Unknown, Talk to Unknown
Once upon a time, in the undiscovered future of some inescapable present, there hung suspended in the vastness of space a very familiar planet. On that very familiar planet, there was an ocean. In the middle of that ocean, there was a continent. In the middle of that continent, there was a country. Somewhere in that country there was a city. And somewhere in that city, there was a museum.
A space museum, to be exact. A very large one, and very advanced, if its directors did say so themselves. One dedicated to all things space-related and space-like, from all over the world, spanning a time frame of several hundred years. Old rockets, newer rockets, old satellites, newer satellites, space debris, moon rocks, other-planet rocks, examples of transmissions and technologies from every space program humanity had ever spit out—all of it could be found in this one museum.
There was a lot to look at. She had expected as much. But there was only one exhibit that interested her, and so she passed the others by with little attention. It was interesting stuff, of course, but the last things she wanted to see right now were wrecked hulls of rockets, panels ripped off the space shuttles, or the lens from some great telescope. She was a woman on a mission...a familiar feeling, though one she wasn't sure she wanted to recognize.
It was late—the museum would probably be closing soon. That was good. Even after so many years, she still wasn't comfortable around crowds. If she had to deal with too much noise and bustle during this, she would probably go mad. And besides, her therapist had already spoken to the museum director for her. She had all the time in the world.
She walked calmly past the shattered hulls of satellites and the carved-out corpses of meteors, all of them cold and dead. Death didn't interest her at all. There had been too much of that in this world. What she was hoping to find here was something more along the lines of, though not quite, life.
A small hesitation at the end of the corridor, and then she stepped into the wide, circular room. There were pictures in one long line around the wall, but she ignored them, her attention focused solely on the white pedestal in the center of the room. It came up to waist-height, surrounded and separated from the rest of the room by dark blue ropes, of the kind normally seen surrounding exhibits in a museum. Seated on top of the pedestal was a glass cylinder, with a small black sign that read, in bright blue, "Please do not touch the glass." And inside the cylinder was a sphere.
It was motionless. Even though she knew it shouldn't have surprised her, it still caught her a little bit off-guard. The one thing she remembered most was the constant motion. Always spinning, always looking around, darting this way and that, tilting, twisting...
A low console hummed beside the pedestal, just outside of the imaginary force field marked by the ropes. She approached, sat down in the conveniently-placed swivel-chair, and rested her hand on the screen. It flashed blue, and several boxes appeared, stacked one atop the other. She looked at the sphere for a long time, then tapped the top box, pulling her hand away to read the orange text scrolling across the screen.
"This machine was discovered stuck against a satellite dish three years ago. It was believed to be a remnant of Combine technology at first, but was soon discovered to be an even older remnant of the Aperture Science Enrichment Center, believed to have suffered some catastrophic failure during the same time period as the more well-known Black Mesa Incident. The exact nature of the failure, and of the fate of the hundreds of Aperture Science employees and volunteers, had been unknown until the discovery of this sphere, and the retrieval of the information within.
Written transcripts of every conversation concerning or held between the AI sphere and the Global Aeronautics and Space Administration science team, including the additional observations of the team during the process, are recorded here for your viewing pleasure, as well as a history of Aperture Laboratories and a summary of its collapse. This shocking series of events has be reconstructed through prior knowledge and the memory files of the AI, as well as corroborating stories from a young woman, who has chosen to remain anonymous ever since the day she was discovered, but whose tale, once thought to be part delirium and part trauma, has now been shown to be truth."
It had been huge news, when it happened. And even now, she wasn't sure exactly how she felt about the rest of the world knowing the truth. What she had gone through...it was personal. Private. Her very own, sacred brand of hell, as close to her heart as the inside of her ribcage. Fortunately, only the police and her therapist knew the "anonymous woman", the now-famous "Test Subject Omega" (as she had been christened by the Internet), was a nearly-mute woman who lived in a small town in Ohio, making a living by quietly watching over young children in a daycare center. She wouldn't be able to bear it, if anyone else had known. It was hard enough to bear now.
She'd had a long talk with that therapist, before coming here. It had taken months of saving up money, days of discussing the pros and cons—how this might affect her mental state, on top of everything she had gone through. Finally they had decided that it would do more good than harm. And finally, finally, she was here.
The sign on the glass still said, "Please do not touch the glass." It hadn't changed at all since she'd begun looking at the console. She hadn't expected it to. This time she ignored it, reaching past the console to rest her fingertips against the cylinder. The suspense building inside her chest was going to make her explode if she waited. Five years...five years was a long time to wait. And even then it was still only a hunch. A hope. There were four of them out there, after all. This could be any one of them.
She wouldn't know until she started reading.
Hesitation had always been her worst enemy. Self-doubt often got her injured. Indecision almost got her killed.
She would never make that mistake again.
She shuffled through the boxes on the screen until she found the first of the transcripts. Then, catching hold of the quiver of anxiety in her chest, she opened it and began to read.
Ellen Morrison (astronaut, mission captain): Ground control, this is Lieutenant Morrison. You're not going to believe this.
Gabe Newman (ground control, lead scientist): Cut the crap, El. What the hell is it?
EM: I don't know, Chief. It's...a ball.
GN: Well, what does it look like?
Jason Sanders (ground control, communications): Probably a lot like a ball. In space. A Spaceball.
GN: Chase, shut up.
EM: That's basically it. A white, metal ball. And I think it's looking at me.
GN: Looking at you?
EM: It's got this big blue...I guess it's an optic. And it's following me around, no matter which way I turn it. And this isn't a professional opinion or anything, but it kind of looks pissed.
She had to stop there, her hands gripping at the edges of the console so tightly, her knuckles paled. Her eyes were wide when she looked up at the sphere, lying still on the pedestal. She still remembered them, all four of them. Pink. Green. Yellow.
He had been blue.
The shock reverberated through her in a way she hadn't expected—sharp and throbbing, like pain. Why did she feel pain? He had almost killed her. A lot. Not as much as She had, but the point remained that he had become a murderer, just like Her. She would have understood, if the pain had come from a feeling of betrayal. But why did that silent thing in front of her make her feel so...sad?
It was a side of her she had thought was silenced for good. But there it was, soft and aching. She had to look away, before the ache grew too deep to bear. Because it would. It had before.
The pictures along the walls drew her attention, as they had not before. And as she looked she began to realize that they were familiar. She rose from her chair and moved to the wall, reaching up with a pale, trembling hand to touch the frame. The picture was grainy, the colors dim...but even through the dusting of electronic snow, she could recognize her own face.
There were more, so many more. Still images of portals. The Aperture Science logo on a wall. Her, from his vantage point being held by that terrible, wonderful gun. A snapshot of the cryptic graffiti she had always found, but never found meaning to. A terrifying glimpse of Her, as She brought Herself back online. Then back to her again, glimpsed from a panel behind a wall. Through a plate of glass. From directly above, ragged and torn, but still moving. Always pictures of forward motion.
There were a lot of images of her.
She walked around the room in one full circuit, gazing carefully at each photograph, committing it to memory. Then she returned to the console, staring over the top at the silent sphere. There were so many other things they could have taken from his memory. Why, then, were there so many pictures of her?
She sat down in the chair, and read on.
There was no telling how long she sat there. Time had a strange quality nowadays, ever since her release from the bowels of the earth. When she could see the sun, it passed "normally". When she couldn't, however, it seemed to slow and stretch into infinity. She could push on for hours, even if it only felt like minutes, until sheer exhaustion overtook her and she passed out. She pushed on like this now, blanketed in stillness, her only company the faint hum of the monitor and the silent corpse.
When she finally finished reading, she sat there for a long time, staring at the screen. Long enough for the console to let out a quiet blip and sink back into standby mode. The sense of quietude around her had penetrated into her very soul, settling into a soft, numb shell around her heart. The sharp pain had disappeared, soothed into gentle silence by the words on the screen. She hadn't heard him. She never would, ever again—not if they had found him three years ago, if his exhibit had been open for six months, if he was already...defunct...
But even if she couldn't hear him, the words were as plain as day. Plain as text on a console. Orange text against a blue background—had they planned that? It was too apropos to have been an accident.
She rose from the chair, steadying herself a moment against the console as a feeling of dizziness rushed up at her. When it had passed, she reached out towards the glass again, leaving secret, illegal fingerprints on the surprisingly fragile surface that kept them apart. She never had been very good at following the rules, after all. If she had been, she probably wouldn't be alive today.
After all this time, after all he had done, she only had one word for him. And that word summed up...everything. Everything he had been through with her. Everything that he had put her through. Everything he had never known she would know. Everything she knew he would never know.
She turned and walked away. The lights dimmed in her wake as she entered the hallway. The night watchman had given her a keycard to seal the exhibit when she left, and she swiped it now, flipping open the panel and punching in the code to drop the blast doors.
Flash of blue.
Her head jerked to the side. The lights had clicked off now, the doors already sliding shut, locking her out. But there was no doubt that she had seen it. The light. That familiar, terrifying, exhilarating light.
And there was a sound. There was no doubt that there was a sound, or that she had heard the sound, a murmur almost drowned out by the slamming door. It was there, just on the edge of her hearing, like a whisper from a dream. Or from the future. Or from the past.