The bell invites
hear the turret
for it is knell
that summons to heaven
or to hell.
He slid his hand down the wall. Red, sticky. One of his murals? No picture soothed his jittery thoughts, no forgotten formula or words broke through the solid colour, just an ugly smear in a pristine room.
It's her blood, Cube said in his ear.
Back pressed against the wall, he shifted his gaze to the camera high on the far side of the test chamber. The red light glared in his direction, but it didn't follow his movements. Good, that meant she was occupied. To his left, a turret lay on its side like a squashed tin spider. His hand touched the wall again, fingers running over the scars of bullet holes. Only one thing could lower such an abnormal tenacity level. Fatigue and starvation had no effect on a subject so stubborn. Other subjects always had a threshold, a point where the body would quit, but as long as she could breathe she would not give up. An anomaly.
Shouldn't test anomalies, skews the results, voids the test –
Don't think like her. Focus. You need to find the girl.
Cube was so wise.
He wiped his hand on the sleeve of his white coat – what did one more stain matter? – and let his eyes roam around the room. It hurt to look at the empty walls. He wished he had the time to paint, to remind himself of the past through his brush, but the bloody trail that led to the door put all thoughts of art out of his head. Footprints turned to puddles where Chell must have paused. Pain, or contemplation of the test? Probability pointed to the former.
"She must be badly hurt." The quiet room amplified his voice, jolted him. Keeping his eyes on the camera, he edged back towards the vent he had emerged from.
What are you going to do?
"Help her. She's the only one who can stop this."
"In the event of fatal injuries, your death may be recorded for training purposes. If you would like to withdraw consent, an Aperture Science test associate will be on hand to remind you of how selfish you are."
There. He was close. Test chamber six- no, seventeen. Under a pipe, over a rail and down some stairs. He knew the test chambers like the back of his hand, but the infrastructure of Aperture had become burned into his mind. No map, no arrows or signs. Any rat forced to run the same maze every day would remember his path.
One of the bottom panels of the wall had been extended for a portal placement. Plenty of space to squeeze his body through. He crouched, peered out from behind the panel and felt the cold kick of adrenaline flood his stomach. Salvation lay crumpled on the floor like a torn painting, an angel with broken wings.
She had barely made it through the door.
He needed to hurry, to reach her before she bled to death, but he couldn't help himself. His fingertips ran over the edge of the wall as he stared. After all this time of watching from the shadows, he would see her up close, touch her, breath in the scent of another human. The thought almost drove a whimper from his throat. Could he bear to hold something so perfect with such unworthy hands? Would she become tainted, corrupted with the same madness that consumed him?
Schizophrenia isn't contagious, Cube said in Henry's voice. Good thing too, Doug, or I'd have to put in a request for a transfer.
"It's not my fault."
I know, I know. Don't worry about it. Jesus, you always look so damn nervous. Now, wasn't there something you needed to do?
A slight overlap of wall panels could save them. He placed Cube in the gap and hoped the mechanism wasn't strong enough to crush it. Apologies would have to wait.
You can't get the girl from here, she's too far away!
"I have to try."
You'll kill us both.
He swallowed, looked at the camera. "Maybe."
He tensed, muscles tight, and placed one foot behind him. Quick, he had to be quick. The countdown in his head kept mixing up numbers, giving him shapes and colours instead. Might as well just –
White bloomed, rose up around him in a dizzying void. Blood pulsed in his ears and drowned out the drum of his footsteps. His heartbeat became her name inside his head.
Metres turned to miles; seconds became years.
"Who – ah. You." That feminine, metallic purr haunted his dreams. He staggered, nearly tripped over his own feet. "I'd say it's good to see you again, but, due to overheating, my truth enhancer is offline."
He fell to his knees beside Chell, pressed a shaking hand against the shredded skin of her side. Three bullets at least. Was she even still alive? Fingertips brushed her neck, a pulse kicked beneath them. He managed a small smile. Tenacious indeed.
"Have you cleared this with your supervisor?" As he expected,GLaDOS wasn't going to give up her new toy so easily. "Oh, that's right. He's dead. Looks like you won't be getting that clearance. So stop."
Metal strained and whined behind him. He slung one of her arms around his neck and heaved Chell up as best he could. It might exacerbate the bleeding, but what other choice did he have? He would not be trapped and forced to run these sadistic gauntlets over and over again – he would rather die.
The camera regarded him, swivelling as though mocking his attempts. "You're standing in the way of scientific progress. That's a breach of your contract."
Cube's wail reached him from the other side of the room. Hurry, I can't keep this up for much longer!
"There's really no point in going through all this effort just for her. She doesn't know the meaning of the word 'gratitude'. Like you."
He took one step and her weight almost drove him to the floor. Then again. Again. He jerked her by the sleeve, the smears of blood slipping in front of his eyes, and pulled her less than two inches. The panels clanged against Cube, a frantic rhythm that would break at any moment. His panting became lost in the cacophony. Wasted muscles strained, ached. The room blurred.
Always a threshold, always a point –
His knees hit the ground, sobs trembling through him. The gap in the wall might as well be at the other end of the facility.
"Yes – it's all here in your file. Tenacity level – normal. Paranoid schizophrenia and psychosis – high. If you had followed regulations I would have made a special test for you. I think I'll still make it. My hypothesis is that paranoid schizophrenics take longer to die from neurotoxin than their co-workers."
He sank to the floor, held Chell close. Blood seeped from her clothes into his. She wouldn't die alone, not like the others. At least he could give her that. Hair brushed his cheek as he rested his head against hers. Tears slipped between them as he closed his eyes and winced as Cube began shrieking. Too late. He gave up. Failed the test.
Her pulse slowed against his lips.
What are you doing, Doug?
Henry's voice again. For a dead man, he sure had a lot to say.
Still playing with your toy? Hey, give it to me, we'll pop a portal in here and another one in the cafeteria. Save us ten minutes on our lunch break, right?
"Right," he said, his voice thick. "They can't punish us if we claim convenience..."
Exactly. It saves precious time. Do you hear me, Doug? Precious time – you're rapidly running out of that, aren't you?
Point A to point B. How could he have overlooked something so obvious? His eyes darted around the test chamber. There – the portal gun, near the door. No thinking, no planning. He let Chell slip to the ground and dived, grabbed the device as his brain tried to catch up. Blue on the wall. Orange under their feet. The sick sensation of falling down and then sideways jarred him for a moment. Which way was up?
"Don't blame me if she throws you into the incinerator."
Cube screeched in his ear, babbled as its casing began to crack. He shook his head, grabbed Chell and tugged her legs into the gap. Hope fed his muscles, his resolve. Those laborious inches came faster.
"In the event that she does throw you into the incinerator," GlaDOS said, "I am required to remind you that I told you so. Of course, the sheer agony of being burned alive may drown out the meaning of anything I say to you, but I know you'll get the message."
Arms next, then her head. After an age, she lay on the metal grill floor behind the wall. Safe – for the moment.
Don't let her kill me!
A little bit more, just a little more, he told his body, ignoring the voice that reminded him they still needed to reach a den and stop Chell from dying. He grunted, twisted, and pulled up. Cube came loose with a sound like stone scarring metal, and momentum sent them sprawling to the floor. The panel slammed shut. More adrenaline, and this time his stomach rolled with nausea. No way could he stand. It would be so easy to lie back, to let it all slip away –
A little bit more. Cube echoed his tiredness, his frustration. Get up. Take care of her. You didn't go through all this just to watch another person die.
He stood, body running on automatic and responses robotic, his arm around Chell. A responsibility. A reason to stay alive.
GlaDOS' voice reached him, muffled by the wall, the robotic buzz somehow managing to mimic the tone of a spoiled child deprived of her favourite candy.
"She is a better test subject than you ever were!"
A/N: My first Portal fic, beta'd by Maiafay. Got crit? Lay it on me. Chapter 2 will hopefully be up soon, and I'll also have to bump up the rating for it.
I take a lot of info from the Portal comic Lab Rat, so if you haven't read it, take a gander because it's awesome.