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Title: Engineers (Chapter Eight)
Author: grey_sw
Rating: R
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!



Can a digital being manifest free will? Ah, the age-old question that keeps comp-sci majors up at night. Short answer: no.
-Kevin Flynn, "The Digital Frontier"

Went the distance
Now I'm back on my feet
Just a man and his will to survive...
-Survivor, "Eye of the Tiger"

---

The next few shifts passed without incident. Rinzler came and went more often, driven to and from Clu like the soldier-bee he resembled; Alan supposed he was searching for the plant's attackers. Alan got Tron to compile in the meantime. It felt like a victory even though half the functions were still stubs, empty save for the right function and variable names. He felt sure that a year had passed already, or maybe more, but Clu didn't seem to mind -- he hadn't even asked about Tron since the day he'd discovered Alan's data-blindness. He never seemed to bother his subordinates, to the point where Alan became half-convinced that they couldn't procrastinate... but there was Jarvis at the window, looking out into the perpetual storm, his data-pad forgotten in one hand.

Alan looked down at his console, at the Done. at the bottom of the terminal, and then got up to join him. Jarvis didn't speak as he approached, though he did glance over before returning his gaze to the window. His body language seemed welcoming enough, so Alan leaned his arm against the windowpane -- cold against the pads of his fingers, and a distant chill through his suit -- and looked out across the clouds. Lightning flashed on the other side of the city, bathing every hex of the buildings in blue light. A school of Bits drifted past the window, huddling together against the driving rain. They skirted the edge of the cloud-shoal and then slipped behind the ship, disappearing into the distance.

"Wish it would stop raining for a while," Alan said. Jarvis turned and fixed him with a look of horror. Behind him, the closet Sentry roused and strode forward, lifting his staff.

Alan jerked back, lifting both hands. "I must've said something wrong," he said quickly. "I don't know what it was, but I didn't mean it..."

The Sentry seemed not to have heard. Alan shrank back before him, wedging himself against the window. Then Jarvis raised a hand.

"Hold," he said. The Sentry froze. "Return." As the Sentry turned away, Jarvis spoke again. "You'd better explain that."

Alan paused, thinking. "In my world it only rains once in a while," he said. "Then the sun comes out, and--"

"Sam Flynn?" Jarvis asked.

Alan furrowed his brow. "What?" he asked. He went over what he'd said, but couldn't find the connection.

Then Jarvis gave him a patient smile. "Never mind," he said, in that calming tone reserved for children and seeming madmen. "You're a User; things must be different for you. You never knew what it was like."

"What what was like?"

"Living without the rain," Jarvis said. He turned toward the window again.

"Kevin Flynn made the system, and all the programs in it, but at first it was not perfect. Many of its key functions were incomplete. Resource management was the most important of these, and the most terrible -- energy could be allocated according to need, but only Flynn had the power to free it again. At first we thought nothing of it: the Creator's visits were frequent, and there were few enough of us to share." Jarvis paused, glancing at Alan. "Then things changed. Flynn left us, often for hundreds of cycles at a time. He brought new programs with him whenever he returned, drivers and scripts and even an Administrator, and all of them were hungry for energy. Soon there was less and less to go around, despite all attempts at rationing. Programs began to fight over the remainder, hoarding it like gridbugs; some even fell to cannibalism, devouring pixels for the scant energy they afforded. The rest of us deactivated most of our functions, falling into torpor. Flynn always woke us when he returned, showering the Grid with energy, but when he left it would start all over again."

Jarvis trailed off, shaking his head. Then he went on. "I was just a codifier then, running an data-transfer office for the User. I remember I found a crack between two buildings -- not even an alley, just a clipping error someone had overlooked -- and I used to squeeze myself into it near the end, so I'd be safe from all the others. I'd go there and shut down bit by bit, killing my subroutines until I couldn't even move. Some of the most complex of us died that way, tumbling apart in the dark; I always told myself I'd save my vocal subroutines for last, so I could pray to Flynn to come back quickly. Then one cycle it came to that -- wedged between bricks I couldn't feel, speaking words I couldn't hear. Waiting to die."

He turned and met Alan's eyes, and for the first time Alan noticed that his pupils were hexagonal. Inhumanity should have rendered them devoid of feeling, but they were not: Jarvis' gaze was as open as a book, or a wound, and Alan had to try not to look away.

"Then the sky tore open. I heard it even without ears, felt it in every pixel -- thunder like the end of the world. The rain fell and there was energy in it, energy that flowed into my circuits and gave me life. I ran outside and stared into the Eastern sky, looking for the portal, but there was no light in the sky, and the rain didn't stop." He shook his head. "It never has. Our Administrator went out into the Outlands, to the Sea. He finished the memory management system, even though there was nothing left for himself; how he lived I'll never know."

Jarvis trailed off, and gave Alan a smile. "You should've been there, User. We must've danced in the rain for a quarter-cycle, just because we could." He paused, then added: "And that's why we have the rain, and why Clu is called the Lifebringer."

Alan couldn't hold back a small cough. "How many titles does he have?" he asked.

"Ten."

"Hm, guess that's not too man--"

"In base 32."

Jarvis returned Alan's stare through his visor, and after half a minute Alan still couldn't tell if he was joking.

Just then the door to the Throne Room slid open. Alan turned and looked up the hall, watching as one of the women who'd given him his armor in the Arena stepped out. She caught him looking and gave him a smug, satisfied smile that made him turn and blush, burning with indignation.

He really is just like you, he told the Flynn inside his mind, and imagined the grin he'd get in return.

By the time he turned back the Siren was gone, though the door to the Throne Room was still open. Alan could see Clu there, fully dressed -- was that disappointing, or a relief? -- and pacing before the window.

Jarvis followed his eyes. "You see?" he said. "The Leader has done more for the system than I could ever have imagined. When I think of the power he holds, the majesty... Kevin Flynn was no god at all compared to him. I'm proud to wear the orange."

There was something in Jarvis' voice, some catch or hesitation which made him think that Jarvis was trying to convince himself as well as Alan, but it registered only distantly. Clu was walking back and forth in even, measured steps, and all around him was light. Tiny specks of gold rose from his shoulders, drifting up to the ceiling like fireflies. They gathered there and then vanished, as ephemeral as smoke. Alan took off his visor, rubbed his eyes, and looked again.

The lights were still there, clear as day. Too clear, in fact. Alan stared down at his visor, as if accusing it of stealing his nearsightedness.

"Feed down?" Jarvis asked.

"What?"

"Is your feed down?"

When Alan didn't answer, Jarvis took the visor from him. "Never mind, let me see." He looked down at the glasses for a moment, turning them in his hands, and then looked back up at Alan in surprise.

"You're not running any feeds," he said. "Why are you even wearing this?"

"I, uh, came with it," Alan said.

"You came with it. But not with any feeds."

"Evidently?" Alan said, annoyed with Jarvis' tone. "In my world it just fixed my vision."

"Fixed your... were you wounded? Is that why you're data-blind?"

"Never mind," Alan sighed. Jarvis eyed him for a moment, and then gave him a shrug. He passed his hand over the glasses, once and then twice.

"There," he said. "I added the Ops feed for you, and Standing Orders. You want the Games report?"

Alan shook his head without thinking about it, and took his visor back from Jarvis' offering hand. He put it on, but it was no different from before; it showed him nothing but Jarvis' eager face, and the clouds beyond the window.

Alan turned toward the hall again, watching as Clu moved five steps up and five back. Light still flowed upward from his body, like steam, and Alan was astonished at how well he could make it out. He followed a handful of motes upward with his eyes, up toward the ceiling, and then gave an audible yelp as words appeared before him.

Standing Order 0x41: Enjoy Your Work!, said his right eye.

Delta: Bet you can't beat my quota,, said the left.

Alan looked down, crouching on instinct, and the words vanished; he cast his gaze carefully back up toward the ceiling and they returned.

Standing Order 0x001: Maximize Efficiency.

Theta: You're on! Hope you like half-rations!

Alan marveled at how easy the messages were to read: back home he'd have gone cross-eyed, but here the words seemed to slip into his mind without effort. That made him wonder whether the text was on the glasses or on him, but he quickly decided he'd rather not know.

"Thanks," he said at last. Jarvis made a noise of agreement and turned back to the window. Alan kept his eyes on Clu, watching as he marched back and forth with silent, machine-like precision.

"I see what you mean," he said after a while. "It must be nice to have one of your own kind in charge."

"My own kind?" Jarvis asked. "Surely you're joking. His Excellency is a demi-User!"

"But he's a program..."

"Not the way I am," Jarvis said, with utter finality.

Clu made another circuit across the floor, and another. The window at his side made two of him, one built from nothing but light; Alan watched as a matching pair of gold stripes floated back and forth by his side.

"I wish," Alan began, and then stopped. "Wish I could ask..."

"Why don't you?" Jarvis asked.

Alan gestured toward the Throne Room. "He's busy."

Jarvis arched an eyebrow beneath his visor. "He was busy a couple of millis ago. Now the door's open -- if you want to talk, go talk."

"And have him cut my head off for interrupting him?"

"He hardly ever does that," Jarvis said, by way of dismissal. Alan stood there another minute, still not sure whether the words were sincere. Then he glanced back at Clu, frowned, and walked quickly up the hall. No one stopped him. The Sentry by the door didn't even glance at him as he passed, and Alan felt a little ashamed at that. He'd trapped himself at his own console, never realizing that he was permitted to move.

There was a lesson there, or so Flynn might have said. Alan just scowled at himself and moved on.

As Alan approached him Clu slowed to a stop, facing the window. He tucked his hands behind the small of his back, and this -- along with a Disc-warrior's armor rather than his coat -- gave him a military bearing. Other than that, Clu said and did nothing, yet the questions Alan had meant to ask abandoned him. What are you suddenly seemed petty in the extreme.

Then the silence grew long, and Alan felt compelled to speak.

"What were you doing just now? Thinking?"

"Listening to the system," Clu told him, without turning away from the window. "It sings, y'know. If you're quiet enough you can hear it."

Alan shut his eyes and did his best to listen, but there was no sound; even his own heartbeat was missing-in-action.

"I don't hear it," he said.

"Few do." Clu paused, and then leaned forward, closer to the window. "Beautiful, huh?"

Alan nodded, thinking that Clu meant the city. It was beautiful, a lush carpet of blue light that stretched out in every direction. Recognizers dotted the landscape, each in stately motion. Out beyond, the Outlands painted the city's edges with shadow.

Clu chuckled. "Look closer," he said. "Down there."

Alan followed his finger. He still saw nothing but the city, wide rooftops glowing gently in the rain. Then movement caught his eye: lithe darkness leapt from roof to roof, crowned by a streak of red. Once again the clarity of his own eyesight startled him. The running figure was tiny, but when he squinted he could count each one of the pinpricks of light that marked its wide-flung fingers.

Clu leaned against the window, looking down on his enforcer. "The last known survivor stalks his prey in the night, and he's watching them all with the eye..." he murmured. It took Alan a moment to place the words, and when he did he snorted.

"You don't know who Hitler is, but you know the words to 'Eye of the Tiger'?" he asked.

Clu pushed off from the window, turning away. "I told you, I have all sorts of memories left over from Flynn. Most of them never made sense -- just mixed-up fragments of feelings and data. I deleted those a long time ago, but nobody ever forgets a song." He paused. "Besides, I like this one. 'Don't lose your grip on the dreams of the past. You must fight just to keep them alive...'"

Alan shook his head at that. Clu might see his own mad quest in the words, but to him they were faintly ridiculous; just an echo from a long time ago.

Down below, the streak that was Rinzler dashed across two more buildings, leaping the gap between them with effortless grace. Then he turned, leaving the afterimage of a ninety-degree angle behind, and dove off the edge into open space. Alan gasped, but before he could regain his breath the image of a jet formed around Rinzler's plummeting body, cradling him in light. A moment later it tore out of view, trailing an undulating light-ribbon behind it.

"He'll find them," Clu said. "He knows every sector of this city, every corner. He'll drag Arc back to me, and then..." he shrugged. "Won't be much trouble. Some revolutionary -- he doesn't even have the guts to lead his own men into battle." Clu scowled at that. Alan supposed he'd earned the right, having led a coup of his own.

Alan pointed at the window. "He almost killed you the other day."

Clu whirled, rage written on his face. It faded at the sight of Alan's hand. "Oh, you mean Rinzler? Nah, he was just playing."

"Didn't look like playing to me."

Clu smirked at that. "Trust me. If he'd meant to kill me, one of the two of us would've ended up in pieces all over the floor. He was confused, that's all."

"I don't understand," Alan said. "You said he's been Rectified. How can he defy you? How can he even be confused? Isn't he a mindless slave, like the Sentries?"

"You think a mindless slave could fight the way he does? Besides, the Sentries aren't mindless, either."

"But they're programmed..."

Clu folded his arms with a huff. "You sound just like him. Are all Users like this -- unable to recognize life when it's staring you in the face?"

You sound just like him. Maybe Cal Tech was a big fuckin' deal to Dad, but it's not to me!

Alan shook his head to clear it. "I didn't mean it that way. I just don't understand. One minute he's trying to kill you--" or fuck you, Alan didn't say -- "and the next he's following you around like a loyal dog. Why, if he's already been Rectified?"

Clu looked down at the rooftops again. Rinzler's plane was down there, flying low over the streets like a hawk cruising for a mouse. Alan watched as it rolled twice, then broke off down a different thoroughfare. Maybe Clu was right; nothing in that smooth artistry suggested servitude.

"He was Rectified," Clu said at last. "I did it myself, by hand. But it was a long time ago, and it wasn't... easy." He paused, and then went on. "He's changed since then. They always do."

"How? Code doesn't--"

Clu interrupted him. "Tell me: what determines the output of a program? Is it just the code?"

"Well, no. It's the code, and-- and the input."

"That's right. We like to say 'the data is the execution path'. Our code may make us, but experience makes us what we are. The things we do and the things which are done to us: it's these that make us different, different even from another copy of the same program." When Alan didn't speak, Clu went on. "Rinzler is special, the best thing I ever made. The most perfect. He has to be, because no other program can do what he does, but it makes him dangerous, too. Perfect things are hard to control, hard to predict. They have a way of growing beyond their limits, and always when you're not looking." Clu paused. "Perfection becomes imperfection; controlled imperfection becomes perfection again. That's Rinzler. A paradox."

"Are you saying he's starting to break his programming?"

"I already told you what happens to programs who do that. But programs are capable of change, to a point, and over time change comes to define us as much as our directives do."

Alan thought about that -- as a programmer, not just a man. "So why don't you just Rectify him again?" he asked, despite himself.

"It was awful," Clu said. His expression grew dark. "That's why. It was necessary once -- the security of the system demanded it -- but I won't do it again."

Clu turned toward the window again. His voice was flat and even.

"If he harms the system I'll destroy him. Until then, a Rinzler he'll be."

Alan watched, silently, as Clu stared out the window. He wasn't sure what had triggered the change in Clu's mood, but he knew he must be missing something important, just as before. The idea sparked apprehension inside him, as if he'd opened himself to danger without knowing how or why. The Disc that glowed upon Clu's back seemed to taunt him.

Clu turned, waving a hand toward his throne. "Let me show you something," he said. The throne melted into the floor, leaving behind a single trace of yellow light which whirled round and round where its outline had been. Then Clu raised his hands like a conductor at the head of an orchestra. The light-bar spun faster, growing smaller with each circuit, and then a tall, rectangular lectern rose up out of it. A single bar of gold ran right up the middle. Above that floated a Disc, cherry-red against the black monolith's surface.

"You remember the Sentry from the energy plant?" Clu asked. "This is his Disc. It's almost finished." He moved to touch it, lifting it with reverent hands. Then he balanced it on his palms, so Alan could see it.

"Flynn never gave me the power to create the way he could. I can only repurpose things: programs, objects, the Sea, the Grid itself. This is the closest I can come to creation -- this, right here."

As he spoke, the Disc opened. A dot-matrix image of a Sentry rose up out of it, complete with helmet. Each dot had an odd, angular look which reminded Alan of an old-fashioned binary display. Then he looked closer, and realized that they were binary: a hundred thousand tiny 1s and 0s, the building blocks of digital life.

"It's all here: everything that made this program a hero. Every line of code, every nano of experience. All I have to do is generalize it, distill it until only the essence remains. Then it goes to the Rectifier."

"You're just going to... brainwash them all again?"

"Nah, it's not worth it to integrate the entire army. I'll do some of the elites, and any new Sentries will be based on this pattern; the rest will stay as they are. It's best to have some variety, anyway -- otherwise they're too vulnerable to single exploits." Clu smirked. "And we can't have that."

Alan looked down at the binary-Sentry again. "So this is what you are," he mused. "Just... numbers. Code."

Clu's lips drew together in a tight line. "No more so than you, User."

"I'm not like that."

Clu laughed. "You forget -- I have your Disc, and I've seen Flynn's, too. All you are is a bunch of Cs and Gs and Ts. Whoever wrote that spec ought to be reformatted!"

"I--" Alan started. "That's not..."

"Not the same? Not real?"

Alan swallowed his words, groping for something with meaning. "We're different," he said at last. "We evolved."

"Another of Flynn's pet words," Clu spat. "That means nothing to us. Nothing compared to this." Clu brandished the Disc, and the image of the Sentry shattered, freeing a whirlwind of code. It danced in the air like a flock of tiny, blood-red birds, weaving in and out of itself in perfect synchronicity. It formed the shape of a hexagon, a dodecahedron, a double-helix, as if it meant to mock Alan's staid biological form. Delight warred with insult inside him, until at last he dropped his eyes.

"It's beautiful," he admitted. Then he looked Clu in the eye and added, "Beautiful, but never free. Where's his directive -- which line?"

Clu just looked at him, with a sad sort of pity in his eyes. "You misunderstand me," he said. "The Sentry is his directive. I am my directive. It's a macrocosm, a totality -- that's why a program can't survive its violation. To be what you are, and then what you are not... it's death to us, a death far worse than derezzing."

"You don't... evolve."

"No. We don't. And I'd keep that word to myself, if I were you. If the Sentries hear it you'll wish they hadn't."

"But you do change. With experience, with time..."

Clu gave him a small smile. "All things change with time, Bradley. Don't you know that?"

"I wish I didn't," Alan said, and Clu did not countermand him. He put the Disc back in its place on the lectern instead. It locked into place with a slight bobbing motion, floating between Clu's outstretched hands.

"Only one thing left to do," Clu said. He shut his eyes and breathed slowly out through his nose -- strange, that a computer program should breathe the way Kevin did when he was saying his gaté gaté paragatés -- and a tiny sliver of golden light flowed from his hands down into the Disc. It merged with the Sentry's light and stained it the color of a blood orange, disappearing within.

"All my people have something of me," Clu said, without turning. "It's my promise to them... and I always keep my promises."

"You didn't keep the one to Flynn," Alan muttered. "You betrayed him--"

Clu rounded on him before he could finish. "He betrayed me!" he roared, his voice distorted by rage. Alan stumbled back, but Clu came on, surging forward like a bull maddened by barbs. He drove Alan three feet back to the nearest wall, and then shoved him against it with a snarl. He drew close, close so that Alan could feel his breath, and then spoke again.

"He. Betrayed. Me." He poked Alan in the sternum to emphasize each word, and Alan knew he'd have a neat triangle of bruises there in the morning. "I gave him everything. Everything. I built a world for him and still he didn't want it."

Alan nodded, slowly, carefully. Clu went on.

"I would have followed him forever, User. I wanted to follow him forever. But he turned on me, on our dream. He threw me and my people away. He abandoned us in favor of chaos and disorder!" Clu shook his head hard -- again, like a bull fighting flies -- and then his hand closed on Alan's shoulder. "He betrayed me," he repeated, and his voice held more weariness than anger.

"I'm sorry," Alan said, almost without thinking. Clu jerked as if Alan had hit him, and released him quick.

"Never mind. Just-- just don't say that again." His fists squeezed closed. "I'm not a betrayer."

Alan thought of the one-armed Sentry, falling to pieces on the floor. After a while Clu turned, drew the red Disc from its place in the lectern, and waved Alan forward.

"C'mon," he said, as if his explosion of rage had never happened. "Let's go back."

Alan followed him up the hall, listening as Clu nattered on about the "radical" increase in efficiency and fidelity his new Sentries represented. It was easy enough for him to tune it out; he'd heard it all before.

The Ops Room was just as Alan had left it. Jarvis was still by the window, scrolling through his pad with one finger. All four of the Ops were staring sightlessly ahead, busy at their consoles. Both Sentries were silent, too, but as Alan and Clu passed the nearest one turned ever so slightly, following the red Disc with his eyes. Clu caught him at it and came to a stop, presenting the Disc with a flourish.

"You want this?" he asked. The Sentry's mouth twitched, as if he wanted to answer but was afraid to. "Well? Speak up!"

"Yes, sir," the Sentry finally managed.

"Then you shall have it," he proclaimed, with a sharp glance at Alan. "Only the best for my boys."

The Sentry's mouth turned up in a grin that transformed his entire demeanor -- suddenly he looked very human beneath his helmet, Rectified or not. He thumped his staff against the floor in salute. "Thank you, sir!"

Just then the door opened, and Rinzler entered. He came to stand before Clu, as if waiting for orders.

"No luck, huh?" Clu asked him. Then he shrugged. "No problem. We'll find him." He glanced over at Alan, and then added: "That reminds me. You almost got yourself killed the other day. I want you trained."

"Trained?" Alan said.

"Just the basics. Enough to keep you on your feet for more than a nano, at least."

Alan wasn't sure about that. "Are you going to give me my Disc back?" he asked.

"No," Clu told him. "Use the temp Disc I gave you. It was good enough the other day." He turned to the Sentry. "See to it," he added.

The Sentry bowed and then put his free hand on Alan's arm. "Come with me," he said.

"Wait a minute!" Alan cried. "Let me go! Where are you--"

His words were broken by a growl close-at-hand, and a liquid smashing sound. The Sentry's hand fell away -- literally fell away, crumbling square by square -- and Rinzler's hand replaced it, tight and possessive.

"What the--" Alan started.

"Hey!" Clu cried, turning on his heel. "He was 98th percentile, man! If you're gonna kill Sentries, do it off the ship!"

Rinzler rattled at him in answer, loud and fierce. He yanked Alan in close, holding him like a hostage. Clu glared down at them both. Then his eyes narrowed, though not with the anger Alan had expected. Instead, they filled with an ugly jealousy that was somehow even worse.

"Oh," he said. "I get it. You want to train him, huh?"

Rinzler's helmet shot up. He made a single sound, a little blurt of surprise, and then the sullen growl reasserted itself.

"Fine then," Clu spat. "Go ahead. Teach him to fight. I order you to." Then he smiled, and the cruelty in his voice made Alan shiver. "But be careful -- you wouldn't want to hurt the User."

Rinzler stood there for another second, inscrutable behind his helmet. His red-lit fingers were locked around Alan's wrist so tight it hurt, but Alan was afraid to move. Then the tension broke. Rinzler bowed, still with Alan in his grasp, and then turned and tugged him up the hall.

"Wait!" Alan cried again. Clu didn't turn, didn't even flinch. The door slid shut with a hiss, and then Rinzler was dragging him toward the hatch in the wall, rumbling the whole way.

They went through, and Alan felt the same wrenching sense of displacement as he stumbled out onto the other side. He leaned against the wall for a moment, fighting his stomach. Rinzler's hand moved up to his bicep, squeezing twice; Alan wasn't sure if the gesture was meant to be comforting or threatening. Then he opened his eyes, and saw where he was.

The ship had vanished. In its place was a glass box, just like the ones in the Arena. Alan looked down first, and then sighed with relief as he spotted the floor which lay just beneath the glass. He noticed other differences, too: there were markings on the glass, squares and triangles and circles laid out in odd patterns. They reminded him of the marks on a racquetball court. This box was smaller, too, and closer to square than the others had been.

And, of course, Rinzler was in it with him. His smooth black helmet followed Alan's every move, and the sound he made reverberated from the walls. Alan tried to tug away and was surprised when Rinzler let him go, waving him back toward the wall. Alan obeyed, feeling foolish and afraid. They faced each other there, perhaps twenty feet apart, in silence.

Then Rinzler drew his Disc. He didn't split it in two, but it buzzed just the same, and Alan shrank back against the glass in fear. Rinzler seemed to notice. He lifted his free hand, held it high so Alan could see it, and then slapped the edge of the Disc against his arm. It made a noise like a laundry buzzer, and a shower of sparks spat out. Alan squinched his eyes shut against it, but when Rinzler drew it away his arm was unhurt. Alan watched as Rinzler did it twice more, as if to demonstrate that the Disc was safe.

"OK," he said at last. "I get it. It won't hurt me?"

As if in answer, Rinzler hurled it at him. Alan stumbled, twisting away, but the Disc caught him on the lower back -- on his butt, if he was being honest -- and knocked him down. It stung like fire, and he rolled and swore for a good half minute afterward.

When he looked up Rinzler was there, standing very close. His helmet was cocked to the side, and his shoulders were raised in a picture of puzzlement. It was obvious that Alan had stumped him, and after a second Alan realized why.

Born with a Disc in his hands, Alan thought ruefully. He's never met somebody who couldn't just backflip out of the way.

Alan got to his feet, wiped imaginary dust from his gridsuit, and turned to face Rinzler again. "You're gonna have to start with the basics," he said. "I don't know how to fight."

Rinzler nodded, lifted his hand, and flicked out a slow, well-telegraphed toss that still caught Alan in the sternum, knocking him back on his ass.

"Maybe you could teach me to throw?" Alan coughed, when he'd finally stopped gasping. Rinzler met that idea with silence. He reached down and pulled Alan to his feet, and then raised both hands in a stay there gesture.

"OK?" Alan asked. He watched as Rinzler padded back to his side of the ring, spread his feet in a ready position, then spun to the side with his arms tucked in. He repeated the motion again: one hundred eighty degrees on the right foot, and one hundred eighty on the left, until he was standing a good meter from where he'd started. Then he paused, looking back at Alan.

"You want me to do that?" Alan asked. Silence, again. Alan tried the motion, one foot following the other, suddenly grateful for those swing-dancing lessons Lora had dragged him to. He felt clumsy and slow compared to Rinzler, but after a minute or so he was beginning to pick up speed, spinning his way across the floor.

"Like this?" he asked. Rinzler made a go ahead gesture, so Alan tried it again... and Rinzler whipped the Disc at him just after he'd started. He nearly stumbled as it zipped by, but it did zip by, and as he completed his spin it tore past him on the other side, slapping back into Rinzler's palm.

"Oh," Alan said dumbly. Then Rinzler threw it again, and he fell over.

---

Alan practiced the spin-dodge for what felt like an hour, accumulating bruises and frustration as he went. Try as he might, he couldn't seem to move fast enough unless Rinzler threw the Disc after he started spinning. His reaction time was just too slow. Rinzler's Disc was a missile, and he didn't seem inclined to slow it down for Alan -- perhaps wisely, as Alan doubted that an enemy ever would. The rebels at the energy plant had meant to kill him, to tear him apart, and only Rinzler's interference had stopped them.

Rinzler hurled his Disc again. Alan moved the instant he saw it, dancing sideways across the floor. It still tagged him on the arm as it sizzled past, numbing him below the elbow. He hissed and rubbed at his forearm, glaring across at his opponent. Rinzler folded his arms, waiting for Alan to recover.

"It's not going to work," Alan snapped. "I can't learn this!"

Rinzler merely waited, helmet raised, Disc in hand. He had the patience of a program used to long and lonely waits, and Alan knew he'd never match it.

"All right," he sighed. "Okay. Again."

The Disc shot out over and over, striking his leg, his shoulder, the back of his head. It didn't hurt him, but it hurt; he tried to concentrate on his breathing, the way Kevin had taught him, but his wounded pride kept bleeding through. He felt angry at Rinzler, angry at Clu, and angry at himself for being old and incapable. His rage grew inside of him until he was breathing hard, eyes drawn into slits, focused solely on that damned Disc. It whirled in Rinzler's hand like a comet, trailing fire; it was red and orange inside -- and was that blue? -- and as he watched it seemed to spin slower, yielding before the purity of his concentration.

Then Rinzler's wrist flicked back, and the Disc rushed forward. Time slowed even further, leaving it spinning in air. Alan moved, spinning himself, his boots sliding over the glass. He tucked his arms in the way Rinzler had taught him, hands at his sides, and whirled through the first revolution.

The Disc was still moving. He caught sight of it across the arena, still stuttering in its freeze-frame shuffle, and then he was shifting into the second spin, pulling his right foot over his left. Alan shut his eyes and moved, letting his instincts guide him.

The Disc tore by. He felt it -- it left a thin line of pain behind it as the edge nicked his shoulder -- and then he settled onto the balls of his feet, watching as it sailed back the other way. Rinzler reached up and caught it. Then he looked at Alan across the way, rumbling quietly.

Alan hadn't dodged it. He hadn't. But he almost had, and now he knew he could... if he could concentrate hard enough to recapture that feeling.

Rinzler seemed to agree. He turned, waved a hand at the glass of the wall, and dismissed it, stepping through into a blank hexagon of nothingness. Alan followed. Clu's ship was on the other side, its golden glow almost blinding after the uniform blue of the practice box. Rinzler made no sound or gesture as he walked away, but somehow Alan knew their session was over. He made his way back to his own room, rubbing at his arm along the way.

The door hissed open, and Alan stepped through. Then he froze. Clu was seated on his bench, with his knees open and both boots flat on the floor. He had a tall glass of energy in his left hand; the other was tucked behind his head, in a gesture which was probably meant to be casual but came off as arrogant.

"Hello, User," he said. The door slid shut.

Alan turned and slapped at it, keenly aware of the figure behind him. His every instinct screamed alarm, yet Clu didn't move, didn't strike. He just sat there, watching and waiting. Alan thumped once on the unyielding door and then leaned on it, giving up. It felt cool against his forehead.

"I brought you some energy," Clu purred, as if there'd been no interruption. Alan turned to find him in much the same position, except with his off hand balanced on his knee. His expression was oddly earnest, and Alan wasn't sure why.

"You brought me energy," he repeated.

"Why not? You looked like you could use it." The idea that Clu had watched the match hadn't occurred to Alan, but it was obvious in retrospect. He shifted from foot to foot.

"Uh..." he said, trying to think of something to say. "I thought that only happened once a day."

Clu grinned. "I borrowed against next shift's rations." He stood up, and the room suddenly felt very small. "Here," he said, moving close to Alan. "It's for you."

"Ah, I really don't..." he tried. Clu stepped even closer, lifting his hand as if to touch, and suddenly Alan put it all together: his room, Clu's open, eager expression, the alcohol analogue. He stepped back, flinching.

"Hey, hey," Clu said, gentling him like a startled animal. "I'm not gonna hurt you."

Alan willed himself to be still. "You did before."

He'd expected Clu to get mad at that, but he didn't; he just looked up at Alan and sighed. "Yeah. I know."

Alan was so surprised by that he forgot to step back again. Clu's hand came up, warm against his cheek, gloved fingers nestling against his ear. Alan reached up and rubbed at his shoulder again, as if guarding himself.

"Why?" he asked.

Clu smirked up at him. "Why not?"

"Because..." Alan started, but there weren't any words to fill in the blank. Clu's hand moved to his shoulder, rubbing gently at the place that hurt, soothing it away. The blue glass of energy still shone in his other hand, off to the right. Alan could see tiny bubbles in it, fizzing their way up to the top of the glass. They wavered as Clu stepped closer, wobbled as he pulled Alan against him.

"I'll go if you want me to," Clu muttered, speaking into Alan's shoulder.

Alan took the glass.

"Knew you didn't," Clu said. Alan could feel the shape of his smile against his throat, smug and happy. Then Clu reached up and ran his fingers through Alan's hair. His gloves broke up and vanished with a whisper-soft rattle, leaving his hands and wrists bare. Alan reached around Clu's arm and sipped at the glass in the meantime, sputtering as the energy set his throat ablaze.

"It's the good stuff. Pure source, straight from the springs in the Outlands."

Alan gasped and nodded, and Clu took the opportunity to guide him toward the bench. The energy sloshed all over his hand as he sat down, soaking right through the gridsuit and into his bones. It made the marks on his fingers flash like blue lightning. The bruises he'd picked up in the practice box were already healing, fading into small patches of insistent itch beneath his suit. Clu massaged his shoulders nonetheless, digging his thumbs into the tight spots at the base of his neck. It hurt for an instant, and then the pain faded along with a tension Alan hadn't even been aware of.

It'd been months since anyone had touched him; months, on top of however long he'd been with Clu on the Grid, which was starting to feel like years. He kept losing track of time, and he was busy at Encom, and and and -- a million excuses for what amounted to shutting his life down, bit by bit. Now that spark was back, and it wanted this. He wanted Clu, and was past caring why or how.

He pulled Clu down into a kiss, chuckling inside at the way Clu leaned into it. There was no hesitation, no teasing half-measures: just Clu's mouth against his, and the taste of borrowed energy on his tongue. Clu's hands slid into his hair again, tugging with slow, even pressure. He nipped at the corner of Alan's mouth as he let go. Then the glass was there, bumping against his lips. Alan drank deeply, groaning as the lights on Clu's shoulders seemed to double in intensity.

Clu took the glass and finished it, then tossed it aside. It vanished before it hit the floor, but Alan barely noticed. Clu had taken to nuzzling his neck again, sighing against the spot where the suit met his skin. Then he leaned up, breathing half-chuckled words into Alan's ear.

"That's it, yeah! Let's get connected."

The last of Alan's misgivings vanished at that; he couldn't help but feel safe with one of Kevin's silly pick-up lines ringing in his ears. He reached up and pulled Clu against him, down onto the bench, and a moment later he'd entirely forgotten how narrow and cramped it was.

---

Elsewhere, the screen on Alan's console began to flash:

current_revision = "FlynnOS 1.2.12";
current_rating = PG_13;
if (desired_rating == NC_17) {
goto chapter_09;
} else {
goto chapter_10;
}

chapter_10:
wait_for_writer();