Author's Note: Hello, and welcome to my Portal 2 story, Target Acquired. As the description says, this is largely an adventure and friendship story about second chances, redemption, and learning what forgiveness truly means. It takes place almost entirely inside of Aperture Science (including old Aperture) and, although the description only mentions Wheatley, Chell and GLaDOS (as those are the main characters), most other characters (including Caroline, Cave Johnson, Doug Rattmann, Atlas, P-Body, and even the mysterious bird) have an important part to play, too.
So, in short, this story is an alternate ending continuation with which I've tried to focus on everything that made me fall absolutely, crazily in love with this video game.
Part I—The Descent
Nearly three-hundred meters below a wide expanse of drying, tangled wheat, and dusty, harsh soil, rested the long-abandoned maze of hallways and catwalks, bottomless pits and test chambers, all property of Aperture Science—although currently, they were filled with a fire-induced haze of smoke and acrid fumes.
An announcement rang through the endless halls, notifying a small group of occupants about the imminent disaster—three corrupted cores, one lone human test subject, a single potato battery, and, of course, the Central Core—all of who appeared to pay no attention to the informative announcement. The boss was too absorbed by the threat of an escaped mute Lunatic, who he thought only wanted to take him down and kill him—and yet the woman, running wild below, only sought to remove him from the mainframe. It was a brave attempt to save the very Laboratories she hated, to stop them from self-destructing with her still inside—and, judging by the countdown clock perched high upon the Central Chamber's wall, she only had about three minutes to do just that.
But she had a plan. Albeit a longshot, but a plan nonetheless—corrupted cores. They were in luck—and if it worked, if it worked and she managed to remove the blue-eyed sphere from the mainframe and fix the reactor core meltdown, then she would seek her revenge on him.
For now, there was science to do.
The Labs rocked with the force of disintegrating test chambers, crumbling away, smashing into one another as the reactor core reached an absolute critical temperature. Such tremors had not been felt within the Labs since her forced deactivation many, many years ago, around the time when a single man had stumbled, wounded, across the field of waving wheat and barley in search of salvation—but now, he was long gone, and the only memory of him left within the facility was a collection of faded colored paintings and murals.
But this man still existed, not far from the rusted shed hidden deep within the wheat—he was vigilant and silent, helpless to the powerful draw of paranoia that kept him from completely leaving the Lab's vicinity. He remained as a civilian, living alone within a small, wooden cabin, perched upon the northern border of a nearby mine town.
No occupant ever spoke of Aperture Science, including Mister Rattmann, though both the town and the long-lost salt mines shared a history so intertwined it was nearly impossible to tell which one had come first—the town or the mine. The only remaining legends had become, just that, legends and myths, blurred by a total of thirty years of inactivation and a war-ravaged society, leaving behind death and poverty in its wake.
In fact, the town—named only by a smudged set of registration numbers, upon a wooden plaque just below the northern ridge—was a strange, quiet place—so strange, that a man bearing nothing but a stained and worn lab coat and a rather scruffy beard could arrive from seemingly nowhere, without too many questions being asked. The townspeople were used to such travellers, but none of them had ever stayed long until Mister Rattmann; they had asked him where he had come from only once, but his answer had been to redirect his sunken eyes and shuffle away into his secluded home.
Inside, the walls had been painted with many a mural, and jars of paint were stacked on dusty shelves. Painting was the one thing he, as old as he was, felt contented with doing outside of the comfort of his home, and he had managed to make a decent living off it, despite how tiny the town was. It did not require him to talk to anybody else, and it paid for his medication—though oftentimes he wondered if he would be better off without the meds for how well they worked.
Taking them cleared his mind, but the knowledge that his memories were just that—real, true memories, of things that had happened—and not hallucinations, was painful; nightly he dreamt of buzzing machinery existing miles beneath him, terrified that he could feel her motion, her mechanical heartbeat, that the disk operating system he had worked so hard to destroy was still alive.
He'd wake and imagine that he could hear her voice, perfectly modulated and yet so cold, telling him, reassuring him that any appearance of danger was all just a simulation, that she was not out to get him… he could see her optic in the dark, bright yellow, staring at him—
But it wasn't real. She was right. It was a dream, a lie, his mind's way of tricking him, altering his perception of reality—the sad truth: no amount of medication would ever stop the nightmares.
Upon waking, he would paint, and try to ignore the images that would force themselves upon him—he wanted to run from them, to hide, but no matter where he turned he could see them, always existing in the back of his mind. It did not help, being in such close proximity to the Labs, but if ever he left, then he knew the paranoia and fear of the unknown would only drive him further into madness—he needed that consolation, that knowledge that it remained hidden, that no one had opened the box and that the sleeping dragon had not yet been disturbed.
Because Doug Rattmann knew, perhaps better than anyone else, that Aperture Science was infallible; there were ways to undo the hard work he had done in disabling the D.O.S., ways to force full-system reboots and reactivations—all it would take was one mistake.
Perhaps, in that way, Wheatley was perfect, destined to act upon the most terrible ideas—though, of course, Rattmann could not be sure of what the Intelligence Dampening Sphere would do when it realized that the reserve power would only last for so long, if the core was still operational.
He hoped that it was not, but he suspected that if it were still alive, it would awaken her, unknowingly, because that was what it had been programmed to do; not even her deactivation could fully power down the facility. Some part of it would always be watchful, awake; sentience never sleeps.
He swallowed hard, his hand trembling as he painted, his brush dipped in bright orange—there was no doubt in his mind that she'd find the girl, then, find her held within indefinite sleep, and then she'd take her and break her, make her pay for what she had done to her—
And there was nothing he could do, nothing he could do about it, he tried to convince himself—he'd tried, he'd failed to rescue her, it wasn't his problem anymore—but it did not ease the weight of guilt in his stomach, and it did not reassure him that she would not find him again, some day.
He prayed that it would never happen, that the all-powerful AI would stay asleep, that the girl would remain inside and alive—he regretted leaving the girl like that, but he had been helpless himself, wounded from the bullet that had shot clean through his leg—
And the death of his friend: the end of the cube.
The knot in his stomach tightened at the thought. He had lost the cube. All he had left was the hope that the 'long sleep' had not rendered the girl incapable of survival—he may have already killed her. Tenacity could only count for so much—what the girl needed, what she required right now, was lady luck on her side.
So Doug watched from afar, and he waited, he prayed that she would somehow survive to finally escape from the facility. He observed patiently, knowing that one day the Laboratories' silence would break, and that when it did, when he finally heard news from the north from his faithful friend, it would mean either the end, or the very beginning—because Aperture was built to withstand even the test of time.
His hand paused mid-stroke, and he stepped back, seeking to view the big picture, as if the blending lines and colors could hold the answers, the solution to the problem at hand—instead, all he saw was her beautiful face, the girl. Chell. Miss Chell, last name: Redacted, was the only force still existing that might be able to set things right…
And in the depths of the Enrichment Center, Chell was trying to do just that.
"Warning. Core corruption at seventy-five percent. Reactor Explosion Timer destroyed."
The dark-haired woman, her jumpsuit singed and stained with grease, dirt, and no small bit of Mobility Gel, twisted around, her eyes wide, dangerous. She looked straight at the limp chassis, the unconscious Central Core, staring with toxic dislike, blame, hurt—it was hard to believe that once upon a time, she had considered him her friend.
"Reactor Explosion Uncertainty Emergency Preemption Protocol initiated: This facility will self-destruct in:two minutes."
The facility beneath her strong legs shook, her pony bounced with each determined step, and in her right hand she raised the three-pronged end of an unusual device, her only weapon: the portal gun. He woke with a start, his mechanical body no longer dangling but alive, taught, wielding the thirty-or-so shields protecting him from impending death.
He shook them violently and she dodged a sudden set of bombs lobbed at her through a high, dark opening, her forehead gleaming with sweat, her breath ragged, heartbeat hammering erratically, a rhythm only matching the unsteady reverberations and quakes. She was going to die here, they were going to die here; once-friends, now-enemies. She, hell-bent on escape, and him… well, he was hell-bent on crushing her like a tiny, insignificant mouse.
But Chell would not let that happen. Focussed grey-blue eyes flicked around the destroyed chamber, clear and bright, filled with unyielding amounts of tenacity. Never would she lie down, she would not accept defeat, not even less than two minutes until complete, irreversible obliteration—she would find a way. A flash of orange materialized from the end of her gun, flowing like silken lightning in a single shot across the chamber, clinging to a platform of white to form a gateway—though which she redirected the Master's own bombs.
She smirked. He cried out, "ENOUGH! I TOLD YOU NOT TO PLUG THESE CORES ONTO ME!" but she wasn't listening; the bombs did no damage, only leaving behind a circular black burn on the side of a yellow plate.
She scurried away as he swung violently, preparing to try again, desperate to finally deliver a fatal blow—but she was too quick, he missed again. Blue, orange; she saw him shudder, his voice breaking, driving the icy point home further: he hated her. She was supposed to be a disposable test subject, flimsy and weak, yet she continued to survive—which was more than enough to shatter the fake, calm (maybe even confident) exterior the current core had once had. Panic was evident, wedging itself into his programming like a steel knife, exposing weakness she was so ready to take advantage of.
"All you had to do was solve a couple hundred simple tests for a few years," Wheatley choked like it would have been the easiest thing in the world, "and you couldn't even let me have that, could you?"
He didn't need a mouth to speak or a heart to be broken. He mimicked the deconstructing facility with perfection. His core flared out, an attempt to look threatening, strong; in contrast he looked so empty, so distraught and weak. It was not frightening, but what was frightening was his determination to ignore the reactor core and kill her instead of fixing it… Chell shook in her boots at the thought of the facility exploding with her still inside.
It wouldn't happen. She wasn't going to let it. She ignored the fires lining the chamber, running for the ten-thousandth time with death licking the curled, metallic heels of her boots, crunching against the cinder-choked and Gel-covered floor. The quiet scrape that would normally accompany each step was lost amid the tremendous rumble of the facility and the hysteric babbling of the Central Core.
"Gotta go to space, yeah, gotta go to space!"
"NOBODY'S GOING TO SPACE, MATE!"
He was crazy, and she pitied him, wished she had not listened to his idiocy preceding the core transfer procedure—'plug me in!'—like nothing could ever go wrong, like she wasn't about to do something disastrous… she hoisted her gun higher, searching for the perfect angle, something, anything—
More bombs. More crying. "And another thing!" he shouted, watching her dodge his poorly-aimed attack. "You never caught me. I told you I could die falling off that rail. And you didn't catch me. You didn't even try."
Glassy-eyed, her right hand twitched on the foremost of three switches, and a blue jet shot out of the device—blue portal, red streaks of falling bombs, yellow blurs of moving panels, it was so hard to focus.
"Oh, it's all becoming clear to me now. Find some dupe to break you out of cryosleep. Give him a sob story about escaping to the surface. Squeeze him for information on where to find a portal gun.Then, when he's no more use to you, he has a little accident. Doesn't he? 'Falls' off his management rail. Doesn't he?"
Her grip strengthened, her breath coming so fast it hurt. She was ready—almost in slow motion, she saw him falter, saw the red streak of bombs fly through the open portal at her feet, arc across the chamber almost beautifully—and hit him right in the back of the chassis.
"AAAARRRRGHHHH!" he yelled, his scream stuttering before fading out. His casing flew outwards, optic wide with utter shock before powering down, his core sinking almost low enough to scrape the chamber floor.
Yes!Chell punched the air in triumph with her free hand, relishing her success. Oh, how she hated him for his betrayal, for leading her to believe that maybe, just maybe, there remained some dark, distant part of Aperture worth saving. She might have believed it before he had turned around and ripped that hope away. Now, it was his turn, his turn to feel helpless, to have his dreams dashed away at the press of a button.
"Here's another core!" The voice was weak, tinny, a shadow of what the AI had once sounded like. It was the voice of her old nemesis-turned-sidekick, whom she would usually have shied away from, terrified—but not today. Today, strangely enough, they were working together—the past twenty-four hours had somehow switched outright dislike into a weird kind of bond. "This one should do it!"
Chell had to hand it to her—for a potato, she sure made a pretty decent sidekick.
It went without saying, though, (as most things do between a mute and a computer) that once she placed the potato back into her proper core, and once they had both satisfied their need for revenge, it would be back to business as usual.
Until then, though, it was of utmost importance that Chell find the remaining core. The countdown clock wasn't about to turn backwards, and judging by the continually ticking nanoseconds, she had a space of about—two extra minutes, give or take—to find the core, install it onto the unconscious DOS, and hope that the AI would be able to transfer herself back in before it was too late.
In other words: time to live up to her reputation of being the best test subject in all of Aperture…
Well-practiced eyes spotted it, a pink glow located high up near the ceiling. Without warning, the floor trembled ominously, knocking down a few more panels which crashed directly into a thick, steel pipe, containing a rather large amount of propulsion gel.
And then there was orange everywhere.
Why does it always have to be somewhere drastically out of reach, Chell mused, blinking the gel out of her eyes. Disgusting. Oh, she'd kill her for placing it all the way up there… time was running out, and already a dull, throbbing ache was forming in her temples, probably a result of the physical strain she'd been put through, nonstop, during the past twenty-four hours. Add in the copious smoke and deadly neurotoxin, and Chell felt that it was as good as a personal attack for her to place the core so far out of reach, even with the propulsion gel.
With another twitch of her trigger finger, she rearranged the portals. The unwilling smile that had spread across her face at Wheatley's misfortune was now gone, replaced by a rather pained, unhappy grimace. I'll get her for this, one way or another…
She launched herself down the strip of orange, her body reacting to the jump without conscious thought. It was second-nature, to flip herself right-way up, to latch the gravity field onto the pink core, to land (albeit unsteadily) back beneath the central core, dizzy but unharmed. The countdown clock flashed an azure glow, catching her eye—ten seconds to self-destruct. She had a mere ten seconds to attach the final core and reset the timer!
There was blue on the floor here—repulsion gel—and Chell immediately slammed all of her weight against it, rebounding into the air with ease. She swung the gun and crashed the core down into the last empty socket. It connected with a smooth sound, and yet another notice was played through the chamber:
"Warning: Core corruption at 100%."
"Ohhh," moaned Wheatley, his optic sliding open with difficulty. Hardly able to lift himself, he blinked and spun to face her, groaning—"AAAAAHHHGG!"
"Manual core replacement required."
His eye narrowed dangerously, and she mirrored the expression with no small amount of stubbornness. She was going to see to it that he finally got what he'd deserved ever since he had punched her down that pit, and her only regret was that her head was absolutely aching from the strain. With the vertigo from her last jump still strong, Chell swayed as the chamber rocked, her heels bouncing as she shrugged off the giddiness. She willed herself not to throw up all over the chamber floor—that would be just plain embarrassing.
"Oh! I see!" Wheatley was gasping in realization. "Heheheh."
"Substitute Core—are you ready to start the procedure?"
"Yes! Come on!" urged the proper master of the facility.
"Corrupted Core—are you ready to start?"
"What d'you think? Wheatley growled, unamused.
"Interpreting vague answer as 'yes'."
"No, nononono!" he reversed. "Didn't pick up on my sarcasm…"
Chell ran her free hand over her face as the two argued, smearing ever more grime there. She felt terrible, now that she was standing still. It had always been so, during the countless tests: if she was concentrating on the threat of imminent death instead of her never-ending physical fatigue—the pain and exhaustion—things never seemed so bad.
As it were, her migraine had reached such a peak that she saw four chassis swimming in front of her very eyes.
"Stalemate detected. Fire detected in the stalemate resolution annex. Extinguishing…"
The sprinkler system activated with a soft hiss and Chell jerked in surprise. The lukewarm water drizzled down, reviving her, feeling much better than the near-toxic heat had been just moments ago. She allowed her eyes to close for a split second before she snapped back to attention, watching the Central Core with a wary, narrowed eye.
"Oh. That just cleans right off, does it? Well that would have been good to know, a little earlier."
"Stalemate Resolution Associate: Please press the Stalemate Resolution Button."
Gathering her remaining strength, Chell staggered in the direction of the indicated annex, aided by the cool water tinkling down her neck. Her breath was surprisingly steady, though her heart was pounding, her mind reeling with the notion that it was almost over, she had almost won.
"Go press the button. Go press it!"
"Do NOT press that button!"
"We're so close! Go press the button!"
"NO! Do NOT do it! I forbid you to press it!"
In hindsight, Chell might have realized that it was easy, far too easy to accomplish this. The lack of obstacles implemented by the central AI should have raised a red flag, but she was too drained to even consider so. All she knew was her determination, her drive, and maybe a twinge of elation that she was almost saved. All she had to do was press one more button and it would end, and she could get some proper sleep… maybe even some food…
The stalemate annex was barred, but it didn't matter. An orange portal materialized directly above the button, and its counterpart appeared below Wheatley. Chell refused to acknowledge him, staggering over to the opening, never tearing her eyes away from the swirling blue—if she had, maybe she might have seen the maddeningly smug expression that his rearranged face plates blatantly gave away.
If she had the physical ability to scream, she would have. She hadn't gone two paces when the blast hit her, blowing her back into the central chamber with an ear-splitting rush of pain and colors. Her back hit something, hard, and through the agony and overwhelming vertigo she heard the resulting 'oh'—that meant that the hard thing had to be the chassis.
Finally, Chell slammed into the ground, and felt all of her breath leave her in one excruciating sigh. She was sure that at least one rib was broken, judging by the searing pain as she lay face-down, disorientated and barely conscious, her hearing skewed—but then, through the confusion came a sound, a hated voice—he was laughing at her.
"PART FIVE!" he celebrated. "BOOBY TRAP THE STALEMATE BUTTON!"
Flushed with success, he did not immediately notice that the woman on the ground was still breathing.
Chell struggled to keep her eyes open, regain her senses. She battled through the darkness, the pain, to try to—
But the portal device had been ripped from her arm with the impact, and was lying a few feet away. With sheer determination, Chell lifted her heavy head—it was close enough to reach, and somehow undamaged despite the explosion.
Trembling fingers reached, strained to make contact with the smooth surface. She gritted her teeth against the pain blossoming in her chest, trying not to move any more than what was necessary. It was a miracle that she could still move at all —
"WHAT!" Wheatley gasped, finally noticing her movements. The entire DOS extended toward her to get a better look, hardly daring to believe what he was seeing. "You are joking. You have got to be kidding me. Well, I'm still in control. AND I HAVE NO IDEA HOW TO FIX THIS PLACE!"
Her fingertips wrapped tightly around the gun, and with a silent groan, Chell slipped her right hand snugly into the compartment. She let herself roll limply onto her back, and peered up at the ceiling, just as the facility gave one last, final wobble.
"You had to play bloody cat and mouse, didn't you?" he screamed, utterly distraught. "While people were trying to work. Yes, well, now we're all going to pay the price. BECAUSE WE'RE ALL GOING TO BLOODY DIE!"
Chell blinked, unsure if what she was witnessing was part of a dream, a hallucination, or reality. The roof of the facility had collapsed, revealing a gaping hole just big enough for a full moon to peek through from the heavens above.
Too fatigued, too riddled with pain to even consider the potential consequences of her actions, Chell lifted her right arm with difficulty. She blinked in the moon's white light, astounded by how clear it was, even through the smog from the fires—and then, without any conscious inkling of what might happen if she did so, she pulled the trigger one last time.
"Oh, brilliant, yeah. Take one more look at your precious human moon. Because it cannot help you now!"
There was a space of about five seconds, in which Chell lowered her head and let the portal device fall, clattering loudly against the floor. It skidded, rolling away and out of her reach, but she did not care. She barely had enough strength left to care for anything else, her eyes locked solely on the moon, admiring the strange, shimmering half-light it cast over every surface. It was so mysterious, foreign—so beautiful.
But that picture-perfect image collapsed in upon itself all at once as a deafening rush filled the room, and gravity itself seemed to disappear—Chell felt herself lifted bodily and scrambled to grab hold of something, anything—
Mind half numb with pain, everything was the deafening rush of air, the feeling of flying, the blurred colors—her hand connected with something cold and she clung on, hovering on the verge of unconsciousness.
Her still-soaked jumpsuit rippled wildly against her skin, and suddenly she was aware of how cold she felt. Over the thunderous rush, she heard him screaming:
Space—she realized at once, as if a sledgehammer had crashed over her head, what she was seeing. She was in space.
In front of her was a portal, the facility, the Central AI Chamber—but all around that swirling blue oval was pure lunar sediment and blackness—and sure death.
A terrible force was tearing at her legs, threatening to rip her long-fall-boots right off, begging for her to release her grip on… grip on…
"Let go! We're in space!"
Grip on him.
It was his handles she was clinging to like a lifeline, those rather thin-looking bars of metal. It was the first time she had ever touched him, first time her existence had ever truly relied on him—only their shared contact was keeping her from death. She felt her breath catch, felt a whine of panic slow everything, though she still could not comprehend—her eyes snapped to his optic, so close that she could see every detail, every crack. It was just the two of them, struggling on the edge of oblivion, locked together in a paralyzed stare of fear.
"Space? Space! SPAAAAAAAAAAAACE!"
The second core flew out with a ton of debris, narrowly avoiding hitting Chell. They disappeared from her sight. It was cold, so cold, the only heat she felt being her own hands on the core, also probably the only real, organic warmth Wheatley had ever felt in his life—
He was going to be the last thing she ever saw, him, this hated core, who wanted her dead—
"Argh! Let go, let go! I'm still connected! I can pull myself in! I can still fix this!"
—wanted her to let go, so that he could save himself, so that he could fix it—he was right, she should have let go, it was better than hearing his blasted voice, better than seeing his optic shrink in sudden fear as something within the depths of the portal stirred. To him, she was worthless, disposable, a smelly human, and his friendliness had been a façade, a show he had put on to trick her into trusting him. It was unfair, that she should die because of this last mistake, when she had worked so hard, for so long, to survive.
Her hands shook, her breath was coming in deep, shattering gasps, and her mind was a slipping spiral of utter shock and confusion. But he was a constant, in those thirty-or-so seconds, and even he could not hide the pure terror radiating from him, the almost-humanness and panic that he was about to be banished into space—
Then, as if from the other side of the universe, a voice broke the icy barrier separating core-from-human. A large, metallic claw whirred and found its way onto one of Chell's wrists.
"I already fixed it, and you—"
The claw clasped tightly, its grip painfully unyielding. It dragged her back, and fleetingly, Chell saw Wheatley's panic boil over, and another unwilling, icy knife of regret stabbed straight into the pit of her stomach—
"OH NO! Change of plans! Hold onto me!"
Some lost part of her, remaining from the days before the transfer, before his betrayal and their shared mistrust, his abuse and her vengeance, clung onto him with an iron-fisted grip—
"—are not coming back."
Distantly, Chell heard the DOS disengage, and Wheatley was pulled freely into space, no longer held by the restraints—
But why wasn't she letting go? Why wasn't she letting go, no, no, no, this was wrong, wait—
"GRAB ME, GRAB ME, GRAB ME…"
She had to let go of him, it was over now, he was supposed to be gone, and she was supposed to be free of him—
Too late, she let go. There was a whispering, quiet sound, reminiscent from brighter days at Aperture, and the Enrichment Center was sealed off from outer space. The portals closed, the roaring wind was killed, gravity engaged and Wheatley dropped like a stone, rolling into a distant corner of the chamber.
She hit the floor, relishing both gravity and oxygen. Dizzy, Chell watched the same mechanical claw that had just saved her life drag her bulky, tarnished form across the ground, its optic alit and searching ominously.
But before Chell could do as much as lift her weary head, a wave of exhaustion, impossibly deep, crashed over her. She succumbed, seeking relief from the throbbing pain, this nightmare, unable to fight for even a minute longer.
Her fate now lay in the claws of her, who she had long since sought to escape from.