Title: "Afterimage"

Author: Allronix

Rating: PG

Summary: F-Con's plans have been halted, but it's only the first shot in a greater war. And it might hold the key to finding Flynn...

Note: Part of the "Endgame" fan-verse (2.0/Legacy cross), which assumes Tron 2.0 took place March 2011, seven months prior to Legacy. Other stories of this universe are "Up and Apart" and "Retrograde"


Alan went through the motions like he did on other nights – dim the lights, turn off the computer, a measure of scotch on the rocks in a crystal glass. He sat in his favorite chair, propped his feet up on the ottoman, and looked over the Los Angeles landscape. The familiar rituals were meant to try and settle his nerves, but they didn't tonight. There was too much on his mind and he wasn't sure how much he should attempt to understand.

Neon and darkness didn't help.

Eight hours ago, it had been just one more workday. Looking back on it, it had been selfish of him to angle for that Level Six position without talking to Jet first, and he couldn't blame his son for wanting to opt out of the corporate ladder. He worried about the future the boys would have, and the worry came out in all the wrong ways, especially when it came to Jet. It's not like he could reach Sam anymore...

It all went to hell in the space of five minutes, and it was over five hours later.

Phone calls had been made, assurances had been sent out. A press statement would be dispatched tomorrow. They'd already spoken to the police and lied through their teeth in the process. Alan had been through many of these things before before, so he could at least tell Jet what to expect.

The ice clanked around in his glass. Mackey and the board gave him a useless title, a token budget, and busywork, hoping he would get the hint and take early retirement. Alan saw right through it, and he wasn't going to give the smug bastards the satisfaction. They'd forced Roy out the door, but Alan knew too many dirty secrets for the board to risk it. Still, he was getting a little too old and tired to keep holding the line, especially since he was holding it alone. F-Con's own greed and stupidity stopped the takeover, but Encom was still a company coasting along on past successes. They dodged a bullet. It wouldn't be the last.

Instead of hanging around the office uselessly or contenting himself with the meaningless tasks sent his direction, Alan went back to programming and came up with Ma3a, the finest work of artificial intelligence since the Master Control Program. She was designed as a benign version of the MCP, compiled from what he could learn from the twisted code it left behind when it crashed, albeit with massive amounts of safeguards. There were...other aspects of Ma3a, aspects he wanted to contemplate even less after seeing her "in person."

Unfortunately, there wasn't a way not to think about it; being forced into the laser's path, the bright sickly green glow of the corrupted server, twisted like an atomic-blighted landscape, Thorne's agonized cries as he seemed to be eaten from the inside, the gigantic server crashing down around their ears, shaking like it was in the middle of "the Big One," watching Jet wielding some kind of disk weapon, expertly cutting through a small army with the efficiency of a hardened fighter, trying to mask the fear in his eyes...

He swallowed the scotch, letting it burn through his chest.

He wanted to believe the version of events he gave to the police; Crown, Popoff, Baza, and two hired thugs kidnapped him and locked him in a storage closet in order to intimidate him into voting for the company's sale. From there, he tried to get out, only for them to waylay him and knock him unconscious while Jet and Ma3a turned the building's security systems on the offending F-Con personnel. After that, the F-Con executives and mercenaries tried to digitize themselves only to be killed by a technology that never developed quite right. The "Datawraith" mercenaries who were kicked off the system died within hours of being forcibly sent back to analog. Yet another dozen Datawraiths were missing, presumed dead.

I hope Jet doesn't realize he had to take lives today. It was all the more reason to try and forget it happened at all.

Putting the glass to the side, Alan got up and pulled his copy of The Digital Frontier off the shelf. Despite it being hardcover, it was dog-eared and had dozens of notes scribbled in the margins. In light of what he saw today, he both needed to re-read the book and dreaded the new insights it might provide. He opened a page at random.

From old stories about leprechauns and fairies to Alice's Adventures through the Looking Glass, humanity has always wondered if there are more layers to reality than the world they take for granted. While the modern computer was designed primarily as a more efficient way to hurl missiles, it has evolved into what could be the most revolutionary invention created by man. Computer simulations and the worlds we have designed inside the machine – for entertainment, communication, disaster planning – have placed our own world in a hall of mirrors. Eventually, the mirrors will look back at us. What are we going to show them?

"At this rate? Nothing good," Alan grumbled.

Gibbs was dead, Roy forced out. Lora's accident left her so sick that there'd already been two close calls, and they were talking about hospice. God knew what happened to Flynn...When did it all begin to crumble? When did the wonder stop and all the fear begin? Or were those 'better days' just another illusion?

A hand on his shoulder snapped him back to the present. "Pop?"

"I'm all right, Jet. Don't worry."

"The worlds look the same from here," Jet said, casting a glance out the window. "The darkness, the color, the shapes..."

"I was thinking that, too."

"Digital Frontier. Funny, I was about to pull up that book on my Kindle. I'm almost scared to read it."

"Why?" He suspected the answer, however.

Jet seemed to withdraw into his shell. Any second, he would toss off some irreverent line to try and change the subject. Any further attempt to figure out what was on his mind would just make the kid lock down harder, ending up with his blood pressure hitting low orbit and Jet storming off.

Instead, Jet's eyes fixed on the distant lights. "This is gonna sound really strange, but I kept sane by reading the emails I could find. Most of it was junk, but some of it was really old email. Like email about stuff Encom was working on back in the 80's..." He seemed to be weighing the wisdom of speaking further before finally coming out and saying it. "I know what we had to tell everyone else, but it was real, Pop. It was just like the bedtime stories Uncle Kevin told Sam and me when we were kids. Programs with human faces, energy pools, the Game Grid...even the Recognizers were exactly like he described. There was no way he was making all of that up."

"I'm not sure what I think anymore," Alan admitted.

Jet took off his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose. "Tell me about him, Pop. I know the legend, the books, the guy who set up my first computer...there's only so much you understand when you're seven. What was he really like?"

Alan closed the book, looking at its fading cover. "He was...visionary, brilliant. The legends are understating it, Jet. They don't go into a quarter of the stunts that were pulled after-hours. I've never known anyone that could channel all that intelligence and charisma. He was a genuinely caring and generous man – easy to love, impossible to hate when you were in the same room with him. To him and Gibbs, Encom was never about the money. It was about innovation, pushing the boundaries of what technology could accomplish for the human condition. Profit was one of those happy accidents."

"There's a 'but' in there, Pop," Jet said.

"There is. The problem with Kevin Flynn was that he always had some kind of mask in place. It got progressively worse after Jordan passed away, until all you saw was the persona. Only the very, very lucky could catch a glimpse of the man. Your mother and I thought we were among the fortunate few who did..." He reached in his jacket pocket, pulled out the archaic beeper, and set it on the table. "Even then, who knows?"

"What's with the pager? I've seen you carry it, but I never had the guts to ask why."

Alan's eyes narrowed. "Not a word of this goes to Sam – not yet, anyway."

"We're not speaking to each other." Jet hung his head. "He...wasn't happy about me taking the job at Encom. We had an argument and haven't spoken since."

Alan suspected that wasn't the whole truth. The dynamic with the "boys" could sometimes be a creepy echo of his partnership with Flynn, complete with its own intrigue and hazards. It was another reason to stay vigilant. The last thing he wanted was for Jet to be caught holding an old cell phone, waiting for a call from Sam that would never come.

"We reported Flynn missing forty-eight hours after he was last seen. Between the time he vanished and when the police showed up, someone ransacked the office he kept at the arcade. They stole his computer, they'd gone through his files. They even emptied the kitchen cabinets to try and find any floppy disks or paperwork. That's why the police suspected homicide, even when the press didn't. The pager was the one thing the thieves didn't get, and only because he trusted it with me the night before he disappeared."

"One of the emails I read on the F-Con server was from their CEO. He said he had been planning the takeover for over twenty years. You think F-Con had Uncle Kevin killed?"

"He wouldn't have abandoned Sam, not voluntarily. I'd stake my life on him meeting with foul play. It's just the circumstances that we can't be sure of."

Jet looked at the pager for a long time. "He wouldn't have abandoned you and mom, either."

"We saw an amazing demonstration today about how far some people are willing to go for power, Jet. Flynn also had all the diplomacy of a nuclear bomb if you crossed him. Between the two..."

"That's a less fantastic reason than what I'd been thinking, but it makes sense. "

"What do you think happened?"

"There isn't any question about it in my mind – he's in the computer world. He got in somehow, and couldn't get back out."

"If that were the case, he'd have ended up like Thorne – or worse."

"Not if he cracked those algorithms on his own. Pop, think about it. Would you put it past him to do that?"

"There is very little I'd put past Flynn if he set his mind to it," Alan said.

Jet looked out over the landscape and shuddered. "Even if he did, though...anything could have finished him – a miscalculated jump, a corrupted hard drive, light-cycle crash, some countermeasure program. He probably died there – alone."

Jet had a point. It would also explain some of the things Flynn was saying before he vanished. The computer world was also dangerous and inherently hostile. The odds were extremely slim that Flynn survived for a few hours, much less two decades. False hope was something he could not afford, not when he'd been living on a steady diet of disappointment.

Still...

"Jet, there is very little I'd put past Flynn. That's all I'll say about it. Tomorrow's going to be a long day. The police will want more statements and the press is going to get involved." Jet was about to stammer out something, but Alan just smiled tiredly at him. "There's an old T-shirt and sweatpants in the dryer. Take the guest room tonight. Indulge me. I almost lost you a dozen times today, and it would be a comfort to know you're here."

"I was about to ask if I could crash here. I...I don't want to be alone, y'know?"

Alan got up from the chair and put his hands on Jet's shoulders for a brief second before deciding that words weren't going to work. He pulled Jet into a long hug, rubbing his son's back like he had after so many nightmares. "I love you, Jet, and I'm proud of you. Whatever else happens, know that. Get some sleep. We'll talk more in the morning."

He felt Jet nod and break the hug before opening the door leading to the washroom. Alan picked up the pager and looked over a landscape that would look the same in digital or analog.

Jet could be right. If anyone cracked the puzzle, it would have been Flynn, and it would explain the maniacal behavior he exhibited the night before he vanished. If F-Con had really been planning their takeover for twenty years, then it certainly made them suspects in Flynn's disappearance. They proved today that kidnapping and murder were not outside their scope.

And while they never saw the face of the F-Con CEO, Alan certainly recognized the voice. If there was anyone in the universe with an axe to grind against Encom and Flynn...

Yes, the world he and Jet glimpsed was the stuff of nightmares. Yes, it would be nearly impossible for anyone to survive there for long without some hostile creature, anti-virus, reformat, disk crash, or other disaster killing them. However, if anyone could master those and survive, it was Flynn.

Time to stop grieving and fight back.

Alan waited until Jet had gone upstairs and turned on the shower before pulling out a second cell phone from a junk drawer – an outdated, prepaid heap with no caller ID. Typing in a number he knew by heart, he placed the call. It routed to the unlisted voice mail box.

"Roy...Meet me at Griffith Park Wednesday. I have a lead."

He contemplated telling Jet about the secrets he was keeping, all the rumors that had a grain of truth. No, his son had been through enough, and what Jet didn't know, he couldn't be blackmailed with.

"You started the fight, Dillinger. But I'm finishing it."