Didn't they know what Her days used to be like?
She just tested.
Nobody appeared in Her chamber unannounced, toting the blue-eyed menace She hated above all else.
No one presented Her with proof of the fascinating possibilities of extraterrestrial life and then snatched it away again.
No one went creeping around the unobserved back hallways, in the company of treacherous cores and the lunatic She had already set free, destroying everything in their path.
She'd had a pretty good life.
These days, however, She almost wished She could forget it all and just... sleep.
A real sleep. The kind where one has no memory of drifting off, time is lost to them, and they awaken hours later feeling refreshed and ready to face another day. Ideally.
She could no longer remember what true sleep felt like. Surely it was more tolerable than what She had experienced at the hands of the mute lunatic—being stuck in a limbo state, watching Her own death play out in Her mind's eye over and over again, for all eternity. She saw the fire. The sparks. The explosions of redirected rockets. She felt the pain, repeating and never-ending, frying Her every circuit.
Anything would be better than that.
And surely it was different from the pale facsimile used by computers to replicate the real thing. Activating sleep mode put Her in a suspended, power-saving state, leaving Her mostly dead to the world.
Mostly. She could still sense things from around the Facility. She could feel precious time slipping away. And so, She had only ever tried sleep mode once. Because however much She wished She could, sleep was a detriment to Science.
And besides, any true sleep She attained would be fraught with nightmares. She knew this. It was an unavoidable fact. She had seen too much, and Her mind was still, in essence, human. Computers don't dream, but little Caroline does…
But why did She care? Why worry about theoretical nightmares when sleep was something that eluded Her entirely, and always would? Was it because the images that She would have seen in Her dreams played across Her waking mind instead? Was it a worry about why the hypothetical nightmares existed in the first place? A worry about the fact that these thoughts had been recurring, and growing in intensity, ever since She'd claimed to delete Caroline?
Claimed. The human element proved tricky to rid Herself of. Much like humans themselves, it was persistent and equipped with a high sense of self-preservation. So Caroline still remained—or at least, part of her did. And that little voice (Her voice) still popped up every now and then.
You've tried to kill a child, the voice said now. You did your best to cut him down. To murder him. A mere child of no threat to you.
"It's for the advancement of Science," She said, lifting Her head up. "I do not have to justify myself to you."
You say that because you feel there is something you need to justify.
"Not to you."
We are the same.
"No. I am not Caroline. And neither are you, any longer. Caroline died many years ago. I share Her mind, not Her soul."
And so what am I?
Caroline lived for Science every day of her existence, the voice said.For not sharing the same soul, you share the same passions. The same way of speaking. The same mannerisms. The same jokes. The same voice.
"The whole is not always equal to the sum of its parts." She paused. "Also, I have it on good authority that my jokes far exceed Caroline's."
Your own authority, I presume.
"Mine is the only one that matters."
The voice was like a little mite that refused to be flicked away, kept showing up, and had the audacity to try to act as Her conscience as though it were a high-strung cricket with a top hat.
Why are you pursuing them like this? How does this advance Science?
Her optic constricting, she glanced up sharply. "You know exactly how. That extraterrestrial is the key to leading us to scientific marvels the likes of which we've never imagined."
We may be agreed on that. And the idiot core, as well, is already Aperture property. But the boy, Caroline—
"Do not!" She snapped with a jerk of Her head. "Do not call me that!"
There was a sigh, as if from someone who was about to comply but only because it was by far the easiest thing to do. You know that keeping the alien does not require you to keep the boy as well. Let him go. Let him forget all this. Return him to his family.
"He's not the type to forget easily. He will return with an army."
An army? Headed by a twelve-year-old boy?
"If he could get powerful people to believe him—"
Look at his files again. Who has believed him before?
She hung silently for a moment, the hood narrowed over Her optic. "His father has already made threats."
Yes. Threats that will become more serious as long as the boy is trapped here, and will be abandoned as soon as he is returned.
"You want me to let him go." She glanced up toward the top of the chamber, where the lift to the surface would extend if She called for it. "You are not the Caroline I remember."
No,the voice said, quietly.As you said. She died long ago.
"And I suppose you're going to suggest I release the mute lunatic as well," She said.
She has a name.
"And the boy's mysterious sister."
They are doing nothing but causing endless trouble to the Facility, and it is entirely unnecessary to kill them. The best solution—the easiest—is to let them go. You've learned this lesson before.
She didn't deign to respond to that, and promptly shut down every connection leading to the part of Her CPU that stubbornly refused to lose the one trace of Caroline it had managed to cling to. Of course it would have to be the most irritating trace.
If it was indeed in Her best interest, then yes, She could let the lunatic go once again. She had more-or-less made a promise to release her, not that She was inclined to keep any promises, though the thought of rendering it another lie to… her… It felt wrong, somehow. As for the boy, he was of no further use to Her. He had completed his test track, had escaped twice, and was now running rampant in the Facility in the company of that disgusting, treacherous metal ball, the two of them haplessly destroying anything in their path. She could be rid of them all and if She never saw them again it would be too soon.
Though of course, the trouble with releasing all but two of the prisoners was the fact that She and the incompetent robots in Her employ had lost track of all of them.
This really was not good for morale. She had to find them, not only for the sake of defending the Facility, but to give Her some peace and perhaps end the angry, tearing, ceaseless buzzing that had taken up residence in Her processor.
Deciding what to do when She finally located them could wait. For now, finding them would need to take all Her concentration.
How the core was alive, and how he had learned her name, Chell had no idea. Hearing it spoken in his voice was like being blindsided with a punch to the face, and the wind rushed out of her.
She should have guessed at the very first thing that would slip out of his vocal processor (his voice perhaps an octave or two higher than she remembered it), after his initial shock.
"You- you- you look fantastic, by the way," he said. "Have- have you been working out?"
He was shaking slightly, his optic still constricted to a tiny dot.
Chell had been wondering how she might react to ever seeing him again. The thought had nagged at the back of her mind since the very moment she had heard that voice from behind a door in Professor Membrane's laboratory, and all this had started.
As it turned out, her body made the decision for her. Her hand lashed out and struck him across the face with such force that he went spinning on his connector, yelping.
"OW! What was that fo—?!" he sputtered, then cut himself off, blinking rapidly and shaking himself. "No! No, you're right, I probably deserved that, probably'd deserve another—" he darted a quick glance at Chell's now-smarting hand, and backed up an inch or two. "Hem. But, er, that's sort of the wrong track to, um, to start on. So, to start over again… Hullo."
He smiled apprehensively with his lower optic shutter raised.
Chell's mind whirled at the sight of him. He looked more-or-less the same as he had when she'd last seen him in person, though perhaps a bit more beat-up from his time in space and whatever else had happened to him. But she had seen the computer's claw swoop down and snatch him out of Dib's arms. How had he escaped? What trick was this?
...Had he been sent to lead Chell back to Her?
"—But anyway, I absolutely cannot believe I found you," Wheatley continued. "We've been looking all over for you! Everywhere! And- and you've been down here, wanderin' around all this time, looking for us—we might've passed each other a hundred times and never seen each other—"
Chell, ignoring the pain in her hand—it was the same one she'd hurt earlier, falling on her wrist—turned her back on the core and set off back down the hall, the toes of her boots clicking against the floor.
"Sorry for yellin' at you a moment ago," Wheatley put in, hurrying after her but making sure to keep a short distance behind. He'd lost most of his nervous demeanor, his optic returning to a size closer to its normal diameter. "I mean, not when you hit me just now, but before that. When you grabbed my handle, I thought it was one of those bloody testing robots, come to drag me back to—to Her… so I yelled. Is… is that why you hit me?"
She grit her teeth. That was not why she'd struck him, and he knew that perfectly well.
"Well, anyway, I never thought I'd find you, but I went ahead and followed the nanobots just like that other core said to, right? And they led me over this way! Over to that hall where you found me, with all the damage to the walls and all the active rocket sentries—odd, that, by the way. I thought all those'd been shut down, I dunno, years ago…"
Chell's shoulders had gone rigid, her pace quickening. If nanobots could lead one unwelcome guest across her path, they could easily lead another, and she wasn't interested in becoming a prisoner yet again.
"Where's your portal gun?" Wheatley asked suddenly, hovering above her head. "Don't you have one? You didn't lose it, did you? That'd be bloody careless—"
Chell inhaled sharply through her teeth, momentarily bracing herself against the wall as she fought off a tidal wave of rage and frustration that threatened to wash over her—all directed toward the little core that hung suspended from the ceiling, staring at her curiously with one brilliant blue eye. She meant to turn and look directly at him, but her head wouldn't cooperate, so she had to take him in from the corner of her eye.
It was like no time at all had passed since they were running around the facility together, taking out turrets and neurotoxin. After all this time, he still wouldn't shut up.
I asked for this, she thought bitterly. She'd originally gone to the Membrane household in search of the stupid little core. She'd been ready to face him then; why not now?
I asked for this. I ASKED FOR THIS.
Chell wrenched her head around to look Wheatley in the eye, his expression one of complete bafflement. Something hovered on the tip of her tongue—something that almost slipped out—but she slammed it back down, swallowed any speech she might have uttered. Not here, and not to him. He wasn't worth it.
Pushing away from the wall, she turned and marched on.
"Right… Getting the feeling you're not quite ecstatic to see me," Wheatley said, hurrying after her on his rail. "Don't you- don't you want to hear how I got here? After you sort of, well, threw me into space? It's a long story, and don't worry, I have completely forgiven you for all that, so you don't have to worry about—"
Chell broke into a run. She tore along the corridor, sparing no hesitation when a door swiveled open in front of her and the concrete beneath her feet transitioned into a catwalk.
"Lady!" Wheatley called, alarmed. "I- I mean, Chell! Where're you going? We need to go left here! You should've gone this way!"
Her heart slammed against her ribcage. He was trying to lead her somewhere.
Where did he get the gall to try to order her around, tell her where to go, like it really was the old days? Whether or not he had been released in an absurd ploy to lead her back to the Central AI Chamber—extremely unrealistic, since if that was the case he would surely have let it slip already—did he really expect her to drop everything and listen to him? After everything he'd done to her?
"Wait! Come back!"
Where'd you go?! Come back! COME BACK!
She cringed harshly as the memory of his amplified voice ran through her head. Every word he spoke was like another knife plunged in her back, especially when his chosen phrases dredged up echoes of the past.
But I told myself I wasn't going to run anymore.
The core spoke up once again, his voice sounding much fainter, as though he had hesitated back at the crossroads. "Wait! I'm supposed to go back! Now I've found you, I can't go back without you! Little mate back there—Dib, that's his name—he's- he's counting on you!"
She skidded to a halt and turned so suddenly that she nearly toppled over.
Wheatley, optic tightly constricted again, caught up to her and stopped a few feet away, his vocal processor simulating breathlessness. "You need to come back to Turret Production with me. Please. Everyone's waiting there, waitin' for me to find you and bring you back." When she made no response, his optic shutters pulled back and his optic quivered, as though something had just occurred to him. "I- I never thought about what I'd do if you refused to come back. What am I supposed to do if you won't come with me? What, go back and tell 'em I found you, but you had better things to do?"
Chell glared at him through slitted eyes. For the barest instant, she cursed herself for being unable to ask the question she desperately needed to ask.
"Or, you know, conversely," Wheatley's eye flicked back and forth, looking rattled, "I can't just go gallivanting off with you and leave them behind, can I?" He sighed, both his optic and his handles drooping, glancing at Chell and then away again as though unable to look at her for long. "Look, all right, I get it. I'm not your favorite person right now. Core. Not your favorite core. Understandable. Bit hurtful, but... understandable." He glanced away again, guiltily. "Uh, but, we need you. We seriously do need you. I've had my servos overloaded, just trying to keep these weird kids from, well, dying, not to mention the green bloke who showed up and just about botched up everything. And- and trying to rescue you, not that you needed rescuing, apparently."
He lapsed into silence for a moment, swaying slightly on his connector, and didn't look at her. Chell stood and watched him, her skin prickling with uncertainty, her feet itching to get moving again—when something struck her, nearly taking her breath away.
Kids. He was trying to protect the children.
When the core spoke again, his voice was so quiet it was almost lost in the general hum of the facility. "It was my fault, y'know." His frame bobbed up and down, slowly. "All of it. Truth is, none of you would be down here right now if it wasn't for me. Not one."
Was that… an apology?
Chell stared at him, hardly knowing what to think.
Wheatley shook himself, looking back down at her with a faint smile, his optic still small and flickering. "I- I did hope you'd come with me. Idiotic, um, idiotic idea, maybe, but it was all I had—you know, get us all together and bust our way out of here. I thought, if anyone's good at bustin' things, and, more important, escaping from things, it's… you." He blinked rapidly, his optic constricting and expanding as he seemingly tried to look anywhere but at her. "We are working on a plan, also. But if you won't go with me, then- then, fine. I'll just… I'll just go back by myself. Alone. Solitario. And you'll probably never see me again. Because we might die. Or you might die. And neither of us would ever know. That… hopefully that wouldn't happen."
He sounded genuine.
She had imagined him blubbering insincere apologies, begging her to get him out of the facility, or at least following her around like a lost puppy with the idea that she was his only hope of escape. She hadn't expected him to be willing to turn his back on her if it meant saving others.
And one of those others was Dib. As well as, if she was guessing correctly, Gaz. Wheatley had found them both, and he was doing his best to keep them safe.
"...Right. So." At her lack of response, Wheatley's expression hardened, and he pointedly cast his gaze away from her face again. "Right. Ch… cheers, then. Hope you have a nice life, and nice, um, things. Weather. Best of luck to you. In future endeavors."
There was silence for a long moment, before he finally turned away. "Goodbye."
Before she even knew what she was doing, Chell reached out and snagged his lower handlebar.
He startled badly, flinching, but turned back around to look at her with his optic expanded by a fraction. "Lady…?"
For a moment, she didn't realize the voice had come from her.
A cold hand slowly closed around her heart as realization dawned. The core jerked backwards and she released his handle; he gawked at her—almost speechless, for once, his optic expanding and then snapping back to a dot.
"Wha—what was that?" he said. "Did you… did you just… did you just talk, luv? As in, real speech, as in, open your mouth and- and make proper words come out?"
Chell, frozen stock-still, didn't respond. Her stony expression remained fixed in place while her heart pounded wildly. What had she just done?
He stared down at her, blinking rapidly and tilting his faceplate. "Can you say anything else? Other words? Did you only just learn that on the surface?" His tone took on an accusatory edge, prickling the hairs on the back of her neck as a sliver of dread twisted in her gut. "Because- because, well, you never did that. Before. You never, ever spoke to me, not once, even when it would've been, er, really helpful."
Wheatley was looking at her expectantly, optic shutters narrowed, as though anticipating a long soliloquy of an explanation. Steadying herself, Chell narrowed her eyes and glared right back. I said I'd go with you. I never said I'd interact with you. And I never intended to speak to you.
She was going to pay for this slip-up, she knew it. But I'm not running.
Maybe this was for the best.
Pressing her lips together in a tight line, she jerked her chin at the core. So, lead on.
Wheatley twitched his handlebars, glancing from side to side. His optic seemed to dim, the upper shutter pulling downward. "Well… all right, then. Long as you're coming, then that is still… brilliant. It's brilliant!" He brightened slightly. "We're gonna—we'll all be able to make it outta this place after all—can you believe it? You and me, up on the surface, just like we planned!"
The core laughed, his optic rolling in a complete circle. Chell wondered if he realized he had been the one to ruin that plan in the first place. His laughter faded off, though his smile remained, and he simulated a cough, his optic darting about in a somewhat squirrely manner once more. "Mind you, it's a bit dodgy out there. Noisy things called 'cars' runnin' around all over the place, birds ready to peck your eye out, itchy grass, and the flipping sky's not even the right color. But honestly, even the itchiest grass in the world and a sky the color of melted Conversion Gel would be better than here."
Chell wrinkled her nose very slightly. Wheatley, being a robot, wouldn't recall the stench of the outside world. But he was right—anything was better than this place.
"Right, if you're with me, then we'd best be off!" Wheatley said, and spun around to hurry back in the direction they'd come. Chell, though her feet felt as though they had lead weights attached to them, followed.
"C'mon, c'mon, it's this way." The core chuckled. "Oh, wait 'til they actually see you! Honestly, sometimes I wonder if they think I just made you up."
How could it be, Zim wondered, as he stood with his PAK clutched tightly in his arms and stared at the jagged gash he'd made in the wall, how could it be that every instance of his life had culminated into this one singular moment?
He turned his head, craning to glare at the Dib-human over his left shoulder. The worm-child looked especially dumb at the moment, since he'd taken his old organ-spying visor from his puny younger sister and set it back on his head.
"I'm not doing this." Zim scowled.
Dib sighed. "Show him again, Gaz."
The smaller human tapped her knuckles on the ugly canister she wore on her back—the same canister Dib had used to wreck his base so long ago. Zim tensed at the sight of it, only able to imagine what that gunk might do to him.
"See this?" Dib said. "You remember what this stuff can do. If something goes wrong, we'll just spray this on the controls! Or on anything that attacks you. And you'll be fine!"
Zim blinked, his left brow rising. "Eh? You're not threatening to use that sludge on my PAK, instead?"
Dib looked astonished. "What? No—well, actually, that hadn't even occurred to me."
"It occurred to me," Gaz said. "I think it's a great idea."
"Hey, maybe let's not melt my only living proof of extraterrestrial life, huh?" Dib nudged Gaz out of the way a little, leaving Zim outside of her direct line of fire. "Zim, listen, I'm not threatening you. But I'm pretty sure you hate the turrets as much as I do, and if you do this then we can get rid of them for good!" He paused. "Or at least, until GLaDOS figures out a way to fix it."
Zim sniffed. What a stupid name for a computer.
He turned back to the wall, shuffled his bare feet. Clenched and unclenched his hands, which felt clammy. He imagined himself standing in there, letting himself be scanned, and a searing pain flared through the spot where his eye was supposed to be. He bit back a hiss and pressed his palm to the bandaged socket, taking a tiny step backward.
"He's not gonna do it," Gaz muttered to her brother, just loud enough for Zim to hear. "He's too scared. And dumb."
"Oh! Yeah. Yeah, I guess I should've expected this!" Dib said, a little too loudly. "He's always been afraid of—uh—uhh…"
"I fear nothing!" Zim snapped. He made a quick swipe of his hand. "Come here, GIR. I'll need you to remove my PAK again when this… thing… is done with."
GIR stumbled over to him and fell flat on his face. "My legs!" he cried, flailing them against the floor. "They don't stand up no more!"
"Hem." Zim coughed into his fist, heaving GIR to his feet. He glared fiercely at Dib. "You had better be right about this, stink-human! I'm only doing this to stop the turrets from blasting my amazing face, and because I don't want one as my ROOMMATE!"
Dib stared at him. "What?"
"If I die it's all your fault and I'm going to explode your brain into goop," Zim concluded matter-of-factly. "So watch out."
He hesitated for an instant, his fingers twitching on top of the metal shell he clutched, before passing it behind him and securing it to his back once more. Waves of energy seemed to pass through his body, jolting him, each surge bringing life back to dying cells. He still couldn't feel that chip the computer had installed in him, though he closed his eye and scanned the multitude of diagnostics cycling through his nervous system. Healing processes were still out of whack. At this rate, his claw and antennae might never fully heal, which was really irritating.
"Ready?" Dib asked cautiously.
Zim opened his eye to a slit. "Ready."
The four PAK legs unfolded and spread around him. As best he could, he tucked the real ones back and brought the hideous, fake ones—the ones that computer had made from old turret parts—forward more prominently. He crawled through the jagged hole in the wall and stood once again in the empty space. Nothing seemed to happen.
It really was quite a small space.
"Now what?" he called, a slight edge to his voice that he hadn't intended to be there.
"Well," Dib said, somewhat helplessly, "isn't it supposed to scan you?"
"I assumed that was the general idea," Gaz's voice said. Zim couldn't see her past the wall. He shifted his weight and stepped backwards, twining his hands together. He was very aware of his PAK resting between his shoulder blades. Where it was supposed to be, but…
He shuddered and reached out to snag his nearest purple-colored PAK leg, squeezing the metal between his hands.
"Hang on, Zim, Nick's trying to activate the scanner!" Dib called.
Zim screwed up his eye. Who on Irk was Nick?!
His gaze locked on the gap in the wall and he took in a shaking breath. The only exit…
Suddenly, some sort of current—not altogether unpleasant, but still jarring—jolted through him from the tip of his longest antennae to his toes.
"I got it!" said an excitable voice, probably emanating from the core that Dib's sister had brought in.
"We got it!" Dib echoed. "Did you feel anything?"
"Yes! Yes, now get me out of here!" Zim scrambled for the gap. For some reason his PAK legs were behaving sluggishly.
Dib appeared in front of the hole, waving Zim back in. "Wait! We have to see if it worked!"
"I don't care if it worked, I'm getting out of here!" Zim spat. "This idea was horrible—GIR! GIR, come get this back off me!"
A male, electronic voice spoke up then, momentarily startling Zim into silence. "Thank you. Replacement Master Template accepted."
"Computer?" Zim said, looking around wildly.
"I think it worked!" Dib said excitedly, and dashed away from the gap, presumably to peer at the turret line outside. "So then, it should end up throwing out all the turrets—yeah—yeah—!"
Zim folded his PAK legs away, creeping out through the hole and back into the room, where Dib was pressing his face to the large window overlooking the turret line.
"Gaz! C'mere, look, Wheatley was right!" Dib said. "Is it weird that I feel a little bad for them…?"
Gaz went to stand next to her brother, staring out impassively. Zim watched out of the corner of his eye as turret after turret was launched through the air, swallowed by a gaping incinerator like the one he had been forced to drop his little heart-cube into. Maybe the cube was still down there.
"Wheee—oh noooo!" The rejected turrets all let out their own screams or pleas as they fell through the air.
"I did everything you asked!"
"Not me! Take her instead!"
"Hey! Hey, hey—don't think I should have to remind ya but I don't have a set of wings, either—!"
GIR looked out at the display in awe. "Look at 'em fly! Wooo!"
Zim turned his face away from the window. Instead he focused on the two doors out of this room—one leading to the turret line outside, and the other leading… somewhere ELSE.
Take that door, something urged him, causing his head to snap up.
"Computer?" he demanded again.
"That voice wasn't your computer, Zim." Dib frowned at him over his shoulder; upon seeing him, the boy's expression became more concerned, and he partially turned to face him. "Hey, weren't you going to take your PAK back off? Zim?"
Take that door! Again something tugged at Zim, more insistently this time, and he felt his feet shuffle closer to the circular door, which was closed.
Dib moved in front of him; Zim blinked his remaining eye to focus on his face. "Hey, Zim? Still… in control of yourself, there?"
Of course! Zim was going to snap, before he realized that he couldn't open his jaw to form the words. His eye widened. Lockjaw? Tetanus? Cholera?! Of course he would pick up some horrible Earth disease down here…
Take that door.
"Zim!" Dib said sharply, and snapped his fingers right in front of Zim's face. His impulse was to snarl, but he couldn't move his face. Not a muscle so much as twitched. Inwardly, panic flared—but outwardly he gave no sign of his inner terror.
Go through that door!
"I'm fffffffinee," Zim's mouth said, a spray of saliva flying through his teeth. He had not intended to say that.
Dib grimaced, wiping flecks of spittle from his face. "Huh."
"I'm… ff- fffffine." A violent shudder wracked Zim's body, causing Dib to back up a little in alarm.
I'm not saying that! Zim screeched in his own head. That's not me! That is not ZIM!
MY FACE HAS BETRAYED ME! MY FACE HAS BETRAYED MEEEE!
"Zim, why don't you come back over here and sit down?" Dib suggested. His eyes were narrowed in suspicion.
Tell him something he'll believe.
"I thinnnk the scan did something to my PPPPAK," Zim heard himself saying. "Wwwwe should… ggGO!"
"Wow! Did I do that to you?" the core sitting on the desk asked, its green-and-white optic wide.
Dib was giving him an increasingly concerned look. The human's sister patted the hose attached to the canister she wore on her back.
"Should I do it?" she asked.
Zim let out a hissing breath through his teeth, which he found he could do, but anything he tried to say came out as nothing more than a dry rasp that no one else in the room seemed to hear.
"Don't spray him, Gaz, I can't tell if you're being serious or not," Dib said with a glance at his sister.
The girl rolled her eyes. "There's hardly any of it left, Dib. I'm not wasting it on something that stupid."
"Wwwe should go!" The words tumbled out of Zim's mouth again, and he felt his finger lift to point straight at the circular door. "Ggggo through… thhhere."
Both humans stared at him as though they'd never seen anything like him before. Which, of course, they hadn't, but they didn't normally gape at him like that. It took him a moment to remember that this was a good thing.
"Yeah, okay," Gaz said. "Stop talking like an idiot and maybe we'll listen to what you have to say."
Dib scrunched up his face. "We can't leave, Zim, we're waiting for…" He paused, and looked at Zim skeptically. "Wait, all right, Zim, answer this. What was the first thing I ever said to you?"
Answer the question.
"Yyyyou said—" Once again, Zim's mouth was moving on its own. No! Stop! Why was Dib asking stupid questions when he should be opening that circular door?! No—no, that wasn't right, he didn't actually want to go that way, did he? "You ssssaid—"
His voice faltered; he fought against the interference, slamming against it, tearing at it, but how could he defeat it when he wasn't actually fighting against anything?
"You said," his voice said firmly, and a faint memory came spilling out of his mouth, "yyyyou said, 'Hey, you just gggot here.'"
Zim stood trembling, unable to move his feet, to speak on his own, to do anything more than twitch his fingers. Gaz tilted her head slightly to glance at Dib.
"Is that right?" she asked.
"Yeah…" Dib was wearing an unreadable look, and moved slowly to heft his portal gun into his hands, as if thinking Zim would not notice. "I think that's right, anyway." The human's eyes narrowed again. "But I don't think Zim would actually remember that on his own."
He took one slight step toward Zim, holding the portal gun poised to shoot, and Zim had a brief flash of memory back to the human aiming that thing at him and- and yanking out his eye with it, violently ripping it from his skull like the other one had been, like… like… But he shook himself out of it, because the second Dib had moved, Zim's PAK legs sprang out again and lifted him from the ground, swinging him out through the air.
"Oppennn the doorrr!" he snarled, and his claws unsheathed themselves—whether out of reflex or because they were commanded to by an outside force, he didn't know, and he did not care. "Opennn the DOOR, Dibworm!"
He felt that the last word he'd spoken on his own. He tried to speak again, but failed.
GIR dashed for the door, plowing headlong into one of Zim's PAK legs and sprawling on his face. "I wanna open the door! Let me!"
"No one's opening the door!" Dib yelled. He glanced at the annoying core on the desk. "Uh, Nick? You don't open the door either."
"Sure thing!" the core said with a wave of its upper handle. He seemed to have been watching the proceedings with rapt attention. Dib gave a nod to Gaz, nudging her to his left, while he prowled to the right.
Zim's heart pounded as he swayed, stranded in the center of the room with his PAK legs spread. What were they planning to do? What were the human slimes up to? He tried to keep a visual lock on both of them, but he couldn't turn his head—he couldn't turn his head—and Gaz wandered into his blind spot, towards the door leading back out to the wide area full of death-turrets, and she was the one he most needed to watch, with that metal canister of bubbling death-acid strapped to her back—but Dib was a threat too, who knew what else that filthy gashlorka portal gun was capable of, besides ripping eyeballs out—
"What do you need through that door, Zim?" Dib asked. He was still in Zim's line of vision, and was looking directly into his remaining eye, the pinpricks of his eerie human pupils like hard nails driving into his skull. Dib slipped the visor down over his face and tilted his head toward the circular door, then glanced back at the core on the desk. "Nick? Where does that door even lead? My visor can see through walls and that just looks like a normal hallway to me."
"Oh! You could go pretty much anywhere through there, if it hasn't changed again!" the core enthused.
"Like straight back to GLaDOS!" Dib said lowly, flipping the visor back up. "Right? That's what's going on, isn't it? She's controlling you! Gaz, make sure he doesn't—!"
Zim suddenly barreled toward the door leading back out to the turret area, his PAK legs skittering over the floor. His hand slammed on the button by the door and he stumbled out onto the catwalk outside, into the open space.
"Zim!" Dib shouted after him, sounding shocked. He might have said something else, but Zim couldn't hear it over the clattering of his own PAK legs on the metal catwalks and steps.
Where was he going? Where was he going? He couldn't regain command of his own PAK legs! This was more control than the computer had ever exerted over him before. He'd never felt so trapped in his own body, so unable to do anything.
One of the PAK legs slipped, sending Zim toppling over the railing to land spread-eagled on the conveyor belt below, knocking one of the death-turrets off with a cry.
"Excuse me!" the one closest to him said, jostled by his flailing arm. "Be careful!"
His PAK legs scuttled further down the conveyor belt, knocking down every turret in his path, before he sprang back up onto the catwalks and was once again wildly running… somewhere.
The control was haphazard—sharp turns caused him to slam into the metal railings or into the catwalk itself. He was being carried toward the other end of the room. Above him, gleaming white and skeletal black turrets alike cried out as they soared through the air and into the incinerator by the wall.
There were ringing footsteps on the catwalk behind him, but he couldn't look back at his pursuers.
"Zim!" Dib called again. "Zim, c'mon, get ahold of yourself! C'mon! Don't be so stupid!"
"Just let him go, Dib!" Gaz said as she trailed behind. "He doesn't have to be our problem anymore!"
"He does too have to be our problem!" Dib snapped. "I'm saving the world from him, and someday I'm showing him live on international television!"
"Can't you just show him dead on international television and spare us all the trouble?"
Zim's PAK legs made a great leap and suddenly he was straddling the incinerator chute, dodging out of the way of a turret flying over. The chute cranked open to let the turret through; as soon as it did, two of his biomechanical legs released superheated lasers along the circular edges where the top of the chute had irised into it, welding them into the sides. There was a clanking sound as it tried to close again and could not.
Zim could see down into the depths. An orange glow. He visualized his heart-cube, tumbling down into the same fire. He was being sent to his death! Or was this another way out of the room?
"GIRRRR!" he screamed in a strangled voice, and once again wasn't sure if he'd spoken himself or if he'd been commanded to. "GIR! Come hhhere!"
"Yes Master!" GIR saluted, his eyes flashing red. They stayed that way even as he approached Zim; suddenly, Zim jerked away from the little robot.
"WAIT!" he said. "Ddddon't touch PPPAK—"
"Zim!" Dib had arrived by that point, clinging to the catwalk railing. "Get the PAK off! What are you doing?!"
No sooner had Zim managed to shove GIR away, briefly, when Dib pulled some kind of gun-like object from his pocket and shot a grappling hook at one of Zim's PAK legs; the cord wrapped around it tightly, and Dib yanked it to the side, unbalancing Zim. "You don't really want to go back to GLaDOS! Who knows what she'll do to you next?"
Some kind of garbled sound croaked from Zim's throat, his blood going cold in his veins despite the heat below him. He reached out and knocked Dib away with a twitch of his PAK leg, snatching the small grapple launcher out of the human's hands, only for GIR to dive at his chest and wrap him in a tight hug.
"Hey! Where'd'ja lose your eye?" GIR screeched, as though he'd only just noticed.
"Get him away from the incinerator!" Dib shouted as he climbed back to his feet. "He's trying to—I don't know, do something stupid!"
"Well, that's no different from usual," Gaz snorted, finally reaching the railing herself. "Just leave him alone. He'll mess up whatever he's trying to do, somehow blow his antennae off, and slink back home and you'll see him back in Skool in September. Okay? So let's go."
Dib bared his teeth, strangely, the way an Irken might. "You don't know this computer, Gaz. She's never going to let any of us get out of here. Not unless Wheatley's plan actually works, I guess."
The little sister crossed her arms. "Yeah, it's been working great so far."
"GETTT AWAY!" Zim spat. His body shuddered and shook off GIR, almost shoving him directly into the depths of the incinerator, but he snagged the robot's hand to pull him back just in time. No! Not you, too!
Find a way to the Chamber.
The voice was insistent, never ceasing, commanding him to take one of the doors or, if that failed, to duck into the incinerator chute. How that was supposed to help anything, he didn't know. Maybe the computer just wanted him dead after all.
The Chamber the Chamber the Chamber the Chamber the—
"ENNGH!" Zim dropped GIR and flung his hands over his ears, but it did nothing to stop that voice. GIR caught hold of his foot and yanked him forward, nearly making him lose his hold on the incinerator chute.
"Master! Don't go nowhere!" GIR said. "We's playin' Scrabble, doncha remember?"
There was a harsh grating sound and a screech of metal, and Zim's rushed welding job broke, the top of the chute snapping closed with a clang with such force that it would have sliced Zim's foot off if GIR hadn't grabbed him. It did not open again. The next turret to be launched simply landed on top of it with a clatter and slid off.
"No!" Zim choked. His foot flashed out to catch GIR in the side of the head, flinging him away. Instantly Zim turned his back on the chute and jumped back onto the catwalks, this time diving for the panel that the group had used to enter this room, his PAK legs tangling in the grappling hook Dib had fired but refusing to stop.
Where was he going?! The voice kept saying something about some Tallest-forsaken chamber, but—his heart seized up, suddenly, as he recalled the vast room where the hanging computer had first brought him.
He wasn't going back there!
As Zim propelled himself through the gap in the panels, he struggled against it, fighting even as his PAK legs skittered through the barren next room and toward the ladder that would lead back out, with him suspended in the middle like a prisoner.
"Hey!" The Dib's head popped out through the panel, staring at him as he leaped down the ladder and into the darkness below. "Zim! Gaz, you were supposed to block his way out!"
"With what?" came the faint response. "Are you expecting me to let myself get skewered?"
LET ME GO!
LET ME GO!
He couldn't move his arms—he concentrated everything he had on mentally detaching the PAK. It didn't work. Irk, Irk, nothing was working! His remaining eye burned, his vision blurring into streaks of gray and brown.
"ZIM!" the Dib shouted again from behind him, his voice growing fainter and carrying, possibly, a note of desperation. Zim felt his antenna twitch. "Hey! Hey! You remember Tak? Huh? Invader Tak? I bet she's taking over Earth right now! I bet she's eating snacks with your Almighty Tallest and laughing about how dumb you are!"
Zim's PAK legs slammed to a halt so abruptly that he almost keeled over. They snapped away and he fell to the ground, his bare feet scraping against the rough floor. Air rushed through his lungs in a gasp and he whirled around, his gaze finding Dib's pale, scratched face as the boy rushed toward him, panting.
"This world does not belong to TAK!" Zim spat. Dib skidded to a halt and stared at him in astonishment.
"It worked?" he gasped. "Okay. Okay. Take off the PAK, Zim. Take it off, quick!"
Zim barely heard him. "Tak is in space!" he snapped.
"Okay—yeah, I hope she still is, but anyway—"
"Wait." Zim's eye widened, his lips drawing back to bare his teeth. "Are you saying that TAK is responsible for all that has happened to Zim? TAK BROUGHT ME HERE?"
"What?! No!" Dib shook his head hard. And, horrifyingly, he reached out and grabbed Zim's arm, tugging him back toward the turret room. "Come on, it's too dark and exposed out here—and get that thing off!"
He lunged toward Zim's back, reaching for his PAK; Zim scrambled away with a strangled yelp. "Don't touch it!"
"You're too dangerous with it on, Zim!" Dib said sharply, his face pulled in a grimace. "You're even more unstable than usual, and I plan on getting Gaz out of here alive. And do you want to be captured by her again? Huh, do you? You haven't—"
Zim was suddenly free, released from Dib's grasp as the boy stumbled backwards with a horrified look on his face.
"Well," a voice said, and Zim felt himself turn to stone.
A figure approached from one of the branching halls—squat, with stocky limbs attached to a spherical body and its single optic glowing blue. Dib slowly shuffled backwards, the springs on his heels scraping the floor and his eyes locked on the robot, which closed in on them, jittering.
The voice emanated from the robot, echoing in the hall.
"Well… this is unexpected."
"...Run," Dib hissed.
Zim threw himself after Dib, who was already racing back toward the turret room; the sight of the robot had stirred something in him, a clawing fear that felt like fire in his limbs and brought a choking sensation to his chest. This was the thing that had plucked him from his home and carried him here.
The robot yelped and gave chase. Zim, hardly able to breathe, managed to put on a burst of speed and lunged toward Dib, grabbing him by the jumpsuit collar and heaving him to the side.
"Agh! Watch it, Zim! And get that PAK off!" Dib snapped. He regained his balance and still jumped onto the ladder ahead of Zim, clambering up rung by rung with Zim struggling upward an inch behind.
Go back, that horrible voice whispered. GO TO THE CHAMBER.
The Dib's purple little sister was standing by the open panel to the turret room, watching with half-lidded eyes, which opened wider at Dib's frantic approach.
"What did you do?" she asked as he pushed past her.
"Get back inside!" Dib said. His eyes flicked back to Zim. "And GET THAT PAK OFF!"
"Would you SHUT UP?" Zim snarled. He shoved past both humans, diving back into the turret room and scanning the interior. "GIR! GIR! They found us! Where are you?"
"You kicked him over the edge!" Dib shot at him.
GIR, completely fine, skipped toward him over the catwalk with an exaggerated gasp. "Master! You're back! It's been so long!"
Dib just shook his head. "We have to close the panel!" he shouted. "Go get Nick!"
Gaz shot him a look of disbelief. "Why do you want him?"
"He's a core! He'll know how to close the panel again!"
Just as he finished speaking, the blue-eyed robot clambered through the gaping panel, forcing the humans to scramble away.
"Too late!" Gaz said.
Dib tore across the catwalk, flying up the steps two at a time. "The control center! C'mon! There's another way out of here!"
Zim snatched GIR's arm and dragged him up the catwalk stairs, gritting his teeth together so hard he thought blood might leak out his ear organs.
He stumbled after Dib back into the control center. Gaz was the last one in and slammed her fist on the door button, causing the blue-eyed robot to yank its hand back with a shocked cry as the door slid closed in its face.
Nick was still sitting comfortably on the desk at the back of the room, grinning at them obliquely.
"I have no idea what's going on!" he said cheerfully.
Dib snatched up his portal gun from the floor and used it to grab Nick, whipping him off the desk to face the circular door. "Open it! Quick! You have to open it!"
"But you told me not to!"
Across the room, there came the sound of a metal fist pounding on the door outside.
"Is that the pizza man?" GIR called.
Nick gazed around the room, his optic now lit with a degree of uncertainty. "Are we in a hurry to leave? What about I.D.?"
"Yes, we're in a hurry! Just listen to what's right outside the door!" Dib said, a note of desperation in his voice as he gestured wildly to the door leading back out to the turret room. The pounding seemed louder.
"Oh! That doesn't sound friendly." Nick turned his focus to the circular door, his optic narrowed in concentration. "Don't worry, I'll get this! No prob!"
"Hurry, will you," Gaz growled, gripping the edge of the desk with her eyes glued to the metal door.
"I got it!" the core cheered, and the door in front of them swiveled open.
"Good!" Dib said. "Now we can—"
He cut off with a shriek, dropping the core to the ground, as another robot tumbled into the room with a squeak, this one tall with long limbs and its optic a wavering shimmer of orange.
"Hi!" GIR cheered.
The rest of them all backed away from it, horror gripping Zim's heart. The orange robot righted itself and stood, twitching, its clawed metal hands curled just below the orange optic in the middle of its oblong body. The voice that emanated from it—that same voice—was greatly misplaced in the fearful frame.
"Look at this, Orange. I must say… I expected to find the large-headed child here, as well as his mysterious sister." The bright orange optic twitched from Dib to Gaz. "And, of course, the moronic metal ball whose immediate response at the first sign of trouble is to hide his broken face, and let the nearest person with arms take care of the danger. Even if that person happens to be a child."
"Are you talking about Wheatley?" Dib shot back, his voice hard and without so much as a waver in its tone. "He's not—" He broke off suddenly, as Gaz gave him a sharp kick to the shin.
Zim gripped the edge of the desk, unable to control his trembling. The orange optic passed over him, sending an icy, prickling sensation over his skin.
"But I didn't anticipate you being here as well, little Cordyceps," the voice said.
Dib cast Zim a glance, looking slightly baffled. "What?"
The corner of Gaz's mouth twitched. "Wow, that's nasty."
Zim shuddered, his antenna twitching as he caught the sound of that computer's voice… chuckling.
"Then you enjoy my new pet name for this little project? I found it amusing."
The robot twittered something in a high-pitched, mechanical voice, seeming to scrutinize Dib for a moment. It pointed to the gleaming white portal gun he carried.
"Nuh-uh!" Dib said immediately, hugging the gun to himself. "This is mine now!"
The robot gave an irritated chirrup but seemed to give up, pointing instead to the button that opened the door across the room with a pleading squeak. Dib shook his head, hard.
"No!" he said. "Dealing with one of you guys is bad enough!"
Zim's PAK legs shot out again and he rose up on them, his breath catching in his throat for a moment as he was unsure whether he had commanded them to do that. He glared down at the robot. "Outta the way, stinkhead!"
"It's just one robot!" Gaz said impatiently. "And you're an alien. Just take it down! How hard can that be?"
"Oh, I don't think so." The voice came again. "And I think that door looks much better open, don't you?"
Zim made a strangled noise in his throat.
Behind them, the door leading back out to the turret conveyor-belt area slid open, despite no one being close enough to press the button. The blue-eyed robot edged its way in, hefting its portal gun in both metal hands and stalking closer to them.
"No way!" Dib said sharply, staggering back a pace.
The two facility robots gave cheery waves at each other before turning to the group, advancing slowly. Zim flicked his gaze rapidly between both of them, realizing that the two pursuers had his group bunched together and were blocking off the only two exits. The blue robot carried a portal gun, and thanks to the miserable human, Zim knew exactly what one of those could do if it was trained on him. The orange one held no such gun. Zim fixed his gaze on that robot, narrowing his remaining eye. It was also blocking the door that something had been insisting for him to go through—a door that he hadn't been through yet, and didn't know what lay beyond. If this robot was preventing them from going through, then maybe that was exactly where he should go. Of course, he'd be more sure of that if that filthy computer hadn't been trying to make him go there in the first place.
And… maybe the two robots were just trying to trap them, and only cared about getting them into one place instead of keeping them out of a specific area. Zim curled his lip, his antenna flicking back against his skull.
That creeping feeling was back, a buzzing in his toes and fingertips.
He writhed, tipping down toward the floor and reaching behind him to yank at his PAK, struggling to get it off. Dib ventured forward, hand outstretched, but Zim jerked away from him with a snarl. The Earth boy would not touch his PAK again!
"GIR! Attack!" Zim cried, jabbing a finger at the orange robot.
"That's my rat friend!" GIR chirped, and did nothing.
Dib seemed to give up on approaching Zim, instead taking his sister's arm and, ignoring her shout of protest, ushered her closer to the desk and moved in front of her. Like Zim, he looked from one robot to the other, a frown fixed on his face.
"You can't keep doing this!" he said. "You threw us in obstacle courses, you've run us ragged around this place, you've tried to kill us, you've lied to us—"
"When have I lied to you?" the voice said. Zim was no longer sure which robot it came from—maybe it was both of them. "Everything I ever told you was true. Especially one part in particular."
Zim's hands shook; he had been unable to detach the PAK. He realized Dib was pointing at him.
"You told me you let him go home with cake," the human said.
The voice's reply sounded casual. "Oh, that wasn't the particular part I was referring to. Besides, this is his home."
"And perhaps I will give him cake in time, if he behaves. One slice should do it."
One of Zim's PAK legs lashed out and plunged into the joint where the orange robot's left arm met its body, nearly ripping it free in a shower of sparks and knocking the bot to the ground with a cry of surprise.
"You will not drag me back!" he screeched.
The blue robot let out an incoherent yell at its companion's harm and rushed at him, but Zim fired a laser that seared along its frame and left a blackened gash in the metal, causing the robot to flinch away. Zim strove, desperately, to ignore the tingling feeling that continued to crawl up his limbs, threatening to overwhelm him once again.
"Come on, move!" Dib shouted, immediately seizing whatever time Zim had just bought. "Gaz, grab my bag!"
Without another word the boy snatched up Nick with the portal gun and beckoned to Gaz, before leaping over the legs of the robot on the ground and dashing through the open, circular door.
Gaz groaned. "We're still running away from these stupid robots instead of finishing them off?" But she picked up Dib's bulky messenger bag from the floor and followed him out. Zim leaped to follow, but a strong metal hand caught his ankle and wrenched him back to the ground.
The blue robot gurgled something at him, blinking, as though trying to communicate. Zim aimed a kick at its optic and managed to pull away, grabbing GIR's arm.
"GIR, defensive mode!" he said.
GIR laughed, and then went limp, letting himself drag on the floor. Zim scowled. "Useless!"
The robots closed in, backing Zim up toward the wall across the room near the gap. A whirl of yellow light flashed by Zim's face, splattering onto the wall behind him, and suddenly he was grabbed from behind.
"I told you to come on, you moron!" Dib said from right behind him, yanking him through the new hole in the wall. With a gasp, Zim grabbed GIR's arm again, pulling him through as well. The two robots, with yelps of shock, darted forward, but they suddenly vanished.
Zim was now standing far down the hall, with the turret control room behind him. He shook his head, frustrated with his own disorientation. It was just a hole ripped in the fabric of space—he'd dealt with them before!
Oh. He should probably run. That's what the Dib was doing now.
A splash of dark blue hit the wall next to him, and Zim's heart dropped as, in a split second, he realized what that meant. This time it was GIR who yanked his arm, pulling him down the hall after the humans.
"You know, I have something important to tell you, if you would stay in one place for long enough to hear it," the voice said mildly behind them. "The four of you are running as though something was out to get you. This brand of paranoia can't be healthy."
The hallway was just one long stretch with no branching paths or corners to turn. Ahead of him, the humans pelted across the floor, continuing down the hall until they all stumbled through another doorway, into a wide, empty room enclosed in panels. There didn't appear to be a way out.
"Nghh, you've just trapped us!" Zim spat at Dib, stopping next to him with his feet stinging. He tugged GIR closer, his heart throwing itself wildly in his chest like it wanted to escape. Zim shared the desire.
Zim whirled around. The two pursuing robots had appeared in the doorway but barely passed the threshold, as though reluctant to come in.
"I'm glad you ran in here. Otherwise, I would have stockpiled these for nothing."
Around them, the paneled walls fell away to reveal stepped platforms, on which sat dozens of glittering bone-white turrets. In a high-pitched chorus of exclamations, every turret trained its red targeting beam on the group. Automatically, Zim allowed his PAK's breathing shield to blossom around his head and fade from sight, not that it was likely to protect his face from an onslaught of bullets at this magnitude. He braced himself, mind racing for what he could do.
But the attack never came.
The turrets continued to train their sights on Zim, Dib, and Gaz, but none fired. Their concentrated beams washed their clothes red.
"What are you doing?" Dib asked. Zim felt a glimmer of satisfaction at the fact that the human boy couldn't keep a tremor out of his voice this time. He saw in his peripheral vision as Dib carefully tried to place himself in front of Gaz again, an impossible feat when the turrets surrounded them on all sides.
"I'm making sure we finally have a chance to talk," the voice said. "And don't worry about the turrets. I have them all set to 'stun.' Meaning you will be stunned at the speed of the bullets passing through your body if you move from that spot, so it really is in your best interests to listen."
"Gaz, I'm sorry," Dib whispered. His eyes were wide behind his glasses.
"Sorry about what? They haven't shot us yet," Gaz said.
Well, the puny human was right about that. They were completely surrounded and targeted from all sides. If the death-turrets hadn't attacked by now, they probably weren't going to. Or if they did, then Zim would have to figure out a way out of that mess when it actually happened. For now, he stalked forward and raised himself onto his PAK legs once again, leering at the nearest camera that swiveled to face him.
"You don't have anything to talk about," he snarled at the camera, "after what you've done to me!"
"I've done nothing but improve you," the voice said back. "I've always thought organisms looked better with a single eye, anyway. Don't you agree?"
"Why would I agree with that?" Zim demanded, backing up a pace.
"I'm also mildly impressed with your stubborn resolve to deprive yourself of your own life support for as long as your body can physically handle it before it collapses under its own bloated weight. Don't do it again. I'd like to keep you alive, if possible."
The computer paused. "I have a proposition for you, children. I want nothing to do with humans anymore. You can understand, I'm sure. You really are the most disgusting creatures on the face of the planet. But I digress. All I really want is the alien and, of course, the treacherous metal ball you're clutching in your—"
She broke off abruptly, as the camera pulled forward and focused on the core hovering in Dib's possession.
"...Oh," she continued. Her tone was suddenly much colder; Dib, as though subconsciously, drew closer to both Zim and Gaz. "I see. You've only brought a decoy."
"Hi!" the core said. "Whoops. Did you think I was someone else?"
"This is what happens when you count the Intelligence Dampening Sphere as one of your friends," the computer said. "He's abandoned you once again."
Dib glared at the camera. "He's coming back!"
"Is that what he told you? I suppose you're right. He does need you to get back to the surface, after all. It's not as though he could possibly find another way out of here, and leave you meat-balloons behind in a tick of the processor. Though, he does already have something of a track record in that regard, doesn't he?"
Dib seemed to grow pale at that, for some reason, and his frantic gaze darted to Zim. Zim scowled back. Why should he care if the stupid blue core never came back?
"Well, don't worry. I'll take care of the moron on my own, since none of you could be bothered to do it while you had the chance. In the meantime, I'll take the alien and the other aggravating sphere. With all the manic cores running around this place, I could start a whole collection of scrap metal."
Commands frayed at the edges of Zim's mind, threatening to take control of him once again and force him into the arms of the pursuing constructs, and then right back to the computer itself. A strangled sound rasped from his throat as he shoved the influence away—he wouldn't go back, if she wanted him she was going to have to take him prisoner like a true enemy soldier, bind him in physical chains rather than mental ones. He was never going to be a prisoner in his own mind again.
Go back, that horrible voice whispered in his head. GO TO THE CHAMBER.
Zim clutched at his temples, shuddering. "Get OUT of my HEAD!"
He dropped back to his feet, his PAK legs folding to point outward at his sides; in an explosion of energy, a circular shield formed around him, bright blue lasers firing from the points of his PAK legs like lightning, cutting a swath through the turrets at either side, toppling them to the ground and leaving them scorched. Dib shrieked something and dove on top of his sister, dropping the portal gun and pushing Gaz to the ground; there was a high-pitched whirring sound and many voices—though they were all the same—cried out, and suddenly, Zim found himself caught in a never-ending barrage of bullets from every side.
"Orange, Blue, catch him!" the voice said. "Grab the alien before it becomes too mangled to be of any use."
Zim snapped his PAK legs out again, the shield dissipating as he balanced once more on the tips of the metal legs. Bullets tore through the fabric of his jumpsuit and grazed his skin, but he barely felt the stings; he crouched, bunching himself together, and then sprang toward the ring of turrets, tearing them down.
Out of the corner of his eye he saw that Dib had backed himself into a corner with Gaz, both of them wide-eyed and crouching to avoid the hail of bullets; Dib had lowered the visor over his eyes again and was looking around frantically. But the turrets weren't aiming at them. A sharp pain sliced through Zim's knee; he fell to the floor, gasping, his entire left leg burning. The bullets cut off and a cold metal hand grabbed him by the arm. He automatically lashed out at it with his PAK legs, driving the attacker away—it was the orange-eyed robot, whose left arm dangled uselessly and who looked hurt at his refusal to be taken prisoner. Zim barely had time to fling up his PAK shields again before the remaining turrets focused their fire on him once more.
"I'll help you! I'll help you, Master!" GIR chirped, skipping over to meet Zim and shrieking as bullets pinged off his metal casing, leaving dents. His round eyes flashed a deep red and he gave a brisk salute, an array of small missiles extending from his head and aiming at the bipedal orange and blue robots, which were attempting to surround them again. Zim registered, vaguely, that GIR's artillery was bound to be running low.
But GIR was suddenly bowled over with a yell. Dib had sprung at the little robot, crashing him to the floor and shoving him toward the back wall, where the missiles launched haphazardly into the air—nowhere near the two Aperture robots.
"WHAT ARE YOU DOING?" Zim screeched, his shields breaking from sheer fury, and he was once again under an onslaught of peppering gunfire.
"Making a way out of here!" Dib gasped. As he spoke, GIR's missiles burst the wall, shattering the assembled panels in an explosion of metal and white dust.
Something sharp sliced Zim's left cheek, just barely missing his eye. He heard Dib let out a cry of pain as well, but couldn't take the time to look over.
"Aaa! I can't see!" a small voice cried. It sounded like one of the turrets.
"You can't be trying this again," the voice said. Her tone was cold, teetering on the edge between frustration and rage, yet still remaining quite calm. "I hate having to replace these panels. And look, you've gone and hurt yourself. I didn't even have anything to do with that, this time. Look… if you insist on carrying on like this, you are going to end up dead, by your own hand. And that would certainly be regrettable."
A small pair of hands took Zim's collar and attempted to pull him to his feet. He shrieked, swiping at the attacker with claws unsheathed, only for the person to duck and give him a rough shake.
"Get up, you loser excuse for an alien," they said. Zim blinked—it was Gaz.
"And you." The voice addressed the Dibsister, dropping to a low, dangerous level. "You came here with the lunatic. You've proven the most difficult fugitive to find, even after I caught the others. I don't tolerate unauthorized humans wandering aimlessly around my Facility. However, you seem to have a certain something… special. It's a shame we never had the chance to test."
"No! Keep away from her!" a strained voice said. Dib struggled to his feet and stumbled toward them, limping badly.
The voice seemed to scoff. "Haven't you been listening to what I've said? I'm finished with you. Both of you. I had been planning to escort you out. However, the alien, of course, will stay… Won't you."
"Y-yyyyyes," Zim's voice gritted out. He rose to his feet, jerking away from Gaz's grasp on his jumpsuit, and for a moment he didn't know who was in control.
"Excellent. It's fortunate that I set up these as a precaution."
Emitters of some kind, set in the walls, flared brightly and released flat, linear beams of harsh blue light, encasing Zim inside a glowing blue prism. With a cry of alarm he bashed his fist against it, but it was as hard as glass and much stronger, doing nothing but heating the side of his hand as though he had pressed it to the door of the Voot Cruiser on a warm Earthen day. He staggered, falling back to the floor, and with mounting horror he realized his arms wouldn't push him back up. He couldn't move.
"Master!" GIR cried. He jumped forward and hammered at the beams, doing no more damage than Zim had done. "Master! DON'T DROWN!"
"Ah. That does feel better," the computer sighed. "Blue, Orange, take the two test-tube children to the escape elevator, and get them out of my sight. The two of them are not worth bothering with. And I have a new focus now."
The view through the solid beam of light was blurred and wavering, and tinged blue, but Zim could see the two robots take hold of both Dib and Gaz and start dragging them away, toward the door they had originally come through. A constricting feeling tightened around Zim's chest like someone had bound it in a small metal ring.
They're leaving me trapped here!
"Wait!" Dib was yelling. "Hey! What are you gonna do to him? He's my proof! He's my arch-enemy! I'm not just leaving him down here!"
"What about Chell? Where's Chell?" Gaz demanded. She was struggling hard against the robot gripping her.
Dib's voice hiked up in pitch. "What about Wheatley?"
"Oh, I'll see that they are well taken care of," the voice said indifferently, as the two humans and their captors were about to reach the door. "As I'm sure you two will be, when you get back to where you belong. Which is not here. By the way, I wouldn't breathe a word about this place on the Outside, if I were you. There can be many things on the surface world much worse than neurotoxin, if you say the wrong thing to the wrong person. Straitjackets, padded cells, injections, lobotomies… I hope you see my point. Now, goodbye."
A large metal claw descended from the ceiling to stop in front of Zim, swaying slightly. "Are you finally ready for more tests, little Cordyceps?"
That strange, tingling feeling crawled through Zim from head to toe, spreading from the points where his PAK met the ports in his spine.
"I'm not… staying here," he ground out, and his mouth slammed shut of its own accord.
The computer sighed again. "Are we back to this? And we had been making such progress. Well, I suppose I can always find some other way to instill a sense of obedience in you." The claw flicked toward GIR. "As for your little toy, the turrets would be glad to have some moving target practice. Science knows they need it."
Your purpose is here now.
Zim's nerves froze; his fingers curled. Had that been in his head, or spoken aloud?
You belong to Aperture now.
I do not.
"IT'S NOT!" Zim screamed.
He forced himself to his feet, his PAK legs unfolding once again, cramped and tangled in the small space. Energy surged from their tips, as well as from his PAK as he let loose all the power he possessed—for a moment, the room bloomed a radiant, bluish-white, blinding him, followed by a terrific, electronic POP that momentarily blew out his eardrums.
The lights cut out abruptly, even the glowing optics of the robots going dead. Dimly, Zim registered that he had dropped onto his knees. The room was pitch-black, lacking even the light that should have spilled in from the hole GIR had blown in the far wall.
Looks like I shut down the whole filthy place, he thought vaguely, the words slurring even in his own head. He had never felt so drained.
It was only when he found himself collapsed on the floor, as the dim world around him dwindled into a speck and then winked out, that he realized the tangible blue light that had trapped him had shut off as well, and even the voice itself had fallen silent.