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Title: Engineers (Chapter Six)
Author: grey_sw
Rating: PG-13
Pairing/Characters: Alan Bradley, Clu, Rinzler, Jarvis, Alan/Kevin, Alan/Clu
Spoilers: TRON: Legacy
Word Count: ~3800
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!



There are two major products that come out of Berkeley: LSD and UNIX. We don’t believe this to be a coincidence.
-Jeremy S. Anderson

---

An hour passed like lightning, or so Alan thought. The minute-hand on the desktop clock hadn't moved; he suspected it was just ornamental. The system had no discernible lag, either, not even after he'd opened an Emacs window for each of Tron's files. FlynnOS would have bogged down after five or six, at least in the old days. He was tempted to start running every program he could think of, just to see what would happen... but he was afraid to see what might not happen, too.

The system still didn't strike him as real, no matter what Clu said. But it worked, and Alan had forgotten how good it felt to work. He'd missed being on the track of a problem, with a faint trace of blood in the air. Before he knew it he was hunched over the keys, muttering under his breath as he typed notes into a spare buffer. His left hand itched for a bowl of popcorn and a cold can of Mountain Dew.

Tron was a mess. Alan had set the corrupted files aside, but they weren't the only problem: almost all of the files had a gap in the middle, as if a large chunk of lines had been deleted at random. Alan had never seen anything like it before, and he couldn't figure out what had caused it. It might have made sense if the damage had been at the end of each file, but it wasn't; some of the gaps started right in the middle of a statement, leaving half a word behind. The next line might be part of an entirely different function, with nothing but blank lines to hint at what might've been between. Not all of it was Alan's code, either. He spotted several blocks which had ! verified kjf at the end of them, and still others were written in a spare, minimal style he didn't recognize.

Alan gave a huff, tapping his fingers on the console. He could work out the missing function names from the compile errors, and maybe even guess at what they'd contained, but they'd never be the same. The corrupted files were wrecked from start to finish. He could replace them, he was sure of that... but the result would be a new version of Tron, not the old one.

He would have given anything for five minutes with that shoebox of floppies in his hall closet.

He squeezed his eyes shut for a long moment, and then opened them again. He began to put the windows in order, lining them up alphabetically. He added notes for each, so he'd know which functions they had and how badly they'd been corrupted. He was just adding dthreat_det.c: severe damage. Some of Kevin's code, many blocks of unknown authorship... to his notes when he froze.

He'd left the scrollbar at the beginning of the gap in each file, and when they lined up they made a perfect diagonal down the screen. Alan frowned and tapped his fingers again, thinking. Then he brought up the rest of the files, shrank the windows down to almost nothing, and lined them up. The effect became even more pronounced, cutting across fifty files in a single, unbroken line. Something about it made Alan shiver. He couldn't help but envision the damage as a physical thing, as if Tron's code had been stacked up and then sliced like a cake. But what could have done it?

Just then the chat window flashed.

Alpha: Any progress, User?

"So far, so good," Alan typed.

Alpha: Great. How long will it take you?

Alan thought about that. He didn't much like the answer. "A couple of years, maybe."

Alpha: ...a couple "years"? What's a "year"?
Theta: ha, listen to that... the guy thinks he's Commander Vi. Don't worry, we'll activate the ASCII drive and wait for you in the Bugshit Sector!
Beta: Colon Double-yew Q, Lieutenant!


The other three Ops posted a flood of exclamation marks. Alan watched them scroll by, bemused by the turn of conversation.

"What's that mean?" he finally wrote. "Those '!!!!!!'s?"

Theta: Means Beta told a funny one, that's all.
Delta: It's extra-funny because he doesn't talk much.
Beta: I have things to do!


More exclamation points. Alan looked up at the Operators, stone-faced mannequins with data in their eyes. He looked back down at the screen, still rolling with mirth.

He'd never felt so far from home, not even the time Kevin had dragged him to India to sit cross-legged with a couple of gurus. Everyone there had spoken Hindi, but he'd still managed to connect with people using body language and smiles. This was English made foreign, humanity made foreign.

After a minute the scrolling stopped. The cursor blinked at him, on and off. He contemplated it for a while, and then nodded to himself.

"!!!!!!!!!!!!" he wrote, and hit enter.

That triggered all four of the Ops again. Alan had to chuckle at the wild scrolling as a thousand !s dashed by.

Then they froze, as if the window had locked up. Alan tapped it a couple of times with one tentative finger, and then jumped back as the top half of the window began to flash between a black background and bright, blood red. Then reams of text obscured it, scrolling faster than Alan could read. The Ops' hands flew over their consoles at virtuoso speeds.

"What's going on?" Alan typed.

There was no answer. The top screen scrolled and scrolled above one last, lonely row of exclamation points, and the cursor blinked until Alan went back to his work.

Fifteen minutes later he'd finished his notes. The majority of Tron's files were missing entire functions, leaving him with names like QuarantineVector(x,y) but no code to go with them. He'd have to guess at what they'd done, unless he could work it out from context. It was especially painful to see his machine-learning code reduced to an introductory comment and a handful of variables, followed by pages and pages of empty lines.

He closed the editor down with a sigh. Beneath it was the chat window, and in its top half was a single line:

\\enforcer inbound//

"What?" Alan typed. When he hit Enter the key buzzed gently beneath his finger. The window didn't update.

"What's going--" he tried aloud.

The door slid open behind him, and he whirled to face it. Rinzler stepped into the room, silent as always. His hand was locked around the wrist of one of Clu's guards. As Rinzler pushed the guard forward a tiny sound broke the silence, a tink, tink like a dripping faucet.

Then Alan saw why. The guard had a wide, ragged hole where his other arm should have been, and it was leaking red cubes of code onto the floor.

"What is the meaning of this?" Jarvis asked. "You--"

Clu pushed past him, snarling. "Report."

Rinzler looked at him, then up at the guard. He made no sound.

"This is unacceptable," Clu said, as if reacting to nothing. He transferred his gaze to the Sentry. "You were to stay at your post."

"We could... we could not..." The Sentry's voice was heavy with distortion. His mouth moved slowly, deliberately. "We could not hold. Not... hold. Armory 1297 status: compromised. Sentry status: destroyed. Sentry status: destroyed. Sentry status: damaged."

"Obviously," Jarvis put in.

Clu shot him a look, and then stalked closer. "Identify your attackers. Now."

"Program: unidentified. Program: designation 'Razz'. Program: unidentified. Unidentified. Unidentified. Program..."

"Identify!"

The Sentry swayed, and his mouth swam beneath his helmet. It took him nearly a minute to get the words out. "Designation: 'Arc'. It was Arc, sir."

"And you let him take my armory."

"I..."

"Enough." Clu's eyes flicked to Rinzler. "Take him downstairs."

The Sentry gave a rough, electronic cry. "Repair me! Rectification! Sir, please..."

"Rectify you?" Clu snorted. "Why? I have ten thousand Sentries brave enough to die for this system. What do I need a failure for?"

The Sentry reached for him, his fingers spread wide in supplication. Clu turned away from him, just for a second, and Alan caught the cold glint in his eye. Then he turned back, and his Disc was in his hand.

Alan had spent years working under Dillinger, and then under Hardington and Mackey. He knew what it was like when the hammer came down: the not-quite-yelling and the silence that followed, the way people glanced out the doors of their cubes and then away, trying to look without looking like they were looking. It wasn't like that on the Throne Ship. Alpha and the others didn't flinch, didn't even look up as the Sentry's remains sprayed across the floor.

Pixels clattered like rain on a rooftop.

Then Clu stormed out the door, with Jarvis right behind him. Alan half expected one of the other Sentries to clean things up in their wake, but neither moved. Shards of their comrade littered the floor near the entryway, glittering like broken glass.

Alan set his eyes on the screen instead, grimacing in frustration. Here was the limit of his power: fifty files and a program he'd named TRON during a late night beer-and-pizza binge nearly thirty years ago.

"Theta: Tsk, tsk," the chat window said. "Shouldn't have left his post."

"Clu didn't have to kill him," Alan typed.

"Course not," Theta said, and nothing more. Alan wasn't sure what to say to that.

"Who's Ark, anyway?" he finally typed.

"It's 'Arc'," Alpha said. At almost the same time, Theta typed "ROTC."

"ROTC?"

"Rebel Of The Cycle," Delta put in. "There's always someone."

"We give them order and they tear it down," Theta said. "Then the Leader tears them down."

A flurry of exclamation points appeared. Alan guessed that they indicated approval as well as amusement, and that left him without words again. He glanced over at the place where the Sentry had stood, and then started in surprise. Each pixel had slumped in on itself, sharp edges gone soft. They'd grown wider at the bottom, too, like ice cubes left on a sidewalk. Even their lustre had faded to a dull, flat red.

One of the smallest ones shimmered as he watched, and then vanished into the floor. Alan took off his visor and rubbed his eyes, but in the next second they were all doing it: melting away like vapor. He stared at the floor for a long second and then looked out the window toward the blue of the city, with points of red still burning before his eyes.

That night he slept poorly, tossing and turning on his bench.

---

In the morning there were two glasses on Jarvis' tray. It took Alan a minute to remember what Clu had said the day before -- double the rations.

"Go on," Jarvis said. "I don't have all micro."

The first glass bubbled inside him as before, wiping away the fuzziness of morning. The second didn't bubble at all, but within a second everything changed. The world seemed to withdraw and sharpen all at the same time: corners and edges stood out in stark relief. He had a distinct feeling of being faster than everything else, as if his mind was working quicker than before, and when he moved his head the visual lag only solidified the impression. He stood there and stared at the lights on Jarvis' chest, drawn by how bright they burned.

"First time, hmm?" Jarvis asked. He was smiling beneath his visor, warm and welcoming, and Alan suddenly realized he must be feeling the same way.

"I think... I kinda like this," Alan said. He lifted his hand and then stopped, fascinated by his own energy. The little skeleton-marks on his first two fingers flashed like white lightning, sparking against the empty glass. When Jarvis reached up to take it Alan wavered, and reached out with his other hand to steady himself. His fingers brushed the bright lines on Jarvis' wristguard, and he suddenly felt

[warm amused busy lonely horny]

like he wasn't himself. Jarvis just smirked at him and then took the glass from his nerveless fingers, placing it on the tray.

"Come on, User. You won't be overcharged for long -- you mustn't waste it."

Alan followed him through the halls, his eyes glued on Jarvis' disc. It was bright, so bright, and there were things in the light, little motes of digital dust that danced just beyond his ability to follow. He was sure they meant something, but no amount of concentration slowed them down enough to make out the message. When he looked back up the hallway it seemed to loom up at him, slow and ponderous in comparison, and he had to shuffle to find his footing.

As soon as they arrived Jarvis muttered a goodbye and left the room, leaving Alan to stare about around him. Clu was by the window, looking out over the city with his hands on his hips. The hem of his long coat swished from side to side, as if he'd only just come to a stop. The Ops were at their stations, each sipping at a glass of his own, and a Sentry stood silent at the top of each staircase. There was another one Alan hadn't noticed before, too: he stood against the wall in the corner, half-swallowed by a circular shroud. It was almost as if he was the wall, or a part of it -- Alan would have believed so, if not for the circuits which marked him as alive.

Alan summoned his chair and sat down with a smirk. He'd gotten stuck in the chair last night, and Jarvis had had to show him how to send it away and bring it back again, but he'd already gotten the hang of it.

You just have to want it, he thought to himself. It's all about intention.

Jarvis came back into the room, with five more glasses balanced on his tray. He drew close to Clu and said something -- Alan couldn't make it out -- and then Clu picked up one of the glasses and drank it down in one long draught. Alan watched the way his throat worked; he looked just like Kevin chugging a beer. When the glass was empty Clu put it back on the tray, and picked up the next one. Alan watched with growing incredulity as Clu drank all five glasses, each in the same smooth, unhurried way.

When he was done Jarvis bowed and excused himself, striding past Alan to the door. Clu wandered by a moment later, with a smile on his lips.

"So? What do you think of being overcharged?"

"It's nice," Alan said instantly. "Feels like... neon." Then he frowned at what he'd just said; he seemed to have lost the filter between his brain and his mouth.

Clu just laughed and smacked him on the shoulder. "You're a lightweight, man. We should give you twice that much just to watch you freak out."

"How come you get so much?" The question came out before Alan could stop it.

"Huh?"

"You get five glasses. I thought you said this system was fair?"

Clu's smile vanished. "I already told you: energy is assigned according to complexity. Otherwise the simplest programs would be overcharged all the time, and the rest of us would starve. I'm bigger than everyone else, so I get the most. Simple."

Alan snorted. "Well you're not that much bigger than everyone else," he muttered.

The room fell silent. For a moment Clu looked down at him, with the fingers of one hand clenched tight around the edge of the chair. Then he laughed, loud and aggressive.

"Ha! You catch that, Jarvis? The User thinks he's funny."

"Oh yes, Your Excellency! Most amusing," Jarvis said quickly. He'd just come back into the room, sans tray, and now he climbed up the stairs in a flash. "Perhaps we should make that his permanent position."

"You mean like one of those User things... a 'curt joster'?" Clu chuckled again, and walked a few paces toward him, waving his hand. "Nah, man, that's your job."

Jarvis lowered his eyes and bowed.

Alan felt a sudden spark of anger. He was still running hot, all senses on overload, and the tiny voice of caution in the back of his mind was swamped by the abrupt flood of input. He sat up straight in his chair and fixed Clu's eyes with his own.

"I mean it," he said, just the way he would have said it to Mackey. "It's not fair. You're not five times bigger than everyone else."

"All right," Clu sighed, as if with regret. "That's it." He stalked closer, both hands flexing in anticipation. Alan shrank back, but he was stuck in the chair, and all of a sudden intent wasn't working for him -- his mind was too full of the memory of those big black gloves around his ribs, crushing the breath out of him.

"Wait," Jarvis said, with one hand outstretched. Clu didn't notice. The look in his eyes was terrifying: it was not rage as much as the petty anger of a man who'd come home to find a nasty mess in the kitchen, and intended to take it out on the mop.

"Sir, don't..." Jarvis tried again. He trailed off, looking from Alan to Clu and then back again. Then his eyes widened, and he blurted out: "He's data-blind!"

"What?" Clu asked, flat and emotionless. One fist hung frozen in the air above Alan's head. The other was clenched at his side.

"He's data-blind," Jarvis said. "He-- he can't see you."

"Nonsense," Clu grated. He turned, and for a moment Alan thought Jarvis was going to get hit.

Jarvis pointed at Clu. "Describe him," he told Alan. "Tell me what you see."

"Describe him? He looks-- he looks like Kevin," Alan said. "Brown hair, blue eyes. He's maybe a little more buff than Kevin was, but he's not that much... bigger..." Alan trailed off. Both Jarvis and Clu were staring at him, horrified.

"No," Clu muttered. "He's a User. He can't be data-blind! Flynn wasn't..."

"Do something, then," Jarvis whispered. "Something he should be able to see."

Clu turned, glaring down at Alan. He nodded his head, ever so slightly, and Jarvis suddenly laughed: a nervous, half-offended titter. The Sentry at the top of the stairs gave a deep, electronic guffaw.

Alan just blinked.

Clu nodded again. The laughter died as if he'd ordered it shot, replaced by a sick silence. Alan glanced at Jarvis, whose already-pale skin was nearly colorless; even his circuits had gone a thin, muted red.

Finally Jarvis swallowed, and spoke. "He can't see it, sir. He can't see anything."

Clu looked at Alan then, his brows beetling. "A data-blind User. You're kidding me."

"It explains a lot, doesn't it?" Jarvis said. "The console... I'd wondered why... it happens, you know. Starts with a head injury, or sometimes just a crash. It happened to one of the Guard eighty cycles ago; I had to put him down."

"Dijkstra," Clu swore, beneath his breath. Then he turned back to Alan, glaring down at him. "You're kidding me. I spent seven hundred cycles obsessed with your number, and another three hundred trying to figure out what a 'pager' was... and you can't even do anything?"

"What are you talking abou--" Alan tried.

"Shut up. I can't believe I wasted my time with this-- this stupid glitching memory." Clu turned and paced to the stairs and back, one hand buried in his hair in a manner that struck Alan as very Flynnish. Then he stopped and drew himself up, glaring down at Alan.

"Get rid of him. Lock him in his room, take him to the Games, kill him yourself -- I don't care. Just get him out of my face."

Jarvis bowed. "Yes, Your Excellency."

"Wait!" Alan cried. His mind raced. "What about Tron?"

"Tron is dead," Clu said. "And you have no power, no way to bring him back. I was wrong." His voice was bleak with despair, and hearing Kevin talk that way broke the last of Alan's lifelines.

"No! I can do it. I can!"

Clu folded his arms over his chest. "Yeah, right. What are you gonna do, type me a Tron?"

Alan grew still. A quiet surety came into his heart, the way it had the time Hardington had tried to blackmail him. He met Clu's eyes and held them; blue eyes, just like Kevin's.

"That's how I did it the first time."

Clu's mouth fell open. Alan could see his teeth. Then he shook his head and said, "I told you, this isn't your world. How can you be so sure?"

The energy answered for Alan, the words tumbling out before he could think. "I just am."

"Prove it, then."

Alan nodded. Then he looked down at the screen, empty but for a single one of Tron's files, and began to work.

---

Hours passed before Alan glanced up again. His skills were more than a little rusty, but the extra energy helped -- the connections between files and data-objects lit up bright and vivid in his mind, and complex leaps of logic seemed stunningly obvious. He got a good chunk of Tron's threat-detection code filled in before it wore off, and then sat there leaning on his hand, blinking slowly.

Clu spotted him, and mounted the stairs at a deliberate pace. "So, that's your big achievement?"

Alan showed it to him without a word, scooting back so Clu could lean down over him. Clu scrolled through the file, pausing here and there, and then stood up again.

"Not bad," he admitted. Then he went on. "I was thinking... we don't know what Flynn was like when he first came here. And he always had his disc. Maybe you're not data-blind, maybe you're just..." Clu trailed off, and when Alan said nothing he clapped him on the shoulder. "Finish the code, Bradley. Then we'll see."

Comments

( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
whimsy_madley
Mar. 6th, 2012 02:53 pm (UTC)
I love how detailed you are making this fic with how life on the grid actually operates such as the conversations between Alan and the Operators. I'm curious as to what Clu means by being data blind and I can't wait to find out!
grey_sw
Mar. 6th, 2012 06:21 pm (UTC)
Thanks so much for the kind words! I'm glad you enjoyed it.

I really wanted to get that snapshot of what life on the Grid is like... and now that I've got it, the story can start to move faster! :3
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )