. “But it’ll be fine. Don’t worry.”
“If you say so,” she said with a smile, but it didn't last as long as he had expected it to, fading away into a strange frown. She looked at him for a moment, then opened her mouth as if she was about to say something, but quickly shut it again.
Alan frowned. Her high spirits had dissipated almost instantly, so quickly that some of the tension he'd been trying to rid himself started to creep back into his neck and shoulders. “What’s wrong?”
“I…” she said, then trailed off. Her hands tightened into fists, but then opened again, as if she was forcing herself to try to relax. She took a breath and started again. “I need to tell you something.”
Her tone was suddenly much graver, the playfulness gone. An involuntary thrill of worry spread outward from his core, settling coldly in his limbs. “What is it?”
“I haven’t told you everything,” she said. “There's...something I've been lying to you about. I didn’t want to, but I thought it was the best way…”
A dozen thoughts raced through Alan’s head—what had she been hiding? Was she alright? Was Flynn alright? Had something gone wrong?—but he only took a short breath through his nose, and said, trying to seem unconcerned, “Okay. Go ahead.”
“I’m—” She looked down at her lap, but raised her head again almost immediately, and took another breath. “I’m an ISO.”
There was a pause. Quorra stared at Alan almost blankly, looking frozen, as if she couldn’t believe what she had said. Alan stared at her, trying to figure out how to react.
“Oh,” he said. That wasn’t at all what he had been expecting, but it was still a shock. “I—oh. You are?”
It took her a moment to nod. She answered out loud after a moment, faintly, sounding like even the single word was costing her much more than Alan could understand. “Yes.”
“I’m—I’m sorry, but I thought they were all—”
“Gone. They are. It’s just me. I’m the last of them.” She crossed her arms around her torso, not meeting his eyes. “The rest were hunted down. I thought it was only a matter of time until I was too, but then…Flynn found me. He saved me. That’s why we’ve both been in the Safehouse. He wanted a place we could both be protected.”
“From Clu.” Alan remembered the steely look Quorra wore every time he was mentioned, the distance as she spoke about the ISOs. “Well. Things makes a lot more sense now.” He watched her, but she didn’t look up. Certain other things were starting to have more clarity now, too. “Paige knows, doesn’t she?”
Quorra nodded. “She’s the only program who does. I don’t want any of the others to know.”
“I don’t blame you.” Alan reached forward and touched her arm. “They won’t hear about it from me. I promise.”
Quorra glanced up at him, and after a moment she placed her hand over his, and gave him a small smile. He squeezed her arm, wanting to alleviate at least a little of her obvious discomfort.
“Thank you for telling me,” he said. “I’m sure it was hard.”
She nodded again, but didn’t speak. She still looked troubled, her smile fading again. Alan tried to think of something to say—but what could you say to the sole survivor of a genocide? What could you do to make them feel better? He was out of his depth once again.
He was saved from having to worry further, however, by the opening of the front door. Quorra let go of his hand as Paige entered, and Alan let go of her arm, reluctantly leaning back in his seat. Paige didn’t notice the looks on either of their faces—she lingered by the doorway, a hand on the frame to keep it open.
“We just received word that Clu’s ship has been spotted over the Outlands,” she said. “Come outside.”
“He’s what?” Alan shot to his feet and hurried after her, Quorra right behind him. “He’s coming back?”
“Not quite,” Paige said. “The trajectory’s wrong, he’s heading somewhere else. It might just be another leg of his tour of the Grid, but we don’t have time to wait and find out. We need to get going now.”
“Is everything set? Did Zuse get in touch?” Quorra asked as they traipsed single-file down the stairs to the alley below.
“Bartik spoke with Castor. They set everything up. We’re just waiting for the go-ahead.”
“What’s the plan?” Alan asked.
“A group of programs are already waiting at the top of the tower. Zuse is providing them with a place to wait, and some extra weaponry. He gave us the patrol schedule for his sector, too. The rest of us are going over from here. Once we arrive, they’ll make some noise and distract the sentries while we get in and out as fast as we can.”
“Sounds simple enough,” Alan said, trying to ignore the was his hands had gone clammy. As they reached the bottom of the stairs, a few programs came into view, including Hopper and Bartik. The group seemed to be talking, but very quietly. Bartik gave them a nod, but quickly resumed his conversation—it looked like he was giving instructions. Hopper broke away from the group and headed towards the trio, carrying something in his hands.
“Here,” he said, “it’s the sector we’re all supposed to meet up at if we get separated.” He held out what looked like a thin hexagonal token, almost translucent. Alan went to take it, but as soon as he touched the token, something flashed behind his eyes: it was like he was driving quickly through numerous alleys and passages under a massive ceiling covered in circuits, turning corners at breakneck speed, before arriving suddenly at a building, squat but wide, at the edge of the city. The rocky terrain beyond it was dark and empty, and he thought he could see a glimpse of what looked like the ocean much further in the distance, before the vision was gone just as quickly as it had arrived. Alan shook his head, bewildered, as he tried to clear it.
“Sorry,” Hopper said, though he didn't bother to hide a snicker, “I forgot you’ve probably never used one of those. The sector information’s been uploaded onto your disc now, you won’t need to take this.”
“A warning would’ve been nice,” Alan muttered, though he did have to admit it was a handy tool. He DID know exactly where this building—a garage, the word came to him softly—where the garage was now, on almost the opposite end of the city from where he and Quorra had entered hours before. He knew intuitively that he could walk to it now, on his own, without any issues, as long as he didn’t run into any sentries on the way. It was a strange sensation, but not bad. “At least I won’t get lost.”
“That’s the idea, User. Hey,” Hopper added suddenly, frowning at him. “Where’s your baton?”
“What? Oh,” Alan said. He’d almost forgotten that he’d taken Flynn’s baton in the first place, let alone that Quorra had hidden it. “I, uh…I lost it.”
“Seriously?” Hopper shook his head and unhooked a second baton from his side. “Here,” he said, tossing it in Alan’s direction. Alan caught the baton clumsily, but managed to hold onto it. Hopper smirked, but his tone was only teasing. “Nice catch. Try not to lose that one, okay?”
“I won’t,” Alan said, a little surprised. “Uh…thanks.”
Hopper gave him a thumbs-up before turning back to the group, who seemed to be wrapping up their discussion. Alan carefully attached the new baton to its intended place on his thigh, making sure it didn’t snag on his coat. After a moment he reached over his shoulder, making sure his disc was still in place too. His fingers brushed the edge of it, and he could feel the weight of it as the slight movement tugged at the dock. He lowered his hands again, and hoped he wouldn’t have to use either tool until they reached the arcade.
The group at the mouth of the alley at last dispersed, the programs leaving in pairs or trios, waiting a few minutes between groups. Paige remained near the stairwell, arms crossed as she watched the others leave. Bartik gave another short nod to Alan and the flicker of a smile to Quorra as he exited with a pair of programs, and shortly after Hopper flipped them all a salute before leaving on his own, the last of the group. Paige went to the end of the alley, and turned back to face them, beckoning them towards her.
“You two next,” she said as they joined her. She looked to Quorra, saying, “You know the way. Don’t rush, but don’t take too long either. I’ll be right behind you.”
Quorra nodded. “See you soon,” she said, and she started off, heading away from the alley. Alan quickly followed, putting his hood back up again. As they reached the end of the street and took another turn, he glanced back. Paige was still watching, and she gave him a short twitch of the head before turning on her heel and disappearing back into the alley.
The trip to the center of the city was short, or maybe that was just because of Alan’s nerves. He couldn’t stop thinking about what he was about to do, repeating Flynn’s instructions over and over to himself. Once you get to the arcade, all you need to do is hold your disc over the terminal. It’ll be pretty obvious how to proceed. Send a message if the terminal works, but leave as quickly as you can. He didn’t want to think about what he would do if the terminal DIDN’T work.
He stuck close to Quorra as he walked, trusting her to lead the way, and eventually her footsteps slowed to a halt. As they drew closer to the mouth of the alley they were in, Alan suddenly recognized the area—there was the enormous tower he had seen through the arcade building’s doors upon taking his first steps onto the Grid, looming over the rest of the buildings. It was hard to believe that was only, at most, a few days before. It felt like months.
The plaza was busier than it had been upon his arrival. A few programs milled about near the elevator, waiting for it to touch down; a couple others were chatting on the sidewalk nearby. None of them looked in the direction of any of the sentries who were surveying the area, stationed at intervals along the road. Alan and Quorra lingered, remaining in the shadows. As they did so, Alan noticed Bartik among the group near the elevator entrance, leaning against the wall with his arms crossed. A few moments later, there was movement from across the plaza: Hopper was walking with another program, strolling along the sidewalk in the direction of the main tower.
“Wait for the signal.” Alan jumped--Paige was suddenly at his shoulder. He hadn’t heard her approach at all. She edged past him, eyes focused on the plaza ahead. “We’ll need to be quick.”
She drew her disc, and Quorra followed suit. Alan wondered if he should draw his too, but a flash caught his eye. The elevator was approaching the ground, illuminating a row of lights built along its track with each floor it passed. Below, with only the barest of glances towards their own position in the alley, Bartik slipped something behind his back, and then pushed off from the wall, heading in the direction of the elevator entrance with the other programs. A small red circle remained on the wall where he had been standing, and as Alan watched, sections of the circle began to blink out. He felt Quorra and Paige tense up beside him, and curled his hands into fists, readying himself to run. The elevator slowed, settling at last, and a soft ding announced its arrival. The note echoed quietly across the plaza just as the final red light of the circle on the wall disappeared.
An instant later, the wall shattered with a clap of thunder, chunks of it hurtling into a nearby sentry. Simultaneously, a crowed of programs poured out of the elevator, discs raised and blazing, their shouts just audible above the explosion. They swarmed another sentry before he could even draw his disc.
“That’s our cue,” Paige said. She grabbed Alan by the arm and pulled him out of the alley, veering off to the left. Quorra followed right behind, disc raised in one hand as she hefted her baton in the other. They raced down the sidewalk toward the arcade door; yells and more bursts of thunder filled the air. Alan threw an anxious glance over his shoulder as they reached the door, fearing pursuit, but there were no sentries behind them, no one looking in their direction at all. The rebel programs were edging away from the arcade, drawing attention, and the plaza was already hazy from smoke and flying debris as yet another wall suffered the effects of a light grenade.
Paige wrenched open the door, and the three of them slipped into the darkened interior of the building. “Where now?” she asked, making sure to shut the door behind them.
“Downstairs,” Alan said, and he shot off across the empty arcade floor, heading for the door he knew would be at the other end. It was almost too dark to see, but he relied on his memory of the arcade layout. The Tron cabinet would’ve been just about… “Here!” he said, as his hands found what his eyes couldn’t. He wrenched the door open and sped down the hallway beyond, the girls right behind him. The door to the basement room was still slightly ajar from when he had flung it open upon exiting the first time. Alan hurried into the room, Quorra entering right after. Paige didn’t step inside, staying just beyond the doorway.
“Whatever it is you’re going to do, do it fast,” she said. “I’ll keep watch. Head back upstairs when you’re finished.” She whirled around and disappeared back up the stairs to the upper level, leaving them alone.
The basement was unchanged from when Alan had last been in it. There was the desk, and the grating above it, though the light coming in from the street above was murky. Distant shouts and crashes drifted down to them, muffled by the glass and concrete. Alan approached the desk, wanting to get this over with quickly--god only knew how much time they had. Quorra lingered in the doorway, looking around the room.
“The terminal’s over here,” Alan said to her over his shoulder. He reached up and undocked his disc. Once you get to the arcade, all you need to do is hold your disc over the terminal. He gripped it in both hands, hesitating for a moment. What if this didn’t work? Flynn said he wasn’t sure it would. And if it did work, if he was able to send a message, what if there was no one to read it? What if Lora or Roy never found the basement after all?
"Alan?" Quorra was at his shoulder now, her face pale in the hazy blue light.
"Sorry," he said. All of those things were out of his control, but this wasn’t. He had to trust that his family would find them, and this was how he could help them do so. "Here goes nothing, I guess." He took a deep breath and extended his arms, holding the disc in the air above the terminal.
Another explosion echoed from somewhere above, the shock-wave vibrating through the walls and floor. The terminal remained dark, its surface unchanging. Alan lowered the disc a few inches, gritting his teeth against the sudden panicked thought that this wasn’t going to work after all—and then the outer edge of the disc began to glow.
A ring of concentric circles blinked into life on the desk's surface directly below the disc, rippling outward rhythmically. After a few pulses, a faint beam of light rose from the desk towards the disc, hot and bright. Alan stepped back instinctively, pulling his hand away. The disc did not come with him; it slipped out of his fingers, stationary in the air above the terminal. The beam between the disk and the terminal brightened, and handful of hexagonal shapes of varying sizes drifted down lazily through the beam, disappearing just before they touched the glass below.
The surface of the desk darkened, and then flared up again. Thin lines radiated across the surface, forming into a keyboard identical to the one on its real-world counterpart. A small text box extended above it, its cursor blinking in readiness. Alan let out a breath, smiling in relief, as the disc raised a few inches higher, giving him room to lean over the desk to type. The ring of light at its edge pulsed gently as particles of data floated above it, forming into the now-expected rendition of a face. The particles quickly began to settle, but even before they had finished assembling into familiar features and planes, Alan's smile had slipped away. The face he was looking at, revolving gently in place as the faint light from the grating shone down on it, was not his own.
It was Flynn’s.
The floor beneath Alan’s boots trembled from the force of another explosion. Some of the yelling sounded closer now, fiercer. Alan continued to stare uncomprehendingly up at the display.
"Wait," he murmured. "That's not..." He looked at Quorra, expecting the same confusion, but she was watching the display grimly, her hands balled into fists at her sides. As she looked back to Alan, there was a flash of light from the window, illuminating her face for a moment. There was no sign of surprise in it at all.
Alan looked helplessly from her, to the disc display, and back again."That's not my disc,” he said weakly.
“I know it’s not.” Her voice was soft, almost cautious. She took a step closer. "I’m sorry. I'll explain everything, I promise, but--"
"I-I don't—” The reality of it was sinking in achingly slow, his confusion mounting. “Where’s mine?”
“Flynn has it.” Light flashed outside again, red and blinding. Quorra glanced up at the grating before touching Alan’s arm. “Alan, I’m sorry,” she said again, “I’m sorry I lied—I wanted to tell you, I tried--but we don’t have time right now--”
“You tried?” His mouth was dry. He took another breath. “This is what you wanted to tell me—not about the ISOs, it was this—”
“I am an ISO, Alan, that wasn’t a lie—but I wanted to tell you, I did, but Flynn asked me not to,” she said, almost stumbling over her words, “he said you’d be upset, that you wouldn’t understand!”
“But why would…” She was right. He didn’t understand. He didn’t want to understand. “Why would he switch them?” Quorra was shaking her head, but he grabbed her hand, his fingers wrapping around it so tight that his knuckles went white. “Quorra, why did he switch them?”
She didn’t flinch away, but her eyes squeezed shut—out of pain or guilt, it was impossible to tell—before she looked at him again. “I’ll tell you everything once we get out of here, but right now we have to hurry,” she said, and the building shook again, punctuating her words. She took another step forward and pushed him closer to the terminal. “Please, Alan, I don’t know how much time we’ll have--you need to write your message now!”
They stared at each other for a long moment. Finally, Alan let go of her hand, and with one last glance at the face rotating serenely above them, he leaned over the terminal, his fingers finding their places above the keyboard. His hands were trembling. He swallowed and forced himself to take a few experimental taps at the keys. They registered instantly in the text box.
$This is ISOlatedThinker
He blew out a shaky breath, flexing his fingers. It was the only thing he could think of that would convince either Lora or Roy beyond a shadow of a doubt that the person who had left the message was him. He gave himself a little shake, trying to concentrate, and kept going.
$SHIVA laser active and functional
$Flynn was using it for human digitization—successfully
$I digitized myself too
$Flynn is alive, in hiding
$Programs hunting for him—they’re like people, there are whole cities in here
$This was Flynn’s project but the programs turned on him and he couldn’t escape
$The laser turns off automatically after a while and there’s no way back out if it’s off
$Turn it back on, but DO NOT DIGITIZE YOURSELF
$Keep it on as long as you can
$I don’t know how long it will take for us get out
$Please don’t leave until we’re back outside
$I love you
Alan’s fingers slipped, and he had to take a moment to catch his breath. His fingers hovered over the keyboard uncertainly, but not because he didn’t know what else to say—he had too much to say, his mind racing with all the information he knew he needed to convey. His hands wouldn’t stop shaking; he kept having to delete lines and retype them, fearful of making any mistakes. If Roy or Lora didn’t understand what he was trying to say, there was no telling what might happen. He tried to continue, typing a few more lines.
$Too much to say
$Programs fighting each other but we have some help
$Trying to fix everything
$Program C.L.U. dangerous, delete if possible
His hands were shaking too much to continue, his fingers sliding over the keyboard unsteadily. That would have to do. From the sounds echoing from outside, they didn’t have much time left anyway. He struck the enter key twice instinctively, hoping it was the right move. The text window glowed, and then parts of it seemed to dissolve, drifting out of the screen itself and upward towards the disc, pixel by pixel. As the first particles reached the disc, its edge went dark, and then a small section illuminated. Another section lit up about ten seconds later as more pieces of data uploaded themselves.
The ring was a third of the way full when a massive explosion from just beyond the grating, so close it made Alan’s ears ring, shook the foundation of the building. He stumbled against the terminal, holding himself up by the edge, as a handful of dull cubes rained down from the ceiling. Quorra looked around apprehensively, her gaze shifting to the grating above. The light was much dimmer now, the haze above too thick for anything to shine through it. The shaking continued, as if something massive was moving along the street outside.
Quorra grabbed Alan’s elbow. “I think something’s wrong—that sounds like—”
The door behind them slammed open, rebounding off the wall as Paige rushed inside, her disc drawn. “We need to go!”
Quorra drew her own disc automatically. “What’s happening?”
“Tanks,” Paige said, “Carrying Blackguards. They know we’re here, they’re right outside—we have to go now!”
“Wait,” Alan said helplessly, looking from her to the disc—it was only half-illuminated. “I’m not finished—”
“It’ll have to be enough! There’s no time!” She grabbed him by the shoulder and tried to pull him away from the terminal. He shook her off, about to protest again as one more segment of the circle lit up, but another explosion rocked the building, sending all of them stumbling as a tremor ran through the floor. The wall around the grating cracked, bright blue lines radiating upward and out as the structural code began to deteriorate. Paige struggled to her feet, reaching for Alan’s shoulder again.
“User,” she said, “we need to go!”
The building was truly beginning to quake now; the shaking didn’t relent as the rumble outside grew to almost deafening levels. Alan staggered from the tremors, catching himself on the wall. The ceiling began to fracture too, sections of it going translucent as the cracks in the wall continued to spread. A blue-white vein split the concrete beneath Alan’s palm, and he could feel the data beneath with a surge of heat, the code rending itself apart. Energy and information burned into him; he tore his hands away with a yell, but even as the pain registered it was muted by the sudden knowledge, clear as glass, that Paige was right. The building was only a few blows away from caving beneath its own weight, and the basement would be buried in the collapse, taking all three of them and the terminal, their only chance, with it.
He shoved himself to his feet and lurched for the terminal. The circle was not yet complete, but he reached up with both hands and seized the disc still floating motionless in the air. The disc was hot, almost searing, as he wrenched at it. It shifted a few centimeters but resisted, the swirling light connecting it to the terminal flickering unsteadily. He braced his heel against the edge of the terminal and pulled as hard as he could, grunting with the effort. With a huge jerk, the disc dislodged from its position, and Alan pitched backwards, falling—and stopping just a couple feet above the still-trembling floor as Paige caught him roughly under the shoulders. Quorra quickly grabbed his wrists, and they hauled him back to his feet.
“Let’s go!” Paige yelled, her voice just audible over the rumble of the building, and the pair of them together took Alan by an arm and steered him to the exit. He looked frantically down at the disc in his hands as he was carried along, and he felt his heart sink into his stomach as he saw the edge of the disc, fully illuminated save for two small segments. He wanted to scream, but there was no time to stop—Paige was tearing up the stairs ahead of them as Quorra held the door open for him, still clutching at his arm. Alan docked Flynn’s disc and took her hand, and together they bolted up the stairs to whatever was waiting for them above.