Innocent, intoxicating, spacial speed,
hurled headlong on chariots of fire.
Something brought her back.
Aperture was not, by any means, easy to find. There was a lot of wading in wheat fields to get to where she was currently standing. An old shed should have been easy to find in a place where there was flat gold for miles around, but Aperture made it tough anyway.
It took days, but there she was: cleaned up, hair up, wearing something other than the orange jumpsuit that had been glued to her skin since she could remember. She was standing in front of the shed's door. She was hesitating. She fingered the rust about the sharp edges of the corrugated steel.
Chell was unarmed, and she had come back. "Nostalgia," that's how she justified it. Homesickness. Loneliness. For once in her life she wasn't worried about getting killed, but she came back anyway.
She pulled, and the Aperture Science door, though it was heavy, yielded to her, and swung wide open.
The elevator inside didn't smell like a laboratory, like clean machinery and chemicals, like recycled carbon dioxide and plastic.
Rather, it smelled exactly like the wheat fields.
This was not the way Aperture was supposed to smell. Something was wrong. Perhaps a leak in the (normally airtight) door, perhaps she was the one who smelled like the wheat fields because she had been walking in them for forever, maybe she lingered in front of the lift too long while it stood open, sparking, waiting.
She stepped into the lift with some caution. The wheat smell was one thing, the sparking elevator was another: if the lift failed, she could go crashing back into the bowels of Aperture and find a grave among the toxic waste and the voice of Cave Johnson. There was no other way back into the facility, though, and she wanted to be here.
So she stayed in the lift, pressed one of the two buttons (down) and let it carry her.
The ride was slow and halting. She saw nothing but old gears and the rust of the elevator shaft for a good twenty minutes while the elevator crawled into the facility.
Then she saw them.
The turrets were positioned just as they were when she had last saw them. For a second, Chell imagined that they were going to sing a "welcome back" this time, an invitation to continue testing, to enslave herself again, to live in Aperture Science forever. Perhaps a "we knew you'd come back" sort of thing, GLaDOS telling her, once again, that she was useless without Aperture pushing her around.
But the turrets' lights weren't on. They weren't clicking or repositioning themselves, or talking quietly. They weren't humming, let alone singing.
They were silent.
It dawned on Chell that she was looking at a graveyard. The turrets hadn't moved from their positions during their farewell song. They were no longer operating. Though they were all turned to the lift, they were still, and their optic lasers did not watch her.
Robots are never alive to begin with, but these turrets were standing corpses.
Chell covered her mouth with her hand once the elevator had passed through. The turrets had all been shut down; the turrets never shut down. Her occasional naps next to the turret chambers had been fitful. They never stopped talking, especially if there was no one to shoot. Even if they weren't talking, the sound of their inner computers at work drifted through the air. To see a quiet living turret was nearly impossible; a dead turret was something that only appeared when Chell had smashed a live one to death.
If the turrets were shutting down, then Aperture was broken.
The elevator creaked on for a while.
Then, as if someone had pushed it, it gave a sudden lurch and dropped several floors. Chell found herself jolted out of her shock.
For a while, she floated, and then she crashed to a heap on the floor. When the elevator stopped, its doors crashed open, and the glass shattered.
Her heart thumped in her ears and she tried to compose herself on the floor of the stopped elevator, amid broken glass and her own ragged breathing. It had been a while since she had taken a fall like that.
After several minutes, she looked up.
The elevator had stopped in GLaDOS's chamber.
The smell of the wheat fields was thick in the air.
Sunlight streamed in through an enormous hole in the ceiling, hundreds of feet above the ground. Several tiles lay below it, bathed in early-afternoon light. Birds were hopping about on the ground. They pecked at plaster and steel and dirt and wheat grains; they were unaware that they didn't belong here. Up above, intact strands of wheat peeked in.
Chell was expecting some sarcastic "hello," some restrained anger and confusion as to why she had come back, perhaps some glee at getting to test her again, just like old times. She was expecting a voice, something, anything, to greet her. She was expecting GLaDOS to talk to her. She was expecting GLaDOS to at least mention the birds.
GLaDOS was there, but she was quiet, and hung straight down in her chassis.
Chell walked slowly forward.
The computer's head was tilted towards the ground, yellow optic widened at nothing. Her massive body, all the wires of the chassis and her metal hull, were stretched out. GLaDOS was not dangling, but was suspended. She was very, very still, perhaps sleeping, perhaps dead.
Her beloved turrets, extensions of herself, were dead, so only the worst of the two options was possible.
Chell reached out, mouth open, and ran her hand along the side of the computer's massive head. There was no evidence of foul play, evidence of someone else coming along and killing her after Chell left. No evidence that GLaDOS had malfunctioned. Even in death, the computer was calm, if a bit surprised.
A small screen, attached to the upper part of the chassis, was flashing repeatedly: "VOLUNTARY SHUTDOWN."
In the silence of the empty facility, finally without human company, GLaDOS had killed herself.
Chell furrowed her brows, tears stinging her eyes, and ran her fingers along the edge of the computer's optic. What she was doing now was strangely intimate, something that GLaDOS would never have allowed her to do had she still been alive. Chell had come back here, she realized, to say hello to this massive machine, but not like this. GLaDOS had tried so hard to kill her and had failed, first on account of Chell's ingenuity, then on account of a strange, haphazard friendship. GLaDOS had let her go, and had then, presumably, shut herself down.
Because of her. Chell swallowed through a thick lump in her throat. She was the pest GLaDOS couldn't ever get rid of. She had frustrated someone to death, even if that "someone" was never alive.
The birds flew away.
Chell's fingers shook. Through the tears, her vision blurred, and then cleared again as a few hot tears rolled down her face. She wiped them away.
Then she gave up, knelt, and cried for a long time.
"Hey…hey. Lady. Hey. Hey, lady."
Chell sat straight up.
"Please come over here, lady. Please help. Help. Lady. Hey."
For a while, she knelt there, frozen, listening to this faint robotic voice pleading with her. It was familiar; it sounded like it was crying.
"Lady. Help. Lady. Please."
It whimpered. "Wanna go to space. Don't wanna be home. Wanna go back."
Chell turned around as fast as she could.
From the darkness crawled a solitary figure.
To anyone else, it resembled a small boy with a shock of curly auburn hair. But Chell knew better: it was a core, one of the ones she had attached to Wheatley's chassis before hurling him into space. Presumably, all the cores had gone with him.
But Space Core had come back.
After making eye contact with her, Space crawled faster. As he drew into the sunlight and closer to her, Chell began to see signs of wear-and-tear: his synthetic skin was charred and beaten, his jumpsuit was fraying, his synthetic hair was singed at the tips. His eyes were wide-open and frightened. Atmospheric reentry had taken a toll on him.
All Aperture technologies remain safely operational up to four thousand Kelvin.
But he was still running.
The smell of melted plastic was thick on him. Chell drew away. Space rose to his knees and shuffled towards her; before she could move further, he latched his arms around her waist and buried his face in her hip. His thin body curled up next to her and shook.
"Don't wanna be back here. Wanna be back in space. Take me back to space, lady. Wanna go back. Wanna go back. Wanna go back."
After some hesitation, Chell reached out and began to awkwardly pat his hair. He let out a cry and latched on tighter.
"Space lady," he wailed. "Space has no problems. Send me back to space. No fire there. Fire. And burning. None of that. Space. It's cold. Gotta go back. Send me back."
Chell continued to pat his hair. The tears were drying on her face. Space really was a child. He had experienced something he couldn't understand and now he couldn't function properly because of it. Chell wished she could talk or, better yet, launch the poor thing out to space where he could be happy. The portal gun was gone. GLaDOS was dead. The Space core was stuck.
Space continued to wail. Chell pulled him upright and into a tight hug.
"Oh, I wanna go back. Send me back." He held onto her and pressed his cheek into her collarbone. His face was hot in little pinpricks that ran down his skin, Aperture's best imitation of tears without water.
Chell shook her head.
Chell nodded. Space's fingers dug into her back, clutched at her tight, faded shirt.
"No space. Forever! No more space."
Chell held him until his sobs subsided into quiet sniffling. GLaDOS's chamber was filled with the sounds of his muttering and sniffling.
Finally, Space said something of real meaning: "Space buddy. Shut down. Gone to sleep. Space buddy needs to wake up."
Chell pulled back and held Space at arm's length. She stared into his orange eyes with a stern look.
"Space buddy." Space blinked and tilted his head before an expression of grief crinkled his freckled face. "Please help. He's sleeping. Dreaming. Of space. Asleep."
Space was referring to one of the cores. All four had been hurled into space. Presumably Space had had at least one fall into orbit with him and the come crashing to Earth.
Chell held up three fingers.
"Just one. Just one space buddy. Not three. That's too much. Too much for space. It gets crowded…with that much space buddies in space. No longer space. Not enough space for everyone."
Chell gestured around the chamber.
"This isn't space. Not space."
Chell pointed back to where Space had crawled from.
"No one there. Not space. Just empty."
Chell made the gesture again.
"Space buddy! He's asleep. Help." Space whimpered again and moved to curl up against her, but Chell stubbornly resisted and kept him at arm's length. She tilted up his chin to meet hers. By now his sniffling had turned into breathless hiccupping.
Chell pointed to him, then around the chamber.
"Space buddy. Over there."
Space pointed not towards the corner from whence he came, but to a place behind her.
On the other side of the room, where she hadn't bothered to look.
There were a few large, charred spots on the ground, then beyond that, a crumpled heap of something in the corner of the room where Space was currently pointing.
With her eyes, Chell followed the line created by the hole in the ceiling.
If Space and his companion core had burst through the hole in the ceiling together…
The companion core had bounced on the ground a few times before coming to rest in the corner. There were no more charred spots, so that meant Space and the companion core had hit the ground together. Perhaps Space had been clinging desperately to the companion core.
But Space had survived; companion core had not. Or, rather, the core was asleep…
Chell stood and picked up Space in her arms. He slung his arms around her neck; she placed her left hand on his back and cradled him against her chest. Together, they made their way around GLaDOS, across the gigantic room, towards the heap in the corner.
As they grew closer, something stirred in Chell's chest. The lanky form was familiar. There was the same atmospheric-reentry wear-and-tear around his jumpsuit, the same singes in his blonde hair. He was sprawled out on his sides, his arms and legs at unnatural angles, his back to them. He greatly resembled a broken, abandoned toy.
The blue piping on his jumpsuit made the gears in her head turn.
Space escaped from her arms and ran the extra length to the core. Before she could chase after him, he reached the core and flipped him onto his back.
A pair of cracked glasses came into view. His synthetic skin was burnt, his angular face charred, yet serene, in his artificial sleep. The same smell of melted plastic that was hanging on Space came off him. His head lolled gently to the side as Space shook him.
Chell took several steps backwards.
"Please wake up," Space said. "Time to go back to space. We're not in space. Have to go back. Lady says we can't go. Wake up. Try to go to space. Space. Come back." Space shook him as if he were truly asleep, as if he could be really woken up like a human person. The core stayed asleep.
Space looked up at her, his face contorted and his orange eyes brimming with tears that weren't really there. "Please help. Wake him up."
Chell wanted him to stay asleep. He had betrayed her, had tried to murder her, had tried to cage her and use her. GLaDOS, at least, showed no semblance of affection towards her when she had tried to trap Chell forever; it was only when they had become friends that the computer had acted with kindness. But this man had tried to pin her down like a butterfly, had had some twisted sexual affection towards her that had made her skin crawl with every button she had pressed, every room she had been forced to run through.
Wheatley was a monster, and she didn't want to wake him up.
Space flipped him onto his stomach again, and grew strangely silent. Chell tensed. The longer she looked at Wheatley's sleeping form, the angrier she got. Let him stay a doll; let him be broken. He never apologized. If he weren't already destroyed, she would have put him to sleep herself.
Space slowly pointed to a protrusion in Wheatley's back. It bulged past the white jumpsuit zipper running down the length of his spine. Space looked to Chell with a question in his eyes.
Chell found her anger slowly converting to curiosity. That had never been there, as far as she could remember. Maybe it was a piece of the chassis that had broken off when Wheatley was flung into space. Maybe it was some major piece of his CPU that had been smashed and he was never going to wake up again.
She crept forward. Space scrambled out of her way.
She knelt by his body and gently unzipped his jumpsuit.
It peeled away to reveal more pristine synthetic skin and a complex set of black plugs on his spine. There were several wires curling in and out of his body.
Here was the computer part of him.
And the strange protrusion was one thick, black cord that was unplugged. It had bunched up under the jumpsuit. One single socket near it was empty; it gaped with a bright orange mouth. The word "SLEEP" was printed, in tiny orange lettering, on the black plastic above the socket.
Space's cheek was almost pressed against hers as he hovered over Wheatley's spine with her, his auburn curls nearly blocking her view.
Despite her urge to run and never look back, for the hopeful core next to her, with faith in her ability to fight off Wheatley and escape from him a second time, Chell stretched out the black cord and plugged it back into the "SLEEP" slot.
Wheatley's internal CPU began to whir. Gears clicked within him. The cords on his back sparked a bit. His artificial breathing picked up.
Chell backed away and leapt to her feet, body tensed.
Space crawled around to Wheatley's head.
Wheatley stirred. Slowly, slowly, he placed his hands on the ground and pushed his torso up. His legs adjusted themselves to balance. The wires on his exposed back stopped sparking.
Wheatley lifted his head.
Space screamed, "Space buddy!"
Wheatley head whipped towards Space. Chell could see his bright blue eyes, behind his cracked glasses, make eye contact with the smaller core.
She expected him to hit Space, to wring his neck, to break the robot. Wheatley still hadn't noticed her.
Her hands balled into fists.
The corners of Wheatley's eyes crinkled, and he laughed.
"'ello!" He pushed himself up to a sitting position facing Space, who was bouncing and giggling to himself. Wheatley ran a hand through Space's singed hair. "Who let you out? Broken core! You're a crafty one, getting out by yourself."
"Space buddy!" Space shouted again, and eagerly lunged forward and squeezed Wheatley.
"Space buddy?" Wheatley's face fell. "Did something happen?" The smile reappeared, and he patted Space's back. "Not one of those crazy holiday parties again! I have GOT to tell Jerry to stop throwing those! He knows how I get." Wheatley let out a hoarse laugh and looked around. "Space buddy…"
His eyes fell on her.
Chell felt her chest tighten. The last time those blue eyes were on her, they had held hatred, stronger than anything she had ever experienced. Somehow, there had been betrayal in there, too, though he had been the one to abandon her. He had been hurt and full of fire, and fear.
Now he simply looked scared.
"Ahh! Human!" He threw Space off him and held his hands up in surrender. "You look very cross at me. What did I do?" He muttered under his breath: "Holiday parties…ruining everything..."
Chell began to loosen.
He shook his head. "I mean no harm! I mean, I don't know how you got out of the relaxation chambers, but…heh…must have been very relaxed during this wild party! Letting the humans run wild like that…"
Space's look of ecstatic happiness had now turned into one of hurt. "We went to space together. Don't you remember? We saw it all. All the space."
Wheatley turned to him and patted his head. "I'm sure we did. I don't…remember any of it…"
Wheatley turned to her. "Have I said anything odd about space lately? Now, I know that's an odd question. You've probably never had anyone ask anything like that before, but I have to know so we can get this core back to where he belongs. And get you back to your relaxation chamber! Oh, jumpsuit's open, excuse me…"
He finally took notice of his unzipped back. With ease, he pressed the wires back into place and zipped himself up. He looked back to Chell, brows furrowed in concentration.
"Sorry, I don't think I know your name."
Chell's blood ran cold.