Edit 11/29/08: Figures. I want to upload a chapter that's hideously late, and my computer decides to go, "nope, just kidding!" and crash. Everything's hunky-dory now (thank shai'hulud for external hard drives), but those who were expecting this a bit earlier in the month (sorry, Gryphonworks) got stood up. Sorry, guys. :/
Author's Notes: Hahahaha, I LIVE! Oh, LOL, just look at the time! :D Ugh. I'm such a screwball when it comes to keeping to a schedule. Many apologies for the over six-month-late(!! Eww eww eww!!) chapter. If I'd only just stuck to the plan (and if cold, cruel reality hadn't been barging in as often as it's been), I'd be up to chapter eleven by now…
Speaking of Portal, though:
Kotaku dot com: it's spoiler-iffically delicious, and I couldn't resist! On June 10th, some leaked info and dialogue from Portal 2 was posted to that site—stuff revealing several massive plot points that knocked me completely off-guard. While I've got to admit that what the team's got planned does sound awesome, I'm still holding out hope that there's far more to this than meets the eye.
Well, in light of this new reveal, my fic has been knocked from "woulda'-coulda'-shoulda'-harmless-speculation-AU" into the realm of "blatheringly-off-the-mark, canon-defying-AU". …But that's okay. :3 Comes with the territory of writing fic for a story with a coming sequel, after all. Haha, now I know how earlier Harry Potterfic writers felt! My sympathies, guys.
Although, there's always Episode 3 to channel my desperate fantard hopes into. :3 So, I'll do that. Borealis, ho~!
C'mon, man. Don't let me down. :D
In other news, I'm currently slogging my way through Myst on my brand spankin' new DS Lite. That game and I have a special relationship: no matter how hard it beats my brain into oatmeal, I, masochist that I am, keep coming back for more. I just wish someone would tell me that puttering around Myst Island for nigh two hours without accomplishing anything but reading a bunch of scrambled journals, pushing a bunch of switches, and generally being useless is okay.
And I still haven't solved that fucking "dimensional imager" puzzle. Oh, Myst, they should sell you with a leather whip and matching bondage collar.
Also, I saw WALL-E twice first weekend it came out. F00king adorable. I'll save the gushing for a separate occasion, though… or possibly a flufftastic oneshot. :3 for Halloween, I was EVE and my roomie was WALL-E… :P Good times. "Ee-vaah!" Awww.
Also, I read Frank Herbert's Dune. Fanfic definitely coming up for that book—the Fremen kick major amounts of bum. Now, though, on to chapter six. :3 Fi-na-lly.
After she had found the light, Chell could see that the walls of the corridor were lined with shelves.
The shelves were filled with boxes, papers, and folders, some neatly stacked, others fallen over into heaps. The floor was concrete. On the ceiling, at intervals, were bolted naked lightbulbs, each giving off a pale yellow light that, to Chell, seemed rather sickly.
Like everywhere else—excluding, of course, the spotless test chambers—in the facility, this corridor was in a state of decay.
Rotting cobwebs hung like gauze from the lights and the corners of the shelves. They clung to the yellowed, swollen folders and stacks of papers in snowy membranes. Every conceivable surface was bleared with dust, and the air was choked with it. As Chell took a few steps forward through a coat of the stuff so thick it may as well have been snow, she gagged on the dust, but also on the smell of the air: it was the smell of things left mouldering too long in the dark, of paper left to be eaten away by its own acids, of flaking rust and cold metal.
It was the smell of abandonment, and now, with dust settling in her hair and coating her hands and side from her fall, she smelled like it, too.
No-one had been in this place for God (or GLaDOS, her mind supplemented) knew how long. If she was going to find food, it wasn't going to be here. So why had that murderous computer shown her this way, of all things? Casting a dubious look at the shadowy expanse where the lights ended—some seventy or so yards away—she turned on her heel and eyed the (by contrast) brightly-lit rectangle from whence she'd come.
Suddenly, with a slickly mechanical whoosh, that rectangle was gone.
With a cry born more of indignation at having been tricked again than anything, Chell stumbled back to the ledge and threw herself at the door, slamming her palms into the metal with an echoing bang. Anything and everything that came to mind, if she deemed it horrible enough, was hurled as loudly as she could through that door, including suggestions of various anatomical feats that GLaDOS, as a computer, probably wouldn't be able to execute.
All of this, however, was no use. The door stayed closed, as Chell had known it would, and, when she paused for breath, she realized that her hands were sore from all the banging.
"You've gotten very talkative since you escaped. I'm impressed." The AI's voice, a bit muffled but otherwise unaffected, issued from somewhere behind the walls. "However, you seem to fail to recognize help when it's offered: I just want to make sure you're going the right way."
Chell sneezed and rubbed her stinging palms together. "I've heard that one before. You've got a skewed idea of 'the right way'."
"Oh, you're not still mad about that whole Chamber Nineteen thing, are you?" the computer scoffed. "If I were you, I'd let bygones be bygones. You're so immature, really, it's no wonder you don't have any friends." As she paused to let that sink in, Chell sneezed again.
"Besides," the AI continued, "Why would I get you lost if I wanted to keep you alive?"
Chell had to admit that her captor had a point. Still, she didn't like the thought of the computer being able to herd her like this, nor did she like the looks of where she was meant to go. She stood still.
The computer spoke again, her voice high and mocking: "If you want to eat, you're going to have to move, you know."
The dust in the air had turned the test subject's saliva to a paste, and her throat stuck uncomfortably when she tried to swallow. Making a face, Chell thought of water, and what a nice thing it was. As much as it pained her to admit it, the computer was right again—there was nothing in her immediate surroundings that could count as 'food', unless, of course, she wanted to eat paper.
Grudgingly, she turned away from the wall and began to make her way down the corridor.
Her belly hurt, and walking was a bit difficult: it felt as though someone had tied a knot inside her, and every step pulled that knot a little tighter. Yet walk she did, from pool of yellow light to pool of yellow light, cobwebs brushing her face in sticky tendrils, with only the sound of her own irregular breathing to break the thick silence. The shock absorbers on her legs left dragging marks in the dusty film on the floor. The normally bright clang they made against concrete was muffled here to a dull 'thump', and, as hateful and unnatural as the things were, Chell found that she missed the familiar sound they made: without it to announce her presence, she felt like a ghost.
As Chell walked, GLaDOS resumed her story, her voice sounding thin through the walls of the lonely passageway:
"Julia insisted upon leaving, despite Jonathan's assurances that she was welcome to stay, and after she was gone, the real business of testing resumed…
"Let's start with the basics, shall we?" Smiling, Franklin wheeled around in his chair and entered something into his boxlike terminal. A moment later, his one monitor flickered from blue to black, with a bright green cursor blinking in one corner. "This first test will consist of a simple question-and-answer session: I'll ask you some questions, and you just do your best to answer."
Jonathan took a seat at the terminal next to him and smiled at GLaDOS. "Are you ready?"
"Sure, Doctor Jonathan-Stone," she replied. She only had only half-processed what Franklin had said—her experience with the toddler was still fresh, and all she could see in her mind's eye was that stoic little creature's slimy hand coming right at her—a thought that kept her from really paying attention to much around her. The thing that bothered her the most, however, wasn't the goo the girl had left on her lens (that had been wiped away by Franklin, thank goodness), but the questions she had risen in her mind. What could the Rachel-thing's motivation for such an act have been? Had there even been a motivation?
Was it possible, she thought, to do things 'just because'? Did everything need motive? Or could some things just happen… simply because one wanted them to?
This new thought sent a shiver up her spine—metaphorically, of course. The idea that, perhaps, not everything needed a purpose was a terribly exciting one, but it was also a bit frightening.
Then again, what was to say that Rachel hadn't had some motivation for what she had done? Something told her that "children" generally weren't cunning enough to operate under ulterior motives, but, from what she'd already seen of the way the world and the people in it worked, she knew not to dismiss the possibility.
Startled back into reality by Franklin's voice, she replied, "Huh?"
"The first question: 'what is your name'?" His back to her, the scientist was entering more things into his terminal as he spoke. She felt very curious about what he could be writing about her, but decided that she'd probably be told later, and that it would be better to concentrate on the questions.
"My name? It's…" she stopped, confused, and said, "…but you know my name!" A thought occurring to her, she added quietly, "…Have you forgotten it already?"
Jonathan laughed and shook his head. "No, of course we haven't—this is only a routine question."
"Oh," said GLaDOS, relieved. After a pause to collect herself, she said as clearly as she could: "I am the Genetic Lifeform and Disc Operating System—'GLaDOS'."
"Very good," murmured Franklin. "Next question: what was the date of your activation?"
Confused again, the computer blurted out, "But you know that, too! If you know that I know all of this stuff, and you expect me to know that you know that I know you know about all this stuff, too, then why are you asking me about all of these things that I know you know I know about? Why can't you just type in what you know I know you know—because you do know it—into those computers yourselves?"
Franklin and Stone had turned to face her, and she stopped to observe the dazed expressions on both the scientists' faces. "I don't get it," she added.
Jonathan and his partner exchanged a look. Franklin leaned back in his chair. "Er… well, because that's not really the point."
Jonathan nodded. "It's not that we need toknow the answers themselves—rather, what we really need to know is how well you can remember the answers."
"We want to see how your mind works," added Franklin, "not how ours work. We know that pretty well already." He smiled.
She thought about this for a bit, then said, "Oh, that makes sense! Okay, then, I'm ready."
"Good," said Franklin, and turned back to his terminal.
He turned around again. "Yes, GLaDOS?"
"Well…" she paused, trying to put together the right words. "Um… if you and Doctor Jonathan and Doctor Rosenberg and everyone put me together, than shouldn't you know the best out of anybody how I work? Better than me, even?"
The two scientists looked at each other, than back into the inquisitive orange "eye" of their creation. To her surprise, neither of them answered her right away. She'd assumed that they would reply immediately, and their silent, slightly puzzled stares were enough to put a very small dent in her mental image of them as pillars of knowledge. It was a small dent, felt only on an unconscious level, but a dent nonetheless.
Fortunately, whatever conscious doubt had been creeping up on her during their silence was squashed by Jonathan's assured response:
"Well, of course we know how you work, if you take that to mean that we know how you're put together and what each little part of you does. Usually, by taking something apart one can figure out precisely how it ought to work, but you're not something with which that method really works." He leaned forward, his soft blue eyes looking into her large orange one. "That method only works with simple machines, like typewriters or microwaves… or toasters." He smiled. "You're not simple, not by a long shot: we built your brain, but you have a mind, something that, like the human mind, can't be understood from simply opening you up." He and Franklin shared a look. "…In fact, sometimes I nearly forget you're not human."
'Wow, really?" Flattered, she flicked her gaze around the room, noting first the technicians chatting and working nearby, then the glowing computer terminals. I'm not like you at all, she thought to them, remembering what she had thought of them earlier. This time, though, there was none of that other feeling, no loneliness—just conviction and pride. They were stupid, and she was much better.
"A little bit." Jonathan turned back around and typed something into his terminal. "That's why we have to ask you these questions—just to check on your mind. We're also asking them so that we can figure out the best way of fixing that communication gap I told you about earlier."
Oh, right: the problem. She was self-conscious about the fact that there was something wrong with her, even though she didn't really understand just what the problem was.
That's okay, though. Today, it will be fixed.
Franklin glanced over his shoulder. "Please answer the question, GLaDOS."
Startled, she remembered what he was talking about immediately. "Oh—oh, right! Hmm." Using, again, a tone of voice that she thought sounded terribly impressive, she recited, "I was activated on the fourteenth of January, in the year Nineteen Ninety-Nine."
"Well done. Where are you right now?"
The answer was automatic: "I am in the Aperture Science Enrichment Center."
"Very good. …And in which state is the Enrichment Center located?"
What? "Huh? State? Hey,I don't—" suddenly, she interrupted herself with the answer. It was a strange-sounding word, one that she immediately recognized as meaning something but had never thought connected to herself or this place (her home) in any way. Bewildered, she said, "Wait—I didn't say that! I mean, I did, but…"
"It's all right," muttered Franklin, typing energetically at his terminal. "Next question: which country?"
"Ooh, ooh, I know this one! The United States of America!"
Jonathan chuckled. "Correct. Nicely done."
The corridor was endless. It had to be.
Days—or, rather, what felt like days— of sleep deprivation, coupled with hunger and extreme psychological strain, had completely drained Chell of all her energy, and she shambled down the corridor like a dusty zombie. The balls of her feet throbbed with every step, and she fancied that she could feel each individual point where the bones pressed against the floor. Bent nearly double with fatigue, she kept her eyes on the darkness at the far end of the corridor, which seemed to retreat from her with every painful step she took towards it. Rusted metal shelves, sheathed in cobweb and shadow and stuffed with moldy papers, lined her peripheral vision in an endless parade of decay.
Breaking off her story abruptly, the computer snapped, "Again! You interrupted again. I think you're doing this on purpose."
Chell rubbed at her temple with one dust-floured palm. "Mm-hm. Look… this must be a dead end."
There was a pause. "A dead end?"
Chell stopped walking and leaned against a shelf, feeling cool metal through the dust. "Yes."
"…Are you sure?"
"Well, it seems to me to be going all of nowhere." Chell looked up, scanning the walls and ceiling for anything that might have been a video camera. "I've been walking for ages, and it's nothing but these shelves—this place may as well be a dead end, for all the help it's been." She sneezed. "So much for 'going the right way'."
This proclamation was met with silence, and, having not caught sight of any cameras or similar things which the computer could use to spy on her test subject, Chell turned to the shelf and gingerly lifted the flap of a manila folder. The decades of dust ground into the thing gave it a very unpleasant texture, and Chell held the flap between two fingers as she leaned forward to read what was printed on the papers inside. Although they were stained and yellowed with age, and the print faded with dust, she could make out enough words to tell that they were a status report of some kind: words like "CONFIRMED" and "INSPECTED" kept popping up a lot. Other words, such as "RADIOACTIVE" and "COMBUSTIBLE" weren't quite as numerous, but they certainly caught the eye. She paused, then, on impulse, tucked the whole folder under one arm.
Why the hell not, she thought to herself. Perhaps boning up on some Aperture methodology would help her glean insight into her own predicament. GLaDOS' history lessons would take a while to get up to anything relevant to her interests, she concluded, and, after all, there was a significant chance that the computer would embellish bits and pieces here and there, either for the sake of deception or the sake of interesting storytelling. Whatever. The thing Chell was certain of was this: she'd trust GLaDOS about as far as she could throw her (sans Portal Device, of course), and next to the AI, a stack of moldy paper was integrity incarnate.
Besides, the computer had been her only resource thus far about this place, and she craved fresh information. Said information being both fresh and minus the crazy was an added bonus.
"A dead end? You really think so? Hmm… perhaps you're not as intelligent as I thought you were." The computer gave a scraping, mechanical sigh. "What a letdown."
Chell made a noise in the back of her throat.
"Well, I won't be giving you any hints. This will be another test, then; it should be interesting. Or embarrassing. Depends on how long it takes you."
Chell took one hand off the folder and put it to her aching head. "Oh, no way. No, no, no."
"I'm sorry," replied GLaDOS in a disconnected, sickeningly cheery voice. "I believe the correct response is 'oh, yes, yes, yes'. What a fun learning experience!"
There was a beat of silence while Chell let this sink in. Her thoughts were shorting out; there were no words to capture the hatred she felt for the AI. Shaking with emotion and fatigue, she growled, "No. I don't think so."
"Look." She took a deep breath. "If you don't tell me where I'm supposed to go, I will pass out, right here, right now, and you'll never get to finish your stupid story."
The computer snarled, "You wouldn't dare."
Chell stood her ground. "Oh, yes, I would. In fact, I don't think I shall wake up, and then you'll never get to finish it at all, because, after a while, I'll be dead." Standing up a little straighter, she raised her voice enough to hear it echo down the corridor. "I'll be dead, and you won't have gotten to kill me yourself. And face it: there'll never be another test subject like me. If I die, you'll have lost your golden opportunity: no-one will ever appreciate you again. You'll be miserable forever." She waited until the echoes subsided, then muttered into the silence, "…Plus, I'll never have gotten to kill you, and I'm really looking forward to that."
"Hmmm," mused the computer. "You make a good point… and you drive a hard bargain. I really don't know."
Chell affected the most pathetic whine she could and howled, "Oooh, everything's spinning! Oh, I feel so faint… I don't think I have much ti—"
"All right, all right! I'll tell you. Now be quiet," GLaDOS snapped. "You're so fragile."
Chell said nothing.
"Now… judging by the location of your voice, the door you need must be… oh, maybe a few yards back, on the left-hand wall? Just re-trace your steps; it's not very hard."
Gritting her teeth, the test subject turned around and started back up the passage, scanning the wall for anything resembling a door. The shelving left most of everything behind it in deep shadow, and it was nearly impossible to make out anythi—
There was something behind the shelf. Chell leaned closer, squinting through the dust and shadow at the faint vertical crack in the wall. She reached over the stacks of folders and ran her fingers over it, feeling the split in the concrete. It was far too uniform to have been caused by an accident, and appeared to span the wall from ceiling to floor. Feeling her heartbeat pick up speed, Chell quickly set her folder down on the floor and took the edge of the shelving unit in her hands. She tugged it away from the wall, shuddering involuntarily at the screech of steel on concrete, and gazed in amazement at the door that, sure enough, now stared her in the face. It was a plain, windowless door, with a metal handle, and as she picked up her folder from the ground she noted the drag lines the shelving had made in the dust when she'd dragged it away.
Wait a second.
Just as she'd expected, there was a clean set of tracks from the four legs of the frame, but there were other marks, too: they were older and blurred by a dust layer of their own, but still clearly showed where those same four legs had scraped through once before.
What this meant was clear: sometime after this hallway had fallen into disuse, someone had come and hidden this door.
Chell shrugged and turned the handle. The dust made it feel coated with a layer of short fur. Whoever hid this door, and why, she thought to herself, probably doesn't matter much. Maybe they ran out of wall space.
"Ah! You've found it!" GLaDOS 'smiled'. "That was very good! Although, I don't understand why you were moving furniture. Maybe that part was a bit unnecessary. You really shouldn't waste time."
As the door opened, letting out a puff of air stale enough to make her gag, Chell reached one arm inside and groped for a light switch. Finding nothing but wall, she took a step inside, into a darkness so stark it was almost a physical presence. She groped further. "Come on…"
Something cold skittered across her left foot.
Sucking in a sharp breath through her teeth, the woman who had traversed pits of acid and crossed matter-vaporizing energy fields unfazed felt her spine prickle with revulsion. Insects! It was just her luck that they would be the first truly living things she would encounter in this God-forsaken facility. Having spent all of her remembered life surrounded by cold, sterile machines and materials, being snuck up on by another squishy thing was startling, especially since it took her a moment to actually recognize what that thing was. However, it didn't take much thinking to see the good omen that the thing really was: where there were insects, there was food for insects… and, possibly, food for test subjects, too.
For what seemed the first time in her life, Chell felt something like hope. Maybe things were looking up, after all.
At that moment, she found the switch and flipped it, bringing the one bare lightbulb dangling from the ceiling flickering to life. Its light, while meager, was enough to illuminate most of the room: like the hallway, its walls were lined with shelves, but a few of them had been overturned and lay broken across the stained floor, their contents scattered around in yellowed drifts and heaps. She took a paper from the floor and used it to jam the door, wadding it inside the mechanism before she shut herself off from the hallway—she had learned not to take any chances in the Enrichment Center.
This room bore a superficial resemblance to the hall outside, but, as she stepped further inside, she realized that some of the shelves were not stacked with folders at all, but massive sheets of deep blue paper, written on in white. There were long, sealed tubes scattered on the floor, and she picked one up, opening the end: it was stuffed with a roll of the same paper. How strange, she thought, and dropped the empty tube to the floor, unrolling its contents against a nearby shelf. The sheet was so large she had to hold it open with both hands, and its gridded surface was covered all over with white outlines of things that looked like machinery. Something prickled in the back of her mind—she knew she knew what these papers were, and what these drawings meant, somehow—but epiphany eluded her. One side of the paper began to slip, and she adjusted it, looking up as she did so.
Her eyes went wide, and the paper dropped to her feet.
There must have been dozens up there, neatly stacked on the top two shelves of the unit she stood in front of. Feeling a sudden rush of elation, she gave a little whoop of joy and danced back on her shock absorbers, getting a better view: the labels were too dusty to read, but the part of her that remembered things on its own told her that, more often than not, food was found in cans. The shelf was too high to reach, but Chell was no stranger to ingenuity: she retrieved a broken piece of metal (probably from a shelving unit) from the floor, took aim, and threw it like a javelin at the stack of cans, knocking about five down to earth. Each one hit the floor with a crack like a starting pistol, and the noise had barely faded when Chell dove towards the nearest one and snatched it up, a demented squirrel in an orange jumpsuit hunched over a chestnut.
"What was that noise? You're making a mess, aren't you?" GLaDOS' voice was a bit fainter now that two walls separated her from her test subject, but Chell wouldn't have heard her anyway: she was captivated by the object in her hands. It was a dusty can labeled "Swift & Wolpaw's Premium Lentil Soup", but in that moment it was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen. She turned it over.
It had a flip-top. Hallelujah! Gathering her pile of cans around her, she sat back against the leg of a shelf and tore open the can, breathing deeply of the cold soup's heavy, green aroma. When she stopped to take another breath, she found herself begin to laugh uncontrollably with joy, and wondered faintly if she was going mad.
"What are you doing? Answer me!" GLaDOS snapped. "I mean it! Are you even listening to me? I command you to answer! Hey!"
Chell did not answer. In-between gulps of stale soup, her laughter increased in volume and intensity until she was helpless to hold it in. Throwing her head back, she surrendered to hysteria, and all the fear, confusion, and agony of the past few days erupted from her body in shrieking sounds a bit closer to screams than to laughter. To her overwhelmed mind, the experience was frightening, but cathartic: the food in her hands had been what made it seem okay to let go in such a way, the hope it brought her triggering a total abandonment of composure. This outpouring of emotion wasn't a sign of complete madness, as she feared—Chell was a bit nuts, but still far more rational than she gave herself credit for—but rather a result of immense relief and something she'd never felt before in great quantities: positive emotion. More specifically, optimism. The moment she'd tasted the soup, three things had stood out in her mind like flares: she was alive, she had food, and she was ready to turn her circumstances the hell around.
She wasn't sure how, exactly, she'd accomplish this, but she was ready to, and, of course, that's what really mattered. She was alive, and she was ready.
"Hello? I can hear you laughing. Is there something wrong? Why won't you answer me? I don't appreciate you ignoring me like this. I'm the reason you've got food, you know. I know you've got food, because you've stopped talking. Or maybe I'm just saying that to feel better about the fact that you're ignoring me." The computer paused, then snarled, "…You know what? I hope you choke."
Closing Notes: Whew! Dayum, that took way longer than it should've. The problem, I think, was that what I was playing with before was actually two chapters' worth of material that I was trying to squish into one… so, chapter seven and eight will follow swiftly on the heels of this one. :P Apologies to everyone waiting for an update… hopefully, this was a one-time thing. And even if I do drop of the face of the Earth again, do not fear—a new chapter will come eventually. I'm not one to abandon a story… and no, the Pirates of the Caribbean fanfic that I started and left to die in the seventh grade does not count. Pshh, even I have standards. 9_9
¡Hasta luégo! –Oh, and please: if you spot any grammatical errors, plotholes, or other things that ought not to be, please let me know! :) Thanks!