Disclaimer: I don't own any of these characters—they belong to whoever owns the Tron universe, God bless 'em. Well, I suppose at this point I own Hazel, but she's about it. Oh, and O'Bryan. And now Toby. Hmmm…okay, anyone who shows up in the story who's in the actual movie of Tron, I don't own. That should about cover it.
Author's Note: Slowly but surely. The folks in my writers group aren't letting me let go of this one. Not to mention the fact that I'm loving it. ;)
Dedication: To Steven and Bonnie.
It was two days later that Hazel stood at the locked door to O'Bryan's apartment building. It was a squat two-story building with some ornate flourishes around the entrance. A small lawn hunkered close to the front of the building, neatly cut. The front stairs had that slightly musty, though not unpleasant, smell of older cement. She took a breath and pressed the buzzer for his apartment. There was still no answer. Just like there had been no answer to her phone calls. She pressed the buzzer again.
She had left him at least three phone messages. Now he probably thought she was a stalker. He's the one who came to me, she thought, a little grudgingly. Then a side thought, I hope he's okay.
The possibility that he might not be okay had plagued her since that first phone call at the ungodly hour of almost midnight. She didn't know the man, but he was no spring chicken. Shouldn't he be at home, if not in bed, at that hour?
She pressed the buzzer one more time. Then, after getting no response, she buzzed the manager's apartment.
A woman answered, her voice sounding scratchy through the intercom. "Yeah? Hello?"
Hazel leaned forward toward the speaker. "Um, yes…I'm trying to reach Mr. Thomas O'Bryan-"
"Four-B. Buzz his apartment."
"Yes, yes, I know he's in 4B…but he's not answering. I think something might be wrong."
"No, no I'm not, but he was a friend of my grandfather and I-"
"I can't let you in. Why don't you give him a call?"
"Maam, I did call him. I've been trying to call him, but there's no answer. He seemed…distressed when I last saw him and I-"
"I can't help you. If you're that worried, go call the cops. Goodbye."
The woman hung up. Hazel stood with her hands on her hips, annoyed. Then, she sighed, realizing that it was no good. She turned to walk down the steps just as a young man with blonde hair and too many freckles came up with a bag of groceries in his arms. He walked to the door, punched in a code and swung the door open. He turned and grinned at her. "Going in?"
She smiled back, "Thanks!", and bolted inside behind him.
"I take it old lady Halverson wasn't letting you in."
"Well, it is supposed to be secure."
He shrugged as he walked toward the elevator. "As secure as it can be. You don't look too dangerous. Where you going?"
"I'm trying to get in touch with Thomas O'Bryan."
"Oh, yeah. 4B. He lives down the hall from me. I'm Toby."
They got in the elevator and the young man hit the button for the fourth floor.
"Hi, Toby. I'm Hazel," she said. "Thanks for letting me in. Mr. O'Bryan asked me to call him and then there's been no answer. He was a friend of my grandpa."
Toby glanced at her. "You mean Walter?"
Hazel was surprised. "You knew him?"
Toby hefted the grocery bag as the doors opened to the fourth floor. "Just lately. He was here a lot visiting with Tom. They were working on some computer thing or another, I think."
Hazel smiled, thinking of her grandpa Walt. An original computer geek. Then she missed him again and tears sprang involuntarily to her eyes as she stepped out of the elevator.
"4B is just down there." Toby was pointing to the right. "I'm two doors down this way…hey. You okay?"
She wiped her tears away and nodded. "Sorry. My grandpa…Walter…he died just a few weeks ago."
Toby looked stricken. "You're kidding. I had no idea. I mean, he hadn't been around for a while, but I just thought…boy. I'm sorry to hear that."
"Yeah," Hazel said, regaining her composure. "It's this way?" she asked, indicating to her right.
"Yes. I…do you need any help or anything?"
"No. But thank you. I appreciate you letting me in."
"Well, you didn't look like an axe murderer or anything. Don't prove me wrong," he said with a wink. Then he turned down the hall the other way.
Hazel took a breath and walked down toward 4B. She glanced down the other way just as Toby went into his own apartment and closed the door behind him.
"Okay," she said quietly to herself. She found 4B, straightened her shirt in back and knocked on the door.
The funny thing was…she got an answer. She hadn't expected one. But the door suddenly opened and there was O'Bryan. He looked horrified. "What the hell are you doing here?"
Hazel was taken aback. "I…I'm looking for you," she stammered.
"No, no, no!" he said and slammed the door shut.
She stood there in shock. No one had ever slammed a door in her face, let alone someone who she had only moments before thought was in some kind of danger and who she was only trying to help. She swallowed, stared at the door.
Then it opened again. O'Bryan was pulling on a light jacket and fumbling with his keys and a laptop computer. "Crazy …what were you thinking?" He tried to lock the door, but the keys fell out of his hand as he tried to lock the door and still hold onto the laptop. He sighed deeply, put down the laptop, picked up the keys and commenced locking the door.
Hazel stared at his back. She was having a hard time grasping this situation and she suddenly dearly wished she had never come.
O'Bryan turned and looked at her. "Well, then. Let's get out of here."
"Wait a minute!" Hazel shook her head. "What…why haven't you answered your phone?"
"Not here!" he hissed, quickly picking up the laptop.
The sound of a door opening came from down the hall. "Hey! Tom!" It was Toby. "Everything all right?"
O'Bryan seemed rooted to the floor. "Oh, yes. Fine. This is…a friend of mine."
Toby walked down the hall toward them. "You kiddin'? This is Walt's granddaughter. She must be more than a friend. She just told me about Walt. I'm sorry to hear that."
"Yes," muttered O'Bryan.
"You guys going out for coffee or something?" Toby asked, glancing at Hazel.
"Well, I…" she began.
"We have stuff to talk about," O'Bryan cut in. "It's a bit confidential. Business really."
"Ah," said Toby. "Okay, well, I'll see you later then. It was nice to meet you, Hazel."
"You, too," she said, "Thanks for…"
O'Bryan pushed past them and headed for the elevator. Hazel couldn't understand his strange, impolite behavior. She smiled apologetically at Toby, finishing her thought, "thanks for your help."
"No problem," he said.
She walked quickly back to the elevator, where O'Bryan was holding the door. She entered and he punched the button for the lobby. They were quiet for a moment.
"What-" she began, quietly.
"Not here," he said again, exasperated. "Can you just wait until we're out of the building?"
All Hazel could think was that this situation had better get less annoying soon or she would just write off the camera as a bad dream. She wondered how her grandpa had put up with this. Then she remembered his legendary patience.
O'Bryan led the way out of the elevator, down a hallway and out the back of the building. They threaded their way through the parked cars of the tenants and down an alleyway toward the street.
"My car is out front," Hazel suggested.
O'Bryan paused, hesitating. "No…I think…there's a park just a block away. Let's go there." And he hustled down the alley.
Was the man bi-polar? When he had left her house a few days ago, he was calm and collected, as if relieved of a great burden. But now, he was back to his manic, nervousness. Nevertheless, he was the only one who might have an answer for her about her disappearing camera. She jogged to keep up with him, the dirt and gravel of the alley crunching under her feet.
"I have to tell you what happened."
He slowed his step just a bit when he saw her trying to keep up. He glanced over his shoulder at the way they had come. "Yes…go ahead. Tell me."
"It was my camera. My digital camera. I had attached it to the computer to transfer some photos of my sketches. I was just signing off for the night and it…well, it…"
"Yes?" he glanced at her, still walking.
"It kind of glowed. Bright blue. And then it…I don't know how to describe it. It disintegrated…no. It seemed to break up into pieces, a sort of grid, and then there was this unbelievably bright flash of light. When my vision cleared, the camera was gone."
O'Bryan's steps slowed to a halt. He stood staring at the gravel, sniffed. Then he looked back up. "There's the park. Let's sit on a bench." And he took off.
"But!" Hazel sighed. Damn, he could move fast for an old guy. She took a breath and followed.
O'Bryan was putting his laptop down on the bench as she arrived. He sat down and stared straight ahead. Hazel decided to give him the benefit of the doubt. This was a friend of her grandpa, who she trusted implicitly. She sat and waited for O'Bryan to say something. The fresh, pine air of the park seemed to calm him.
The old man sighed. "I was afraid it was something like that," he finally said.
"Do you…do you understand what it was? What happened?" asked Hazel, suddenly unsure whether or not she really wanted to know.
He looked at her and for the first time, she noticed his eyes were blue. He said, "It's going to take some faith on your part. They've taken your camera as a test, you see."
"Who? Who's taken my camera?"
"They call themselves the Rovers. They are rebelling against the Users. That's us. An old name, but the only one they really know. And from their point of view, quite apt."
Hazel opened her mouth to speak, but found she had no response. She closed her mouth and just watched him.
He gave a small laugh. "I know. It makes no sense. Let me try again. Computers. Your grandfather and others like me worked on computers when they were just beginning to be recognized for their usefulness to everyday people. They were run by programs: written code that told the computer what to do when given certain commands."
Hazel nodded. "I remember the DOS prompt days from junior high back in the 80s. You'd enter 'run' and then the name of the program. And it would run the game, or the typing editor, or whatever you wanted to do."
"Right," agreed O'Bryan, seemingly relieved that she wasn't completely lacking in computer history. "Well, we discovered something back in those same 80s. Walter and some others worked for a company called Encom. That's where they were working on the digitizing technology."
"Digitizing…" Hazel thought back. "That's what grandpa was always talking about…moving things, not just data, through computer networks."
"Like your camera," O'Bryan said, watching her.
"Like my…CAMERA?" Hazel gasped.
O'Bryan shushed her. "Yes, yes…"
Hazel lowered her voice. "My camera was digitized! But how? By whom?"
O'Bryan fixed his gaze on her, swallowed and said, "By the programs."
Hazel blinked. "What programs?"
"The computer programs. The Rovers."
"There's a computer program called 'The Rovers'? That's the digitizing program?"
"There is no digitizing program. The Rovers are computer programs—all kinds of them—who have banded together to take control of our computer networks. All of them."
"I don't understand…are you talking about a computer virus?"
His gaze was electric. "I'm talking about beings. The programs are beings just like you and me. Living in the computers. We wrote them. They exist as surely as you and I."
Hazel looked down, back at O'Bryan, over at a tree. It didn't make any sense. She slowly digested his words and then fed them back. "You're saying that computer programs are alive?"
O'Bryan nodded. "Alive. And out of our control."
It was insane. It couldn't be true. And yet…she believed him. Why? Why did she believe him? He could be insane. Grandpa Walt may not have known his friend was losing it. But he didn't look insane. He only looked…afraid.
"The Rovers watched and waited as we perfected the digitizing technology. That happened several years ago. But it couldn't be done outside of a laboratory setting. Then, a month ago, people started disappearing. My and Walter's friends, the ones who truly understood the technology best. Vanishing. Missing persons. The police have no clues. But Walter and I suspected. And now…your camera…had you been touching it at the moment of digitization…"
She looked at him, horrified. "What?"
"You'd be missing, too."
She was starting to get a headache. "This is crazy! No one will believe us. I barely believe you as it is!"
O'Bryan looked at her furtively. "There's someone who can help. Someone who's been there." He flipped open his laptop and began typing.
"Wait!" Hazel said, now terrified of any technology. "What if they get the laptop?"
O'Bryan shook his head. "I'm connecting wirelessly. Digitizing requires a hard connection of some kind. No, I am quite safe. We need to contact Flynn and this is the fastest way to get word t-"
There was a sudden spark from the laptop's wireless antenna.
The old man paused. "That's odd…"
Then the impossible happened. The laptop sizzled with power and glowed bright blue. An instant later, the glow surrounded O'Bryan. He wasn't even able to cry out before the grid pattern surrounded the laptop and then him.
Hazel jumped up with a cry and stumbled backward, falling onto the grass. Close your eyes! She obeyed her own thought just as the brilliant white flash arced, followed by a resounding crack.
Her ears rang from the sound. Then she heard voices; people running. She squinted her eyes open to see a man and a woman looking down at her.
"Are you all right?" the woman asked, concerned.
They helped her sit up. "Y-yes. I'm…" she glanced at the bench. O'Bryan was gone. The laptop was gone. It was as if he'd never been there.
"Was it lightning?" asked the man.
"It couldn't be," the woman said. "Not a cloud in the sky."
Hazel stood shakily. "I'm all right…I have to leave."
"Please," said the man, taking out his cell phone. "Let us call for some help. You could be hurt and not know it."
Hazel's eyes widened at the sight of the cell phone. "No," she said, backing away. "I…I'm fine. Please…just leave me alone." She turned from them and quickly began walking away from the park. She had to get back to the car. Just get back home.
Glancing up, her eyes fell on a man standing about a block away, down the alley out back of O'Bryan's apartment building. She stopped.
It was Toby. How long had he been standing there? Had he seen everything? O'Bryan had vanished only moments ago…Toby must've seen. He wasn't even staring. He was just watching. Watching her, standing calmly with his hands in his pockets. Almost…smug.
Hazel turned away and walked down a different street. She was no longer safe and she knew it.
She would find her way home. Then she would find Flynn.