Just something I wrote as a bit of a break from Utopia, although that is coming along nicely as well. Variations of this have been plaguing me for months—then I downloaded the free Portal 2 soundtrack, which was the perfect length for writing this. The title comes from one of the tracks in the soundtrack.
Love as a Construct
The test subject ran, bounding on the long spines of the long-fall boots as he leapt out into the air, trusting the words scrawled onto the wall: JUMP, NOW!
Stumbling to a landing twenty meters below—feet-first and all he felt was a slight jolt of stop, but if he fell wrong, on his knee for instance, then, well, there would be no more running—he looked around wildly for the next sign. There; on the wall to the left: THIS WAY.
A panel of long steel spikes came loose and slammed into the wall behind him; the test subject felt it brush past his ankle as he scrambled to follow the graffiti's directions. Dust and shattered plastic caught up with him as the impact shook the hallway, but he was already gone.
The gun was heavy in his hands, its blue glow aimed at nothing in particular. The "Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device" was what the voice of the machine had insisted on calling it, but the test subject did not hear that name in his head: instead, he knew it to be a tool of the voice, but one that—for now, at least—aided him in his fight against it.
"I don't know where you think you're going," the voice said now, purring from all directions. It sounded male, but the test subject had never considered that it might be human—its vowels crackled with electricity, and its tones wavered independent of its message. "Following those scratches on the wall, are you? How do you know that I wasn't the one who made them?"
The test subject snarled between panting for breath; he could see, ahead of him, the stealthy movement of another panel of spikes lurking in the ceiling, and the next painting was on the floor below it. His ribs ached, and his legs, though strong and bunched with muscle he couldn't remember earning, felt sour with overuse.
"How do you know that you're not going exactly where I want you to?" the voice asked, and the test subject saw the word on the ground: STOP. He slid to a halt immediately, and dagger-sharp points burst out of the wall before him and slammed across, centimeters from the tip of his nose. The breeze of it slapped into his face and the test subject realized: the ceiling had been a decoy, a distraction to lure him into a false sense of confidence.
The panel of spikes began to withdraw back along its pistons and the test subject glanced into the hole from which it had come: saw dark paint on dark rust: IN HERE. He hesitated for only a moment—would he fit? The panel might crush him—before ducking down into that space. The panel loomed close and he threw himself against the wall of the alcove, scraped along it and then—
He was in another room; no longer lined with the white plastic rectangles the voice controlled, but rather corroded steel and plaster. He gaped at it, then read: DON'T JUST STAND THERE, RUN!
There was an arrow; the test subject darted forward and saw, out of the corner of his eye, the slide of a door—heard the childlike plea of a turret and then the explosive rattle of its guns—
The test subject grunted as he felt a line of agony cut along his thigh, but it wasn't enough to stop him and then he was in a narrow hallway, pressed between two walls of rusty metal. He staggered on for a few more steps, then slowed to feel at his leg. He winced, because his orange jumpsuit was torn open halfway down to his knee and the skin beneath flared purple around a vicious slice through the meat.
Blood stained his suit around the wound, but there was also—also black, smeared along his side and back, and the test subject rolled the fabric between his fingers. Paint, from the graffiti. The test subject felt—despite everything—a wild grin pull at his lips. Fresh paint.
The artist was close.
This was enough to drive him forward again. He ignored his leg's desire to limp and instead hurried along at an even lope.
Eventually he came to a corner and saw, like a sign from above: another arrow, pointing in the one direction available to him. A reassurance. The test subject let go of the portal gun with one hand and ran his finger along it; could not help but smile again when he saw the whorls of his fingerprint in black.
So he increased his pace, and at the end of the hallway was a room, pale with plaster, and beyond that room, another hallway—wider now, and the test subject could see written there: JUST A LITTLE FARTHER.
He stalked forward into the room, eyes focused on the graffiti, and then the floor—
—The floor, which was not plaster, which was made out of the same white plastic used by the voice—
—Gave way beneath his feet, and he fell, down and for what seemed an eternity, and he landed—landed badly, and his leg—the same leg, already injured—bent beneath him, and his mouth flew wide with the pain of it but no noise emerged.
The test subject lay for a moment, just breathing, and then picked himself up on his elbow, turning his head to see where he had come from: the dark rectangle of hallway far above, set into the wall of white panels.
"Got you," the voice of the machine crowed. "Now just wait there, won't you? I've got an old friend of yours here who wants to see you; goes by the name of deadly neurotoxin. Just give me a moment to bring it over…"
The test subject panted, sucking in the air while it was still clean. He did not trust his ability to walk, let alone escape.
The test subject's head shot upright and he peered around, then up—that had been a voice, but not the voice—no, this had come from a real throat, from real lungs, thin with distance rather than projected from the walls. He shut his mouth and squinted up at the opposite hallway. He could see, vaguely, some form of movement there.
"Hey, you! Quickly—use your head, dammit, don't just lie there!"
He looked down at his hand, splayed over the rough surface of the plastic. Just rough enough to provide friction, but smooth enough—smooth enough to support a portal. He couldn't run, perhaps, but maybe—maybe…
He could still fall.
The test subject rolled over onto his back, grimaced as he measured the distance, and pulled the trigger. The gun recoiled into his chest; a dash of blue splattered and then opened above the hallway he had come out of.
It was not a portal—not yet, because there was nothing on the other side to emerge from, so he tracked down the wall, straight down, by his feet—there. He pulled the other trigger and felt the buzz of an orange portal opening below his knees. He looked up, far above, and saw his boots dangling from the wall there.
Then, taking a deep breath, he scooted to the edge of the orange portal—looked down through it, but also across, and could see, with the strange vertigo of seeing someone standing on a different plane of gravity from oneself: a man, beckoning at him from the hallway. "Come on!" the man urged, blue eyes wide.
The test subject held onto that gaze as he pushed himself the rest of the way through the orange portal, emerged from the blue into open space, and then fell—
—He looked down at his feet at the floor rushed closer, as the orange portal swept up hungrily to swallow him—
—And then, all in a blur, he was flying, back through the blue, arcing through the air on borrowed momentum; straight toward the man, who pressed himself back against the wall as the test subject curled his legs in front of him, to catch himself—
The test subject hit the ground and the boots absorbed most of the impact; then he stumbled and fell with a grunt at the feet of the other man, who did not waste any time in grabbing him by the arm and hauling him back up, ignoring his hiss of pain. The other man draped that same arm around his shoulders, for all the good it did—he was quite a bit shorter and so the test subject could not support himself against his height; was simply dragged along, half-walking, half-hopping along the hallway.
The floor beneath them dropped several centimeters and the test subject stumbled into the other man, who pulled at him to keep moving. Everything shook, everything rattled—everything was moving, and as they came to the end of the hallway the test subject saw with a thrill of shock that the room beyond was sliding past—that the place where they were and the place over there were not connected.
If they were standing still, then… Then the space out there was moving down and to the side.
But the other man did not stop, actually began to hurry as the ceiling of the other room appeared beneath the frame of the hallway and began to scissor downward, and the test subject followed along in a hobbling run and obeyed when the man ducked his head down and commanded: "Jump!"
They tumbled to the floor below together, a jumble of limbs and—in the test subject's case at least—pain. He lay on the ground and watched, silently, as the hallway they had just come from slid up into the ceiling, and then—impossibly—the whole—the whole—what, structure? Box? Room? It all appeared to be one large block sliding along to somewhere else, and now they were in a space between… Two other boxes, perhaps?
As the rumbling quieted with distance, the test subject realized that he was still tangled up with the other man. He propped himself up so that he could look down at him, at the… Artist?
He spread his own fingers—rough with callus and smudged with grease and maybe, possibly a little bit of blood—and framed the other man's face with them while the test subject examined him. Wide blue eyes stared into his own as he took in the prominent nose, the flush to those round pale cheeks, the pointed chin and red lips… He brushed his thumbs over the man's skin, touching bruises, smudges of dirt, and careless splatters of… Paint, yes, in orange and black. His colors.
This was his artist; this was the man who had given him hints and tips all without ever meeting him. Well… That the test subject knew of. He didn't remember anything before waking up here, after all…
The artist was breathing shallowly, rapidly, still staring up into his eyes and blinking only fitfully. The test subject realized, suddenly, that perhaps lying on top of someone and caressing their face wasn't the most comfortable greeting he could have chosen. He knew what he looked like—had seen himself through the glow of the portals. His hair was tufted up in wild patches, his cheeks were hollowed and scruffed with stubble, and his eyes were hooded and dark. He knew he did not look… Well. Friendly.
He couldn't bring himself to move.
The other man—the artist, finally, here before him and real—brought up his own hands and pushed, a little bit, against the test subject's chest, squirming uncomfortably under the larger man's weight. The artist seemed much younger and shier than the test subject had imagined, and he tilted his head to watch, curious, as the artist puffed his cheeks in annoyed exertion.
"Go on, get off," the other man chided, giving a last insistent shove.
The test subject grunted and tore his eyes away from the other's face, pulling away and moving around his twice-injured leg into a sitting position. He resumed observing the artist, but from the corner of his eye now as the other man picked himself up and brushed the dust from his dress shirt.
The artist cleared his throat and smiled; hesitantly, but still a shockingly bright expression after the cold anonymity of the voice and its games. The test subject stared warily at the hand the other offered, noting the paint trapped beneath short fingernails. "Hello," the man offered. "I'm Charles? Charles Xavier. I've been leading you here."
The test subject froze just before taking the other's hand, because—because—
Charles' smile drooped on one side, and his eyebrows angled in concern. "You know—with the paint? On the walls?"
The test subject lowered his eyes and looked away, letting his hand drop back to his knee. He swallowed, thickly.
After a moment there came a cautious plucking touch at his shoulder, and the test subject tensed as that touch became a hand curving out around the curve of his deltoid. He heard: "What's… What is your name, if I may ask?"
The test subject turned his head, a little, glancing up at those earnest blue eyes before—no—back down to where that other paint-smeared hand rested on the floor. The test subject brought his own hand up to his throat, lips curved into a small bitter smile, and massaged over where his voice would come from if he were capable of such a thing.
Charles frowned, eyebrows furrowing until they arched up with a sudden leap of understanding. "Oh! Oh. You… Can't speak?"
The test subject's lips curved a little more, crookedly, in regretful confirmation, and he stared back out into the blue haze of the open space beyond their haven. He ignored, with studious attention, as the artist withdrew his hand and rummaged around. He focused instead on stifling that new ache—because he had nothing to offer to this man, who knew his own way and did not need a burden. Even the gun was not his alone—could be wielded just as easily by someone else; someone not himself.
A hand pressed something hard against his own, and the test subject looked down to see that Charles held a pen there, offering it to his fingers. "If you can't say it, can you write it down?" he asked, and his smile was so hopeful that the test subject couldn't help but accept the pen from him.
He uncapped it and held it up nearer to his face, peering at the narrow point of it; noted that even the pen had not escaped being smeared with paint. He pictured the letters in his mind, and could almost grasp the sense of them; could almost see their angles… But no; it was only his brain trying to placate him with nonsense.
He replaced the cap carefully and held it out, shaking his head a little.
Charles took it back from him and twirled it around between his fingers, tapping it against the membrane of his thumb as he stared at the test subject thoughtfully.
The test subject watched him in return, sidelong; unsure how to interpret such scrutiny.
Finally, Charles' eyes softened and he reached out again, without the pen this time, and tucked his fingers into the palm of the test subject's hand, squeezing gently.
The test subject was aware of his eyebrows tipping up in helpless surprise, but he was unable to bring them level again as the artist held onto his hand. His skin was warm and dry—other. Someone other than himself; someone human.
"That happens sometimes," Charles assured him softly, trapping the test subject's gaze with his own. "An extended cryosleep does sometimes cause brain damage—usually it's only temporary, but…" He tightened his grip. "…We'll manage."
He smiled, lopsidedly mischievous. "After all, we've managed well enough without speaking up until now, haven't we?"
The test subject felt something glad twitch at the corner of his mouth, and he turned his hand over to fold around Charles'. He could accept that challenge, he thought. He had fallen, he had flown, he had been shot at and he had bent the fabric of the universe around himself—he could try to speak without words, if it meant not doing it alone.