ONE

The program officially designated Jef received a cryptic communication via his armglove. This frightened him. He received many messages on his arm, short and sweet like this message, but always crystal clear. Unlike this message.

Jef didn't like surprises. Not in business. A siren flirting with him, that was a pleasant surprise. But in Tron City, business surprises ran to the unpleasant. He liked the routine when it came to business. Routinely, he received intel that in this sector or that quadrant (specific address soon to come) there was a hot deal on flavor codes. Chocolate and cinnamon, garlic and salt — these were his stock-in-trade. He was accustomed to straightforward commerce, brief bursts of data that could not be misconstrued in any way. Failures to communicate wasted time and could be life-threatening.

So Jef didn't do cryptic. Not in business. He devoutly believed in, and religiously practiced, terse clarity in business. He stared at his arm and blinked. Surely he had misunderstood.

ELDER BROTHER WILL SOON ARRIVE GREET HIM WARMLY

That couldn't be right. But the scrolling plaintext did not change.

ELDER BROTHER WILL SOON ARRIVE GREET HIM WARMLY

No way did that have anything to do with the bacon flavor he'd run a search for.

"Shit," Jef moaned, and shoved his jacket sleeve down his arm to cover the glowing letters. That's all he needed, to accidentally intercept a spy-speak code from some half-assed rebel group. Or worse, from a gang. Clu or the local mini-Clu's would never believe he had no idea what it was about. There was no such thing as the presumption of innocence here. Not on the fucking Grid, man. No way.

Jef hastened home to crawl into a hole and pull the hole in after him. If trouble was coming, he meant to avoid it. He felt like the message was chasing after him, hot on his heels with a hellhound's breath. Felt like it was burned into his retinas:

ELDER BROTHER WILL SOON ARRIVE GREET HIM WARMLY

Walking briskly, he turned off his armglove. Like that would do any good. He sped up to a trot. He would have broken into a dead run but for the fucking rain. Fucking Tron City. Fucking place had two modes: gloomy and gloomier.

Fear made time drag like a load of cement. The trip seemed to take ten times longer than it should. He was trembling, and not with effort, by the time he reached the doorstep of home. He shouted as his feet nearly flew out from under him. Thought for an awful stretched-out second he was gonna break his neck. Fuck, he thought as he regained his footing and ducked inside. Fucking fuck. Fuckity fuck. I'm kidding myself. I'm not safe here. Never should have rented this place. Dirt cheap, but labeled FLYNN'S on the front … just begging for trouble, man.

Jef was not one for signs and omens. Life here was tricky enough without finding hidden meaning in every coincidence. However, the first thing he'd done upon leasing this fixer-upper was to plaster a cheap sign over the original one. Then Bear had insisted on blessing the site with a brief prayer. It had to be brief, because that was all Bear could manage. Jef had been relieved that Bear did not invoke the name of Flynn. Maybe Bear couldn't read.

Once safely (ha!) inside, Jef greeted the security program with the usual words: "Yo, Bear, any trouble?" As usual, Jef forced himself to meet the dim gaze and twisted face without flinching. Bear shook his head no. Sometimes Bear talked, sometimes he didn't. He must be feeling uncommunicative right now. Jef did not question him further.

But Bear had picked up on his disquiet. (And here Jef thought he was being Mr. Casual. Ha!) Bear removed himself from the tureen of tastes-like-tomato soup he had been inhaling and went outside to circle the block. Minding his turf. Bear was good at that. Right now, Jef envied Bear his occupation.

Nothing I can do, thought Jef as he nervously paced the dining area. I can't hide. Not safe here — not safe anywhere. Either they'll come after me, or they won't. Whoever the hell 'they' is. Maybe there isn't any 'they'. Shit. If there is a 'they', who's gonna feed Bear?

He heard Bear outside, bellowing, his words carried away by the wind.

"Speak of the devil," Jef sighed. Resigned, he bolted outside to meet his doom, if doom indeed it was. Maybe it was Big Brother, come to visit. Yeah, Big Brother is watching, man!