"We cross our bridges when we come to them and burn them behind us, with nothing to show for our progress except a memory of the smell of smoke, and a presumption that once our eyes watered."
-Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead
There just had to be one final joke between them, however unfunny it was. The lift stopped and a line of turrets scanned over her chest. Chell grit her teeth and tensed, flung herself against the back of the lift; twenty ways to evade the situation came into her head but she refused to act on them. The harmless little things weren't shooting at all. The one farthest right was the only one to extended its wings, but no bullets shot from them. They twisted up and down as if considering the situation and the woman before it. Chell tilted her chin down and stared at that turret the hardest, not necessarily threatening it so much as demanding that it make a decision soon. Was she going to have to kill it or not?
Apparently not. Starting with that furthest-right one, they shut off their beams - something Chell didn't think that turrets could do - and the furthest right continued to bob while the others took on the role of a radio.
Chell's shoulders rose and her head gave an unconscious, curious tilt. Doing in Aperture what was not designed of you was a death sentence. She had witnessed singing turrets in the past, but they were hidden under grating, peaceful, and appearing as defective refugees of the Redemption Lines. She had respected them for it, too.
After not long at all, their song and the reasons behind it became boring. Hearing new songs was always wonderful - there were very few that she could remember ever hearing, including the radio and the one her Painter friend had left behind - but this one's "new thing" novelty wore off quickly. It was too repetitive to hold her attention for long.
She could only conclude that this was part of the joke. GLaDOS's last laugh wasn't "You thought you were going to die," but rather, "You have to sit here and listen to an entire musical number before you can leave."
This drew a sigh from Chell that came mostly through her nose. The sigh was voiceless, of course; she hadn't been able to produce vocal sound in decades. Her voice had been removed when she was a very small child. What age she was exactly couldn't be remembered but she had a foggy image of white coats and something plastic held over her mouth and nose. No specific face could be blamed. No one could claim fault but the very facility she was waiting to hurry up and abandon.
Finally, the lift rose again. With shocking inertia. Almost as if GLaDOS were getting annoyed by Her own joke or was perhaps anxious to get one of Her phobias out of the facility. When one has a venomous spider in a jar, one doesn't hesitate to throw it out the front door.
Not that Chell knew what a spider was.
The lift slowed again and Chell held back a sneer. Maybe She wasn't so much rushing to remove Chell from the facility as She was anxious to get to the next part of Her hilariously extended goodbye. If only there were actually any humor in the situation; agreeing to enter an elevator again after last time was in and of itself a sacrifice. One worthy of its reward, but a grating and worrisome one. The presence of glass and the closeness of the walls made her sweat harder than running ever could. Chell spent less time keeping an eye on the turrets and more looking up at where she was supposed to be going. As if GLaDOS could see her exhaustion with this less-than-welcome prank, which Chell fully believed that She could.
Singing - human-like singing, not the coos and purrs of turrets - caught her off-guard. More than that, the language being sung. Chell had knowledge of languages beyond English, but they were limited by the culture that she had grown up surrounded by: Binary, Data Exchange, Morse Code, and the like. They were used around her frequently, but this was new.
It wasn't like GLaDOS to make a fool of Herself, even to laugh at the ignorance of others. She wouldn't sing gibberish. Waste Her vocals on an enemy without a hidden meaning? Never. This was probably some kind of secret message. Chell attempted to decode it with GLaDOS's previous behavior as a translation key. The message she assumed it to be wound up a longer and much less vulgar way of saying "Fuck off."
The song continued long after her view of the turrets was cut. She wasn't exactly making an effort to continue looking at them. Suddenly the lift was faster, which Chell only noticed when she realized that things in her line of vision went by quicker. She had long since lost the ability to feel spatial movement. It hadn't been taken with her voice; rather, she was somewhere in her teen years when stepping through an emancipation grill caused her ears to leak. Chell was less astutely aware of this fault than she was of her voice. She believed that falling felt like floating because she was used to it after so many years. Her eyes and ears and the autobalance in her Long Fall boots were enough to tell her when she or the ground were moving.
Ascension stopped. Chell had hardly a moment to connect the still image before her to a lack of movement before the door swung open. Pure whiteness burnt Chell's eyes but shutting them was not an option. Rather, she leaned her head away, chin diagonally raised. Her unblinking eyes were wide and her pupils didn't know how far to constrict.
The horizon didn't seem real. She wasn't sure what she expected it to be. Her only real memory of Outside was a three-second glimpse of a burning parking lot before she fell unconscious. A good decade had passed since then for all the world except for her own biological form. Cryosleep was hardly a miracle but she appreciated the lack of aging this time around.
Chell did not tread lightly. She kept herself from running under the lie that she was being cautious, but that had already been cast to the wind. Her strides were long and quick and she wasn't about to waste precious time surveying for danger.
So many unfamiliar idle sounds hit her ears. She had never heard her footsteps sound so light before, even with the springing of her boots' braces muffled behind her. The chirps of birds were recognized for what they were: her allies, fellow machine-haters, singing a much more welcome song than any computer could produce.
Sheer white and gold expanded into a shade of powdered blue that could not be found in Aperture and each individual blade of wheat swayed in the wind to its own rhythm, heeding not to the sync of its kin. Large puffy things hovered gracefully in the air, bottom sides flattened. Her gaze raised from the horizon up to them; how did they stay there? Were they as soft as they looked? Chell bet that she could reach one if she jumped high enough.
What sounded like an explosion had her whipped around faster than she could register noise, the part of her brain built to hear violence and retaliate faster than the part of her distracted by wanting to hug clouds. Chell settled when it turned out to just be the door slamming shut. How characteristic of the sore loser that GLaDOS was to throw in one final "And stay out!" to mark the occasion. Nothing could have been a better last word between them.
That is, until the shed opened again.
An old friend came tumbling out. Charred and covered in soot but not a dent in sight. Chell blinked for the first time in several minutes. No wonder they had so many of these things if they were fireproof. She lifted an eyebrow towards the door as it slammed shut again. Less hasty this time; Chell caught it lingering open for just a moment. Long enough for her to question how GLaDOS was taking this. Not that she cared.
Attention returned to the cube. Truth be told, Chell had little affection for it as anything other than a tool. Test Chamber 17 was a psychological examination of an isolated subject's ability to become attached to an inanimate object and subsequently murder it. Part of protocol was to tell every subject who incinerated their cube that they were the fastest on record to do so. Chell's rush through 17 had been the only time that GLaDOS was thankful for the Morality Core's forced regulation of Her tone; despite all scripts provided, Chell truly held the record for fastest solver of Test Chamber 17. Little did Chell know that her nemesis had sources to back up Her taunting claims of sociopathy.
However, the cube's return was appreciated. Test Chamber 17 had been a lie, as were most of GLaDOS's interactions. Not entirely unexpected. Chell nearly smacked herself for not having predicted her cube's survival. Having this as a gift was a sort of "no hard feelings" to go alongside the diplomatic gesture it presented.
They now had an agreement. The cube was the final signature on their peace treaty. She and GLaDOS had territory. Aperture was GLaDOS's. The surface was Chell's. Anything from the stratosphere on up was too tainted to claim. The incinerators were GLaDOS's to kill with. The cube was Chell's to keep.
The moon was forsaken land. Banned. Tarnished.
As appreciated as the message was, the messenger would have to be left behind. Chell couldn't bear the sight of the familiar; silver and white and straight, even lines under beautiful layers of caked-on ashes were too much. The cube could hold her no longer. Chell spun around and stared straight above herself, into infinity, into space. Beyond space. Then into the horizon. Beyond the horizon. To the roundness of the Earth. Chell became excited by the nausea that gathered in the pit of her stomach when she attempted to picture forever. An incalculable concept, unduplicatable by any written number, now sprawled before her and tangible.
Her feet were moving before she intended them to. The sensation of wheat rustling against skin did not occur, any contact blocked by her thick metal boots. Everything else was foreign enough. Wind, soft dirt, a distinct lack of electrical hum that made the world seem deaf underneath the chittering of birds. The smell of hot, crisp, untainted, non-recycled oxygen burning her nostrils and confusing her lungs. Heat itself, scalding skin paled by decades without sunlight. She remembered the lick of flame in Test Chamber 19 and the hot pavement after killing GLaDOS. Neither were so comforting as this, an embrace from the sun's rays.
Chell hadn't had a thing to drink nor eat in technically ten years. Minus cryosleep, it had only been about a week. That wasn't long in Aperture with plenty of artificial nutrients pumped into the air supply, but with her mouth open to taste how fresh the Outside oxygen was, she realized how thirsty she had become. Feeling dry was normal. She didn't know how much her body relied on Aperture's support. She could find water later, after frolicking was over.
Gravity Challenge braces were designed to protect the wearer from falls and keep them standing. Long Fall boots were a much more impressive upgrade; they were designed not only to absorb the shock of a fall and balance while landed like the braces before them, but to balance and weigh the wearer midair as well. Any schlub could do a backflip 20 yards above the ground and land squarely on their feet as long as they were wearing a pair of these. It was thanks to Long Fall boots (and the braces) that Chell was able to stand at all, which she was sorely unaware of.
Despite ignorance regarding her own sense of balance (or lack thereof), maneuvering in Long Fall boots was second nature to her. Anybody else would have had a hard time dropping down against the artificial gravity provided, yet Chell knew just the right way to buckle her knees, where to lean and when, in order to find herself on the ground.
Chell rubbed her cheek into the dirt and kicked, stretched out like a cat in a meadow, and did not rest. She was out of her comfortable position the second that she had found it, smacking the soft ground to roll over and over. Then stop on her belly, push herself into sitting, fall on her back and stare up at infinity. Repeat the process a few more times with a little variation for spice. Stand up, fall down, roll over. Sit up, lay down, sit up, roll over. Pause, roll over. Sit up, stand up, run in a circle. Sit down. Lay down. Roll over.
She stopped on her back, knees up, arms by her sides, chest heaving and nose aflame with panting. Her cheeks and lungs were in the best kind of pain. Chell wasn't used to smiling.
The gentle breeze wafted over her, tilted the wheat stalks, caressed her bangs away from her forehead. The clouds were pink and embossed with twilight upon them. Chell had seen clouds during her three-second post-murder glimpse of the Outside, but not when firing herself into space. That was because, she was proud of herself for figuring out, sometimes the sky gets Dark. Then time will pass, and it will be Light again. The clouds must go somewhere at Dark to hide. She was curious where the clouds went at Dark and watched them.
Her breaths didn't quite even out but they settled down to normal. Chell became so enraptured by the way pink transformed into orange and then scarlet and purple and navy blue, and the stars poked their way through the cosmos, that she lost track of the clouds. She was disappointed to see that they had hidden when she wasn't looking, a tiny pang of worry coming over her that went unnoticed. There was little to be worried about; nothing could block her view of the sky. Days were countable now. She had plenty of time to hunt down the clouds later.
Sleep didn't dare approach her. One of the many chemicals forced through her system in excess by Aperture's very air was adrenaline. It coursed through her. She didn't recognize its constant overdose as anything out of the ordinary. Excluding the moon, this was her first night. With adrenaline beating down melatonin - the chemical that makes diurnal animals tired in darkness - Chell had no indication whatsoever that Darktime was Sleeptime. This was just a blue-er, shadowy-er version of day.
The moon lingered above her head. It was one notch from full. Her smile vanished but the ache in her cheeks remained. Her nose scrunched up. Her lips parted to bare teeth. What started as a snarl was turned right around when she tried to lean away; with the ground against her back and her wrists exposed as her sides, Chell felt more pinned than threatening. The overwhelming sensation of being trapped wasn't limited to legitimate restraint and Chell became for all of one second convinced that she couldn't move, that the moon and the moron residing there had her hands and ankles bound.
Upon realizing how absurd that was, she ripped herself from the dirt and ran. In circles, mostly, and figure-eights, and ridiculous, un-nameable shapes. Glaring up at the moon when she got the chance. Snarling at it. Clenching her fists at it. Smiling through bare-toothed growls and snorting through her nose like a bull. She frolicked in very decisive, very intentional defiance.
The sun was rising again before she was finished spitting contempt. The clouds came back with it, fluffier and more huggable than anything else she had ever seen. Chell backed up a running start and made a short dash under one, then sprung and coiled her knees. Her jump was impressive, aided only partially by the boots; she could reach a height easily rounded to one foot, though was in truth a few centimeters short. Yet that wasn't high enough to reach the clouds. She huffed and tried again; picked a smaller cloud, sprinted, leapt, swiped her arms and claws far above her head. Landed without a touch. They were too high to reach.
Chell scanned her surroundings. The shed and cube were invisible now, somewhere in some direction. All around her was an endless sea of gold as if the whole of the Earth was overgrown with wheat. Another scan gave her better results: on the bare tip of the horizon, some mound of silhouettes akin to a mirage. Gorgeously uneven and scattered. She bounded towards them and the end of the field.
The wheat stopped abruptly near two miles out. It cut off in a straight line and sunk into the earth. For once, her eyes fell on the ground. On the scattered pebbles and disorganized twigs. On math-less patterns that Aperture did not allow to exist. On the natural placement of things that Aperture would rather tidy up.
Attention then lifted to the massive pillars of wood that towered over her. They, too, were dazzling; their branches intertwined and grew uninhibited. Their leaves were sparse in places and abundant in others. They were the bigger, better, stronger version of the vines that she had taken such pleasure in while still in Aperture's belly. Crawling around the corpse of a massive mechanical animal and admiring the moss in its organs, the bugs and birds eating its metal carrion. The organic stench of rot, now replaced with the smell of dew and saplings.
Chell had no doubt that these things were alive, just like the walls of Aperture. She wondered who built them and how they were made, and why there were so many. If she could talk to them like cores to lesser computers or nanobots. The easy answer was No, and she chose a more practical use for them: climbing.
Their unevenly dented bark and non-uniform structure made them easy get a grip on. Chell dug her uncut nails into the tree's thick hide and her boots' metal braces dug deep lacerations. Once in the branches, her boots held her steady. She wasn't expecting leaves to sting but a few of the more firm ones poked her as she went up. She gave them the benefit of the doubt that this was entirely accidental and kept going without giving the tree a violent trim.
Her head poked through the top layer of leaves and instantly tilted back to check that the clouds hadn't drifted too far. They hadn't. Chell pushed the rest of herself up, balancing on two thin branch tips made easy by the design of her boots. She took in a breath, then shot her hand into the air. A low huff, nose scrunching. She was still too close to the ground.
Chell jumped down. As thick as the trees were, as tightly interwoven as they had grown, she didn't feel trapped amongst them. The sky was visible through bundles of pretty leaves and she had plenty of room to squeeze between their trunks. Clearings were aplenty. Her romp through Outside's wilds had to slow to a tranquil hike. She swerved and curled around foliage, pet bushes like they were animals, rubbed her cheek against the trees to pick up their muddy, oaky scent. It didn't work; the chemical stench clinging to her wouldn't go away. She had forgotten that it was there. The animals didn't. She had yet to see a single one; they all hid from the overpowering reek of chlorine and ketone and the stomping sound of braces against dirt.
What eventually halted her trek was a very thick dirt road. Even straight lines Outside could not compare to Aperture's; the path's edges were shakily carved and run over with dents. There were skid lines, dark, light. Pebbles covered the whole surface. Chell spent quite some time studying it. She concluded that it had to lead somewhere and the remaining time was wasted on trying to decipher where as if coordinates were coded into the pattern of the pebbles. So as not to disturb the imprecise, she tread alongside it with her eyes - unblinking - firmly on the ground.
There came a rumbling sound. Chell's vision began to vibrate. Running on instinct, she leapt away from the noise, and away from the road, until her back smacked painfully against a tree. Her fingertips dug into bark, eyes wide as a machine zipped past her.