Down to the Marrow

By Aradien

Summary: "I've been working on a present for you. Well, I guess it's more of a medical procedure… well, technically it's more of a medical experiment. But the important thing is it's a present." After being released from the confines of Aperture, Chell is reminded that omniscient AIs rarely forgive. But they never forget.

A/N: This Prologue isn't entirely necessary to understanding the plot - it just gives some backstory. If you want fast-paced story-telling right away, feel free to head straight for chapter one. Cave Johnson would most certainly approve of that decision.

Prologue: The Cube is not a Lie

Chell knew that there was something horribly wrong when a charred, battered Companion Cube joined her in the desolate wheat field just outside of Aperture Science.

She strode towards it on jelly legs, her mind still reeling after her impossible escape from a facility that had brought her face-to-face with death on occasions too numerous to count. It made absolutely no sense how an Intelligence Dampening Sphere she'd actually somewhat trusted ended up betraying her, whereas a potato containing her robotic nemesis ended up rescuing her from suffocating in space. Yet despite the mixture of shock and surprise it caused, she was happy to see that her Cube had miraculously survived the incinerator. Or at least happier than watching that 'other' thing she'd killed undergo a resurrection.

She'd told herself that nothing could surprise her after forming a tenuous alliance with the potato incarnation of her arch-enemy... still, she couldn't help but stare at the cube incredulously. It was humming just inches away from her bare feet and was just... too hopelessly innocent to be real. Aperture Science couldn't have created something so pure... unless it was by accident, of course.

Cara mia... she thought, listening carefully to the song of her Cube. I wonder what that even means. Knowing Her it's probably just another way of saying 'Fatty'.

It made perfect sense that GLaDOS would take the music of her dear Companion and twist it into something terrible. A seemingly-beautiful-yet-completely-sarcastic song that a monolingual test subject wouldn't even understand. But why return her Cube? Why return her to the surface at all when the same turrets that began to sing to her had her cornered in that elevator, completely helpless? The only thing that could have made her more suspicious was a Black Forest Cake with the words 'I'm Sorry' scrawled on it with icing.

Pleasantly surprised that the cube didn't spontaneously combust (or start shooting bullets, acid, or poisonous gel) as she hoisted it onto her shoulder, Chell began walking with only one objective in mind: place as much distance between herself and Aperture as humanly possible. A part of her was really hoping she'd bump into people sooner than later. Maybe even sort out that issue with her voice because - surprise! - she wasn't always a dangerous, mute lunatic. And GLaDOS knew that better than anyone. After all, you don't put a test subject capable of speech in a room with turrets she could subdue with a paradox.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure that one out. Or an expert in Quantum Tunneling Mechanics . And besides: GLaDOS was both of those and more. Unfortunately.

For the first time in what felt like – and who knows, maybe it actually had been – centuries, she had no destination. No plan. No looming fear that she was inches from death. Nothing. Just the world of Aperture Science Innovators behind her and a big empty wheat field ahead. She knew who was in charge of the former, but had no idea what the balance of power looked like on earth.

A voice came to mind: "If you are a non-employee who has discovered this facility amid the ruins of civilization, welcome! And remember: Testing is the future, and the future starts with you."

She hadn't put serious though into whether or not those pre-recorded ramblings might actually be true. At the time, its warnings about not agitating groups of hunter-gatherers and avoiding unsheltered testing areas wherever a lack of shelter from space-debris did not appear to be a deliberate part of the test had all seemed… well, hysterical. GLaDOS' infectious sense of humor was probably to blame for that.

She decided to distract herself with whatever calm memories she had. Of course, since she couldn't remember anything before being awoken by GLaDOS for the first time, she tried remembering more of the apocalyptic scenarios that had been announced to her as she blazed a path through the wheat.

" If the Earth is currently governed by a manner of animal-king, sentient cloud, or other governing body that either refuses to or is incapable of listening to reason..."

She broke into a smile as images of a leopard-print turret being bowed to by little black stick people filled her mind. She really wished they'd made an animation for the sentient cloud.

"If the Enrichment Center is currently being bombarded with fireballs, meteorites, or other objects from space…"

These memories and the soft lullaby played by her Cube were enough to distract her hours. It didn't occur to her that she hadn't seen a trace of humanity until after she'd crafted a sort of nest out of wheat stalks and had curled up beside her truest Companion for the night.

No matter what, I'll protect you this time. I promise, she silently declared, running her fingers against the cube's brilliantly pink heart. Because we're friends. Right?

The cube seemed to glow in response as her eyes were sleepily blinking shut. It had probably been an optical illusion. Or a sign that her brain damage hadn't cleared up entirely just yet… but that's not what kept her from falling dead asleep.

"I'm going to kill you. And all the cake is gone."

If it wasn't for the chemicals laced into her blood at the Relaxation Center, she wasn't sure she'd have ever gotten a wink of sleep after narrowly escaping GLaDOS' figurative and even literal claws. During the naps that kept her from collapsing from exhaustion, she always found herself jolted awake by Her voice. Sometimes it was actually because she was being passively threatened or lied to by the AI. But most of the time it was her own brain reliving those moments when she felt most helpless… when she honestly wondered if whatever slim chance she had at survival would leave her deeply scarred.

Staring up at the night sky, she imagined a bottomless pit and Wheatley's pleading tone as he tried to coax her into jumping. He would have been shocked at how very close she came to throwing herself from the broken catwalk. In reality, what restrained her was the thought of letting down the potato she'd speared onto her portal gun.

She had decided long ago that if she was going to die, it'd be defying GLaDOS. Settling for a second-rate death at the hands of a rogue Intelligence Dampening Sphere was just... unacceptable. She might be the last human alive for all she knew, but the immortal AI would never forget her, even if it was just as 'that test subject with a certifiable case of stubbornness'. Neither would the moron floating through space... although it would probably be more along the lines of 'the girl with a minor case of serious brain damage'.

She had brought Aperture to its knees on several occasions. The most intelligent being in the world feared her, and it couldn't be for nothing. Insomnia suddenly realized who it was dealing with and allowed her to fall asleep.

In the morning she would completely forget seeing her parents, an escape elevator, a designer jumpsuit, and a pony farm at the bottom of Wheatley's deadly pit in her dreams... but for now, a grin tugged at the corner of her mouth.