Chapter Nine: Adversity Aside
"I think we can put our differences behind us... for science... you monster."
There isn't a supercomputer in the world that could have predicted this situation, Chell thought sordidly, casting another wary glance at the figure walking slightly ahead of her. The sight of GLaDOS… like this. Like a frail human woman.
And yet… there was a robot precision in Her steps. And something behind those glacial eyes hinted at an intelligence that was downright lethal in the wrong hands. As she'd experience far too many times already.
She's probably got a trap already figured out, Chell realized with a sigh, attempting once again to massage a knot that was growing on the back of her neck.
That action, unfortunately, drew the full attention of the entity she was trying not to provoke.
"Why do you keep doing that?" snapped the pale-haired woman.
Chell had to use every available shred of patience to not yell. Scream and take out all of her frustrations on the embodiment of everything she had fought against for… well, forever. Because here, in the bowels of a mad scientist's playground stripped of its mainframe, was not a good place to risk confrontation. Especially before she knew what this version of GLaDOS was capable of.
"I think I hurt my neck for some reason." She answered through gritted teeth. Not going to point any fingers…
"How delightful." She cooed back. "Although considering that this is one of the few times where having you disabled isn't of benefit to me, I suspect that you did it maliciously."
Being mute was a huge convenience, retrospectively, she noted. These verbal spars were frightening back when she was at the mercy of a machine. But now that they were on potentially even footing, it was like mixing chemicals and seeing how they'd react together. It was a game she'd be willing to play if a friend's life wasn't on the line.
"How far until we get to Wheatley?" she demanded, fisting her hands unconsciously.
"He's in a Diversity Vent approximately three-fourths of the way between the Rehabilitation Center and our previous location. According to the information I managed to process before… well." She cocked her head thoughtfully. "They say that humor is tragedy plus time. In this case, I don't believe even a potato was quite as hysterical."
The light was getting dimmer. Chell couldn't be certain if it was just her nerves, but it felt colder…
No. There was only a single place in all of Aperture where the change in temperature was noticeable, and she was not about to go anywhere near there.
GLaDOS heard as Chell inhaled deeply. Without the ties to Her processors, She couldn't say exactly how much longer it had been – possibly 3.6 seconds, give or take .5 – but she had enough awareness of human fight of flight response to know what was about to happened. Even if she lacked the neural synapses that would have allowed her to react in time.
The test subject was as strong as she was fast. GLaDOS didn't bother calculating how long it for her to twist and direct Her. All She cared about was the fact that the wall was now pressed against Her chest and a violent, potentially sociopathic female was at Her back.
"You thought I wouldn't notice?" she hissed.
"Notice what? That you are, in fact, a complete luna – " the last of her statement came out as a muffled cry as Chell twisted Her elbow just beyond its usual boundaries.
"Computers work more efficiently in a cold, dry place." Chell wasn't sure how that fact had entered her head. But that was the least of her worries. "There's only one room on this level where that makes a difference."
The look on Her face was one of pure death. Until that façade was replaced by a much, much more terrifying one.
"Yes, you are so clever. I sometimes wish I had the capacity to forget just how conniving you are." She said in a velvety tone, smiling at Chell in a manner that even a sane person with no familiarity with Aperture or its diabolical overlord would have found disturbing. "We're close to the Central Chamber. I was going to lie and say that your friend was in there, but even The Moron himself would have seen through that."
"You're making this difficult when it doesn't have to be." She pointed out bitterly. "Just give me Wheatley and I'll leave you alone. I just want to – "
" – get out of here." GLaDOS completed, the corner of her eye fixed on Chell's. "And you likely will. It's your nature to survive. But I can't get out of here." She enunciated, gripping the soft white skin under Her chin and tugging hard. "The past twelve minutes and thirty-four seconds have felt like years to me. I've calculated my odds alone, and they're dismal. But it looks like my risk paid off."
Chell's heart missed a beat. "No, it didn't. You're here. The chamber is still further down…"
"Yes, but she can hear us from here." She informed with a quiet chuckle. "Can't you, little Caroline?"
In another part of the facility, Wheatley was stuck.
Not the ordinary sort. This was tremendously stuck.
It didn't help that he was also quite far up. Trapped in a clear tube that sloped upward on either side. Typically, it had air blowing through it… air that was no longer propelling him towards who knows what godforsaken place the irate GLaDOS had intended for him to go. He wasn't quite certain if this was a good or bad sign in terms of whether or not Chell was still… alive. He dared to hope it was good.
But for him, it was definitely a less than optimal circumstance. He wasn't particularly athletic, and his attempts to climb were rewarded with a sore bum. Not that he didn't have enough bruises from the man-handling he often received from GLaDOS' mechanical claws.
Since his experience in space, he'd become rather good at using thoughts to entertain himself. He didn't have many memories to go on, but the more he used his brain, the more he remembered. Even if it was only bits of conversations that didn't seem very important…
"All I'm saying is that it looks like you had a bit o' parental assistance on this one, Miss –uh…" he squinted at the poster board. "Chall. Funny name too. I'm going to have to take off points for that."
"My daddy just gave me something to help it grow." Protested the little girl, crossing her arms stubbornly. "My mommy hasn't come home in a long time. Not since she told us Mr. Johnson was feeling sick."
Just as he was making headway with that particular memory, the tube began to rumble. There was a grating sound that made his fingers twitch before air began to surge through the tunnel once again. He was delighted to be moving again, until he remembered just who had sent him off in the first place. And that She might still be angry with him.
When he finally reach his destination, his knees buckled as he hit the ground. The roof spun, but he was quick to fumble back onto his feet.
"Don't you dare hurt her, you imbecilic, poorly wired – "
It wasn't his name that made him freeze. It was the voice that said it.
"Chell!" he shouted, spinning around to face her.
All three of them.
"Are we… in danger?" he asked slowly. Seeing that the human form of GLaDOS as well as the colossal chassis that usual housed Her brain were both very alive and flanking either side of Chell, it was a logical conclusion.
Chell was silent for some time. Her eyes wide and confused.
"I…I don't think so." She finally answered.
"Don't lie to the Moron-Sphere." Cut in GLaDOS. Despite being scantily clad in a cold room, she walked towards him without the slightest inhibition, grasping his ear and leading his whimpering form towards Chell.
"There. You have your payment." She pointed out, pushing Wheatley into her arms. "Now, Caroline…"
Wheatley yelped as the chassis rose up, its bright yellow optic focusing on them from a better vantage point.
"It was true what you said about Chell." A soft voice came from the machine. "You need to fix her."
"I can't now." Seethed GLaDOS. "Honestly, what is wrong with you?"
Nervous, and very unlike the program that had smothered her for years, she replied, "She's poisoned. And I can't work this facility. I can barely… even work this thing." Caroline groaned, making slow movements with her new body. "There only one other place that's like Aperture. Cave hated them, but…"
Wheatley was confused. Chell was piecing together knowledge from Mr. Johnson's recordings, reaching a conclusion just as GLaDOS muttered, "I can override Black Mesa technology without an issue and find a way to solve my problem and…" she leered at Chell. "Yours. Not that I wasn't trying to before, but that's gratitude for you."
"We're going to the surface?" questioned Chell, trying to hide her excitement. She didn't have much knowledge of Black Mesa beyond the fact that they were competitors with Aperture. Honestly, she didn't care much for any plan devised by GLaDOS or if Black Mesa turned out to be a factory of glow-in-the-dark rabbits, but solid food was an enticing prospect. Even wheat, roots, and the occasional bird that she caught and cooked were better than the paste she'd been fed during her stay at Aperture.
And if it kept her alive, then who was she to argue?
"Yes." Informed GLaDOS wryly, looking her in the eye. "And we'll have to work together."
Chell reached for Wheatley's hand, clasping it tightly without losing eye contact with the only true machine in the room.
"Fine. What's the plan?"
A/N: Med school. Exams. Exploding gnomes. I have many reasons for why this update took forever, but the most important bit of information I can offer is that when GLaDOS reviews your story, you update. So I just wanted to make sure that happened before the next round of tests.
Hope you enjoyed! Honestly, this sat around about 70% finished for a very, very long time. Dear me.