The driving rain thundered angrily against the roof of the tin shed. Underneath the overhang, Chell had collapsed, wet, cold, and exhausted beyond all belief. It had been days since she'd found food, days since she'd slept. She was fortunate enough to find a little stream where fresh water flowed, but the strange creatures that occupied that space - large, bipedal squidlike things that shot sticky, fetid masses of goo - allowed her no rest or reprieve. She didn't want to return to Aperture, to that aggressive AI who wanted her for nothing more than insults and amusement, but deep down she knew she had no other choice.
She had been sitting in the wet mud for several minutes now, inexplicably hesitant to try the door. The shed's overhang offered little protection from the rain, and a cold blast of wind announced the approaching night. Giving a resigning sigh, she raised a weary hand to knock on the metal door, fully aware that GLaDOS's cameras had probably already alerted the crazed computer of her presence. Chell jumped as the door swung open of its own accord. Peeking inside, she saw an awaiting cylindrical elevator, prepped for her downwards ride.
She pulled herself out of the mud and to her feet, propping herself on the door frame. This could be - probably was - a trap, but she was still wearing her long-fall boots. A big, fast trip downward would not be enough to kill her.
After all, that's what the neurotoxin was for.
Better the devil you know than the devil you don't. Those creatures in the woods granted her no mercy, and she'd prefer neurotoxin any day rather than that thing that looked like a plucked turkey and had tried to eat her face.
She boarded the elevator, leaning against the glass wall for support. The doors slid shut, and soon she was on her way down. There were no happy turrets to greet her with song and jollity this time; the area where they'd once stood was now dark and cold.
The elevator continued, faster. She gripped the metal poles at her waist, shutting her eyes tightly and hoping against hope that GLaDOS would give her a few precious moments of survival before trying to kill her.
"Don't come back." That's what she'd said last time, and Chell knew she'd meant it.
She was jolted, nearly to her knees, as the elevator suddenly slowed to a crawl. Gradually, GLaDOS's chamber came into view, a horrid dome that housed memories of lunar dust, bombs, fire, and cores. She could still smell the remnants of neurotoxin. As the whole of the chamber appeared, a hoarse gasp squeezed through Chell's fractured vocal chords.
GLaDOS was gone.
Gone. That massive, sixteen-foot, two-ton AI had completely vanished. Not a single scrap of metal facing, not one slender wire remained. On the spot where the gigantic chassis had once been bound to the ceiling was a round, rust-colored stain, the only indication that anything had been there at all.
Chell realized, as the elevator stopped, that her mouth was still open in shock. Self-consciously, she checked for cameras on the walls. Surely, wherever GLaDOS had relocated herself, she was laughing at the sight. "Catching flies?" she might say. Or "You look ridiculous with your face like that. I hope it freezes that way." Something along that vein. Chell expected her voice through the wall speakers at any moment. The only noise, however, was an empty wind that echoed through the air of the macrocosmic void beyond the chamber.
On the far side, a door opened; a passage out. This was Chell's fourth - well, fifth, if one considered her brief tour into outer space - visit to this very place. Even in its most decrepit state, she had recognized the hallways around the chamber, just as she knew them now. Not even Wheatley's influence would change the basic grammar of the architecture.
She stepped out into the hall and was surprised to discover the return of the antiiseptic white walls of an office building. An array of doors littered the hall, as though people going about their daily office work still occupied the building. There were several clicks, each door giving a jump as the locks turned.
Chell's trigger finger twitched. More than ever, she wished for that ten pounds of weight strapped to her arm. GLaDOS had tried to kill her. Wheatley had turned against her. Even the Companion Cube had offered no help against the outside elements. But the ASHPD had never let her down. Unfortunately, it was now orbiting the planet alongside Wheatley, that space-loving core, and that annoying green core that had spent way too much time admiring her chest.
She cautiously stepped up to the first door, standing to the side in case something nasty jumped at her. She'd had more than enough of that on the outside. Her fingers grazed the handle of the door long enough to push it wide open. The light from the hallway was not enough to illuminate the room, but a swath of red light and a whirring mechanical noise told her enough.
A turret. And her with out the ASHPD. She grit her teeth and dashed past the open doorway. The red light hit her. She almost felt the heat of it as it whooshed past her face. The turret's sideguns opened; she heard them open. Instead of rapid-fire bullets, the calm, child-like voice of the turret called out.
"Hey! It's Chell!"
A cry of surprise rose in her throat, only to be transformed into a hollow squeak. She stopped so quickly that she almost toppled over. Did that turret just call her name?
She poked her head back in the doorway. The turret's laser tracked her, coming to rest squarely on her forehead. Its little gun-arms wiggled excitedly.
She retracted, unsure if the turret still meant her harm. It was best to leave it be, she decided, and continued down the hallway. But the turret's announcement had activated the others, and from all the rooms around her, she heard their welcoming cries.
"Oh, Chell! It's you!"
Weird. This was weird. She shot down the hallway at full speed as all of the doors opened at once. Turning the corner, she found another hallway, and a barrage of clicks echoed as these doors began to open, too. Curiosity gave way to visceral fear as she turned down hall after hall only to find the same results. They never fired a single bullet. They never begged her to come back or claimed that their target was lost. They only greeted her, welcomed her back, announced her presence to the others.
Her hands clenched as if to grip the familiar weight and curve of her ASHPD. Where was GLaDOS? What was she planning? It must be one hell of a trap if she went through this much effort. Chell's jaw tightened as the possibilities played through her mind.
She quickly rounded another corner, fearful but expectant of yet another hallway. This time, however, she found only a short corridor. It branched off to the right, and down that hallway Chell could already hear the unnervingly joyous cries of the turrets. A few feet from the detour was a set of large double doors. A placard above the doors read "Conference Room."
Chell took a moment to catch her breath before approaching the double doors. This was it. This was the trap. Probably a bunch of turrets that really did shoot at her, or perhaps rocket launchers. Or both. Or spike plates. Lasers. Acid. Trapdoors. Anything. Chell put her ear against the door, listening for the familiar hiss of lasers, the slosh of acid, or the whirring of turrets.
"...we've only got one chance at this. Keep everything hidden; I don't want her finding out what we're planning. I swear, if you two fail me this time, I really will permanently disassemble you."
It was muffled, far off, and somehow stranger that last she'd heard it, but Chell knew that voice definitely belonged to GLaDOS. Chell tried the knob, rattling it noisily. Locked. The conversation within the room halted almost immediately, save a harsh whisper of "GO!" from GLaDOS.
Chell listened for a moment, hearing only the calls of turrets down the hall and silence from the room. She rattled the knob again, more aggressively this time, shaking the doors so hard that they banged. After no reply, she pounded with a clenched fist. Still no answer. She pressed her ear to the door again, barely making out a light shifting sound within.
Chell's mouth tightened. What was going on? If this was a trap, why didn't GLaDOS want her in here? If it wasn't a trap, why would GLaDOS be in there in the first place? Regardless, Chell was getting into this room. She raised a leg, giving one of the doors a violent kick. Her fatigue now forgotten, she was running partially on curiosity and partially from the paranoid adrenaline speeding through her bloodstream. She kicked again, making a crack in the wooden door with the heel of her boot.
The door went inward as if pulled, and Chell lowered her foot as a lock bolt turned. She stepped forward to bust her way in, but the sudden appearance of a woman's face made her pause. The woman was pale, almost abhorrently so, with strange, cracked lines, like old porcelain, running along her face. Her black hair seemed endless, and it streamed down her pale face and even out through the doorway as if it were a sentient, inky miasma. Her eyes shone like gold coins, glaring with malice and annoyance.
"What?" she sighed impatiently, and Chell's eyes widened as she realized exactly who and what she saw. Chell took a step forward, extending her hand to prove that what she saw was real. The cold glare on GLaDOS's newly-acquired face and the golden eyes switching from Chell to her outreached hand and back told Chell that any loss to that curious extremity would be the mute's own fault.
Chell wisely retracted her hand.
GLaDOS wrinkled her nose. "Great. Not only have you come back to bother me, you have to come back smelling like a wet dog. What's the matter? Didn't they have showers out there in the free world?"
Chell's narrowed eyebrows was her only response.
"Really, you should just admit it. You missed it here, didn't you? Or was it just too hard for you out there? Ever wonder why I tested you so much? To prepare you. But I guess you failed after all."
"Well," GLaDOS let out another sigh. Chell stepped forward, and GLaDOS pulled the door in a little, as if guarding the room. She scowled before continuing. "Well, I can't have you stinking up the place if you're going to be living here. Go down that hallway to the Activity Center. Hopefully you'll know what to do there. Take all the time you need - a few hours will do. That is quite a smell, after all. When you're done, come back here. I have a test - ah, a trap – a surprise...for you."
Grimacing, Chell started down the branching hallway, where the turrets were still singing her praise. GLaDOS grunted in annoyance, and Chell turned to find her inspecting the damage where Chell had kicked the door. GLaDOS glared up at her.
"Do try not to destroy the facility this time. I did just renovate the place. Again."
She slammed the door. Slighted, Chell huffed. If she had one ounce of sense, she would go back to the empty chamber, board the elevator, and try her hand at eking out an existence in the wild. No matter what had been said before, GLaDOS was not her friend and would most likely never be. That AI would be the death of her one day, and that day was most likely today.
However, against her better judgment, Chell found herself walking quickly down the branching hallway, trying to ignore the turrets. She soon found the entrance to the Activity Center, an old, rusty door half off its hinges and coated in dust and cobwebs.
Chell slowly urged the door open and reached for a light switch. A dim fluorescent flickered on and twittered intermittently. The Activity Center, it turned out, was an old and extremely unused gym. All sorts of equipment lay covered with dust – rowing machines, dumbbells, treadmills – all seemingly brand new. As per the standard in gyms, one wall had been covered by a mirror, this one marred by dust and oily smears.
A bright light came from the back, and Chell discovered a generously large shower room. The blue-and-white wall tiles looked freshly scrubbed, and not a single cobweb was strewn from any corner. Soap, shampoo, a razor, and a clean, white towel were laid on a bench, as if Chell was expected.
She frowned, checking the walls for vents before stepping in. Perhaps this was the trap. Catching her at her most vulnerable so she'd be completely at GLaDOS's mercy; that seemed like her style. Chell eyed each shower cautiously. Three of the four stalls had rusted or corroded metal pipes, and turning the knobs only resulted in a harsh squeal as water merely attempted to flow. The first stall had shiny new plumbing. Chell stood back as she turned the knob, making sure it was really water that poured through.
It was real water. Real, warm, clean water.
Chell wanted nothing more than to dive right into it, scrub off years of sweat and grime. There was still a possibility that the whole thing was rigged to kill her, though, and she double-checked and triple-checked all the walls, doors, pipes, and even the hooks on the walls. She found nothing, not even a camera. It wasn't safe – nothing involving GLaDOS was ever really safe – but she felt secure enough to attempt a shower.
She picked at the hard, mud-crusted knot at her waist in a struggle to untie the jumpsuit's arms, feeling slight guilt but also a rise of devilish glee at the mess she was making on the pristine floors. She unhooked her boots, sliding them off and placing them carefully on the bench. No longer possessing the ASHPD, the long-fall boots were her only defense, and she was determined to be mindful of them.
Chell slid off her jumpsuit – dear God, it was finally off! - and peeled off her tank top. It reeked of sweat and river mud. She gathered the clothes together, wondering if there was enough soap to clean those as well. They were the only things she had to wear, after all.
Removing the rest of her clothing, she gathered the soap and shampoo and began her task. Muddy water swirled down the drain as she struggled to pull out her ponytail. The wrap had stuck, and a good amount of hair came with it when she finally tore it away. Disappointingly, her hair maintained the ponytail shape until the water melted it back to its original softness.
The shampoo was of good quality and smelled of flowers. Real salon-like stuff. The soap was good, too. A plethora of relieved sighs escaped her as the filthy brown water spilling off of her started to clear. A thousand pounds of dead weight had been lifted away.
A strange noise broke her zen. She cautiously peeked out of the shower stall and was surprised to see a tall construct sneaking around. It had a long, oval body, like a turret, and orange decorations and stripes were painted in a random fashion over its twiglike arms and legs. She recognized it as one of the robots she'd woken to after GLaDOS had pulled her in from space.
It noticed her. She slid halfway back behind the stall, brows furrowed, watching with suspicion. However, it only raised its hand and waved, spouting out a grainy and barely discernible "Hi!" Caught off-guard, Chell returned an awkward wave. She then noticed it held in its other hand a large and misshapen lump of paper. It dropped its parcel on the bench and walked away without further address or conflict.
Chell returned to the warm shield of water, her nerves now on edge. She finished cleaning herself, peeking out again to make sure the area was clear before emerging. Wrapping herself in the towel, she stared at the lump the robot had left. It was white copier paper, crudely folded around something and randomly taped together. A long, red wire wrapped around it one way then the other, finally ending in a tied bow.
Like a present.
She prodded it warily with a finger. Whatever was in it was soft. She gingerly picked it up, and as soon as she lifted it, its contents dumped out onto the bench. Instinctively, she jumped back, expecting some sort of bomb or goo or even one of those headsucking things from outside. Instead, it was a folded pile of orange fabric.
Chell chewed her lip. Another jumpsuit? Did GLaDOS expect her to test again? She pulled the fabric up. Other objects fell out of the folds, but the garment itself held Chell's attention. Instead of a dumpy, standard-issue jumpsuit, she found a lovely orange sundress. Something fell off of the bench onto the floor, making a hard sound on the tile. Chell looked down and saw a pair of matching orange slippers.
She wasn't normally the dress-wearing type, even before Aperture, but merely holding up the garment stirred something within her. Questions, mostly. If it wasn't a jumpsuit, how was she supposed to test? Testing was the main objective in this madhouse; Chell had learned that the hard way. All of this was still a trap – wasn't it?
Chell wasn't going to argue. Not while she was naked, at least. The other items that had dropped were standard-issue undergarments, and Chell was glad to see them. Though she still had reservations about wearing a dress, it was at least clean. She found it a little loose but otherwise a perfect fit. Almost too perfect.
The choice now came between her beloved long-fall boots and the new slippers she'd been given. Almost jokingly, she tried the slippers on. They were deliciously light and comfortable and again the perfect size. She trotted clumsily around in them, unable to remember the last time she'd worn flat shoes. Curiosity got the better of her, and she went back into the dingy gym, remembering the long mirror-wall on one side.
She didn't recognize the woman in the orange dress staring back at her. No shower in the world could wash away the dark circles under her icy eyes, the scars below her knees where the first long-fall braces had been installed, and the scant lines of stress-induced gray that painted her dark brown, shoulder-length hair. Somehow, even with these flaws, even though she knew she wasn't the best-looking woman in the world, she smiled at her own image and felt a surge of pride in her chest. This was the woman who had twice defeated GLaDOS, who had defeated Wheatley in his madness, who had conquered Aperture and lived. A bullheaded, tenacious success of a woman. This was her.
Even if she was wearing a dress.
Chell finally decided to wear the long-fall boots instead of the slippers. She was more accustomed to their fit. Besides, she was still clinging to the idea that this was a trap and that she'd better be prepared for the worst. Hoping enough time had elapsed, she returned down the hallway back to the Conference Room.
This time, the hallway was silent. She stopped after the first two open doorways, peeking inside a third. No laser. No red eye. She flipped on the light, revealing nothing but a desk and a rolling chair.
Chell frowned, returning to the hallway. Even with all the scrubbing, she knew she couldn't have taken more than forty-five minutes. She didn't want to make GLaDOS wait too long.
She stopped, scoffing at herself and rolling her eyes. When did GLaDOS's patience matter? That 'immortal' AI could wait for the end of the world.
Still, didn't GLaDOS let her back in? She remembered the high scent of wet, molding wheat in the air as she'd trudged through the field, hoping with every fiber of her being that the shed would be open. And GLaDOS had provided her with a shower and clothes – new clothes, at that. The turrets hadn't fired at her. Nothing had tried yet to kill her. GLaDOS's words had been vitriolic, but wouldn't it have been more suspicious to hear that strange, sarcastic sweetness in her voice?
She found herself at the Conference Room doors once again. Raising a curled fist, she gently knocked. The door slowly opened, and Chell stepped into the black room. The door automatically closed behind her. She stood still and listened, hearing only the faint sound of rustling paper.
The lights flashed on. From the ceiling sounded a loud, deep boom. Chell instinctively flinched, but her eyes shot wide as she saw the strips of sparkling silver float from the ceiling like shimmering snow. Through the confetti, Chell saw an assortment of mechanica – turrets, cubes, cores, the robot that had visited her in the shower, and its companion robot bedecked in blue. In the middle of them all was GLaDOS, a devious and triumphant grin on her face. Behind everyone was a large banner plastered to the wall, displaying a message sloppily written in blue Repulsion Gel:
WELCOME BACK CHELL
"I told you I saved the good stuff," said GLaDOS, stepping forward and catching a bit of confetti. She flicked it towards Chell, and it fluttered harmlessly to the ground. "Our last bag. Just for you."
Chell just stared in shock.
"I made you that dress, too. Had to pull so many files from the cameras to get your appropriate size. Of course, I had to consult her for sewing tips." GLaDOS tightened her jaw, rolling her eyes at the mention of Caroline. "Not the sort of thing I usually undertake. But I see it was worth the hassle. It looks very good on you."
The odd sincerity in the AI's voice made Chell's heart flutter.
GLaDOS let out a short, exasperated sigh. "But then you had to wear those boots..."
Chell smirked. No complement without an insult; that was GLaDOS, all right.
GLaDOS snapped her fingers, and the tall, orange, turret-robot pulled a large white sphere from behind a stack of Weighted Storage Cubes. The robot handed it to Chell, and she noticed that it was, like her clothes had been, hastily wrapped in copier paper. She turned it over in her hands to inspect it, mindful of the poor wrapping job.
It suddenly shifted and began twitching in her hands, its weight shifting wildly as something inside of it started grinding and moving. Chell squeaked in surprise, air rushing past her strained vocal chords like a bow on an out-of-tune violin, and she very nearly dropped the large ball. As she reaffirmed her grip on it, a piece of paper tore away, and a bright blue optic, cracked down the middle, rolled around to stare up at her.
It couldn't be.
She let out another squeak, tearing off the paper. The core sat in her hands, the same way he had done just a week and a half before. His bottom shutter rose halfway, giving him a happy expression, and he bobbed and churned around with excitement. The variance of his expressions told her he should be speaking, but no noise came from him. Chell tilted her head, worried and confused.
GLaDOS shook her head and sighed. She raised a hand, and the jittering core flew into her outstretched palm, the blue light of his optic shrinking to a pinprick as he realized who was holding him.
"I had to turn his speakers off," she explained apologetically. "You know how much he loves to hear himself talk, and I couldn't have the little moron ruining your surprise."
Wheatley's expression turned angry as GLaDOS fiddled with something on the core's back. A switch clicked, and his irritated voice echoed through the conference room. "-NOT A MORON!" His optic pinpricked again, and it was GLaDOS's turn to look slighted. "OH! S-sorry, luv! Didn't know I was back on. Heh."
"Whatever." GLaDOS nonchalantly tossed him back to Chell.
"Oh!" he cried happily as she scooped him in her arms, "you caught me this time! I mean, I knew you would. Would have the firs' time, too, I bet, if you'd had enough warnin'. But you didn't. Didn't catch me. Back then. A-anyway, I wanna say somethin' to ya. Somethin' I've been thinkin' of all the past week, when I was in space, where you put – no, where I put myself. With my own actions. Deserved it. Yes. Deserved a little trip out there. Head-clearing trip. Nice little time-out, away from all the madness and testing and the...the itch."
"Get on with it," GLaDOS sighed under her breath.
Wheatley rattled a little; Chell was unsure whether it was in anger or fear. "Anyway, just wanted to say that I was a terrible friend. Just terrible – a terrible friend, terrible ally, all around just pretty awful. And I'm sorry. So very, very sorry. I hope you find it possible, in that wonderful, big ol' lovely, squishy human heart of yours to forgive me. For – for being so terrible and awful to you. And I hope that – AWK!"
He was silenced as Chell held him tight against her chest. Prickles of tears threatened at her eyes, and she shut them tightly to prevent their release. For the longest time, she simply embraced him, still awestruck at the fact that he was here.
"Um, luv?" he mumbled, shifting his gyros into a struggle. "Can't rightly move, here."
She released her grip on him, feeling a rush of blood on her cheeks. The tall, orange-painted robot gently took Wheatley out of her hands, and she made sure it was holding him securely before her attention was once more directed to GLaDOS.
The AI stepped towards her, golden eyes shimmering, and Chell felt the familiar intimidatory fear at her presence. Even in a humanoid form, she still stood at least half a head over Chell and certainly reveled at every differing inch. The icy, blank stare on her face didn't help.
Chell flinched – just a little – as GLaDOS's arms slid over the shoulders of the orange sundress. The AI pulled her tight, and Chell was surprised at the artificial body's warmth. GLaDOS was strong – Chell could discern it just by the way she was being held – but there was also a strange gentleness. Briefly, Chell recounted the large, seemingly clumsy metal claw that had delicately grabbed her by the wrist and dragged her back from the moon. GLaDOS pressed her cheek against Chell's temple, whispering softly into her ear:
"Welcome home, cara mia."
Home. The word shot through her like a laser. Home. A place she'd never had, and a place she never thought she'd call Aperture. Yet not so deep inside, she knew this madhouse was part of her and she a part of it. Within these walls, she had held hands and clashed swords. She had suffered and reveled. Joy, sorrow, madness, sanity, triumph, failure – these made up Aperture. Were they not the elements of a family as well?
Her arms wrapped around GLaDOS, and she sniffled as hot tears trailed down her cheeks. She expected some offhanded comment, some tease about how emotional she was being. GLaDOS only held her tighter. Chell smiled. Home. She was home. And she was never, ever going to leave agai—
Her ice-blue eyes shot open, startled at the roaring crash of thunder. It took a moment for her to remember where she was, or, more importantly, where she was not. She glanced over at the barred window of the barren apartment as several screams and short bursts of gunfire echoed through the rainy night.
The Combine couldn't see too well through the rain, so many citizens tried to escape on stormy nights like these. For the most part, Metrocop raids kept the escapees at bay. Still, it was worth the risk of dying just to get past the walls of City 04, if even for a glimpse of the forest and field beyond.
She gave a long, mournful groan, straining air through her busted throat as she rubbed her face. Her hands came away wet as the warm, comforting illusion of Aperture's welcome melted into obscurity, leaving only cold, bitter reality.
Sometimes dreams were worse than nightmares.
She had arrived at City 04 several weeks ago. They had instantly caught her. Thinking them harmless, she hadn't resisted at the time. However, a single lap around the city told her she was not free. Food and fresh water were a commodity. Friends, even more so. Her stubbornness and rebellious nature had warranted trouble from the beginning; even now she couldn't count the newfound bruises and scars on her back from those damned electric prods.
The recurring dreams didn't help. Always back at Aperture, always a welcome sight. She always awoke with a strange pain in her chest and a fierce urge to cry. Fortunately – if there were such a thing as fortune here – the Combine raids were beginning to make her a light sleeper.
The chopping noise of helicopter blades emerged through the thunder and rain. She rolled off of the filthy mattress she'd been using as a bed, pressing her body as close to the floor as possible, hoping the civilian standard-issue blue suit would allow her some sort of camouflage. For once, she was glad she wasn't dressed in Aperture orange. The helicopter whirred harmlessly by, its spotlight sweeping past her window. The light glimmered as it hit the gathering raindrops, making them sparkle like silver confetti.
The good stuff.
Our last bag.
Chell's body tightened as the chopper passed. Suddenly, she realized what she had to do. She nearly leaped off of the floor, grabbing the small satchel she'd liberated off of a fallen rebel. There wasn't much to pack up – a bit of dried meat, a few bandages, and a little jug of fresh, untainted water that a rebel had given her – but as she scoured the ruined room for supplies, she mapped the trail in her head. Past the gates. Through the little field, bearing northwest. Through the forest – the path came easily to mind as she visualized every fallen tree and bend in the stream – through the wheat field down to that little metal shed in the middle of nowhere.
She was grateful that testing had improved her memory. If her physical abilities could keep up, she would be out of here in no time. Her arm still ached for the weight of the ASHPD, but what she couldn't do with portals she could still accomplish through tenacity. She set her jaw, slinging the satchel over her back and heading towards the door.
Hell or high water, she would escape City 04 tonight.