FIVE

After all that rushing around and craziness, the Dude ended up cooling his heels at the hole-in-the-wall formerly owned by Hype. Her sister Gaia was now proprietress of The Short Circuit. Out of love for Hype, and for useful data, Gaia provided him drinks at cost, but the Dude did not presume further than that. So when he got another text message on his armglove, he left the bar and paid for a crypto booth. He hoped nobody had seen how he'd jumped at the incoming message. Clu did not like jumpiness. The Dude hoped to hell that the message had something to do with bacon flavor.

Ed the MP3 arrived for his, her or its gig. Five cycles on the Grid, and the Dude had yet to get used to MP3s. They seemed to be small men, but he wasn't sure what they were exactly under the full-body adornment. At least they were humanoid. The Dude had heard rumors about the creatures in the Sea of Simulation. He'd heard that some were overtly hostile. Some were friendly. Very friendly. They would love you to death. As in, fuck you to death. According to some of the stories, at least you'd die smiling!

Was there anything to the wild tales of the Sea? The Dude had yet to find out. This irked him. He had been forced into the study of urban legends. It had become part of his job, when he most unexpectedly found himself the Duke of the Drunks. When rumors ran amok, he needed to know what they were about, in case the actual facts posed a threat to his people. What did these stories mean? What fears and desires did they represent?

The Dude thought it was all bullshit. The Sea was as dead as a door-nail, as Dickens would say. But people told and re-told those crazy stories for some reason. Some crazy reason … awww, fuck it. He was putting off more pressing work. Remiss in his royal duties, man.

He read his armglove and was surprised by his own relief. Fuckin' A! Not another cryptic message. It was just enthusiastic: I LOVE YOUR WORK! PLEASE WRITE MORE! SO NEW AND REFRESHING!

The Dude thought this over. I mean, exclamation marks? It sounded more like a fan letter than a flavor feedback. Maybe someone had got a really big kick out of the chocolate-chip milkshake. He wrote back: THANKS PROGRAM SEND CODE FOR MINT AND I WILL BE HAPPY TO COMPLY

CERTAINLY! WILL ALSO SEND APPLE!

What I need is Steve Jobs, man. I need security, decryption … don't need any apple flavor. ALREADY IN STOCK

I HAVE GRANNY SMITH! BETTER FOR BAKED GOODS

Okay. Like the Dude was gonna do any baking. HAVE GREATER NEED FOR HERBS AND SPICES I.E. DILL CUMIN OREGANO

The Dude almost felt her deflated eagerness in her reply: WILL DO RESEARCH

Somehow the Dude was convinced that his fan was a female. A cute one. YOU HAVE A NAME?

CALL ME Q

OK Q CALL ME DUDE

OK DUDE I MUST GO

The Dude studied his non-glowing sleeve with distinct disappointment. Cutie-Q had got in a hurry to end the conversation. The armglove lit up again, and he grinned widely. Yeah, talk to me, Cutie-Q! We'll discuss herbs, spices, Colonel Sanders …

His grin froze into a sickly grimace. He could feel the blood drain from his face. Shit. Oh shit. It was from Castor. Who allegedly was tight with Clu these days.

DARLING BOY IT'S BEEN FAR TOO LONG

Not long enough, man. Not nearly fucking long enough. As if the Dude could reply with anything close to that sentiment! Shit. He had never censored his speech before coming to the Grid. Never. He'd always said what he thought, and the devil take the hindermost. Well, he sure as shit censored his speech now. The consequences of the least defiance were too terrible to risk free speech. The Dude even found himself censoring his thoughts so that no doubleplusungood words ever escaped his lips unwitting.

I'm turning into a slave. I'm turning myself into a slave. I don't dare be free, even in my own head. Thanks a lot, Mister Kevin fucking Flynn. The fucking User.

Many rumors of The User swirled about Tron City. Many were improbable or contradictory. Flynn had returned to the User world and was alive and well there. No, he had died there. No, he had died here. Death by murder, suicide, accident. Convenient accident. He had been repurposed. He was hiding out somewhere on the fringes of the paradise he had created.

The Dude hoped that The User was alive and well and hiding out. He really did. It was his fondest, most secret hope. The Dude had never in his life deliberately hurt anybody. But if he ever ran across Kevin fucking Flynn, he was going to beat the absolute living hell out of the shit-for-brains. Even if that action did please Clu … He fought back a shudder. God. Jesus. Whoever … What am I becoming?

The Dude self-diagnosed that he was on the verge of a fear jag. It felt like the crying jags he'd suffered after Walter was … after Walter. Only fear felt even worse than grief, which was saying something. It was like his bones were crumbling. Gotta get a grip, man. Can't fall apart. People are fucking counting on me. On me, of all people.

Ironically, Walter had taught the Dude a fear-handling technique. Thanks, my friend. The Dude turned off his armglove and cranked up the crypto booth to eleven. Ed the MP3 looked over with what was probably curiosity. The Dude told himself not to worry about it. He sat at still as possible and looked at his gloved hands resting on the table before him. He thought of all the hate and fear and anger as a sickly green-yellow virus. The virus bounced around inside him and scrubbed everything clean. Like a fucking laxative or something. Let go of the bad shit, man.

The Dude visualized the sickly green-yellow inside him slowly turning blue-white. Palest turquoise. The color of his circuits. Don't push it. No hurry. Breathe slow and deep. No hurry.

Time stood still. After however long it took for the conversion to complete itself, the Dude touched his fingertips together and watched them glow. Good. He spread his hands and smiled gently at the arcing light between them. The same blue-white as his circuits. Yeah, it was good now.

It wasn't mastery of the bad stuff inside him. It was acceptance. Since coming to the Grid, the Dude had got better acquainted than he ever cared to with the Dark Side. His Dark Side. I mean, we all have bad painful shit deep down inside, I always knew that, but knowing it and feeling it are two different things. Facing it …

We all have to face it, man. Especially on the fucking Grid. "Forget it, Jake," he murmured to himself. "It's Chinatown."

Ed the MP3 was still looking at him. The Dude wondered if he, she or it was an informant, and if so, for whom. Getting paranoid, man. The Dude chuckled to himself. In Tron City, a little paranoia was a healthy adjustment. He checked his internal chronometer and decided to exit the crypto booth. It was about ready to kick in another charge for the extra decryption. Time for a drink. He was done pulling himself together.

He went to the bar and got his usual at-cost faux-Caucasian. Gaia eyed him. "You okay, Dude?" Her lovely face was identical to Hype's, but she wasn't Hype. The Dude didn't trust her, not totally. Not like he did Hype. "Work's getting to me, man. Nothing a little energy won't cure."

He savored his beverage in slow sips. Savoring was a form of meditation, in the Dude's considered opinion. He felt good. He felt fresh and sharp. Light, almost weightless. Maybe it was just euphoria. Maybe it wasn't. The laws of physics still applied on the Grid, but as a User … well, a digitized User … he could bend those laws to the breaking point. He just had to be careful about it. Be discreet. Because his people needed him.

He raised his glass in a mocking toast to himself. All hail the Dude, the Duke of the Drunks! Long live me, man!

The Dude felt almost giddy. His people. The poor slobs needed him. That's cool. Nothing he could do about it anyway. It was what it was. And it was good. It gave his life meaning. There was good on the Grid. There was bad, but there was also good.

He thought of his fan Cutie-Q. No drunk she! The Dude now was certain that she was a she, and that she was sweet and smart. And cute. Don't forget cute.

Cutie-Q was good. She had her head together. He would continue their correspondence. He'd probably never lay eyes on her, but being pan-pals was good.

Speaking of correspondence … He began to mentally compose a reply to Castor. A carefully casual reply. He wondered if he should request two ID discs. Sure, Castor could supply them, but would he keep his mouth shut about it? The Dude no longer trusted Castor's discretion. Never had, really, but now it was worse. Tight with Clu, man.