Monday afternoon: the orange light of the falling sun filled the rooms and corridors in the building. People were coming and going, talking loud, with stacks of paper and coffee cups in their hands. Alan Bradley was making his way toward the elevator slowly. The usual vibe of ENCOM, he was thinking while he was waiting for the door to open; he was going to miss this.
He stepped into the cubicle and the doors closed. He saw his own reflection on the surface of the shiny metal; a pale face with large eyeglasses, business casual outfit. The elevator stopped and the doors opened up. Alan walked out. It was quieter up here, on the floor of the executive offices. Framed posters were hanging on the walls: Space Paranoids, Vice Squad, Matrix Blaster and Light Cycles – Kevin Flynn’s famous video games.
“Hello, Betty,” Alan said. “Is he in the office?”
The secretary got on her feet immediately. After his unexpected health scare two weeks earlier people had become like that around him, Alan noticed, jumpy and anxious. He was the chairman of the company after all; or was the reaction genuine and people actually cared for him? Alan was not sure and soon it was not going to make a difference anyway.
“He is in,” she replied. “Would you like to sit while he comes? Can I get you a coffee?”
The door of the main office opened suddenly. Flynn must have heard them talking and he walked out with long, quick steps. He looked like as usual, somewhat disheveled, high on caffeine, with the dark circles of sleep deprivation around his eyes. Flynn reached out and grabbed Alan’s shoulder. There was the same concern on his face that Alan saw everywhere around himself since he had collapsed in his office two weeks earlier.
“How are you?” Flynn asked once they were seated in the office. In there nothing changed since Alan’s last visit: there were disassembled computers and parts everywhere. Behind the large desk a giant TRON sign was hanging on the wall.
“Well, that is actually why I am here to talk to you,” Alan replied. Flynn’s expression darkened. Were they co-workers? Yes. Friends? Not to the point where Alan would have come here to share his issues, had those not been affecting the company.
“I heard Lora is in town,” Flynn said, as if he was trying to delay the announcement for a minute.
“She flew back on Saturday. She took time off and she is staying for now.”
They were looking at each other quietly.
“I have Glioblastoma,” Alan said. “Highly malignant, not operable.”
Flynn stared at his own hands on the table.
“You need to get a second opinion,” he said finally, and his voice was like a whisper.
“I did get a second opinion. I have six months left to live.”
Alan pulled out a sheet of paper and put it on the table.
“This is my resignation from the company,” he said. Flynn did not move.
“What will happen?” Flynn asked. He seemed to be stunned.
“After my resignation period, we are moving to Washington. Jet’s school is there, so as Lora’s work. I think…”
“No,” Flynn said suddenly. He was on his feet. “There are other options.”
“I wish there were,” Alan replied. He was not even angry; perhaps he had expected this. He was facing the biggest challenge of his life and Flynn was being his eccentric self.
“We have other options,” Flynn repeated, reaching for his jacket. He seemed to be slightly maniacal, just as when he was talking about his software related ideas. “Give me some time and I will get back to you.”
With that he put his jacket on, picked up his bike keys and stormed out from his office. Alan rubbed his temple and he stood up. He looked at the TRON sign above the desk; he sighed and started walking to the elevator.
Alan spent the days with the transition process; he assumed that by the end of the week he would be able to finish. Lora would drop him off and pick him up from work every day; Alan had been advised not to drive anymore, because of the possible sudden seizures. For now he felt fine, except for the heavy migraines.
Lora was composed; she would wake up at dawn to call her parents in Washington, before they would take Jet to school. Then she and Alan would have breakfast together and she would drive him to work. After that Lora would spend the day with packing; in a few days a moving truck would come for the boxes and the two of them would board a plane to Washington.
She was like that, when they first spoke about the illness that would change their lives forever. Lora must have known that something unexpected had happened, when Alan asked her to come, but he could not make himself break the news over the phone. The conversation came right after Lora arrived: he saw the cab coming, her, getting out and walking to the door with her rolling suitcase. He opened the door and they embraced. Lora put her suitcase aside and dropped her coat on the sofa, turning at Alan with an expectant look on her face. He spoke and when he finished, Lora nodded silently. Alan was stunned by her composure, until a few minutes later, when she excused herself with a blank face and she went to the bathroom. Soon after Alan heard the glass breaking inside and he rushed in. He found Lora crouched on the tile floor, with bloody marks on her face, where her nails had dug into her skin. Alan reached out in a hurry to stop her from hurting herself; but when he pulled away Lora’s hands from her face, there were strands of blonde hair, which she had yanked out from her scalp in the moments of distress. Lora looked up at him and there was madness in her eyes. It was the expression of somebody, who was seeing her world coming down tumbling and was about to tear herself to pieces in grief.
“You can’t stay,” she said later. She calmed down by then; they were sitting in the living room with their cups of tea in their hands.
“Just one week,” Alan replied. “Until I wrap up everything, I owe the company that much. I owe him that much.”
Lora shook her head.
“You would stay too,” Alan said and to that, she slowly nodded. With that, they began their last week in the city – his last week in the city, for good, Alan realized at one point.
He did not see Flynn until Friday afternoon. That was Alan’s last working day at ENCOM. Flynn showed up in Alan’s office at lunchtime; Alan’s secretary was on a break, such as the two young executives, that had been there all week, sorting out the files and making notes on the ongoing projects. Alan was sitting at the window with a cup of tea and a sandwich on a plate. By now the word has gone out and everybody at ENCOM knew about his illness – and Alan did not want the words of pity and compassion, not from strangers in a middle of a cafeteria.
Alan looked at the open door when he heard Flynn knocking on the frame.
“Come on in,” Alan said. Flynn walked in and looked over the piles of papers.
“How are you doing?” he asked.
“Fine, thanks. We are almost done.”
Flynn sat down across the table. Alan could tell that he had come to say something, but for now Flynn was stirring awkwardly. Alan finished his tea.
“There might be a way for you to get healed,” Flynn said finally. Alan gave him a stern look. Flynn jumped on his feet and began walking back and forth. He combed through his hair with his fingers. Alan saw that his secretary and his two assistants came back from their lunch break; they were peeking inside the office curiously. Kevin Flynn turned around, smiled at them and closed the door quickly.
“There is something I need to tell you about,” he told Alan. “I should have done it, long time ago. I understand, that you might get upset, but hear me out.”
Alan nodded, without thinking much of what would come. And Flynn spoke, of the night when he, Lora and Alan had broken into the ENCOM building, about the Shiva laser, about a great adventure inside a computer, about another, hidden civilization. He spoke of a new race emerging from a sea, about genetic algorithms, quantum teleportation. When he finished, he looked at Alan with feverish eyes.
“Are you on drugs?” Alan asked after a minute of silence.
“It is true, Alan. This will change everything. Science, medicine, religion.”
“Right. You were mysteriously teleported to the ENCOM mainframe seven years ago. And you are making the same trip more or less on a daily basis, but nobody knows about it. You claim this to be a true story, but you never told me, Lora or Walter, who had actually put the laser together.”
“I… I didn’t tell you at the beginning and later I just couldn’t… It was too late. I am sorry about that. But I’m telling you about it, because there is a way that you could be healed. There.”
Alan was looking at Flynn silently. He did not believe a word he had just heard, but he could not think of any reason for Flynn to come up with such story. He did not appear to be under the influence and while Alan knew him as fairly light-minded at times, he would not expect Flynn to be insensible enough to approach him with a lie, knowing well how much a chance to live and a crushed hope would affect his friend.
“How?” Alan asked. “By these… ISOs? Do they have medical equipment and knowledge that we don’t possess here?”
“No. These are programs, with different… no biology. There are no emergency rooms and operating theatres. What is there… numbers. Algorithms. Eventually we can be all broken down to numbers and a digital DNA. I talked to them about it and they think it is possible. To locate the disease in your… codes, and to erase it. And so, you would be healed.”
“Was there any experiment before? Have they ever tinkered with your codes? Did they ever heal you from any injury?” Alan asked.
“No,” Flynn admitted. “They do it to each other. I have never been involved. What I… we are offering, is completely theoretical and have not been tried before. But…”
“But what?” Alan asked. Flynn remained silent and turned his head away, somewhat embarrassed. Alan figured what he meant to say. “But I don’t have anything to lose. Right. Except for dying on the spot. That way I would lose that six months or whatever time I have left to live, the time I could spend with my wife and my son.”
“Yes,” Flynn replied, looking in his eye. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have implied that.”
“Right. You are also assuming that I actually believe in the existence of your magical people.”
“It’s not exactly something you have to believe in. The laser exists. The computer is there. I can take you there and you can observe, without making any decisions. You can enter the Grid and come back to think about the plan. You can opt the procedure out or you can come back later and go through with it.”
Alan nodded slowly.
“I will think about it,” he said. Flynn stood up.
“When are you leaving?” he asked.
“Today is my last day. We are flying out tomorrow morning.”
Flynn gestured surprisedly.
“I am done with the work here, and I don’t want to waste more time. I agreed to spend this week here, because I was the chairman of this company and I felt I owe you this much. Whatever time I have left now belongs to my family.”
Flynn nodded slowly.
“Come with me tonight,” he said suddenly.
“I told you, we are leaving tomorrow.”
“It would take one hour of your time. I can pick you up from at your place at ten.”
Alan closed his eyes. He felt overwhelmed suddenly. He took his glasses off and rubbed his face.
“I guess…” he said. Flynn walked to him quickly and patted on his shoulders.
“Fine! I will see you at ten,” he said and he left the office. Alan’s two young helpers came in and returned to their task. Alan put back his glasses. He had a feeling that he was going to have a really long day.
They spent a quiet dinner at home with Lora. Almost all their belongings were packed in cardboard boxes; Lora still managed to make the delivery food appetizing. Alan looked over the table and at the boxes in the corner. He had always known that one day he would leave to move together with his family, he had just assumed different circumstances. Lora must have sensed his thoughts, for she reached through the table and squeezed his hand.
Alan looked at the clock. It was nine; soon they would go to bed – the car would be there for them early in the morning. He could go to sleep with Lora; or he could go with Flynn to see what was behind the fantastic stories. Alan still could not wrap his mind around the tale he had heard, not quite; but it still bothered him. Had it been true, Flynn should have told them about it. The laser was Lora’s and Gibbs’ work, and Walter should have been told about the discovery before his death. And Lora, she should have gotten credit for her work; she should have been part of the exploration of that Grid. And for Flynn’s offer itself: what if it was true? What if it was a real option for Alan to live? It could have been the greatest gift for him, ever, to get his life back, to spend a lifetime with Lora and to see his son growing up. Even from a few words, Alan figured the idea, to be digitized into a computer and to remove the damaged segments – he had seen that orange disappearing from the table in that labor years ago after all. It just, science was not on that level to accomplish such task. DNA nanotechnology was laid out already; in a few years scientists would be able to create a double helix. In a few decades mathematics would be hand in hand with medicine and maybe, in a hundred years there would be such procedure that Flynn had described to Alan earlier that day, and doctors would be able to heal patients by removing the damaged code from their systems. Chances were that the history books would cite Kevin Flynn’s name as one of the earliest pioneers of the therapy.
Great peace descended on Alan. In the darkening room his own mortality felt very real, and also very natural, a part of a bigger picture. He looked at Lora, and while he was in peace - he had found his other half and he was loved back -, he was still bothered. If, if… Had it been true, if he could get a couple of more years to give his family… Wouldn’t it worth to try?
“I’m going out with Flynn,” he said suddenly. Lora gave him an incredulous look.
“With Kevin Flynn?” she asked.
“I didn’t know you were drinking buddies,” she said, but there was a smile on her face, the first smile he saw from her since her arrival.
“We are not,” Alan said. He was smiling too.
Flynn arrived on time. Alan took his jacket and walked out from the house. Lora was getting ready to go to bed and he was not going to be away for long anyway. Alan looked at Flynn when he got in the car, to see if he was still serious, if this was not some sort of a joke. But Flynn started the vehicle without a word and they began toward the city.
“Why are we going this late?” Alan asked.
“Because the Arcade is closing at ten,” Flynn replied.
“Wait… Are you saying that you moved your server room in the Arcade?”
“It is under the Arcade, actually…”
Alan was staring at him. They arrived to the Arcade thirty minutes after ten and Alan remembered the first time when he had come here. Not much changed since then, the brick building was standing there on the corner of the busy intersection. Flynn’s Arcade, the orange neon light was reading; it was turned off right after they arrived. They saw the last employees leaving and closing down the place. A few minutes later Alan and Flynn exited the car and walked to the building. Flynn opened the door and they went inside. The air was still warm and Alan felt the smell of popcorn.
“Come,” Flynn said and Alan followed him. There was a TRON gaming machine at the back wall. Flynn put his hand on it; the machine moved and revealed a hidden door behind.
“I swear, you are insane,” Alan said. Flynn chuckled and led the way downstairs. Alan followed him carefully, feeling the wall under his fingers as he walked. Behind him the door closed. There was not much light in the cellar; most of it came in from the street, through the windows high on the wall. It was a computer room there, with a large, touch screen desk and a monitor. On the right side it was the machine itself and in the middle of the room there stood the Shiva laser. Decommissioned years ago; but it was working, it was really working. On the left it was a sofa and shelves above that, with books, notebooks and pictures on it.
Flynn walked to the table; the touch screen and the monitor came to life under his fingers. Behind him the Shiva laser moved into position.
“You do this all the time,” Alan said. “Aren’t you afraid? You have a young son as well.”
Flynn looked at him. There was a smile on his face, an unreadable expression. Alan remembered the orange in that labor, many years earlier. He had seen the orange going away, but he had never seen it coming back. This secret room still did not prove that Flynn’s story was real – he, Alan could still die when the laser beam would hit him. Maybe he had followed a madman here.
“Why haven’t you told us about the Grid?” Alan asked. Flynn looked at the computer, trying to find the words apparently.
“I wanted it,” he said.
“But it was yours. We wouldn’t have taken it away from you.”
“My fantasy world is the new reality,” Flynn said. He looked in Alan’s eyes. “My reality.”
Alan slowly nodded. Upon Flynn’s instruction he stepped in front of the laser. He was ready for the pain, but there was just a change in the lights, when the transmission happened.
“Lora,” he whispered. He thought he was still in the Arcade, but the word would not echo in the room. Alan was alone. He turned around. The place was similar to the computer room, except it was very clean, like a labor or server room.
He looked at the laser. It was similar to its counterpart in the real world, except this was simpler. An interpretation, Alan realized, the same way his body was an interpretation of his flesh and blood body. He touched his face. It felt real. Alan removed his glasses. He was seeing blurry, as he expected, but after a moment his vision changed and became clear. Alan gasped.
Suddenly he remembered Flynn’s instructions to move and he stepped aside. He did not know how long it would take Flynn to arrive; he had been explained before that time was passing slower here. Alan walked around and examined the simple room. He heard voices from the outside, the roar of some alien vehicles and people speaking. They sounded human; yet Alan would not leave the place without Flynn to find out more about them. His heart was beating very fast. The Grid was real, and he was here, in the middle of the greatest exploration of his generation. Now there was no reason to think that the rest of the story was false – and that meant that there was an actual hope for him to heal.
The laser activated with a buzz. Alan turned there and saw Flynn being digitized. Contrary to Alan, who had come through in the same attire he had worn in the Arcade, Flynn appeared with light blue circuits on his jacket and boots. He was also wearing some sort of disc on his back. It must have been a setting programmed in the system already; Alan was left speechless.
“Come,” Flynn said with a grin. “They are waiting for us.”
Botanical gardens were some of Alan Bradley’s favorite places to be. Aside from the obvious reasons – the pure experience of life, the blooming plants and the science that would save species no longer viable in the outside world – he used to be impressed by the establishment housing a rainforest, a bog, a cloud forest and a plant lab in separate rooms. There would be a double door between the different sections, similar to an air-lock, to prevent the hot and humid air of the rainforest to leak into the cool and misty cloud forest – and to keep the latter one’s fertile atmosphere out from the plant room. Entering the plant lab, which was cool and dry after the cloud forest, always felt like a change in the air pressure as well, even if there was no such difference.
It took a moment for Alan to take in the view of street when they exited. It was dark; at first Alan thought that they were in a closed structure. Just later he noticed the dark, cloudy sky above. Tall buildings stood on both sides of the street and that reminded Alan of the downtown of a metropolis – except for these towers seemed to defy the laws of gravity with their shapes and proportions. But there was no gravity here, Alan realized and that was when he felt the shift he had once sensed in the botanical garden; as if he stepped out from a cloud room that was his home world into a cooler lab with lower air pressure. He was only the combination of numbers down here; and now Alan understood the logic behind Flynn’s offer – now he started to believe that he had a chance to live.
He turned to Kevin Flynn and he saw that Flynn was watching him, his reaction. Alan reached out and grabbed Flynn’s shoulder.
“No matter how this works out for me,” he said. “You bring Lora here. You need to show this to her.”
“I will,” Flynn replied with a grin. They started. There was a vehicle parked outside; Flynn opened the door on the passenger side and Alan got in. From the corner of his eye he saw people approaching and he felt unprepared to face them. Alan understood that those strangers were not people, not really; and he was not ready to find out what they were. He was seated inside when the group passed them; they were a couple of human looking, though extravagant individuals. They appeared to be in a hurry the way people would be rushing to make it to a concert or a movie.
The car started. The vehicle was running smoothly with a soft hum. The control panel was different from the dashboard of an actual car; not that Alan had expected anything else. He was watching the street with eyes wide shut. It did not feel real; yet Alan knew that it was all true. Not just for all the details, the lights rays, the buildings, the people all around, not just for the overwhelming amount of detail, that could not have been the making of his plagued brain, but because it made sense. It explained Flynn’s behavior, his constant fatigue, the strange schedule and most of all, the brilliant, yet strange… otherworldly ideas Flynn would come up lately.
Just when Alan thought he had gotten an idea of the sheer size and complexity of the city, the buildings became scarcer and another, different part of the Grid became visible. It was completely different from the districts behind. The place Alan had seen first was dark, refined and gave the sense of careful planning, architecture. The towers ahead were shining white, majestic – aristocratic. The contrast between the two cities was stunning, as if one place represented art and the other would stand for sciences. If the city were to exist in his own world, Alan would have thought that they had been built in different centuries by other cultures. Until this moment Kevin Flynn had been silent, as if he had sensed that the view itself had been enough for Alan to digest, but now he spoke to give an explanation.
“That is Arjia City,” he said. “Home of the ISOs.”
For a brief second Alan expected him to name the dark city behind, but Flynn did not continue and Alan forgot about it right away. Their car soon stopped in front of a tall, white building. Men in uniform-like white ensemble were standing outside with short staffs in their hands. Kevin Flynn got out of the car and Alan followed him. He was watching the ISO guards curiously and he caught them staring back at him, whispering to each other
They were escorted upstairs. There was some sort of urgency in the air, and for that everybody seemed to be in a rush, skipping formalities. They walked through a mighty hall, into a large, circular room. A group of people were waiting there, talking. Upon Flynn’s and Alan’s arrival they turned around and looked at the newcomers. The way they looked at each other gave Alan the same strange feeling he had felt outside; as if he had had a history here, as if these people had known him.
“Already?” Flynn asked and Alan turned at him. Flynn was speaking to one of the ISO officers, a man that was wearing a black headband and visors. Flynn must have had some kind of authority at this place, Alan assumed, yet most of the ISOs did not seem to be impressed by his appearance.
“We should be on the way to the inauguration soon,” the officer told Flynn and his distaste was almost palpable.
“There is still time,” said somebody in a clear voice. Everybody went silent. A woman stepped forward from the circle of ISOs. She was tall, dressed in white and she was wearing a large headdress. She walked ahead and the other ISOs followed suit.
“Alan,” Kevin Flynn said. “This is Radia.”
Alan stood quietly. Radia looked at him; it was an intense stare, curious, which lacked judgment.
“I forgot about the ceremony,” Flynn said. “Maybe Alan can wait here until…”
“No,” Radia replied suddenly. “We still have time.”
Flynn looked at Alan nervously; and Alan understood that whatever procedure they had planned, would take place here, right now, had he agreed. The group of ISOs parted, opening up a path leading to another room in the tower. After a moment of hesitation Alan started.
The ISOs were talking. Alan could not hear them, but from their gestures, from the glances they shot toward him he could tell that they were talking about the coming experiment. He was watching them; they were all human looking and they all wore the same white, tribal clothing. There were men and women as well; none of them were old, yet all of them had an aura of wisdom and maturity around them.
Flynn was outside; while waiting, he was talking to people and Alan had seen him pulling out a lit data pad before entering this room. Alan had hundreds of questions – but he was grateful for being left alone. They were about to do, Alan was thinking, what doctors in his flesh and blood world would not do, because it was too dangerous. They would not operate him, because the surgery would have likely claimed his life; and he was going to let these computer programs to open him up.
Radia walked to Alan with another ISO following her. That program was holding a disc in her hand, a disc identical to the ones everybody in this realm was wearing on their ports. Alan stood up.
“Do you want to proceed?” she asked. Alan was looking at her inquisitively. “We need to attach this disc in order for us to be able to see your coding. This is safe and shall be no harm for you. Once we see inside, we may be able to locate the issue. And then, only then, if we believe that we can do it safely and you give permission, we will remove the bad code. If we can not find it or it turns out to be impossible to delete without killing you, we do nothing.”
“I understand,” Alan replied. “Proceed, please.”
Radia nodded. Behind her the ISOs were waiting quietly.
“I need you to create a port on your clothing,” Radia said.
“I don’t know how to do that,” Alan replied.
“You have to want it and such change will manifest,” Radia explained. Alan tried to focus on the request, but nothing happened.
“I’m sorry,” he said. He could not suppress a smile at his failure. Radia smiled back and she held out her hands. Alan reached out and took her hands. The contact felt like a sting, a barely noticeable electric shock. In that moment Alan knew what Radia wanted from him; he willed his attire to change the way he would have commanded his feet to lift up, before taking a step. His clothing began to change immediately and it turned into a loose white suit, similar to a changshan. Alan looked at Radia and he realized that she gave him the idea for the attire, though their connected hands, so that he could lie down and relax later unobstructed.
Kevin Flynn came in and he looked at them with apparent surprise. Alan let go of Radia’s hands and she gestured at the other ISO to attach the disc. All the ISOs and Flynn were watching curiously. Alan felt the disc clicking into place. He could not tell if that went properly if not – he did not feel anything.
“Come,” Radia said and Alan followed her to the center of the room. Radia took Alan’s disc, flipped in on the side and opened it. Codes emerged; an endless list of numbers floating in the air. Upon Radia’s touch the lines began streaming upwards; she cut out three-dimensional sequences and sent them up in the air. Soon the cubes of data filled the whole room; the seemingly endless stream of data stopped just before they ran out of space in the great room. The ISOs were talking quietly, reaching out and pointing at certain parts of the strange universe manifested in the room. Alan could never tell whether the data around them was really the interpretation of his very being or not, but he did have a feeling of being part of something big, even historic. He looked at Flynn and he saw that his friend was under the same impression.
Radia came back to Alan.
“We were able to locate the bad code,” she said. “We can remove it, should you consent.”
“Do it,” Alan replied immediately.
“Wait,” Flynn interrupted. He was looking at Radia. “Are you sure?”
“Yes,” she said confidently. Flynn still appeared to be deeply troubled. Alan knew the reason behind his nervousness; the idea of this trip might have come from Kevin Flynn, but now they were preparing for an intervention that could possibly kill Alan.
“No,” Alan said and they both looked at him. “I understand the risk and I want to proceed.”
“Fine,” Flynn replied after a long pause. Radia, as if she sensed the tension too, spoke.
“We can do it real time,” she said.
“What does that mean?” Alan asked.
“Instead of making all the alterations at once and then reattaching the disc,” Radia explained, “you keep wearing the disc as we make the modifications. We save the data after each change.”
“Yes,” Flynn exclaimed and the ISOs all looked at them. Flynn ran his fingers through his hair nervously. Alan turned to him. Radia walked away to rejoin her people.
“Do you want to wait outside?” Alan asked.
“You brought me here, hoping for the success of this procedure. Now I see what you were talking about. Thank you for this opportunity. I will take my chances with this experiment.”
“But?” Flynn asked.
“But I also understand that nobody has ever done this before, and things might not work out the way expected. I would not think any less of you, if you chose to wait outside.”
Kevin Flynn looked at Alan, and that glance reminded Alan of that day years before, when Lora had brought him to the Arcade to the first time. That was when he had first seen that expression, which was uncertain, almost troubled, but not without kindness. They had done well, Alan was thinking, they had done quite good for two people that were never supposed to be friends.
“I’ll wait outside,” Flynn said and he left. Alan looked up at the glowing constellation of numbers above, then he turned and joined the ISOs.
He was lying face down on some pillows in the middle of the room. The ISOs were sitting in a circle around him. It was quiet; with his view blocked, Alan relied on sounds now – the whispering, the traffic from the street and the wind, which he noticed for the first time. Somebody returned his disc to its port and Alan closed his eyes.
In the next second his almost jumped. The vision of the room appeared for him suddenly and with no warning. He was blinking rapidly – but his face was buried in a soft pillow and there was no way for him to actually see without turning around. Alan was trying to determine the point of view in the vision and he realized that it was not one single one. It was the mental image the ISOs held of the place, the ISOs that were tweaking with his codes already.
He was trying to relax. He saw Radia reaching up, bringing down a 3D cube of information with a gesture and magnifying it with another motion. The ISOs were examining it, exchanging words in a low tone and then Radia deleted one line of numbers. She saved the change and she looked down at Alan. Alan felt no change; no pain or other sensation whatsoever. Radia turned back to the cube and continued working. Alan closed his eyes. It did not make a difference; the stream of images came to him as if he was watching the scene through the eyes of all ISOs included in the room. He even sensed the guard at the door, even if the soldier took no part in the coding. Giles – that was his name. He could name all the people in the room, Alan realized momentarily.
Breathing. He must have tapped into the common consciousness of the ISOs somehow, when they had begun working on his disc. He saw them talking over each line, sometimes over one single digit, before deleting and saving, and then waiting to see if it affected him negatively. Alan was looking at the codes through their eyes and he found that he was able to comprehend the method; they knew exactly which combination of numbers represented a healthy cell and which one belonged to the malignant tumor. He knew that he was safe; he sensed that any of the people present would rather hurt themselves before causing any harm to him.
Water. The experience of being pushed to the shore by the stream. He must have dozed off, Alan thought, before realizing that it was a memory. He saw himself emerging from the black sea; yet when he glanced down, he looked at long, feminine legs walking uphill from the black water.
“I am the first of many,” he whispered and the ISOs stopped. Alan felt the words echoing in Radia’s mind, in the fashion she had uttered those words many cycles ago, after emerging from the sea. The ISOs resumed the work; another line of codes gone – and Alan felt a vortex of information and memories engulfing him more and more after each action.
He overlooked the system though their eyes. He saw the two cities growing and evolving with their completely different inhabitants inside. There were the programs in the black city – the name of the place was hidden, as if behind a veil -, computer programs that had come to life and gained consciousness; and ISOs. The Shiva laser – meant to digitize a unit – read Kevin Flynn’s DNA hundreds and hundreds of times; it was only a matter of time until the system collected enough information to recreate the double helix, a digitally modified DNA, free of genetic defects.
“Humans,” Alan said wordlessly, not to disrupt once more. “Human after all.”
The constant tension was not surprising; Kevin Flynn did not quote understand the issue and he considered the Grid as a playground, where nothing bad could happen, not really. But for people that lived there, the system was the only reality; it was the matter of life and death. The server was already overwhelmed by the sheer amount of data and the breakdown was only the question of time. And the sea was now dead and poisoned, would not give life to more ISOs; the already existing ones were a problem, waiting for solution.
Alan let out a long breath. In another memory a Grid bug attack was tearing off a district and programs fell into the abyss. There was another entity in this world, created by Kevin Flynn, to help with the work. A Codified Likeness Utility, Alan learnt from the ISOs, though he only felt the unit via the ISO consciousness, without actually seeing it. Danger, Giles was thinking when the name emerged, and the word echoed fear in the other ISOs.
Work. A hundred cycles of work, and a glowing bike rode in the Arena, followed by the enthralled cheer of the audience. An ISO standing in the middle of the ovation; the same young man was holding Radia in his arms in the briefest memory sequence, before the scene cut off abruptly in front of Alan’s eyes. Radia shut her mind around the memory, around the recollection of Jalen, the loved one that had fallen.
Another line of codes were gone and now Alan felt slightly dazed. He could only imagine the surprise and delight Lora would feel upon finding out about the Grid. The discovery would define science for the coming decades; and the three of them, Lora, Flynn and Alan would be there to see it through all the way.
Thinking about Lora gave his train of thoughts another direction. Lora and Alan sometimes talked about the conflict between science and religion, or whether such offset existed.
“They say,” Alan asked once, “God is not making mistakes. If that’s true, how far medicine can go? Until which point we are curing the patient and where is the border after which we have to shrug and say, we should do nothing, since this is God’s will?”
It was a mental game they sometimes played. Lora nodded.
“He is not making mistakes,” she said. “So we must consider a baby born with two heads or without organs an intentional deed. Should we believe that it is not a punishment and that our creator is actually benevolent, that leaves only one answer.”
“That it is a lesson we must learn,” Alan said. “That we are here to heal that baby with no organs. That we are given our resources to fix things.”
One more line of numbers was deleted from his disc and Alan now felt drunk. He was going to fall asleep soon.
“Flynn,” he called out, forgetting that his friend had left. The word reverberated in the minds of the ISOs and called a memory to life.
It was a dark alleyway, farther away from the busy street. An ISO was trying to cut their way short with passing by, walking silently. There was somebody ahead and the ISO stopped; the beholder recognized Kevin Flynn in the alley. Flynn would not notice the ISO; he was there with somebody in the dark and though the bystander averted their eyes and retracted in a rush, Alan saw them sharing a kiss. He did not see the program that accompanied Kevin Flynn and though the beholder did know the name, the ISO’s mind closed before Alan to hide the information.
A last number was deleted from the disc and the changes were saved.
“And if we have enough knowledge and resources to fix the problem,” Lora said in his own memory. “What else could we ask for? What can we possibly tell our own creator?”
“Thank you,” Alan had replied Lora in the memory and whispered it now in the white tower of Arjia City. He was falling asleep. “Thank you.”
He woke up with the sensation of loss. It was some strange dread, similar to the alarm Alan used to feel when he forgot to set the clock and overslept; he always knew, even before actually looking at the time, that something was wrong. Now he felt the same, except for a different magnitude, as if an earthquake had happened while he had slept, and he was the only survivor left.
Alan sat up. He was sleeping on the pillows gathered, in the middle of the empty room. That was when the realization hit him; that the events of the night had been real, that he was indeed in a computer. While he had been going with the flow before, now Alan felt the grimness of the morning after and he sensed a panic attack coming. He turned his face aside and saw the dark sky through the window of the white tower. It was not morning; was it going to be morning at this place at all? Alan could not tell, but the moment of distraction helped him to regain his composure.
He touched his temples. He felt alright – but then, he had not been constantly in pain since he had fallen ill. He would have to return home and have an MRI and a thorough medical examination in order to find out whether he had been indeed cured. Alan stood up slowly. The whole place felt deserted. Where did everybody go? Suddenly he felt his earlier lightheadedness returning. No, not lightheadedness…It was the sensation of interconnectedness, as if he was still part of the ISO group mind. Alan thought that had been a dream; but now, as he was waking up rapidly, new images were filling his mind. He saw the spacious square as if he had been there, through the eyes of the ISOs attending the inauguration ceremony. It was not anything like a movie clip; the experience was filtered through the minds of the beholders and most of all, Radia. Alan saw her up there, next to Kevin Flynn and Clu; but Alan could not actually see the latter one, only sensed his presence. Radia hid him from Alan’s eyes, he realized, the same way she had been holding back information earlier. The ceremony proceeded briefly, until the virus entered. Alan was recalling the memory silently, standing frozen in the middle of the room. The ISO guards escorted Radia out from the square, back to Arjia City and Alan lost sight of Kevin Flynn.
Alan turned around. Had they returned safely, were they in the building? He heard some voices from outside and he started to move in that direction; but then he remembered again. He saw this memory only through Radia. She was in the white tower, meditating after the harrowing experience at the ceremony. Somebody entered the room and while Alan could not see the program, Radia recognized him as Clu. He was followed by a number of guards.
“I can’t do this without you, Radia,” he said. There was a momentary jump in the memory as if Radia edited out part of the conversation. “It’s up to us to keep Flynn’s dream of unity alive. But none of that will matter if this virus isn’t stopped.”
“We will do what we must to preserve the Grid, Clu. But we have questions surrounding the demise of Flynn.”
Alan stopped, debating if he had understood the words clearly. Yet there was no way he could misunderstand her and for a moment he was standing there, stunned. How could this happen? What happened?
“How did it happen?” Radia asked.
“A system monitor, gone rogue from infection. He attacked them. I was too late.”
“A tragedy, truly. How may we assist you?”
“Thank you. We have to stop the spread of the Abraxas virus, before it grows even stronger. Contact the other faction leaders. Have them gather every ISO within their sectors. It will make the eradication of this… blight much easier.”
Alan blinked. Clu was not telling the truth. Alan could not see him at all, nor could he hear Clu’s voice clearly – Radia was hiding his actual appearance from him, for reasons unknown for Alan. But he was certain that Clu was lying; he was so obviously lying that he would have been caught in a moment in Alan’s world. But not here, Alan thought, for Clu was able to mislead everybody, including Radia. They did not see the hatred in him; Radia did not recognize that Clu was talking about the ISOs, when he had mentioned the blight.
“Of course,” Radia replied. “Consider it done.”
“I knew I could count on you,” Clu said and he began to leave. “Well, now I should go. There’s much to do. Goodbye, Radia. Together we’ll get through this difficult time. I promise.”
Alan’s mind was racing. How much time had passed since this conversation? The system administrator had left with such an open threat; and Radia had not understood it – none of the ISOs had understood it. There was a bright side too: Clu could have lied about Flynn as well – maybe Flynn was alive.
Alan was rushing. Much to his relief he saw a few ISO guards in the hall. Relying on his memories, he found the large reception hall. Radia was there, accompanied by dozens of ISOs. Radia turned to Alan when he walked there; she was visibly distracted.
“Don’t give the order,” Alan said. “Do not gather your people…”
He knew before he could have finished, that it was too late. But there was still hope: the actual attack had not started yet.
“Order the ISOs to run,” he said. “Clu is coming for them.”
The ISOs were looking at each other; Alan could see that some of them believed him, while others simply seemed confused. Radia reached out suddenly and grabbed Alan’s hands. Like earlier, when Radia had advised him without words, Alan felt another, silent communication between the two of them, only at this time he opened his mind for her.
“He’s telling the truth,” Radia said and the ISOs cried out in fear. They appeared to recognize the danger for the first time now; after a short discussion a few of them left in a hurry. Radia was standing with her eyes closed. Alan heard her, even if not with his ears, to instruct her people to leave everything behind and run from the city.
“Let’s go,” Giles said and gestured at her. Alan stepped back as the ISOs began to leave.
“Come,” she said. Alan shook his head.
“This is where Flynn left me. This is where he would look for me,” he said. Radia gave him a regretful look.
“He’s…,” she started and she fell silent.
“You didn’t see him dead,” Alan said. Behind Radia Giles made an impatient gesture. She raised her arm and pointed at the window. Alan turned there and he saw a bright column of light in the far distance.
“The portal,” she said. “The door between our worlds. It is open, for now, but not for long, and it can not be opened from this side. You might wait here, but soon you must start heading there, or you’ll get trapped in here.”
While she was speaking, Alan got the sense of time remaining from her. The carelessness got him unprepared; he would have never assumed that Flynn created a system with no back up plan, with no emergency measures.
“I’ll keep that in mind,” he said. After a moment of silence, he asked:
“What were you holding back from me? Why?”
Radia stopped and looked at him over her shoulder. She opened her lips; but another ISO cried out in distress at the delay. Radia turned back to her people and started walking again. The ISOs left. Once all the vehicles took off from the street and from the rooftops, the city became silent, fully deserted. Alan went to the window and looked down at the empty street. He felt the ISOs departing; the connection did not evaporate with the distance growing between them. He was wondering if this strange sensation would cease soon or at least when he would depart the system. Alan could not feel the same connection with any other program here, nor was he able to reach out to Kevin Flynn to see if he was alive at all – he was only connected to the ISOs.
Suddenly Alan wished again for Lora to be there with him. Aside from the whole experience, that she deserved to be part of, Lora knew Flynn better, she could have figured out the situation easier. For now, he was thinking, she was home and she would not know that something went wrong with Alan’s and Flynn’s outing. And then, maybe she would not find out at all; maybe Alan could still make it out from here, even if events had surely gotten out of hand. He understood the terror of the ISOs; but for an ISO this system was the only known world. For Alan and for Kevin Flynn it was more than that, and Alan had hard time believing that any of them could die, could physically die in here.
There was some light in the distance. It looked like a red dot above the black city, that began to grow and then it suddenly fell apart to several smaller ones. A small fleet of aircrafts departed, Alan realized, and they were approaching Arjia City now. He started running before the shared ISO consciousness reacted, before the terrified screams of hundreds filled his mind. The ISOs were gone, but their disappearance did not go unnoticed and Alan did not want to be around when Clu’s forces arrived to see their reaction.
Alan was rushing downstairs. He felt increasingly dizzy as he was making his way to the street level, just as he had been when the ISOs had been working on his disc. He was out of breath by the time he reached the gate and all he wanted was to sit down for a while. He kept on going nevertheless, leaning against the wall, stumbling. A whooshing sound filled the air and Alan looked up; aircrafts were landing on the street.
He was outside on the street already. Everything was too bright, too white; Alan had to shut his eyes or else he would have been blinded by that shining forever. Perhaps they did not notice him, he told himself, or they would not care for him – he was not an ISO after all. His feet felt heavy, as if he was walking in mud. He forced himself to look up and he saw programs descending from the planes and drawing a circle around the white tower. A few of them surrounded him, with their staff in their hands. Alan could not see their faces, for they all wore masks – but they stopped when he looked at them and they appeared to be somewhat hesitant.
Alan pressed his forehead against the wall. He was falling apart; he had not felt this sick since long. He had not way of knowing whether it was the sign of his worsening condition or on the contrary, and the nauseous feeling was caused by the fear and being chased around. Alan looked up. A tall program strode straight at him; he was wearing a black suit, illuminated by golden circuits. His face was hidden by a dark helmet. Alan’s eyes closed and his legs gave up under him; he lost consciousness.
Small feet were coming in a rush after Lora’s call; Jet was running downstairs. They were sitting down in front of the television. The interview was already airing; Alan heard it from the kitchen. He put the glasses, the bottle of sparkling water and the bowl of popcorn on a tray. Lora and Jet were sitting on the couch by the time he entered the living room. Alan put down the tray and he sit down. Jet took out a handful of the snack, spilling popcorn on the carpet and the couch.
On the television screen Kevin Flynn was talking, answering to the reporter’s questions. He was talking passionately; his latest book had been just released and the requests for television and radio interviews were just kept on coming.
“But you can always reboot the system to protect you from any rogue programs, right?” Flynn was reading from his book onscreen. “Any IT rep worth his or her salt will tell you that the easiest way to fix a problem is by restarting. I happen to think that this advice applies to almost every facet of life – just take a breath, start over, and look at the situation anew.*”
Alan opened his eyes. He was lying in a small cell, alone. It was quiet and dark; upon his stirring, the walls lit up, providing enough light for him to see the small, empty cubicle. He felt fresh and focused, as if after a long rest… after a full reboot. Alan stood up without stumbling; he looked around once more and suddenly he knew the exact measurements of the room. He blinked. What’s happening to me? He tapped into the ISO group mind and he learned that most of them made it into the relative and temporary safety of the Outlands. Alan was not supposed to have knowledge of the black desert outside of the city, yet he had – he saw the gleaming, dark rocks through the eyes of the marching ISOs.
‘What did you to me?” he asked without words. He felt relief coming as a response; Radia had not been sure whether he was still alive.
‘We healed you,” Alan received the silent answer. He shook his head in the empty room.
‘You did more.’
There was quietness. The connection did not break up, but no words came. Alan closed his eyes and suddenly he saw the white room in Arjia City. He saw himself lying in the middle, from the point of view of the surrounding ISOs. It was around the end of the procedure; he was sleeping, all the bad code had been removed and they were about to close his open disc. But they waited, as if for a final decision. Then Radia moved and gestured at one of the attendants. A white identity disc was brought in; the disc of a fallen ISO. The disc had been cleaned up beforehand – Alan knew that, because the ISOs knew it, because it was Radia who had worked on that disc. There was nothing else on the disc, but the ISO root code. Alan watched it speechlessly, as Radia removed the root code from the disc and inserted it into Alan’s digital DNA. Radia saved the changes and closed the disc.
Alan reached out instinctively for the disc, but his hand was grabbing at the thin air. His disc was gone, likely removed by the Reds. It did not make a difference anymore: whatever changes had been made to him, had been already saved.
‘Why?’ he asked. He watched the marching ISOs through Radia’s eyes; they were fighting for survival in the middle of the wasteland. Radia had not known about the danger, she had not been aware of the coming attack; yet she had sensed the grim future. She had acted out of despair, to ensure the survival of her kind, and when Alan would return to his home world, at least some of their essence would live.
‘You have no way of knowing how it would affect me,’ he said. ‘You should have asked for my consent.’
‘You would not have agreed,’ she responded. ‘Had I asked you, you would have refused the entire procedure, and you would have died from your deteriorating code.’
Alan knew that it was true; and Radia was not going to apologize. She meant to give Alan a gift; she did not have Alan’s human views of privacy or integrity.
A door opened up at the end of the room. Alan turned around and the connection between him and Radia was cut off. Two red guards were standing at the door, with long staffs in their hands.
“This way,” one of the guards said. His voice had more metallic resonance that of the ISOs’. Alan walked out from the windowless room with a quiet sigh of relief. A short walk came and a ride in the elevator; the walls and floors were black, with golden panels and white light sources here and there. The place looked like an office building, with people looking after their business; it did not feel terrifying; it did not feel like a city getting ready for war.
They escorted him into a large room. There were programs working at desks and terminals on both sides; at the end of the room there was a great window with view to the city. Beyond the city it was all dark and Alan figured instantly what was missing: the glowing column of the portal. It had closed since the invasion and Alan’s capture, and it meant not just that they were locked inside the system, but that Kevin Flynn had not made it out – he was either dead or on the run.
Alan saw the same tall figure standing at one of the terminals that he had seen in Arjia City; he was wearing the same combat suit and helmet. He looked up when Alan and the two guards arrived; he turned away from the programs he was surrounded by and began walking at Alan with large steps. Through a knowledge that was not his, Alan knew that Clu was a system administrator, just as Radia, and if he had Alan’s disc in his possession, that meant that he knew about the procedure that had taken place in Arjia City – he knew about the ISO root code.
Alan took a step back unwittingly. The way Clu held himself, how he walked, gave him an uncomfortable feeling, and for the first time now since his arrival on the Grid, he wondered what Clu’s name meant, what the abbreviation stood for. And Alan figured it, a moment before the system administrator dissolved his helmet. Alan managed not to cry out, even if barely so. Clu was the exact copy of Kevin Flynn; except for the replica of a somewhat younger Flynn. One would not have mistaken the two for each other however, not because of the mild difference in their very look, but because of the cold, grim expression on this one’s face.
Clu was looking in Alan’s face from up close. Alan was actually terrified, yet he was regaining composure quickly. Even if the program was hostile, it was still Kevin Flynn’s program; a Codified Likeness Utility. If he wanted to harm Alan, he could have done it already.
“You’ve been corrupted by the ISOs,” Clu stated. He sounded like Flynn; he spoke without other programs’ resonance. Alan looked at him quietly. There was no point of denying facts, when Alan needed to establish trust somehow. “Where are they?”
“You know more than I do,” Alan replied. Clu circled around him slowly.
“Is he alive?” Alan asked. “Is Flynn alive?”
Clu came back to face him once more.
“Yes,” he said. “And you will help me to find him, along with the ISOs.”
“What are you planning to do with them?”
Clu replied with a smile; and Alan knew that expression – it was the face of Kevin Flynn, getting ready to pull a cruel prank. Alan shook his head.
“Then I can not help,” he said.
“You don’t have a choice,” Clu warned him.
“You can’t make me,” Alan said, and he instinctively knew that he was right. Whether it was an inside barrier the program could not or would not overstep or Clu’s actual choice, but from the system administrator’s hesitance Alan could tell that Clu was not ready to harm him. Then the moment of merciful silence passed and Clu grinned again. He worked his way around the problem, Alan realized and the idea made him alarmed.
“But I can,” Clu said. “I can make you watch others suffer, until you agree to cooperate.”
“Everybody I know here is out of your reach,” Alan said, praying for the statement to be true. Clu gestured at the guards and two of the Reds left. Alan was growing more and more scared waiting for their return; he thought they would come back with a captured ISO. But when they came, they were dragging a program unknown for Alan. All Alan saw of the prisoner first was his black suit and helmet and the ISO part in him reacted with one curt word. Basic. Alan stopped at the idea; why would he say something like that? Then he knew; ISOs called regular programs like that, for the original inhabitants of the Grid were like that – basic, simple… expendable.
The guards threw the prisoner down and the program stayed there. He appeared to be hurt, even though there were no visible wounds on his body. He was the only program with bright, blue circuitry in the room, contrary to Clu’s golden and all the other programs’ red circuits. Just as Alan, he was missing his disc too.
Clu took out his baton and walked there. He reached down and turned the prisoner around. The latter one did not struggle; he just regarded Clu with a small head tilt, which seemed to be, even in his disgraceful situation… proud, challenging. The raised baton was already discharging like an electric prod and Alan saw some of the Reds turning their faces away as if they would not want to see the coming scene. Alan stood frozen, stunned by not just the violence, but also from the indifference, which came from his ISO side, which wanted him to watch unbothered.
“Stop,” Alan yelled. Clu looked at him with a small, sly smile. The prisoner turned his head and looked at Alan’s direction for the first time now. The program uttered a startled sound. Clu put the baton down, grabbed the prisoner and lifted him into a kneeling position, facing Alan. Clu put his hand on the program’s nape and the prisoner’s helmet retracted.
The program bore some resemblance to Alan, to how Alan had looked like years before. He had light brown hair and grey eyes; for the rest of his features, he was also different from his programmer. He was looking at Alan with his lips parted; it seemed obvious that he had not been aware of Alan’s presence on the Grid.
Alan Bradley was standing there, shaken to the core. His shock did not come from the mere encounter, but from the memories which had been previously withheld and which now filled his mind. He knew now why he had not been told about Clu’s nature and about this program. He was never meant to spend more time in the system than what needed for the procedure, and all those facts would have made things more difficult, they would have brought up more and more questions.
“I can’t do this without you, Radia,” Clu said in Radia’s memory – but this was the original memory, unedited. “With Tron and Flynn going down to that virus, it’s up to us to keep Flynn’s dream of unity alive. But none of that will matter if this virus isn’t stopped.”
Alan turned his face aside and he saw the city lights from the corner of his eye. Tron City – he could not even be told the name of the place without raising questions, as of why Kevin Flynn had named his digital realm after one of Alan’s programs.
He turned back. Clu grabbed Tron’s hair and the pulled the program’s head back. The people in the room were listening silently.
“Now consider that answer once more,” Clu said. Alan blinked and he saw one more memory transforming into an unaltered version. He saw Kevin Flynn once again in the dark alleyvay. Flynn was holding a program, pinned against the wall by the wrists. They were kissing; and contrary to the memory he had first seen, this time Alan saw Tron in Flynn’s arms.
Alan took a step ahead. He felt red-hot anger starting to burn him from the inside. Hundreds of ISOs were screaming at him to stay silent, to leave the Basic to his fate and save himself, save the ISOs.
“What do you want me to do?” Alan asked.
*Kevin Flynn: The Digital Frontier – Mapping the Other Universe
In the dream Alan was driving. He was sitting in his car on his own driveway and he was about to reverse the vehicle out to the street. The car lifted lightly as one wheel ran over something at slow speed. Alan stopped and got out of the car, scared to find a stray dog or cat under the wheel. The ground changed under his feet, and he did not recognize the place anymore. It was not his driveway, but the smooth, black floor of the Grid. Something small was lying on the floor, curled up. Alan felt regret and concern. He lifted the thing up to take a closer look, and he saw that it was alive. It was some stunted, tiny human being, hunched, a freak of nature; it drew in its head as if it was afraid of being beaten.
“It’s me,” the creature said in a high voice. Alan leaned closer. Who could this be? The small face was distorted, yet familiar. “You don’t recognize me, daddy?”
In his dream Alan embraced the tiny creature and he made a promise never to abandon it again.
Alan turned on his back in the bed and blinked in the darkness. He was having the same dream every time he laid his head to rest in his cell. The lights turned on and he sat up. In his head it was quiet; the ISOs had blocked the communication between the ISO hive mind and him, to ensure that he would not reveal their location to Clu. Alan knew that they were at the Outlands; sometimes he managed to pick up an image here and there and it was always the black desert with its gleaming rock formations. That information was not enough to find them: location queries did not work outside of the city and even a clear vision would not have helped Alan to pinpoint their hiding place, unless the vision contained a view of Tron City as a point of reference. Alan was fine with that silence; he did not want to be the one responsible for finding the ISOs.
Soon a guard would enter to escort him in another room where programs worked. There Alan would have to access the system codes to search for the ISOs and Kevin Flynn. He would be watched all the time, the same way as he was being watched while in his room, sleeping. Alan had been warned not to try to make the same access to the system while on his own and that warning let him know that likely there was a way for him to escape from the building, merely utilizing his knowledge of the Grid codes. That idea made him excited and it helped him through the otherwise excruciating imprisonment. Not that anybody hurt him since he had been there, but being locked up and watched all the time made him increasingly distressed.
Three days had passed since Alan’s capture; or the equivalent of three days. It was still the same night in their home world, the morning, and the discovery of Alan’s and Flynn’s disappearance was still yet to come. They would find Flynn’s car at the Arcade, Alan was thinking, and the place would be unlocked. They would search the Arcade – but would they find the office? If nobody else, Lora would figure it out sooner or later, Alan realized, but what would she do with that information?
Alan stood up. His head was clear; he was not experiencing pain or dizziness anymore. It was still too early for him to assume anything – he still had to return home and get evaluated by doctors to see if he had indeed been healed. And if it happened – then what? What would that mean for the world? It was a tough question, especially since the ISOs were not looking forward a bright future, Flynn was on the run and the connection to the other world was lost. And even in the case of a successful return, even if he found out that he had recovered from an illness impossible to survive – would Alan suggest anyone to put their lives in the hands of the ISOs? Radia and her people had no sense of ethics the way humans had it; she had given Alan the ISO root code for her own reasons. What if next time she would make changes to a patient’s DNA? Alan still could not tell what those codes were doing to him. He did notice changes; aside from the clear vision he had gained upon his arrival to the Grid, his other senses had become heightened as well. When he entered a room, like he would enter the working area in the administration tower soon, he immediately knew the number of people inside, even if the place was crowded. He knew how long the walls were and how many cubic feet the room contained. His new-found knowledge kicked in on another level, when he was told to access a terminal in the office: Alan knew instinctively where to reach, how to pull up information. For that he was closely watched all the time to ensure that he would not do anything else, but to look for ISOs. The constant, incoming stream of information would not bother Alan; it was there as a buzz in the ear, but it was also layered, available for him when needed, yet not intrusive. Was high-functioning autism like this, Alan was wondering sometimes, finding no answer and having nobody to discuss his concerns.
He was going to spend yet another day with staring at the screen, looking for the distinctive codes of ISOs or Kevin Flynn – the User, as programs would say. It was a fruitless task; the ISOs had apparently all fled the system and Alan never saw Flynn either. He was forever grateful for that; he did not want to be responsible for somebody’s death. It happened only once that Alan had seen an ISO on the screen. It was on the first day: a large, colorful blinking dot, completely different from the codes of a Basic program, appeared on the borderlands of the system. Alan was watching silently, instead of reporting it, as he was supposed to do, silently praying for others not to notice the ISO. But just after a few seconds he saw a giant, yellow signal leaving an outpost, where it had been hiding and started toward the ISO with great speed. Alan touched the screen; the yellow dot stood for the virus Abraxas, now recoded to only target ISOs. In a matter of moments the virus reached the ISO and it began consuming it. Alan cried out loudly and he covered his eyes with his hands.
Alan wanted to talk to Clu; he had to find a way to end the fight, so he could reconnect with Kevin Flynn. Alan was beyond irritated at Flynn because of the discoveries he had had to make about the system – yet they all had a huge problem to solve and in order to do that, they had to stay alive. If he could have a conversation with Clu, he could convince the system administrator to at least consider other options, other than murder; Clu was Kevin Flynn in some way, and Flynn was impressionable, easy to talk to. But Alan had only seen Clu once after their initial conversation, a few hours later. After they showed him the terminal he was going to work at, Alan asked for an audience and soon after he was escorted to another room in the administration tower. It was a small, Spartan looking cubicle and Clu was sitting there alone. He looked at Alan with a neutral expression on his face.
“There is another way to make things work,” Alan said.
“What way?” Clu asked. He was not as cynical and hostile as before and that gave Alan some encouragement.
“You don’t have to do this,” he said. “You don’t have to kill the ISOs.”
“The system is at full capacity because of them. You will see that soon. They would be still pouring into the Grid, had I not taken action already.”
“I understand that. But there is always another way.”
“Maybe there was, long time ago. Flynn could have done something, he could have listened. Now there is no way back.”
Clu looked up at Alan. His face was calm and Alan suddenly realized what he was talking about. Clu was going to win or he was going to die; he must have had enough of Flynn’s knowledge and consideration to know that from an User’s standpoint he was a rogue program now. He had to know that when he had started the rebellion; he had to know that once found out, Kevin Flynn would have no reason to let him live. From the manner Clu was talking and how he held himself, Alan could tell that he was at peace with that fact.
“We are in a computer, that depends on an energy source from the outer world,” Alan said. “It’s just a question of time, and it will be shut down.”
“This was not supposed to happen. You were not supposed to be here.”
“My presence has nothing to do with anything and it did not change the course of events.”
“Except for the fact that now there will be two Users missing out there. And that you let the ISOs put their vermin inside you.”
“I didn’t know about it.”
“Right. And you still come to me and ask me to let them live, even when you experienced their treachery yourself.”
“They did more. They saved my life. That is why I am here. Life, people are not black and white. We need to find a way to fix the situation, or we will all perish here.”
For a moment Clu did not reply. Alan found himself understanding his reaction once more. Clu had only known one User before, with whom they apparently could not cooperate. Alan’s appearance in the system was unexpected for him – and also too late. With the new figure on the board, Clu had to find a new strategy; and he simply did not seem to be prepared for that.
“I will do what you want,” Alan said. “I will search for Flynn and the ISOs. But in exchange for that I need to know that my program is safe.”
“Fine,” Clu said.
“I need proof,” Alan said.
“You are a User. You should be able to get the proof for yourself,” Clu replied and he gestured at the guards to take Alan away.
What did he mean, Alan was thinking as he was escorted to his terminal. He had to catch up; he had to gather as much information as possible to be ready when the time came. At the terminal he opened the Grid codes for the first time. He looked at the administration tower and after a few minutes he was able to locate Tron’s code in a cell. Alan put his hand on the screen. His program was fine; the code was blinking on a low intensity level as if Tron had been dialed down or if he was sleeping. Alan wanted to reach through the screen to let the program know that everything would be alright; that he, Alan would make things right.
His eyes caught something in the corner of the screen.
What does that mean? Alan reached there to open up the link, but the guard that was standing behind him, suddenly spoke.
“Open the map,” the metallic voice said and Alan complied.
He was learning the Grid codes. He was searching for the ISOs and Flynn, as he had promised, but he was also immersing himself into the most delicate, exciting jungle of numbers he had ever encountered. Alan felt stunned by the complexity of the system and he felt a new respect for Kevin Flynn. Yet, his attention returned to the line in the corner again and again.
Programs were working; at one point somebody came in with a tray of bottles. Alan was offered one and he took the bottle. The drink looked like water; but it satisfied Alan’s growing hunger as well and he felt refreshed after. The guard behind him was also drinking; Alan used the moment of distraction to click on the link. To his surprise, he found no further information hidden under.
They were working. Sometimes Alan looked at the window to catch a glimpse of the city and the cloudy sky. As time was passing, he felt increasingly comfortable as if the foreign place he had arrived to was becoming more and more familiar for him. Alan used the moments when his guard stepped away to quickly open up the same link. While there was nothing under, he saw another link that caught his attention.
The guard came back and Alan had to wait again to return to his search. When that happened, he opened the HISTORY library. The folders went back until 1983, when the system had been created. Alan opened one old file, and he searched for the same link.
50% SATURATION – it said.
Maybe, Alan was thinking, it referred to the system usage that Clu had mentioned? But that was not the case; Alan kept on opening various folders, and the data was either 50% or 100% SATURATION, no in-between. The link did not refer to the memory usage of the system – but what did it stand for? With selecting files from different dates, Alan was trying to find out, when the switch had happened, when had the 50% changed to 100%. With his limited windows of time to pry, he was able to determine that the switch had happened in 1984. There was something major about the discovery, Alan felt, even if he could not tell what the whole thing was about. That link, that information meant something very basic, very elementary for the system and Alan sensed some echo coming back upon the idea, from the ISO hive mind.
It happened on the second day, that Alan glanced away from the screen for a moment, and when he looked back, he felt a mild tingling in his eyes. He blinked and when he opened his eyes again, he froze. He did not see the room anymore, the terminals and the people around, but he saw codes. He was seeing a 3D black space, filled by running codes. Alan felt his heart pounding in his chest rapidly. He kept on blinking, but the codes would not go away and Alan was now panicking.
He forced himself to regain composure. Instead of attempting to get rid of the codes, Alan was paying attention to them. Promptly he recognized the basic Grid code in the background, and above that the numbers that represented the tower and the surrounding room itself. Layered over that, there were the moving, changing codes of the programs that filled the room. Alan was standing there, stunned. The ISO root code, that had been installed on his disc… into his very DNA, was changing him. With the changed vision there came the knowledge; this was how Basic programs saw the system and each other. ISOs could see both versions, were able to switch between the two visions. Alan nodded to himself and willed to change the vision back to User mode. He blinked and the original view of the room came back. Alan looked around. They don’t see me, not the way I see myself. They see my codes – and this is one of the reasons why the ISOs call them Basics, one of the many reasons why they consider them inferior.
Alan returned to his work, excited and worried at the same time. The scientist in him was delighted by the new discovery, by the possibilities it would open for him as a programmer. He was concerned as well; he still did not know how far the changes would go, what the extent of the updates would be – if he would be still human at the end at all. Alan was happy that soon after he was allowed to return in his private room, but he was tossing and turning in the bed for long before falling asleep.
The door opened. There were two guards standing outside. Usually they waited there until Alan walked out of the cell; this time they entered the room and the door closed behind them. One of the guards took out Alan’s disc from a sack he was carrying. He stepped behind Alan and replaced the disc without a word. After the short interruption they started; the door opened and they began to walk – except for the opposite direction, not toward the room where Alan usually worked all day.
Alan switched his vision without stopping or slowing down. He saw the codes of the two Reds; it was a perfect camouflage. Alan only recognized the ISOs under the cover, because he managed to pick up their mental conversation through the hive mind. Alan had been blocked by them, but the blockage was breaking down for their close proximity. Their cover was impeccable; it must have been like that in order to infiltrate the city without being discovered by Abraxas or the technicians in the administration tower. Flynn and Radia must have put that fake coding together, Alan realized. From the silent communication between the ISOs he learned that there was a getaway vehicle waiting for them outside.
Alan stopped. Clu had not made threats regarding a situation like this; but then, an escape had not been an option, not a possibility. Alan knew, without those unspoken words he knew it without a doubt, that had he run, Clu would make Tron pay dearly.
“Alright,” he said. “We have to take my program too.”
The guards stopped and looked at each other.
“There is no time,” the taller ISO answered.
“I’m not leaving without him,” Alan said quietly, yet firmly. He sensed the growing tension and fear that was radiating from the ISOs. “If we can not take him, you guys can run. I’ll return to my cell.”
There was a moment of hesitation; the ISOs were communicating with the hive mind.
“Fine,” the shorter ISO said. “Lead us.”
Alan turned immediately and they started. With his vision still in program mode, Alan found the cell quickly. Other programs were approaching on the corridor; the taller ISO opened the cell door and the three of them entered quickly. The door closed behind them. The cell was small, smaller than Alan’s room, and it was completely bare. Its sole occupant was sitting at the wall with his helmet deactivated. Tron moved right away when the guards and Alan entered the room, yet it took him long to get on his feet. Alan noticed the low intensity in the program’s energy level; Clu must have dialed his speed and strength down to make sure that Tron was not causing trouble. Alan switched his vision back to User mode. He saw the mixture of delight and confusion on Tron’s face when the program looked at Alan and the guards.
“He doesn’t have his disc,” the shorter ISO said. “We can’t take him. He will reveal our location to the enemy by merely seeing the route.”
Alan looked at Tron. It was true; the port on the program’s back was empty. His synchronized disc was held somewhere else; it would be tracking the program’s memories regardless of not being attached. The door of the cell was opened from the outside before Alan could have answered. A large group of guards was standing outside; the escape attempt had been discovered. The taller ISO cried out, jumped ahead and stroke down, delivering a fatal blow to the guard that tried to enter the cell first. The Red screamed and fell to pixels. The shorter ISO moved as well and threw the next guard back with his staff. While they were fighting, Alan reached out and tapped the codes of the wall. He modified a few lines and the door suddenly disappeared; the wall was now even, without an opening to the corridor.
The four of them were staring at each other silently for a long moment. Alan saw the distress on the ISOs; they must have known that their safe haven would be gone momentarily, as soon as the guards would break through the wall or they would code another door. And that, Alan understood, could not happen – these ISOs could not be captured alive and their discs intact, for they knew the location of the ISO camp in the Outlands. He turned back to Tron. The program also seemed to be distraught; the combat program had just witnessed a fight without being able to intervene. Alan reached out and took Tron’s face between his hands. For a moment Alan wondered if Jet would look like this program in twenty years or so.
“You can’t see where we are going,” Alan said. He saw the trust in Tron’s eyes before he tapped the program’s coding.
Tron’s eyes closed and the program fell. The taller ISO caught him, before he hit the floor.
“How…?” the shorter ISO asked. Alan reached out and opened a large, glowing interface in the air. He opened a map of the Grid and pulled it out from the interface, closer to the ISOs.
“Show me the location,” Alan said. “The place where we are going.”
The ISO pointed at an unremarkable place in the Outlands. Behind them the wall began to glow as the Reds were breaking in. Alan spread his arms and the movement magnified the coding of the administration tower, with their cell inside. In the room there were the four blinking dots that stood for Alan, the ISOs and Tron. Alan highlighted the four files. The ISOs both cried out in surprise when all four of them became translucent. They were still inside the room, but ready to transport. Alan now clicked on the new location at the Outlands and designated it as arrival point. From the corner of his eye he saw the wall breaking down and the guards rushing in – at the same time the darkness of the Outlands embraced him. He was standing on a hill, accompanied by the two ISOs and Tron; a stone’s throw away he saw the lights of the new ISO settlement.
Alan's dream was inspired by the dream scene in John Updike's novel "Of the Farm" (1965).
They were standing on the top of a small hill. It was dark; with a blink Alan switched his vision to Program mode and he saw the sea of makeshift tents all around. Beyond the tent city there were piles of codes and numbers emerging from the black desert floor: the beginning of a construction, a new ISO tower built in the middle of nowhere.
Alan turned and he looked at his companions. With the danger left behind, the ISOs’ camouflage was disappearing now and was being replaced by their true look. Much to Alan’s surprise the shorter guard was a dark-haired female ISO. Her name – Quorra - came to Alan, as the ISO group mind opened up for him once more. The other one, Gibson, was a tall program in a hooded jacket. He was still holding Tron; Alan reached out to take over, so that the ISO would not get offended by having to care for a Basic, but Gibson did not seem to mind.
There was some movement in the ISO settlement; the guards on watch must have noticed the unexpected arrival of the little group. People were running uphill and Alan saw Kevin Flynn amongst them. He seemed to be unharmed. Flynn was smiling and he threw his arms around Alan when he got to them. The ISOs were celebrating as well. Alan stood there silently; he was not going to make an argument in front of everybody, but he had to hold himself back from pushing Flynn away. Eventually Flynn noticed Alan’s cold expression and he stepped back. Alan turned to Gibson and took Tron from him. Flynn looked at Alan and then at the sleeping program in Alan’s arms. Finally there was understanding on his face. He took one more step back and gestured at the settlement below.
“There is a tent waiting for you,” he said. They walked downhill quietly, surrounded by the cheerful programs. Flynn led them to a tent and opened the door. There was one simple room inside the small abode, illuminated by some sparse, green light. A desk and a chair stood in the room; it was not much, but this was a safe haven for the hunted and for Alan, it was plenty. On the side he saw a tiny chamber with a bench. He walked there and put down Tron. The program was sleeping soundly. Alan straightened himself and turned back to Kevin Flynn.
“Bring me a blank identity disc,” he told Flynn.
“Alan… I’m sorry…”
“I know,” Alan said, cutting him off. “Later. Just bring me a disc.”
Flynn opened his mouth, and then he remained silent. He nodded quietly and left the tent, closing the door behind himself. Alan stood still in the middle of the room for a moment. He was enjoying the quietness and the privacy, the lack of surveillance. Then he reached behind his shoulder and removed his own disc. He opened it up swiftly and pulled out the digital double helix. It had been days that the ISO root code had been installed, yet he had to be sure – he had to remove it if there was a chance. Alan magnified a random part of the DNA string to make it large enough for him to see the nucleotides. He touched one and the codes emerged; and there it was, the ISO program code, engraved into the cell. Radia’s addition was not a separate file on his disc anymore; it had been integrated and became the very part of him. There was nothing he could do about it anymore. Alan closed the disc and returned it to its port.
He sat down to the desk, pressing his hands against the smooth surface. He was about to open up an interface – he had to know the whole truth. Flynn was going to come back, soon, and Alan wanted to be prepared, in possession of all information needed to make logical decisions. That was his programmer – Program? – side thinking, but the reason of delay was that Alan already knew the truth. He had figured it out during the time of his capture, while analyzing the data flow, and using his human intuition. Alan Bradley was stalling, because he knew what had happened in 1984, he knew what the change in the saturation level meant – he knew what event had caused the ISO phenomena. He knew, and inside he was sobbing at those revelations, because he knew that even if he lived, even if he successfully returned in his world and found out that he had been cured, his life, as he knew it, was over.
Alan looked aside, at the sleeping program on the bench. Then, Alan thought, that life had never existed, not really – he had been blinded by the sunlight on the surface of the water and had never noticed the monsters hiding in the deep. His fingers moved and the interface appeared above the desk. After a long, last moment of mercy Alan turned ahead and looked at the screen.
It took him some time to locate the exact date; once done, he searched for the transcript in the Grid history files. When he found it, Alan pulled it out from the interface. It was a compressed file, so that it would not take up much space on the hard drive – for the same reason it was complex, difficult to read. He was trying to read a digital file while in User view, Alan realized and he switched his vision.
A cube emerged from the data placed on the desk; a 3D recording. It was showing the arrival point to the Grid, the copy of the Arcade room with the Shiva laser. The machine came to life and the shape of a human being appeared in the dark room. When the transmission concluded, the User turned around and looked at the room with eyes wide open. It was Lora; a younger Lora from 1984. She looked at her hands and then she touched her hair with her fingers. There was the mixture of fear and delight on her face. She walked around, examining objects in the room quietly. She went to the laser and looked at it for long. Soon after the device lit up again and Kevin Flynn appeared in the room.
“I told you so,” Flynn told Lora. He was smiling, but Alan noticed some uncertainty on him – he was hoping to please Lora as if he wanted to win her for a cause.
“How…?” Lora asked. And Flynn spoke: he told her about the same adventures he would describe to Alan years later. He told her about the discovery of the old Grid, about building this new one and populating it with sentient programs. From their conversation and from the references they made Alan understood that Flynn had revealed the existence of the system to Lora earlier and he had brought her here now to introduce her to his secret empire.
In the recording Lora and Flynn left the Arcade. Flynn’s behavior was similar to how he acted at Alan’s arrival; cautious, yet proud. Lora was very quiet and observant. Alan noticed how she tried to avoid contact with programs walking by on the street and contrary to Flynn in the recording, he sensed her growing uneasiness. When the two of them spoke, they talked about technical details, the science behind the system. Alan was watching that younger Lora in the scene with increasing heart ache. Lora was still working for ENCOM at that time – and they had Jet already. Alan knew to where this scene was heading, he knew it not just for seeing her discomfort, but for the fact that Lora had given in to the long awaiting job offer from Washington D.C. right after this and had quit ENCOM – and that she had never told Alan about this trip and about the Grid.
Lora and Flynn were walking. She pointed at a building, asked a question and listened to the answer carefully. Alan was watching the recording at high speed; on the recording three hours passed already and Lora was still avoiding programs. They were talking, and from their conversation Alan slowly put together the story behind this visit. Flynn was overwhelmed by his responsibilities; he had already created Clu to assist him, but he wanted Lora and Alan to be part of the project as well. There was another aspect too; being one of the designers of the laser, Lora was already a contributor of the system – and along with Alan, according to Flynn, entitled to more compensation than they had been receiving from the company. Flynn believed Lora to be the more flexible one, the one Flynn knew better and so he decided to start with her, so that later they could present the Grid to Alan together.
“You should have told me about this long time ago,” Lora said as they were walking.
“I should have. I apologize for that. I did not talk about it after that night in the ENCOM building, and later it became harder and harder.”
Lora nodded. She would understand the human factor, he would understand Flynn, Alan knew that. The problem was something else. In the recording Flynn also seemed to notice Lora’s wariness about programs. At the end of the tour they went back to the Grid version of the Arcade to sum up the experience and talk further.
In the room Lora sat down.
“Well,” she said, “You are way better at keeping secrets than I would have ever thought.”
They laughed, but there was a nervous tension in the air. Flynn sat on the desk sideways and looked at her.
“I admire the work you’ve done here,” she said. “When you first spoke about this place… Let’s say, what I saw that exceeds all my expectations.”
She paused and Flynn smiled.
“But… The programs… How did they gain consciousness?” she asked.
“It has been like that since my first encounter with them. This is what I found on the ENCOM mainframe. It might have started with the Master Control Program and the awakening of the others could have been induced after that. Or it is like that everywhere, in every single computer on the world.”
“When you write a new program here… Do you give them their awareness?”
“No,” Flynn replied. Alan began to sense the coming conflict. Lora was spiritual, even if not religious, and the morality behind the creation of Artificial Intelligence was bothering her.
“From where is it coming?” she asked.
“I really can not tell. Back in the old system the personalities of programs reflected to their creators’. Actually, this is something I want to show you, as I want to introduce you to somebody.”
Flynn was smiling and he picked up his data pad. He was typing and then he sent a message. In the recording Lora and Flynn were talking and while they waited, Alan was wondering about the identity of the program Flynn had invited. He was sensing the coming disaster, but he could not guess Flynn’s plan.
In the scene the door opened and a program walked in. Alan’s heart sank and seeing Lora’s reaction he could tell that she was shocked as well. The newcomer was a female program with an even younger Lora Baines’ look. She was very slim, the way Lora had used to be before having Jet. She was wearing a black Grid suit which was illuminated by light blue circuits. Her hair was put up in a bun. She was smiling brightly in the fashion one would smile when their heart’s greatest wish would finally get fulfilled.
Lora jumped on her feet. Her hands shot out and silenced a scream which started to rip from her lips. She was not acting; she seemed to be honestly frightened. She reached out and pointed at the program.
“What is this?” she asked in a shrill voice. The smile froze on Flynn’s face and the program stopped, dumbfounded.
“Lora,” Flynn started. “This is your program, Yori. You created her when you were working on the laser.”
Flynn and the program looked at each other. Alan could tell that they had been hoping for a pleasant surprise, and that their plan misfired horribly. Watching the scene Alan suddenly understood why Flynn would hide Tron’s existence from him years later, why he would not risk a similar fallout. Yori lifted her arms and reached out at Lora as if she tried to embrace her, but Lora showed no sign of giving in.
“Why does it look like me?” Lora asked. “Why did you bring my program in your city? Because it looks like me?”
“Lora, you misunderstand…” Flynn started.
“I’m done here,” Lora said. “I don’t need to hear anything else about this project here. You can do whatever you want with your company, with this hidden computer labor, with your life. But I will have no part in this sick game. You will have my resignation letter on your desk in the morning. When we exit here, you get a hard drive and put all my programs that are here on it, as I have never agreed that you take any of them to create this monstrosity.”
Yori’s arms fell and she cried out.
“What?” she asked. She ran to Flynn. “Don’t make me leave. Don’t take me away from him.”
“Lora, please,” Flynn said. “She looks like you, because that’s how the old system worked. She is not you and she is a friend of mine. You saw the city outside. Yori lives here with her friends, part of this society. The old ENCOM system is gone, was replaced long time ago. You can’t put her back there. And we don’t even know what’s the deal with other computer systems, whether there is any other machine with sentient programs.”
“I listened to you for too long,” Lora said. “I want to be out. And I want my programs to be out from this mess.”
Yori grabbed Flynn’s hands, silently urging him.
“I can’t do this, Lora,” Flynn said. “She is my friend. I asked for them to come and join me here. I can not remove her from the system against her will.”
“But you can go against my will, that’s what you are saying, right?” Lora asked. “Fine. As soon as I get home, I tell Alan about your sick fantasy land with my doppelgänger in it, so that way you can get two resignation letters instead of one. After that I will go to the press. They are obsessed with you and your mysterious ways anyway. I am sure that they will appreciate a story about your hideout under the Arcade.”
Flynn was looking at Lora silently as if he just caught a glimpse of her, of a never before seen side of her.
“That, or I walk out alone with a hard drive tonight. Your call.”
A minute passed. Flynn turned to Yori and the program seemed to understand the decision.
“Let me say goodbye to Tron,” she said.
Alan closed his eyes and the recording stopped. He stood up suddenly. He felt very sober, very much awake, as if he just found out that a dear friend of his had passed away years before and the news had gotten delayed for some reason. Alan went to the bench and sat down on the edge, next to the sleeping program. He took Tron’s hand in his hands and sat there, grieving. Alan was going to finish watching the recording, but for now he just wanted to sit there for a moment. He understood everything: he understood Flynn and his desire for creating something new and adventurous. He understood Lora’s shock and refusal. But he wished, he dearly wished that it had happened differently, that they had agreed or one of them had come to him and ask for help. Then, they had never come: Lora had kept this trip, the real reason behind her departure from ENCOM in secret, so that he, Alan could continue working for the company, even if she would resent Flynn forever. And Flynn would stay silent as well, so that the same disaster would not happen again, this time with Alan – so that Alan would not make the same assumptions… and would not take away his own programs from the Grid. And Flynn would keep the secret until the day when Alan would walk into his office with another resignation letter and the news of his coming demise – then, only then he would reveal the system for Alan, and even then he would make careful plans to keep Tron’s existence in secret.
“I’m sorry,” Alan whispered. “I’m so sorry.”
In a moment he would stand up, go back to the desk and finish watching the scene. When it would end, Alan knew, he would look at the counter in the corner of the screen and he would see the saturation level changing from 50% to 100%. When Flynn had entered the system for the first time, his codes, his male DNA had been read by the computer; and after Lora’s visit it would collect the genetic information from a female User as well. Once done, the Sea of Simulation, this dark, mysterious mass would begin working on those DNA helixes. It would clean them up from genetic defects and would start giving life to the ISO life form the way the great Archean oceans had cooked up the first unicellular organisms four billion years earlier.
Alan went back to the desk and he sat down. The recording started again.
“It’s better if you stay here,” Flynn told Yori. With that, he and Lora left the room. Alan saw them on the way to the portal. In the Arcade room Yori stood silently for minutes, and then she began to run. She burst out to the street and she was running; programs would turn around on the street and would look after her in surprise. Wherever she was trying to get on time, Yori did not make it: her running form suddenly froze and then disappeared from the system.
Alan closed the file and he looked up. Flynn was standing in the door with the blank identity disc in his hand. Alan had been watching the history record in compressed form and in Program view, but from the other programmer’s expression he could tell that Flynn knew what he was doing. Flynn stepped inside and the door of the tent closed behind him.
“Hi, Alan,” he said.
Alan was sitting quietly. Flynn put the disc on the desk and turned at him; his face was tired, resigned. He had accepted defeat, Alan realized: for Flynn had lost when the coup had taken place and the portal had closed. For them to escape from the system the incident and the truth had to be discovered in their home world; and that discovery likely meant the end of this project and maybe the end of ENCOM.
“The files are compressed,” Flynn said. “You can play them properly if you download it first.”
“That’s fine,” Alan replied. “I was able to watch it.”
Flynn looked at him, somewhat perplexed. He did not know about Radia’s tweaking, Alan remembered.
“I watched it in program mode,” he explained. “They don’t see things the way we do, they see the binary codes.”
“What are you talking about?” Flynn asked. He seemed to be at loss – or was that fear of what Alan could say?
“I’m able to see it since the procedure in Arjia City. When Radia healed me, she also added the root code of an ISO to my disc.”
“What?” Flynn asked. He was shocked. “Alan, I…”
“You didn’t know about it,” Alan said calmly. “I’m aware of that.”
“Give me your disc, we can…”
“It’s too late. The root code had been integrated and the added qualities are now engraved into the digital DNA.”
The saw the emotions on Flynn’s face: surprise, anger… regret.
“What did it do to you?” Flynn asked.
“Still not quite sure about everything. The vision, most certainly,” Alan replied. Flynn appeared to be devastated and Alan decided not to go on about the rest of the changes he had been experiencing and about his access to the ISO hive mind. “I am still myself. Don’t worry.”
“Worry? I’m going to talk to her. I will have her reverse their meddling. Alan… If I knew… If I ever thought that this trip would be dangerous or that the ISOs would do anything else, but fixing you… I would have never told you about the Grid.”
Flynn sighed and ran his fingers through his hair. He looked at the sleep chamber; for a moment he seemed to forget that Alan was there and he took a step toward the sleeping program. Then Flynn turned back at Alan.
“How is he?” he asked.
“Fine. I’m going to have to desynchronize the original disc left behind and install the new one before waking him up,” Alan replied. Flynn began to walk up and down in the room.
“Did you meet Clu?” he asked in a low voice.
“Did he hurt you?”
Alan reached out and touched the identity disc lying on the desk. It was black, unlit; standard.
“You should have told us about the Grid right away,” he said.
“I wanted. I was going to tell you guys about it. I was putting the words together, waiting for the right time. When Dillinger was fired. When I became the boss. When I moved the laser. When I was finally ready, I thought Lora would understand my reasoning better, that we could come to you together afterwards.”
Flynn let out a humorless laugh.
“Boy, was I wrong,” he said.
“I wish you’d come to me after,” Alan said. Flynn looked at him incredulously.
“You wish?” he asked. “You would have quit on the spot.”
“No? Look in my eyes and tell me that you would have listened to me, had Lora come to you claiming that I designed a virtual dungeon with a program in her likeness in it. Be honest and say, would you have listened?”
Alan was silent for a minute.
“I would have resigned right away,” he said. “I would have never spoken to you again.”
Flynn nodded. Alan looked at Tron.
“How did you explain this to him?” he asked.
“I didn’t have to explain anything,” Flynn replied. “I deleted all his memories of Yori.”
“You did what?” Alan asked slowly. Flynn laughed; but it was a horrible, hysterical sound and when he turned back, Alan saw that his eyes were red.
“What, Alan?” Flynn asked. “Do you consider that immoral? I killed my friend, so that I can keep my little secret. I am going to hell, Alan. I did ask them, Yori and Tron to come and join me in this new project. They had a choice, they could have said no – they could have stayed. But they came, because ‘no’ is not something you say when God comes down from the clouds to you with a question. I should have known that Lora was not ready to meet her; I should have waited until her next visit or even later. And even when everything went wrong, I did have a choice. I could have refused Lora, but I didn’t. I gave up on a friend instead, because it was easier for me that way. It was easier for me to put a program on a hard drive and hand it over than to see my secret being out in a way that would have made ENCOM a laughing stock. For a program, being taken from here is likely death, even if she actually exists on that hard drive somewhere. I killed her, for my convenience. That was immoral. Finding myself unable to come back and tell Tron the truth was really nothing compared to that. I already committed the ultimate betrayal against them, so why stop halfway? I deleted his memories of her before even coming back. Tron thinks he always lived on his own. He thinks it was the two of us that stole that Solar Sailer together to travel to the central computer. He remembers standing alone after the fall of the Master Control Program, looking down to the ruins.”
They were silent for a while. Finally Alan looked up and spoke.
“We need to go to the portal,” he said.
Flynn looked down at him in surprise.
“It’s closed,” he said. “We can’t open it from this side.”
“It’s the middle of the night out there. Soon Lora will be awake and will notice my absence,” Alan said. “She’ll know that something happened. She will make a few phone calls looking for me. Very soon after that we will be missing our plane to Washington D.C. and Lora will be on the road, searching. She knows that I went out with you, she will figure that we came here.”
“The Arcade opens at noon,” Flynn said.
“Your car is in the parking lot and when we entered, you rolled up the security screen outside the main door. She will know that we are inside and she will get in before noon.”
“Do you think she will enter the system?”
“No way. She will know that something went wrong, it would be insane. She will activate the portal from the outside, so that we can get out. This is why we have to get there earlier. The portal is closed now and Clu doesn’t know that it would open, the place is likely not guarded. We can go there, wait and exit once it’s open. If we wait too long, the portal will open and Clu will have enough time to shut down the entry routes.”
“She can still help us from out there.”
“Sure. Except for Lora won’t know what causes the delay, she will only assume that there is a program running that prevents us from exiting.”
Alan looked up at Flynn.
“Think with the head of a programmer,” he said. “Lora will delete everything. She won’t know which program is what, which one is causing the delay and she won’t care anyway. Lora will purge the system files. If there is no program left, there is nothing to stop us from escaping.”
Flynn was staring at him and he nodded slowly.
“I’ll make the preparations for the departure,” he said and he left the tent. After a moment of peace Alan stood up, picked up the identity disc from the desk and went to the sleep chamber. Tron was lying on his side; Alan turned him gently so that he could fully access the disc port. Alan put his hand on the empty port and tapped the program’s coding. A glowing interface emerged with lines of codes. Alan selected one section of numbers and began to work. He changed the credentials and discontinued the synchronization between the program and his old disc which had been left behind in the administration tower. Once done, Alan attached the new disc and watched it powering up. The ring lit up with blue light slowly as the data – settings and memories - was copied on the disc. When the process finished, Alan took the disc in hand once more and opened it to access the menu. In the settings folder he found the current values of strength and speed, that Clu had changed when the program had been captured. Alan tuned them up, restoring the original settings from before the coup. He saved the changes, reattached the disc and waited for the updates to download. When everything was done, he gave the program a boost to wake him up. What should he say, Alan was thinking while he was waiting; was he supposed to tell anything? The program stirred and the movement he made reminded Alan of how Jet rubbed his eyes when it was time to get out of the bed, still halfway asleep. The memory led Alan to a sudden realization; that he could never have another child. Whether he lived with all the alterations the ISOs had made or died: he, Alan was a grown man, able to face life, pain, challenges. But having a child, after seeing the drastic changes Radia had made to his DNA – that was a decision impossible to make, a risk too big to take. Surely, the alterations might not be inheritable or the child could be born with only the positive side effects of the changes – but what if it came out with all the negatives? Something not entirely human? Alan liked to think that he was an adventurous sort of scientist and indeed he would break into buildings at night and access forbidden systems; he would even let himself transported into the heart of a computer and have some mysterious creatures try and heal him. But the sense of adventure ended there: he was not going to risk somebody else’s life, health or sanity.
Alan looked up and he saw that Tron was looking at him, somewhat similar in fashion to how Jet liked to watch him from under his eyelids, pretending to be asleep, but bursting out in laughter at the same time.
“Hey,” Alan said. Tron sat up and Alan saw him face to face, up close for the first time. They were not of the same height; the program was shorter than Alan. Tron’s hair was a darker shade of brown; his face was pale, youthful. Basics don’t age, the information came to Alan from the ISO hive mind, they have only one default look. Tron’s hands moved; then the program became still. And Alan suddenly remembered of that history file from 1984, the way Yori had approached Lora with arms extended for an embrace, and the manner Lora had turned away from her. Tron did not see that scene; he did not even know that there had been a program called Yori, but his aborted gesture reminded Alan of that scene which would haunt him forever. He reached out without further hesitation and wrapped his arms around Tron. The program was motionless in his embrace for a moment, then Alan felt Tron’s head coming to a rest on his shoulder. They sat there like that in silence for long.
He was sleeping. He only wanted to close his eyes for a moment, but then exhaustion overcame him and Alan gave in. They still had plenty of time before having to start their journey to the portal; getting there too early, being spotted and captured by the Reds was surely not the way Alan hoped to realize his plan.
Once the deep, dreamless portion of his sleep passed, Alan heard Radia talking to him. He could have locked her out and continue unbothered; but he let her talk.
‘Don’t go,’ Radia said. ‘Don’t abandon us.’
‘I must go. The portal will open up soon. I need to be there to exit, or there will be fire coming down onto the Grid, far worse than Clu’s rage has ever been,’ Alan replied through the ISO hive mind. ‘But don’t worry. Once out there, I will help Flynn to sort things out and you will be safe.’
‘You have to kill Clu,’ she said.
‘I don’t have to kill anybody,’ Alan responded after short silence. ‘I will separate the people of the Grid, I will use more servers if needed.’
‘He is a murderer.’
‘Yes,’ Alan said. ‘But I am not.’
She was quiet. Alan fell asleep again. He was alone in the tent; Tron had left earlier to assist Flynn preparing a small aircraft for the journey ahead. The ISO hive mind opened for Alan and he saw them, as if in a dream, he saw Flynn and Tron, in the clearing between the tents, working on a dark, black plane. Alan heard some murmuring in that inner frequency where he would normally receive information, sounds, images from the group mind, a whisper he had not heard before. He did not understand it and his attention returned to the scene before him. Alan was watching it from several points of views, as many ISOs were in the proximity. Flynn and Tron were working without talking, the way people that had long known each other would work. Flynn reached out for a tool without looking and Tron handed it to him before climbing up on the short ladder. The program’s hair fell ahead and Flynn was watching now, he was watching when Tron reached there and brushed his hair aside. Some time later, when Tron came down, Flynn walked up to him from behind and wreathed his arms around the program. Tron smiled and turned his face, looking up at him over his shoulder –
- she looked over her shoulder at Jalen. The switch was sudden, unexpected and Alan was seeing Jalen through Radia’s eyes. The memory was triggered by the scene unfolding outside the tents and was coming to Alan with such intensity that he did not even try to avert it – nor did Radia attempt to suppress it. Alan felt her agony over the loss and he reached out through the hive mind to comfort her. The whispering he had heard earlier, returned, louder this time.
‘Radia,’ Alan said. ‘Whose root code did you add to my disc?’
There came no answer. Alan opened his eyes. It was quiet and dark in the tent. He sat up, blinking in the darkness. He was listening to the whispers. Something was wrong; something was very wrong here and Alan was desperately trying to figure what was happening. He stood up and walked to the door. The black sky of the Grid lay silently over the ISO settlement. The green lights of the tent city were glowing with low intensity. Alan focused on the whispers. They were coming though the hive mind, just the frequency was off, out of tune. He had slept, Alan realized, and the updates from the ISO root code usually downloaded after rest.
‘Radia,’ he said. ‘Can you hear this?’
He closed his eyes. He focused on the frequency; he only had to adjust the wavelength to understand the whispering, which was becoming clearer and louder anyway as if somebody was approaching at high speed.
His eyes opened. He understood the whispers – suddenly he understood everything. Alan began to run toward Flynn and Tron. He was yelling.
“ABRAXAS IS COMING. HE IS ALMOST HERE.”
Alan was running. He saw Flynn turning at him with a confused expression on his face; next to him Tron took out his disc with a motion too fast to actually see and he assumed fighting stance. A commotion started upon Alan’s yelling and his frantic run; the ISOs came out from their tents and were looking around, searching for the threat. It was quiet, with no sign of the approaching virus. The surrounding outposts were dark and Alan saw the stationing guards emerging and staring at him.
‘Where? How? Where?’ the questions were coming to Alan through the ISO hive mind – but all Alan could see was the vision of the Outlands, through the eyes of Abraxas as the virus was charging toward the ISO settlement. Abraxas saw the green lights of the camp from the outside and as he was coming, from the corner of his eye Alan caught a glimpse of Tron City. Having a point of reference, now Alan could determine the direction of the virus.
“There,” he pointed out, “he is coming from there.”
Alan got to Flynn a moment after Tron shot out and began running. The ISO guards followed him, they were rushing to the direction Alan had pointed at.
“What’s happening?” Flynn asked Alan, still confused. It was dark and quiet, with no apparent sign of the coming attack. “How do you know?”
Alan was blinking. He was seeing Flynn’s face and the people scampering around them – and he was also seeing things from Abraxas’ point of view. The visions were playing on top of each other, and all Alan could do for now was to close his eyes to lock out one of the streams.
Through the ISO common consciousness Alan felt Radia bursting out from her residence. She stopped outside of the large tent and looked at the Outlands.
‘How?’ she asked silently. The question came through the ISO hive mind, but the conversation was private, between Radia and Alan.
‘You used Jalen’s root code,’ Alan replied. ‘You installed his root code you had had stored, onto my disc.’
Radia was quiet; her silence was not defiance or denial – she just did not understand what Alan was trying to get to.
‘The code got integrated with mine, but something else also happened. As time passed, our discs became synchronized, for you did not change the credentials nor did Clu with Jalen’s disc, because he did not know that you had kept a copy and you were going to use it.’
Radia was still silent. Alan felt that she was beginning to comprehend, and he sensed her growing horror.
‘It is Jalen,’ he said. ‘Abraxas is Jalen.’
Radia screamed. It did not resonate through the ISO hive mind, but echoed amidst the chaos rising in the settlement as Radia let out a real, agonizing scream. That sound got overwhelmed by the cry of hundreds when the sick, yellow light of Abraxas suddenly appeared not far from one of the outposts. The virus was gigantic; it was almost as tall as the watchtower, a faceless, dark figure of a feverish nightmare. It raised its arms and began to tear down the outpost. ISOs were screaming everywhere and Alan heard the sounds of terror through his own and through Abraxas’ ears as well. He closed his eyes and he saw the watchtower collapsing from Abraxas’ point of view; the ISO guards fell and were crushed on the ground. Abraxas’ attention then turned to the programs rushing to fight him. The first one getting there was Tron and Alan stopped dead at seeing his program with Abraxas’ eyes, seeing how small Tron was compared to the giant virus. Much to his surprise and relief Abraxas turned away quickly and threw itself at the next watchtower instead of stomping down onto the security program.
Alan opened his eyes and he saw more ISOs running and he recognized Gibson in the crowd. The ISO was side by side with a blue circuited, robust program – the first Basic Alan encountered in the ISO encampment besides Tron. Farther away Giles and a group of bodyguards were escorting Radia and the ISO elders toward the construction site; the new tower was still in the making, but it was already the highest point in the tent city and the safest spot around.
Alan turned back to Flynn, who was watching the violence unfolding in apparent confusion. An ISO, a civilian that was running away from the danger, tripped over next to them; Flynn helped the program up and then he looked up again, just to see the second watchtower coming down. Alan closed his eyes once more, for that was the only way for him to block one of the interfering data streams and he saw Abraxas reaching out and grabbing programs. Alan thought he was going to crush them, but the virus released its victims after infecting them with its own yellow code. The damaged ISOs fell on the desert floor; they were in apparent distress. The yellow code was spreading across their bodies and once it engulfed them, the programs emerged again – as viruses themselves, ready to spread the contamination. Most of them met their quick, merciful end right away, as Tron’s disc was coming down onto them. The security program was making his way to Abraxas and he was cutting down the infected in his way. Abraxas glanced at Tron and moved forward to avoid confrontation again. For his giant size the virus was able to get away from the security program quickly, leaving Tron fighting the infected ISOs. They could defeat Abraxas, Alan realized, Tron and the other system monitor were capable of taking the virus down, had they gotten a clear shot – and Abraxas knew this.
“Come,” Alan said. Flynn looked at him, dumbfounded. “It’s coming.”
Flynn looked up. Abraxas was marching in the heart of the tent city, stomping hard and swinging around to cause the most destruction possible. Alan and Flynn were running; just when he could not hear the enormous footsteps anymore, did Alan turn around to look. Abraxas was standing in the middle of the ruins, infecting ISOs and crushing guards. Its head turned and it looked at Alan’s direction. This was how it had found the ISO settlement, Alan was thinking: once their discs had become synchronized, it had been able to see through Alan’s eyes the same way he had access to Abraxas’ data stream now. The disturbance that came from the unprecedented event, two entities sharing two separate data flow, must have been an annoyance for the virus as well. One of us is going to die here, Alan realized suddenly; there was no way for the virus to leave without terminating the source of the other data stream – Abraxas was either going to kill him, or get deleted himself in the battle, but the virus was not going to stop.
“We must separate,” Alan told Kevin Flynn.
“No, we should stay together,” Flynn replied. They were hiding behind a large tent.
“We can’t… I’ll explain it later. You must hide. Trust me now and don’t follow me,” Alan said and he began. For once Flynn listened to him and stayed behind – or he was just too baffled to take any action. For Alan it did not make much difference; he merely did not want to be responsible for any harm that would come to Flynn because of him, because of the contact established between him and the virus.
Alan ran until he could not hear the sounds of the fight anymore. Then he huddled himself behind an empty tent. There were no programs here; Alan looked around and he knew immediately that he made a mistake – he gave away his location by simply opening his eyes. On the other side of the settlement Abraxas threw down a handful of infected ISOs and started at the source of the disturbance. Alan closed his eyes to cut off the stream, to withhold the view. He heard the thundering steps approaching.
Lora, Alan was thinking, had he died, had he been dead at the time Lora would find the office under the Arcade, she would be shaken. She would still try to save Kevin Flynn, assuming that the other programmer would live to see that moment – but there would be nothing left for her anymore, no reason not to delete everything else from the system.
Perhaps, Alan thought, he could still do something to save the city, to stop the total devastation. They were in a computer, and for that, all their actions and words were documented, saved for the future, available for later examination. If Lora would read the Grid history, if she would look into what had really happened, Alan could still send her a message, a final request.
“Lora,” Alan said loudly, with his eyes closed, as the ground was shaking under him from the heavy footsteps of the quickly approaching virus. “Lora, if you are reading me… Please, let them live. It’s true, what Flynn told you, these programs are sentient beings. Lora, if you read this…”
He wanted to continue, but he ran out of time. Abraxas’ thunderous scream suppressed his words and the tent Alan was hiding behind disappeared when the virus ripped it away. Alan stood up and looked up at Abraxas silently.
The first thing Alan noticed that the virus was smaller now; it was still enormous, yet he appeared to be half the size of what it had been at the beginning of the attack. As the synchronization was becoming complete and Alan started to sense Abraxas’ thoughts, he felt that the virus had received a couple of blows from the guards and from Tron. It did not make much difference for Alan, as Abraxas was still operational and there was nothing around them to change what was coming. The guards were running, but they were still too far – none of them was going to get there in time to save Alan’s life. The virus lifted a giant fist, preparing to bring it down onto Alan and behind him Alan caught a glimpse of the ISO tower where Radia and the elders had found refugee. Abraxas stopped, with his arm frozen mid-air. Alan looked up at him, seeing the virus and his own very self through Abraxas’ eyes at the same time. The data stream, of course, was two-sided; just as Alan sensed Abraxas’ -
- thoughts, the virus saw the tower as well, along with Alan’s memory of Radia being escorted there. Abraxas turned around slowly. There was a hesitation, a heavy inner conflict as the virus’ new designation –
- destroy –
- and the original program’s remains, Jalen’s memories and feelings were getting blended together into a dark combination of anger, the intent to terminate and deep sadness over a lost life… lost love –
- kill –
Abraxas turned and looked at the ISO tower.
- kill Radia –
The virus started and began marching at the tower with increasing speed. And Alan saw many things happening at the same time. Dozens of infected ISOs were roaming the tent city, trying to spread the contamination. The guards and the security programs were fighting and cutting them down faster than how the infection would spread. Panic erupted in the tower upon Abraxas’ approach; the elite soldiers of the ISO royalty began firing at the virus. Confused as he was from the continuous incoming data streams, Alan let out a sigh of relief when he saw Tron coming for him. Alan felt his own lips opening as he was about to cry out and give an order to Tron.
‘Save Radia,’ the words would have been. But the order was not coming from Alan; it was originated from Radia, who sent it through the ISO hive mind. Alan looked up and his eyes met Radia’s intent stare. She was standing on the top of the tower, holding onto a rail as she was leaning ahead and watching the battle. When she had seen Abraxas’ coming, she sent out the order through Alan – for as much as Radia despised Tron, she knew that the security program was the most equipped to fight the virus amongst the guards. The order would have left Alan without protection; and Radia sent it out anyway.
Alan closed his mind before Radia. He could have responded to the order Radia was trying to give through him; he could have been harsh. But all Alan could feel was sorry for her. Radia just wanted to live; she wanted life itself so desperately that she could not see that all this misery coming down on her and her people was the result of her fear of death. She had placed Jalen’s root code on Alan’s disc to make Alan one of them and save the ISO kind in case the final destruction of them on the Grid was impossible to avoid – for Alan would have lived, he would have survived with the unwanted inheritage, in the User world. And that way, Alan understood it now, Jalen would have lived, in a twisted fashion part of Jalen would have lived in him. That action, placing the root code on his disc was also meant to make Alan one of them, to make him an ally; and this idea made Alan open his mind for the ISO hive mind for the last time.
‘You made me one of the ISOs,’ he told Radia, ‘because you thought that was the only way, that my compassion would not be enough for me to stand up and fight for you. That I would only put your life first if I was forced to do so, never by choice.’
There came no answer and Alan felt her sheer terror at the sight of the virus coming at the tower. Alan turned at Tron, who just arrived to his side.
“Go,” Alan said. “Save Radia.”
He felt the instant gratitude and relief from Radia – but he locked the ISO hive mind out. He did not give the order to win that gratitude, but because it was his own, uncorrupted choice. Tron nodded and he shot out after the virus. Abraxas reached the tower already and it began to tear it down. Tron got to him and delivered a blow to its giant feet. The virus screamed.
“Alan!” he heard and he looked there. Kevin Flynn was standing on a pile of rubbish and he was yelling and gesturing at Alan. A moment later Alan understood his frantic behavior: a large group of infected ISOs were running at Alan’s direction.
He froze. He had to run; but there were too many of them and they were coming fast. The desperate screaming at the tower started again and Alan looked up. Tron must have heard Flynn’s yelling; the security program had noticed that Alan was in grave danger and he had abandoned his attack on Abraxas. Tron was coming back and the virus resumed its assault on the tower.
“Tron! Save the ISOs!” Alan yelled. Upon his words Tron came to a halt. The program turned back at the tower and he took one step – just to stop again. The light of his circuitry blinked and it turned bright red. Despite of his own situation, despite of the group of infected closing their circle around him, Alan could not help, but watched his program. He knew exactly what was happening, for it had been him, who had created this program after all. Alan had written Tron to fight for the Users; and now he asked him to abandon his User, to put other programs in the first place and let Alan die. And Tron was trying to obey the command, he was trying to deviate from his programming – that caused the change in his circuits, making it similar to Clu and his followers, that were also independent from User directives. But Alan had not written Tron to be able to override his own programming; he remembered the safety measures he had taken when he had made his best program to date.
Tron shook. His circuitry changed back to light blue and he began running to Alan. His disc cut through the infected as if they were nothing and would not stop the slaughter until all of them were gone. Alan was watching him while the screams of the ISOs filled the air. He turned and he saw that the tower was about to crumble. Then Abraxas howled again. A group of guards reached it and injured the virus was, now they seemed to have a chance against it.
It went silent suddenly. Tron straightened himself with a confused expression on his face. All the infected were gone and the security program seemed to be at loss to what had happened earlier, why he had not been able to execute Alan’s command. Farther from them Abraxas fell: the giant shook before hitting the desert floor hard. It broke to pieces, without the pixels dissolving the way Alan had seen it happening to regular programs. Another fight erupted at the tower right away. Tron was running and Alan followed.
Abraxas was dead; they were avoiding the parts of the enormous body as they were making their way to the commotion. There Alan saw the Basic system monitor in a fighting stance, throwing back the ISO guards that were trying to reach Gibson. As soon as Tron got to them, he took out his disc to keep the guards away – and all the ISOs backed up with an apparent lack of death wish.
The system monitor turned and walked to Gibson, who was kneeling at the base of the tower. Getting closer Alan saw the yellow light of the infection on the ISO. The system monitor and Gibson must have been the ones that had taken Abraxas down and the virus had touched Gibson. The system monitor stood over the ISO and he raised his disc. Gibson held out his right arm, which was completely engulfed by the yellow light. He nodded at the system monitor; a moment later the disc came down onto him like a butcher’s blade. Gibson uttered a short, sharp cry. The disc severed his arm from his shoulder; the arm fell on the ground. Gibson appeared to be in great pain, but the yellow light was gone.
Alan blinked. His vision cleared up; Abraxas’ data stream had stopped. With the sounds of the battle finished now the cries of the wounded filled the air. Flynn was standing next to Alan and was looking at the destruction with blank face. Alan put his hand on his shoulder.
“Hey,” Alan said. “Let’s go home.”
The programs were sparring in the clearing between the tents. They were almost completely silent, yet an audience began gathering right after the programs started. Alan noticed the spectacle when he heard the murmur of the crowd and the exclamations at the particularly impressive elements. He came out from his tent and watched the match from there.
Tron and the other Basic system monitor were moving quickly, with practiced motions. They both had their helmets activated and their discs locked at their ports; they were sparring with batons in their hands. Their moves mimicked a real fight, yet they never touched the other one. Alan had seen a similar attraction at a Capoeira performance a few years before; though the moves had been different, those fighters had had such self-awareness and a perception of the enemy and their next move. These programs were going for the athletic elements and the entertainment, the match was meant for the crowd, even though Alan had seen Tron growing restless and impatient during the days that had followed the viral attack. Alan noticed Gibson on the other side of the circle formed around the security programs: the ISO was sitting there cross-legged. He had been healed after the attack and he had gotten his arm back. Now he seemed to be almost bored, as if he had come here to watch only because he had nothing better to do; only a twitch here and there when Tron’s baton came very close to the system monitor, gave him away.
Alan was watching the fight and suddenly he saw a great, packed arena back in the city. It was a memory from the ISO hive mind, from before the war. Two warriors were fighting with discs and a giant projector on the top re-played the best parts of the game during the break. One of the fighters had been Tron in that match as well, Alan realized, seeing his program in the memory, emerging with the winner’s trophy at the end. His program child liked attention, Alan was thinking, obviously. He had noticed the change in Tron’s moves when he, Alan had come out from the tent – Tron had not looked at him nor he had acknowledged Alan’s presence in any other way, but his moves had become more agile, more acrobatic. The show was meant for Alan, he figured, to make the User proud.
The sparring match went on. The crowd just kept on growing and the ISOs appeared to forget about their grim situation for a few minutes. Behind them the new tower was glowing with its green light; the construction had proceeded in the last few days. Alan’s attention turned back to the battle. They were still here, in the ISO encampment. After Abraxas’ attack they made their calculations and they decided not to leave for the Portal yet.
“It is early,” Alan said back then. “The earliest Lora can arrive to the Arcade is sometime in the morning. It means we have at least two more weeks to spend here.”
“We can’t spend two weeks at the Portal,” Flynn replied.
“How does the place look like?” Alan asked.
“A platform over the sea, far from everything. I have never seen it without the Portal being activated, obviously, but it is nothing, but a structure, that must be dark, cold and windy without the energy of the Portal around.”
“We can set up a tent there,” Alan said, “but not for that long. We have to stay here and leave later, so that we get to the Portal before it activates, but we don’t spend weeks up there, exposed to the elements and to any possible attacks.”
They agreed, and Alan did not have to voice his main concern; that the earlier they left, the more time the ISOs would have to lose faith in their mission. And it took only one traitor, one informant to reveal the Users’ plan, and they would be stranded up there at the deactivated Portal, surrounded by Clu’s army.
Tron jumped and Alan’s attention returned to the game. On the other side of the field he noticed Kevin Flynn, who was watching the match with an absent-minded smile on his face. During the days of waiting Alan sat with Tron a couple of times, asking him to talk about his life, starting from the beginning. He had to know; he had to know everything, even though Alan knew that Tron’s account would be compromised by Flynn’s editing. And it hit him, it hit Alan hard, when he was listening to Tron, how different regular programs were from ISOs, now, that he was talking to a Basic for the first time. ISOs were rather similar to humans, largely influenced by their emotions. The way Tron spoke was very different, for Basics were like that: programs, created for a purpose, and their personality, their feelings were always secondary to their duties.
On the other side Flynn moved and his eyes met Alan’s stare. After the viral attack Alan told Tron that he felt unsafe. It was an easy lie, but it ensured that Tron never left Alan’s side from that point on. This could have been the first time Flynn saw Tron after the attack, and Alan was completely fine with that fact. Flynn turned and he walked away from the audience. A few minutes later the two security programs wrapped up the training session and the crowd rewarded them with applause.
They were walking upstairs. The ISO tower was much smaller than the great white buildings of Arjia City, but then, this was a temporary home of the exiled, not the free city they had lost. Without wait Alan and Flynn were admitted. In the hall Radia and other ISOs were standing.
“We came to say goodbye,” Alan said. The ISOs were silent; the Users’ plane was set for departure outside the camp city. Alan looked at them. He could not tell what they were thinking; he had kept his mind closed for them since the attack.
Radia stepped ahead. She had summoned Alan to the tower once after Abraxas’ death and Alan had ignored the call – for that this was the first time they met after the attack.
“May your journey be safe and your return to your world imminent,” Radia said. Alan walked forward to her.
“Please,” he said, “do everything in your power to keep our departure secret.”
Radia looked at him quietly. Then she reached out and she put her hand on Alan’s arm; to the place, where - under the clothing - the mark of the ISO was glowing on his skin. Alan had noticed the mark after the viral attack; it must have appeared after the last update that had also brought his and Abraxas’ disc in synch. Alan understood the gesture, which meant to remind him of his alliance with the ISO – and was also an encouraging answer to Alan’s request.
Alan and Flynn left. Tron was waiting for them at the aircraft. They climbed in; Tron took the pilot seat, Flynn the right seat and Alan the third one behind them. A large crowd of ISOs gathered outside to witness the take off and they were waving goodbyes. Tron touched the control panel and the plane powered up without its lights turning on. They were going to fly blind all the way to the Portal; that was the only way to be unnoticed by the Recognizers which might be patrolling the area. The plane lifted up and the ISO tent city became a tiny green dot in the great black desert, before disappearing in the distance completely.
They were flying above the Outlands. Far away Alan saw the lights of Tron City; they never approached the city, instead they were flying parallel to the border. It was almost fully dark outside, yet Tron was piloting without trouble. Soon the desert floor disappeared and a high cliff came in sight; the dark wall was under constant siege by the black sea. They left the land behind and now they were sailing above the water – Alan thought of it as water, but when he glanced down and caught a glimpse of the waves in the light of a distant thunderbolt, he saw pixelated surface.
The wind became increasingly stronger as they continued the journey. Some light appeared ahead of them and soon Alan saw the huge, geometric floating rocks, strung on single light beams. Kevin Flynn hissed and Tron quietly chuckled at his distress. Alan switched his vision to program mode and he got a more defined view of the floating islands; while it was not an easy task to pilot the plane between the rocks, it was somewhat easier using program view and it was definitely not that frightening than it must have been for Flynn.
They noticed the Recognizers when they were halfway through the islands. The red aircrafts were flying in the distance; they appeared to be on a patrol, not on a chase. Tron slowed down their own plane and soon the Recognizers disappeared from sight. They maintained the slow speed for the rest of the trip and they arrived to the dark platform of the Portal about three hours after takeoff.
The plane landed silently on the single runway. Tron took the aircraft as close to the stairs as it was possible. Their plane was a larger aircraft, not baton-generated and there was no hangar at the Portal to hide it. Alan and Flynn had agreed earlier not to destroy the ship after landing, in case they would need an escape vehicle later – for that the only option was to park the plane close to the structure and then hope for the patrols not to notice it in the near complete darkness.
They unloaded the ship; the cargo was a tent to set up and numerous bottles of energy. Alan and Flynn began to fix the tent, while Tron walked away from them, surveying the area.
“This place is forbidden for programs,” Flynn said quietly, so that Tron would not hear him. When planning this journey, the Users had considered sending Tron away after being dropped off at the Portal. That way they would have gotten rid of the plane; and they would have been left with no protection in case of an ambush. At the end Alan simply had asked for Tron’s opinion, just to be overwhelmed by the security program’s dismay at the idea of sending him away. Before the trip Alan had given permission to Tron to enter the forbidden territory of the Portal, but the program still seemed to be nervous to be here. The island was dark, deserted and battered by the constant storm; it was not a place for a program, which had been designed to roam around the city. But it was already in the morning in the outside world and Lora could have been arriving to the Arcade any minute now; they simply could not wait more or else they would have been risking of the Portal activating without them being around.
“We will be fine,” Alan replied, hoping for his words to come true. He gestured at Tron to join them in the tent.
He was drifting in and out of consciousness. Alan was trying to sleep, but the unending storm was ravaging the tent from the outside and he kept on waking up. Every time he opened his eyes he saw the same, the tiny light they kept on inside the tent and Flynn, who was also tossing and turning. Despite of the invitation Tron stayed outside most of the time, watching the area, looking for a threat. The program did not seem to mind the weather; when Alan looked out the tent to check on him, he saw Tron crouched on the runway, with his helmet activated against the rain, his circuit lights turned off.
They had been at the Portal since three days; it was the most excruciating time of wait Alan had ever experienced. It was even harder to imagine that barely more than one hour had passed in the User world since they had arrived here. The Portal could open in any minute now – or it could open a few weeks later… or never. There were times when Alan was thinking about giving up and asking the other two to return to the ISO camp city in the Outlands.
The tent opened up suddenly. It was Tron, with his disc in his hand.
“They are here,” he said. Alan knew that they were in trouble; he knew it before he ran outside. It became lit all of a sudden as the red jets surrounded the Portal. A giant aircraft descended at the end of the runway and it docked. The attack was quick and organized; and the overwhelming force of Clu’s army so obvious that it was pointless to attempt and fight. Despite of all, Tron was standing there with his disc activated, ready to fight any guards that might be coming for the Users.
For now nobody came; the red light lit up the surroundings of the Portal and the whirring of the various vehicles filled the air, but for now no enemy combatant appeared. Alan put his hand on Tron’s shoulder.
“Put that away,” he said. Tron looked at him with a head tilt. “I’m going down to talk.”
“No,” Flynn said immediately and Tron put himself between Alan and the runway even faster.
“Look,” Alan told them, “they are not all over us, yet. I don’t know why that is, but we still have a chance to talk, to negotiate.”
“Then I’m going,” Flynn said and Alan knew that he meant it. “Not you.”
“What will you tell him?” Alan asked. Flynn spread his arms.
“I’ll improvise,” he said. Alan shook his head.
“That’s not good enough,” he replied. “I’m going.”
“I’m coming too,” Tron stated. Alan turned to him and he put his hands on the program’s shoulders. “Look at me.”
Tron’s helmet receded and Alan saw that his program was actually scared: not by the whole army they faced, but by the very idea of Alan walking down that runway alone.
“We can still win,” Alan said. “Clu wants to talk, or we would be dead or captured by now. I know how to convince him. If you let me talk to him, I will come back and we will wait together for the Portal to open. If we fight, we die here. There is no other option.”
A minute passed. Tron still seemed to be deeply troubled, but he deactivated the disc he was holding in his hand. Alan looked at Kevin Flynn.
“Trust me,” he said. “Don’t do anything, just wait for me.”
With that he turned away and began walking toward the command ship.
The door of the ship opened up when Alan got there; he entered. The two guards standing inside escorted him to the command deck. Everything was quick, unceremonious, and Alan found himself somewhat relieved. He had not suspected to encounter Clu once more while on the Grid, yet now, that he was here, Alan felt at ease to be out from the grinding wait at the Portal. The coming conversation, if there would be a conversation at all and not a fast execution, would be probing, but Alan had told the truth to Tron – he knew the exact words he was going to say.
Clu was alone on his private deck. The room had a large window with a view to the sea; there was also a projector with the 3D map of the area, with the digital image of the Portal and all the surrounding aircrafts. Alan walked inside and the door of the room closed behind him, with the guards left outside.
Alan circled the large couch where Clu was sitting, to face the system administrator. Clu was wearing his helmet and he was leant back casually. His posture and that he could not see his face, made Alan worried, but the fact that Clu was meeting him here gave him some reassurance – it meant that Clu indeed wanted to talk, that he had not made his final decision yet.
“You are really one of them now,” Clu said. Alan knew that he was talking about the ISO root code, which had finished installing by now.
“There was never a way back,” he replied.
“Yet they betrayed you,” Clu continued. “For the intel about your whereabouts must have come from the ISOs.”
“It is what it is,” Alan said. “They want to live and the desperation to survive can make one act foolishly.”
“Are you desperate to live?” Clu was taunting him.
“I let myself to be shot with a digitizing laser to be transported into a computer, for some algorithms to tinker with my DNA so I can survive. That is the ultimate desperation as I see it.”
“How desperate you must be now, hoping to make it out of here alive.”
“Not particularly, because you can’t touch me,” Alan said. Clu stood up suddenly and leant into Alan’s face.
“Is that what you think?” he asked and his voice was dark, terrifying through the mask. “The next thing to happen is that I will order my guards to seize Flynn and your sorry program up there. The soldiers are bored and they need some amusement. I will give Tron to them and I will make you watch it.”
Alan was standing silently. The way Clu spoke let him know that the system administrator did mean what he just said and Alan had to hold himself back from throwing himself at Clu and deliver as many punches as he just could before being stopped by the guards. Clu knew that he cared for Tron, Alan reminded himself, the system administrator was just trying to provoke a reaction.
“You won’t do such thing,” Alan replied calmly. Clu started at the door and Alan became alarmed, knowing that Clu took his statement as a challenge. “And you know this very well.”
Clu turned back at him.
“Do I?” he asked.
“Did that informant of yours tell you why we are here, at the Portal?” Alan asked. “It is because there is a User coming, very soon now. She is bigger than Flynn or me, and when she gets to the computer, her only concern will be our wellbeing. If we are dead or hurt at that time, everything will end on the Grid. There will be no negotiations, no statements to make, nothing to prove. Everybody will die, you, the people in the city, all the ISOs, for this User doesn’t look at programs the way Flynn or I do.”
Clu was silent, considering.
“You led the coup, because you thought that was the way to save the system,” Alan said. “I can understand that. For that, if you stop now, I will let you live. If not, if you just a raise a hand against my program, you better make sure to kill me right after, or I will personally tear you to pieces.”
Clu’s helmet retracted. His face was furious. He stepped to Alan, grabbed his attire and shook him forcefully.
“I will make you repeat those words in a few minutes,” he spat at Alan, “while you’ll be watching your little program screaming in the hands of my soldiers.”
“You want to hear lies,” Alan replied through his clenched teeth. “Do you think I am lying about the User coming? Would we be sitting up here, ready to be hunted down instead of hiding somewhere, if it was not true?”
Clu let him go suddenly. The system administrator was motionless; he was not moving at the door and that gave Alan some hope.
“The only way for the system to survive is for you to let us go,” Alan said. “Let us wait for the portal to open and leave. That way everybody can live.”
“Right,” Clu replied sarcastically.
“If you let us go, I will make sure that no more lives will be lost on the Grid,” Alan said. “You have my word.”
“Your word?” Clu laughed.
“You…,” Alan stopped. He was about to say something that would either win the argument for him – or put them in the devastating situation that Clu had threatened him with. He could not tell how Clu would react to those words, for Alan did not know whether Clu’s pride or logic would be stronger at this point. “You want me to treat you as equal. But I can not, because we are not equal.”
The system administrator came to a full stop. He turned at Alan slowly.
“You are acting like a rogue program, while you want to be treated like a User,” Alan said. “You hijacked a system that depends on the outer world in all aspects of its existence, with Users trapped inside, killing everybody you don’t like in it. Do you think you belong with the Users? Then start accepting some harsh truths of the User world. Do you think we can go around up there, killing whoever we don’t like? Such Users are being deleted from our world, or the equivalent of being deleted happens to them. When I promise you to let you live, to let everybody live here, that is the most I can offer, the most that any User can promise to the inhabitants of a digital world. Should I or Flynn die, this offer is lost and if you harm my program, I revoke my promise.”
Clu was glaring at him; but he was considering the offer – Alan had attended enough business meetings to be able to determine that much.
“You can still win,” Alan said. “You wanted Flynn to listen to you, you wanted him to free the city from the ISOs. All his attention is yours now, I can tell you that, and as for the ISOs, we will work out something. We will find a solution, this is part of my offer. Trust me, and you will be victorious.”
“How could I trust you?” Clu asked. For the first time now his voice was void of anger.
“You saw my disc,” Alan said. “And you know my program. That’s my guarantee. If that’s not enough, nothing will be enough.”
Clu turned away from him, to the window. He was standing there for long, watching the black sea. The time passed and none of them spoke. Alan was standing there calmly, for he knew that he had won already.
At the end Clu turned back to him. His face was oddly similar to Kevin Flynn’s on the first night at the Arcade, when Flynn had first recognized Alan for what he had been: a friend.
“You may return to the Portal now,” Clu said.
Final chapter is coming.
This is the end. Please proceed carefully, and heed the warnings (graphic description of violence and major character death). I hope you guys will enjoy this one as much as I loved writing it, because this one was a real tour de force for me.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Alan felt the rain on his face. He walked on the runway, which was lit by the red light of the circling aircrafts, Recognizers and the Command Ship. Alan looked up, but it was dark up there at the Portal and he was far from their camp. He saw no other programs around and nobody followed him when he left the ship. He walked. For the first time now since weeks, Alan Bradley truly believed that they were going to live. He had not been making plans about his reunion with Lora; now it was time for him to start thinking about that.
He walked upstairs. He was almost at the top, when bright, white light filled the area. The Portal! - Alan thought immediately and now he was hurrying up on the stairs. When he got there, he saw Flynn and Tron outside of the tent, looking up at the source of the white light. Flynn appeared to be perplexed, as if something was wrong. Alan lifted his face and he saw that the light was not coming from the structure, the way he had expected, but it was glowing above the tent. The light was intensifying, as if something was coming, descending from the sky.
A moment later it appeared. Alan caught sight of it and he cried out.
But then he realized that it could not be Lora coming, and he fell silent. The arriving program was somewhat similar to her; she wore Lora Baines’ face and she had a long, blonde braid – yet she was also very different from the programmer or from any other programs on the Grid, for the matter of fact. She was huge, about ten feet tall and she was holding a staff in each hands. She was wearing white, even though Alan could not tell where the attire ended and where the program’s body started. She did not have visible circuitry. When she touched down Alan saw that her face was blank and her eyes were glowing white. It was Yori, or some updated version of her, inserted back in the system without being properly formatted into it, which resulted in the giant appearance.
Flynn was standing there dumbfounded. Next to him Tron had already assumed fighting stance with his disc in his hand, but the security program was waiting; the intruder was idle for now. Tron gave no sign of recognizing Yori - she, however, seemed to be not just completely oblivious toward Flynn and Tron, but also machine-like in a way that it gave Alan the impression that her conscious part – soul – had been lost at one point between her departure and return to the Grid. Alan could not think of why Lora had inserted this program into the system; her appearance made him hopeful and informed him about Lora’s arrival – but there was something disturbing… threatening in Yori’s posture as she was standing there with the two staffs in her hands.
Finally she moved. The motion was fully automated; her face turned at Flynn and the white eyes scanned him. Whatever the criteria was behind the test, Flynn seemed to have passed it and Yori moved again. She looked at Tron and she attacked immediately. Yori lunged ahead and brought down the staffs on the security program. Tron jumped and he threw his disc at her; then the security program pushed Flynn back, out of harm’s way. Flynn seemed to be shocked. And Alan suddenly understood it: Lora had arrived into the office under the Arcade. She surveyed the system and saw Alan and Flynn at the Portal; but she also noticed the heavy program activity in the area. She must have suspected that it had been a program that had prevented the Users from exiting the system in time – so she inserted her own application into the computer to examine the situation... and to clear the area from programs so that when the Portal would be activated, there would be no further interruption.
Yori averted Tron’s disc and she attacked again. She was very fast and strong; and her expression was blank throughout the fight. She was maybe the same program Alan had seen in the Grid history – but her personality was gone as if she had been lobotomized. And while Alan had never known her, while he had never seen Yori and Tron together, the mere idea that these two would slaughter each other here without actually recognizing each other felt unbearable for him. He stepped ahead and he cried out.
“Stop! Stop the fight!”
Upon the order Tron went into standby for a moment, while Alan’s words left Yori unaffected. She raised her staff and delivered a devastating blow onto the security program. Tron fell; the force of the strike was so powerful that Alan felt the whole structure shaking under his feet when his program was smashed against the hard surface.
Alan and Flynn ran there. Tron was lying on his back motionlessly, with his eyes closed. His body was not disfigured, but his circuitry was blinking and fading rapidly.
“His disc,” Alan told Flynn. “Quick.”
Flynn ran for the disc that was lying a few feet away from them. Alan knelt beside Tron and he put his hand on the program’s chest carefully. Through the touch he felt that Tron had been wounded mortally. Alan gave him a small boost of power, just enough for the program to survive until they access his disc, but not to overwhelm Tron’s shattered system.
“Alan,” Flynn whispered. Alan looked up and he saw Flynn standing there with Tron’s disc; he was looking at Yori, behind Alan.
Alan turned around. Yori was standing there, staring down at him with her white eyes. She had discarded one of her staffs and pulled a long sword from the other one. She was looking at Alan; and while her face revealed no emotion and her eyes would not even blink, Alan saw the moment when she finished scanning him – and identified him as a program.
Without a moment of delay Yori plunged the sword into Alan’s chest. She pushed forward and drove the sword through his heart. Alan gaped. It was the worst pain he had ever felt, except for the migraines the tumor had caused, but he could not even take a breath to scream. Yori withdrew the sword and Alan fell on his back.
He put his hands on the open wound on his chest. It was bleeding profusely; not that he was going to live long enough to bleed out. Flynn ran to him, putting himself between Yori and Alan as he knelt down. Yori did not seem to be interested in them anymore; she had already accomplished her tasks. A moment later she simply disappeared from the platform. Alan could not tell if she was taken out because she had succeeded, or Lora noticed that something had gone horribly wrong and deleted Yori from the system, and it did not really matter anymore. With the white light gone, they were in the darkness again.
“Alan,” Flynn said. “Alan…”
Alan looked up and he saw Flynn’s devastated expression. Flynn reached out for Tron’s disc he had dropped a moment earlier. He was confused and shaken as he was trying to help, but he did not even know which one of them to assist first, for both Alan and Tron were beyond saving.
Red light was approaching. Alan saw Clu coming, followed by his crew. They came to a stop when they reached the platform. They must have noticed that something had gone wrong at the Portal and they had come to help. Now the Reds were standing further away from them as there was nothing they could do anymore. Flynn looked up at them and Alan saw that Clu’s face mirrored Flynn’s desperate expression. That gave Alan some reassurance; even though he was not going to be around to oversee the aftermath of the deal between Clu and the Users’, for the first time now he felt that Flynn would come to terms with his program anyway.
Alan turned his head and looked at Tron. His program was lying there and was looking back at him. He was at peace; Alan did not know if Tron had even seen the violent scene between him and Yori and it did not make a difference anyway. Had Alan not stopped Tron amidst the fight, things could have happened differently – but this was not the moment for regrets. Alan could have regretted not being involved in here way earlier, he could have felt sorry for not being there for his program child before; but he was here now and he was content with not letting Tron go alone on this very last journey.
The light of Tron’s circuits blinked once more. In the last moment Tron’s eyes moved and from Alan the program looked at Flynn. The program’s eyes softened and there it was: the expression of pure love. Tron’s eyes closed and his circuits flared up with great intensity. He did not fall to pixels; for the configuration carried over from the old system his body was glowing for a long moment and then it disappeared.
Alan closed his eyes. He did not have to see anything else. He was dying quickly; his heart stopped and his body was pixelating, as his human and ISO parts were expiring at the same time. The pain slowly diminished and then it disappeared.
“How much time?” Alan asked Flynn a day earlier in the tent. The storm was raging outside and they were counting the minutes. “We have been here on the Grid for like what, a month?”
“Yes,” Flynn replied.
“You know,” Alan said, “I’ll have to get an MRI to confirm whether the procedure was successful. Which I believe it was, but again, we’ll see. Anyway, as you know they gave me six months to live. Just by spending this night in the system I already won four extra weeks, regardless of the results.”
“True,” Flynn said. “I wish it was a more pleasant four weeks.”
“It was good,” Alan replied. “Thank you for this opportunity.”
Flynn looked at him.
“What I mean,” Alan said. “Regardless of the results, regardless of the miracle that might have happened. This, here. This adventure, something that a child dreams of. This is why I wanted to become a scientist. Thank you for sharing this with me.”
A beat. A heartbeat so hard that he was exploding from the inside. He screamed. He pressed his hands against the wound on his chest; where the wound had been. The pixelation had also stopped and his body was fully intact. Alan took a deep breath. He should have died from his injuries – the same way an ISO would have died as well, separately. But the ISO codes and his human DNA mixed together created something new... something else. Alan was a human and Jalen was an alpha class ISO; when the fatal injury had occurred, every single cell, every line of coding in his body had begun to fight for survival. The ISO part of him rewrote his own codes so his human body would not bleed out nor it would die from the traumatic injury of his heart – while his human part held the ISO half back from destruction, when the digital body would have fallen to pixels from the damage.
Alan sat up. He looked at Flynn, who was kneeling next to him. Flynn was so overwhelmed by the violent events and from the loss, that he could not even react. At the end of the platform the Reds were waiting. Clu was standing there motionlessly, with his eyes on the spot where Tron had been lying not long before. A rogue program, Alan thought, that had rebelled against his own Creator, had just watched another program giving his life for his User.
The platform shook and the Portal lit up with bright, white light. During the wait on the structure Alan had imagined this moment a few times; he had thought they would laugh and share an embrace before the departure. He stood up silently and Flynn followed suit without a word. Alan was quite sure that Flynn did not notice that tears were streaming down his face. They walked into the bright blaze of the Portal and stood there quietly until the system disappeared from around them.
The office under the Arcade was surprisingly warm after the wind at the Portal. It was not dark anymore as sunlight was coming in through the window at the ceiling; people were coming and going outside and the sound of passing cars could be heard.
They were standing next to each other at the desk. Lora must have moved the chair away to make sure that their return was unobstructed. Alan was seeing blurry, so he reached there and removed his glasses. He spotted Lora next to the laser; she stood there and was watching the transmission with bewildered face. She was properly dressed, but she seemed to be flustered. She rushed to Alan and embraced him tightly. She ignored Flynn.
“Let’s go home,” Lora said.
“What time is it?” Alan asked. He kissed her head.
“Eight thirty in the morning,” she replied. She looked up at him and touched his face. “Are you alright?”
“Yes,” he said. He looked down. He was wearing the same clothes that he had had on last night, when he had left the house. “Is there anybody up there?”
“No. The door was unlocked, I didn’t have to call anybody.”
“I see,” Alan said. He turned to Flynn. “Shut down the computer.”
Flynn stepped to the terminal and did so without a word. Lora tugged at Alan’s arm.
“Let’s go,” she said.
“We’ve got to take him,” Alan replied.
“No,” Lora replied. She was adamant, angry. The suggestion that they should be sitting in the same car, made her visibly furious.
“What did you win?” she asked Flynn. “With showing it to him? You just couldn’t let him leave in peace, could you?”
Alan looked down at Lora. She thought, Alan realized, that Flynn had brought him to the Grid out of some utter selfishness. She believed that now, that Alan was leaving, Flynn had to drag him down there to show him around – that Flynn could not let him die in peace without distracting him with a final act of flamboyance.
“It’s okay, Lora,” Alan said. “There is more to the story and I will tell you everything. For now we have to take him home, as he is in no condition to drive.”
“I’m fine,” Flynn said. He turned away from the computer, which was shutting down with a hum. He still seemed to be numb, but he was calm. “You can go. I will turn off everything and I’ll go upstairs to sleep.”
“You do that,” Lora said. She was pulling Alan toward the stairs.
“Would you give me just one minute?” Alan asked. Lora let his hand go and she left. Alan walked to Flynn. Alan put his right hand on his shoulder. Flynn looked at him with apparent confusion.
“You don’t come back here without me,” Alan said, looking straight in the eye. “You don’t start the computer without me being around, do you understand?”
The house was quiet. Their moving boxes were there, piled up in the living room. Lora must have cancelled the pick up; the boxes should have been gone by now and the two of them should have been at the airport to make it to their flight. It could have happened, Alan was thinking when they walked in, he could have said no to Flynn’s invitation the day before. He could have spent the night in his bed, he could have watched the boxes to be taken away, they could have closed the front door after themselves for the last time; they could have gone to the airport.
He turned and looked at Lora. The drive from the Arcade was silent and Alan was watching the streets, the sunlight for the first time in weeks. They were halfway home when he realized that he had left his glasses in the Arcade and yet his vision was clear. He sat frozen in his seat; not just because it was the first proof that whatever had happened on the Grid would have a longstanding effect on him, but because he knew that Lora must have already noticed that he was walking around comfortably without the high diopter glasses.
Alan excused himself and went to the bathroom. He started the water in the sink and he took off his shirt. There was no wound on his chest nor was the ISO mark on his arm. He blinked at the mirror. Aside from his improved vision there was no other sign of the transformation. He washed his face and went back to the living room.
Lora was sitting at the dining table. Alan sat down next to her. He told her everything; too much suffering had come from dishonesty between the three of them, and Alan wanted to end that circle. He knew that there could be consequences, especially when Lora found out about the changes the ISOs had made to his DNA – but what had happened was unchangeable and withholding the truth would have just perpetuated the misery.
He did not offer any commentary about Lora’s visit on the Grid in 1984. There was no point for him to hold that, her silence about it against her, Alan had figured that during his long stay in the system. Lora had quit her beloved job because of that visit and she had not spoken to Alan about it, even though she liked to discuss all important aspects of her life with him. She hurt herself over this and she was silent, because she believed it to be the right decision, contrary to Flynn’s immoral one – or something that was immoral in her eyes. And what was the point to bring up Yori? Lora took her own program, updated it, returned it to the Grid – and then she deleted it. She did not do anything else than what programmers would do every day; she did not know that she actually destroyed somebody in the process. Her tragedy was that she would understand it later, and would be unable to change what had happened.
“Does that mean you are cured?” Lora asked. She was bewildered. Behind her glasses her eyes were red. She had woken up early, must have jumped out from the bed, making phone calls that would remain unanswered. Driven by intuition she had thrown a few floppy discs in her purse; probably had gone to Flynn’ house, just to see his car missing. She had gone to the Arcade, entered, had gone down to the basement and accessed a system she had not known and had not understood. Then, knowing that a wrong move of her could kill Alan and Flynn, she had done her best to save them. Obviously, she was at the edge now.
“I need to see a doctor to get an answer to that,” Alan replied.
“Then we need to schedule an appointment the earliest possible,” Lora said. She was measured, but Alan sensed the battle of emotions under the surface. Until the doctor’s confirmation they would not know it for sure; she would not dare to hope, not really. Of course she was strong; and Alan imagined her to be getting ready to lose him and to raise Jet alone. But strength was one thing and it is was a situation of completely different nature to be ready for the loss, to be given the hope of survival and to be shattered again. She could not risk that, and Alan could understand that very well.
They got an appointment for the MRI on Monday. Lora opened a few boxes for them to make the weekend comfortable. In the afternoon she was on the phone with Jet for an hour. They were in a limbo until Monday; so they were waiting.
Later in the afternoon Alan called the Arcade and spoke to the manager on duty. Alan asked her to go upstairs and check on Flynn; while he was waiting for her to come back, Alan was listening to the music, laughter and the usual background noise coming from the Arcade. When the manager came back, she informed Alan that Flynn was in the upstairs office, sleeping.
When Monday finally came they went to the hospital together. When he lay down on the scanner table and he was inside of the dark machine, Alan imagined that he was lying on the unlit structure in the system, next to his program. Then the machine lit up and the loud whirring filled the room. After the examination Alan was getting dressed, when the oncologist approached him with an unreadable face. The doctor would ask him to get an X-Ray, since the results of the MRI would be determined inconclusive. While getting the X-Ray, Alan would see many doctors in the adjacent room, looking at the results and talking quietly.
After long wait Lora and he were sitting in the doctor’s room. Finally Alan’s doctor came in and very carefully said that the cancerous tumor was no longer visible on any of the digital images. The doctor was reserved, as if he was afraid to give a wrong diagnosis. He would ask Alan to come back a few days later to repeat the tests in order for the medical team to create a new prognosis. At the end Alan could not tell if the doctor was more confused by the test results or by the Bradleys’ faces as Lora and Alan were sitting there with blank expression and gave no sign of emotion throughout the conversation. Only when they got to their car in the parking garage, only then Lora started sobbing and she embraced Alan. As he was holding her, Alan Bradley wanted to let go as well, cry and scream, let out the pressure that had been building up inside him since the first diagnosis; but every time he tried to give up control, he felt the rain on his face under the stormy sky of the system and he felt like he was lying again on the structure, as if time had stopped for him there – as if part of him had died at the Portal.
It was Christmas time in Washington D.C.; it was cold and snow covered the streets and the roofs. Alan finished packing the gifts at the desk in his hotel room and then he walked to the window and watched the snowfall. It was certainly different than it had used to be at home, where some cold rain and yellow leaves were the most they would get at wintertime. But Lora had decided to spend the holiday in D.C. with Jet and so Alan had flown in town as well. Lora had asked him earlier not to stay with them in their downtown apartment and he had booked a hotel room. After his arrival he went to buy his gifts; just as he got back to the room, Lora called him and told him that she would come and meet him in his hotel.
Alan was watching the city, entertaining himself with reading the signs on buildings hundreds of feet away and calculating the speed and altitude of the planes on the sky. He had never lost his clear vision after his return to the User world, and the extent of the changes became clear during following few weeks. His diet changed; not because he wanted to change it, he simply lost desire for anything but unprocessed food. Before that Alan had enjoyed a drink here and there; now he was content with simple water. He had lost weight; first he had thought it was because of his different diet, just to realize it later that his new weight was what he had maintained around the age of thirty, when he had been in his best physical shape ever. It was the ISO root code; his body had gotten adjusted for peak performance and maximum health, the way a computer would have designed it – the digital frontier had reshaped his human condition.
It was not the slight alterations in his appearance that eventually made Lora agitated, but other, deeper changes. He no longer slept with alarm clock; if he decided to wake up at six in the morning, he was up at that time, wide awake. The way he recalled data, information, changed; he remembered phone numbers, license plates and books he had read – it was not just photographic memory, not just the ability to store the information, but a working system with the capability to utilize the data. It was a simple incident that had come before Lora’s decision to spend the holidays in D.C. After Alan’s recovery they returned to their routine with Alan flying in town for the weekend. It was on a Sunday morning and they were in Lora’s apartment. Alan was playing with Jet in the living room and Lora was talking about her parents’ house, that she would want to call the contractor that had fixed their roof two years earlier. Alan told her the contractor’s phone number absentmindedly, while piecing a puzzle together with Jet. Lora did not reply and when Alan looked up a few minutes later, she was standing at the door of the living room, staring at him.
“You know,” she said. “Normal people don’t remember phone numbers, a number that they never called, only saw it scribbled down on a piece of paper years before.”
Alan did not answer: he had no real answers. Lora was right, of course – but Lora also knew the reason behind Alan’s changed thought process. That night she told Alan that she was planning to stay in D.C. for Christmas.
There was a knock on the door. He went there and let Lora in. Alan helped her out from her coat and they went inside. Lora put her purse on the desk and she sat down. She looked fine; she was wearing a custom-made blue costume and her hair was pinned back. Alan could tell that she had made up her mind about the issues concerning her. Lora looked at the gift boxes and then at Alan.
“Is there anything you want to tell me before I start?” she asked.
“I told you everything long ago.”
“I didn’t know you still had that suit,” Lora said. Alan looked down. It was a shirt and jacket he had used to wear back in the days when they had begun dating. Instead of buying new clothes after his return from the Grid, Alan had looked into the old boxes in the attic.
“I didn’t have an abacus for that,” he said.
“I understand that you are upset. I came home to you with changes that are difficult to accept. I signed up for a deal, hoping that I could get cured, that I could live. I just forgot that nothing in the world was for free and while they didn’t ask for money, they acted according to their own agenda. What they did, changed me, but the truth is, I would do it again, because this is still me, and life, even a life altered is better than death. I also know that unlike me, you didn’t sign up for this. If you want me to say something, this is what I have to say. If you can’t accept me this way, if you think that Jet is better off without father than with me, I am not going to force you.”
“I know,” Lora said. She touched her hair. “I… couldn’t trust Flynn, when he showed me that place. Now I wish I did. I still feel uneasy when I think about that experience, but I do I wish I listened to him. Because whatever was my impression there, you are the living proof that that system has a potential greater than anything. It cured you from cancer, what is it, if not a miracle? And for that I regret not giving him the chance, not to trust him the way he trusted me. Can you imagine to where we could have gotten with the experiments by the time you fell ill?”
She looked up at Alan. He was silent: she was not expecting an answer.
“About us… Yes, I didn’t sign up for this. But I did sign up for a marriage. For better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and health. I was willing to take you dying and suffering, but I wanted to give up on you, when you became just a bit stranger, due to being cured from the worst disease on the world.”
Lora stood up and walked to him. She reached up and touched his face.
“I love you,” she said. “I miss you in every moment when we are not together.”
Alan kissed her. Lora took his hand and led him to the bed; they made love in the waning light of the winter afternoon. Later in the evening Alan checked out from the room and they walked out from the hotel together, with Alan’s luggage and the gift bags. They took a cab to Lora’s place; the snow started falling by the time they got there.
A week after their return from the Grid Alan stopped his car in the parking lot of the Arcade. It was a cool November evening; the air was clean and crisp. The Arcade was packed and loud. Alan walked through the crowd, waved back at the staff members and he went upstairs to the office. It was dark up there, except for the light coming from the play room. It smelled foul; sweat and beer. Alan turned the light on and he walked in. Flynn was sleeping on the couch, undisturbed by the light. Alan sat down on a chair and he waited. They had not met since their return; Alan had not been back to work and Flynn had not answered his phone. Alan had left him a message after his visit in the hospital, to inform Flynn about the disappearance of the malignant tumor.
Alan leaned back in the chair. Earlier that day he had received a phone call from Flynn’s mother; she had been concerned and Alan had promised her to talk to Flynn. Alan was alone at home when the call came; Lora had gone back to D.C. the day before. Things were going back to normal, Alan was thinking, even though nothing was going to be normal anymore, ever.
Flynn stirred and turned around. He lifted his face and looked at Alan with bloodshot eyes.
“Hey, Alan,” he said. He seemed to be suffering from bad hangover. Flynn sat up and rubbed his face. Alan walked to the small refrigerator in the corner, took out a bottle of water and handed it to Flynn.
“I got a call from your mother earlier today,” he said. “They are worried about you.”
Alan sat down and he met Flynn’s intent stare.
“I got your message,” Flynn said.
“I’ve got to go back to repeat the tests,” Alan replied. “But yes, it appears to have disappeared.”
Flynn raised his hand and pointed at Alan’s chest.
“The tip of the blade came out from your back when she stabbed you,” he said. “But you survived.”
“Yes. The root code, which got integrated with my DNA, it overwrote the damaged code to save my life.”
“Is it that simple?”
“It’s never that simple,” Alan replied with a bitter smile.
“Lora?” Flynn asked.
“She is fine. She is delighted by the improvement. As for the rest of it… Time will tell, I guess.”
Flynn nodded and rubbed his eyes again.
“Go home to your son,” Alan said. Flynn nodded again, but he remained seated. He was indecisive, idle.
“Leave the keys of the basement with me when you leave,” Alan said. Flynn looked at him. “You didn’t start the system, did you?”
“No,” Flynn replied. “Why did you ask me to wait?”
“Because I wanted to be here for that,” Alan said. He smiled, absentmindedly. “Because I’ll have to bring Tron back before anything else.”
Flynn looked at him, startled.
“He died at the Portal,” he said. “Didn’t he?”
Alan looked at the window to the playroom. Down there the last guests were leaving and the staff was getting ready to close.
He turned back at Flynn.
“Yes,” he replied. “He’s dead. But he will rise in perfect light.*”
“From the last back up version of the system, just before the events at the Portal.”
“That’s… information. Codes,” Flynn said. “And not…”
Alan looked at him and he figured what Flynn meant to say.
“And not his soul, right?” Alan asked. He let out a small laugh and he saw that Flynn was looking at him with actual fear on his face. “I gave him life once, I will do it again. Why are you looking at me like that? I promised life to those programs. Life to all ISOs, all the rebels; all the faithful and unfaithful ones, programs that would have killed us, had they been given a chance. And I meant my promise, but did you really believe that I was going to let life go on, and let the most loyal one die? If I, a human being, the most complex creature under the sky, could be saved from certain death, then so will be a computer program, that I had created in a matter of weeks. And if his essence, his soul is not in the system memories, then I will find out where it is and I will reclaim it, for when I agreed to descend in the system to seek cure, I only meant to risk my own life and never to sacrifice somebody else’s in exchange… The least I meant to sacrifice the only one that was actually my child.”
He fell silent and he saw that Flynn was looking at him, astonished. A minute later Flynn picked up his water bottle and emptied it at once.
“You told them…” Flynn started slowly.
“They will all live,” Alan said. “Even the ones that rebelled. We bring new servers, so that the system can expand, or we figure something else. But they all must live.”
Flynn nodded slowly. He stood up, went to his desk and pulled out a key. He gave it to Alan and then he put on his jacket.
“I’m going home,” Flynn said. “There is phone in the basement. Call me if you have any questions.”
Alan nodded quietly. He stayed there until the Arcade went dark and quiet. Then he walked downstairs. The TRON gaming machine slid aside softly and he entered the basement. Down there Alan looked at the sleeping machine for long before sitting down and beginning to work.
He would work. He would work until the early hours, would leave before the morning and would return before closing the next day. He would bring a heavy portable laptop, to remove the saved file from the Grid history and work on it separately. By the end of the second night Alan would be ready; but he would wait one more day before returning the program to the Grid and restarting the system in safe mode.
Flynn came in on the third night. Alan had told him that he could use some help when putting the Grid back to life and Flynn agreed immediately. He looked fine, rested and sober. The machine started with a soft hum; Alan connected the laptop and inserted his program back to the system. They did not talk; Flynn was working on the servers or pretended to be, while Alan was sitting at the terminal, with hands frozen over the touch screen. He was anxious to see if he succeeded; if his program was back… if it was the same program he had come to know and not something entirely new.
The system was running in safe mode, without other programs being awake. Alan tried to imagine the system from the inside, and he pictured the city with the lights turned off, the streets being empty, except for the constant sound of the wind… and Tron. Alan began to type.
“TRON. LOCATION QUERY. CONFIRM,” he wrote.
“Confirmed, Alan-One,” it appeared under his line.
Alan sat there. It took him a minute to realize that he was holding his breath. He looked aside and he saw that Flynn was staring at the screen above his shoulder. Yes, Alan thought, he had told Flynn that he had become scientist for the adventure and it was true – but there was also something else. Science was clear, to the point: a theory, an equation could be corrected until it was perfect. In life there was mostly one shot; if that was missed, if just one cell went out of control, if one got distracted for a second and stepped in front of traffic, if a word was uttered – the cancer could not be turned back, one step could not be unmade nor a word to be unspoken. For Alan science was that, the way to regain control, to bring reason into madness, so that mistakes could be fixed and one could shake the hand of a long lost friend.
“What do you say?” Kevin Flynn asked, nodding at the Shiva laser. Alan turned back and he looked the laser behind his seat. He was not planning to return to the Grid already, but then, Flynn was right – Alan craved to see the dark city with his own eyes again, he wanted to meet Tron and tell his program that their quest had been victorious. Alan turned back at the terminal and looked at the blinking text.
< Yes > < No >
Alan smiled and he touched the screen.
* "Though my soul may set in darkness, it will rise in perfect light;
I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night."
Sarah Williams: The Old Astronomer