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Title: Engineers (Chapter Five)
Author: grey_sw
Rating: PG-13
Pairing/Characters: Alan Bradley, Clu, Rinzler, Jarvis, Alan/Kevin, Alan/Clu
Spoilers: TRON: Legacy
Word Count: ~3300
Summary: When they found his car outside Flynn's arcade, with his pager -- the one Kevin had always told him to sleep with, just in case -- sitting on the seat, there'd be no search. No brave mission to carry on his memory, no t-shirts emblazoned with Bradley Lives. It looked too much like suicide.
Notes: For winzler. This is a work in progress, and it's going be epic, so please stick with me! Thanks to noctaval, mochisquish, and dw_lj for beta-reading!



Most of you are familiar with the virtues of a programmer. There are three, of course: laziness, impatience, and hubris.
-Larry Wall

---

Alan didn't sleep much that night.

When the door finally slid open, Clu was on the other side. He had Alan's morning glass of energy in his hand. Alan took it, wordlessly, and drank it down.

"Ready for your big day?" Clu asked.

"Do I have a choice?"

Clu just smirked at him. He reached out for the empty glass, put the ends between his hands like a magician, and closed them until the glass disappeared; when he stepped forward its faint outline still glittered there, hanging in the air.

"Come on," he said. "I've got work to do. Let's get you settled."

"One more thing."

Clu glanced back at him, as if annoyed by the interruption. "What?"

"The invasion. Last night, I decided..." Alan swallowed, then lifted his chin. "If that's still the plan, I'm not going to go through with this."

Clu gave a soft laugh. "Good, because it's not. I already cancelled it."

Alan studied Clu's face carefully. Kevin never had much of a poker face, but he wasn't sure about Clu; was his bitter smirk a mark of embarrassment, or was he hiding something? And if he was, could Alan do anything about it?

Clu finally shrugged. "I've kept to one rule during my reign as Administrator: allocate resources wisely. Waste is imperfect, and stupid waste is even worse. I can't just throw my army away." He shook his head. "I still have to change the world. I must change the world. But..." He stopped, frowning as if pained. His hands curled slowly, as if on their own accord, and the silence stretched.

"But there's more than one way to do it," Alan finally put in.

Clu blinked, animated again. "Yes. There'll be another way." He gestured to the door. "Come on, User. We'll set you up with a terminal."

Alan followed Clu up the hallway and through the door, back to the room in which they'd met. It was quiet inside, orange-lit as before, and the wide window opposite the door still dominated the room. Through it, Alan caught a glimpse of the city, twinkling far below.

"This is the Ops Room. You'll be here, between Alpha and Beta." Clu walked to the top of a short set of stairs -- a Sentry stepped aside for him -- and paused, pointing at the floor. Flanking him on either side were a pair of men seated in round, recessed chairs. Neither reacted as Clu knelt, summoning a third chair from the surface of the ship. Yellow light danced around it as it came into being, tracing out a circular console filled with control panels and display screens.

Alan was halfway up the stairs before he stopped to think. From here he could see that both men were utterly identical: red-lit, smoothly bald, and impassive behind their dark sunglasses. Both still pecked at their controls, as if Alan's presence (and the miracle of a new console just like theirs, shining like foxfire beneath Clu's hand) meant nothing to them. They didn't even look up.

"There you go," Clu said. When Alan hesitated, he added, "Go on, try it."

At first Alan couldn't figure out how to sit down. The console was solid all the way around, an unbroken circle with a chair in the middle. He made as if to climb over, but Clu pulled him back; he heard Jarvis' dry snicker float up from below.

"Just dismiss it. Like this." Clu touched the back of the chair, and it melted away in a shower of pixels. When Alan sat down it came back again, snug and supportive. He glanced around, shuffling his feet in the space beneath the desk. As close as the console was, he didn't feel trapped: the chair felt just right, as if designed to support its occupant for long periods of time.

Alan brushed the edge of the console with his hand, and light leapt to life before his eyes. A wide display opened up, suspended in air a few inches above the bank of buttons and readouts. It was black with an orange-lit border, and on it blinked a single word of the same color:

Login:

Alan glanced up. Clu had wandered down the stairs again, and was speaking to Jarvis in quiet, private tones. Alan looked up at the Sentry at the top of the stairs, and then at his new co-workers, but none of them seemed to notice him. After a long moment, he touched the screen again. It responded, shifting beneath his fingertips. A keyboard appeared, limned in red. He typed "Alan_1", and then hummed thoughtfully. Each key buzzed beneath the pad of his finger, like a tiny motor in motion; he could feel them even though they weren't there.

"Haptic feedback," he muttered. "We've been trying to solve that for years."

The screen shifted.

Password:

He glanced up again, shrugged, then typed "isolatedgridster". It seemed appropriate enough.

The screen cleared, blinked, reformed, and...

"This is FlynnOS!" It was FlynnOS, too -- the first version, with its stippled grey desktop and that clunky little analog clock Kevin had been so proud of. Its large, boxy icons looked archaic against the smooth light of the console, like a stone axe found among circuit boards.

"FlynnOS!" Clu cried, his voice raised in amusement. "Where'd you hear that ol' name?" He climbed the stairs again, glancing down at Alan's screen.

"That's what this is," Alan said.

Clu waved his hand, as if indicating the room itself. "That's what all this is, man. FlynnOS is the old name for the Grid."

Alan sucked in a breath. He could remember the announcement like it was yesterday -- Flynn's grinning face, the cheers from the rest of the team -- but now it took on a whole new dimension. No one had believed that Flynn had managed to write an entire operating system by himself in just six months. No one had believed it... because he hadn't.

He'd built it, and Clu and the other programs had helped.

"The Grid is FlynnOS," Alan repeated, as if tasting the words.

"Not anymore. FlynnOS was a user-oriented system; the Grid belongs to the programs." Clu folded his arms across his chest. "The game has changed."

"But..." Alan touched the TERM icon. A terminal appeared, complete with blinking cursor. He frowned at it, thinking fast. "If we're inside FlynnOS, then how can I have a working copy of FlynnOS on my screen?"

Clu shrugged, as if he found Alan's question uninteresting. "Don't ask me. Flynn always said that screens on the Grid worked the way he expected them to."

"You don't understand," Alan muttered. "This is FlynnOS, right? This room, this world?"

"The Grid."

"OK, the Grid. Which used to be called FlynnOS."

Clu nodded.

"Then how? How can you have FlynnOS running on FlynnOS? It can't be real--"

Clu cut him off. His voice was low and angry. "Everything in this world is real, User. Everything. Say that again and I'll show you just how real we can be." He swept down the stairs, his coat swirling behind him. Alan watched as he stepped to the window, quiet and alone.

A moment later Jarvis walked up the stairs. He leaned in close, lifting his datapad to cover his mouth. "Keep the r-word to yourself, will you?" he hissed. "Get yourself killed if you must, but try not do it in my office. His Excellency is sure to blame me for the loss of his pet User, even if he cuts your head off himself."

"I don't even know what I said!"

Jarvis rolled his eyes at him. "That's considerably less important than not saying it again. In fact, the less you say the better for everyone. The Leader didn't bring you here to provide color commentary, as amusing as that might be." Jarvis paused, frowning down at him. "You have a job to do here; why don't you do it?"

Alan sighed, took off his visor, and rubbed his temples. "I don't even know how anything works," he admitted. "I'm used to programming in the rea--" He stopped himself. "I mean, on the other side of the screen."

"I'm afraid that's outside my skill set. You'll have to ask one of the Operators." Jarvis waved his hand at one of the bald-headed men.

"Uh... excuse me?" Alan tried. "Can you help me..." He trailed off, discouraged by the lack of reaction. The Operator's face remained utterly blank beneath his sunglasses, as if he didn't realize he'd been spoken to.

"Not like that," Jarvis said, as though Alan were an idiot. "This is a secure area -- they don't talk. The Leader deleted their vocal functions."

Alan gave him a blank look.

"He cut out their tongues."

Alan blanched in horror. Jarvis didn't seem to notice; he reached over Alan's screen and touched an icon marked OPS, still speaking. "They can only communicate using these secure terminals. That way they can't go spilling secrets, you see?"

Another window opened up: two wide orange boxes above a blinking prompt. A torrent of text scrolled through the top box, faster than Alan could read; he squinted and caught fragments like sector 4 ticket 11725 rectified and lower warning: energy flow sub-critical and 44 45 41 54 48 20 54 4F... Then the lower box blinked and said:

Alpha: Welcome to Ops!

"Hello," Alan typed, after a moment's consideration. "I'm Alan Bradley." He hit ENTER, and the prompt cleared. Then the box blinked again, and a new line appeared beneath the first:

Delta: Alan_1. The User.

"Yes," Alan wrote. "Pleased to meet you."

Alpha: Death to the Users!
Beta: Death to the Users!
Delta: Death to the Users!
Theta: Death to the Users!


Said the box in return. Alan gave it a glare, but it updated quickly.

Theta: Relax, you're authorized. For now. We hear you've been assigned to the [REDACTED] project?
Delta: Good luck with that one. Nobody's ever been able to get him working again.


"You mean Tron?"

Alpha: [REDACTED]. You know, "he fights for the Users"? Now he's [REDACTED]?

Alan glanced up. "That's really annoying," he said to Jarvis. "Can you turn that off?"

"I think not," Jarvis said. "Just do your job and don't ask too many questions." He turned and walked down the stairs, leaving Alan alone with the chat window. The top box was still flowing by, an endless river of status report and SB2703 fault. All around him, the Operators continued to adjust their consoles; reflected data flickered in their glasses even as they spoke to him.

Alpha: So, you've got questions?

"Just one, I guess. How does this work?"

Alpha: Same as any system interface. If you need to use a program, open a terminal and enter his or her name, along with the input you'd like to send. The system will connect you. If you need a programming environment, try running FlynnIDE.

Alan was familiar with that, at least, but something about the way Alpha had said it bothered him. "His or her name?" he typed. "Does that mean the programs on this machine are people too, somewhere on the Grid? Is FlynnIDE actually... alive?"

Theta: We were wondering the same about you.
Beta: Guess we'll find out, won't we?


---

Alan wasn't sure what to say to that. Afterward, the conversation died down, though the text in the top box never stopped scrolling. Alan glanced around, watching as the Operators worked. He still wasn't sure which was which, nor exactly what it was they did.

"Okay," he said to himself. "Let's get started."

First he listed his home directory. He had a basic .flynnrc file and a directory called TRON, and nothing more; any attempt to list other directories came back with permission denied. Clu had him in a locked box, a cage as snug and sure as the one up the hall.

He checked the TRON directory next. There were a lot of files in there, maybe as many as fifty. Some were familiar to him, like io_twr.c and encom_include.h. Others seemed to have been added later -- that, or he'd forgotten about them. Still others had been corrupted somehow; they listed as gibberish, all smiley-face boxes and unprintable characters, as if someone had written a bunch of binary data over the filename. Typing "make" got him a list of compilation errors a mile long, so many that they were still spooling out a minute later. He hit ctrl-C and sighed.

He'd known this wouldn't be easy. Tron had taken him more than a year to write, even at the top of his game; creating a security program which could act and react without user input had been a challenge, especially back in 1981. Autonomy had come at the price of an astonishing amount of complexity, up to and including an early attempt at a learning system. Tron's overall architecture was streamlined and elegant -- Alan prided himself on that -- but the code itself wasn't simple... and whatever had happened to it would make it even more difficult to piece together.

If he had to.

He glanced around the room. The Operators were working as before, and the Sentries which stood in front of the stairs on either side were silent and still. Clu was down below, talking quietly with Jarvis.

"--vate initiative is canceled," he was saying. "Skim enough off the top to double rations for the next couple of shifts. I want the rest assigned to the User's project."

"Certainly, sir. And should the Sentries in Theta sector..."

Alan tuned them out again. He looked around one more time, careful to move his eyes rather than his head, and then tried the "backdoor".

backdoor: command not found

He frowned. Clu must have taken it off the system; Flynn never worked with any machine for long before putting a backdoor on it, in case someone changed the root password on him. He'd once said that was how Dillinger had gotten him -- he'd cracked Kevin's password and then locked him out of his own system, groundbreaking games and all.

Alan took another glance at Clu. Guess that's a common problem, he thought.

Maybe two can play.

He typed "su", and when the prompt came back he tried one of Kevin's root passwords: n3wFronti3r.

Password:
su: Authentication failure.


Then he tried digi$jazz and _nomind_. Neither worked. He was so intent on the screen that he didn't notice when the Sentry at the top of the stairs began to move.

"Tiber", maybe? Alan thought. Or "riverjordan"?

He was about to try the latter when the Sentry's shadow dropped over him. The Sentry whipped the staff it carried down in a wide arc, faster than Alan could see, and then pulled up just in time to smack the tops of Alan's knuckles.

"You are not authorized," said the Sentry.

Alan yelped and cradled his fingers, his heart racing. For a moment he wasn't sure whether he'd be all right. The Sentry's strike hadn't just hurt -- it'd buzzed through his hands as though he'd touched a live wire. The pain was already fading to an unpleasant tingle, though, and a minute after that it barely hurt at all. Alan rubbed each of his fingers in turn, gave them an experimental wiggle, and then looked up again.

The Sentry stood over him, perfectly still. It stared down at him as though it expected something, though he couldn't see its eyes behind the helmet.

"Sorry?" Alan finally tried.

"Don't do it again," the Sentry said. Its deep electronic voice held a note of weary disapproval, like a beat cop taking a joint off yet another sullen teen. Then it -- he? -- turned and walked back to his position at the top of the stairs.

Alan watched him go, testing his fingers with a rueful frown. No one else seemed at all concerned; Clu and Jarvis were talking as before, and the other Sentry had not moved. Alan's infraction must've been minor, so much so that a rap on the knuckles would take care of it... and yet the Sentry had known about it. His actions implied a system of surveillance so total that Alan could hardly imagine it. Were there cameras in the walls? Bugs beneath his chair? Monitors within the system?

Or were the beings of this world so deeply connected to the system that they simply knew when things were wrong?

Alan thought about that. He leaned on his hand, rubbing the other against the edge of the screen. There was no way out. He was stuck, trapped in a system he barely understood, and the only way to survive was to cooperate... or so Clu wanted him to think. But if he was trapped fast, then it occurred to him that his actions hardly mattered. He'd serve until he died, which wasn't likely to be long, and then Clu would go on forever, minus the only User he'd ever have.

Alan allowed himself a tight-lipped smile. He'd been un-fireable at Encom for twenty years: Mackey had to keep him on no matter what he did or said, because to do otherwise would reveal the truth about the position Kevin's legacy had (or didn't have) at the company. He'd been a symbol, a token, and that had given him a degree of freedom that no one else had. And now Jarvis had said it himself.

Alan was Clu's pet User.

He nodded, cracked his knuckles, and tried to log in one more time. He entered his own name at the Password prompt -- why not? -- and then held his breath as he hit ENTER. But the prompt came back right away:

Password:
su: root access disabled from this terminal.


Then the screen blinked one more time, and another line appeared:

This means you, User!

Alan barked a laugh. He'd been right -- right enough, at least -- but the way out was still closed to him. That fact stung him for a moment, but then he remembered Larry Wall's motto, the one he'd given Clu that morning.

There's more than one way to do it, he thought.

Guess I'd better start with this... Tron.

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