Author: ReverseTango PM
He is, and always has been, a walking mishap, an inept non-entity, and now, a sub-human, a number, a science project. By the time anyone notices he's gone, it will surely be too late. One-shot, for the kink meme.Rated: Fiction T - English - Angst/Horror - Wheatley - Words: 9,581 - Reviews: 29 - Favs: 60 - Follows: 2 - Published: 09-25-11 - Status: Complete - id: 7413365
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
HELLO THERE. I return to prove I'm apparently incapable of writing anything happy. This is, of course, a response to a prompt on the kink meme: "I'm requesting that someone actually write about what the core transfer process involves. And I want some drama, angst and sads. I want Wheatley being dragged kicking and screaming to a fate which I'm guessing is worse then death". So, of course, I, being the ray of sunshine that I am, obliged.
Just a few warnings, first! I'm rating this T because there's no profanity, sexual themes, or explicit violence, but this one-shot does involve medical experimentation and implied psychological torture, so if that's a squick of yours, you might want to hit the back button. Secondly, this thing is a monster. It's long. Grab a snack and a Coke, we're in for a bit of a ride, but I hope you enjoy it.
He knows what the letter is before he even opens it.
The inconspicuous white form that sits in his Aperture Science Employee Mail Receptacle doesn't look like anything special, but the sight of it sticking out of the row of cubbyholes turns his insides to ice. For a moment he dares to hope it's not for him, that it was put in the wrong box, but his name is printed neatly on the outside in official black ink, sealing his fate. Glancing up and down the corridor to make sure no one is watching, he gingerly removes the missive and slides it into the pocket of his white coat, stealing down the hall.
In one of the unoccupied labs he steams the envelope, reads the contents carefully with quaking hands and promptly glue-sticks the curled paper shut again. He'll hide it somewhere, shove it in someone else's mailbox, someone in another wing of the complex who wouldn't recognize his name or know where to find him. Better if they think he never got the damned letter and he'll lay low—frankly, he's surprised to have received it in the first place. He doesn't think he's ever done anything particularly of note, not to garner the attention of the higher-ups, at least. His time at Aperture is spent under the radar, dutifully pushing paper and writing lab reports, trying not to bungle his job too badly, or at least, try to make it so no one notices when he bungles his job. All-in-all, not worth noticing, and considering recent events, he prefers it that way. Being overlooked and insignificant and put-upon is better than being removed from your office and relocated (promoted is the choice word used in the memos) to some vague-sounding department for some vague-sounding job on the already-questionable GLaDOS project.
This isn't supposed to happen.
The letters don't rear their figurative ugly heads very often, but when they do, rumors fly and none of them are good, especially not now that the forms show up with increasing frequency. They are non-discriminatory, finding personnel from every department, uprooting them from their desks and placing them on top-secret assignments, whether they want to be part of them or not. These days, the answer is a decidedly not.
It's because of the employee grapevine, of course. Aperture has always been rife with rumors, hardly any of them good. He envies normal offices, where workers have pleasant, water cooler chats about who got fired, who's sleeping with who.
In Aperture they talk about who's disappeared.
A missing test subject here and there is unsurprising—the unfortunate sods in the orange jumpsuits are there to be tested on, after all. What started the churning rumor mill was missing scientists. Though the company doesn't "require" their employees to test anymore, everyone knows there is a very real risk of being forced into an experiment anyway, despite administrative efforts to sweep their dealings under the rug. So really, testing is still mandatory; the higher-ups just pretend that it's not, preferring to steal people away from the dormitories in the middle of the night instead—or so he's heard.
Unfortunately, the execs are predictable, and long-term employees quickly make the association between the white envelopes and "transfer" and inexplicable vanishing into the bowels of the facility.
The whispers permeate the offices and laboratories and he doesn't know how many of them are accurate, because as time marches on, they seem to be getting more and more ridiculous, and nobody really does anything about it. An intern. Two interns. That guy from accounting. The secretary in the public relations office. Engineers. An employee's child?
Nobody really knows why the so-called relocations are happening, but the general consensus is that it has something to do with GLaDOS, because if kidnapping rumors aren't bad enough, they all have to share the facility with a self-aware and potentially homicidal artificial intelligence. The project team works hard at new ways to curb it, he knows, and judging by the increased frequency of the little white letters, the reassignments must have something to do with the supercomputer. He doesn't understand why the project hasn't been scrapped, but apparently the whole endeavor is the founder's dying wish. The man's prerecorded messages still echo down the catwalks and gantries, pour into the test chambers.
The progress is glossed over at department meetings with talk of supplemental programs built to modify the AI's behavior, but rumors say that the efforts have been largely unsuccessful. Perhaps, he thinks, perhaps the GLaDOS team has decided it was time for more drastic measures.
But despite all the wild speculation and horror stories, he's managed to remain detached. Months pass and his department stays untouched, so he allows himself a false sense of security. He, a bumbling nobody, has nothing they want, so he's safe.
He was safe.
Dear Mr. [REDACTED],
If there's one thing he's good at, it's pretending nothing is wrong.
We are pleased to announce that you have been selected for promotion.
So that is exactly what he does. He ultimately decides that hiding the letter somewhere does not effectively get rid of it, and opts to carefully shred it, then burn it, then sweep the ashes into the dustbin and cover the evidence with other trash.
As you may be aware, work on the Genetic Lifeform and Disk Operating System, Aperture Science's most important project to date, has necessitated employee transfer from other departments.
Nobody says anything to him, and he doesn't hear anything from the ever-present rumor mill, so he can only assume the fact that he received a letter is unknown to his co-workers. Which is good.
Based on prior performance reviews and your work with us as an Aperture Science employee, we have designated you as a candidate to join the GLaDOS team.
He goes about his business as usual. The higher-ups don't approach him and he begins to think it silly to have bought into the rumors at all. Kidnappings. Ridiculous. Ghost stories for children.
Please have your desk emptied by the end of the week and report to the Aperture Science Artificial Intelligence Development Center the morning of [REDACTED].
Why would they need him on the GLaDOS team anyway? It's not like he has any experience with neurotoxin-happy AIs. He can't think of anything he could possibly do to help.
Please understand that this is a mandatory reassignment.
Curiosity almost makes him pack up his desk, do as the letter says, but there is a feeling in his gut that he can't shake, so he stays where he is.
Your cooperation is appreciated. Thank you for helping us help you help us all.
The days pass by without incident, and one week turns into two, and he begins to suspect that something is wrong. Surely they would have come for him by now? Maybe they're trying to lure him into a false sense of security—he wouldn't put it past them. Maybe his brilliant plan to play dumb actually worked, and he's escaped whatever top-secret fate awaits him as part of the GLaDOS team.
But just as he begins to breathe easy again, one of the head scientists on the project is waiting in his office when he comes in for work one morning.
The conversation is surprisingly cordial. When asked about the letter, he claims to have never received one and the scientist just smiles and nods and says that's okay but please pack up and report to them tomorrow. He asks about the job but doesn't receive a straight answer, only that he'll be helping the team with those supplementary AI programs they hear about in meetings all the time. He says he's not qualified for the position but the scientist assures him otherwise and takes leave.
He is left alone.
And he doesn't know what to do so he throws a few things into a box before going with his first instinct and deciding that this transfer is to be avoided for as long as possible. Something just doesn't feel right.
The next day he calls in sick but that doesn't mean much when Aperture requires most employees to live in the facility dormitories (frankly, it's easier and cheaper to do so). Playing hooky, however, only leaves him alone with his thoughts, which quickly return to all the terrible, frightening whispers. He tries to push them out of his mind. It's only hearsay, and wallowing in paranoia won't do him any good. Besides, what's the worst that could happen?
The higher-ups finding him, it turns out. They knock on his door late at night, too late for anyone to be awake and when he doesn't answer, the sound of a key in a lock lets him know they are not beyond breaking and entering. This time, they are not so friendly, and give him one last chance to report to the department. Deciding the jig is up, he sheepishly tells them sorry, but he's not interested in taking the position. He figures he'll get written up and maybe fired. So what. So he'll find another job.
One of the scientists, for a moment, looks almost sad.
They tell him it's a shame he feels that way. A larger man in the back of the assembly (not a scientist, must be some kind of security) moves forward and takes him roughly by the shirt.
This was not what he expected. Something is very wrong, even more wrong than breaking and entering. In one horrible moment, he realizes the rumors are true.
A wave of primal fear washes over him, his ordinarily non-confrontational thoughts shifting instantly to fight and escape. Somehow he knows that if he doesn't get out, he'll never get out; they'll drag him off and he'll die in this facility. So he fights panic and rips his sleeve away, backing into his apartment, searching for something with which he can defend himself, settling on a table lamp. He doesn't know what they want from him but he's not going to let them have it.
With a well-placed swing, it smashes into the security guard with a strength he didn't know he had. The lightbulb shatters in a shower of sparks and the man howls in pain, clutching his face as red spills over his hand.
The room erupts in profanities and someone shouts to grab him grab him grab him. He's not listening; he's already sprinting across to the window that leads not to the outside (they are underground, after all), but to the catwalks. He's small and fast (hopefully, maybe he can be fast if he puts his mind to it and right now he has no choice) and he can lose them there and find a way out, get out get out get out.
But there are three of them and one of him and he's never been particularly athletic, even with adrenaline thrumming in his veins, blood pounding in his ears. He tries to wrest his arm from the grip but it's too strong and the next thing he knows, he's smashed against the wall and their grasping hands are on him. He kicks and shouts and even tries to bite but the efforts are wasted because they're stronger and the whole thing is over before it even had a chance to begin.
His face meets the floor. He's still shouting into the rough carpet, even if he has the sinking feeling that no one will come. Someone's knee presses between his shoulder blades and his arms and legs are immobilized so thoroughly that someone as short and scrawny as he is doesn't stand a chance no matter how much he thrashes. One of the scientists says something about sedative. Eyes widening, he gives one last desperate struggle before the telltale prick of a syringe in his neck lets him know that it's all over.
The world spins and the scientists are talking but he can't understand them and all he can think is that he shouldn't have dismissed the letter, should have told someone about it, should have quit while he still could, should have just run oh God he's going to die no please don't do this please he doesn't want to die. Everything grows blurry and muted and slow, like he's suspended underwater. Then he sinks as if he's made of lead and it is utterly terrifying.
He can do nothing but let the creeping blackness take him.
—ubject 8371236. Male, age thirty-seven. Born—
The room is white and smells strongly of iodine. Lights sear his vision. When he tries to sit up, his head pounds and swims and forces him back onto what is apparently a very uncomfortable gurney. Everything hurts.
—inches. No allergies, no history of—
Someone is reciting personal information that he recognizes as his own. The voices are coming from nearby, dutifully relaying a medical history; age, date and place of birth, height, weight and so on and so forth but a full name is conspicuously absent. His head lolls to the side—it's easier to open his eyes when he's not staring straight into the overhead fluorescents. For a moment he wonders if he's managed to injure himself and landed in the emergency room.
—suffered minor contusions in the ensuing struggle…does that have to go on the report?
But then it all comes rushing back.
He bolts upright, struggling through the unbearable throbbing in his skull, the ache in his limbs. Something pulls at his arm and he realizes it's an IV cord leading to a bag marked SALINE, but he knows it could just as easily be more sedative. Everything is unfamiliar and sterile and reminds him too strongly of a hospital room and when his eyes focus, he realizes there are other people there with him, swiftly closing the distance in order to restrain him.
They tell him not to move, that he's still under the effects of the drug but he won't have any of it, panic already rising, already uncontrollable. There are electrodes taped to his chest, connected to beeping monitors and he tears at them, scooting further up the bed, away from these deranged people that dragged him out of his apartment in the middle of the night. He's been kidnapped and has no idea why, what's going on, what are they going to do to him, why the hospital gown and the IV drip, where are his clothes, please, please, please, he wants to leave, wait, wait, don't touch him…
When he reaches out to shove them he sees black ink on his shoulder that definitely wasn't there before. Rubbing it frantically does nothing and with no small amount of horror he realizes it's a tattoo, a barcode and a series of numbers. A choked noise escapes his throat at the realization and he attempts to stand, fight his way out if necessary. The IV tugs and he jerks it away, freeing himself from the offending cord, needle tearing through his skin, spraying solution across the bed while blood drips down his forearm in bright contrast to the white of the room. The head scientist utters some choice expletives and shoves him roughly into the sheets, reaching under the cot and emerging with cloth straps.
His desperate pleas go ignored as they buckle him down and put him under.
Which interrogation technique do you think would be most effective on you?
He awakens this way several more times, opening his eyes to new and excruciating worlds of hurt, only to be plunged into darkness again when the scientists don't need him conscious anymore. They keep him thoroughly stoned—his waking moments are consumed by disorientation and he can't think, let alone fight what they're doing (whatever it is they're doing). The blurry faces of the scientists hover above him. Blood. Anesthesia. Probes. Needles and scalpels and forceps and cold, surgical steel. He thrashes, yells, cries, babbles incoherently through the restraints and the sedative as they cut into him and do God knows what. Tears sting his eyes; he feels that much, even if he can't tell what's real and what's not. The pain is real, though, and it hurts so much and the worst part is he doesn't know why there's pain, doesn't understand why he's been trapped in this nightmare.
Please choose the description that best describes your personality.
When he finally wakes up to some semblance of coherency, he realizes that the belts are absent. The haze of drugs is there, but ebbing. Focusing is easier and he's been relocated to a room that's just as white, but less like a hospital and more like solitary confinement in a psych ward. Maybe he's crazy? That's it, isn't it? He's gone crazy. It would explain nearly everything, after all.
Do you regularly experience déjà vu?
But no. If there's one thing he's sure of, it's his mental stability and though his perpetual state of incapacitation has recently made him doubt it, he can feel the oppressive cloud lifting, allowing him to think straight for the first time in…
Oh, God, how long has it been? Hours? Days? Weeks? Surely someone has noticed his absence.
If you disappeared tomorrow, would anyone miss you?
Someone will come find him.
In the meantime he explores the room, hoping to find a way out, taking advantage of (what is sure to be) temporary freedom. Best to do what he can while the restraints are gone and the drugs are leaving his system.
There is literally nothing save a cot, sink, and toilet, all stark white just like everything else. Three walls are painted the same color, but the fourth houses the door (locked) and an observation window that looks out into what appears to be a lab, full of equipment and monitors and indeterminate metal things. Sciencey stuff.
Hey. Hey, he calls, rushing to the opening and smacking the glass with a palm, trying to get someone's attention. The scientists are there, he sees them milling about, doing whatever it is they do when they're not KIDNAPPING PEOPLE.
Apparently, when they're not kidnapping people, they stand around a table and poke at a little metal orb. It's some sort of robot, or at least something mechanized and it looks like a basketball-sized eye with a glowing pink iris that darts around and swivels in its casing. He'd think it more amazing if he actually knew what it was. And. You know. Hadn't been kidnapped and shoved in a room fit for lifers without parole. They seem far more interested in the machine than they do in anything else, standing there in their lab coats with their notepads. He's not a stranger to robots; Aperture has been using them for menial tasks since the 1980s, and there is GLaDOS, of course, but he can't for the life of him figure out what this one is supposed to be. How does it do anything if it doesn't have limbs?
Another moment and he decides there are more important things to do than ponder little spherical machines, things like more shouting and more pounding but everything goes ignored and he takes to pacing the tiny room.
Until something catches his attention. Staggering back to the window and leaning as close as he can to the glass, he manages to make out the ghost of his reflection, enough to examine how sickly he looks, see tape and gauze in certain areas across his torso and, when he twists (adjusting his hospital gown in the process), down his shoulders and back.
What on Earth…?
Gingerly, he peels them away, unsure of what lies underneath. There's bit of creative maneuvering involved, but soon the bandages are gone and he instantly wishes he never took them off in the first place.
Down his spine, starting at the nape of his neck and evenly spaced between each of his vertebrae are small metal disks, about the size of quarters, though the top one is significantly larger. When he prods them he finds they are intended with a hole in the center of each, like headphone jacks. The largest concentration is down his back but in feeling around and inspecting himself in the glass he finds them on either side of his neck, one on each of his shoulders, his forearms, his chest. They are quite obviously surgical implants but they have healed enough to let him know that time has passed since the abduction. Suddenly his legs cannot support him and he stumbles backward onto the bed where the shaking and hyperventilation starts, chest tight with the effort of staving off a panic attack.
What have they done to him?
He's back at the window, beside himself this time, hands pressed flush to the barrier, gazing desperately at the scientists outside. They act as though he doesn't exist, plugging a long, thick cord into the back of the robot ball, watching as its pupil shrinks to a dot.
What could they possibly want from him and why won't they let him out?
The men in the lab coats come into the room every so often, usually to draw blood or check his reflexes or run some other kind of inane test, but mostly they just disregard his incessant questions and threats and curses. He still tries to fight them, break for the door, but they quickly learn the best ways to overpower him and put him out for the rest of the day, if there are even days in this hellhole. He can't keep track of time, and the drugs don't help. When he's uncooperative (which is always) that hypodermic needle finds its way into exposed skin and he is reduced to a drooling, catatonic mess while they poke and prod and scrawl on their clipboards.
They don't speak to him, only to each other. They say things about whatever they're doing out in the lab, how this is the most important project, how there is absolutely no room for failure on this one. About how all the others turned out nonfunctional and corrupt and they want to do everything in their power to make sure this one isn't.
What one, he demands, adding it to the veritable mountain of inquiries that spill from his mouth every time they open the door, questions that never receive answers. Of all the detestable things about this situation, he hates that the most—they act like he's not there, reduce him to the number inked on his shoulder. They directly address him once, in the moment before the sedative takes hold, just to say he's obviously a moron for continuing to struggle. Even lab animals can be conditioned, learn that fighting back always results in pain. But he can't stop, not until he gets the answers, not until he finds out what's happening because maybe if he begs enough they'll release him. No matter how much he shouts and screams and cries and pleads, they ignore him and go on talking about how they can't afford any slip-ups on this one they have to be precise there's too much riding on this project. All the while, through the needles and instruments and drugs he entreats their deaf ears. Let him go home, he wants to go home.
Nothing, however, compares to what happens when they finally start testing the implants or whatever they are (he doesn't know because they won't tell him). He wakes, dazed as usual, in a different room, a room full of strange, sinister machinery and he instantly knows that something bad is coming because he's strapped tightly to a gurney. They allow time for him to sober up—he hears vague whisperings about brain mapping and how they can't very well map his brain if he's completely out of his mind on benzodiazepines. Once they're satisfied they haul out a collection of important-looking plugs and industrial wires that lead back to the plethora of monitors.
He can't turn to see what they're doing but he feels it, feels the plugs sliding into the ports, clicking into place inside him, eliciting an involuntary whimper as his chest rises and falls with shallow, frantic breaths. It doesn't hurt yet but it's obviously going to and already his heart thuds against his ribcage in anticipation, anxiety, and sheer, icy dread. Soon all the wires are in place, the thickest one in the biggest port right at the back of his neck.
They're murmuring about their project again, whatever their project is and eventually they take their places at the screens and buttons and panels and switches. Nods are exchanged and then he hears the consoles sparking to life.
A sudden bolt of electricity slams him like a freight train. Light explodes behind his eyes and a white hot pain surges up his spine and down his limbs, coursing through his nerves.
It is unlike anything he has ever felt.
Excruciating, yes, but something else, too, something foreign and unspeakable, like his brain is functioning at unimaginable speeds he can barely hope to comprehend. It feels like he's being torn apart from the inside out, like he's receiving more sensory information than he could ever hope to process, thousands, millions of times more, like every single cell in his body is being stimulated at once, like every muscle is on fire and rebelling against him. And whatever it is, it's in his head.
He spasms and screams until his throat is raw and soundless and then he keeps screaming.
Suddenly it is over, leaving him empty and drenched in sweat, face streaked with acrid tears. Bile spills into his mouth and he promptly coughs up vomit, falling limp against the straps meant to hold him in place.
The room is quiet, save the scratching of pens on paper and the sound of his own choked sobs. When they are satisfied, they dump him unceremoniously into his cell, mumbling to each other about how this particular test-run of nervous system integration was the most successful yet and hopefully they'll avoid corruption this time, hopefully this is their breakthrough.
They congratulate each other and leave him trembling and twitching on the cot.
He is going to die here, he knows it.
They test the ports five more times (or is it six), making the necessary adjustments, and ultimately it's what breaks him. Eventually he has to face the fact that it's easier and less painful to let them have their way, easier to succumb to exhaustion and dehumanization and the reality of being a bloody experiment. By now he knows that no one will come for him. Management probably made up some ridiculous story about deportation, and his idiot co-workers would believe that, wouldn't they? In a godforsaken place like the American midwest, a pasty, ginger Brit is probably nothing short of exotic to these people. What would they know about visas and green cards? He can't imagine why he schlepped across the pond in the first place, but then again, hindsight is twenty-twenty.
It's all politics, to be honest. It's a big popularity contest.
The truth is that Aperture had been opportunity. He'd been young and rebellious and parent-hating (as most young people are) and wanted something more than small-town England, so he'd packed up his degrees and headed for the States to accept what should have been a dream job.
It's all about who you know, and whose back you're willing to scratch, and who doesn't touch…you know…
For some time it was. He liked working in the lab, contributing to science, making something of himself. Until he realized that he wasn't making anything of himself—he wasn't climbing the ladder of academia and research or getting the breakthroughs he'd envisioned. It was…tedium and mediocrity, at least on his part. Tedium and mediocrity punctuated by the slightly-more-than-occasional slip-up, but nothing catastrophic enough to get him fired, or even noticed by anyone outside of his department.
Or, in my case, who did accidentally touch…
Which is why his role in this mad-scientist hell is so puzzling. He cannot for the life of him figure out what they need, what he could give them, what they're trying to take. It's possible he's just a guinea pig for something bigger and better, but from the way they talk about the project, talk about how this one has to work, he imagines he's at least kind of important. Not important in the way he wants to be, of course.
But you know, not entirely my fault.
The little basketball-bots come and go—he memorizes them by their optics. Pink, yellow, green, red, orange…a rainbow of colors and patterns. Their movements are endlessly expressive and fascinating and they talk—mostly nonsense, but still. They're amazing, really, and they're so vibrant and bright in comparison to the antiseptic whiteness of his room and the lab. That's the kind of science he would have liked to do, something brilliant, like talking robot eyeballs.
Their connection to him is anyone's guess. The scientists still won't say a word, but they're working on a new one. It must not be functional yet because the eye is black and lifeless and it doesn't move or speak like the others. When they tinker with that one, he usually finds something else to occupy his time. The little spheres aren't as interesting when they're not activated.
Despite his better judgment, he permits thoughts of a life before the sterile rooms, the drugs, the white-hot searing pain that pumps through the cables into his plugs. He lies on his back, eyes closed, and thinks of the sun.
It's probably detrimental to his mental state, to spend so much time envisioning something he'll more than likely never see again, but it's nice to pretend, nice to think about a blue sky and green grass and a place outside this underworld. Besides, better to fill his coherent hours with thoughts of nice things instead of dwelling on what happens every time someone enters his cell. Of course, in letting his mind wander, he runs the risk of walking down rather unsavory paths (figuratively speaking). He thinks about the co-workers who will never find him, never question his absence, friends who won't look for him. He thinks of parents who will call at Christmas only to find that his number has been disconnected. So he makes up stories where miles above this madhouse, the police have launched a full-scale quest to find him with helicopters and searchlights and posters on every telephone pole. When they break into the lab with a S.W.A.T. team, they'll pull him out and it'll be all over the news, the story of the man who survived months of medical and psychological torture at the hands of crazed scientists and came out all right. An inspiration.
But really, who is he kidding? He is, and always has been, a walking mishap, an inept non-entity, and now, he thinks as he stares at the ports on his arms, a sub-human, a number, a science project, like a baking soda volcano or a potato battery. Maybe he should have been better at staying in touch with relatives, should have found himself a girlfriend or something because by the time anyone realizes he's gone, it will surely be too late.
Time passes as usual, that is, he is aware that days are slipping away but unsure of how fast they slide. There's no circadian rhythm anymore, only periods of waking and drug-induced sleep, both of which are punctuated by periods of bewildering, inconceivable pain, followed by more drugs.
One night, after everyone has gone and left him alone in the dark, he hears keys in the lock, something he has come to associate with needles and sedative and some unpleasant new experiment. He jerks upright, ready to struggle.
A lab-coated silhouette stands in the frame, backlit with the emergency lighting so the scientist's facial features are indistinguishable, at least until he shuts the door. Even then, it takes his eyes a moment to adjust.
Reality is a story the mind tells itself.
He recognizes the intruder and tilts his head to the side in confusion—this is not one of the scientists that routinely drags him out for testing, this is the one that stands to the side looking uncomfortable, hunched over a laptop, pecking at the keyboard and sneaking furtive glances at the security cameras. Young, younger than him at least, with dark, unruly hair and slightly manic-looking eyes that shift from wall to wall to wall and finally come to rest on him.
They don't have much time, he says, sounding slightly exasperated. The security system has been compromised—hacked—so they could talk. For a brief hour, the ever-watching monitors that scrutinize the lab, the holding cell, are disabled.
Talk. He wants to talk, finally someone who wants to talk…
The man starts by introducing himself as one of the programmers who works on the base protocols for Aperture's artificial intelligences, the one who can't take it anymore, who thinks he, as the test subject, deserves answers.
Damn right he deserves answers. He launches into the usual laundry list of inquiries but only receives a raised hand as his guest glances nervously over his shoulder. There are a few things to explain, first.
And this programmer is so, so sorry for what he is about to say.
An artificial structure conjured into being by the calcium ion exchange of a million synaptic firings.
One. The GLaDOS project is a disaster. It's self-aware, and it's angry. Every time they turn it on, it tries to flood the room with neurotoxin in picoseconds.
Two. GLaDOS is not fully artificial. It was developed with something called brian mapping. More specifically, the program was mapped from the brain of Cave Johnson's personal assistant, against her will. In effect, there is a large part of GLaDOS (the Genetic Lifeform part, at least) that is Caroline. That in itself probably has a lot to do with why it's so angry.
Three. In an effort to control GLaDOS, the team has been developing smaller, simpler AIs called personality constructs, or cores. Those are the tiny spheres the other engineers have been working on. Each has a different effect on the supercomputer with the hope of distraction, subduction, or behavior alteration. Each is designed with one prominent personality trait in mind, one specific function. They're not artificial either, as their programming is based on brain maps from other subjects.
Subjects like him.
He scoots to the edge of the cot, trying to bite back his questions but obviously finding himself unable. Is that why they want him? Is that what the ports and wires are for? They're going to use his brain as a basis for AI programming?
Wait. Not finished. Four. The cores have been largely unsuccessful, as the brain mapping process has proven to be extremely imperfect. Most constructs end up corrupted and utterly useless. The team is growing desperate, making more and more with the hopes that they'll get it right, find a core or combination of cores that will curb GLaDOS' homicidal tendencies permanently.
So that's it, then? They'll map his brain and let him go, right?
It's not that simple. The process is less of a mapping and more of a complete transfer, less of a process and more of a procedure. With a quivering voice and downcast eyes, the programmer describes the way the team literally takes a human consciousness and implants it into the robotic casing, leaving the organic body empty and comatose, while the core takes on the very essence of the donor.
He sits there in complete and utter shock, trying to comprehend what this means for him. He's going to…they're going to turn him into a robot? How is that even possible? He remembers the little spheres on the table, blinking and babbling—those are (were) people? Those are (were) the missing people, the interns and the engineers and the test subjects and God knows who else?
And now he's next?
A truth so strange it can only be lied into existence.
They're not supposed to talk to the donors, the programmer says. They're supposed to distance themselves, dehumanize the poor bastards so they don't feel remorse for what they're doing, but he's consumed by guilt anyway. He can't stand it. He's stood by too long and seen too many horrifying things to watch another person get shoved into an immobile, mechanical shell without any idea of what is happening to them and since most of the cores turn out corrupt, he doesn't even know how much memory they retain. For all he knows, he's trapping self-aware humans in limbless automatons, humans that remember everything about being human and there's nothing he can do about it.
So he needs to do this, needs to come in and make sure somebody knew the truth, even if that somebody is about to suffer the same fate. And despite the team's efforts to produce uncorrupted AIs, intelligences that successfully restrain GLaDOS, he knows this core is not the first, and it most certainly won't be the last and when it's all over (if it ever ends) he's not sure if he'll be able to live with himself.
The sheer selfishness of this visitor's rationale is appalling. All his questions, answered, the nightmarish truth dropped onto him like a ten-ton weight just so this guy can live with himself?
When he finds his voice again, he asks the programmer if they can get out, run from the lab while the security is down, but the response is only a slow, sad shake of the head. He can't. He's sorry, God he's so sorry.
Why not? The keys are right there. What's to stop them from waltzing out the door right now?
They both know what's stopping them. Even if they escaped from this particular wing, the facility is a labyrinth and they'd be hunted down, dragged kicking and screaming to a fate worse than death. In the end, they're both cowards.
And our minds can lie.
So they can't leave, won't get anywhere before the cameras are back online, to say nothing of the rest of Aperture's security. But if each core represents a singular personality trait, if each donor was picked for their most prominent quality, what's his? Why do they want him? This man will abandon him with the knowledge that his human life is about to come to an end. He at least deserves to know what kind of construct he's going to be.
With one hand on the wall and eyes on the floor, the programmer, considering, says he doesn't know, only that it's very important, and instead asks for his name.
It takes a moment for him to respond, partly because he's sure the man is lying, mostly because he's not certain he remembers what he used to be called before the tattoo, but there it is, first and last, sounding foreign, like someone else is doing the talking. His company nods slowly, somberly, making for the exit. Suddenly seized by panic, he implores the programmer not to leave, don't go, please don't leave, help him get out, he's going to die, this is going to kill him.
No, the programmer replies flatly, back turned in the light of the door frame. He mumbles one last bitter thing before the door closes and locks.
It's not going to kill him. He's going to live forever.
After the programmer leaves, he sits in contemplative silence, trying to piece together what he's just been told. The realization leaves him on his knees in front of the toilet for the rest of the night, emptying his stomach and then dry-heaving until his esophagus can't take the burn. He stumbles to the sink and plunges his face into cold, running water before collapsing onto the miserable excuse for a bed.
What, exactly, is the price of immortality?
It's losing your body and a multitude of other distinguishing features that he doesn't bother considering until they're being taken from him, things like hands and hair and two eyes and a face. Eating, drinking, sleeping, dreaming, sweating, bleeding, crying, breathing, sacrificing all those wonderfully human things in favor of cold, unfeeling steel. It's being ripped apart, edited into a pathetic replica, reduced to one basic function dictated by programming and protocols, code and circuits.
He hopes to god that programmer was wrong and the procedure completely obliterates his memories beyond repair. If he has to live forever, don't let it be with awareness of his soon-to-be past, recollections of arms and legs and five senses, of touching and tasting and running. He'll lose his mind, if he hasn't already.
Psychology is decidedly beyond him, but he remembers enough from 101 to realize he's steamrolling through the stages of coping so thoroughly, it would make Kübler-Ross proud.
Denial is usually only a temporary defense for the individual.
It's not real. It's something out of a crappy science fiction novel, something about having no mouth and needing to scream. That one. They can't turn people into robots, that's completely ridiculous. Everything is just a bad dream and soon he'll wake up back in his apartment and the ports will be gone and it will be like nothing ever happened. He'll return to work and get on with his usual routine, with his life, and look back on this silly nightmare and laugh. Because that's what it is.
The only problem is that when you get hurt in dreams, you wake up, and that hasn't happened. He's been in enough pain to be certain of that, at least.
Once in the second stage, however, the individual recognizes that denial cannot continue. Because of anger, the person is very difficult to care for due to misplaced feelings of rage.
So he moves onward, pacing around the room like a caged animal, red-faced and furious, stopping only to scream expletives through the glass, yell every four-letter word in the dictionary to the scientists who continue to ignore him and tinker with their stupid robot eyeball, the stupid robot eyeball that's going to be him. How could they do this? He's a person, not a number. He has feelings and aspirations and a life! There's so much he hasn't done! He was going to make that scientific breakthrough, travel the world, huh? What then? How dare they rob him of that. Who do they think they are, standing around their table, playing God? He saves the most venomous glares for the programmer, the one who could have helped him escape but didn't.
The third stage involves the hope that the individual can somehow postpone or delay the inevitable. Psychologically, the individual is saying, "I understand this will happen, but if I could just do something to buy more time…"
One can only fling verbal abuse for long before ire loses its edge and becomes something else. Begging, pleading, pressing himself against the window in sheer desperation, hoping he'll manage to move them somehow. He'll never get out, never see the sky again, never have the chance to really live, never find someone or raise a family or…don't any of them even care? He'll do anything, anything at all, if only they give him his freedom. Let him try and find another way, a better way to subdue GLaDOS. He'll figure it out, he knows he will, just let him try, don't do this, please, don't. Just let him phone his parents, let them know they'll never hear from him again; he promises not to say anything incriminating, for god's sake, even murderers get one call. This time, when he catches the programmer's gaze with his wet, poignant stare, the man looks away and they do not lock eyes again.
They don't listen. Nobody ever listens. The only thing that gets their attention is when he hysterically threatens to bash his head on the sink if they don't let him out, then where will they be without their precious donor, hm? The white coats barrel into the room and sedate him almost immediately. When he opens his eyes again the room is even smaller, still white, but padded now, with no plumbing implements and no window.
During the fourth stage, the individual may become silent, refuse visitors, and spend much of the time grieving. This process allows the person to disconnect from things of love and affection.
There's nothing to do but stay on his cot and stare at the ceiling, depression and futility eating him alive. A frigid numbness descends and takes hold, thoroughly enveloping him. He can't even cry anymore, and thinking of the sun, the clouds, trees, rain, does nothing. Why wish for things so far out of his reach, for things he'll never see again, not even for one moment in the eternity that awaits him?
What's it going to be like, anyway, to be a computer? If he ever reaches the surface, tomorrow or a hundred years from now, will he remember the sky? Will it mean anything to him? How much of him will be left?
Ultimately he decides to spend his last however-long (still can't tell how much time has passed) clenching and unclenching his fists almost meditatively, splaying his fingers in front of his face, deeply inhaling and exhaling. He walks slowly around the perimeter of the room, trying to capture the feel of the cold floor against his bare feet, the sensation of muscles contracting, the way air flows into his nostrils and fills his lungs, expands his chest. The feel of his hand running through his hair, moisture in his eyes, the cotton hospital gown on his skin. Exhaustion. Fear. Human things, things he'll never have again. He still doesn't know why they chose him.
In this last stage, the individual begins to come to terms with his or her mortality.
When they arrive he knows it's for the last time.
No drugs. His head is clear and for once he does not fight or shout, but his face is screwed up in contempt as they strap him to the pallet and plug him full of wires. He doesn't want them to remember him frightened (even if he is very frightened) or distraught. No. The opposite. He wants to irrevocably burn the image of his sheer hatred into their minds, so that even if they don't feel guilty now, their dreams ten years down the road will be haunted by the face of a man who would not let this happen, who struggled and spat every step of the way.
The core is there, at the other end of the cables, waiting for him. His gut clenches involuntarily at the sight of the thing and it seems like forever ago he thought the tiny machines fascinating. Not so much now that he's about to be one, if the procedure doesn't fry him completely.
A scientist's hand hovers over the switch and he allows himself one final request, whispered hoarsely in the instant before the transfer equipment sparks to life.
Of course, they do, and the electricity surges through him like all those times before, only it's different now. This time, accompanying the hurt and light is the distinct sensation that he's fading, like he's being dragged to another place. He tries his best to hold on, stay focused through the glare and electric hum in his veins but it's too much; his brain is being pulled away, integrating itself with the machine at the end of the thick, black cord. There is no going back, no fighting, no escaping and even though it's torturous and unbearable, he feels a modicum of relief in that this is it, this is the end. The whole bloody thing is almost over and soon he won't feel any more pain. Soon he won't feel anything at all.
And if this is the last thing he does unfettered by programming, the last thing he ever does as a human being with arms and legs and lungs and needs and wants and feelings, real feelings, he wants it to count. Blocking out the faces of the scientists and their clipboards, the programmer with his expression of remorse, he tries to conjure the images. Whatever he thinks of, he's going to make it matter.
The sun. Trees, clouds, grass. Birds. A world beyond Aperture. The sky.
The last thing he sees is blue.
The room is white and smells strongly of iodine.
At least, that's what he overheard. About the iodine, not about the whiteness—he can see that it's white; his optical input is perfectly functional, thanks very much. The scientist who woke him up…no, activated him, waking up is for humans—said that, but he can't vouch for olfactory sensors, because he doesn't have those. Which is just fine by him. Can't imagine why he'd ever need to know what iodine smells like.
An engineer is giving him a brief tune-up before they take him…wherever they're going to take him, to do…whatever it is he's supposed to do, and he might possibly be a little nervous. They talk to him, sure, but they don't really tell him anything, even when he asks. It's okay, though. He'll figure it out eventually. There are a lot of things he doesn't know.
He knows his name! Or what the lab coats call him, anyway, so it must be his name. ID Core. Very official-sounding, very important, even if he's not entirely sure what the "ID" stands for. It has to be important because the scientists always talk about how he is a huge success, how he is one-hundred-percent uncorrupted, how they think they've really got a chance now. Important…and…something that begins with D. ID. Yes. That must be it.
The engineer tinkering with his inner machinations looks just a bit frustrated for a moment, then calls in one of the programmers, a tired-looking young bloke with dark hair and shifty eyes that dart around as if plotting an escape. They exchange computer jargon and he hears them talk about a quick diagnostics run, just to double-check. While the other human takes his leave, the programmer pulls up a chair at the table, rotating him with a palm on his top handle so they're face-to-optic.
He's just a tiny bit concerned by the development and blinks his shutters, asking if everything's all right, receiving a curt 'just fine' in exchange. The engineer wants a programmer's eye for the final check, that's all, to make sure everything is as it should be, because this is an important day for the department. A plug slides into his back port and the man asks him to start running the program, which he's more than happy to do, of course. Green words and a percent completion bar flashes across the bottom corner of his internal display, matching readouts on a nearby monitor. The human rests his chin in his palm, eyes fixed on the screen.
The silence becomes a little unbearable, and spinning idly back and forth in his casing only amuses him for a few moments, so he ventures to ask a few questions. What's so important about today?
A shrug. He shouldn't worry about what the team is saying. They'll go to the central AI chamber and just…have him be himself, do what he's programmed to do, like all the other cores. Easy enough. Don't worry about it.
But it must be important, it has to be; they keep telling him so. Very important-he's the ID Core, after all, that stands for Important…well, he's still working on the D, but he's positive it's equally impressive.
The programmer suddenly looks upset and blurts a name, a name that would belong to a human, he recognizes that much. For an instant he thinks it's an introduction. That's what humans do when they meet, right? Exchange names.
He's corrected quickly and with surprising force. No. It's not this man's name. It's his name, at least, that's what this strange, shifty human is saying.
There are a lot of things that don't make sense to him, but even in his brief activation period, he's seen enough to know that personality constructs are named for their primary function (well, except for the green one who insists he has a human name, too, but to be frank, that sphere always seemed a little messed up in the motherboard), or referred to by number. It occurs to him that this programmer is giving him a name?
He tilts his inner component slightly and lifts his lower shutter in simulated puzzlement. A bit unconventional, sure, but this is one of the humans who helped design him, and he has to admit the name sounds familiar and…comfortable. In an odd way. Like it suits him, somehow.
A computerized beep signals the completion of the scan and the programmer removes the plug, asking if he's ready to go see Her.
That must be the important thing. Of course he's ready. Why wouldn't he be? Besides, he's excited to see other parts of the lab. These white rooms are the only thing he's known.
The man who named him nods, slowly, sadly, as if his mind is somewhere else, and scoops him up. Together they walk through the door.
AAAND...I'll leave with one last quick note. I can't take credit for those snippets of italicized text, so consider this my works cited, if you will. The letter in part II was my own devising, but I must admit to pulling those italicized sections from (in order) the application questions from the old Aperture Science website, unused Portal 2 dialogue, the Lab Rat comic, and, of course, the Wikipedia entry on the stages of grief.
Thanks for reading.