A/N: So, Writer's Block decided to pay me a visit, so in a fit of Lab Rat-induced madness I decided to try and make it leave by writing a little of this. And then a little more. And then a story started to form. And then I was all curses! because the last thing I need is to be working on another story. Ah, well!

Anyway, the story begins a few years before the flashback sequences in Lab Rat. The lead-up to the events in the comic intrigued me, so I thought I might explore it some more. Hopefully I can weave an interesting-enough tale, then!

The Portal/Half Life universe, of course, belongs to the fine people at Valve.

Smooth Jazz Fails
Chapter 1: Another Day

It was the melting-pot of the world's greatest minds; a central locus for innovation and invention; a modern day renaissance. It was where scientists went to work on the next next best thing, even before the next best thing had arrived. It was where everyone who was anyone in the scientific community would go to share ideas and get their hands dirty on real science, as opposed to whatever those nobodies at Black Mesa or whatever-it-was worked on. And of course, the science at Aperture Laboratories was very real – and very dangerous. But what's life without risks? If life gives you lemons, use the decaying remains of those lemons to invent the best damn anti-lemon device possible!

Well, at least, that was the marketing. And to be honest, it was this ideal (and quirky) view of how Aperture worked that Douglas had fell in love with all those years ago when he worked there as an intern.

But now… well, he was tired of how things worked. He was tired of the long hours, of snappy program managers, of being shuffled from office to office for no apparent reason, of working on projects for six months at a time and then being told they were cancelled – and sometimes finding out later that some of them had been handed to a different team. He was tired of how cavalier some of the higher-ups seemed about handling dangerous technology. And he was tired of the secrecy.

Everyone at Aperture knew something was being worked on in the west end of the complex. They knew the scale of the project was massive – some rumoured that the cost overruns alone ran into the billions, never mind the original estimates. They also knew Aperture could afford it – the company had been ridiculously successful over the years, and some had said they could survive twenty years even if no-one bought another product. But cost wasn't the thing on the scientist's mind – it was more the fact that no-one seemed to know exactly what was going on.

Some of his program managers had worked on the project. He knew by the way they reacted - they'd been extraordinarily evasive when asked even simple questions about what they'd done that day, a rarity at the laboratory where everyone was eager to share exactly how they were changing the world.

He'd seen one of them once, pushing a levitating trolley carrying a large chrome rectangular prism with smooth rounded corners and a large cavity in the centre – what appeared to be a bulkier and larger version of the casing built for the security cameras that lined the premises. But when asked what the shell was destined to be, the program manager mumbled something about artificial intelligence research and then commented on the weather.

"Terry, I work on artificial intelligence," he'd pointed out. But Terry had only nodded half-heartedly and then reemphasised how sunny it was outside and didn't you see that cloud that looked like a rabbit at lunch? And then he had disappeared down the hallway, checking back every few doors to make certain Douglas wasn't following.

Reality arose from memory, and he found he was now at the employees' storage area. He opened the door, and stepped inside.

There it was. His locker. The one refuge of sanity in this asylum, the one place he knew exactly what to expect.

He fiddled with the lock, flung the door open and reached for a transparent blue container. Inside were the things that stabilised his mind, that allowed him to focus on the task at hand.

He unscrewed the lid and tipped the container ever so slightly. Out onto his outstretched hand popped two capsules, their smooth surface reflecting the light from fluorescent lights placed far above him. Down he gulped them, and up reached his hand to grasp the water bottle in the cavity before him.

He took a swig. The cool liquid flowed down his throat, propelling the now dissolving capsules down even further into the inner depths of his digestive tract, down on their mission of bringing peace and order to his own chaotic system.

Another day, another pill, another length of sanity in a place of madness.

He returned the container of pills and the water bottle to his locker, and sighed. Life at Aperture had definitely not been what he'd expected.

His eyes fell on a sheet of paper that had been neatly stacked against the inner wall of the locker. Every day he'd look at it, stare at the distinctive logo on the letterhead, and mumble the name of the company it bore – Black Mesa. He'd received it two months ago in a 'recruitment drive' from a shady character who'd been later fired for insubordination, and since then it had lay in his locker, ignored but not forgotten.

Despite his musings about leaving Aperture, he could not bring himself to fill out the form. His only friends worked here, and with cheerful banter and idle chit-chat, they were what made continuing to go to work each day worthwhile. There was no guarantee that things would be any better at Black Mesa either – from snatches of conversations he'd gathered that they had their own secrets, their own bossy directors, their own overworked scientists – and without the people he knew and trusted, he doubted he could work there very long.

And despite the demanding conditions at Aperture, he was still doing the things he loved – pure and lovely science. Coding and programming the unknown, his hands flowing across keyboards like beautiful symphonies being composed. It was those times where he could forget the cacophony that surrounded him, and he and his creation could find order together.

And yet, he couldn't throw the letter away either. Something was nagging him at the back of his mind – telling him that he should take the job, that he'd be better off there. He didn't know what, but he suspected it was just his reason telling him that anything is better than being worked into the ground.

"Hey, er… Rattmann, is it?"

It was Jeremy, one of the newer scientists on his team. Jeremy reminded Douglas so much of himself all those years ago – brazen, excited, tireless, well-kept, hair viciously combed and appearance spotless – as if it mattered. Not yet brandished with a cynical mind.

"Please, call me Doug." The words escaped his lips automatically – so many people called him by his last name simply because it was so easy to remember. But he didn't like 'Rattmann' – it sounded more like some mutated superhero than a respectable scientist. Then again, 'Doug' wasn't really a sciency name either, but at least it was somewhat better.

And he'd long given up trying to get people to call him 'Douglas'.

"Okay, er… Doug." For a moment he looked as if he was trying to commit that snippet to memory before continuing. "Er, the program manager… well, he sort of wants an ETA on, um, directive three on the Code Blue… thingy."

"He does? He knows the answer." Directive three had been a thorn in the development of Code Blue almost since the beginning. Initially it had seemed simple enough – almost ridiculously simple, in fact – but as estimate after estimate flew by, they began to realise that it'd probably take years until it was completed. They began devoting more time to the other directives, and they no longer gave estimates for number three in their reports.

Jeremy looked nervously to the side. "He's been getting, um, really… well, insistent. More so than, well, before, I guess."

"You can't rush science."

It was one of the few things that made plain and simple sense among the posters that lined the walls of Aperture. History had shown, time and again, that rushing science just earned disaster.

"Alright, then." He paused for a moment. "Also, another thing – do you have any advice?"

"Advice?" Doug was genuinely surprised – no-one had ever asked him for advice before.

"Well, my counsellor, back in my home town, you see, recommended I should, er… get some advice from my coworkers. About working and stuff. Well, not working as in my job – I can, um, well, obviously I can do that – but sorta… navigating around how things work around here, I guess."

He looked at Doug expectantly. But Doug could only think of one thing.

He should run. He should get a nice job at some big-name software company where he could put his degrees to good use (and more to the point, do so safely), not here at Aperture creating mad science. After all, science consumes one after a while – and Jeremy was too young for that, far too young. He had his whole life ahead of him. He didn't realise that it takes over, slowly but totally, and once it grabs hold of your tongue, there's nothing to do. It takes the mind whole, again and again and again.

But perhaps, he reasoned, he was just projecting his own insecurities on to science? No need to make such an abstract concept the villain.

"Sorry, I can't think of anything right now. Maybe come back to me later?"

"Okay then." He glanced down. "Uh, see you."

He spun around on the spot, paused for a second, then strode out and down the hallway.

Doug watched after him for a bit, then returned to his locker. Whether or not it was inherently science's fault, there was no doubt about it – he couldn't imagine doing anything else. He was afraid he'd be stuck at Aperture for the rest of his life, but that thought also comforted him as well. Aperture was familiar and friendly as well as hostile and foreign. Behind the chaos was a certain order, one that, in brief moments, he could almost grasp.

He closed his locker door with a clang. He'd always have time to change his mind.