A/N: Thanks so much to all who reviewed!
The song of the Companion Cube permeated Chell's sleep, echoing off wooden walls until it lowered into a soft hum. Chell found herself trotting through a corridor after a young woman. Chell smelled hairspray. The woman wore stockings and high heels, and a black bun perched on the back of her head. She hummed the low tune the Companion Cube had sang.
"Where am I?" said Chell.
The woman continued to hum, then said, "Sophia!"
A middle-aged blonde stepped out of an open door. Her scowl faded when she caught sight of them. "Oh, thank god you're here," she said.
"I'm sorry," said the woman Chell had followed. "I let myself in, I hope that was alright."
"Oh, not a problem, I left the door unlocked for you," said the blonde Sophia. She glanced down the hallway to a closed door. "I'm at the end of my damn rope. I'm glad you could come."
Chell heard the smile in the dark-haired woman's voice. "Many other foster parents who have taken Carol in have found it difficult to… interact with her, due to her differences."
Sophia's scowl darkened. "The problem is that Caroline's intelligent," she said. "It's the fact she knows she's intelligent. She's already going on about her PHD and she only graduated college last week, for crying out loud!"
"It's important to speak to Caroline as if she is an adult — "
"But she's not!" said Sophia. "She's twelve years old! She's still inexperienced — "
"Then treat her like a sheltered adult," came the dark-haired woman's calm, soothing tone. Sophia relaxed as she spoke. "She has double our combined IQ and can win a debate against the most intelligent of adults. If I may say so, Sophia, she will feel patronised if she is treated the way other children her age are treated, and that only angers her more."
"And you know what she's like when she's angry," Sophia muttered.
"She will need boundaries," said the woman. "Continue establishing and reinforcing those."
"'Treat her like an adult, but establish boundaries'?" Sophia rose an eyebrow. "I'm sorry, Selissa, but I don't get your logic."
Selissa! Chell's mother! What a weird dream. Fancy Selissa being Caroline's social worker. Chell chuckled to herself.
"Address her like an adult," said Selissa, "but keep boundaries like a child. She still needs security and giving her absolute power like the adult she can act like will scare any child her age, no matter how much they say otherwise. She needs to grow into her power first. If she's still up at three in the morning tell her to go to bed — "
"But she can't sleep!" Sophia returned to her anxious frenzy. "She complains she can't stop thinking, and she barely sleeps two or three hours a night sometimes! I thought it would get better after she finished college, but it only got worse because now she's bored." Sophia pinched the bridge of her nose. "The doctors only throw more sleeping tablets at her, and she gets immune to those in only a few nights."
Selissa sighed. "It looks as if she's been forgetting to meditate again, I'll remind her."
"And I'm worried," said Sophia. "Some man's been getting interested in her in the university."
"Everyone's interested in Caroline," said Selissa, but Chell stepped around her to see a wary frown on her young mother's features. "What kind of interest?"
"Professional, he claims," Sophia snorted. "He's twenty years older than her and looking for people to help him with his vision. Some idiot billionaire. But why a twelve-year-old?"
"What does Caroline think of it?"
"She's all over it like a rash," Sophia sighed. "She's only twelve, she can't handle this no matter how much she insists she can. She's been writing to him and all she's gone on about the last few weeks is him."
"What's his name?"
"Cave Johnson," said Sophia. She gestured to the closed door down the hallway. "Maybe you can talk more sense into her. I've had no luck. Take as long as you want. Do you want some tea when you're done?"
"I'd be grateful," said Selissa. "I'll talk to her. I can't promise anything — "
"I know," said Sophia. "It's impossible to get through to her. She's too damn stubborn."
"And how many times have I heard someone say that about me?" said Chell.
Neither of the adults responded. Chell trotted after her mother, who stopped at a closed door at the end of the hallway and knocked. "Caroline?" Selissa said.
"Come in," said a voice from behind the door.
Selissa stumbled over something on the floor. Chell repeated her mother's mistake an instant later, then blinked down at the floor. Electronics of all kinds littered the carpet, along with books, folders and clothes. Papers lay strewn across a desk crammed with clutter. Chell stepped over a tangle of wires.
On a bed covered with paper and books sat a cross-legged girl.
Back at Chell's fifth birthday, Caroline had drowned in long sleeves like a stick insect, with a sad expression on a face made vague by the blurring passage of time. But here, angular features etched a frown into the young girl's face. Her clothes looked too short on her plump form. She pored over a small mechanical device in her hands, nail-bitten fingers probing over a metal surface.
"Sophia told me you just graduated," said Selissa. "Congratulations."
"Mmm," said little Caroline. She twisted something octagonal into place on the round, UFO-like device. "She won't let me apply to get my PHD."
Selissa's chuckle sounded only half amused. "Don't you want to take your time with these things?"
Caroline offered the device to Selissa in answer. "What do you think of this?"
Selissa took it with the patience reminiscent of any school counsellor dealing with a young child. She turned the device over. Tiny lights came to life at her touch. "What is it?"
"It's an idea someone I know had," said Caroline. "He said, if you can upload music to a CD, why can't you upload someone to a computer?"
"And this is some prototype?"
Caroline snorted. "Of course not," she said. "But we've been playing with designs. I think it's a waste if you ask me. I think it would be better to focus on creating artificial intelligence, skip the middle step, not just transferring consciousness from a person into a robot, though I can see the function in it. He doesn't have much ambition."
Chell cracked up.
Even Selissa's mouth curled in amusement as she handed the device back. "Not much ambition, I see," she said with a smirk. Caroline took it back and gazed down at it with a smile. "This wouldn't be Cave Johnson, would it?"
Caroline's smile faded into a suspicious frown. "And if it was?"
"Caroline," said Selissa in a soothing tone. "I have spoken to you about defensiveness."
Caroline snorted. "Why shouldn't I be defensive? Nobody approves of a damn thing I do. They're always intent on cramming me into a box because of their own narrow-minded views on the world. 'You're twelve years old! You act contrary to my prejudices and preconceptions of how a twelve-year-old should act! Therefore there is something wrong with you!'" Caroline narrowed her eyes. "Sophia's worse. I liked Margaret."
"You're lucky you got away from that without getting into serious trouble," said Selissa. "Roy could have been seriously hurt."
"It was for science — "
"And your inability to grasp basic empathy is the reason why Margaret requested for you to be transferred," said Selissa. "I'm here to help you cope, to teach you about these things. I'm not your enemy."
Caroline looked back down at the device in her hands. "I know," she murmured, her eyes turning dull. A flash of the older, sickly Caroline from Chell's birthday so long ago flashed into her head. "But sometimes I think you forget that. I'm not like other people my age. I'm not like any adults. Remember that before you tell me how to act and — "
"But I don't," said Selissa.
"You do all the time! You tell me I should do this, I should do that — "
"Only because your current actions are damaging you or the people around you," said Selissa. "Sophia told me you're not sleeping again."
The child had the grace to look guilty. "They just — "
" — give you more sleeping pills, I know," said Selissa. "You have to meditate."
"But there's too much to think about!" said Caroline. "Sometimes I think I'm about to fall asleep and then suddenly I'll get an idea..."
"That's because of your intelligence," said Selissa. "You think —"
"I think too fast to sleep, I know," said Caroline. "Been there, done that, haven't we talked about this a million times by now? Anyway, if you've got a problem with Cave you may as well tell me now."
"You're not…" Selissa pressed her lips into a long, thin line. "You're not worried about the… intentions of a man twenty years older than you?"
"I'm not stupid," said Caroline. "The whole reason I'm here is because I'm not stupid, for hell's sake, it's not like my parents enjoyed having a psychopathic kid who could do long division in her head at four years old! He's not a creep. He's a damn genius and he's looking for somewhere to apply that genius, and I see a kindred spirit in him. We've been writing to each other." She held up the device. "This was his idea. An operating system that can store a brain on it. I want to create life, but he still has a lot of intelligence. Being able to upload someone's brain onto a computer would change science forever." Caroline's eyes lit up. "Just imagine if we could do that! He said I'm more than capable of it, I know a fellow genius when I see one. I mean, I'm more intelligent, but that's exactly why he wants me to work for him when I'm older. He can fund my patents and innovations and I can just create. All day, every day. Imagine what I could do with him to support me!"
Then she scowled. "But unfortunately because the law is short sighted I will not be able to do that for five and a half more years because all children are dumb little shits that wouldn't know their left hand from their right one without an adult to tell them, and we are obviously all the same, no exceptions ever." She sneered.
"Caroline," said Selissa. "I know. You're intelligent, there's not a single person who has met you who can dispute that, but you still lack the experience of an adult — "
"So why the hell am I smarter than most of them?" Caroline snorted. "A technician was having trouble at the university two weeks ago because hackers got into the software. I told him how to modify the program, reboot the trace and piggyback the virus through a back door in the system — "
"Caroline," said Selissa softly. "Experience and intelligence aren't the same thing."
"I still don't see a difference."
"Didn't anyone tell you not to touch a stove when you were a kid?"
"Well, yes, but —"
"And let me guess, you didn't listen to them and touched it?"
"I did listen, actually."
"Well, that metaphor falls flat," Selissa cracked a smile. "But most people don't — they know the stove will hurt them, but don't learn until they touch it. It's through the experience of touching a hot stove that they truly understand — "
"Yeah, what's with Sophia?" said Caroline, ignoring Selissa's frustrated frown as she ploughed on. "Last night she was like, 'don't touch the stove, it's still cooling down' and I was like, 'I just graduated college, damn it, do you think I'm a total fucking moron?'"
"Caroline." Selissa scowled.
"Sorry," said Caroline. "Language."
"I was more referring to how you interrupted — "
Chell bit back a snicker. Selissa tilted her head. "What am I going to do with you?" she said.
"Leave me to my own business?" said Caroline with a sweet smile.
Selissa held out her hand. "Can I see those letters?"
Caroline froze. "Why?"
"I don't want someone to take advantage of you and steal your ideas."
"You'll make me stop writing to him," said Caroline. Her expression grew pleading. "I can't — he's the first person to get me, he's the first person who —"
"I know," said Selissa. Her genuine tone allowed Caroline to calm down, but only slightly. "That's why I have to read the letters. If Cave Johnson truly has good intentions, then I want the adults around you to feel safe allowing you to keep writing to him, and they will trust my word if not his. But in order for me to do that I'll have to invade your privacy to make a judgement for myself. Is that an acceptable price? Because I hate to hold your friendship hostage like this, but there are many men out there who would take advantage of you, and without judging for myself I will have to tell you to stop writing to him."
Caroline sighed. "Alright," she said. "Fine." She reached over to her bedside table and pulled out a drawer, rummaging around for a few sheets of paper.
"And don't think of hiding a few," said Selissa. "In fact, if you wanted to hide any of them I'd get even more worried."
Grumbling, Caroline held out the sheaf of papers. "You're the only person I'd trust not to freak out about this," she sighed. "Cave won't like me sharing these. He's paranoid."
"He doesn't have to know."
"I want to be trustworthy," said Caroline.
"I am trustworthy," said Selissa. "I won't let anyone else see these unless there is something within them that makes me seriously concerned for your safety."
"I know," said Caroline.
Selissa folded the papers on her lap. "Thank you." She looked around at the papers scattered on the floor. Chell made out a few blueprints, her eyes widening.
"I'll clean it up!" said Caroline.
Selissa laughed. "I wasn't going to say that," she said. "I was going to suggest something else, actually."
Caroline stared at her. "What?"
"It'll give you an opportunity to clear your mind," said Selissa. "You need to meditate again, and you don't have to sit still to meditate. You can bake cake as meditation. Singing, walking, dancing, baking... something that keeps you active and busy but lets you clear your mind or keep it focused on something relatively quiet will help you. Maybe baking can be your meditation. I'm sure Sophia would allow you to use her kitchen."
"I like singing," said Caroline.
"Then sing as well!"
"… Do you think Sophia would let me have lessons?"
Somehow, Chell had the impression Sophia would love anything that kept Caroline busy. Selissa seemed to share this sentiment. "I think so," she said. "Some hobbies will keep you preoccupied over the next few years, until you're old enough to work. You have a lot of things you've missed out on because you've been so busy. Let yourself live a little, and if you still want to pursue this PHD... well, we'll talk about it, okay? But I want you to have at least a year to think about it."
Caroline sighed. "I'm going to go crazy."
"Not if you keep yourself busy enough," said Selissa. "Try a few new things. It'll do you good."
"Like baking cake," Caroline mumbled.
"You baked me a cake for my birthday once," said Chell. "I remember it was pretty popular."
To her surprise, Caroline heard her. "I did, did I?" she said, turning the device over in her hands idly. "Perhaps it's something worth looking into. Though I don't see a problem that cake-baking will solve." She flicked one of the panels. Selissa didn't to react to their conversation, sitting frozen with a smile. "Necessity is the mother of invention, after all, and I'm an inventor. If a young one." She scowled.
"It solves the problem of hungry five-year-olds," said Chell sagely.
Caroline smirked. "Okay," she said. "Maybe you are correct. It's not nuclear physics, but it's something, isn't it?"
After Selissa said her goodbyes and picked her way out of the room, Caroline continued to tinker with the tiny model on the other side of the room.
"You want to create life," said Chell. "Is that GLaDOS or something?"
"Yes," said Caroline, holding it up. "This is my... third design? It still doesn't seem right, somehow. But I'm no artist." She smiled. "Artificial life. Imagine, I'd change the world forever that way..."
"You did create life," said Chell. "It didn't end well."
"If I succeeded at all, then it did," said Caroline.
"Where is my mother?" said Chell. "Where's Rick? Junior? Cave Johnson? Everyone else?"
Caroline opened up the underbelly of the device. Chell witnessed a cunning glimpse on her face, a smirk that was far from innocent, and shivers went down her spine. In an instant, it disappeared. "Are you familiar with the phrase sub rosa?"
"I haven't heard it."
"It's an old one," said Caroline. "It's Latin for 'under the rose.' There's an old legend about people denoting secret meetings by hanging a rose over it, or meeting under a design of one... it's connected with Egyptian gods somehow, a god of silence who was associated with roses." She pulled out a wire. The lights on the device died. "Or something. But their location right now... it's sub rosa. You'll find out when the time is right, but not before then. Not a moment before then."
Chell sank into the chair Selissa sat in only moments before. "When will the time be right?"
"I don't know," said Caroline.
"I should've expected as much," Chell muttered. "You're only a dream."
Caroline stared at her with an intense gaze. "Cave Johnson told me something once," she said. "He said that sufficiently advanced science is indistinguishable from magic. I think you will find in your days in Aperture..." she fished a few more wires out of the baby GLaDOS. "I think you'll find that comes more and more true." She smiled sadly. "Especially if everything works out the way it's supposed to... which it likely won't, but I can dream." She laughed bitterly. "GLaDOS is far too picky for anyone's good."
"I don't think she likes me much."
"GLaDOS doesn't like anyone much," Caroline murmured, regarding the prototype in her lap thoughtfully. "She's filled with hate and anger. She has had so little to do for so long. She's so angry, so judgemental, so cruel. I'm sorry."
"When will she let me see my mother?"
"When the time is right," said Caroline. She looked up at Chell again. "You need to help her. She needs your help. She's always made a better... a better robot than anything else. She won't know how to interact with you. But the androids will. Reach out to them. They're her humanity. She's just an enormous robot hanging from the roof, but they are the human parts of her she never knew how to cope with, and so she downloaded them into bodies she built especially for them."
"Wow," murmured Chell.
The dream began to fade. The last words Chell heard were, "Reach out to them, and you'll reach out to her. And then, one day, you'll be able to save us all."