Kevin stood next to Alan, watching intently as Junior booted up the incredibly complex computer equipment housed in the tiny room of his second floor office. The renovated space which was once a simple coat closet now resembled an elaborate miniature Shiva laser lab, with equipment towers which reached nearly to the ceiling.
While the others watched the younger Dillinger, Clu stood a few feet away in the main portion of Junior's office, glancing around the expansive space. The tension in the silent room was almost a visible mist, though as he thought back over the past hours, things now were considerably less tense than the previous two hours had been...
...after the initial confrontation at the arcade, which in itself was surreal, it had been mutually decided that it was time to confront Junior about his forays into the Grid, to find out how he'd accomplished it, and to find out whether his claims to want to help them were for real. But as they had questioned him, it appeared that Junior was for real. With genuine emotion in his face and voice, the younger Dillinger had looked first at Kevin, then at Alan, then at Roy, and then in a shaky voice had spoken in almost a whisper, his ice-blue eyes glistening with tears. "The Grid...the MCP...he's-...it's-...it's not my father...not anymore. It's just a program, but,...with no form, no soul. Vast. Powerful. Too powerful."
The young man had then shifted in the chair nervously, looking down at the floor furtively as though expecting to be somehow punished for what he'd said. Alan and Kevin had cast wary glances at each other… just what had prompted this radical change of heart in the previously conniving young programmer was unclear, but it was clear that Junior was not only contrite but afraid. Really afraid. That was just about the time when a very concerned Sam had burst through the door after having gotten Alan's phone call, at which point Kevin and Alan had actually had to physically restrain him to keep him from attacking Edward Dillinger Jr. on sight. Even after they'd calmed him, Sam had remained angry and suspicious, bitterness and distrust evident on his features, but Kevin had convinced him to just remain calm and hear the young Dillinger's story.
Once they'd all been able to listen and to rationally discuss things, remaining focused on the fact that saving Tron and retrieving him from the Grid was the foremost combined objective, the next step was to agree to set aside past differences for the moment, and to take a trip to Junior's office at Encom. That would allow the young man to demonstrate fully just what the status quo of the Grid system had now become under the rule of what had once been his father's consciousness. Their excursion to the Encom Tower had been necessary because Kevin had flatly refused to even consider the dangers of reactivating the laser at the arcade or patching his machine into Encom's servers via the web. And so with Quorra, Sam and Roy staying behind to keep watch over the arcade in the event Tron happened to 'rez back there during their transit to Encom, Alan had driven the rest of them to the corporate offices, with Junior in the back seat, and Clu seated across from him, watching the young man's every move in case he tried to bolt. Kevin had ridden in the passenger's seat, and all of them had sat raptly listening to "the rest of the story" from Junior, a story which bordered on more far-fetched science fiction than even the Grid presented - the convoluted almost unbelievable details of what had brought them all, and the Grid, to this point ...
Now they were in Ed Dillinger Junior's office at the Encom Tower.
It had been a total of nearly three hours since Tron had 'rezzed in to the Grid.
Junior now sat at the tiny computer desk in his small lab, his previous unrest having calmed to almost an emotionless demeanor as he sat focused and staring at the strings of code on the monitor screen. Kevin and Alan still watched him from the doorway, and the foremost unspoken question between them all was now whether or not one of them would or should go to the Grid to rescue Tron.
Clu paced slowly back and forth in the office, restless and waiting silently. After a few moments, he stopped pacing and stood looking idly at the bookshelves, suddenly noticing that Junior had a small familiar object sitting next to a stack of books...it was a silver polyhedral which closely resembled the Bit. Walking to the shelf, he retrieved a nearly identical object from his jacket pocket, stared at it, and then looked again at the bit model on the shelf, finally smirking smugly to himself. The bit model belonging to Junior was impressive and clean in its design, but he liked his version of the Bit much better. Because it made noises and could answer 'yes' or 'no'. Just then, he pressed the small plane among its facets and was met with an instant, "ploink-ploink" sound. A 'yes'. And then he grinned, because apparently the Bit agreed with his opinion of it.
At the sound, Kevin eyed Clu with a raised eyebrow, and Clu sheepishly returned the Bit to his jacket pocket, walking over to stand quietly beside Kevin. Seemingly oblivious to the electronic chirping or anything else, Junior still sat analyzing codes. And then he finally spoke, still staring at the monitor screen.
"Okay. That's what I was afraid of. So..."
Then he paused, drawing in a long sigh, and finally turned away from the computer screen to look at Kevin as he continued.
"...so, I'll go get Tron myself, and bring him back."
Both Kevin and Alan stared at him, obvious alarm and reservations on their faces. Junior responded with a sigh, still looking up at Kevin. "Look, it's not a problem. I can do it. But, I'm going to need your help. Both you and Clu, so that if-"
" NO! " Alan interrupted immediately, casting the glare first at Junior, and then at his old friend, who, much to Alan's shock, had seemed actually vaguely curious about the notion.
"You are NOT going back to the Grid, Flynn! Absolutely not! Out of the question!" The older programmer stood with arms crossed, glaring at the young Encom employee.
Junior just cleared his throat, then continued in a soft voice as he looked back at Alan. "That's ... actually not what I meant. What I meant was, I just need his and Clu's guidance while I'm on the Grid. As backup, from here."
That statement prompted puzzled looks from not just Alan, but Kevin and Clu as well. The obvious unvoiced question between them being, how were they expected to be of help - what could any of them possibly do to help from here, especially since the Grid had now become infinitely more complex and treacherous than ever before?
Alan stared at Junior for a few seconds, then with eyes narrowing he finally gave voice to what they were all thinking. "And just how is that supposed to happen, Ed? The Grid isn't even Flynn's system anymore, so aside from the still-pertinent question of 'why should we trust you' ... how can he, or any of us for that matter, give you guidance once you're on the Grid? And IF as you say, it's 'not a problem', then why would you even need our guidance?"
Junior smoothed a hand through his hair, then adjusted his glasses and sat back in the chair, not certain of where to begin with the answer.
"Okay, ... Flynn knows the system intricately as its original creator, and Clu does too, as its admin. The Grid underpinnings are still basically the same as before. The MCP knows my weaknesses and strategies, may try to block me, change things up. But, with backup I could override it, and more easily think on my feet .. .and, ..."
Pausing, Junior looked at the other three men. Clu and Kevin wore questioning looks, but Alan's intense, no-nonsense stare indicated that he still hadn't heard a sufficient answer to any of his questions yet and that he wasn't going to be patient for much longer.
Junior shrugged, launching into the remainder of the rather far-fetched, rambling explanation as calmly as he could. "It's experimental tech, but, before I digitize in, I can try to create a neural link, from here to the Grid, through the computer. Between Kevin, Clu, and, me. And if so then the two of them can guide me."
Alan had thus far stood listening with narrowed eyes and a cynical smirk, but now he uncrossed his arms and interrupted the younger Dillinger as he looked back and forth from him to Kevin with an incredulous expression.
"Oh for crying out loud! That's- ... that's not even possible! Flynn, I told you, he's just playing games!"
Kevin just shook his head, still staring at Junior curiously with a raised eyebrow for several tense moments. Then he narrowed his eyes and glanced at Alan.
"No, I don't think he is, Alan. I think he's being real about this. It's like I told Sam before, ... our worlds are more connected than anyone knows."
Junior just looked at the two of them with a droll expression and then nodded. "Whether or not it will actually work, I don't know. But it's worth a try. Like I said, it's still in development."
"In-...in development?..." Alan paused, shaking his head. Then he just stared at the young man incredulously, the corners of his mouth tugging into a mirthless smile to match his intense glare.
"WHY, ... in God's name, ... have you been developing THIS, ... HERE, ... at Encom, of all pl-"
The older programmer stopped mid-sentence, biting back his words, clenching his jaw and hissing a frustrated sigh, then just shook his head. He closed his eyes, ran a hand across his very tense brow, trailed it down to cover his mouth with the heel of his hand, and then stood silently fuming for a few seconds. Then he finally opened his eyes again, rocked back onto his heels, crossed his arms, and stared back at Junior, continuing in a curt voice as though it were taking all of his reserve to remain calm with the rogue Encom employee.
"You know what? Never mind. I don't want to know why. Not right now. Right now I just want you to do whatever it is you can do, and get my program back. Here. In one piece. Alive. If you can do that, then do it. Please."
Junior just nodded, calmly looking at the older man. With that, Alan turned to lean against the door-facing, and stared at the floor, jaw slowly un-clenching again, cheeks still reddened with the receding flush of anger he was forcing away. After a few more seconds of tense silence, Kevin looked from him to Junior and sighed.
"Alright. So, yeah, tell us what this will involve." He glanced over at Clu, who nodded slowly in agreement.
Alan just continued staring at the floor while Junior launched into the convoluted explanation. As he spoke, the younger Dillinger opened a drawer, retrieving two devices which resembled elaborate headsets with small electrodes attached to them. Looking up again suddenly, Alan frowned in disbelief at the sight - the headsets looked like a combination of a miner's hat and some type of mad scientist's laboratory device. That plus the whole idea in general seemed exorbitantly bizarre and risky to him, and the notion of Junior playing around with such technology under the radar at Encom just incensed him all over again. But one patient look from Kevin wordlessly implored Alan to shelve his anger, and so he did. He simply walked a few feet away into the office and stood listening while Junior continued explaining as concisely as he could as to how this process could be accomplished and what he thought their strategies should be.
Ten minutes later...
Alan stood watching as Kevin was being fitted with one of the headsets. With the contraption on his head, Kevin looked a little like an extra from a B-rated science-fiction film. Alan crossed his arms, and smirked at his old friend.
"Flynn,... just out of curiosity, ... what part of this plan doesn't seem nuts to you?"
Kevin just shook his head, shrugging again with a wry grin. "No more nuts than the Grid is, I guess. Besides, ... you got a better idea, Bradley?"
Alan just stared back at him, because, as a matter of fact, he didn't have a better idea. Finally he rolled his eyes and uncrossed his arms, looking up at the small monitor above the interface desk which showed a wire-frame graph of real time activity. Then the two of them watched as a lighted cursor point spiked through the peaks and valleys which monitored the neural link. Meanwhile Junior kept typing at the keyboard touchscreen, and soon it was Clu's turn to be fitted with a headset. Alan and Kevin watched as the young man secured the electrodes around Clu's forehead. Then after a few more keyboard commands, Junior looked up first at Kevin, then at Clu.
After the initial wave of disorientation and the strange sensation of his hair standing on end, the first thing Kevin noticed was the pain.
Not a pain of the physical, but of the psyche ... a low simmering, dormant pain, pressed far back into the consciousness as though it had been there since childhood, long ignored, minimized, shelved away. But it was there, unmistakeably. And it shocked him. How had he not been aware of it until now?
It took him a few seconds more to center himself, to clear his head, to try to embrace the pain, to rise above it and find out what it was about. And once he did so, the remainder of the mental disorientation scattered and it became very clear that it wasn't even his pain. And of course it wasn't his doppelganger's, the former program who stood next to him in the small room now grasping the edge of the door-facing and staring pensively into space.
No, this pain didn't belong to him or to Clu. It belonged to Edward Dillinger Junior.
Now Kevin stood steadying his breath, his next thoughts settling into compassion.
...my God, how has he lived with this for so long?...
...I wonder, does he even know it's there?...
But if Junior did know the pain was there, he sure didn't show any signs of it. Instead he remained calmly fixated on the monitor screen, typing in commands as coolly as though he did this kind of thing every day. From what Kevin could discern, he was setting up a string of commands which would add parameters to the link and function as some type of firewall.
Kevin watched Junior a moment more, then glanced over at Clu, who was visibly agitated. With jaw clenched, Clu still grasped the edge of the door-frame with a hand which was now white-knuckled from the grip. His other hand wandered to the band of electrodes touching his forehead and temples. He blinked and looked up at Kevin, a mixture of anguish and confusion on his furrowed brow.
"Kevin, … what - ... what IS this?" His face was stern, but his voice almost broke with emotion as he spoke.
Alan stopped pacing, walked to the doorway again, and stared back and forth between them both, alarmed. But Kevin just gave a soft nod, and with a compassionate, knowing look he gazed back at the younger eyes which mirrored his own. Then patting Clu gently on the shoulder, he leaned in closer to him and nodded towards Junior who sat at the computer desk with his back to both of them.
"It's okay, Clu. It's not you. This is kinda' what happens when we remove ourselves from the equation. When we put ourselves in someone else's shoes."
Clu gave a somewhat tense nod of understanding. But hearing his own words as he spoke them, Kevin gave a slight wince, suddenly wanting to chastise himself for using not one but two glib clichés in the same sentence, especially to describe an empathic response to someone's existential pain. Then to his amazement, a second later Clu blandly voiced basically the very same thought with a wry smirk.
"Kevin, … are you aware you just used two cliches in the same sentence?"
Kevin nodded, chuckling softly, and shot back a smirk at Clu. "Yeah. Are you aware you just sorta read my mind?"
Clu's eyes widened somewhat, but then he grinned and quirked his head to the side, bemused. "Nah. Probably just a lucky guess. I do know you pretty well, Kevin."
Kevin crossed his arms and grinned, chuckling. "Yeah, you do, buddy. Still, just to be on the safe side, remind me not to think back to my junior high school days while I've got this gnarly hat on. One glimpse of the teenaged me and you'll be wishin' you looked like somebody way the heck more cool."
This brought a grin to Clu's face, and he relaxed a bit more. Kevin chuckled again, noticing that Junior was still typing commands and wasn't really listening to either of them. But as the younger man typed, Kevin continued to watch him, suddenly realizing his previous awareness of Junior's pain had dissipated completely. With whatever code parameters the young Dillinger was writing, he'd somehow managed to instantly do what it had taken Kevin twenty-one years of Zen meditation to learn to accomplish the old-fashioned way - Junior had either quieted his own psyche or else shielded it from their perception altogether, or both.
At that realization, Kevin mused silently and somewhat sadly, to himself as he adjusted the headset which pressed into his forehead and temples.
Alan still stood glancing back and forth between Clu and Kevin. Then with a raised eyebrow and a skeptical smirk, he looked across at Junior, who sat typing at the keyboard touchscreen. "Okay, Doctor Who,...when do we get to the part where we rescue Tron?"
Junior didn't reply right away, and just then Clu interrupted abruptly, redirecting them slightly. "Dillinger, is the arcade simulation still the entry point for the Grid?"
Still busily typing away at the keys, Junior answered, sounding somewhat distracted. "By default, yes, ... but... since the entry point is shut down at the arcade right now, its probably best to reset it to another sector so I can 'rez in closer to the portal."
At that remark, Kevin raised an eyebrow. "Reset it? That isn't supposed to be possible."
Junior looked up at him. "It wasn't, before. But, we changed it."
Kevin crossed his arms, feeling somewhat territorial about what was once his Grid. He nodded and gave a slightly-pained smirk. "I see."
Clu interjected again just then, looking first at the clock on the wall, and then at Kevin. "He'd be near the portal by now, wouldn't he? Unless..."
His voice trailing off, Clu's brow knotted with the sudden worries which had accumulated in his thoughts. Kevin immediately picked up on the thoughts and gave Clu a reassuring nod. "No, man, ... no, he's okay. Tron's a fighter. He'll make it. "
Kevin paused, his own brow knotting with worry. Alan glanced at him, and although he couldn't read his friend's thoughts, a lifetime of knowing Kevin Flynn so very well enabled him to know just what his and Clu's worried expressions meant. The older programmer looked at Junior with concern.
"Tron's a User now. If he's reached the portal, he should have been able to leave the Grid."
Junior shook his head. "Theoretically yes, but, in this case no. That's what I was about to explain to you before, when I told you I wanted you to function as backup, ... because he's-"
Pausing, Junior caught himself and re-phrased, "... Master Control, is changing things around in response to everything that happens. Upping the ante. Such as, Tron 'rezzed into the Grid, and now the portal isn't responding to Tron's disk as a User. Apparently Tron's permissions have been changed. He's made it to the portal. He just can't get through."
Kevin frowned and was about to ask how Junior knew that, but just then Alan's brows dipped into a frown again as he spoke.
"Okay then, … so what happens if you get onto the Grid, find Tron, and then the MCP changes things up again or closes the portal and neither one of you can get back out? What about that?"
Junior finished typing a set of commands, and the familiar aperture setup splayed across the monitor screen. He shook his head again, still as calm as ever.
"Not possible. Long story, but, my disk has irrevocable Creator permissions. And if the MCP tries closing the portal, Flynn can reverse that from right here at this console and open a portal manually. That's why I wanted to link up, to communicate with each other. Because to get me and Tron out of there, depending on what else he tries, you might end up having to fight him step by step. Basically a chess game."
Kevin raised an eyebrow, looking at Alan, and then Clu, and then back at Junior. "Now that we can do."
The laser sequence was booting up, and Junior stood up from the chair, offering it to Flynn. "Well, in that case, ... ready to get started?"
Kevin nodded, then cast the younger Dillinger a stern look. "Yeah. But don't go pulling something stupid and getting yourself stuck there. I don't wanna' have to come in after you..." He paused, nodding towards Alan, "...and he isn't gonna' let me do that anyway."
"Yes, I get that. But don't worry, I'll be fine." Junior smirked at the older programmer, then looked back at Kevin as he stood up and started towards the doorway. "I'm just going to grab a chair so you and Clu can sit while I'm on the Grid. It may take awhile."
A few more seconds and the young man had brought in one of the guest chairs from his office, positioning it in the small space next to the desk chair where Kevin now sat. As Clu settled into the chair, Junior turned and walked to the far end of the small room, placing his feet within the small square which was marked on the floor with tape. He crossed his arms, adjusted his glasses, brushed the hair back from his forehead and gave a small nod, waiting rather nonchalantly.
Kevin looked at Edward Dillinger Junior for a moment, suddenly gripped by the surreal ironies of it all, not the least of which being that the son of his former nemesis was about to 'rez into the Grid to save his friend Tron's life. But what was more, ... it was clear that Ed Dillinger Junior had become quite a veteran at 'rezzing in to the Grid, and certainly appeared to be more calm and fearless about the process than he himself had been so many years ago. Back in the way-back, even after having 'rezzed in to the Grid many times, even after penning The Digital Frontier, and even after standing at a podium and telling a massive stadium audience that "in there, is our future, … inwardly Kevin had still always had that same flutter of nervous energy right before each digitization, a small wave of preternatural reticence borne of his respect for something so much more vast and complex than he or his generation had ever fathomed before. And now, watching how casually Junior stood before the laser, he couldn't help but marvel at yet another difference between the then and the now - the youth of today were already aware that "in there is our future", and they were unafraid to meet it, to forward into it. Somehow, after everything which had happened on the Grid, all the mistakes and all the years in exile, this made Kevin Flynn smile to think that in some small way he really had been a pioneer of this new frontier, and had paved the way for the next generation to forward it fearlessly.
Kevin snapped out of the nostalgic thoughts, and looked back at the monitor, and sat leaning over the console, which not surprisingly looked just like his own at the arcade. With a few keyboard commands he had initiated the aperture sequence, then the familiar question appeared next to the blinking cursor onscreen. He looked across at Junior, who simply nodded again, so Kevin typed a "Y".
A second later, the brilliant beam of light scanned Ed Dillinger's slight, lanky form into the Grid, leaving no trace of him in the tiny renovated lab.
Forty-five minutes later...
Kevin and Clu sat in the tiny room next to the computer desk, each wearing the headsets, each with eyes closed and occasionally verbalizing whatever they were "visualizing" as Junior experienced it on the Grid. Clu having followed Kevin's suggestion of joining in a semi-meditative state so they could more effectively concentrate and track Junior's movements, the two of them were actively involved with navigating Junior.
Alan stood at the doorway watching the entire process. At first it had seemed like Kevin and Clu were simply playing some really odd game of word-association with their eyes closed, but then after a while things had become very intense, with each of them half-shouting input as they'd helped Junior negotiate through what sounded like a challenging and deadly light-jet chase over the Sea of Simulation. That was when Alan knew this was indeed for real, and that the link was apparently working. From there he'd observed more intently while they continued the treacherous navigation, stepping in to watch more closely as Kevin reached to the interface console, entered some code quickly and then returned to sit back in the chair, closing his eyes once more. At that point Alan knew the chess game was indeed on - his longtime friend and the former Grid Creator had just had to do what he did best - to think on the fly, writing code in order to undo whatever the Master Control Program had been doing to try to block them.
A few more minutes passed, and Alan continued observing the proceedings, which for the most part was basically just standing there watching as Kevin and Clu sat frowning with closed eyes, each of them calling out random, frantic ideas here and there as they tried to help Junior rescue Tron from the Grid.
Apparently Junior and Tron had in fact made it to the portal, but were being repeatedly intercepted, and the suspense of it was starting to fray Alan at the seams. Because for him this wasn't just a case of waiting on the sidelines - it was infuriatingly-tense waiting on the sidelines with someone's life at stake, that someone being Tron. And that, coupled with a looming, maddening sense of powerlessness and potential defeat every time the MCP blocked progress, had Alan feeling more and more unsettled beneath what was left of his characteristically stoic exterior. As he thought about it, this process was something akin to the stress of standing by and waiting during childbirth, but this stress was far worse than waiting for the birth of his son had been all those years ago, even considering Lora's twenty-four hours of labor - Jet Bradley had taken his sweet time arriving, and Alan had worried himself nearly sick just as any father would, but back then there hadn't had been some maniacal, invisible, pervasive force trying its best to keep his child from being born.
Finally after a few more moments, Alan decided he couldn't just stand still any longer, because he was about to go out of his skin. He'd made it about three steps into the main portion of the office and was about to start pacing nervously across the floor when Clu's sudden loud voice yelled out, startling him.
Alan jumped and whirled around again to see Clu sitting, eyes still closed, bellowing as though he were calling out to Kevin from fifty feet away over strong winds, not from a chair less than a foot across from him in a tiny office.
"KEVIN, ARE YOU SURE?"
Somehow unfazed by the outburst, Kevin answered softly. "Shh, ...Clu,... 'don't have to yell, buddy, I'm right here. But yeah, I'm sure. Remember the dream?"
With eyes closed, Clu nodded wordlessly. Alan looked over at Kevin, who now sat in the chair with eyes closed and his arms were outstretched. In the chair next to Kevin, Clu mirrored the gesture. Walking closer, Alan stared at them both ... until now, the tactical moves they'd been narrating made sense, but this certainly didn't. He stopped to stand right beside Kevin's chair, and stood staring back and forth between the two of them, watching as both Kevin and Clu lurched forward in their chairs, their eyes still closed in deep concentration and their arms reaching toward each other.
Suddenly, Clu's eyes flew open, his face the picture of complete unmitigated terror. "NO! I can't, Kevin! I can't go through this again! I can't! Stop this! Please stop this!"
And with that, Clu was yanking the headset from his head, shaking and stumbling as he stood up from the chair.
"Clu,... man,... hang on...it's okay,...just hang on,...need your help with this, buddy..." Kevin's voice was still very calm, so focused it was almost trance-like, and he didn't open his eyes.
Clu looked over at Alan, his face full of anguish as he tried to speak but his voice was a panicked whisper . Tears flooded his eyes and he shook his head, trying to choke out the words through a clenched jaw. "I'm... sorry-... I can't-"
Alan jumped into action.
Placing a hand on Clu's shoulder, he nodded and reached to remove the headset from his frantic grasp, then he gently moved the younger man aside, quickly taking his place in the chair. He positioned the headset onto his own head and locked eyes with Clu, hoping something in his glance was reassuring, though he had no idea what he was about to step into.
What he stepped into, was like experiencing the beginnings of an atomic explosion, a full panoramic assault of the senses from the moment he shut his eyes ... he sat watching as Kevin's consciousness – thoughts, emotions, feelings, memories, an entire life's worth of them - all replayed impossibly fast and then splintered into millions of tiny bits, spreading out in a thunderous tidal wave of energy which buffeted past him in a blast of the most intense white light imaginable.
As everything Kevin Flynn had once been simply disintegrated into both nothingness and everything all at once right before his eyes, Alan Bradley felt like he was disintegrating right along with him. Trying to avoid panic, he kept his eyes shut, reaching out and grabbing hold of Kevin's outstretched arms, forcing his own mind to quickly follow through to what might be a logical conclusion in an illogical setting ... this was only a simulation, not reality...the chair he was sitting in was the reality, Flynn's arms in his shaking grasp were the reality...this horrifying vision he was seeing was not...it was only a simulation, a reliving of what had apparently been the reintegration, the force of which had temporarily caused complete and unmitigated disarray in the Grid. And so, he reasoned, apparently Kevin was trying to deliberately create a psychic disturbance by re-enacting the reintegration mentally with Clu, or at least recreating its intensity, in order to distract the Master Control Program just long enough for Tron and Junior to get safely through the portal without interference.
Focusing on that theory as best he could while also trying to force down the surge of panic and anguish which was rising in his throat, Alan kept his eyes tightly shut and even forgot to breathe for a moment, hoping this would be over before he passed out from shock.
And then all of a sudden, it worked.
A brilliant flash of light filled the tiny laser lab, and Alan opened his eyes, gasping for breath as he let go of Kevin's arms and stood up from the chair, nearly falling backward over it to make way for the tangle of limbs now on the floor at his feet.
"Holy-freakin-cr-" Kevin stopped himself mid-sentence as his eyes flew open just in time to see Alan looking at him equally as panicked, and Clu standing beside him shaking like a leaf with tears in his eyes.
Still completely dumbstruck at having mentally experienced the process of Kevin's coding being blown apart piece by piece and obliterated at the speed of light, Alan removed the headset and stared at his old friend in disbelief like he'd come back from the dead. Because actually, he had. Finally he managed to find words.
"...Are you... okay?"
Kevin answered him somewhat breathlessly, his chest still heaving. "...Yeah."
Alan continued to gape at him in astonishment, catching his own breath, and then he finally blurted out the words. "Jeez, Flynn! THAT'S what you and Clu went through? And, ... you somehow survived it?"
Kevin nodded, taking in a deep breath of air and exhaling more slowly. Clu looked at Alan and nodded as well, trying to regain his composure, blinking rapidly and scrubbing his hand across his cheek to swipe away the tracks of tears which had escaped his eyes.
"Well. Reliving it with you was certainly a delight ..." Alan paused, drawing in a long breath and then exhaling as he smirked, shaking his head. "Looks like I picked the wrong week to stop sniffing glue."
A couple of seconds passed, then Kevin spluttered with laughter, grinning. Leave it to Alan Bradley to unearth a quote from 'Airplane' at a time like this. And it worked, dissolving Kevin into incredulous, giddy, tension-relieving giggles, though Alan was still too addled to do much more than chuckle along somewhat nervously.
After a few seconds the two of them suddenly looked down to see Tron sitting on the floor below their chairs blinking up at them, eyes still adjusting to the bright fluorescent lighting and struggling for focus without his glasses. Next to him sat Junior, trying to extricate his feet from where they were entwined with Tron's and with the chair legs.
Alan lurched forward, reaching to his former program and helping him to his feet. "Tron! Boy am I glad to see you! Are you alright?"
Tron nodded, blinking in the direction of a very blurry Alan's face. Flooded with relief and smiling, Alan gathered him into a tight embrace. When they pulled apart, Kevin patted Tron's back.
"Good to see you, buddy. Glad you're okay. You sure gave us a scare."
Clu didn't speak, but wrapped his arm around Tron's shoulders protectively, guiding him from the tiny room into the larger office as Alan followed on the other side of them.
Just then, Junior's quiet voice spoke from where he still sat crumpled in a heap on the floor between the two chairs. "Don't feel like you have to help me up or anything, guys."
Kevin turned around suddenly, then reached a hand to the young man, who took it and slowly leveraged himself to stand. As the younger Dillinger dusted himself off, the former Grid Creator smiled and looked at the young man, reaching out his hand again, this time for a handshake.
"Thanks, man. You did it. You saved him."
Somewhat tentatively, Junior nodded and returned the handshake, and then nervously, almost shyly, he turned to the desktop to shut down the computer equipment. Kevin took off the headset and moved out of the way, letting Junior take the seat. Then he stepped out of the tiny room and joined Alan, Clu and Tron in the office.
Alan was leaning back against the wall, trying his best to de-stress from what he'd just experienced. Tron stood beside him, still squinting, blinking and looking around the room trying to see clearly. After a moment of watching his former program, Alan grinned, removed his own glasses, handed them over to Tron, and then leaned his head back against the wall again, this time closing his eyes.
Tron put the glasses on, then smiled proudly back at his User. "Thank you, Alan One- … um,...Alan."
Without even opening his eyes, Alan gave another grin and nodded. He knew the 'thank you' wasn't just for the glasses. "Mm-hm. No problem."
Clu looked over as Kevin approached, his face still somewhat ashen and definitely apologetic. "I'm sorry, Kevin, ... I'm sorry I abandoned the plan ... I just couldn't- ... couldn't go through that … not again. It was- ... it was horrible."
But Kevin just smiled sympathetically, putting his arm around his young doppelganger. "I know, buddy. I know. And I'm sorry I put you through it. But you did just fine, and, it worked. You okay?"
Clu nodded, brow still furrowed and the tension still leaving him slowly. After a few more seconds, he spoke again, looking at Kevin. "So,...what do we do now?"
Kevin sighed, eyes widening as he exhaled, and he glanced across at the phone on Junior's desk. Patting Clu on the back, he took a step towards the desk, running a hand through disheveled hair and trying to order his thoughts. "Well, ... a lot. First, 'probably need to let Sam and Quorra know Tron's okay, that we're all okay,...and-"
He paused, turning to look at Junior who was emerging from the tiny room and walking wearily towards the couch. Kevin pointed at the phone. "...hey, mind if I call them from here?"
Junior nodded his permission and waved a hand, then flopped down onto the couch, seeming a bit exhausted. Kevin walked towards the desk, and continued answering Clu's question.
"...yeah,... so there's that. Then when Sam and Q get here, maybe dinner. Then after that, … guess we all sit down, start figuring out how to save the Grid, maybe get some rest somewhere along in there, too ... and, ..."
Kevin's voice trailed off as he wrestled with the cord on the receiver to untangle it, then he stood pressing random buttons until one of them accessed an outside line and a dial tone. Pausing before he dialed his son's number, Kevin looked up from the phone, and grinned at Clu.
"... then after that, ... at some point, 'guess you and me oughtta' get started figuring out how to change the world together, buddy. At least, ... figuring out how to change the things we can."
Clu grinned back at his Creator. "That sounds like a plan."
_End of line.