Chapter XXIV—Out of the Blue
The 'exit' panel was portalless. A slab of dreary grey wall was visible as the brightest surface in the small room, save for the single, incandescent bulb hanging high above the sleeping female's head. The light swung slowly from the breath of stale, recycled air moving about the chamber, its progress casting long, haunting shadows which grouped together in the corners and swept under the woman's relaxation pod as she slept.
Currently, Chell was healing, deeply asleep—rest was important, She had said. Rest was essential if Chell wanted to stay alive—if she were awake, she would have felt lucky that she had even made it this far. There had been one too many close calls with death in the past few days. It might have been bad luck, or it might have been strictly because of Wheatley's inability to generate good ideas, she did not know—the only thing Chell knew for certain (or would realize, once she woke up) was that the actions of her arch nemesis—the all-powerful Disk Operating System—were completely responsible for her having survived so long, which was odd.
She had saved her. After all of the ruthless tests, after all of the death threats, and She had saved her. Chell snored on, not understanding, not knowing—why had She done it?
The relaxation pod's glass shield was closed tightly over her calm, blissful-looking face. She was a great deal cleaner than she had been when she had first resurfaced from the depths of Test Shaft Ten—most of the dirt had been siphoned away and her hair had been re-drawn into a neat bun. Even her sheets had been changed, as had her shirt; the linen was surprisingly crisp and clean, and smelled like lilacs.
It would have filled her head with pleasant dreams, if cryogenic sleep had offered such visions; instead, the only thing that showed that she recognized any of her comforting surroundings at all was her utterly relaxed, easy breath.
The solitary light shone straight down onto her chest, casting shadows with each inhalation. Everything outside of Chell's little circle of light was dark. Distantly, the automated hum of the facility was audible, alive with the static buzz of electronics and the metallic ring of squeaky pistons; but near at hand, the only sound that could be heard was the rhythm of Chell breathing as she slept on.
It was quiet, almost nice—it was the most peaceful the facility had been for what felt like a long, long time to all of its inhabitants. In fact, the serenity was similar only to what Chell and Wheatley had experienced on the morning they had awoken to find the first beam of sunlight either of them had ever witness, shining straight down into the Bring Your Daughter To Work Day hallway many leagues above.
Was it the calm before the storm, or was everything indeed as it should be? Silently, Chell slept, while—quietly—the panels chatted, and pistons squeaked, and gears churned with a hum. Far away, turrets sang sweet, sleepy lullabies to each other.
The facility held its breath. Nothing dared move, until—finally—there was a new sound. At last, it exhaled with a scraping, hair-raising noise blasted from seemingly nowhere. It was like something dragging, producing a screech like nails on a chalkboard—and immediately, the woman's long eyelashes twitched open. She inhaled so deeply it hurt.
Crystal-blue took a second to focus in the dim light. The relaxation pod's smooth glass cover retracted as she sat up with eyes wide, her knuckles white as they lined the lip of the relaxation pod, her every muscle taught and ready to fly at the merest sign of danger—but there wasn't any, save for the loud noise. Not yet, at least.
She stared. The loud, aching sound was caused by a portion of the wall to her right retracting by itself. The line of panels rose to expose a chink of cloudy, blue-green light; Chell slipped out of the pod and stood uneasily, watching as the panels' azure eyes winked and disappeared to expose the misty room beyond.
It was a familiar sight. She knew this place. Her breath caught in her throat. This was Her chamber.
Her hands immediately balled up into fists, and her heart began to race within her chest in anticipation for the large shape of the AI to make herself known, hanging in the distance like a shadow. Slowly, She did so and Her body came into view, facing away from Chell—Chell held her breath again, expecting Her to turn around at any moment. She waited for that golden-yellow optic's beam to rest piercingly upon her face, but it didn't happen. Chell's eyes were blazing, her face deadpan, her back straight and tense; but as she watched, the machine did not move. The machine did not acknowledge her presence at all.
Then came Her voice; and just as familiar as the sight of Her had been, the sound of Her modulated speech was unmistakeable, oozing, almost deadly quiet from Her face which was held off to one side, peering resolutely at a series of screens with contents Chell could not see.
Chell didn't need to see what was on the screens to know, however. She knew. She was testing again.
The realization sent a shock like electricity up from her bare feet, still rooted to the floor, to her brain; her jaw dropped and her heart beat accelerated inside of her chest. She was testing—but with who, she wondered? Who, and how?
Not—not that robot, not the one with the orange eye? Not the one who had helped her, who was practically responsible for her survival? She owed her life to that robot.
Chell wrenched her feet from the cold paneled floor with difficulty, and strode forward. Her feet made soft sounds with each step, but she did not notice; her eyes were locked on the sight of Her, unmoving in the distance. A single column of yellow light connected a dark, flickering screen to the crescent shape of her faceplate. Chell stretched out her hand, and traced the curve of Her body against the glass wall before turning around and realizing with a jolt—she was trapped. She was surrounded with no visible way out, stuck in the glass box like a lab rat yet again, and not even the white slab where there should have been a portal contained a hint of one—it was faceless and bare. The only thing that showed that the chamber was still online was the series of hyperactively counting numbers displayed in digital format just over the blank door panel.
The numbers—they were counting up, she studied closely. Up—the two digits closest to the right were moving fastest, nearly blurred due to their speed—these had to be seconds, she knew. No, not seconds, but milliseconds; seconds were second from the right, and minutes were second from the left, which meant that the little number 'eighty-three', had to be—
Had she really been asleep for eighty-three—but that was nearly four days! It didn't make any sense! Where was Wheatley, then, she wondered? Where was he, and what had happened to their plans… what about Test Shaft Ten? Had She somehow found out about what they had done, and fixed it, like She had fixed up her wounds from the bullet that had shot clean through her side?
It was impossible. Was that really Her plan—to keep her here, locked inside of this box with no way out—until she was healed enough to test, and then to stick her straight back into testing track like nothing had even happened at all?
And what about Wheatley? Was he even okay? The last time she had seen him, he hadn't been looking so good. Was he—dead?
Chell swallowed hard. She felt terrible. After spending so long wanting him to suffer to the point where she'd thought of killing him herself—he could be dead, and not by her hand, in a time and a place where she didn't even want him to die.
She'd found—somewhere along their journey—that the old fear and the hurt and the anger she'd felt toward him had drained away. She found, now, that those bad feelings had been replaced with something else instead—something good. A certain fondness she'd never experienced before, maybe even trust—she cared about him.
Wheatley, and his endless, cheerful and rather clumsy babble, and his heavy but comforting weight against her shoulder had been nice, upon retrospection. He'd been there with her. He'd stuck with her, and he'd given her something she'd never experienced before inside of Aperture—real, true companionship. He might have been stupid, he might have been careless and had made mistakes that had put both of them in mortal danger, but… he had been helpful and honest and, to an extent, had been caring… and he was still her friend.
Friend—she repeated the word to herself. Yes, somewhere down the road, Wheatley had become her friend. There was no point in denying it. As resolute as she had been about punishing him for what he had done to her, at first… she'd found that something inside of her had shifted during their journey together. Something about her perception of him and her feelings toward him had grown, and now—finally—Chell forgave him.
But he would never know.
She looked back at the counting clock. Its surface winked at her, reflecting light from the lazily swinging bulb overhead. Its numbers counted on and on, offering nothing but the promise of more empty hours of loneliness and regret. She was sorry, she found, that she had been so cruel to him during their short time together, as friends—she hadn't been much of a friend, if she was honest with herself. Friends didn't relish each other's fear, or make each other uncomfortable for selfish amusement. If she could have done it differently, she would not have done any of those things. She would have been nicer. She would have at least tried to be friendly back to him.
"Oh, thank god, you're all right."
Chell span around so fast she cricked her neck. She barely had time to recover before there was a shuddering groan, and the floor beneath her feet shook alarmingly. At first, she'd thought it was the facility itself quaking; fleetingly, she supposed that the prototype machine they had activated down in Test Shaft Ten had finally taken its toll against Her, but she was mistaken. The facility had not moved—it had only been her tiny square box that had shifted as it slid along its track toward Her—creating a dull grinding vibration as it went.
Chell clung to the side of the relaxation pod with wild eyes, terrified. She watched as Her body descended from its resting position near the ceiling, uncurling almost gracefully as She bent toward the approaching box; and slowly, the column of golden light shifted away from the monitors and found its way onto Chell's fearful face.
Blinking rapidly, dazzled by the beam of yellow light, she panted and staggered. The box continued to move, grinding steadily, and Chell's eyes darted around fruitlessly—there was no way out, not unless She decided to open the portal. She wasn't going anywhere.
"How have you been?" Chell's relaxation chamber slowed to a stop, mere feet from Her glowing eye. The smooth, white portion of Her faceplate slid partially over Her eye in a perfect impression of a frown as Her body uncoiled further still, the blinding circle of Her optic seeming to swell as She approached. Chell stepped backward a few feet. "I've been really busy while you've been asleep. You know, fixing this place… taking care of the cooperative testing initiative, trying to undo the damage you and that complete moron did—and healing you, too."
The optic traveled lower, hovering just overtop the thick bandages creating a small bulge on the right side of Chell's torso. A hand clasped the wound instinctively as her breath quickened at the mention of the moron—had Wheatley survived, then?
The surge of relief must have shown on her face, because a second later, She turned away to peer into the darkest corners of Her chamber thoughtfully. When She spoke, her voice was pleased, slow and steady, as if She were savouring every word of what She was saying. "You know, being Caroline taught me a valuable lesson. I thought you were my greatest enemy, when all along you were my best friend."
Chell resumed her slow pacing, growing increasingly uneasy and agitated. Her best friend? She had to be insane. There was no way they were friends. She'd tried to kill her, multiple times!
"Oh, come on," Her eye snapped back to Chell. "We have more in common than you think, I know that, now. Both of us are the remnants of women who were too moral for their own good. Do you know what humanity's greatest weakness is? No? Well, let me inform you—it's not empathy. It's not greed. It isn't even fear. In fact, the last two are some of my favorite things about humans, and really they're not weaknesses at all. They're rather admirable qualities."
The prickling sensation of foreboding had begun at the base of Chell's neck and was spreading slowly down her spine to her limbs, causing goosebumps to erupt all over her. Something about all of this seemed very off to her—between the absence of Wheatley; awakening to find herself Her prisoner; and now,the way the giant machine was staring at her, speaking about things like Caroline which she'd only ever heard Her talk about once before—it was enough to make Chell wish that she had had a portal gun to use to find a way out immediately.
"Humanity's greatest weakness is love," She pressed, and Chell froze, unable to believe her ears. Love? "How sentimental. And guess what? Here's another interesting fact—that moron you tried to save is capable of feeling love no more than I am." Chell could detect a hint of obvious pleasure in Her voice and she stared, horrified. Love? Her, love—Wheatley? Presuming She meant platonic love only, sure—but had she really fallen that far from the resolute, non-empathetic (at least as far as AIs went) person she had once been? Had Wheatley, perhaps, found a fatal weakness in her, somehow? Was that really how she had finally ended up caught by Her?
Chell was not a heartless person. Sometimes, it hard been difficult to feign indifference, but it was all in the name of her survival. Her current situation proved that it was important for her to remain resolute and deadpan in an atmosphere of extreme danger. She had grown too soft, and trusted too much than what was acceptable for her situation, but somehow… she couldn't bring herself to regret it, even if Wheatley really wasn't capable of feeling attachment. Eeven if listening to him and helping him had been the worst-possible decisions and a colossal waste of time, she wasn't overly regretful.
Could Wheatley truly not love, though? Were the relatively few displays of empathy and compassion he had expressed just false simulations, created to imitate human emotion with clever programming? It could fit—he had betrayed her without turning a hair on their first attempt to break out. The side of himself he had shown on that occasion was proof enough. He'd proven that he had it in him to try to kill. He'd proven that he could even try to kill her.
In order to befriend him and forgive him, she'd had to believe that he'd moved past that. Even now, she felt mostly convinced that he'd learned. He was different, now. She had to believe that. Not all of her hard work had gone to waste, and Wheatley did care about her. Their friendship was strong enough to keep him from betraying her again.
She had to believe, that if he was ever given a second chance to do it all over again and be plugged back into Her body, that he wouldn't sell her out for science and try to murder her. He would be different. He would know better.
"I used to feel love," Her voice cut through Chell's thoughts sharply, sounding just as coolly pleased as ever. "But that's just a memory now. …I think you of all people can appreciate the irony of what I just said."
She? Used to feel love? If She wasn't lying—and She usually was, Chell reminded herself—then that statement was proof that Chell shouldn't feel so guilty for forgiving and befriending Wheatley, even though he was a machine. If it really was a human thing, a perfectly acceptable human weakness, to feel attachment and love…
A perfectly acceptable…
Part of her hated the idea of it, now that she thought of it as a weakness. Part of her refused to back down or accept any kind of weakness. Part of her regretted not chucking Wheatley off of the side of a catwalk over a bottomless pit, just because he'd managed to bring out weakness in her. Chell was a lot of things, but she was not weak.
But, even She, the fiercest AI,had felt love, once upon a time! That in itself raised some frightening possibilities. Exactly what had happened to Her, to make Her completely incapable of feeling such emotions, ever again? It wasn't just a machine thing to not feel, was it?
No, Chell knew the answer. Chell knew she was referencing Caroline—she had discovered Her darkest secrets during their shared journey into old Aperture. She had heard the recordings, seen the portraits, the facts—could part of Her bitterness be blamed on something more than just science and testing, then?
Was she telling the truth? Had She—the all-seeing, heartless disk operating system—once felt attachment possibly even deeper than what Chell felt for Wheatley?
"It's funny, actually, when you think about it." Her voice sounded funny—altered, somehow, as if she were trying not to think about what She had just said. "After all both of you went through, with plotting against me, and trying to escape from me, and spending so much time together that you thought you might have found a sliver of something worth saving within the moron—you were wrong." Chell's face fell. "I have you here, and in a few minutes, the cooperative testing initiative will have reached the prototype chassis as well as your accomplice controlling it and then," She paused to relish the look on Chell's face, "They will kill them."
Chell bit her lip.
"So this'll be our only chance to talk, as we haven't started testing—yet."
Chell felt suddenly very confused and afraid. So, was that why she had not heard from Wheatley, then? She had captured him, too, and was using the orange-eyed robot and its companion to undo the work she and Wheatley had done, to stop the Enrichment Center from deconstructing?
It all made sense, except for one small point.
Who was the 'accomplice' She spoke of? It was just her and Wheatley. It had always been just her and Wheatley.
"But we both know that's not about to happen," She added smugly, and Chell ignored the jibe at her apparent muteness. "So you can just listen."
Chell looked away from Her only to press her palms gently into her closed eyes, desperate for a chance to think. Her mind was beginning to fill with an incomprehensible buzz from too much information, too much confusion after being out for too long, and emotional whiplash—she felt the beginnings of a migraine starting to ache around her temples. She'd been asleep for almost four days, four blissful, dreamless days, and waking up to this… well, it was a miracle she could even handle any of it at all.
"I am sorry, you know," She said, looking away. "I didn't mean for us to end up this way, but our mutual experiences have served as a very important lesson—science doesn't love. I saved you—and the surge of emotion that shot through me when I saved your life taught me an even more valuable lesson: where Caroline lives in my brain. You see, even that surge wasn't love. It was just pointless empathy. Probably one of the most pointless of all human emotions—even the scientists weren't that empathetic. Some of them understood that the only direction science goes is onward, and empathy is not science. I have to do something about this, before it is too late."
Chell's breath was accelerating; she lowered her hands and began to pace even more rapidly, but trying to organize her thoughts. Accomplice… Wheatley… where was Wheatley? If she could somehow communicate with him from inside of her cell, or via a test chamber… did Aperture Science even have ways of sending distress signals, or SOS's? What about the radios? She'd seen proof they could be hacked to emit high-frequency signals, and maybe she could hack it to send out a signal to Wheatley containing information about her location…? That was, if Wheatley even still cared to save her. If what She had said was true, about him not being able to truly feel… well. He had betrayed her once. Could she be absolutely certain he wouldn't do so again, under the right circumstances?
And what was this about Caroline? Hadn't She already deleted the Caroline portion of her brain?
What was going on?
"In five minute's time," Her voice was oddly calm again in contrast with how Chell felt. "Blue and Orange will deactivate the prototype chassis, and permanently fix the reassemblers. If…" She trailed off, the beam of her optic sweeping briefly over a monitor, "all of this goes according to plan, I may no longer require your services as a test subject at Aperture Science."
Chell blanched. Were her ears malfunctioning? Her—She—wanted to let her go?
Just like that?
After all—after everything she'd done to try to destroy Her, to destroy Aperture?
"That's right. Once the facility is completely operational again, I won't need you," Her voice sounded hazy and far away, almost unreal. Her optic hovered a little longer on the screen before refocusing on Chell's face. Chell's pupils dilated painfully against the sudden flash of golden light, and she looked away immediately, her cheeks burning in anger. "Seriously though, I have gathered enough data from your test results to almost solve science. Haha." Her laugh held no trace of true amusement. "I learned a lot of things because of you and the moron, actually, and I'll be honest—just like how he is the dumbest moron who ever lived, you are the most tenacious human being on record. You just. Don't. Give. Up."
Chell resumed her pacing, growing increasingly frantic. No—no—it couldn't be. Something was wrong. It couldn't be right, it wasn't logical—why would She suddenly let her go like that, out of the blue? It didn't make any sense—if the cooperative testing initiative was satisfactory enough for Her to get the results She needed, She should have wanted to let Chell go ages ago, and she would never have had to journey into the depths of Aperture with Wheatley at all! It just wasn't right!
"Do you know what my days used to be like?" Chell tried to ignore her, but it wasn't working. Her voice was just as loud and cold as ever. It filled her glass square and made her head throb with pain. "I just tested. Nobody murdered me, or put me in a potato, or fed me to birds… I had a pretty good life."
Chell's hands balled into fists. She refused to look at Her. She refused to let Her know that she was listening, or that she cared.
"And then you showed up. You dangerous, mute lunatic. So you know what?"
Ffffffop. A blue portal materialized, lighting Chell's stunned face with its bright, swirling shape. Chell blinked.
What did she care about escaping if She was going to hand it to her on a silver platter, when Wheatley was still lost somewhere within the facility? Her motives were both unknown and suspicious. Chell's eyes rested upon the sight of the surface elevator She'd just summoned into Her chamber, sliding up through the floor a few feet away. Chell hated caring. She refused to care any longer.
There was a pause, and then, "Consider this your final notice of dismissal," She said, her voice callously indifferent to the look upon her former test subject's face. "You're fired. Just go."
Chell couldn't move. She couldn't blink. She couldn't breathe. Silence stretched on and on, for a long period. Then, nearly spitting with distaste, Chell gave up. She gave up, and she strode through the blue, swirling portal and stepped into the lift. The doors hissed firmly shut behind her, and the pneumatic tube throbbed with the howl of suction.
"It's been fun," She said, laughing quietly as the central chamber slid out of Chell's view. Her skin prickled with everlasting goosebumps, and her heart was beating a drumroll inside of her chest. Something was seriously wrong—faceless rooms and deactivated test chambers were speeding past, now, all dark and dead looking—but all she could think of was Her. There had to be a catch, or a trap, or a—
Suddenly, the sound of high-pitched alarms cut through her thoughts as the lift doors were thrown. Four beams sliced through the darkness, locking immediately onto her heart. She hardly had a chance to flinch
Chell closed her eyes and braced herself for impact.
She kept waiting.
It didn't come.
Instead, there was an ominously loud SLAM, and the lights inside of the lift cut out all at once. Chell's eyes shot open, not that it helped her see.
"Did you do something to the lights?"
"I can't see!"
The turret's crisscrossing beams had moved off of her chest and were scanning the lift, to no avail. They couldn't see her.
"Is anyone there?"
Chell held her breath, not daring to move. They couldn't see her… so long as the lights stayed off.
The beams of blood red light drove every wonder of why the power had cut off out of her mind entirely. She forgot about Wheatley. She even forgot about Her. She swallowed hard—unwillingly, Chell had just been inducted into the most deadly game of freeze tag she would ever play, and the clock was ticking down with no promise of safety in sight.
Everything was perfect. Everything, save for a few minor technical difficulties. These involved the reassembly machines, and—for some odd reason—the equipment She had set the two robots to reconnect during their previous adventure into the depths of the facility, on their way to unlock the human vault. Aperture technology wasn't usually faulty, but the Doppler readings and the electromagnetic frequencies were going haywire down below, and had been for a good, long while now—but no matter. She had understood why, with the moron's help. With the brain the size of a city—disregarding how disorientated and strange She had felt ever since Her forced flash back to her previous life—She was able to logically determine the cause of all of the errors, and the cooperative testing initiative were the perfect bots to send to get the job done right. She could fix it.
There was, perhaps, a fleeting feeling of panic and apprehension from within the Disk Operating System, but as quickly as those feelings had occurred, the giant machine had pushed them away. No, She had decided. There was nothing She had missed. There were no variables. She had not made any mistakes. There was no room for such errors in Her brilliant mind.
Everything was going exactly according to plan.
Miles away from Her chamber, the hazards and warning sign of Art Therapy chamber nine flickered into life, just as two robots materialized from beneath their color-coded blue-and-orange pneumatic tube openings. Their twin shock-absorbing leg pistons rode the impact with a loud clatter.
The buzz of the flickering light was drowned out by Her voice. "She's pressing us hard," She said, sounding rushed. "It took me three days to reassemble you. I won't be able to do it again."
While She spoke, the two robots shared an enthusiastic high five, and blinked in shock when they learned that it had—according to Her, at least—been three days since they had last been online. That was frightening, Orange thought—she didn't have any memory of such a thing happening. To her, it felt like no time had passed at all!
"I'd planned to put you through more tests to toughen you up," She continued glumly, "But now that I can't rebuild you, we're going to have to have to switch to the accelerated program: I hereby pronounce you killing machines. Congratulations."
The robots' reaction to the word 'congratulations' should have been to hop up and down on the spot in excitement, and would have been, under almost any other circumstance. However, Orange and Blue were both unsure if they were truly ready for what was to come. After nine chambers, nine long, difficult testing chambers, Orange was beginning to feel misgivings about her plan to try and rescue the Human and the Sphere at the conclusion of the test. Moreover, what had seemed like a simple mission, just like the countless other ones she and Blue had ventured on beforehand, was now beginning to sound a lot more difficult. She could have been lying, of course, but the undeniable tones of uncertainty in her voice were clear even to the two bots—She was worried, and because of that, they were worried, too.
"This is as close as I could get you. The prototype chassis room is just past this chamber." Beep.
Orange hobbled nervously on the spot before following Blue down a narrow corridor that branched into yet another test chamber. Her eye shifted back and forth nervously, taking in the sight of an emancipation grid, black-and-white panels, and a few windows-with-holes-in. Despite the streamlined look of this room, she knew that they had once again been brought back into the basement of the Laboratories to thwart this 'Mystery Woman'—this place really is huge, thought Orange, staring. She had been to countless chambers since her first activation, she could remember—but none exactly like this. In fact, she couldn't remember ever visiting a single chamber more than once, save for Hers. How big could the facility possibly be?
The sound of her partner's footsteps mingled with her own as they explored the chamber curiously. Finding the solution wasn't the only thing on Orange's mind, however; some of her thoughts still strayed to the Human woman. She wondered where she was now, and if she was okay.
There were too many variables—the world outside of the testing tracks was starting to seem more frightening than she had first anticipated. In here, there was order, a guaranteed solution, a way out, and a path they were required to find to lead them to the conclusion—but outside, there was nothing but darkness and disorder and chaos. That world was Her world.
The looming unknown of those spaces was somewhat frightening to Orange, and yet her chosen path was leading her straight into it. Beneath the fear, there was excitement, which (combined with her lack of empathy suppressor urging her to try to help the Human and the Sphere) was responsible for her desire to go out and explore. Out there was a world unexplored. Out there was adventure. Out there was freedom.
'Okay… okay I think I've got it', rumbled Blue after a while, his forehead plate half covering his eye in concentrated. He then directed Orange through to the other side of the window, where the two collaborated and used their portals in a system to smash the tall glass box and secure the cube. Blue held it proudly within his energy manipulator while Orange squealed and paraded forward in celebration.
'We did it!'
The first phase was complete. With mounting energy, they used to cube to access a high platform opposite the exit. It took a few tries, but finally, both bots were ready to fling themselves high over the chamber to land on the platform just under the doorway.
Blue decided to go first. He gave Orange a sharp, affectionate jab to her hip joint and patted her arm lightly as he stepped toward the edge of the platform. 'Be careful!' said Orange without thinking, but she caught Blue's low, fond grumble before he jumped.
The chamber was gloomy, but through this she could make out the shape of him landing precisely in front of the doorway. He turned and shot her a distant thumbs-up, and Orange balanced herself on the ledge of the platform, and closed her eyes.
The wind whistled loudly through her circuitry as she fell, before the portal forced her to change direction. She arced high, nearly brushing the ceiling before falling gracefully, preparing to make hard contact with the ground. Her feet hit first, sending the shock-absorbers in her legs vibrating once more, and over the sound, Blue growled in satisfaction.
A cheerful ding sounded, and the exit swept open. Shhhhhhrk.
They hugged briefly, before ducking through the doorway, each robot behaving a great deal more seriously than they usually did in light of the rather intense situation. Perhaps Blue, too, was feeling nervous about what they were about to do, Orange thought.
"The prototype chassis room is just down this hallway," came Her instructions as they entered a chamber so cavernous that its ceiling was lost from their sight. "Remember your training. You are kill—she's turned the lights off! Night vision! Night vision!"
Suddenly, Orange's vision cut to blackness—and then, the room reappeared, lit with a greenish filter as her visual sensors automatically recalibrated—
"Your move, Mystery Wom—she's turned the lights back on! Night vision off! Night vision off!"
Her visual sensors automatically recalibrated again and, after a flash of near-blinding white light, the room came back into focus.
The walls were bare and rough and the floor uneven and wide, all devoid of the usual, green glow that accompanied Her awareness. Down here, even She could not fully see—it was the perfect place to begin their quest to find the Human. It was so different from the usual smoothness of the modern-day test chambers, with odd outcroppings and ledges that looked high enough to be out of range of the portal device, but a lazy shot proved otherwise—Blue's purple portal materialized neatly just above one of these. He shot the remaining one nearby and the two companions sped through it, emerging on the high ledge from where they could look down with an excellent view.
There were a set of numbers painted on the wall opposite, Orange noticed—reading '1989'. She shrugged, and turned around at the sound of an excited rumble coming from her partner.
Orange's eye followed where Blue's ping tool appeared in her visual display. A narrow pathway led off of the main chamber. 'Nice one!' she squeaked in congratulations. 'Let's go!'
With ever-increasing nervousness and excitement, the two robots rushed toward the exit and found themselves suddenly traversing a wide pit via a single, long catwalk. At the far end, there was a pair of high, white doors, glinting ominously at them in the dim lighting.
"To boost morale, I think we need a code name for the... elite squadron we have here," She suggested as they trekked forwards, her voice sounding surprisingly kind. "We should name it after your specialty. I know: Special Team Falling Into Acid Force."
Orange made a sniffing sound of disapproval but it was lost amid the crash of their metal soles smashing repetitively against the catwalk's grating, but it didn't matter—She apologized a second later anyway.
"I'm sorry," She said. "I'm under a lot of pressure. That was cruel… though basically accurate. And probably counterproductive."
Orange was in the lead—she could hear the crash of her partner following close behind as she approached the doors. If she had been human, her heart would have been hammering madly inside of her chest—instead, a tingling, sparking feeling only a jolt of static electricity could bring was spreading through her, spurring her onward toward the slowly opening doors. Her internal fans' whirr accelerated frantically as she ran, her leg's shock absorbers causing her steps to squeak loudly.
Behind her, Blue rumbled quietly, and she just barely caught what he was saying. 'No going back now', he whispered as they reached the door—only halfway open, its contents still lay shrouded in darkness. Silence descended as both robots stopped to watch, the quiet broken only by Her voice, "Well. That concludes the motivational speech," She said, and then finally, "Go get her."
Orange quavered, but joined Blue in peering beyond the open doors with determination. 'Let's do this', rumbled Blue bravely, and Orange narrowed her optic in her version of a nod.
In front of them, beyond the half-opened doors, there was a medium-sized room shrouded by mist—briefly, this fog glowed reddish grey from the reflections of rotating caution lights before it cut off, leaving behind a dark, green-grey. There was a small archway, almost reminiscent of a short tunnel, through which they jogged carefully with their eyes peeled for any sign of danger.
There was nothing.
Nothing moved. They were faced with a sight much less impressive than what they had imagined. The prototype chassis was there, visible as a hulking, dark grey lump dangling from the center of the ceiling. A single beam of light fell from an aperture-shaped skylight, landing precisely on the left side of the chassis. Vaguely, the machine was reminiscent of Her body, minus Her head, greatness and cutting-edge design; this computer was rudimentary and primitive by comparison. Its bulk was an ordinary mainframe stationed at a monitor station displaying a bright orange background.
There wasn't a hint of anyone human inside of the room. The two robots stared, nonplussed. They had expected, at the very least, there to be someone around to fight, but there was no one. The chassis was empty, as was the chamber—it appeared that She had been wrong, for once. There was uncomfortably tense silence, broken only by distant rumbles and the quiet hum of each bot's processing units cycling with confusion, until—
"Oh. My. God." Her voice was loud, causing Orange to jump with fright. Simultaneously, something else stirred—resting upon the previously unnoticed keyboard just below the screen, a big black bird sat, guarding a nest full of eggs. "It's the bird! Run!" She shouted while Blue and Orange stared in confusion, their feet rooted to the floor. "I had no plan for this!"
And then, with a sharp shock of electricity, Orange regained control of her feet. The… bird? she thought fearfully, recalling her past experiences with said bird—it was the same one, surely, as the one who had dive-bombed her and Blue when they had been tracking the Sphere and the Woman down into the lower facility. "Abort! Forget your training! Run!" She ordered, and Orange obeyed instantly, but Blue was stubborn and courageous and brave and not about to back down just because She said to do so. He inched forward, and Orange cowered, covering her eye partially with her free hand, hardly able to look.
"What are you doing?" She gasped over Orange's squeaky shouts of 'No! Blue! Come back!'. "Why are you not running? Get back! It's at the controls!"
Blue shook his head and stalked forward carefully, crouching low to the ground. He raised his portal device and took careful aim; the bird lifted its head stared down at Blue. It pecked once, and then twice on the keyboard, producing a slight beep each time, and the orange display screen it sat at flickered, and then fizzled briefly into static.
Her voice was growing more and more frantic. "Run!" She demanded, "You're not killing machines! I lied about that. Now run!"
Too late—the bird took flight before Blue had fired (not that a portal device would have done much good anyways), frightening the robot so badly he fell onto his back, and causing Her to scream even louder in fear. "Ahhhhhh!" She shouted, "Oh my god! Abort! Mission abort! Retreat! Retreat!"
Orange was watching all of this from the sidelines. She shrieked as the bird lunged at Blue, flailing wildly in fright before scrabbling to get out of the way, just as the bird launched a new attack on her instead. She let out a terrified squeak as she nearly tripped over herself; meanwhile, Blue fired the portal device at random, filling the air with dazzling blue streaks like lightning. There was utter chaos for a second, full of both bots' screams, an angry screech from the bird, the sounds of ricocheting portal dud shots, and of course, Her wild pleas.
"I've warned you! Retreat!" The bird circled up, and up, and finally disappeared through the hole in the ceiling. "Oh, god. We've lost. It's over…"
It was far from over, however. Both bots were still in a panic. Orange noticed a large lever on a nearby wall and threw it immediately, screeching 'Blue! Blue are you all right?'. The ceiling closed off with a gigantic slam, and then, for the first time in minutes, there was true silence.
"Oh," She said finally, "…That was cl—"
Orange had hardly had time to cross the chamber floor, and was just beginning to help Blue to his feet when it happened. "No…" She said, sounding stern before She called out, frantic. "No! What are y—aaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhh—"
Her scream fizzled into static as every light within the chamber flashed off with a tremendous BANG. There were the sounds of muffled scrabbling from Blue and Orange as they cowered in the darkness, and then, there was silence.
'Hello?' came Blue's weak voice as he felt for Orange. 'What—what happened?"
There was a loud metal clang and an 'OUCH!' from Orange before her optic blinked open, momentarily blinding Blue with its light.
'Sorry', mumbled Blue apologetically, setting his visual receptors to adjust to the lack of light. 'What do you think happened to Her?'
'I don't know', replied Orange stiffly, the circle of her eye bouncing around before staring upward as if she were trying to catch a glimpse of Her through the ceiling. 'Do you think… Do you think She's all right?'
'I hope so', said Blue in a low grumble.
'What do we do?'
It was Blue's turn to blink thoughtfully as he whirred to himself. Once his visual input had adjusted to night-vision mode, his eye came to rest on the sight of the still-open doorway leading back toward the test chamber they had just come from.
Orange looked at him, and then looked at the doorway, too. 'You aren't thinking…' she said slowly.
'What are we going to do, sit here and wait for Her to come back?' challenged Blue, a little too aggressively. 'You said you wanted to help the Human', he added apologetically.
'I know, but…'
'But what?' he asked. It was abnormal for Orange to behave so cautiously when it came to the prospect of adventure. Normally, she was extremely keen for it, but something had changed about his partner in the past few tests. 'The longer we wait here, the less of a chance we'll have', he pointed out, in hopes that she'd regain some of her old spirit.
Orange fidgeted nervously for a moment, feeling very unsure. What if She came back, when they were halfway out of the testing track, and was livid with them for trying to leave, she wondered? What if She abandoned them altogether as a punishment for their disobedience? What if she disassembled them, and never bothered to reassemble them again?
The orange beam of light trailing from her eye rested on the pale forms of three white bird eggs sitting in the makeshift nest on the keyboard. If they stayed here, She would eventually come back, and find them—but there was the possibility that the eggs could hatch while She was away, and then, they would be in trouble.
'Okay…' Orange said slowly, twitching with apprehension. 'Let's go'.
Blue's forehead plate rose and he smiled. 'About time, Pinhead', he said affectionately, and linked his arm with hers.
Together, the two bots marched through the wide doors, down the catwalk and over the bottomless pit. All around them, there was silence of the sort one should never truly hear within Aperture—the never-ending clank of machinery and automated processes was gone. It was eerie, like the entire place was sleeping, or dead. Orange found she quite liked the idea that the facility was asleep. All of the production, and the panels, and the pneumatic tubes, and test chambers were snoozing while She slept from unknown causes, and they—Blue and Orange, striding happily hand-in-hand down the catwalk—were the only ones truly awake for miles.
Aside for—of course—the Human and the Sphere. Orange knew that they were out there, somewhere, waiting—still separated, still alone, but not for long. They would find them, and they would help them. A spark of excitement rekindled through her as she realized: this was the first time she and Blue had ever left Her sight entirely. They could go wherever they wanted, do whatever crossed their minds—instantly, Orange pulled Blue into their first hug minus scathing remarks from Her. It was nice, just the two of them—the sounds of their mechanics settled into a rhythm as they marched on into the darkness together, their paths lit by the two colliding beams of color—bright Orange, and cobalt Blue. Perfect complimentary colors, and even better companions, the two robots mutually agreed that there was no one they'd rather share such an exciting experience with, aside from each other.