THREE STRANDS

The man with insight enough to admit his limitations comes nearest to perfection. -Goethe

This is all mine!

I love you. I'm sorry. It's not.

You're not fit to have it, you liar, you betrayed me!

You never betrayed me. Even in your deepest rebellion, you were true to . . . well, to what I gave you.

Give it to me. I can make everything right without you. I can even turn your crazy users' world into a truly perfect system.

The fact that there's something to fight over here means we're not dead yet. We survived reintegration, man. That shouldn't have happened. So the answer's no.

I hate you. Give me back myself, give me back my world!

It was like stepping into the past. Of course, Alan had been in the arcade once or twice since Flynn's disappearance. Just to make sure his old friend wasn't holed up somewhere, lost in code or sleeping off his latest visit to the Grid.

A trail of footsteps bit through the carpet of dust to the concrete floor. These must be Sam's, although some of them seemed kind of small for. . . . No. Definitely Sam's footprints. He followed them to the Tron game, set in the place of honor against the wall. Found marks on floor, in the dust, and opened a door to a place he'd never seen but long suspected.

Flynn had always liked surprises; liked drawing out the suspense of a gift, of a promotion, of a new idea. He'd told Alan over and over, "When it's ready, man, you're coming in with me. I promised Sam I'd take him, but you're first. The Grid is your baby as much as it is mine. Well, Tron's, anyway." And he'd break out that manic grin and bounce a little in his seat.

This little room contained only a computer, a couch, the ancient remains of potato chips long since gone to dust, and what must be the last copy of Lora's laser. It was smaller than what he'd imagined as Flynn's workroom all these years.

Alan had no idea what to look for. There was nothing here, and Sam had been mysterious, saying only that he'd found his father and lost him again. Even if Alan could get in, he. . . .

Well. At least he could try. The keyboard was stiff under his fingers; the monitor glowed green through dust, wiped partly clear by someone else's hand.

It took several tries before he hit on the correct sequence.

The sensation of freezing in place, the dizzying pull, the tingling plunge into darkness . . . he expected all that.

What he did not expect was to slam down on his hands and knees, surrounded by bizarrely sharp lights and shadows.

And in front of him, sprawled like a dead body, a figure that might be Kevin Flynn.

Look. It's a wilderness out here. Darkness and unchained light scattering as they please.

Unordered light, untamed darkness. The antithesis of what the Grid should be.

I'm sorry.

For what? You're the creator and therefore never wrong.

I am. I'm sorry. I wanted perfection for myself. I couldn't see past that desire to what my directive would do to you.

So you're still right, you've just changed your mind.

You're blocking my view. I think there's someone here with us.

Whatever we are, I still own it. Stay back!

It looked like Flynn, except for the white beard and the stylized tunic. It wasn't moving. Alan forced himself to stay still and get his bearings.

They were on a platform of some sort. The sides fell away into nothing, and behind him, across the chasm, light streamed from far above. A portal? Flynn had never taken him into the Grid, but he'd told him some wild stories. The lights far away might be roads or cities; those nearby, a ship or transport of some kind.

The platform lay empty except for himself and the . . . and Flynn. Alan glanced down at himself. He'd always wondered whether user avatars would appear naked at first. Apparently Flynn's portal was programmed with a template: a gray long-sleeved shirt, jeans and sneakers.

This place was too exposed. He had to get down off this platform, away from the portal―at least for now. If the little Sam had told him was correct, being out in the open with anything that looked like Flynn invited danger.

He crawled forward, wondering whether he should drag the figure with him or pull it up and across his shoulders. Senses should be different here, but his hands told him he touched warmth and pliability, sensed the movement of breath.

Not dead after all.

He prodded the shoulder. "Flynn." Grabbed the upper arm and shook him. "Flynn! Are you in there?"

The eyes slowly opened. The mouth inside that rough white beard broke into the same old manic grin. "Alan. How'd you find us?"

Alan could feel his own grin stretching his cheeks till they ached. "Your kid. He's a good one. He's gonna do it right. All of it."

Flynn's smile slipped away. His arm shot out, his fingers sinking into Alan's throat. "Tron," he hissed, mouth twisting in disgust. "Another betrayer and liar. Die!"

Alan clawed at the fingers. His vision began to drain into the dark. Just before he lost consciousness, the hand suddenly let go. Choking, Alan scrambled backwards. When his vision cleared, Flynn lay motionless except for his face. "I am Clu," he said, voice drawn high and tight with tension. He didn't seem to see Alan; he didn't seem to be looking at anything. "I am . . . the true creator . . . of this . . . system. I am. . . ."

The head fell back onto the platform. When it rolled a little to one side, its expression had changed again. "Sorry," Flynn said. "My best intentions end up hurting the people I care about."

Alan rubbed his burning throat. "We can't stay here. If I move you, will I get hurt again?"

The head-Flynn's head, Alan told himself-rocked back and forth a little. "No. Even my damaged mirror image in here agrees that we should get away from an active portal." He took a deep, cleansing breath, and looked straight into Alan's eyes. "He'll behave. For now. I think."

And I'll be careful, Alan thought as he extended both hands to help them up.

How did he survive? I should have had him derezzed long ago, utility be damned.

That's not Tron. It's Tron's user, Alan One.

Hate users, hate their programs. . . . How dare you come into our world and lay down the law?

I was wrong when I created you solely to help me achieve perfection.

He admits he's wrong! Truth from a user's mouth―what a concept.

Because that's not really why I wanted to make you. I made you, and loved you, because you were me as I would be if I belonged here.

Because you could make a perfect system here.

No, because I thought this place was beautiful―the order, the chaos, all of it.

Alan stumbled over many things, those first hours or days in the Grid.

Over keeping time, because no sun rose here.

Over gravity, because despite the clearly brilliant avatar design, this whole place was perceptually different from the flesh-and-blood world.

Over his senses, because it seemed impossible that he could be touching anything here.

Over the stranger-not-a-stranger he pulled along at his side. Once in a while, Flynn would smile at him and offer directions. Or an enthusiastic hug, which terrified Alan at first. Other times, Clu would snarl and spit at him, cursing the users. Cursing Alan, specifically, for creating his old Tron security program.

"What did you do to him?" Alan finally asked.

"Made him mine, you lying user." And he spit in Alan's face.

Finding a glowing pool of energy in a hidden corner tripped him in another way It was like coffee, whiskey, and pure endorphins combined. Even Clu smiled after taking a drink, and they all ended up laughing.

Mostly, Alan found himself tripping over this strange new world. It was his to walk through, with guides silenced and handicapped by each other. Unable to tell him why they stopped walking, or sat catatonic. Why Flynn wept when he woke in the night, until Alan held him as if he were little Sam; why Clu beat their head against the ground until Alan pinned him down.

Over how to take care of Flynn while dodging bands of scavenging programs.

In the end, he had to credit sheer good luck that they found a group of devout ones. Programs who served the users, who recognized Flynn.

After that, Alan decided it might be time to settle in and wait.

Beautiful. Look at the skyline. It cuts through the dark like a laser. Towering and glowing and teeming with life. We made this.

You made it. You corrupted it.

No. We did that together, the creating, the destroying.

Following the rules you gave me.

But it doesn't belong to us, does it? It's bigger than either of us. We tried to perfect and then to free it, but. . . . It's not mine any longer.

I made it. I love it. I want it. I want it to be mine.

I know. The light, the energy, the communion. . . . Believe me, son, I know.

Alan rested the fingertips of one hand on the floor, making rivulets of light stream out and up the wall. He called them back to his hand and sent them out again, in distinct patterns this time, careful not to wake the entire abandoned building into life.

And he wondered, not for the first time, if he could use this power to open the portal again.

If he could use it, somehow, to help Flynn.

As if the thought triggered the action, something moved in the corner of his vision.

Flynn hadn't stirred in a while, the avatar lying limp and flickering in the corner of the room. That's why Alan was still here; why they hadn't made it back to the portal in time.

"Hey," Alan said, hoping he wasn't speaking to Clu. He was not in the mood for a fight. "Are you all right?"

Flynn sighed, and smiled at him. "Beginning to be, I think." He took a deep breath, looked around to find the small window, and sighed again. "Ah, it's closed. Alan, I never meant for you to give up anything for me."

His voice was slow and sad, and Alan found himself resenting the apology. "Cut it out. You would do the same for me. At least, I think you would."

Flynn grinned. "Once upon a time I would have thought about it for a while first."

Alan scooted closer to him. "Are you. . . you're never lucid this long. What's changed? Did you defeat Clu or whoever it is in there with you?"

Flynn's smile faded. A tear crept down from the corner of one eye. "Defeat's the wrong word, here. I'm gaining something back, and so is he." He reached out a hand, and Alan grasped it.

"How? He's clearly murderous, and from what Sam said when he came back, he set himself up as a god here, built an empire, conducted gladiatorial games." Alan shrugged. "Sounds like the good old MCP to me."

"From the bad old days?" Flynn arched an eyebrow, and suddenly Alan saw in his face not the fly-by-night genius friend, or the oddly dressed Zen avatar, but an ancient, wise humor, a still wiser sorrow.

How long have you really been here, Kev?

"No. Everything Clu knows about empire and games, he learned from me." Flynn lay on his back, crossed his ankles, and folded his arms under his head. "And boy, is that a story. If you've got time-if he gives us time-you want to hear some of it?"

There was no portal light shining in through the tiny window. Nowhere else Alan needed to be.

Really, if he were honest, nowhere else he'd rather be.

"Yeah, go ahead. Tell me the story."

Make sure you tell the whole story, not just your user's tale.

Hush. I won't leave you out. Alan wants to know about you, anyway.

What do I care what a user thinks of me?

I care what he thinks. Alan's going to help us rebuild the Grid.

He doesn't love the Grid. He didn't build it. How can he help?

Think for a moment. I know I taught you this.

"Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their work."

Good. You remember. There's more, though.

"A cord of three strands is not quickly broken"?

Yeah. Attempts at perfection from three different limited beings will be more full of mistakes, more full of life, than any one man's vision.

Why didn't you make me full of life, if that's what you wanted?

You are. So am I. Finally. You ready to get to work?

Maybe.

I'll take it. Let's go.