I was so close.
If I was quick enough, maybe I could've caught it in time.
If I wasn't so quick, maybe I would've seen it coming.
If I ditched him on the spot, maybe I wouldn't have been so slow carrying him along.
If I didn't lose him so quickly, maybe we could've found a faster way out.
I honestly didn't know anymore.
I remember sitting against a wall–no–curled up against the wall like a sick animal, a dead turret lying at my feet. I remember gritting my teeth as a surging pain basically exploded in my side, and how it spread to my ankles and through my fingertips. I remember when I pulled my hands away from my aching side, only to see them drenched in red. I'd always hated that color. I'd always hated seeing it. You couldn't possibly imagine how crushed I felt, especially when that metallic smell began to linger in the air, that distinct smell of iron.
I knew it wasn't good from the start.
Of course, I pretended it wasn't as big of deal. I played it brave for the cameras. But it never actually helped in the slightest.
I bet She enjoyed every second of that episode.
When a deep pool of blood began to form, my fearlessness began to falter. Without a moment of hesitation, I applied pressure to my side. I still couldn't control my breathing. I just kept gasping desperately for air. This wasn't as much of a problem when my heartbeat slowed. I know now that's not a good thing to happen, but I could barely register anything at that time. Everything was just a blur of emotions.
Not long after, the speckles of black were creeping at the corners of my vision. The world was decelerating, and I didn't have the ability to stop it from doing so. I couldn't even blink by that point. I just lay there, fixed on the exit hatch just out of my reach and the warm beams of light flooding through the gaping fissures in the ceiling. That light…
Something was definitely off about that light.
Through the haze of black static I saw the beams gradually change. It's difficult to fully explain. But I saw as they disintegrated, not entirely, but to the point where they became nothing but flecks of themselves, glittering against the pallid, filthy backdrop. It didn't take long to notice they were moving, forming cooperatively to create a figure similar to that of a human. When the flecks of light seemingly finished, their radiance dulled to match the color of skin.
Now I couldn't believe what was happening before me. Frankly, I was terrified. I was suffering an anxiety attack when the entity started to move frontward.
I could make out the dark, disorderly mop of its hair, and the oddly unsoiled fabric of its big, white coat. Calmly it approached me, and before I could react, it took a hold of my hand, lifting me onto my feet. The unbearable aching in my side was absent, but I couldn't help feel more troubled than relieved by this.
I took a good look at the entity's face, which looked quite mannish and clean-shaven. I could see his eyes clouding up. He just stared at the blood on my hands, sighing heavily, before he pulled me into a hug.
Such a lighthearted aura clung to him as we stood there, and it was somewhat comforting. Even if I couldn't see it, I could tell he struggled to keep his smile. And then he started to cry, trembling madly and shaking his head.
"I'm so sorry."
He then calmed down, wiped the tears off his face, and gently let go of me. He still kept a grip on my hand. His mouth parted, about to spell out the letter 'L', until he withdrew himself, shaking his head more peacefully this time.
We walked through the rubble of the facility, and I didn't dare to look back. I couldn't bear seeing what was left behind, so I held my gaze forward, a little cooler in mood than before.
The beams of light from the ceiling slowly overcame the facility as we moved onward, until the illuminated walls, ceiling, and floors collaborated to form a new passage.
Any traces of the facility were long gone as we walked through white nothingness. In the distance, I noticed the thin outline of a table, accompanied by the outline of a chair.
Upon reaching the table and chair, I took a seat while the white-coated man stood by the wall, eyeing the adjacent wall, while I just waited in confusion.
Without warning, a doorway slid open from the adjacent wall, revealing a black background past the frame. Another man stepped out. He had a taller stature compared to the other man. The deep wrinkles in his face gave away his ancient age. He bared a blue suit, a stiff crew-cut, and a thin physique that seemed a tad too thin for the structure of his face.
The suited man glanced over at the other occupant, blank-faced and rigid. This didn't concern the man in white coat in the least as he gestured to me.
It was hard not to focus on the dark rings under his eyes that contributed to his dated look. I'll be truthful about this; he was upsetting to be around. Unlike the airy aura the man in the coat carried, this one possessed a rather cagey, grim impression. He gave off a slight, musty scent, like the dust on a hoary book. I swore the word 'nostalgic' popped in my head upon sight of this unsettling person.
"In all hones-ty… I didn't count on you, being here." His speech patterns were undeniably offbeat, stressing every syllable but the right ones, pausing in between his low and morose way of phrasing.
"That doesn't mean the appropr-iate routine is… ineffectual. Allow me a second of, your time…" He placed his briefcase on the tabletop and unlocked the golden clasp before gathering a thick, phone-book-like script. Thumbing through pages and pages of undisclosed material, the man's brow line narrowed. He continued to speak without losing his attention on the papers.
"You've been in… quite a dilemma, haven't you, Miss. Chell?"
I could've taken a pretty accurate guess of what was on those papers.
"… A six year dilemma–not counting the time spent in sus-pended, animation, but a long enough time for you."
"Too much time for you, if I can… take a guess."
I noticed the man in coat lower his head to face the floor in shame.
"A hund-red and thirty tests… six years… three close calls… two awaken-ings… and one life to live."
"That life is yours, Miss. Chell."
The suited man didn't speak for a long while after that. He only hummed, still flicking through each page of the script, until he came across a certain sheet of paper, one that noticeably troubled him. Wordless, he called the other man over with the motioning of his hand and presented the paper to him.
"Did you know about this?"
It was a useless question, as the man in the coat failed to answer. He just skimmed through the words with a grave stare.
The man in the coat then returned to his spot next to the wall.
"I know this comes across as… disappointing, for you to be, here. But it's easy to say you did the best… you could."
"The… illusion of free choice is a rather, biased one for the subser-vient contributor, yes? You can agree you've been, living a… linear exis-tence?"
"Any-thing stated beyond this point isn't of, duplicity. Be sure you… take that into mind."
I straightened up, looking at the suited man square in the face. He held the last page of the script up in both of his hands, pinching the center of the top edge, one hand tilted to the right, one tilted to the left, one twitch of the hand away from tearing the sheet in two.
"Tell me… Miss. Chell… do you wish to die?"
You can expect I was absolutely stunned, since I'd thought that was the case this entire time. I glimpsed at the blood on my jumpsuit, unable to put my mind to it.
"Please try to spare us your, modesty, Miss. Chell… I antici-pate a candid reply."
My thoughts just kept racing. This was the one and only time I wish I didn't have to choose. My throat seemed to burn. I then opened my mouth.
The suited man set the now slightly wrinkled paper back into the briefcase. He appeared unsurprised, yet very amused.
"So you decline?" he asked. "It's been six years, Miss. Chell. I'm sure you've… kept your atten-tion all that time. I'm sure you're, aware of the con-sequences. And with that, you accept full… re-visitation. Is this exact?"
"Coming from a person of your… determ-ination, it's not at all, unforeseen. You seem quite, similar to a certain… operative of mine. As long as my, employers aren't, requesting of your assist-ance, the settleme-nt is in place." He closed the briefcase, heading to the door.
The man in the coat moved toward me, pulling me in for one last hug. Tears weren't shed this time. He took a long look at my face, as if recalling something in his head. He then parted his mouth once again, about to spell out the letter 'L', until he drew back, patting my shoulder. After I said goodbye, he joined the suited man at the door.
Then I remembered a question that was nagging at me the whole time.
"Who are you?"
The suited man laughed, saying,
"We'll, cross that bridge when we get there. But… now is not, the time."
That was when they left.
I open my eyes, facing a nose, a pair of blue eyes behind two tiny panes of glass, and an overjoyed grin.
"I can't believe it–she's alive!" a voice cheered, and I knew who that voice belonged to. I sat up, immediately feeling the rough fabric of gauze around my torso. Wheatley sat beside me, wiping his hands with leftover bandages. He was obviously trembling, trying his best not to stare at the blood staining his sleeves. And he just kept laughing timidly.
"I can't believe it! I can't believe I did it! I–I saved a life!"
"And I thought I couldn't save a life just to save my own life! Well–that's–not the case, but I… nevermind that, actually. You're alive!"
"Almost lost you there… for a moment. You see, I was running down that catwalk, and then it occurred to me–you weren't anywhere! So it took me two hours to find you, more or less. And you weren't moving, and that weird, red… vital-human-juice was everywhere. And I was all, 'aw, this can't be good'. It took me another hour to find a decent spot, so we're not sitting in plain, bloody sight. Found some bandages lying around and stopped the bleeding. Seriously, how much can you humans hold? It's… It's just… madness, I'll tell you. Anyway, I first I thought you weren't breathing…"
He paused and gave a small huff, cleaning his hands more rigorously like a manic germaphobe.
"… Heh… you wouldn't have wanted to see me flip out after that. And then out of the blue, you were breathin' again! Good as new!"
"And while you were sleeping, I had to sit in here, nothing to do, just sit here and look at these freaky little drawings on the walls."
When I gained full awareness, I instantly took notice of the walls. We were back in one of the dens behind the test chambers, alarming me because we seemed to be going backwards, until Wheatley explained there was a double passageway leading into the maintenance units.
As I scanned the walls, I noticed something, something new that I never saw before. It was only a mere sentence scribbled in chalk next to a stick-figure of a man in a white coat holding a familiar box, but it struck me with an odd amount of emotion. I began to smile and my vision blurred with tears, which concerned Wheatley, who worried that the blood-loss finally got to my head or that the emotional shock had settled in.
'Let's keep on moving.'