Location Query: Part One

by Tenshi

It could not be done from the outside. That was the answer, computed and compiled, and like the outcome of an equation, there was no arguing with it.

Sam did argue, all the same. But Alan Bradley was an old hand at arguing with a Flynn when the matter was one of heart over head, and he knew how to get the last word. Alan was the more experienced programmer, Alan was the more expendable member of Encom, and dammit, it was Alan's program they were trying to find.

In the end, Sam had to surrender, and agree. Alan would be the one to go onto the Grid. But not alone, with no allies to back him up on the Users' side. Not like Flynn.

"You need a copy of what now?" Roy asked, squinting at Alan over the top edge of his laptop screen and under the bottom edge of his glasses, which where shoved up onto his forehead to hold back his unruly curls. He looked uncomfortable in his posh corner office on the west side of Encom tower, uncomfortable in his own crisp button-down shirt. Alan suspected that his first official action in his new position as Director of Internal Compliance (a title designed to be as impressive-sounding as it was vague) would be to ditch the corporate dress code.

"That little search and retrieve hacking program of yours," Alan said, reaching forward to straighten the foremost mech model in Roy's desktop phalanx of action figures. "The one you used to riffle through all those secure memory files in your previous freelancing job."

"Dammit, Alan," Roy hissed, with pained urgency, "will you keep your voice down? I went to a lot of trouble to forge a decent resume for this, now don't blow it for me."

"I'm not going to fire you, Roy," Alan said, his grin ruining his conspiratorial wink. "If I did I'd have to fire myself, first. You're too paranoid."

"Well, whose fault is it that I am?" Roy demanded, glancing over his shoulder. There was nothing there but a spectacular view of the sunset over the bay, but Roy hunched his shoulders against it as though it was a black-suited squad of FBI officers. "What do you want Ram-6 for?"

Alan blinked, distracted. "Do you name all of your programs Ram?"

"Only the really good ones," Roy answered, defensive. "Flynn said that he liked that, it was consistent. He gave me the nickname, after all." Roy waved his hand, as though batting away the tangent. "I thought we were done with that... project, so I retired Ram-6. Unless..." He trailed off, peering at Alan's inscrutable expression, serene as a reclining Buddha. "Alan," Roy breathed, eyes going wide, "...what have you found?"

"Nothing yet," Alan said, "which is why I need your program. Sam's turned up some old hardware, hidden at the arcade. I need to mine it to see if it's got any clues about where Flynn is. If there is something in there, he would have hidden it well. Your program walked in and out of the Pentagon like it was a city park, Roy. If there's something there--and there might not be--it'll find it for us."

It was not an entire lie, Alan thought, keeping his face carefully in check. He wasn't sure he believed Sam. But then, he hadn't been sure he believed Flynn either, and at the time he had told himself that Flynn's tales about the Grid were nothing more than bedtime stories for Sam, or snatches of nonsense that came out when Alan and Flynn were up too late with a broken motherboard between them. But if it was not real, then what had happened that night at the arcade? And there was the girl named Quorra, who looked at everything from apples to asphalt as though she'd never seen it before. If she was not from the Grid, then who was she? If Alan did not believe, deep down, that the Grid was real and Flynn had gone there, why had he paid the electric bill at the arcade for all those years? Why now was he in Roy's office, asking for help so he could go and find a broken outdated security program, as thought it was a long-lost friend of flesh and blood?

Alan had no answers. And if he wanted to get them, it meant keeping the truth from Roy a little bit longer. After all, the stress of being Zackattack had aged his friend before his time; there was no need to make him go gray any faster. Not to mention, Alan was acutely aware of just how insane the whole thing sounded. He folded his hands in his lap, met Roy's scouring stare with his own composed one, and waited.

"You're not being on the level with me, T," Roy said, but he was already pulling a flash drive out of his desk drawer. "Just promise me you'll let me in on what you find."

"I promise," Alan said, as Roy smacked the little thumb drive into Alan's hand. "But you might be sorry you asked."

"I stopped keeping track of what I was sorry about a long time ago," Roy grinned, and for a moment he was the young man Alan remembered from his earliest days at Encom: always forgetting his lunch or his key card, but cool and capable behind a C:\ prompt. "But if you find him, don't beat the crap out of him until I've had a chance to throw a punch myself."

"Deal," Alan said, and tucked Ram-6's flash drive safely in his jacket pocket. "I've been waiting to kick the shit out of him for about thirty years now."

Sam's modified garage apartment, normally the very image of minimalist industrial cool, had been transformed overnight into barely-contained chaos. It looked as though someone had fed the Encom programming lab and the entire contents of a Radio Shack into a blender in the middle of Sam's single room, then hit puree with the lid off. Thick cables snaked across the furniture, monitors positioned on every level surface spat up intermittent messages in the piercing green font of basic programming language. Quorra sat in the middle of it, cheerful as a magpie as she fidgeted over a bit of circuit board, while Sam was head-down, ass-up in the guts of an oversized laser.

"I got it," Alan announced, to no one in particular. "Do I sign away my sanity at the door, or is that included in the ToS?"

Sam grunted something, engrossed in whatever he was doing. Quorra looked up, her eyes brightening. The first time Sam had introduced her to Alan, there had been some kind of recognition in her face, and when she heard his name, she repeated it with a kind of reverence. Alan could never shake the feeling that she knew him, knew him and respected him on some deeply fundamental level, and the repercussions of that line of thought were deeply unsettling.

"May I see him?" Quorra asked, and it took Alan a minute to realize she was talking about Roy's program.

"Sure," he said, and held the flash drive out to her. She accepted it as though it was a live baby bird, cupping it tenderly in her hands.

"Oooh," Quorra said, and then nothing else, staring down at the little bit of plastic-encased memory chip, lost in some quixotic reverie. Her lips moved slightly, as though she was praying over it, but Alan could not make out any words.

"Mind to tell me what she's doing?" Alan whispered, to the approximate location of Sam's head.

Sam reversed himself out of the laser housing, looked at Quorra, looked at Alan, and said, matter-of-fact, "I guess she's talking to him."

Alan massaged his sternum. It was a bad time for his acid reflux to be acting up again. "What are you doing?" he said, thinking he would get a more sane answer.

"I'm rigging this up to a better power source to give you a longer access window with the open portal," Sam answered. "'Bout 24 hours, Grid time."

Alan started looking in his pockets for his antacids. "Have I said recently that this is insanity?"

Sam grinned up at him, looking more like his father than ever before. "Not since this morning."

"Oh, fine. Sam, this is insane."

"I could always go in instead," Sam reminded him, plugging components back together.

"Keep dreaming." Alan popped down four Rolaids and crunched them in his back teeth. "I haven't been waiting this long for you to take Encom back only to let you wander off into Tomorrowland the minute you do."

Sam rested his elbows on top of the laser, giving Alan a narrow smile. "I think you just want to see if it's all real."

"Then you're right."

"He's all set," Quorra said, appearing at Sam's elbow to hand him the flash drive.

"Good deal," Sam said, and started looking for an empty USB port.

"We've set your destination location just at the edge of the City, near the Outlands," Quorra explained, as Sam busied himself installing Roy's program. "Ram-6 will be there to help you with integration. It's possible our exit might have destabilized the system somewhat, so be prepared for some data skips and glitches. Ram should be able to handle any gridbugs you run across. You'll have at least four millicycles before the portal reaches capacity and begins shutdown."

"Take clean underwear and don't drink the water," Sam muttered, fingers fluttering over his keypad.

"Anything else?" Alan asked Quorra, feeling deeply surreal. He wasn't really being serious, but Quorra considered this for a moment, then finally shook her head with a shrug, and a brilliant smile.

"Have fun!" she said.

"But not too much fun," Sam said, with a final, decisive keystroke. "You're on a mission, remember. If we're going to find Dad, we'll need Tron's help."

"He'll be so glad to see you," Quorra sighed. "I know he will."

"Right," Alan said, trying not to think how ludicrous the conversation would sound to an outside listener.

"We're ready," Sam said, as the laser began to warm up with an ominous hum. "Alan, go stand over there so the laser aperture has a clear shot at you."

"What, no blindfold, no last cigarette?" Alan meant for it to be a joke, but staring down the barrel of Lora's old laser, he felt very much like he was facing a firing squad.

"Too late for that," Sam said, as his tablet computer started beeping in a way that was nothing short of menacing. "We'll be here to back you if there's any issues. Have a nice trip."

The laser's hum reached an earnest pitch, and Alan felt his heart lurch into his ribs. He kept himself up well and avoided cheeseburgers as much as any man could be expected to, but that didn't mean he was oblivious to the statistics about men his age and cardiac arrest. His doctor had told him to check in before doing anything too extreme, just to be on the safe side. Was he even cleared for this?

The words woke a memory of a late night Encom break-in and one hell of a big door, and Alan's heart shivered again with something that wasn't fear. It was excitement, excitement and a youthful optimism for the potential of technology and where it could take mankind. It was a thrill he hadn't felt in a long time, not since those days in a blue fabric cube in the bowels of Encom's programming department, not since Flynn had been there to inspire him. Alan's hesitation abandoned him, and he met the irising lens of the digitizing laser with an unwavering stare. "Let's do this," he said, and then the old fogey part of him felt compelled to add, "But just so you know, I feel utterly ridiculou---" Alan got no further. The laser beam hit him then and everything that he was burst into a spiraling stream of ones and zeroes.


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