A/N: Oh, it's you. It's been a long time. How have you been? I've been really busy... being dead.
Ahh yes, about the uh, year-long absence, well, actually longer than that... I'm sorry about that, guys. I've been having a really hard time writing lately. It wasn't even that I spent a long time writing this, though, I had it all written but it was all in messy pieces and I had to figure out how to stitch it together into something (hopefully) coherent.
I've said it before, but I've always meant to see this fic to the end, and I do not want to let it die. So here is the next chapter! Hope you enjoy!
Never in his life had Zim ever had this little fun taking metal death-robots apart.
His fingers were so filthy. And chafing. And the tips were rubbed raw from prying apart mechanics for hours without gloves. If he brought his hands too close to his face he caught the reek of old, greasy metal from the turrets they captured from the production line, even though those were supposed to be "new." He gathered that they were hastily thrown together from recycled parts and dropped into tests with the expectation of being dismantled again shortly. Lucky for them that they were so shoddily made, though. Neither he nor even the Dib needed so much as a screwdriver to take the things apart after they'd knocked them offline.
Of course, he would have preferred having one, though. Anything rather than using his bare hands like a primitive human meat child.
He worked sitting bent over and cross-legged on the catwalk with the metal springs on his legs digging sharply into his calves. The small of his back was pressed up against the railing—he could feel his spine braced against it, his nerves shuddering at the unaccustomed contact. He shifted slightly to try to ease the pressure, and recoiled with a hiss through his teeth. Now the railing was touching one of the round ports in his back where his PAK was supposed to hook into. The sensation made him stiffen and push himself back into his former (yet slightly less painful) position.
Zim spat out a violent curse in Irken, glaring at the palms of his trembling hands. That… that… computer. This was all her fault. Her, and Dib, and GIR, and—
Wait, what was he supposed to be doing right now? Oh, dismantling turrets. Right.
The one sitting in front of him was already dead. Zim reached out and gripped it by one of its front legs, dragging it closer to him with a screech of metal against the grating that made his antenna shiver horribly. He jerked his hand away, paused, and scooted forward until he was so close he could see the circular pattern of the glass making up the turret's unlit optic. Hunching his shoulders, he dug his claws into a seam in the turret's white casing and pried it apart with a grunt, exposing the wires. The robot's red optic blinked on and flickered; it let out a tiny "Oh!" before the light died again. One of the inner cables sparked under Zim's fingers.
He hissed again and stuck his fingers in his mouth, sucking on them and spitting out the grime. Zim scowled at the dead turret for a second before reaching forward again. This time, he managed to pull the two halves of the turret apart and reached into the inner workings, shoving hardware and wires out of the way with a furrowed brow. His hand brushed up against a tiny cylinder lodged in one of the components. Zim took it tightly in his thumb and forefinger and unscrewed it, pulling it out and holding it up close to his eye to squint at it. It was around the size of a human's thumbnail, a dull gray in color, and greasy with machine oil. Ew.
Printed on it were two tiny symbols—a pink heart (Zim felt a slight pang in his chest) and a little plus sign. That seemed promising.
He polished it on his jumpsuit, to little effect, and glanced over at Dib's little round robot sitting on the catwalk nearby. The core sat propped up on its lower handlebar and was rudely paying no attention to Zim, opting instead to watch apprehensively as GIR swooped over the slow-moving turret line and pushed over turrets at his leisure.
"Hey!" Zim called, startling the core into looking at him, and held out the cylinder. "Is this what we're looking for?"
The core squinted at it. "Er, yes. Like I told you before, yes. I think that's it." His lower optic shutter lifted in a slight smile. "Probably. Almost definitely, yes. Empathy generator. Keep on finding things exactly like that and we will be bloody golden. Soon we'll be able to move onto the second part! Of the plan. Part two."
"I've already got two generators," Dib piped up from over on the other side of the core, where he was working on his own turret.
Zim squeezed the tiny generator in his fingers. "Yeah well I've already got two dozen of I don't care!" he snapped.
His fingers slipped. The cylinder fell from his hand, bounced off the catwalk and under the railing, and tumbled into the darkness below.
Zim lunged after it far too late, his hands scrabbling at empty air. "Aaaarrrgghh, no! Not again!"
"Hey Zim," Dib said, looking up again and narrowing his eyes at him, "if you're going to keep throwing these things into the abyss, maybe you'd better sit this one out."
"They're slippery!" Zim grabbed the empty casing of his turret, heaved it up over his head with a grunt, and threw it down over the railing with as much force as he could muster. He watched it fall until it vanished from sight and listened hard for the satisfying clunk of it striking the floor—but there was nothing.
How far down does it go?
He leaned out a little farther over the railing. A bizarre, fluttering feeling tingled at the back of his mind, urging him to jump over the edge and find out for himself. He recoiled from the railing, clasping his hands over his chest and shaking his head to clear it. Something flickered in the corner of his vision and his attention was drawn once more to his treacherous life clock.
It was counting down from four minutes. Four minutes, and here he was, wasting precious Zim-life with… this.
Growling, he whirled around to face Dib and the core, hands planted on his hips. "What are we doing here? This is stupid. STUPID! I want to destroy that computer, not turn it into a HUG MACHINE!"
The robot stared. "Er, what?"
"YOU HEARD ME!"
"Sheesh, calm down!" Dib said as he yanked something out of his turret and stuck it in his pocket. "Hah, three now. But really, Zim, I think you'd need way more than seven or eight chips to turn GLaDOS into a—uh, what'd you say. Hug machine? Whatever that means. I definitely don't want to give her a hug, anyway."
"Same here, same here," the core said, looking rattled. "I agree one hundred percent with that sentiment. She and Her claws can stay far away from me from now on, thanks."
"Also," Dib continued, waving to GIR for a new turret, "I sorta think we should really try to destroy as few things as possible from here on out. Enough has gone wrong already and we should just focus on getting everyone out of here. Your petty revenge can wait until we're finally home, all right?"
"…Petty?" he repeated, his voice no more than a croak and his mouth like cotton. "Petty revenge? PETTY?"
The Dib sighed, picking up his dissected turret in the beam from his portal gun and dropping it over the catwalk. He kept his eyes averted from Zim. "Well, yeah. You know what petty means, right? Because I mean, what'd that computer do to you, make you run a few easy tests without a portal gun? I heard she even gave you cake."
Tension crackled in the air like Zim's failed past attempt at experimenting with modified Tesla coils. He became acutely aware of the pain from every little scratch on his body. Every injury from the enflamed skin around his knees, to his sore and bleeding feet, to his aching hands, to the burn of his missing eye, to his replaced PAK legs (which he begrudgingly had to admit functioned perfectly well but still felt disgustingly different.)
Was- was the Dib blind?
Zim stood rigid, his arms pressed to his sides and his hands shaking. "Y-y-you-you—YOOOOOOooooouuuu could never comprehend, Earth larvae!" he rasped. "I've seen horrors—"
"Oh, like what, Zim?" the human demanded, finally looking at him. "Huh? HUH? Horrors? How am I supposed to have any context for that coming from you? Your definition of 'horror' is the creepy animatronics from Bloaty's! But I saw the inside of an incinerator."
The core glanced over at him. "Er, not sure that's really somethin' to brag about, mate—"
Zim's snarl cut him off as he lunged forward to stand face-to-face with Dib, who backed up a step in alarm. "WELL, it would've been better for all of us if you'd stayed there!"
Dib crossed his arms. "Yeah? And where would you be if I wasn't here?"
"If you weren't here, then I wouldn't have been dragged down here either!" Zim faltered with a few deep breaths and forced himself to choke out an awkward laugh, backing off with a flippant hand wave. "I… I misspoke. An Invader such as myself could never be horrified by anything on your putrid planet, besides your species' disgusting bathing habits. I'll never be affected by anything this place tries to do to me!"
The human raised an eyebrow. He pointed to Zim's PAK, sitting by the catwalk railing. "All right, so put your PAK back on," he said. "Go on. I wanna see you do it."
That's… what Zim thought Dib had just said, anyway. His brain seemed to be having trouble processing the words that had just spewed from the human's gaping speech hole.
When Zim didn't immediately respond, Wheatley groaned. "Oh, would you lot give it a break with that thing already?" he said. "You keep going on and on about it! Every ten minutes you're yelling about taking it off or yelling about putting it back on again! It's enough to drive a bot mad! Can't you just pick one and be done with it?"
Dib tore his eyes from Zim and looked over at the robot. "He refuses to keep it on even though it's the only thing keeping him alive," he said. "It doesn't make any sense!"
The core tilted his faceplate, blinking up at him. "Well so what? Look, little mate, if he's not bothered about keeping it on then I dunno why we should be, all right? Just leave 'im alone, and if you stop arguing with him about it maybe he'll stop screaming for once."
Zim would never admit that he agreed with Dib's stupid pet robot, but he would very much like it if the Dib-thing would leave him alone about the PAK. And also, he was not screaming. He pointedly turned away from both of them and glanced around with a scowl, raising his voice perhaps more than necessary as he called, "GIR! Bring me another turret!"
"YES, MISTER CYCLOPS!" GIR swooped down out of nowhere in a blaze of white and blue flames. His eyes flashed the deep red of human blood and he rocketed over Zim's head, diving low over the turret line. He flung his arms around the oblong body of the nearest turret ("Whee!" it cried), dragged it up into the air, and flew back around to drop it at Zim's feet.
"I got yoooouuuu a real pretty one!" GIR said, and blasted away again, leaving behind a twisting trail of white smoke that made Zim cough into his fist.
GIR's chosen turret looked no different from the others. A thin red beam flickered from its optic and focused on the middle of Zim's forehead. "Target acqui—"
"Enough!" Zim backhanded the thing and sent it crashing into the railing. It cried out and fired wildly; Zim ducked, while Dib snatched up Wheatley with a sharp retort and dragged him further down the catwalk.
The light died from the turret's optic and it calmed, its side panels folding closed. Ignoring his smarting knuckles, Zim pulled the turret over to him and wedged his claws into the casing, just as he had with the other one, but this time his arms were trembling so badly that he couldn't pull the thing apart.
A tiny whimper escaped his throat, cold sweat beading his brow. He ran the back of his hand over his forehead and wiped it off on his dirty jumpsuit, noticing as he did that his index finger still had dried blood caked on the tip. He licked it off with a leaden tongue. Both of his hands were streaked with dirt and grease and he couldn't even look at his feet. Flexing his fingers, he once again dug his claws into the turret and ripped it in two, unscrewing yet another tiny cylinder. He dropped it into his jumpsuit pocket.
There. One. Fantastic.
He shivered and massaged his face with his fingers, blinking slowly. His hand brushed up against the fabric covering his right eye socket and his fingers tensed; he yanked his hands away and shakily pushed the dead turret casing behind him, beckoning to GIR for yet another one.
"So what exactly are we doing with these things?" Dib asked, tipping his newest finished turret over the railing. Zim locked his eye on it and tracked its fall until it disappeared in darkness. "These generators are tiny. How are we supposed to hook all of them up to GLaDOS?"
The core winced. "Well, we're going to have to hook them all up to something else, first, I expect. And then connect that to Her. Or something attached to Her." He thought for a moment. "We could maybe save out one of the turrets and sort of… load all the generators into it? Yeah, that might work. Get rid of the empathy suppressor first, though, obviously. Or if we could find another core to do it, that'd be ideal. Cores are—well, we're basically custom-made for being hooked up to Her, aren't we, un- unfortunately."
"Well, then we'll just string them all into you!" Zim said, his heavy tongue slurring his words together. A sudden sharp pain shot through his head and he pressed his fingers to his temples, grimacing.
The core paid no attention to Zim's horrible pain, crying, "I didn't mean me! I meant someone else! Anyone else, some other core who She'll probably not kill as soon as She sees it!"
Taking shallow, shuddering breaths, Zim squeezed his eye closed and rested his head against the catwalk railing, the bitter cold of the metal seeping into his skin. His antenna twitched.
"But doesn't she try to kill everyone?" Dib said, clearly ignoring Zim as well. "She killed that other core we sent to her and she didn't even have a grudge against him. Unless she did, and that's another thing you forgot to tell me about."
"Oh. Oh, right. She did kill that other guy, yeah, right outta the blue. That one was nothin' personal, of course. No history there. None. Well, mostly. There was that one time. But see, with me, whole other story, obviously…"
The core continued to babble, but his words faded and turned to nonsense and it became hard to focus on what he was even saying. He probably wasn't even saying anything coherent anyway.
Zim's head was sloshy. He curled around his squeedily-spooch, which felt like it had been violently wrung out, beaten, and overfilled with mud; his hands and feet were like ice but his head was clammy with sweat, his mouth was bone dry, the injuries to his finger and antennae seemed to be getting worse instead of better, and his eye socket still hurt with a constant dull ache…
How long could he keep this up?
PAKs were meant to be worn at all times. Not to be kept off for extended periods, and certainly not put on and taken off constantly. No wonder he wasn't fixed yet, who knew what this was doing to his healing cycles. How long could he really go on like this?
And when on Irk was the world going to stop spinning?
As if in response to his question, the ground jolted beneath his feet and he was knocked off-balance. He grabbed onto the railing for support—but it moved. It twitched under his fingers, like a living thing.
Zim's eyes snapped open and he let out a strangled gasp of realization, stumbling backwards.
He hadn't been leaning on a railing. He'd been resting his head on a robotic claw.
Darkness closed in around him until he was left in a shallow puddle of sickly yellow light glinting off the evil metal. The claw snapped open and closed with a set of vicious clangs and crawled toward him, but Zim's legs refused to move, like they'd been tied to cement blocks. He tripped and fell back. His hand flew to his missing eye and pressed against the bandages. "Hey! Hey! What do you want now?!"
The metal claw continued to snake forward. Zim scrambled backwards and tried to activate his PAK legs, but- but he wasn't wearing his PAK, it was sitting on the catwalk somewhere and he couldn't see it, useless thing—!
"Get away!" he yelled, slashing at the air with his own unsheathed claws. "Get away! Leave Zim alone!"
The claw halted in midair inches from his chest. Terror froze him to the ground, he could feel his heart pounding in his throat.
"Okay, fine. I didn't want to help you anyway," a gruff, male voice said, and the claw pulled away at last. If lifted into the ceiling to disappear amid a mass of purple cables and wires.
Zim got unsteadily to his feet, his legs wobbling like Vortian gelatin.
"Er, thank- thank you, Computer," he said, his voice coming out more hoarse than he'd intended. He gave a harsh cough into his fist. "You've done well."
"Uh, sure. Thanks," the Computer grunted. "Oh and by the way, the Tallest are calling. Just thought you should know." It shut off with a few quick beeps.
There was silence for a moment.
What had just happened? Zim wriggled his toes a bit, his dull claws clinking off the tile of his living room. He gave a start. Hey! Where were his boots?!
Wait, had the Computer just said the Tallest were calling? Here? Now?
It occurred to him that he hadn't reported to them in days, maybe a week. They probably thought he was dead!
"Don't worry, my Tallest! I'm alive! I'm so alive!" he said, rushing forward and sprawling headlong over a hideous ottoman he didn't remember buying.
The huge screen taking up the entirety of the wall across the room switched on to show the glowering, near-identical faces of the two leaders of the Irken Empire—the Almighty Tallest.
They both relaxed in twin thrones, sipping something carbonated and pale purple from wineglasses gripped in their spindly fingers. They lowered their glasses in sync and both groaned at the sight of Zim grinning nervously up at them as he got back to his feet.
"Sleeping on the job, I see," Tallest Red drawled, raising a brow.
His co-ruler, Tallest Purple, downed his drink in one gulp and tossed the glass over his shoulder; Zim heard a smash and a sharp cry of pain offscreen. "What do you want, Zim?"
"My Tallest!" Zim snapped into a quick, left-handed salute. "My apologies for not reporting in, I was… otherwise occupied. But I'm back! Heh, so I can… get on with the mission, now! And stuff."
"We're overjoyed to hear it." Tallest Red peered into his own drink with one eye, swirling the liquid. "But you know, you're too late."
Zim blinked, his salute stuck in place. "Eh?"
"Oh, yeah!" Tallest Purple piped up. "Didn't you hear? While you were gone, Invader Skoodge moved into your basement and took over your couch!"
Red nudged him. "You mean the planet. He took over Zim's planet."
"Well, yeah. That and the couch."
Zim's thoughts seemed to be wallowing in thick slorrbeast honey and it took him a moment to speak. "He moved in where?" He whirled around to face his couch.
Sure enough, there lay ugly, pudgy, smelly Invader Skoodge. He was wearing his food-stained uniform as always and rested with his gross head propped up on one arm and his elbow nestled on one of Zim's good pillows. He looked Zim straight in the eye and made finger guns at him.
"'Sup," he said.
"What is this madness?! Computer!" Zim shouted. "I want Skoodge out of my house at once!"
"No can do, Master," the Computer said. "Oh, sorry. I mean Zim. Skoodge owns the entire house now. He signed the lease and everything. We all must serve our new Skoodge overlord."
"I'm afraid we're going to have to ask you to leave." Onscreen, Purple leaned forward and steepled his fingertips. "Don't worry, we've found a nice little shack for you to live out the rest of your miserable days, over by the City Cess Pool! Won't that be nice? Yeah!" He punctuated the last word with a punch to the air.
"We even got you a roommate!" Tallest Red said, and clapped his hands twice.
A hatch in the ceiling slid open and out fell a ghostly white turret, landing on the floor with a clatter where it teetered on its three legs before righting itself. It aimed its bright red targeting beam directly between Zim's eyes.
"Hello, friend," it said.
Zim shrieked, diving to hide behind the armrest of the couch (and shoving Skoodge onto the floor for good measure). "Get that thing away from me! That is not my roommate!"
"Why not?" Red asked. "Don't be rude, she's nice. Anyway, you can't come back to the Empire after forfeiting your mission like this. It's embarrassing. I don't think you're even qualified to be a fry cook anymore, Zim, let alone an Invader."
"And you probably shouldn't even go back out in public after this," Purple added.
Zim took shuddering breaths, digging his claws into his cheeks. "I didn't forfeit! I was captured!"
"A likely story," his soon-to-be-roommate commented in its childlike voice.
"No one asked you!" Zim spat.
Purple shrugged. "Well Zim, this's been great, but we should go now. Donuts to eat and space ejections to watch, you know. Have fun living in the shack!"
The screen started to fizzle out.
"No! No!" Zim darted out from his cover, skirting around the turret, and hammered on the staticky screen with his fists. "Come back! I've got plans! Oh such plans do I have! MY TALLEST!"
"Shut up, Zim, they can hear you from Horkus 6! And those guys are dead!" Tallest Red's voice said from the screen. "You're just gonna have to face it and make do with the Cess Pool, because you're gonna be there for a long—"
The world went silent.
That wasn't Tallest Red's voice.
And it wasn't Tallest Purple's, either. Or the Computer's.
Zim's every muscle tensed, his heart racing, and he backed away slowly toward the front door.
"Not so fast, little bug. I don't think you've quite realized that you're not done with your testing."
The door was gone. Zim turned on his heel and ran.
He didn't know where, but his living room was big, and if he could just get to one of his hidden elevators he could escape down into his base—
"Running? Where will you go?"
There was a wall in front of him, he spun around and changed direction in an instant—where were the entrances?! The end table, or the trash can, or the toilet, any of them, where—? He couldn't be lost in his own house—
"No, no, I'm afraid I can't let you wander off again. What a waste of good Science that would be."
"Sorry about this, Master," Zim's own Computer muttered, and the floor pitched under his feet. Zim screeched to a halt. Around him, a circle of gleaming metallic claws descended from the ceiling and reared like cobras. He nearly tumbled right into one of them but caught himself just in time and leaped back.
"I've studied your eye," the Voice said. "Now shall we find out what your heart is made of?"
"Help!" The scream tore from Zim's throat, his gaze locked on the nearest claw. "Help! Skoodge! GIR! DIB! Anyone! Help! HELP!"
The claws surged toward him, just as they had so many times before, snapping at his limbs even as he scrambled backwards and tried to bat them away. But instead of going to his face this time, one claw clamped over his shoulder and shook him roughly.
Zim cried out and pushed at it weakly, his chest heaving. "HELP! DIB! DIB! Leave Zim… ALONE…!"
"Zim! Wake up, you idiot!" a muffled voice shouted, and he felt a sharp tug on his bad antennae.
The claws had taken hold of his ankles and wrists, hoisting him high into the air again with a jolt, and suddenly he was suspended again, unable to move, and a robot was literally pulling out his antennae by the roots—
Pain flared up his arms. He fell flat on his face with a harsh ringing sound in his hearing organs and came back to himself with a jerk, looking around frantically.
A wide, noisy room. Turrets. A core with a vibrant blue optic constricted to a point and staring at him in what might have been terror.
No claws anywhere. And not his house.
He allowed himself to breathe. Carefully he pushed himself into a seated position, an action which made his head spin.
Dib stood a few feet away with his back to Zim, slightly stooped over with his hands to his face. He slowly turned and gaped at Zim wide-eyed—he was holding the edge of his sleeve to his left cheek, which now bore two long, bloody scratches.
Zim averted his eye and rubbed the top of his head to ensure that both antenna were still there. They were, more or less. Good.
He took a deep breath, let it out slowly, and narrowed his eye at Dib with a hiss through his teeth. His voice was low. "Do not touch them."
Dib pulled his sleeve away from his face and gawked at the red staining the cloth. "Ach… yeeeah… y'know… you could've just said that instead of trying to tear my face off." He exhaled shakily. "I was just trying to wake you up! You were thrashing around and freaking us out!"
"Well, you were freaking him out, anyway," Wheatley put in, his optic flicking over to Dib. "Not me so much. I mean, I was pretty calm, I have to say."
"Wake me up? Irken Invaders do not sleep." Zim pulled his knees into his chest and wrapped his arms around them. In the corner of his eye, his life clock counted down from two minutes now.
"…Er, could've fooled me, mate," the core said. "Your eyes—er, sorry, eye—was closed and you were droolin'."
"Disgusting," Zim muttered.
Dib frowned and started searching through the messenger bag he wore, likely in search of cloth or band-aids. "Look, were you having a nightmare or something? Huh? You were crying out for me in your sleep. My name, specifically. What was so bad that you wanted my help?" His voice dropped. "…Man, I wish we'd found a first-aid kit or something…"
Zim stuck out his tongue. "Me? Want your help? That's stupid and so's your face."
"My face wasn't stupid until you mutilated it. What's the matter with you, anyway?" Dib demanded, abandoning his search and throwing down the bag. "What happened to you? I've never seen you act like this before! Can't you just pull yourself together for once and—?"
"NOTHING happened to me!" Zim screamed, falling forward and jabbing his finger at the makeshift bandages covering half his face. "I'M FINE!"
He collapsed onto his side on the catwalk, wheezing. "I'M FINE!DIDN'T YOU KNOW THAT ALL INVADERS LOOK LIKE THIS?! THE NEW IRKEN FASHION IS WALKING AROUND WITH HALF YOUR SIGHT RECEPTORS GONE! HAHAHAHA! IF I SHOWED UP ON IRK RIGHT THIS SECOND THEY WOULDN'T GIVE ME A SECOND GLANCE BECAUSE I'D! JUST! FIT! IN! SO! MUCH!"
The outburst echoed around the enormous area until near silence fell. Even the turrets on the conveyor belt had stopped speaking.
The core stared at him, then glanced up at Dib. "Gotta tell ya, little mate… I think you handled testing a little bit better than this one did, honestly."
Dib pulled a face. "Thanks, Wheatley, great."
The catwalk clanked and scraped under Dib's footfalls as he advanced again. He seemed to tower over Zim, who focused on him blearily. Dib and his robot were still talking, their voices strangely distant and echo-y. And when had Dib gotten so tall? That just wasn't fair.
"Zim, this is getting really old," Dib said. "What's wrong with your PAK, anyway? I usually never see you without it." He reached down and picked up Zim's PAK, looking at it with a mildly curious expression. A stab of rage hit Zim at seeing it in the human's filthy hands but he couldn't will himself to get up and do anything about it.
Suddenly, Dib stopped examining the PAK and stared at Zim, realization dawning in his eyes. "Zim… does this have something to do with the computer? Did GLaDOS do something to your PAK?"
Zim gave an involuntary jerk and curled into a tighter ball. He could see that glaring yellow optic in his mind's eye, staring at him unblinkingly—
Behind him on the catwalk, the core simulated a gasp. "Oh! Oh, OH! No, no, hang on a tick, hold the phone, I saw something like that! I was following you through the test chambers and I happened to see him in testing—I overheard Her talkin' about doing something to his weird backpack thing—"
"Wait, wait, Zim, how much time do you have left?" Dib cut in. "Even if she has done something to that thing, you'll die without it, won't you?"
Some sort of sound rolled out of Zim's mouth but it wasn't really any kind of word. He wasn't sure he could speak anymore, anyway. He couldn't hold onto a single thought without it slipping away into the confused mess of images that made up his current state of mind. He slid his fingers through the catwalk grating and gripped it tightly, anchoring himself, his throat only able to utter harsh consonants. Darkness encroached on his vision and he gave another violent shudder, jarring his hands.
Energy suddenly shot up his spine and surged through his body, slamming him into the ground before lifting him to his feet and ripping his hand off the floor. He stumbled into the catwalk railing and grasped it, gasping with his face mopped in sweat. Shakily he reached behind his back and felt the hard shell of his PAK, firmly attached to his spine once more. Hadn't he told Dib not to do that?!
A spark of joy at being complete once more was followed by horror and the creeping, tingling sensation he had come to recognize, which told him he wanted nothing more than to turn right around, march down the catwalk, and head back to the chamber that housed the gigantic AI running this place.
I'm not going, he thought, antenna flicking back against his scalp and his hands tightening on the railing. I'm not going back there.
"All right, what were you saying, Wheatley?" Dib asked, apparently satisfied that Zim was no longer on the verge of death. Wheatley blinked, his optic shifting uncertainly from Dib to Zim.
"Er… well, I saw him," he said, nodding at Zim. "She was talking to him, and I think… She was controlling—"
"SILENCE!" Zim flung himself away from the railing and lashed out with his foot to kick the core, but Dib grabbed his arm and yanked him back so that he fell to the floor and his kick missed. "You're spewing lies!"
"Lies about what?" Dib asked, trying to drag Zim further from Wheatley despite his struggling. "What happened? What'd she do?"
Zim writhed. "Unhand me!" He broke Dib's grip and shoved him against the railing. "You have no idea what you're—!"
"HEY! Can ya'll shut up over there?" someone called. Everyone whirled around to see one of the turrets on the conveyor belt—it looked like a blackened turret skeleton with no white casing and no glowing optic—waving its empty gun panels at them. "Just cuz some of us can't see anything doesn't mean we can't hear ya!"
"Here, here!" agreed the fully-functioning turret next to it.
"Right, that's what I just said!" the broken turret went on. "Hear, hear! You're dang loud!"
Wheatley rolled his optic. "Would you get a load of them? Crap turrets, complaining about other people bein' loud. Unbelievable!"
Secretly Zim was thankful for the interruption. Maybe Dib would forget what they'd been talking about—
"Wheatley, what did you say happened to Zim?" Dib asked, as if nothing had happened at all.
Zim snarled under his breath. His fingers ached from holding onto the railing so tightly but he didn't dare let go, afraid of where his feet might take him. He couldn't even muster up the desire to take his PAK back off. GIR would have to do it yet again.
Where was GIR?!
"He was acting all weird," Wheatley said hesitantly in reply to Dib, nodding his faceplate at Zim. "Well, I guess 'weird' would be a relative term, for him, wouldn't it, but… it's like he was being controlled by Her. Like, like She was some kind of puppet master, or someth—"
"Shut UP!" Zim snarled. He jerked away from the railing and before he knew what he was doing he had his PAK legs unfurled and was balancing on their tips, bearing down on the overly-talkative core.
"Whoa, hey, Zim!" Dib said in alarm. Zim ignored him.
Wheatley's optic constricted and he flailed his handles, tipping backwards and rolling on the catwalk until he came to a stop upside down. "Whoa! Whoa, hey, I was just answerin' a bloody question! He asked a question and I answered! That's all! Right? Yeah? It's not like I'm the one doing that puppet thing to you!" His nervous babble took on an irritated edge. "And I dunno why you're actin' so pouty anyway, it's your fault we're in this whole mess, so—"
"Yeah, he's right, you know," Dib broke in, reaching down and righting Wheatley without taking his eyes from Zim. "You're the one who broke into my house, in the middle of the night, and kidnapped him in the first place."
Zim grit his teeth. "So?"
"And you threw me out a window!" Wheatley said.
"And then you chased us all the way to Mystical Hill—"
"Right, but not before he bloody tried to take me apart!" Wheatley shouted. "Ohhh, I bloody hope someone takes you apart—"
There were metal claws coming from the ceiling, diving toward his face, right to his eye—
A snarl tore from his throat and the spider legs snapped back into his PAK. He dove forward, lunging at the core with every intention of ripping the thing apart for good this time, and Dib, eyes widening, pulled the core away from him—
Agony spiked up Zim's leg from his knee and he gave a choked cry, vision going white for a split second. He lay sprawled on the catwalk. He had missed the landing on his leg braces.
Both Dib and Wheatley stared at him.
"…Er. Was that… too far?" Wheatley asked awkwardly. He glanced up at Dib, who shrugged.
"He's not usually this sensitive," he said, and cautiously approached Zim once again. "So… she can control you? Really? That's what you've been trying to hide from us all this time?"
"Do not get your filthy blood near me," Zim growled, flinching away.
"Man, Zim." Dib paused in front of Zim, considering him and pressing his sleeve to the slashes on his cheek again. "I had no idea about that. I'm… sorry, I guess."
Hesitating for another moment, he finally extended his hand, clearly intending for Zim to take it. Zim's jaw tightened and he shoved the hand away before grabbing the railing and climbing back to his feet himself, swaying at the pain in his knee and dusting himself off—not that it did any good.
Dib watched quietly. "So… what really happened to your eye?"
Zim's voice was cold. "Nothing, dirt-child. I'm perfectly normal."
"Don't be stupid," Dib said. "You are not."
Zim sneered. "You would say that, Dib-thing. What do you know of being normal?" He reached into his pocket, dug out the tiny generator he'd stashed there, and pressed it into Dib's hand. "There! And now I'm done with this."
"What? But we've still got a bunch to go! And don't change the subject!" Dib dropped the generator into his own pocket and went on, "Zim, how is she even doing that to you? You must know, right?"
Zim rolled his shoulders and stuck out his chin. "How is who doing what?"
Tossing up his hands, Dib turned away again. "You know what? Forget it. I don't care. We've got better things to do. You can just deal with all that weirdness on your own."
"Am I the weirdness?" GIR piped up enthusiastically, dropping onto the catwalk from who-knows where. Zim patted him on the head and glared at Dib and Wheatley.
"No, GIR. Everything else is, and I hate it."
When she finally got out of this place for good, she was never setting foot in another elevator again.
Chell stood pressed into the elevator wall, arms crossed, keeping her face turned to the side to avoid eye contact with her companion. She hadn't realized that these lifts could even hold more than one occupant. Yet here she was, sharing the ride with the very same robot that had gotten her and Gaz into this whole mess.
She scowled, her nose wrinkling. The least she could've done was shoot it in the eye when they'd last met. She would have, if Gaz hadn't stopped her. Now they were all stuck down here.
If only the robot would leave her alone. But he seemed intent on following her everywhere. Chell was positive that She was watching through that optic at times, too, making her doubly glad that the robot hadn't witnessed her brief meeting with Gaz.
The elevator slid to a stop and the doors opened with a low chime. The blue-eyed robot (She had referred to him as Blue, which was likely not his real name, but Chell didn't have anything better to call him) shuffled out and Chell followed, stepping lightly.
"I thought that this would be the best place for you to continue your search. Apologies for not being able to send you to the room directly." Her voice issued from a nearby intercom, tinny and grainy like it had been during Chell's first escape from the test chambers so long ago. "This was the last place the creature was seen, but it seems that someone has broken that particular elevator shaft. They smashed it with some sort of blunt object. Perhaps their head."
Blue gurgled something and glanced at Chell. She refused to look at him and instead set off down the hall toward a door.
"One moment, before you go in there," She spoke up again. "You may need to do some… convincing to get the alien to come with you without being decapitated, or perhaps skewered. As both of you have the conversational abilities of table salt, you will need something besides speech—so take this."
Blue let out a startled squawk as a compartment in his arm slid open and something reddish and circular fell out, hitting the floor with a papery sound and rolling on its edge before falling flat. Chell bent down and picked it up with her fingertips.
It was oblong, raspberry red, dry, and brittle, as though it was meant to be kept damp but had been dried out.
"When you find him, show him that, but don't return it. I'm sure he'd follow you anywhere to get it back. After all, organic creatures seem to have an absurd fondness for keeping both of their eyes."
Chell recoiled, nearly dropping the round thing.
She… had taken one of the alien's eyes? Why?
Biting back her nausea, she swallowed the lump in her throat and headed on. She had to keep the eye gripped in one hand. Nowhere else to put it, since she'd lost her backpack and satchel.
They reached the circular door leading to the room. It was only then that Chell realized where they were. Blue opened the door remotely and Chell took a guarded stance, ready to dodge at a second's notice, but only one turret remained standing where there had been a ring of them before. It was in standby mode, its side panels folded neatly, but no red targeting beam shone from its optic.
"Oh. Hello," it said as Chell entered the room. "Did you come to hear another song? Choir practice is long over, friend."
No sign of Zim here now. Chell marched across the room to the other door, which Blue opened at her touch, but when she reached the hall outside she stopped short.
It was deserted. Chell remembered leaving that prophetic turret out here earlier when she and Gaz had encountered the turret choir, but it had vanished. Her heart sank. There would be no seeking advice from it this time.
She stood in the spot where she'd left it and stared down the empty hall. It looked like every other hallway in this place.
Zim could be anywhere. Dib could be held in testing anywhere. Gaz, hopefully, had heeded her warning to go hide in Extended Relaxation, though knowing Gaz that was a little doubtful.
So what do I do now?
Where could that turret have gone? And would it have given any sort of coherent help anyway?
Her eyes flicked up to the empty management rail above, where she and Gaz had first met Nick. For a split second she imagined Wheatley hanging up there, chatting away as he always did.
"Well, I was fairly certain that turret could give us directions, but it looks like she's scarpered. Can't blame her, honestly, I wouldn't stick around here either. Right… Now, if I were an ugly little man from Mars, where would I go… Er, this is a little bit of a stretch for me to think about, since I am exactly none of those things—not ugly, not a man, not from Mars, not little… Well, okay, maybe I am sort of little, but either way, we'll need another plan. Give me a minute. But, erm, have you got any ideas…?"
Chell shook her head so vigorously that Blue started forward with a bleep of mild concern, but she brushed him off and squared her shoulders. Why was his voice in her head? How had she allowed him to ingrain himself so deeply into her mind?
Wheatley was not here to come up with some off-the-wall plan that she would never have thought of or considered on her own. This was more like the first time, the old days she'd spent running around the facility looking for a way out—though even then, she'd been able to follow the messages and path laid out by some clever benefactor of the past. Presumably the same person who had left the vibrant murals on the walls.
Vaguely, she hoped that person had made it out of here okay. But probably not.
"I don't know how you expect to catch an alien by standing around and doing nothing," the Voice said from a nearby speaker.
Chell grit her teeth. Her best plan so far was still to wander around until she stumbled across where Dib was being kept, grab him, find Gaz, and make a break for it back up the elevator shaft they'd arrived through. Which wasn't really much to go on. Even Wheatley would have cringed at the lack of planning in that plan, but it was all she had.
"If the creature isn't here, then you will have to—" She broke off for a full second. "…Oh, that is unusual. You'll have to excuse me. I'll be right back."
The Voice went silent, and Chell was left with nothing but a nonverbal robot for company as her ears filled with the last sound she had ever expected to hear in this place.
It seemed that everything had gone wrong recently.
And now, to top matters off, the phone was ringing.
The phone. Here.
It was only when humans were added to the equation that She found Herself being caught off-guard. In just a few short days this had happened again and again, one thing after another, and Her patience—of which there was, admittedly, a severely limited supply in the first place—had worn thin long ago.
First, the boy and that metal ball had materialized in Her chamber with no warning. Then, concrete evidence of the existence of extraterrestrial life had been shoved under Her figurative nose and She had just been about to begin the really interesting experiments. And then, every. Single. One. Of Her prisoners had vanished into the halls of Aperture without so much as a trace.
And then she had shown up out of nowhere, ponytail and all, as if the entire facility had been thrown back in time. But this was just the icing on the terrible, terrible cake.
The repetitive, hollow sound of the ringing phone beat an eerie chorus of echoes bouncing off the walls of Her chamber. It was likely ringing over the intercom through the entire facility, meaning the fugitives could hear it too and intercept the call if they happened to be near a phone.
Without hesitation She severed the call's connection to the rest of the facility, leaving only Her chamber open to receive it. Now at least no one could eavesdrop on any subsequent conversation.
The phone rang once more. This would be the last ring before it went dead with no response.
She answered it.
"Hello. You have reached the Aperture Laboratories Enrichment Center Helpful Phone Line," She intoned, enunciating each syllable as though reading from cue cards. "If you are calling about shower curtain inquiries or copyrights, press one now. For information on the scientific studies we conduct here daily, press two. For a partial refund on any product from our sentry turret line, press four."
Where was this call coming from? The code indicated that it originated from the Lower Peninsula, though She couldn't fathom who would be calling after so long without contact with the outside world. Unless…
"I demand to know how the phone line of a defunct company is still working!" a booming voice said on the other end. "And I would like to speak to my children at once. This is Professor Membrane, CEO of Membrane Labs!"
The familiarity of the last phrase hit Her so hard She swayed in Her ceiling mount. She barely even registered Herself saying, "To volunteer for our testing programs, press five. To ask about free eye surgery, press six. If you are having trouble with your new telescopic eyes, press seven."
"I must speak with a real person!" Membrane said. There was a muffled rhythmic sound, as if he was drumming gloved fingertips on a tabletop near the phone's mouthpiece.
"For information on Aperture ski vacations, press eight. For organ donations, press nine."
The drumming paused, then resumed at a greater speed. "Now now, I requested to speak to a human being, not to hear about vacationing organs!"
"If you have no friends or family who would notice if you were to go missing, press zero. If you are filing a lawsuit against Aperture Laboratories, press ten now. To speak to a real person, say 'Neurotoxin.'"
"Neurotoxin," Membrane repeated in a clipped tone.
"Please hold." She paused Her connection and on a whim played a track of that cursed metal ball's failed attempt at writing classical music over the phone. Surely there was no earthly sound more grating to the human ear than that.
She connected to Blue once again, peering through his optic to check that the woman was carrying on with her task. Indeed, she was currently traversing the hall outside of the turret choir practice room, with Blue dutifully keeping pace behind. She activated the intercom nearest the woman.
"I thought you should know, I've just received a call," She said. "It's your old boss. He's fired you from trying to find his son because you're so terrible at it. So I suppose you'll be looking for a new career soon—after you recapture the alien, of course."
The mute lunatic had frozen in place at those words, and didn't move until She was just about to release Her hold on Blue—slowly, the woman turned to stare into Blue's optic, wide-eyed and mouth slightly agape, as though on the verge of saying something. Not that that would ever happen.
She left them and picked up the phone line again with a click.
"Ah! Finally—" Membrane began, but She cut him off.
"Hello, and welcome back to the Aperture Science Helpful Phone Line. We are sorry to inform you that there are no humans available to answer the phone at this time. Your call is extremely important to us. Please hold."
"This is not a helpful phone line—!"
The scientist's protests were drowned out once again by strangled notes that could only be called music in the barest of terms.
She checked on the lunatic again. The woman was now frantically attempting to break into a locked office.
"Haven't you caused enough damage to this facility?" She said. "I'm afraid there's no phone in there, anyway, nor in any of the offices in this area. Besides, it's too late now. Your boss is already gone. If you wanted to speak with him, you should have said something. Now, would you care to continue on with your task?"
The woman stumbled away from the office door and glared into Blue's optic, shoulders shaking and her chest heaving as she panted. It was more emotion than she usually showed in full view of any camera, especially when she knew that She was watching. She half expected some obnoxious threat or a string of profanity to come tumbling out of the woman's mouth at last, but of course, no such thing happened. Perhaps she really was mute.
She pulled away and opened the phone line once more. "Hello, and welcome back to—"
"If there's no one there, then I'll leave a message!" Membrane snapped.
"If you wish to leave a message, please speak after the beep. However, first a short question and answer session is required for security purposes. Who do you wish to speak to?"
"Anyone who's there," Membrane responded. "However, my records state that Aperture Laboratories suffered a huge accident with no known survivors, save for one that I found and hired a year ago. The facility was filled with toxic gas, killing most everyone inside. And this was followed by a cave-in, blocking off all entrances and exits. The air inside most of the facility is so poisonous that the building will be unsafe to open for at least five hundred years, so no excavations have been attempted. How many people managed to survive in there?"
This reply was so amusing that She very nearly had to laugh. Yes, in the report She had fabricated, there had been a short note that the facility was unsafe to excavate. Amazing, really, that this alleged "brilliant scientist" took this without question. The air in Aperture was perfectly breathable (as evidenced by the organic, oxygen-inhaling and annoyingly alive fugitives currently scurrying around inside…). Any toxins could be flushed out entirely within minutes.
"What is your business with Aperture Laboratories?" She asked. "We do not take unsolicited offers."
"I'm looking for my children," Membrane said firmly. "I have several sources of varying reliability that place them in the vicinity, possibly within the facility itself."
"Please hold while we contact the Aperture Science Daycare Center. The Enrichment Center thanks you for your patience and would like to remind you that further incidents involving unaccompanied minors in the facility will result in them being put up for adoption to willing employees."
She swayed back and forth slowly, running the scientist's words through Her processor again and again to analyze every word, every inflection.
Children. He had requested the whereabouts of his children. Not prototype, or experiment, as She might have expected—not even offspring. And even more intriguingly, not child, either. He was missing more than one.
He was also missing a large quantity of common sense.
She picked up the line again. "Welcome back. The Aperture Science Daycare Center has been closed indefinitely and contains no unidentified children."
"Is there anyone at all still living in that facility?" Membrane demanded.
"Of course. The Enrichment Center is fully staffed."
"I don't see how. Not after that accident. And I thought I was speaking to a recording?"
"The Enrichment Center requires an explanation as to why you called this number and how you found it. We also need your full name and any known ties you may have to Black Mesa."
"Black Mesa went under many years ago," Membrane said. "I have nothing to do with that company! Their experiments involving extraterrestrial life backfired, as of course there is no such thing. As for my full name, it's Professor Roger Scolex Membrane. My tracking equipment has located both my son and daughter in the Upper Peninsula, and I received a tip that they are trapped in Aperture. They respond to the names Dib and Gaz, respectively. If any information about them surfaces, I expect to be notified at once! These children are vital assets to the Membrane empire, and they will be returned immediately! If I hear no word about them in two days I will be sending a team of investigators to find out what's really happening up there!"
There was a thunk, and the scientist hung up with what most people would consider excess force.
Silence rang for a moment, save for the angry hum that emanated from Her processor. What did the man think he was doing, calling here and making threats against Her? He had already sent the woman down here after his little science experiment. He should have given up when she failed to return. How had he even found this number? She had been sure to wipe any contact information from all online records.
Had the child managed to get a message out somehow? That shouldn't be possible—She still had his communication watch, and though he may still have that wretched invisibility suit with him, he shouldn't have any way to contact the outside world.
She considered what She'd just heard. Could there possibly be a second human child running around in the facility unnoticed? How could that be possible without help?
Her optic constricted slightly, the hood over Her face narrowing. If the boy had help from the metal ball, then the girl must have been helped by someone else who was accustomed to sneaking around the halls.
She pulled backward and opened one of the files She was in the process of organizing—a collection of Her missing alien's most recent memories of Earth. They were jumbled, somewhat distorted, occasionally corrupted, and difficult to sort through. Briefly She lamented the fact that She couldn't have caught a more organized extraterrestrial. There was also the fact that these weren't all of the alien's memories, just the ones he'd decided to save digitally for one reason or another. It was likely that if he didn't consider something or someone to be important, it wouldn't be there. This may not even be helpful either way—apparently he hadn't thought his most recent memories were worth saving (or he just hadn't had the chance to). The last stored memory was from over a month ago.
She sifted through them, combing back and forth through time, until She landed on one in particular and drew up short.
With the slightest of hesitations, She accessed it.
She found herself looking down on some sort of extraordinarily purple laboratory area.
The black-haired boy was there, suspended helplessly in a glass sphere full of bubbling liquid. He stared in shock at the person who had just dropped into the scene from above. It was a girl of about his age or perhaps younger, her violet hair framing her face in spikes and her feet planted firmly as she squinted upwards, straight into the alien's eyes, utterly and totally without fear.
She felt Her mouth open wide, the alien's migraine-inducing voice issuing from it.
"Dib! You've really sunk low if you think your little sister can help you. I made that containment chamber myself. I would destroy you right now if I didn't expect to get so much amusement from watching you try to get him out."
This taunt seemed to anger the girl. She turned, clenched her fists, and gave a light kick to the sphere. The glass cracked and splintered outward before the pressure inside became too great and it shattered.
The alien backed away, screaming, but too late. The memory fizzled out as a wave of purple fluid crashed over him, and the two human children got away.
She surfaced from the foreign memory with the feeling of emerging from deep water, every circuit buzzing as though She really had been drowned in some extraterrestrial liquid.
So the boy did have a sister. And she was here, too, somewhere.
It was time to give the mute lunatic another call.