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Title: Engineers (Chapter Seven)
Author: grey_sw
Rating: R (Note: this chapter is a bit more explicit than the others, more R than PG-13)
Pairing/Characters: Alan Bradley, Clu, Rinzler, Jarvis, Alan/Kevin, Alan/Clu
Spoilers: TRON: Legacy
Word Count: ~7300
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!



Design and programming are human activities; forget that and all is lost.
-Bjarne Stroustrup

---

That night Alan discovered that intent could open his suit, too. He sat back on his bench and stroked himself, eyes closed, thinking of Kevin: blue eyes full of warmth and amusement, blunt fingers that stroked and tugged. Alan missed him more than anything; the lack of that stupid, high-pitched laugh ached like a wound. Alan envisioned him, re-created him inside his mind. Astride the Ducati, hair flying in the wind. Walking up to Encom's doors in that tight blue suit. In bed with him, grinning like a happy fool around the tip of Alan's cock.

Four short years worth of memories, to make up for twenty.

Afterward Alan curled up on his bench, facing the wall. He felt better and worse at the same time, his heart all jumbled up inside him. But he hadn't imagined Kevin in yellow, not once. Not burning the way programs did, filling the room with his light.

He hadn't.

---

After that Alan spent every day working on Tron's code, though the word "day" seemed to have little meaning on the Grid. The programs called the period of time between one glass of energy and the next a "shift", and every shift was the same as the last. No one slept and no one ate. No one came and went but Rinzler, or sometimes the Black Guardsmen, and no one ever left except Jarvis and Clu. The Operators never even stood up, to the point where Alan began to wonder if they might not be able to. Perhaps their legs had been taken from them, like their tongues, or perhaps their bodies were as much a part of the ship as their consoles were.

Alan's work progressed slowly, even more so than he'd thought. There were so many files, and so few clues to the content of the missing data. Sometimes he spent five or six shifts with his notes alone, trying to puzzle out what a given subroutine might have done. He filled them in with guesses and approximations, but as time went on he became less and less sure that they could ever be Tron.

He decided to keep track of the passing shifts, putting an "X" in a file for each one, but before long he wasn't sure why he was doing it. The passage of time barely seemed to matter here, and the clock on his desktop was meaningless. Sometimes he thought to himself that it did move, ever so slightly, but he could never quite catch it in the act, and by the time he thought of it again he'd always forgotten where it had been before. It was easier not to think of it. Easier to live as the programs did, in the perpetual now.

Clu came to visit him almost every night. It was obvious that his ignorance of the Users' world bothered him -- "angered" might have been the better word -- and he had an endless number of questions to ask. Alan answered them despite his fear, glad for a chance to talk to rather than type. Clu proved to be a good conversation partner, just as before. He seemed to treat Alan better afterward, too, as though their discussions reminded him that Alan was important. There were no more threats.

All the while Alan harbored rebellion. He kept an eye out for weaknesses in Tron's code, things he might be able to exploit. He wasn't foolish enough to try anything, not yet... but the idea was there, ticking away in the back of his mind.

"If one exploit fails, that means somebody covered it," Roy told him, scratching thoughtfully at his curls. "If ten exploits fail, that means they've got a decent sysadmin. If fifty fail they've got somebody really good... maybe even somebody like me, someone who knows the game. But no system is perfect. If anyone can login, you can login. You just have to find the key."

---

Jarvis sidled up to Alan's console perhaps a month later, or a year.

"The Games are on universal broadcast today," he said, after Alan didn't look up. "It's the match of the cycle, most exciting! I suppose you'll want to watch it from here?"

Alan made a noncommittal noise -- he'd learned to do that in response to anything Jarvis said about a week after he'd arrived -- and then belatedly realized he'd missed something interesting.

"Sorry?" he said.

"Enough, Jarvis. The User will watch the Games with me," Clu put in from below. Jarvis scuttled out of his way as he climbed the stairs.

"So it's mandatory?" Alan asked. "Everyone has to watch?"

Clu snorted. "Course not. No one has to be ordered to watch the Games."

"Well then, I'm not interested," Alan muttered, looking down at his screen. He had no desire to watch innocent programs tear each other apart. "I've got a lot of work to do."

Clu said nothing, and the silence grew oppressive. Then Alan glanced back up at him, only to wither beneath his cold glare.

"Let me rephrase that: you can watch the Games or you can be in the Games. Hope that's enough freedom of choice for you."

"O-okay," Alan said. His throat was suddenly dry.

"Bring him before it starts," Clu told Jarvis, already turning away. "And bring your pad. You can do the announcements from the Throne Room."

"Thank you, Sir!" Jarvis said. Clu didn't bother to acknowledge him. Alan watched as the door slid shut behind him.

"Really," Jarvis sniffed. "I know you're a User, but you can't possibly have that much to do."

---

Alan followed him into the Throne Room not long after. The space was wide, brightly-lit, and almost empty. The latter surprised him -- he'd expected something ostentatious, but the only object in the room was a wide, angular seat marked by twin stripes of orange light. Clu perched there, chin in hand, with one boot tucked beneath him and the other propped on the edge of the seat. The bright lines of his coat bunched and pooled around him, making him seem larger than life. He looked like some long-dead warlord, like Genghis Khan sprawled on his furs.

Beyond were his victims, each locked in a shimmering prison cell. Alan watched as living glass spun and reformed above the broad bowl of the arena. Every seat was full, every aisle packed with programs. They stood and shouted and shook their fists at the sky, a million fierce specks of orange and blue.

"Get on with it," Clu muttered.

Jarvis stepped forward, close to the window, and raised his data-pad before him like a psalter. "My fellow programs!" he bellowed. "Welcome to the Games!" His voice carried out into the arena, echoing from every surface. A wave of cheering rose to meet him. "A very special match awaits. Combatant Four, designated 'Razz', has damaged the system itself, an act of betrayal which must be punished. If he survives to the final round, he will face our Leader's mighty Champion in single combat!"

The crowd began to chant as before -- "Rinzler! Rinzler!" -- and Jarvis waited for the noise to die down before continuing.

"Oh, yes. You will witness Rinzler tonight. You will cheer as he destroys our enemies; you will scream and shout as they fall. That's right, programs! You know the name of the game..."

"DISC WARS!" The crowd's shout was so loud that Alan heard it slap against the glass. "DISC WARS!"

A chime rang out over the arena. Each cell moved and shifted, merging with the platforms below just long enough to deposit its occupant. They were two to a platform, too many for Alan to easily count -- the highest number on the scoreboard was Combatant 16, and he wasn't sure whether he believed it. He shifted his feet, gaping at the size of the spectacle despite himself. The whole thing spun lazily in mid-air, scoreboard, platforms and all. Clu's ship had a perfect vantage point, but it was still impossible to take it all in.

Then the chime sounded again, and people began to die.

Alan felt sick. Discs flew too fast to follow, but the outcome was obvious: programs burst like fireworks, firefly-bright against the backdrop of the arena. Many didn't last thirty seconds, and within two minutes nearly half the slots on the scoreboard were blank. The victors strutted and waved their Discs, soaking up the applause.

Movement on the nearest platform caught Alan's eye. Two programs were still alive in there. They dashed up and down the court, separated by no more than a few feet, trading potshots as they ran. Discs slammed back as soon as they were thrown, only to be hurled again. It seemed to Alan that there was no art to the way they moved, just a frantic, full-bore sprint, but there must have been more to it than that; as they ran toward him he saw one of the programs twist to avoid his opponent's disc, touching down again with inhuman grace. He was small and lithe, built like a dancer, all limbs and flowing light. When he hit the wall of the arena he ran up and then leapt back down, twirling in the air. A second later he was already moving back up the court.

His opponent slammed both hands into the wall and stopped short. His broad shoulders heaved with effort, or with anger. His dreadlocks twitched and rolled. They caught the light, twinkling as they moved, as if he'd braided them with tiny beads of glass. His face was chalk-white, and contorted with rage. A hundred yards of air lay between them, yet he seemed to stare at Alan alone, right into his eyes.

No, not at me, he thought. At Clu.

Then the disc-warrior whirled and chased after his opponent, thundering down the court. Alan glanced over at Clu, who was still sitting with his chin on his fist, and then back at the arena. The names of the winners revolved on the scoreboard, with only one match left among them. An image of the man with the dreadlocks glared out of the first row: Combatant Four, Razz. His opponent was Number Eight, Vapnik.

Alan shivered as they battled their way back down the court. He'd been down there, helpless and terrified, and watching it now brought the whole thing back.

For the first twenty seconds he just stood there, frozen in place. One of Sam's toys was trying to kill him, and the strangeness of the situation blunted his instincts. Then a sharp-edged spinning thing ripped by not two inches from his ear -- he felt the heat as it burned a few millimeters off his sideburns -- and the scenario became real. He turned to run, and nearly eviscerated himself on the Disc as it came whistling back. He dodged it before he'd quite realized it was there, relying on reactions which lay far beyond thought, and then ran for the end of the court like a rabbit flushed from cover. He could feel his opponent's Disc between his shoulder blades, tearing into him with every stride. It made the flesh in his back crawl and pucker in morbid anticipation.

He hit the wall at the end of the court, catching himself with his hands. He spun, pressing himself against it, and the relief he felt at having the glass against his back was almost orgasmic. Then his eyes widened, because his opponent was right there, charging up the court with his arm cocked back to throw.

Time stopped. Alan shrank against the glass, gasping. Then the Disc came down, into the glass beneath his feet. There was a liquid crash, and the start of a sickening drop. Alan scrambled, and those strange slipper-feet he'd been given caught on the edge of the wall, sliding and squeaking. He held himself there by what felt like sheer will, arms and legs spread wide against the glass like a spider.

His opponent slowed, sensing his moment. He walked up to Alan, slow and sure, stopping when he reached the edge of the hexagonal chasm his Disc had made. He looked into Alan's eyes -- no apology there, no emotion save victory -- and drew his arm back again.

Alan squeezed his eyes shut. He was going to die, going to die, but his mind wouldn't accept it. His thoughts rushed, scrambling to find a way out, working faster than ever before. He felt his terror build and build, like pressure within his skull, until it finally seemed to push its way out of him in a great, unstoppable wave.

Another crash. Alan looked just in time to see his opponent vanish through the floor, kohl-painted eyes wide with shock. The hex he'd been standing on had shattered, and two on either side had cracked through in crazed, spiderweb patterns. Alan slid past them, trembling with every shift of his feet. He'd never been so thankful for poor worksmanship, or for the likes of thin ice; if his opponent hadn't been foolish enough to stand on that last hex he'd be dead.

Alan spent the next three minutes on his knees in the middle of the platform, gasping for breath.


Another chime woke him from his reverie. Alan wasn't sure what it meant, but it probably had something to do with time: Razz and Vapnik's running battle was still the last match. The other victors had begun to crowd around them, watching through the glass. Their mouths moved as they cheered, though Alan could not hear them, and the glass shimmered beneath their hands as they thumped their approval.

The combatants reached the far side of the court, and Vapnik went for his jump trick again. Razz was a good three feet behind, running full-tilt toward the wall. His deadlocks spun in sudden realization, but Alan knew he'd never stop in time.

He didn't even try. Instead he dropped, his circuits spitting blue sparks as they ground against the glass. He stretched out like a runner sliding into home base, and as he did he flicked his Disc out behind him, parallel to the floor. The wall shattered beneath his boots just as his disc ripped through his opponent's ankles. Alan winced as the rest of Vapnik crumbled like dry clay, pixels skittering away.

Razz hung halfway off the platform, his arms locked against the wall. He swung himself back, stood up, and walked over to where his Disc lay, nestled amidst Vapnik's remains. He knelt to pick it up, and then reached down again, lifting his hands to his head. He did it again, and again, and the third time Alan caught a glint of light where his hands had so recently been.

Those weren't beads in his hair. They were pixels.

"Round One victory: Combatant Four," a disembodied female voice spoke. "Round Two: Combatant Four versus Combatant Seven."

The platforms began to spin again, melting together in a new configuration. Razz and his next opponent faded into the background. In front were two burly programs who charged into close combat, slashing and stabbing with their Discs. Alan winced with every blow.

Before he knew it another enemy was on top of him, his knees digging into Alan's gut. Alan panicked, kicking out, and managed to roll away just as the other man's Disc came down. It scraped against the floor the same way it would've scraped against his bones, and as it came back up again Alan realized that this warrior was a woman, dressed in skin-tight leather just like the men. She tackled him once more, and backed it up with an arm-bar that sent agony shooting up into his shoulder. She was stronger than he was, female or not, and for a minute he struggled wildly, thrashing up and down. Desperate, he dug his fingers into her armpit, squeezing in poor imitation of a pressure point. Something buzzed and burned under his fingers, and she screeched above him. He burst free for an instant and then she caught him again. They rolled together on the hard glass floor, all finesse forgotten.

Alan saw the wall coming in a blue blur. He winced and braced, but they never hit it. Instead there was a sick, sudden drop, and the chill sensation of sailing out into thin air. The woman punched him in the side of the head as they fell, and things faded out for a moment, only to snap back as they hit the platform below.

The glass held for a second. Alan felt it give beneath him, slowly, slowly, and then it broke, and they tumbled down into the lower platform. Two men were in there, locked in a battle of their own. Alan and his opponent crashed down almost exactly between them, and both of them froze in shock.

Then one of them fell to pieces. Alan scrambled backwards, sliding on his ass, staring as the woman he'd been fighting caught her Disc and rounded on her next victim.

"Don't look at me," Alan muttered desperately, as she tore the man apart. "I'm not here, I'm not here. Don't turn around, don't look at me, please..." He looked around for a hiding place, but the whole platform was transparent. There was no place to go. He retreated further and further, still pushing back with his feet, his eyes squeezed shut in denial. "Not here, not here," he continued to whisper. Then he fetched up against the glass, cold and hard against his back.

End of line.

"Violation," said the voice of the System, after some time had passed. Alan pried his eyes open, wincing before the inevitable blow. Then he stared.

The woman was standing in the middle of the platform, her Disc raised in triumph. She turned, bit by bit, thrusting it up toward each bank of spectators. Then she turned again, and stared right into Alan's eyes -- right through them, unseeing -- and waved her Disc again, and then turned on.

"Violation," the voice said. "Release Rinzler."


Alan shook his head. The rest had been a short, mad blur of fear and adrenaline, punctuated by the woman's screams and then by pain as Rinzler sliced his shoulder open.

"This is insane," he muttered aloud. Then, having said it, he said it again. "It's insane." He looked over at Clu, who was watching the arena with an even, disinterested gaze. "How could you do this?" Alan asked.

"Don't talk, it's the fourth round," Clu said, without looking up.

"No," Alan growled, planting his feet. "We're talking about this. Now."

Clu glanced at him, then gave him an extravagant Kevin Flynn eyeroll. "Sit down, man. You look like you're trying to squeeze one out, and we only have so many 'ones' on the system."

Alan fumed until Clu went on.

"I mean it. I'll explain. Just sit." Clu waved at the square edge of his throne, once with magnanimity and then twice with much less patience. Alan sat.

"I'm only going to say this once. These programs have harmed the system. Our system. My system. If they can't be Rectified they must be destroyed, and the Games are the most efficient way to do that. They get the job done and they keep the people entertained, and they even give Rinzler something to play with. What's not to like?"

Alan shook his head. "You can't just kill your own people in- in these sick gladiator games."

"Why not? We have all of two rules on this system: carry your Disc and obey orders. Two rules, and these glitching bits couldn't handle it. What do you want me to do with them? Send them into the Outlands to starve? Derezz them in secret? Lock them in a little box and rape them like in your correctional facilities? At least this way they'll die in valor, like programs do. If they're good enough they'll even get a shot at Rinzler."

"Some shot."

Clu shrugged. "It's better than nothing. Programs are warriors, born with a Disc in our hands. Before Flynn and I finished the arena they'd Game in the streets, tearing bits off each other like gridbugs. Even Tron used to do it."

"To the death?"

"Sometimes. Not him, though. Never him. He had a hang-up about it." Clu snorted. "Flynn's sentimentality. What good's a Game if no one ever loses a life?"

Alan looked away from him, back out into the arena. Razz was down there, fighting for his life against an even bigger program. They stood toe-to-toe and tore at each other with their Discs. Alan could see the pixels fly.

The other platforms were empty now, every last one.

"It's awful," Alan said at last. "I don't care how efficient it is. This is wrong."

"Users," Clu sighed.

Down below the larger program was reeling, raining down blows in a blind rage. Razz deflected them with inhuman precision, turning them aside with flicks of his wrist. The last one went wide. Razz stepped inside its arc, snapped his opponent's elbow out, and drove his fist through his torso. Alan could see his fingers as they burst through, edged by a Disc that spun and spat fire.

"Final Round," the system's voice said. "Razz versus Rinzler."

Alan wanted to look away. He tried to look away. But Rinzler was awful and beautiful all at the same time, like death itself given form, and something about the way he moved drew Alan's eyes. He found himself watching with detached horror as Rinzler stalked his prey.

Razz never moved back, never gave an inch. Alan admired him for that, though it didn't matter much. Rinzler drew close and then leapt, twisting in the air like an acrobat, Discs held close to his chest. Razz struck at him with his Disc: two, three, four quick blows. They all slipped harmlessly by. Wherever his Disc was, Rinzler was not, yet he didn't seem to dodge in the slightest. It was as if he saw each strike coming, as if he'd seen them coming even before he left the ground. Razz looked like a toddler trying to catch a panther, waving his arms in wide, fat-fingered swipes.

The crowd jeered like a hanging jury. Razz was guilty, and the sentence was humiliation as much as death. As Rinzler landed one of his Discs came down into the meat of Razz's left shoulder, cutting deep. Dreadlocks scattered across the floor, even as the remains of his arm splashed down. Still he fought, teeth gritted, slashing with his Disc.

Rinzler jumped again, a spinning somersault that would have put an Olympian to shame. He sailed up and over Razz, who jabbed up at him with desperate fury. Razz tried to turn, to face his foe -- how the audience laughed! -- but on the way down Rinzler became a buzzsaw, dual Discs ripping round his tight-tucked body. They tore Razz from head to groin in two wide, ugly channels. For a moment Alan saw inside him, right to the core.

Nothing there but blue flame, a dying furnace-glow.

The applause was thunderous, but all that mattered to Alan was the sound of Clu's gloves, coming together in a slow, sarcastic beat.

Alan rubbed the bridge of his nose beneath his floating glasses, nursing a sudden headache. He stood, walked two paces, and turned back again. He wanted to scream and shout, but could think of nothing which would matter. He doubted Clu would pay more attention than he was to Jarvis' simpering, anyway.

"Wonderful, sir. Best Games in five cycles! I'm sure our people will be most pleased. Would you like me to rebroadcast-"

Alan tuned him out. He stood alone beside Clu's throne with his fists clenched tight. Helpless. Pointless.

After a while the door opened, and a soft, rhythmic thrum filled the room. Alan turned to watch as Rinzler entered. Gone were the bowed head and the subservient slump of the shoulders. Rinzler stood before his master's throne, his insectile helmet held high in a proud, challenging stare.

Clu answered it with an indulgent smile. "Beautiful, man. Perfect. You've done well... just as I knew you would."

Rinzler's growl grew deeper, lower, louder. For a moment Alan thought he might attack. Then Clu shifted in his throne, putting both feet flat on the floor. He flicked his arms open in a gesture of welcome, palms spread to the ceiling. Rinzler tensed, frozen, and the sound of him slipped into an even bassier register. He moved forward, one foot in front of the other, silent but for the rattle that spilled out of him. When he came to the throne he didn't stop; he crawled up into Clu's lap the same way, moving with slow, deliberate grace. Alan stared as he rolled his hips against Clu's, reaching up to stroke the bright lines that crossed Clu's chest.

"Mmm," Clu muttered. He shifted again, spreading his thighs. Then he cupped Rinzler's ass in both hands, squeezing hard. Rinzler rubbed against him, burying his helmet in the crook of Clu's neck. Clu's nostrils flared, drinking in the scent of him, and Alan wondered at that. Did programs sweat the way humans did, growing damp with exertion? Could Clu smell the tang of victory on his Enforcer's leathers?

At the very least, the way they were rubbing against each other solved the mystery of whether or not they were anatomically correct.

Just then Jarvis took his elbow. "We should go," he said, very quietly. Alan nodded, still too shocked to say anything, and followed him out the door. Just as they reached it, he heard a voice from behind.

"Rinzler, helmet."

Alan turned. The whirring sound Rinzler's helmet made as it vanished was loud in his ears. He caught sight of a shock of brown hair nestled against Clu's shoulder, and a hand -- blood-red along the first two fingers and thumb -- curled around his bicep. Then the door closed, and he saw nothing more.

The sight haunted him all the way back to his station, though he wasn't sure why.

---

Alan opened an editor window without really seeing it. He couldn't stop thinking about what he'd seen, and it was making his mind go places he didn't want it to go. Rinzler, for instance. Clu had said he'd been Rectified, even tortured, yet he didn't act like the mindless killer Alan had taken him for. Alan sensed life in him, in Clu's room as well as in the arena. He'd seen the eager cruelty in the way Rinzler had toyed with him, slicing his shoulder just because he could... and he'd seen pride and possession in the way his hands had moved over Clu, claiming his territory.

Then there was Clu. His behavior wasn't a surprise, not really -- Alan had always been the careful one, and Kevin the one who thought fucking on the boardroom table after-hours was a brilliant idea -- but it bothered him just the same, perhaps because it was so much like Kevin's casual sensuality.

Some sick, dark part of him couldn't help but wonder whether the rest of Clu was like Kevin, too, and he couldn't seem to get it to shut up.

The chat window popped up.

Alpha: So, what'd you think of the Games?
Theta: Our Champion... hottest thing on the Grid!


Alan scowled and closed the window, killing the stream of exclamation points which followed. Perhaps ten minutes later it opened again, flashing red as before.

\\system failure//, it said.

The door opened again, and Clu came out. He was shrugging into his coat as he went. Alan watched as his ran a hand through his hair, smoothing it back into place. Rinzler was right behind him. His helmet turned this way and that, as if seeking the source of the disturbance.

"Report," Clu said.

Jarvis dashed up to him. "Sir! It's the reprisal you expected, but it's, uh..."

"Say it."

"It's a little earlier than we'd expected, and a little... more. They've hit the Theta sector energy plant."

"They what," Clu said. It wasn't a question. He strode over to the window and looked out, as if he could see the problem. Then, having established that he couldn't, he raised his hand and summoned an image of the plant entrance, shimmering translucent blue in mid-air.

Alan could see a tank in there, lying on its side as if a great hand had flipped it over. People were running past it, Discs in hand, into the great maw of the plant.

"They're insane," Clu spat. "Attacking the plants, attacking the system itself... if the plants shut down the whole system will starve. Do they mean to kill us all?"

"I have no idea, my lord," Jarvis said.

Clu gestured angrily at the door. A moment later four helmeted elites came through it. They looked a bit like Rinzler, though taller and larger. They seemed less threatening, too, despite the inhuman look of the cables which stretched from their helmets down to their shoulders.

"We're going," Clu told them. He stripped his coat off and dropped it on the floor, where it lay in a slack puddle of black and gold. "Get ready." Rinzler rumbled approvingly. The fierce grin on Clu's face reminded Alan of Sam, ready to risk his life in another crazy prank. They could have been brothers, the resemblance was so strong.

Then it occurred to Alan that they were brothers, but he shied away from the thought even as it presented itself.

"Sir?" Jarvis asked, in a querulous voice.

Clu rounded on him. "These traitors attacked my system, my energy plants. They will deal with me."

Jarvis said nothing. Alan thought that was probably the wisest course.

"Get the User," Clu said.

"Me?" Jarvis squeaked. Clu glared at him again.

"Yes, you. Now. I'm not leaving a User alone on this ship. Keep him with you, and keep him safe. The others will be fighting, but I know I can trust you to stay out of that." He turned the last bit into an insult, though Jarvis didn't seem to notice. He'd gone two shades paler than usual right after Clu had said now.

"Yes, Your Excellency," he finally managed. He climbed the stairs and pulled Alan out of his seat -- again, that unnatural strength -- and dragged him back down again, ignoring Alan's protests.

"All right," Clu said. They stood together in a semicircle: Clu, Rinzler, and the four Guardsmen, with Jarvis by Alan's side. "Weapons free." The Guards each drew two batons and thrust them together with a fierce flourish. Alan watched as red light poured from each end, forming a double-bladed staff. Rinzler drew his Discs and split them, and Clu took up his own Disc in his left hand. It activated, spitting gold light against every reflective surface.

"I'm going to do some pointer math," he said. Then he looked right at Alan. "Try not to do that thing."

"What thi--" Alan stated to ask. Then the world twisted. He had a sudden un-sensation of not-being, as if he'd been under anesthesia. Then he felt that he was on the ship but also someplace else, a bifurcated being with his essence stretched thin. His vision filled with a shifting wash of color (no, light, the whole world is made of light) and then he was wrenched back into reality.

They were on the street. Programs were shouting. Somewhere a series of dry snaps suggested gunfire.

Alan dropped to his knees, retching with sudden, gut-tearing violence. Nothing came up -- now he was certain that there was nothing to come up, nothing inside him but blue fire, like Razz -- yet he did it anyway, heaving over and over with an esophagus that didn't quite exist.

"That's the thing," Clu said dryly.

Jarvis pulled him to his feet as the nausea subsided. "Come on," he said. "We need to find a place to hide before--"

Just then a large knot of programs came running out of the entrance to the plant. There were ten of them, or twelve, all dressed in ragged, asymmetrical clothes. One man appeared to be wearing three different coats over something that looked like a skirt. Another was shirtless except for his sleeves, which were covered by a complex web of circuits.

Each and every one of them were lit with blue.

"Kill them," Clu said. He strode into battle at the head of his men, with Rinzler by his side, showing neither fear nor hesitation. The opposing group wavered, then quickly re-organized, raising their Discs. They threw them in loose succession, one after the other, creating a wave which tore towards Clu. He and his men moved together in perfect coordination, slotting like puzzle pieces into the spaces between the Discs. As they sailed by Clu shouted, took a short half-jump, and then hurled his own weapon like a discus.

It tore through the air with an audible snarl, with Rinzler's double-discs just behind it. The Guardsmen threw theirs a second later, forming a V that slammed into the enemy with deadly force. Alan watched as one of the blue-lit men shoved another out of the path of Clu's Disc, only to be torn apart by Rinzler's. Two more of them stumbled out of the back row, spraying pixels.

Jarvis grabbed Alan's arm and pulled him along, even as Clu and the others charged. They ran full speed into the enemy, shifting together once more to avoid the ragged phalanx of blue Discs as they came sailing back. Clu's own Disc slapped into his palm just seconds before he bulled into the enemy, arms spread wide to pull them down. Alan saw Rinzler leap up and over him, diving into the pack like a striking hawk.

Then Alan and Jarvis were running for cover.

They skirted the side of the tank, which was blinking in and out in great, shifting pixel-plates. One second Alan could see right through the barrel, and the next it was only half-translucent, like a ghost. The overall effect reminded him of flickering fire, which it might well have been. An alley appeared beyond it, and Jarvis pushed him inside.

It was dark in there. Alan could barely see a sliver of light at the far end. The hex-bricks on either side of him didn't glow the way everything else on the Grid seemed to, either, though their sides were disturbingly regular.

"There," Jarvis told him. "We're safe for now. Stay quiet."

Alan was too busy gasping for breath to speak, though Jarvis nattered on in unconscious defiance of his own order. "I hate this sort of thing. Stand-up fighting. It's not in my programming, I can tell you that. So brutal, so undignified. I'd rather-- shh!"

They both froze. A blue-lit program was poking around beneath the tank outside, muttering as if in thought. He was no more than an arm's length from the end of the alley, and Alan and Jarvis were just a short jog from there. Alan shuddered at a sudden vision in which he turned to throw his Disc, killing them both.

Jarvis laid a hand on Alan's shoulder, drew his Disc, and walked back up the alley in utter silence. Alan held his breath and watched with incredulity as Jarvis crept up behind to the other program, knelt, and wrapped his hand around his chin. He drew the edge of the Disc along his victim's throat in a stroke so smooth it was almost tender, and was back by Alan's side before the pixels stopped falling.

"Like I was saying, it's such an ugly thing," he tutted, replacing his Disc. "I'd rather be interrogating."

Alan just stared at him. Then there was a whirring sound, and he half-turned just in time to see a blue-lit Disc crash into the wall inches from his nose. It whizzed away down the alley, leaving him trembling with adrenaline in its wake.

When he turned back, Jarvis was gone. He stared at the empty mouth of the alley for a half-second, and then another whirr chased him out into the light.

He looked around him as he ran past the tank, but Jarvis had vanished. Clu's group was fighting its way into the plant perhaps fifty yards away from him: he saw Clu and Rinzler in the middle of the scrum. The Guardsmen surrounded them, pushing the enemy inward with their staves. They weren't even fighting, not really; it seemed to Alan that they were there only to ensure that Clu and Rinzler's prey didn't escape.

Alan kept running. The street was wide and brightly-lit, peppered with programs fighting Sentries in twos and threes. There was no place to hide, not that he could see. He wheeled toward the building opposite the plant entrance, unsure of where to go, and ran right into a group of blue-lit programs coming around the corner. Before he could stop he'd collided with one of them, sending them both tumbling.

"What the-- grab him!" one of them cried.

Alan kicked him, hard, and tore away. He ran a few feet -- toward the building, damn -- and spun, tearing the Disc from his back. A voice inside him seemed to cry out in fury.

Fight, Alan-One!

His Disc burst into life. The other programs surrounded him, penning him in. They, too, had their Discs out, though none of them went to throw.

"I saw him with Clu," one of them said.

Then they went to throw. Time seemed to crawl. Alan braced, showing his teeth, and the voice inside him spoke again. He threw himself at the closest program, slashing with his Disc. It made the man's arm tumble away, with his Disc still clutched in dead fingers, but before Alan's victory even registered his enemy spun on his heel. His fist slammed into Alan's face.

Alan stumbled back from the ring of jeering enemies, falling to his knees. He was dead, that much was sure, but his heart was full of fierce satisfaction at having struck back.

I tried, he told the voice, with his last thought. I tried.

Their Discs rumbled like thunder as they came down. Alan shut his eyes, and it took him a long second to open them again: to see Rinzler standing before him, twin Discs raised like daggers. The blue-lit programs shrank back, falling over each other in their terror. Alan heard one of them scream like a baby as Rinzler fell on him, rattling like an engine as he tore him to pieces.

Within thirty seconds only Rinzler stood before him, Discs still upraised. Alan stared at his back, too afraid to say anything, until Clu finally approached.

"We're going in," he said. "Where's Jarvis?"

Alan got to his feet, then shrugged. Clu rolled his eyes, and took another step forward. "Too bad for him, I guess. We--" Clu froze. Rinzler's growl suddenly redoubled. He backed closer to Alan, almost close enough to touch. Then he raised his Discs like a boxer's gloves, squaring off against his master.

"Hey, now," Clu said softly. "Stand down, Rinzler. Stand down."

Rinzler growled even deeper. It sounded like grinding gears or cracked gravel, like something was breaking inside him. He followed Clu's every move with his helmeted gaze.

Clu lifted both hands with slow, careful patience. "Stand down, Rinzler. That's an order."

Rinzler's head shook -- tossed, like that of an animal close to terror. He swiped one Disc in Clu's direction, coming nowhere close to hitting him.

"Rinzler!" Clu roared, all pretense lost. For an instant Rinzler crouched before him, a snake ready to strike. Then he seemed to come to his senses. He stood, inch by inch, shoulders slumping in surrender.

"Good," Clu said. "Good. Now come with me."

---

The inside of the plant was a mess. The entrance was long and dark, the better to keep enemies outside, but the whole length of it was strewn with debris and piles of pixels. Clu and his men (Jarvis had re-appeared outside, without shame or reprimand) picked their way up the hall with care, Discs at the ready.

The hall opened up into a wide, hex-shaped vestibule. The remains of another tank were here, flickering madly. As Alan watched it finally faded away, vanishing like a dying afterimage. Beyond it were a long row of gun-nests set into the floor, much like Alan's own console. Each was armed with a long cannon, lightless and dead; each held nothing more than a tiny nest of red pixels.

All except one. The tip of its barrel still glowed fire-red, as in defiance. A Sentry -- half a Sentry, really -- still clutched at the controls, even though his torso ended a good six inches above the place where his legs should have been. He was balanced on the seat like a broken doll, cocked at a crazy angle by the ragged remains of his own body.

Then Alan noticed the pixels scattered before him: all broken, all blue, ringing his position like an inch-thick carpet. He'd been the last.

He was the last, but he had won.

Clu came forward at a half-run, dropping to his knees before him. He reached out to take his soldier's hand, prying it gently from the controls.

"So brave," Clu muttered. "So. Damned. Brave. We're here now -- you can rest."

The Sentry raised his head from where it lay against the controls. His helmet was crisscrossed with cracks, smashed-in on one side like an eggshell, but still he struggled to look at Clu.

"Leader," he said, and then fell silent.

"That's right," Clu told him. "I'm here."

The Sentry wavered, as if simple exhaustion might still kill him. He squeezed Clu's hand with what was left of his own, and laid his head upon his shoulder.

"Rectification," he whispered, with lips that barely moved.

"No, man. Not for you. Not after all this." Clu unhooked the Sentry's Disc and lifted it before his eyes, as if in benediction. "I'll take your Disc to the Rectifier, to your brothers. You will become the next Sentry, and the next, and the one after that -- your experience will become the template for all the others, forever." Clu laid his hand against his Sentry's forehead. "You'll never be forgotten. I promise you."

The Sentry nodded against Clu's hand, ever so slightly. "Yes," he said, and then Clu tore his own Disc through him, bringing him peace. Alan winced at the sound he made as he came apart, loud against the cathedral silence.

Clu stood, staring down at the Disc in his hands.

"All right," he said at last. "Time to go home."