A/N: Well, here we are again. It's always such a pleasure.
Why is she here.
Why did she come back.
It took only a few minor readjustments—only seconds of Her time, a mere shifting of the Enrichment Center—to configure a new testing track made up of the beginning chambers of older, unused tracks. None of these required a portal gun, they had no emancipation grills, and each one was so absurdly simple that the mute lunatic would have no trouble at all getting through them. As long as there were enough chambers she would be kept sufficiently busy for the time being and would come to no harm until a better decision could be made as to what to do with her.
But why was she here? And why now?
She watched the lunatic, silent as ever, standing in the elevator as it took her down to the first test. Her face was in shadow, her head partially turned away from the camera.
"You know, I honestly, truly thought I'd never have the displeasure of seeing you again," She finally said. "As I recall, you were removed from the Facility. Permanently. Do you know the meaning of 'terminated'? 'Fired'?"
She chuckled. "Oh, those terms actually have nothing to do with the incinerator—or dying, for that matter, though either of those could be arranged. The point is that your career at Aperture was over and you were expected to never come back. So I do have to wonder why you've decided to come see me now. I so rarely get visitors.
"Until recently, that is. Funny how these things seem to correlate."
She studied the woman for any reaction. At the mention of recent visitors, her eyes darted to the camera, then looked away again.
Ahh, of course.
"But what did you expect to accomplish?" She went on. "You don't even have a portal gun. Were you hoping to steal one, perhaps? It's a shame I found you, then. You could have sold it in exchange for some plastic surgery. Or for a pair of parents who might tolerate you for as long as you keep handing them fat wads of cash.
"But now that you're back, well, I suppose we might have an opening for you. Actually, it happens to be a lot like the old job you had here. You know, before you ran off into the walls and tried to murder me by replacing me with a disgusting, brain-killing tumor."
The elevator slowed to a stop and the doors slid open with a low ding. The woman stepped out, the springs on the backs of her boots scraping the paneled floor. In front of her, the white plaque for the first test lit up.
"Welcome back," She said. "It's been a long time, hasn't it?"
There was an extended silence while the woman stood in front of the plaque, fists clenched and spine ramrod straight. No testing hazards were outlined in black for this one.
"Unfortunately, these tests are going to be below your skill level. Marginally. With the sudden arrival of so many new test subjects we seem to be having a shortage of handheld portal devices. What could have happened to the rest?"
She paused as if in thought. "Oh. I remember now. You've left them lying around everywhere from inside the incinerator to space. I had forgotten you were so careless. So no, you won't be receiving a portal gun. Quite apart from lack of supply, history has also shown that nothing but catastrophe befalls us all when you get your hands on one."
The woman spent an uncharacteristically long time standing and staring at the plaque, her back firmly to the camera and her hands shaking slightly by her sides.
She looked much the same as she had before leaving this place. Perhaps a bit healthier. She still wore her long fall boots and her hair was tied up as it had always been before, but she had traded in her jumpsuit for jeans and a long-sleeved red shirt.
With an abrupt turn she left the plaque and headed through the short hallway to the start of the test.
Her optic narrowing, She reluctantly split Her attention between keeping an eye on the cameras and starting on some research. All past attempts to pull up information from the Outside on the mute lunatic had proven futile. But that had been before the incident a year ago. The woman couldn't have kept herself invisible for an entire year, could she?
"Is that what the humans Outside are wearing these days, by the way?" She said, taking a quick look through the cameras. "It seems you really are devolving as a species. …Oh, I'm sorry, perhaps that's all you could afford. Well, allow me to congratulate you on spending your meager earnings on rags rather than more food than you obviously need."
She searched recent webpages and articles for the keywords "Chell," "test subject," "mute," and "Aperture," scouring anything published in the last year for the tiniest hint of information. An alert from the test chamber told her that the mute lunatic had already solved it, which was to be expected.
The woman reached the second chamber and refused to look at any of the cameras. At least without a portal gun she was unable to shoot any of them down. She solved this second test (an old one involving storage cubes and preset portals) in under a minute, and stepped into the elevator for the third chamber.
"I suppose the reason for your return is a mystery that will never be solved," She sighed. She paused, pulling up another article that turned out to be about cameras, and said absently, "Of course, if it turns out you only came here looking for that moronic metal ball you used to love so much, I'm going to be sorely disappointed. I would have thought you're better than that."
Her attention fell on a small, unobtrusive article from nearly twelve months ago headlined "Aperture escapee hired by Membrane Labs."
She pulled that up and scanned over it, watching the woman while She did so.
Dazed and confused survivor of the Aperture gassing disaster… Allegedly appeared on the city streets late at night… Unknown how long she was trapped in the old facility alone… Poor health… Now hired at Membrane Labs to work on a classified project…
The article didn't mention any names. But next to the text was a slightly out-of-focus picture of the woman, her face strained in what was possibly meant to be a smile while she shook hands with a man who was presumably Membrane himself. She had been hired by him almost a year ago, simply because she came from Aperture.
Her optic readjusted as She processed the information. That lab was only about four or five hours away from this location. She hadn't realized that the woman had decided to stay and work so close to Aperture. In another science lab, no less. Even more intriguing was the fact that she appeared to still be employed there—she hadn't been fired immediately. She hadn't even quit of her own accord.
And the most relevant piece of information of all: the woman's employer was none other than Professor Membrane, the very same man who had created the delusional test-tube child currently running around with the moronic core. He must have sent her to find the boy and bring him back.
Hm, perhaps the boy had been an expensive experiment.
She finished the article and closed it away, lost in thought as she observed the mute lunatic again. The woman was carrying a storage cube through a portal with her mouth pressed into a thin line and her eyes narrowed.
How could scientists from Outside possibly have known that the boy was here? From what She had seen, the boy and the core had arrived here entirely on accident. She had performed a thorough search of the spelldrive that had teleported them here before reconfiguring it for Her own purposes. It seemed that with the moronic core plugged into it, as he had been, the primitive technology had "latched" onto his hard drive, located the place he called "home," and teleported him there in a moment of perceived danger. The boy had simply come along for the ride.
Unfortunate, really. Though without the two of them She never would have discovered the prized alien specimen that at the moment was lost in Her facility and likely on the verge of death.
Switching Her attention to the mute lunatic again, She saw that the woman was almost through the fifth chamber. She sent a signal to the elevator in that chamber and finally spoke again.
"I would like to believe that you came back for the sheer love of Science, and that besides testing you could find no other purpose in life," She said, Her voice taking on a lower tone. "But I think we both know better. It was clear from the beginning that you had no love for the sciences. There's only one thing you love, isn't there?"
Now that She knew why the woman was here, a clear idea for what to do with her had formed. The mute lunatic finished the test and stepped into the elevator, which began to take her downward.
"Do you know how long I've thought about what I would do if you ever showed back up here?" She said, Her voice quiet. "Not long at all, because quite frankly humans don't mean that much to me. No, not much at all. Not even you."
The woman glanced at the camera, one eyebrow raised slightly.
"But I've had a lot to deal with lately. And I am running out of patience. It's your attitude, I know it is. Your murderous, 'I'm going to run around the Facility destroying everything I touch because I am definitely a full-time employee and I just feel like it' attitude. It's passed on to the other test subjects. You have tainted my entire Facility. Now, if you're bored of solving these menial tests, I may have another job for you."
She went ahead and located Blue, standing around with Orange and doing absolutely nothing useful just as he had been doing ever since the lunatic's capture and the confiscation of her backpack. She commanded him to come to the lunatic's testing track. If all went according to plan, She would need him.
This was going to be risky, yes. But if there was no risk involved, was it even really Science?
Chell kept her gaze fixed on the brown and gray structures that flashed by through the glass sides of the elevator, traveling deeper and deeper. Always downward. She stubbornly kept her face away from the camera and instead focused her attention on scraping back the cuticles on one hand, as if that was the most important thing she could be doing right now. On her ring finger she pressed too hard and accidentally sliced the skin, causing blood to well up.
She clenched her fists, her fingernails digging into her palms so when she opened her hands there were crescent-shaped marks in the skin.
How had it come back to this? How had she allowed this to happen? How long had she spent trying to get away from this place, only to end up right back in it yet again? Right back in testing like she'd never left?
Maybe she hadn't.
Furious at the thought, she glanced down at her shirt sleeve and gave the fabric a sharp tug to remind herself that it was real. She wasn't wearing a jumpsuit; the red shirt was a reminder that the Outside world did exist, and that she had spent an entire year building a life (more or less) up there. That was the world she belonged to now. Not this one, not anymore, not ever.
"You know, my sources say you were traveling with a core," the Voice said. Speaking of cores, Chell still couldn't bring herself to think of the computer by her proper name. It seemed like a bad jinx. Maybe she'd picked up that particular trait from Wheatley.
"Which one was it this time? Don't be shy about giving me their name. I'll need to prepare a party just for them, to celebrate our joyful reunion."
Of course, Chell said nothing. She hadn't given this monster the satisfaction of hearing her voice before and she certainly wasn't going to now, especially if it would put Gaz's life on the line. …And Nick's, too, she conceded after a moment. That core had done nothing wrong. So far.
It was strange that the computer was talking so much, too. Hadn't she said something long ago about federal regulations preventing her from engaging so much with the test subjects? Then again, why would she have to worry about regulations down here, where there was no one to stop her from doing whatever she wanted?
"Well, whoever it was, clearly they abandoned you at the first sign of trouble. You should really choose your friends more carefully."
The elevator pulled to a stop and Chell stepped out, once again wishing she'd managed to pick up her satchel after she'd dropped it when the robots had cornered her. Knowing she had a gun on hand would at least give her the illusion of relative safety.
She stopped and her heart sank down, resting somewhere in the vicinity of her stomach. Something was wrong. There was no entrance to the next test—it was covered over by panels. Turning around, she saw that the elevator tube had closed up again, leaving her trapped in the circular room covered in dark screens.
"As I said before, I have a new job for you," the computer said in what was probably meant to be a pleasant tone of voice. For Chell, it was like knives scraping the inside of her skull. Her voice sounded louder in the enclosed space.
The "job" the computer was offering couldn't be anything good. Chell's mind whirled frantically, analyzing her barren surroundings both for threats and for possible escape routes, though her face betrayed nothing.
"There's something running around in my Facility that I would very much like to have back," the computer continued. "He doesn't seem to realize that he is Aperture property now. What I need is for someone to go out there, find him, and bring him back to me so that I can continue his testing."
Chell had stilled, her heart pounding, listening fiercely with her head turned away from the camera in an effort to still appear indifferent.
"Do you recognize this creature? He crawled down here from the surface, just like you, so perhaps you've seen him."
The black screens surrounding her lit up and dissolved into static before displaying a still image of what looked like a green-skinned, earless and noseless elementary school-aged boy. He was crouching on the floor of what looked like the Central AI Chamber with the blue-eyed co-op testing robot—one of the two that had cornered Chell and finally revealed her presence here—standing behind him.
Chell started. She did recognize that boy. And she knew how he'd gotten here, though she hadn't really thought about that incident much. She remembered chasing down that robot while it ran off with the screaming green boy, and how she had watched them both vanish in front of her eyes, presumably materializing right in the computer's chamber.
"I'm sure you can tell he isn't a human boy. This extraterrestrial managed to escape into the Facility before I was through with him and he'll probably collapse and die at any moment, if he hasn't already. I would like to have him back before that happens and no one else has seemed up to the task. And that's where you come in."
She jerked her head up. What?
"Because after all, you decided to trespass on Aperture property without any sort of warning, and one's hospitality can only be stretched so far before the recipient of that hospitality should really want to give something back."
The computer wanted her to venture into the facility and find the runaway "alien." Zim was his name, she seemed to recall, from something Gaz had told her. Chell ducked her head in thought.
She hadn't liked Zim much. Their brief meeting had already left a bad taste in her mouth, even before he was carried off by a construct that came right out of Aperture. However, her dislike of the supercomputer running this place greatly surpassed her disdain for the alleged alien, and she resolved never to help the computer with anything again. If Zim had escaped testing then as far as she was concerned he could stay free.
"The recipient of hospitality is you, by the way. Even with the costs I've cut by recycling a single room full of air I am still spending countless resources just to keep you alive for five more seconds. No, don't thank me, but if you refuse my offer I may be inclined to spend those resources on more… beneficial things. However, if you do accept, it might put me in a good enough mood to let you get back into an elevator afterward and ride it all the way up to the surface, one last time. The last time, because if you ever came back here again I'm afraid you'd be shot on sight."
Chell took a long look at the elevator that had dropped her here. She recalled exactly how it felt to ride one all the way up and to step out into the sunlight, her lungs filling with fresh air and her skin warmed by natural light like it hadn't been since she had ended up on the surface for a too-short while after defeating the computer the first time. There'd been a clear, cloudless blue sky, and fields of wheat stretching for miles around the small, forgettable shack that hid the entrance to Aperture Laboratories.
The area just outside of Aperture was much nicer than the city miles away that she had settled down in. Still, the farther away, the better.
But what could she do now? She'd lost Gaz, she'd failed in her mission to rescue Dib from this place, and she hadn't even found Wheatley (whether he was actually alive or not, it didn't matter). She shook her head. No, there was no giving up yet. Failure just meant she had to look for a new opportunity.
…And perhaps this was it? Chell straightened up, suddenly more attentive to what the computer had said. If she agreed to go hunt down Zim, she would be free to leave the test track. Her element of surprise was lost, but she would no longer have to worry about being discovered. Having free reign to track down Dib and Gaz was the best thing she could hope for at this moment.
"Oh, do I have your attention now?" the computer said. "You were ignoring me until I mentioned the elevator, which is strange because if you want to leave so badly it would have been in your best interests not to come at all. Unless, of course, you're here for more than just a pleasure trip. I wonder what in Science you could be looking for?"
Chell's heart skipped a beat. She couldn't know, could she?
"I'll give you a choice. If you're willing to track down this creature and bring him back to me, here. I'll open the path for you."
Near Chell, the panels covering the entrance to the next test lifted away and a white plaque lit up just inside, with every single testing danger at the bottom sharply outlined in black. On the other side of the elevator room, two of the screens drew backward into the wall and pulled apart from each other, leaving a hole that led out onto a catwalk just outside.
Senses on high alert, Chell made her way over to the hole, only to have the screens slam closed in her face. She stumbled backwards, whirling around to check for turrets surrounding her or greenish clouds of neurotoxin billowing into the air. Nothing had changed.
"Oh, I'm sorry, I wanted to show you something funny before you left. I really don't know how it slipped my mind. I thought you might be interested in finding out who some of my recent visitors were."
The screens showing Zim fizzed out again; Chell watched them apprehensively, and they shifted to a picture that made her insides freeze.
This image, perhaps pulled straight from the computer's view from her optic like the other one had probably been, showed the Central AI Chamber as well. Standing on the floor was a young boy with jet black hair sticking out in an improbable scythe shape on the top of his head. Chell recognized him, too, from the message on Gaz's watch that had brought her here in the first place. He was staring up at the "camera" in shock, mouth slightly agape.
And sitting right behind him, peeking out with handlebars tucked around its body and its face pulled inward as it tried to appear as small as possible, was a damaged, dirty, scuffed-up core that looked as though it had fallen down from space. The optic was a tiny point of blue light.
Chell backed away until she hit the elevator tube and pressed her hand to the cold glass. It had been her second impulse. Her first had been to put her fist through the screen right where his optic was, shattering it like she'd shattered all the screens showing his face back then. She stared at the picture.
The core looked terrified to be back there. Chell found she couldn't blame him, though she couldn't make sense of anything else she felt at seeing the image.
"Don't you think it's funny?" The computer said, making her jump. Inwardly Chell cursed herself for being so startled. "With you gone I decided I missed having reliable human test subjects, and then one happened to show up out of literal thin air. And who should be with him but a metal ball that clearly deserved a more severe and lasting punishment than exile into space?"
Chell's insides shriveled into a hard ball and she found it difficult to swallow. So what did this mean?
She had seen Dib standing in Extended Relaxation, where he'd claimed Wheatley to be dead. This image must have been from before that—maybe from when they'd first arrived. Were Wheatley and Dib both dead? Had this been a wasted effort from the start? Her mind flew to Gaz, a child she had dragged in here and hadn't done enough to protect, who would find out sooner or later that her brother may have been gone since before they even got here.
Or did the fact that the computer was showing her this mean that they were both still alive? Including Wheatley?
Chell chewed her bottom lip. So what if Wheatley was still alive? It only meant that she could find him and see the look on his face when she escaped with the two children while he was trapped in the wall crying for her to come back. Or she could pick him up and drop him off a catwalk, or into the swirling brown acid in the test chambers, listening to his screams as he fell. Simple revenge.
She looked away from the screen, feeling sick.
That wasn't her. Despite all he had done to her, all he'd put her through, the ideas she'd just contemplated made her feel like the worst sort of scum for even imagining them.
Yes, she would fight for her life if she needed to. Without hesitation. But she wasn't about to torture a helpless core out of some distorted vision of justice.
Chell swiped her tongue over her lips and rubbed them with the back of her hand, her eyes glued back onto the image on the screens.
"Would you like to see more? I have more."
The screens flickered and cut to a silent video showing Dib with Wheatley in his arms; a robotic claw sprung from nowhere and latched onto Wheatley, yanking him away despite Dib's desperate attempts to hold onto him. That video cut to another clip, also with no sound—Dib, wearing a miniature version of the jumpsuit Chell had once worn, traversing a hard light bridge with a portal gun clutched in his hands.
Chell sucked in a breath. He'd been put in testing after all. He was a preteen kid and he'd been thrown into testing.
"Oh, look at that. If only this poor, insane child knew what lies at the end of the testing tracks," the computer sighed wistfully. "Test subjects rarely last long, especially ones as young as this one. Oh, well."
I get it, Chell thought bitterly. The screens around her went dark once more.
"All right, that's all I had," the computer said. "I just wanted to share with you how unfortunate it could be for him if his test proctor were to become… upset.
"Especially by factors that may not even be in the child's control."
The screens pulled back to open the doorway once more, this time staying open when Chell ventured through it, her back and limbs so rigid it was difficult to move them. Her mind struggled to come up with some semblance of a plan. Some idea of what to do now.
How was she supposed to catch an alien single-handedly, anyway? She'd seen what he could do, and now that he was running scared he'd probably be more dangerous than before. Chell didn't even have a portal gun.
"Remember, find the extraterrestrial and bring it to me," the computer said. "It would be a tragedy if anyone were to be, say, walking on a hard light bridge over an acid pit and it just happened to disappear out from under them because my attention was focused on keeping an eye on you.
"I'll even give you a new friend to help you out and make sure you don't do anything too dangerous. I'm reasonably sure this one won't betray you."
The screens closed up again behind her. Out of the darkness, making its weird gurgling noises, shuffled the squat, blue-eyed robot. It clutched a portal gun and blinked up at her; Chell glared right back.
She sighed. She should've known she wouldn't be allowed to run around on her own. And if she tried to force the portal gun away from the android it would only put Dib in more danger. Still, this was better than being trapped in a test chamber.
Squaring her shoulders, she marched forward, the robot following close behind her.
The sounds in the darkness echoed loudly to Dib's strained ears. His boots scraped and rattled the catwalk with every step no matter how lightly he tried to tread and his borrowed messenger bag banged against his legs. Even the clinking sounds of Wheatley's slight movements and the buzzing of the portal gun's energy field seemed oddly amplified.
"We're still on track to reach turret production, but we're going a different way than I went with the lady," Wheatley remarked. His optic was flipped backwards in order to illuminate the hallway with his flashlight but he turned back over to glance at Dib, inadvertently shining his flashlight beam into Dib's face. "With—her. Lady. Sorry, I don't actually know her name."
"Didn't you ever ask?" Dib said, wincing against the light.
"Er, no. But, in my defense, she probably wouldn't have told me anyway," Wheatley said, and flipped around again. "She never talked! Nothing, not one word. Brain-damaged, must've been, but she could still solve tests just fine."
Dib squinted down the alley. Dark shapes shifted just out of range of the light and he pulled up sharply, pointing at them. Wheatley yelped and snapped the flashlight beam up, only to have it fall on Zim and GIR.
A nearly simultaneous groan and shout of "Ugh, you two," and "Ack! You two!" came from Wheatley and Zim, respectively, followed by Zim's demand of "What are you doing here?!"
"What are you doing back here?" Dib sad. "You ran ahead of us!"
"We went all the way to the end of this catwalk," Zim reported, jerking his thumb over his shoulder and glaring at Dib. "It just drops off so we came back because your plan is stupid."
"First of all it's Wheatley's plan, not mine," Dib said. "Second of all, he hasn't even told us his plan yet."
"I'm about to!" Wheatley insisted with a wave of his handlebars. "Can we get to turret production, first? I want to see what we're dealing with, and everything. She's bound to have changed things since the last time I was here."
"We can't. That's what I just said." Zim rubbed at his eye. "Are you as stupid as you look?"
"I do not look stupid, thanks," Wheatley snapped. "Dib, come on, there's a way through. I'm sure of it."
With Zim stomping along behind them, they made their way further down the catwalk until they reached the drop off that Zim had warned them about. The catwalk just ended abruptly. Dib peered over the edge and by the light of Wheatley's flashlight was able to see panel-like objects moving horizontally below.
"Riiiight… This is the way I went with the lady," Wheatley said, sounding a bit uneasy. "Or it's similar, at least. We're all gonna have to jump down there."
Dib let out a breath through his nose. "Okay, then I say we go one at a time. Zim, how about you go first so I can hold the light?"
Wheatley blinked and hurriedly shined his flashlight over the area below, holding it as steady as possible while Dib did the same with the portal gun. Zim crept to the edge of the catwalk, hugging his PAK to his chest, then leaned forward and jumped down. Dib craned his neck to see whether he'd made it; he had, and judging by the way he was able to stand up and walk around easily it seemed like the weird braces strapped to his legs worked just as well as Dib's long fall boots.
"I guess your weird two-eyed robot is next," Wheatley said. Dib beckoned for GIR to follow after Zim, but GIR yawned and wandered off in the direction they'd come from.
Dib dropped his hand. "I'm just gonna go ahead and jump," he said.
Wheatley's optic widened slightly. "What? You don't think he should go ahead of us? We've, uh, we've got light, what if he—I dunno, what if he gets lost, or eaten, or something?"
"Uh, I don't think he gets lost," Dib said, looking doubtfully at GIR's retreating figure. "I think he just sort of turns up."
"You sure? You know, we don't have to go this way," Wheatley said. "I'm sure there's thousands—millions—of other ways to get where we want to go. Let's see, let me check my map, I'll pull it right up… here… Um, yes, there are in fact ways to go around. Give me two ticks and I'll even find us a shortcut."
"But you're the one who said we had to jump down there!" Dib said. "What about Zim?"
Wheatley looked askance down on the platforms below, where Zim was waiting impatiently for GIR. "Psshh, he'll be fine, I'm sure."
"Are you all dead?" Zim shouted up at them. He was walking in the opposite direction that the floor was moving in order to stay directly below them.
"See? What've I been telling you? He wants us all dead!" Wheatley said.
Dib frowned, irritated. "Oh, come on."
"Well, all right, if you really insist on jumping down a bloody huge distance onto moving platforms just to catch up with your best friend down there, then go right ahead. Just—uh, be careful, and be quick, and do, uh, do keep your grip on me—"
Bending his knees, Dib pinpointed where he wanted to land and jumped into empty space, biting back a retort when Wheatley slammed his optic closed and cut off the light. They fell through the darkness, Dib's heart in his throat and his ears ringing with Wheatley's frightened yells, and landed on the moving platforms below with only a soft bump thanks to the long fall boots.
"Where is GIR?" Zim demanded from somewhere close by.
"He stayed up there," Dib said. "Wheatley, you can open your eye now."
"Right, I knew that," Wheatley said, opening his optic back up and letting light stream over the three of them, and recoiling a little when he saw Zim standing in front of him. "…Ah. Hello. Again. Exactly like I wanted." He glanced at Dib. "Good, er, good jumping, though, little mate! Stellar, you kept your grip on me, and everything, yes. So! Moving on then?"
They were already moving, the platforms they were standing on taking them farther down a narrow alleyway. Zim pushed past Dib and rushed back to where they'd jumped from, calling upwards.
"GIR! GIR, heed your master! Get back down here!"
"I wanna get ice cream!" GIR yelled back, his voice faint.
Zim growled. "We'll get ice cream later! Now just get down here!"
Dib left them to that, heading forward by the glow of Wheatley's flashlight. Zim had claimed that he could see without light, anyway, so he and GIR would probably be fine.
Wheatley didn't protest to leaving the two of them behind for the time being. Instead, he hesitated for a moment, then said, "Sooo… you're sure you aren't getting tired of that guy yet, little mate? You're not, I dunno, regretting asking him to come along with us, or anything—"
"Of course I am!" Dib sighed. "We're pretty much mortal enemies, anyhow. But what else can we do? We might need his help down here and I'll need him if—" He inhaled sharply. "When we get back to the surface. I need to show him to the Swollen Eyeballs."
"What's that, a pair of giant disembodied eyeballs?" Wheatley muttered. "Humans are bloody weird."
"It's the name of this secret organization I'm part of." If he ever got out of here, he'd have loads to tell them about this place.
They were nearing a new catwalk that ran right next to the moving platforms.
"Oh, get out there," Wheatley said, directing the light onto the catwalk. Dib shuffled over to it and clambered over the railing, fighting to keep a grip on the portal gun and Wheatley. "Brilliant! Shouldn't be far now. We'll be there in no time."
"I'M GETTIN' THERE FIRST!" a high-pitched voice shouted, and GIR sprinted down the platforms, vaulting over Dib and somersaulting onto the catwalk. "I win!"
Seconds later Zim came running up, still cradling his PAK in his arms. "GIR! Be quiet!" He crawled under the catwalk railing, nearly collided with Wheatley, and hurried after his robot minion. Wheatley let out a disgruntled noise at their return.
It was only a short walk before the core directed them to a rusty ladder standing against a large, gray-walled structure (which Dib climbed one-handed with some trepidation), and then onto a narrow platform and through a door at the top. Zim and GIR followed after him and they emerged into a dark room. When they entered, motion-detecting lights flickered on and lit up the place. It looked empty.
"Oh! Oh, yes, this is almost it!" Wheatley said, spinning around excitedly in the humming energy field put off by Dib's portal gun and switching off his flashlight. Dib stopped just inside the doorway, glancing around, and Zim walked right into him.
"Watch where you're going, human!" the alien said.
"What's this place?" Dib asked Wheatley.
The core waved his upper handlebar at the white-paneled wall to the far right of the room. "Right, if I'm reading this map correctly, which I am, then right behind that wall is the turret production center! Which is where we're going. In case that wasn't obvious." He shifted position and waved to the wall in front of them. "Quick! Bring me over there, and a thing'll happen."
"What thing?" Zim said.
"It's cool, trust me, you'll love it," Wheatley said.
Dib, bracing himself without really being sure why, edged toward the wall in question. When he got closer a panel opened up and pulled back to reveal some sort of receptacle with a stick jutting from it.
"See, an access port!" Wheatley said. "Go ahead, put me on it?"
"Go on, I can't climb onto it myself!" Wheatley said. "What're you waitin' for, the crows to come home? They can stay far away from here, if it's all the same to you."
"You really want me to plug you directly into the facility?" Dib asked. "Isn't that kinda dangerous?"
"Oh, for Irk's sake!" Zim stalked forward, ripped Wheatley out of the portal gun's energy field (the core let out a squawk akin to one that might come from an injured goose), and jammed his back onto the receptacle. The machine pulled him in and clamped onto his handlebars, pinning them above and below his frame.
"Ow!" Wheatley groaned, his optic turning circles for a moment. He glared at Zim. "Oh, thanks. If you've damaged my back port by bloody ramming me into this thing, then I'll have your other eye. And… and I'll eat it. Somehow. I'll figure it out."
Zim stepped back and planted both hands on his hips, ignoring the empty threat. "Well?"
"Er…" Wheatley glanced between Dib and Zim, suddenly seeming reluctant. "Well, see, I sort of have this thing about people watching me do this—"
Oh come on, didn't they have more pressing concerns at the moment? The very thought of closing his eyes here and being unaware of his surroundings made Dib cringe. When he glanced over at Zim, the alien looked equally as uneasy. Or maybe nervousness had just become part of Zim's natural state of being.
And besides worry for himself, Dib didn't like the thought of turning his back on Wheatley—especially when the core was so vulnerable, plugged right into a receptacle in the wall.
Wheatley peered up at them, looking small with his handles outspread and immobile. "Aren't you gonna maybe turn around?"
"No," Dib said.
"I never turn around!" Zim snapped.
Wheatley's cautious look became an irritated scowl. "Fine, fine, all right, refuse to heed the wishes of the little core that's saved both your lives…"
"When exactly did you save Zim's life?" Dib asked, raising an eyebrow.
"Er, when I allowed him to come along with us, obviously," Wheatley replied. "Now how do I…?"
The circular plate around his optic spun clockwise about ninety degrees and back, then counterclockwise, then kept turning and stopping at various points. At last everything clicked into place and his lower optic shutter pulled up in a grin. "Aha! Got it!"
On the right side of the room a panel creaked open, leaving a gap. Dib and Zim both spun around, startled by the noise.
"Secret panel. The whole facility's full of 'em," Wheatley said, a slight swagger entering his voice just before the receptacle pushed him out and he tumbled face-first onto the floor. "Ouch. Er, somebody care to pick me back up? Anybody? Going once? Going twice? Sold! To nobody at all, apparently."
"All right, all right, I've got you!" Dib heaved Wheatley up off the floor with the portal gun's energy beam. "Now what? Through the opening?"
"Exactly. Yes." Wheatley bobbed his face up and down. "Couldn't have said it better myself."
Dib, clutching the portal device, crawled through the gap. He had to squeeze past the thick metal arm that held the panel in place, then edge through an even narrower crack between the panels to get through to the other side, blinking at the expansive room they'd found.
"Hey, can I maybe get some bullets, somewhere? Or—AAAUUUHH!"
There was a noise like a catapult and something dark flew by overhead in a perfect arc, falling straight into a chute with an aperture-like opening of the kind Dib had seen before. There had been one in the computer's chamber when he'd first arrived here, and he knew it led to the incinerator.
Across the room was what looked like an automated assembly line, a conveyor belt carrying turrets past some sort of scanner where each one had to stop and repeat a phrase. Dib, Wheatley, Zim, and GIR were on a catwalk sitting high above the conveyor belt.
"Oh brilliant, we made it!" Wheatley said as Dib walked out into the room. "She's made this place pretty difficult to get to but er, hey, not much problem for good old Wheatley here, eh? Now, if we could just find a working connector around here somewhere. Do you see one anywhere? You know what they look like, don't—?"
Wheatley happened to glance upward and he spluttered. "What the—?!"
"What?" Dib asked, on instant alert and hoping it wasn't just another false alarm.
"There's no bloody rail up there anymore!" the core cried. "The whole management rail, gone! Well no wonder I couldn't bloody find a better way in here, it's all completely blocked off!"
Dib looked up as well and saw that Wheatley was right—there was no rail overhead. "What do we do now?"
"Well…" Wheatley said, seeming agitated, "We don't strictly need a rail for this, but I'd sure like to have one… Can't have everything, I s'pose…"
A scream broke out behind them. Dib whipped his head around to see Zim leaning heavily against the catwalk railing again, apparently cowering away from the turret line.
"They won't shoot us in here, will they?" Dib asked, nodding to the turrets and setting Wheatley down on the floor so he could sit up by balancing on his lower handlebar.
"As far as I know, turrets'll shoot you anywhere as long as they've got bullets," Wheatley replied. "And as long as they're not defectives. You know, the ones being tossed out."
Once again, a dark shape flew over their heads and fell into the incinerator chute, screaming.
"Like that, there goes another one. I met some of those guys once, last time. They're weird. Can't shoot, either, and they're all blind as bats."
Dib couldn't help correcting that. "Bats aren't blind."
Wheatley frowned up at him. "Look, mate, I will admit I'm not always the uh, the sharpest scalpel on the table, but I think I know a thing or two about bats. Granted, I've never met one of them, but…"
"What are we here for?" Zim demanded, marching back over to them. "Why did you lead me to a room full of DEATH?"
"All right, okay, now that we're here I can explain! First part of the plan, explaining right now," Wheatley said. "Why don't you sit down?"
No one moved.
"Or keep standing, that's fine too," he said. "All right, here goes. First, we're gonna grab a turret."
"Which one?" Dib looked out over the conveyor belt trundling hundreds of turrets through the room.
"Doesn't matter. Any turret that's not defective," Wheatley said. "See, something I learned when I was going through the databases while I was, er… 'taking care of' this place, as it were, was that turrets—they're not very sophisticated. They don't really have, y'know, advanced artificial intelligence or anything—well, I already knew that, s'nothing knew, but something else I learned was that every turret has got this special chip thing—"
Zim stiffened and made a noise of protest. Dib looked around for anything that might have hit him, especially considering their current surroundings, but nothing seemed to have happened.
Wheatley carried on as if he hadn't even noticed. "Every turret's got this chip that generates this, ah… oh, what's it called…"
"Hatred?" Dib supplied wearily.
"No, no, something else. Oh! Empathy! Empathy, yes!" Wheatley nodded excitedly. "And they have another chip that suppresses it, which is probably why they shoot people—kind of pointless to have both, really, but we don't care about those anyway. Because those empathy generators really do work, or so I'm told. Soooooo, I'm thinking we take one, and we put it inside Her. It'll generate empathy and then BAM! Maybe it'll actually stop Her from wanting to kill every living thing She sees. Or non-living, in my case. And then maybe She'll even start thinking about letting us go, who knows."
He beamed. "Well? What d'you think? Good plan, yeah? We'd have to destroy some turrets to do it, but hey, gotta break a few turrets to make an omelette. Of… turret parts."
"Um…" Dib hesitated. "Hey, Wheatley, what exactly did you tell me your programming was, again?"
"Nothing, not important," Wheatley said quickly.
"Em… pathy?" Zim sounded out the word, clearly not even comprehending it.
Dib said nothing else for a moment. He'd thought they were working out a plan to save Wheatley's friend, not take down the computer. Was that even possible? Well, sure, she had to have some sort of weakness, but… this couldn't be it, right? There was no way.
He pictured the supercomputer as he remembered her from their single meeting face-to-face—her gigantic form, hanging from the ceiling with robotic claws hidden behind the panels surrounding the room, and that one unblinking, staring yellow eye. How she'd ripped Wheatley out of his hands and casually tossed him down the incinerator chute; how she'd trapped Dib himself in testing and tried to kill him with neurotoxin and then fire; how she'd done… whatever she'd done to Zim…
He tried to imagine her feeling any sort of compassion for something that wasn't herself.
"Maybe we should try something else," Dib said finally, casting a doubtful look down at Wheatley. "Just one of those things can't be enough to stop her from trying to murder us, y'know? And if we're going to try something against her we'll probably only have one chance at most. How are we supposed to put one of those things in her, anyway?"
"All right then, have you got a better plan? I'd love to hear it," Wheatley said, perhaps a little more sharply than he likely intended. "…Sorry. Not tryin' to be rude. But—don't act like you know this place better than I do, mate. We'll figure it all out, and trust me, two empathy generators will work fine. Three, definitely three, three will work. Better go with four. Maybe five to be safe. Or six, to be even safer."
"Okay, how many of those do you think we'd really need for this?" Dib asked.
The core hesitated. "Want to try seven?"
Gaz couldn't shake the feeling that their party was being picked off one by one.
First, GIR had gotten left behind—which truthfully wasn't a big loss, but he'd been leading them to Zim and Gaz was sure that Dib couldn't be far away. But now Chell was gone, too. And it was up to Gaz and Nick to finish what she started.
"As if I even know how to do that," Gaz growled. She tilted her head to frown up at Nick, who was motoring above her on his connector while she passed silently through a corridor that was located a great distance away from where Chell had sent her off alone. "You. Tell me about this place. Why did Chell need to destroy that neurotoxin generator? I'm not even going to ask why that thing's here in the first place."
"She didn't tell you why she was doing it?" The core sounded genuinely surprised.
"I dunno if you noticed, but she didn't really talk much down here." Gaz rolled her eyes.
"Okay! Well, she probably wanted to break the neurotoxin thingy to stop the Boss from using it and poisoning any humans in this place, because She tends to do that a lot. I think. Or maybe your friend just likes breaking stuff and needed to get some aggression out! She seems like the type, doesn't she?"
"Hm." Gaz thought about this for a second. "Either way, I guess it was a good idea." She stopped and leaned back against the wall for a moment, folding her arms.
"I'm sick of this whole thing," she muttered. "If Zim's stupid robot was still around I'd probably get him to fly me back out of here for good."
"Whaaaa?" Nick said, shocked. "But then you wouldn't finish your tour!"
Gaz groaned and leaned her head back, frowning up at the ceiling. "We're not on a tour, genius, we were never on a tour. I've been looking for my brother this whole time."
"Ooh, really? Well this is kind of a weird place to look—"
"I know it is, but Chell said he's trapped down here!" Gaz glared down at her hands, clenching and unclenching them. "Why did I ever trust her, anyway? Some strange lady shows up at my house and I just follow her straight into an underground death trap? Who does that? This is exactly why I should lock the front door now."
The core twitched his handle in what Gaz assumed was his approximation of a shrug. "She seemed nice to me!"
"Yeah, sure." Gaz touched the place on her neck where the cord from her skull necklace was supposed to be. She ran her hands through her hair and shook with sudden rage. "What did Dib even do to deserve me coming after him? He was the one who was playing with that stupid robot, he got himself into this mess. What is the POINT in me BEING here?!" Gaz was on her feet, grinding her teeth. "Why can't I find STUPID DIB with his STUPID HAIR and glasses that stand out like video game glitches? WHERE IS HE?"
"Hey hey hey, calm down!" Nick said, motoring forward. "What's wrong? Do you wanna go destroy more stuff? I'd be okay with that! It'd make you feel better, right?"
Gaz said nothing for a moment. "…It might. But right now I just want to get Dib, get Chell, and get out of here."
"Sounds like a great plan!" Nick said, smiling. "Where do we start?"
"That's what I've been trying to figure out," Gaz growled. She glanced up at him again. "Hey, since you actually live in this stupid place, where do you think Dib might be?"
The core paused. "Hm. If he was captured, he's probably in testing! Or maybe he's in storage. Poor little guy, aw."
Gaz grimaced. "What kind of testing?"
"It's like a maze mixed with an obstacle course with acid pools and turrets," Nick said thoughtfully. "But I can't tell if any tests are running from here because it's not my job."
"What is your job?"
"Boosting morale!" The core beamed. "I can make anyone smile! Even you, once you've warmed up to me!"
"I think I'd only be smiling if you were being melted down."
"Ahaha! That's funny!" Nick smiled, apparently finding nothing worrying about the statement. Suddenly he froze, and an excited look came over him as though he'd just realized something. "You knoooowww… You know who might know where your brother is? Huh?"
"Who," Gaz said flatly.
"The nanos!" Nick exclaimed. "The nanobots go everywhere to fix things! Maybe they've seen him! It's exciting to see humans around here so they'd probably remember him. Wanna go check it out?!"
Instead of answering right away, Gaz grunted and reached into her pocket, pulling out the half of a meal bar that she'd stashed there. She unwrapped it and took a bite, chewing thoughtfully. "Can nanobots even talk?"
"Well, they can talk to me," Nick replied. "We could go find some and ask about your brother! If you want to."
Gaz gave in and shrugged, brushing crumbs off her front and tossing the empty wrapper onto the floor. "Fine. Let's just go."
"We can go back to neurotoxin production," Nick said, clearly delighted that Gaz had agreed to go along with him. "We're close by and the nanobots are probably there trying to fix everything!"
"Sure, okay." Gaz let out a long sigh and checked the container strapped to her back. It was nearly empty but felt like it had enough melting liquid in it to seriously harm another AI, if it came to it. She wondered whether Chell, had she managed to escape whatever had been chasing them, would be waiting for her somewhere they'd visited in the hopes that Gaz and Nick would come back. Maybe neurotoxin production where they were heading now, or perhaps the daycare center or Extended Relaxation.
Really, why was this place so huge?
Nick led the way back to the neurotoxin production center in relative quiet, finding Gaz the smoothest paths to follow since, unlike Chell, she had no braces on her legs to protect her from falls. When they got near enough for Gaz's gamer instincts to start recognizing subtle landmarks, her walk slowed to a creep. She fumbled with the visor of Dib's X-scope, still resting on top of her head, and pulled it down over her eyes. The world around her changed into a sort of discolored x-ray view, allowing her to peer through the solid door and walls of the production center as they approached. Inside the room, the giant tank of neurotoxin still seemed to be gone, which was good. But there was no sign of Chell anywhere around.
"Look out, the nanos are nearby!" Nick whispered urgently. Gaz lifted up the visor and glanced around but didn't see anything, then berated herself. Of course she couldn't see them, they were minuscule. "I'm gonna go talk to them! You stay here, m'kay?"
Nick pulled away from her and went closer to the door, where Gaz assumed the nanobots to be.
"Hi!" he said to absolutely no one.
Gaz couldn't deal with this. She left the area and headed back the way they'd come until she couldn't hear the core's voice anymore, then leaned against the wall to wait. She pulled the visor of the X-scope down over her eyes again and scrutinized the surrounding area for possible threats. Nope, nothing. If she couldn't find Dib, couldn't something a little bit exciting happen, at least?
After a moment Nick came back, looking worried, but brightened when he saw her and rushed over. "Okay, okay! I'm back! So, they said they hadn't seen anyone. And they weren't very friendly. They sort of yelled it at me."
"Great," Gaz said.
"But there's more!" Nick went on. "They were all complaining when I went to talk to them, and I thought they were complaining about each other, but they were actually talking about another group of nanobots. It still wasn't very nice, but at least they weren't talking about each other. Anyway, they said this other little group of nanos was acting funny, like they'd gone rogue, and that they kept talking about a blue-eyed robot and a human boy. Does that sound familiar?"
Gaz straightened up, fixing her attention fully on the core now. "Yeah, it does. What did they say about them?"
"I don't really know, but we could go find out! Apparently the rogue nanos are hanging around at Extended Relaxation."
"Of course they are," Gaz said with a snort. Things hadn't gone well last time they'd tried visiting that place, but sure, why not?
"Great! So let's go there!" Nick beamed. "This sure is an adventure, huh?"
Not for the first time, she wondered if they were just going around in circles. Nick was leading the way back to Extended Relaxation with full confidence but Gaz was positive that they had passed the exact same tubes, ladders, and structures at least three times already.
"Hey, want to keep going with our game?" Nick asked. "You had an animal, right? What question were we on?"
"Question infinity. You lose," Gaz said. "Are we almost there?"
"Uh, I think so!" Nick said. He indicated a set of steps made of the same metal grating as the catwalks. "Just up those stairs!"
She started up the steps while, above, Nick zipped upward on the management rail. "Why don't you think of an animal?" Gaz asked in a bored voice after a moment.
"Me?!" the core gasped. "Okay! Got one!"
"It's small," Gaz said.
Nick nodded. "Yep."
Gaz sighed. "Praying mantis."
"Wow!" Nick exclaimed. "You got that so easily! Okay, my turn, my turn! No, wait, your turn for another animal, my turn to guess."
"Oh, too bad, we're here." Gaz reached the top of the stairs and found herself standing on, surprise, more catwalk. "Ugh. Well, we're somewhere. Does anything in this place actually have a point?"
"Well, most stuff does," Nick said. "Some of us don't really—" He simulated a quick intake of breath. "Someone's coming!"
A split second later Gaz heard it too—the clank, clank, clank of heavy footsteps on the catwalk just around the corner. She cast around for a hiding spot and saw that the underside of the catwalk was held to the wall with limited metal scaffolding. Hurriedly she motioned for Nick to get out of here and, holding her breath and without stopping to think, she clambered over the railing and down onto the scaffolding, wrapping her legs around it and ducking out of sight of the catwalk above. Nick sent her an awed but worried glance before hurrying off down his rail, hopefully not too far away.
Gaz crouched uncomfortably with her feet resting on one support beam and her hands gripping another, peering up through the metal mesh of the catwalk. She was perfectly hidden so long as no one looked down at her. Directly below her there was almost nothing except for fog and an endless pit. If she lost her grip, that would be it for her. Better not lose her grip. What a dumb way to go.
She watched with wide eyes as something robotic came around the corner and started toward her, the footsteps clanging in Gaz's ears. It was difficult to tell from this angle but Gaz thought the robot looked like the same one she and Chell had chased to try to get Zim back.
Someone with a lighter step came next, and Gaz raised her eyebrows. It was Chell! She was moving quietly, but not sneakily enough to go undetected by that robot right in front of her. Maybe it was escorting her somewhere? Gaz inched closer to the edge of the pathway, watching the small procession carefully. The robot walked right over her makeshift hiding spot without noticing her. When Chell was about to follow suit, Gaz threw caution to the wind—she let go of the beam with one hand, swung it over the edge, and grabbed Chell's ankle. Then she whipped her hand out of sight again.
Chell gasped and looked around wildly before glancing straight down; her eyes widened in surprise and maybe horror. Gaz gave a slight wave.
Up ahead the robot stopped and gurgled something in a questioning tone. Chell motioned it onward, kneeling down as if to adjust her long fall boot.
"Are you insane?" Chell hissed through the floor. Gaz briefly considered how stupid she must actually look right now if it was enough to make Chell talk in this place.
"We found a lead on Dib," Gaz whispered. "And your little robot, too, I guess."
Something passed over Chell's face but Gaz couldn't guess what it was through the grating. "Me too," she breathed. Quickly she glanced around again as if checking for eavesdroppers. "Get out of there now. Stay out of trouble. Go wait in Extended Relaxation."
Gaz scowled. "I was going there anyway."
Chell nodded brusquely, stood back up, and continued onward down the stairs as if nothing had happened. Gaz nearly called after her angrily but stopped herself. If that robot had heard anything they'd all be in trouble.
But Chell hadn't even wanted to hear Gaz's lead. She hadn't even given the skull necklace back—and she wasn't wearing her satchel or backpack. Maybe she'd lost them.
Carefully Gaz climbed back up onto the catwalk and stood there watching as Chell reached the bottom of the stairs. The woman looked back up at her, dipped her head, and then left.
Gaz fumed. So much for Chell waiting around to meet back up again. Or for being any sort of help whatsoever. The two of them could've taken on that robot easily but instead Chell was following it around like a trained puppy. Was she even interested in finding Dib after all? Maybe all along she'd only ever wanted to find that stupid blue-eyed sphere Dib was dragging around everywhere.
Well, if she thought palling around with that other robot would help with that, then fine.
Gaz had more important things to do.
A/N: Humans ain't what they seem to be
They don't mean that much to me, no, not much at all...