Location Query: Part Two
There was no sensation of motion. Alan felt a jolt that was too fast for his mind to even register, more fleeting than a static shock. In truth it was as though he had not traveled anywhere; rather, one universe around him had simply swapped places with another. It had happened between eyeblinks, and Alan spent a few seconds staring dumbly at his surroundings as though making sure they would stay in place.
It was dark, and at first he could only perceive a formless void. Flickers of light glided like phosphenes at the edges of his vision, but they were gone when he tried to focus on them, leaving faint outlines. Gradually he saw they were only reflections in the rock from the one constant light source. It was a dim blue illumination on the horizon, and the only thing that marked a difference between earth and sky. From somewhere nearby was the invisible rustle of moving water. A faint breeze stirred his hair and tugged at the hanging belt of his coat. There was something about the air that was both wet and electric, but lacking any sense of organic material. It was the smell of a gathering thunderstorm far out at sea, burning ozone and hydrogen, with no trace of salt or shore. This then, was Flynn's Grid, a space echoing with its own potential.
"Not much to look at, is it?"
Alan spun around, startled. In a cleft of the jagged black rock there was a slim, human figure. He had one leg braced against the stone, his back against the other side for support. His body was outlined in brilliant contours of blue light that refracted a thousand times over in the reflective stone. He had not yet bothered to look at Alan, his focus absorbed by a flat, hollow disk he whirled deftly between his fingers.
"Of course," the stranger went on, spinning his bauble so fast that the disk became a glowing sphere, alighting from hand to hand like a sentient thing, "we're so far out in the boonies here, might as well be Nowhere. Raw data compounds, cold circuit elements, unchanneled energy pools. It's been megacycles since I saw this kind of wilderness. Definitely a fixer-upper." All at once, the disk in his hand snapped to a stop in his fist, and its light washed over his face. Alan started with recognition as the stranger smiled at him. "Welcome, friend."
"...Roy?" Alan said, in disbelief.
Somehow, this only made him smile more. It was Roy's smile, there was no mistaking that, but on a face that had been Roy's thirty years ago. Alan saw the messy chestnut curls, the mischievous glint in his eyes, the very same as Roy's when he would peer over Alan's cube wall in the early Encom days. Not everything was exact, though. For one thing, Alan was fairly certain that Roy had never gone around dressed in glove-tight black silicone, lit up like the Vegas strip and not leaving much to the imagination.
"You know my User, I guess?" With a practiced motion, he put the disk over his shoulder, and it snapped into place on his back. "Phew, good thing he needed me here. I've been hanging around in backup so long, I was beginning to think I was gonna degrade down to basic code before I got a run command again."
Something inside Alan shifted slightly to the left, some tilt that he knew would never go back into its old rigid track. It was somewhere between a paradigm shift and nausea. Oh, god, he thought, It's a program. Roy's program. I'm talking to a program. Aloud, all he could manage to say was, "You're Ram-6."
Ram hopped down from his perch with a dexterity Roy would have been hard pressed to find, even when he was twenty, and landed at Alan's feet. He stuck out a gloved hand for Alan to take, and on doing so Alan found his fingers squished in Roy's familiar bone-crush handshake. "And you're Isolated Thinker," Ram said. Something more than his own body lights reflected in his eyes as he added, in little more than a breath, "...the legendary Alan-1."
Alan swallowed, embarrassed. "Come on," he said, "That legendary bit makes me feel old."
Ram's adoration was not to be dampened. "Should have known it would be you to come next. Flynn's the only User who's come to us before, and that was so many cycles ago, it's just myth, now. But every program worth his bits knows Alan-1 was the User that helped Flynn defeat the MCP from the outside, even if they don't believe."
"I'm the third user to come here," Alan reminded him, abashed by the wonder in Ram's voice. "Sam Flynn beat me to the silver medal."
Ram was not to be swayed, studying Alan's face as though to burn it into his memory, speaking so low that it was almost to himself. "After Flynn came, we thought there would be more Users who would come to teach us. But since there haven't been, most younger programs say Flynn never came, that he's just a story. They say there are no Users, just programs pretending to be Users. Only the older ones still believe, and some who were written and run solely by our Users, like me..." Ram trailed off, realized he was still gripping Alan's hand, and let it go. "Sorry! Just.. It's been a long time, and you remind me... Nevermind. You have commands for me, don't you? A search string?"
Alan shook himself, unprepared to shoulder the weight of a whole mythos based on Flynn, on Users, on the interaction between keyboard and code. "We're here to find Flynn," he said. "But to do that, we need to find a program of mine."
"We're really looking for Tron, huh?" Ram said, and let out a low whistle of admiration. "Sysadmin! It's a good cycle for legends, isn't it? Couldn't really believe it when Quorra told me about the mission." He winced, as though recalling some discomfort. "Now that was one borked interface, let me tell you. Never felt anything like it. I wasn't even booted yet. Is she a User or a Program or--"
"I don't know," Alan said, and added fervently to himself, and I'm not sure I want to. "I just want to find Tron, so we can find Flynn."
"Well," Ram said, and raked back his hair with one hand, "You've come to the right program. I can find anything, anywhere. After all those cycles looking for Flynn, it'll brighten my lights to catch him at last, that's for damn sure." His lights did brighten then, a tiny little pulse of pride, and Alan found himself laughing in agreement. It was dangerously easy to forget he was talking to a string of code.
Or, Alan thought, is it dangerous to pretend that programs are code compiled to do our whims, and nothing more? He knew which was the right answer, and the clarity of that knowledge was effortless.
"It'll brighten my lights too," Alan said. "Where do we start?"
"I'll show you." Ram turned and shimmied up the obsidian rock face with the ease of a canyon lizard. "There," he said, pointing down into the valley below as Alan made it to the top of the ledge, with considerably more effort on his part. "The Sea of Simulation."
Alan's breath caught in wonder. Sprawled below them was a landscape beyond imagination. The distant light he had seen before was revealed now as an unmoving blue sun poised at the far edge of a black sea, a sea not of water, but of possibility transformed into a tangible substance. The light, Alan knew from Sam's descriptions, was the portal back to his own world. Fingers of black rock thrust upwards from the waves, and some floated, unmoored by any kind of earthly gravity, in slow orbit around the portal. Far to the right of their position at the lip of the water, Alan could see the spires and lights of a vast city, glittering like a diamond in the dark. Sparks careened and dove among its structures: vehicles traversing the city at the speed of pure thought. The top of the city was reflected in the water below, and in the low hanging clouds above, until the entire area was suffused with a glow of unimaginable beauty. Alan felt like an explorer in some virgin continent, like a starship captain setting foot on a distant planet, like a mortal tumbling headfirst into the incomprehensible glory of Eden. He felt fantastic.
I understand, Flynn, he thought, and it was enough to make his vision blur with tears he had held back for decades. I understand, and I don't blame you one damn bit for anything.
"Alan-1?" Ram asked, perplexed by Alan's emotional reaction to the view. "Are you all right?"
"Yeah," Alan said, blinking away the past in order to better see Flynn's future. Did programs cry, and grieve, and love with the ardor of their makers? One look at Ram's face told Alan the answer to that. Roy's program was bending down to help the User up to better footing, and in his face was a mixture of concern and respect, but not ignorance. Programs are more like us than we know, Alan thought, and made a point to avoid the mistake of thinking otherwise. "I'm fine, Ram," he said, and for the first time the name came easily to his lips, even moreso than when he called Roy by his old nickname. "Thanks." He let the program pull him to his feet, and for a moment they stood together on the promontory, Ram scanning the landscape below, Alan studying Ram.
Flynn knew the Ram before you, Alan remembered, thinking of a fragment of Flynn's story that was very seldom told, the part that made him go quiet for a long time after. Ram had been the program Flynn could not save. No wonder he called Roy by Ram's name. It was a way to keep him alive. Well, I can certainly empathize with that. Alan looked out over the grid, knowing down deep inside that somewhere out there in the chiaroscuro of the City, Flynn was alive. I can't wait until he sees who's come to bring him home.
"Something's down there," Ram said suddenly, his whole body going taut.
"What?" Alan tried to pinpoint the target of Ram's gaze, and saw something flickering at the bottom of the cliff, like a child's sparkler seen from a distance. "What is that?"
"Scavenger worms!" Ram snarled. "They've got someone cornered!" Ripping his identity disk from his back, Ram slid down a scree of loose stone towards the lights, fearless and fierce.
"Wait, Ram--!" Alan shouted, but it was no use. With a little sigh of relief that Lora was not there to see him, he did his best to imitate Ram and slide down the cliff. He hadn't gone two inches before he realized there was no such thing in his programming. The grid-rock was like obsidian, translucent and razor-sharp, and slick as ice. It was all he could do to stay mostly upright for the trip. Alan's coat was in tatters by the time he made it down, his hands were scraped and bloody, and it took him twice as long as Ram, but he made it. He landed on his knees in damp black sand, his laugh shaky and triumphant. Now that it was over, it had been kind of fun.
Something luminous made a stealthy movement in the corner of his vision. Alan flinched back instinctively as Ram's disk sliced through the air, bisecting a vile, bloated little coil of pale green light. It curled up over its severed ends with a high-pitched whine of pain and then crystallized, splintering into murky shards. Alan was repulsed by it even after it had gone.
"They'll latch on and try to devour all your functions," Ram gasped, catching his returning disk. "Don't let them touch you or--User delete it!" Ram swore, as one of the worms shot out of the rock face and attached onto his shoulder. In an instant, Ram's body armor began to dissolve, revealing bare skin still marked with his light pattern, now pulsing red as though in pain. Ram reached up and tore the parasite loose; the wound on his shoulder scattered tiny bright fragments of energy onto the sand. The moment the worm detached, the hole in his armor began to knit together again, the bite mark closed over. Ram brought his heel down on the offending worm, a noise of satisfaction in his throat. "They probably manifested when the system destabilized," he said, grinding the shards of de-rezzed worm under his boot, "but they only clump up like this if they've found something to feed on."
"Oh god," Alan breathed, looking past Ram to see a writhing mass of the creatures swarming over a struggling figure on the beach. He could not see any armor like Ram's, only torn skin and fading lights, spilled energy pooling in precious crystals around the unfortunate program's knees.
In an instant Alan was running, spurred by some nameless desperation. Ram called after him, but he did not slow down. He knew nothing about this world or its physics, he did not even know what he was going to do. But as he reached the feeding parasites he knew at least that he was a User, and damned if he was going to let those things endure in Flynn's system. He reached for the nearest one, thinking to fling it away onto the sharp rocks. But the moment his fingers came into contact with it, it shattered like glass. As did the one beside it, and the one after that.
Alan's will broke over the nest of worms like a tidal wave, his rage turning them into sparkling dust. He did not even have to touch them, he was the epicenter and by his furious proximity they curled up and burst and blew away like so much sand. Alan looked at his own hands in something like wonder, but he did not have long to contemplate his newfound power.
The program he had saved lay curled on his side in the wet sand. He was breathing, though it rattled through him like a loose disk drive in an old Tandy, and he did not move. The remains of his armor were fractured and torn, and he held an identity disk clenched in each hand as though still struggling to defend himself.
Two, Alan realized, and looking down at the profile pressed into the sand, he understood just whom he had saved. His legs very sensibly refused to hold him up any longer. Alan went to his knees, and reached out with shaking hands to pull the wounded program towards him.
"I'm here," Alan said, thinking even as it came out that it was foolish, but he could think of nothing else to say, his fingers useless over injuries he could not comprehend. "I'm sorry. I should have been here sooner. I'm here now."
The program stirred, opened his eyes. For a moment it seemed he would speak, and then his lights flickered, dimmed. The noise in his throat dwindled to a scrape, and was silent.
"No," Alan whispered, and then pulled him up into his arms, willing all his strength into the dying program. "No! Dammit, Tron! Flynn needs you! I need you! I've waited thirty goddamn years to meet you, I won't lose you now!"
It seemed to be no use. Tron's lights died, and Alan thought his heart had died with them. For an instant, the beach was utterly black. Alan curled over Tron's body, and bit down hard on the wordless cry of grief that struggled to escape him. It could not end like this.
Four lights manifested in the dark. They were simple things: three squares above, one square below. The glow was not even enough to illuminate the skin around it. And then it flared into the brilliance of a newborn sun as the light patterns on Tron's body ignited. From the small lights new paths burst forth like vines from seeds, tracing an ornate glyph over his chest and back, threading down his arms, leaving no line forgotten. Torn flesh wrote itself whole again beneath Alan's hands. On top of it, the silicone scales of Tron's armor flowed into being, black and whole and new. One identity disk lit up with a spinning purr into a ring of blue, one throbbed crimson once and then went black, slipping unnoticed from the hand that had held it for so long. The light blossomed until it was the same pattern as the one stamped so carefully onto an action figure on Sam Flynn's bookshelf. When the reconfiguration was complete, the User and his Program lay half-in, half-out of the surf, with Ram standing awestruck and mute at a respectful distance.
Alan saw his own eyes looking up at him, alight with a joy and wonder more brilliant than all the lights of the Grid. "Location Query Confirmed, Alan-1," Tron said, and then slumped, unconscious but alive, into the arms of his creator.