Wheatley was right about there having been five test subjects before Chell; what he failed to perceive, even while in charge of the facility, was that they hadn’t died horrifically. Or, to be blatantly honest, at all.
Chapter 1: The 1978 Hall of Fame
“You must continue taking in even the shallowest of breaths, continue putting forth even the smallest of efforts to sustain your dreams. Don’t ever, ever, ever give up.”
—Richelle E. Goodrich
Sometimes, I liked to look out past the “Pump Station Gamma” sign and pretend the bluish haze surrounded murky planets, instead of rickety, rusted testing spheres. My home consisted of the waiting room with the warmest colors anywhere close to it. Outdated, yellow tile and the matching booth with the small window—those two welcomed me home after each expedition. After this wing of Old Aperture—the ‘70s block—shut down, test associates neglected to clear out all the storage: namely, all the utility closets.
Once I had resolved not to die, the closets proved quite indispensable. Turns out awkward, mental portal gun courses needed to be cleaned just like any restaurant. Mops, buckets, spray bottles, and rope comprised some of the rewards offered me after I did a number on the doors. Keypads and the electricity had proved consistently spotty: pick the right time, and just about any control panel or tech room was accessible.
Actually, if that had been the truth, I wouldn’t have still been down there.
The spheres were quiet on the day I set out for the fourteenth time. Intermittently, their rust-caked networks of pipes an acid pools creaked and groaned mournfully—a chorus intoning a timeless dirge. Then, the planets seemed to move in their cloudy orbits, and I imagined my little, yellow haven as the sun. Eyes closed, I could picture it: no objective—arrived at the desired location—already here. No need to make the arduous journey to the button, because only here mattered. The center of the universe…this 1970s universe, anyway.
A gentle, familiar creak from behind, back in the waiting room, pulled me from my thoughts. Exhaling, I slid off the railing. Pat. She should have something good, for those five new segments of railing.
My reason for staying in the 1978 waiting room was two-fold. It was an area in which re-activating one of Johnson’s voice recordings had been easy: step into the elevator, ride down a bit, and come back up before the concept of descending further into oblivion closed up my throat. But the much more important reason was Pat. Maintenance had been more concerned with leeching various types of poison from their bloodstreams than mopping up the remains of whatever happened to still be down here. That’s where some of the reawakened cores had come in handy.
Walking back inside the main building, I followed the catwalk to its edge, and took hold of a rope I’d fastened to let me to the floor. Long fall boots would have been an absolute heaven send. Unfortunately, heaven’s delivery service didn’t extend down here. Maybe they only did in-service companies. Maybe they didn’t have a laser big enough to get through the vault door. In any case, Pat delivered.
Her pale green light bounced off the dark inner walls behind the “Elevator to Surface” sign. While the door had always been stuck shut, we’d managed to wrench off the grates near the top together. I stood before the door, straining to hear her.
Finally, a soothing, “Hello, Madison,” traveled through the murk.
I couldn’t help smiling. “Pat!” Forty-eight hours had passed since she’d been here. At least, by my adapted time estimation.
Pat descended to where I could see her eye through the window. “I found a treat for you.” I smiled. “Did you know some of the staff lounges in the B wing still have cans?”
My eyebrows rose. “You mean like beans?”
“Well…” She glanced to one side. “Not exactly. I’m not sure those would be viable. But I did find white rice.”
Almost instantly, my cheeks smarted, and saliva filled my mouth. Straight carbs. Straight, straight carbs. I sighed. “Oh, Pat…thank you.” Then, remembering the metal slats, I stepped to retrieve them. “I have your replacements, too.”
Cores are kind; and, for the most part, they’re not too proud to do their jobs. That being said, Pat’s continuous routes cleaning this particular wing—and the reality that no one checked on it anymore—rendered her rail dreadfully out of date. It wasn’t one of the out of commission ones, but it was close.
It wasn’t easy for a core without a body or a nanobot with a microscopic one to find replacement metal. That’s where I came in. And rice—glorious, white rice—that’s where Pat met me.
After gifts were exchanged, I told her the reasons why today’s expedition was going to go better than any I’d made. She listened intently to my words, filtered through sticky starch, her body bobbing in encouragement each time I listed an upside.
“That’s true,” her honeyed response came. “There hasn’t been a power outage in at least two weeks.”
“Usually they come in bursts.” I swallowed. “I feel like if I wait another three days, it’ll be too risky. Too close.”
“And you managed to bring back more gel than last time,” Pat added. “Almost three times as much.”
“Yeah.” I set the can down and looked over at my pack: three full spray bottles of orange gel sat snugly inside. The mop bucket waited, filled with blue gel. I smirked. “If I can avoid spilling out the mop bucket like last time.”
Pat released her creaky, lilting laugh. “I can’t imagine what the rats or birds below felt when that hit them.”
I chuckled. “If there are any left. There also haven’t been tremors in a long time. I think things are finally starting to settle. Fewer and fewer hazards.”
“And your journeys are getting more and more often.” Her voice sounded softer.
I looked up, tilted my head to one side. Pat’s Lima-bean-colored eye stared at me. “What?”
Her upper lid lowered a bit. She studied the bottom of the grate. “I just wish there was more we could do about this door.”
Taking a slow breath, I began for what must have been the fiftieth time. “Even if we could—even if you had the strength to…”
She sighed. “I know.” This time the mechanical quality in her voice gave it a tragic vibration.
We’d tried sending her for information before—she’d tried to escape her confines as I had. A quest to retrieve nothing more than my birthday from the Relaxation Vault archives had revealed Pat to be just as incarcerated as me. “I just wish I could help you avoid all this. It always takes you so long…”
I pulled my knees up in front of me. She knows that isn’t true. “At the longest, it was the same forty-eight hours you were gone.”
“If you don’t break anything.”
She isn’t usually this assertive. Still, she has a point. Every time I’d made an expedition to escape, there had been hazards: fires. Lights going out—I shuddered. That one had only sent me running back, terrified, once…
Tremors, dropped supplies, sprains…sometimes combinations. I liked to think I’d appropriately prepared for everything; but there were points along the way back to Aperture proper that still left me feeling like a little girl instead of twenty-one.
There was something inside of me that would not rest. Even while I was planning—as long as I was injury-free, I felt the pull back to the surface. Or, at the very least, the modern part of the facility. “I have to try, Pat.” Dying was not an option. Not like the astronauts and war heroes—not like the bums and anyone else who had been here. I would not be another fatality, a fail-stamped test report.
I would make the top of the list for this sector. I would be the model subject.
And then he’d see he’d made more than one mistake: abandoning me, and underestimating my ability.
Pat rolled her eye: a rarity of expression that made my eyebrows shoot up. “All right.” Her tone sounded dry. “If you must. But so you know, the B wig hallways have enough cans to win multiple school drives. All you have to do is ask.”
Getting to my feet, I studied my pack. “What you’ve brought me is more than enough. I think this time, I’m actually going to pull a muscle if I’m not careful.”
Inside, five cans of bouillon cubes and two small bottles of honey kept the gel company. I’d licked some of the blue gel off the tip of my finger months ago; even that small amount had made me sick for the better part of a week. To say the tops of the gel bottles were screwed on deathly tight wouldn’t have been an overstatement.
“What about,” Pat said more loudly, “the flashlight? I was going to bring you another one.”
The caring nature of her statement left me turning towards her, unable to ignore the inevitable. Keeping eye contact, I sighed. “I’m sorry.”
Pat’s green eye watched me. She didn’t move. “You won’t find what you’re looking for.”
That triggered the small wake of an emotional current I’d tried to lock up for six months: one that waxed and waned with idleness and hopelessness. As the catwalks and supports of the rusted, ‘70s universe creaked and clacked, I felt its force start mounting. My jaw felt stiff. “I will.”
“Madison.” Pat abandoned all pretense of nonchalance. “The core is hopeless.”
I ejaculated, “Don’t say that!”
“He doesn’t deserve your obsession.”
“He left me here.” Evasive. True. Heat constricted around my chest. My hands moved to put more things in my already-full pack. “I’m going.” As I donned the supplies, orange-coated bottles shifted. “I’m going,” I repeated. Pulled my mop bucket and coiled rope behind me. “I’m going to get and then I’m coming to get you.”
“Madison…” Pat’s entreaty from across the room sounded soft, thin: like foam.
Turning on my heel, I heard my own voice adopt a pitch tinged with fever. “I’m not going to leave you—I’m coming back. With a real portal gun.” The can of half-eaten rice sat on the floor, alone, between us. Small and immobile. Trapped. Pat’s eye looked like a stoplight saying go. “And long fall boots.”
She blinked. “Okay, then, Madison. Go.” I’d almost expected something different. “Be safe. Goodbye.”
There were few things that made me feel akin to the way power failures did. Watching her ascend, her light fade, for possibly the last time replaced the burning in my stomach with familiar, acidic dread. I used the ropes to get back to the catwalk, hoisting up the blue gel afterwards, like I’d always done.
The emancipation grid functioned as my door. Outside its nonexistent protection, the sky—or what I’d come to imagine was the sky—cloaked the spheres in a blanket of electric blue. I fancied it morning—or a lively dusk. Time to go. Time to set out. Time to do this thing. Finally.
A series of catwalks began above my balcony and traveled across the divide to Pump Station Gamma. It felt like traversing a level of a classic video game: up and over a little each time. Never meant to be done like this. Traveling in Aperture without a portal gun took an extremely long time. But I was half okay with that—it gave time for thinking…chances to notice facility details otherwise overlooked.
The lights, like Cave Johnson’s messages, were automatic. I’d listened to his recordings enough to surmise most of the story; though I could never be sure if Caroline had actually become the computer. Wheatley never mentioned that little bit of information—only that “She,” whoever She was, was off.
Wheatley…I allowed myself an exasperated sigh as I hoisted the bucket onto the third catwalk. Sheesh…I need to get something better to do with my mind than this same old track.
Dust curled in tendrils from the metal beneath my feet. It fell, serenaded by the iron creaking of strained, abandoned cords, into gray-blue haze. Heights didn’t bother me as much as darkness. When you had to deal with one more than the other, you got used to the former. Besides, at a certain point, all the climbing leveled out. After a while, I’d walk across flat surfaces. Get enough of a break to believe my quads could take some more. It was all I’d ever been able to do.
I didn’t like it; but it wasn’t up to me.
The rope attached to the mop bucket crackled as I hoisted it up the last gap. From here, I swung it down onto the Gamma balcony—spilling a satisfyingly small amount—and dropped down myself.
Stage one complete.
Inside the door, the pumps’ pistons loomed on the left like shadowy, sleeping jaws. The rest of the room was lit. This moment, I indulged in memory. After, I knew I’d have to focus more intently than I ever had.
“Wow!” My voice echoed through the room—smaller than some of the ones we’d seen on the way, but still impressively stocked with machinery. The tighter space felt safer, more intimate.
“Isn’t it cool?” His voice came from above me, on the left. “All three gels in one room. Very useful. Almost not worth having one without the other two, really.” Wheatley moved along a rail on the room’s edge: one of the ones that hovered between being usable and condemned. “You’d just be bouncing around, stuck. Or sliding against walls with no portal surfaces. Not a very useful test subject.”
I smiled, tilting my head back. “I like this room the best.”
Wheatley glanced around. “Sure.” He nodded. “If you like engines lulling you to sleep.” His sentence ended in a playful tone.
Reaching ground level, I passed alongside an enormous, statue-like tube running into the floor. “It’s better than endless space.”
“Fun fact for you.” That blue eye focused down on me. “No test subject has ever been in this room. You’re the first.”
“Really?” The stairs led me under the pistons, into the control room.
“Oh yeah. It’s only been maintenance staff, until now. Neat, isn’t it?”
“This is awesome. Think of how much power these turbines have.” A pause in the rhythmic hum signifying Wheatley’s movement caught my attention. At the doorway, I glanced back. “Everything good?”
Wheatley squinted at the railing directly before him. “Rust…” He said slowly, as if it was the most important discovery Aperture had ever sponsored. “This part of the facility isn’t maintained—it would be impossible for a core to live down here. Absolutely impossible.” He shook his head. “Horrible conditions.”
I frowned. “I’m sorry. Wish I could help.”
Wheatley gave a dramatic sigh before shooting me the equivalent of a smile. “All part of the tour. Can’t complain too much.” A slight bow of his body. “Couldn’t ask for better company.”
I grinned. Both of us having been alone for decades, I knew he meant it. “Yeah, well, you’re technically not supposed to use those rails. Aren’t they ‘off-limits’?” Wheatley rolled his eye. “Perilous? The discontinued ones?”
“Yeees,” he groaned. “The worst of the worst.” Sliding not-so-smoothly along the dilapidated portion, he joined me at the door. “You win. I can just leave you to your own devices next time. Let you open all the entrances on the way back up.”
“No!” I walked in. “No. I’m kidding.”
The control room—which was not designed wisely, the pistons situated over the only exit: classic Aperture—held a control panel facing the window, and three gel pump levers at its rear. This tour had been fun so far: an ages-entombed facility, overgrown, with endless catacombs and dilapidated test chambers. This was the kind of thing about which archeologists and historians dreamt. We’d spent a while traversing the guts of what used to be the bustling hub of testing activity; now, it made for a dusty, rust-glinted mess of broken rooms and shuddering, splintery pipes. The control room light bars hummed like luminescent insects above my head.
“So,” Wheatley blurted, “which one first?” His blue eye studied me intently.
I grinned, turned to survey my options. White gel was virtually useless without a gun—couldn’t do anything but erase mistakes. Blue gel really didn’t provide any use unless one jumped from a considerable height. Without long fall boots, I’d tried not to do that.
Skating around it was.
As I pulled the center lever, Wheatley commented, “Ah. Always liked orange. Middle option. Good choice. Usually gives the best odds of winning. On game shows and things.”
I took a few moments to observe the active pipes out the window. They roared and shook with long lost life. Then, I walked toward the exit.
“Did I tell you that I was on a game show once?”
I frowned. “No.”
The rattling, violent movement of the pistons, reaching full speed already, shook the floor beneath my boots. Pale walls seemed to move slightly.
“It was spectacular.” Wheatley’s voice broke up every few seconds beneath the horrible din. The room transformed into a volcano of sound—an orchestra of machinery that made me want to close my eyes and cover my ears and head. “Absolutely sp…—nd they told me I couldn’t press all the buttons at once—isn’t that mad?…know all the answers, I…mean, it’s not like…—an alive, though, these things are loud. Would not like to work down here. Monstrous job. Monstrous pay, too.”
“Wheatley!” I called. “How do we get out?”
The blue-eyed core looked around—at the pumps; the pistons; though the glass. His lower lid rose a bit, in a gentle grimace. “Ahh…that is a bit shortsighted, isn’t it?”
I yelled, “Did Aperture force them to stay in here until testing finished?”
“…You know what? I bet that’s it.” He looked at me. “Employees didn’t get lunch break unless they’d worked a while here. And you never saw those guys running these silly little levers.”
I frowned, wanting to scoff but knowing it would go unheard. “That’s stupid!”
Yes. Yes, it had been.
The entire thing was stupid.
Cave Johnson; the administration. The idea of a salt mine buried in the earth used for testing holes in space. The inverted heavens. The encapsulated diorama, hanging beneath the ground like a sick, fifth-grade presentation on the bottom shelf. Expendable, paper people lying forgotten amidst slipshod, hollow, rust-colored Styrofoam balls.
And the idea that we could go traipsing through it without becoming part of the experiment.
I’d tried to turn off the lever that day—my gaze wandered now to those devilish jaws. The levers had been made to budge: there were limits on the amount of gel used for each testing period. The engines would shut off.
But we’d needed out before that eight-hour period was up.
And the thing about dilapidated testing facilities is that components don’t always do what they’re supposed to.
Things that are supposed to move don’t.
And people who aren’t supposed to move do.
I strode now along the ground floor to the three ropes dangling from the open glass of the control room window. Without hesitating, I pulled all three. The levers would reset on their own. By then, I’d be well on my way to the red button.
A few quick jumps were all it took to get out of the engine room. Before pushing the squealing, metal bar on the door, I turned to listen to the distant herd of engines pumping away. Puling my bucket up beside me, I closed my eyes.
“Let go!” Wheatley’s frantic, high-pitched cry reached my ears. “Let go!”
My teeth stabbed my tongue. The piston came down, less than five inches from my face. Lights swam behind my eyelids, like the sound turned visible. My sleeve held fast to the railing against which I’d tried to sidle. My heart felt about to burst and splatter inside my chest. “I’m stuck!” I retreated into as much of a ball as I could manage.
“Hang on! I’ll get you out!”
The room shook with the ancient force. My pulse pounded in my ears and head and fingertips.
Creaking—almost inaudible. Wheatley began to yell. Between two bars, I watched rust flake off his rail—segments slide against one another. He dashed back to the main one. The part he’d been on fell.
“Come back!” I screamed.
Wheatley’s eye darted absolutely everywhere. The despair in his voice somehow reached me. “I…hold on! I don’t think…” The railing wobbled in my vision. “I…I’ve got to go back!”
I fought to capture air, to speak, to not throw up. “Use another one!”
“There are none!” He shook now, too—or maybe that was everything. “I’ve got to get back! I can…I can get back up and stop the engines!”
“Not from there!” My terror enabled me to ignore the pistons for the time it took to respond. “Help!”
“I…” He looked at me one more second before the screeching chaos jarred us. “I’m sorry.”
Authentic grief in his voice. A forced slammed next to my eardrum. I shrieked. Cowered closer to the railing. Pressed my chest and legs and face into metal.
When I opened my eyes, there was no one. The only blue left was gel dripping onto the floor.
Time seemed to freeze around the room, then. The initial shaking, reawakening, abated somewhat. Then, nothing but the noise and my proximity to the jaws, the other side of death.
I called his name once more.
The demonic, iron carnival raged; somehow sliding out of my shirt, I curled up on the control room floor. Tried to block out the screeching.
What followed my present exit of the pump station—en route to the vault door and button—was a familiar repertoire of hoisting supplies, jumping, sliding, and balancing across chasms that would have made the Twin Towers tightrope walker shake his head. The further out, the less smooth things got. But the shaken-up routine partly kept me trying.
Elevators, fence-like grates (read: hurdles), and Cave Johnson recordings came alongside, until a familiar checkpoint materialized: the elevator shaft leading to the most spacious leg of the journey.
The shaft had no working elevator; this was where my arms and the gel really started to take the brunt of the work. It didn’t take much blue gel to produce buoyancy. By using it and the assortment of wooden planks lying around, I made the trip relatively unscathed, if slowly. By the time I heaved myself over the top, a few splintery scratches decorates my palms and knees. Sweat drenched my armpits. Without much ventilation, Old Aperture felt like a swamp.
These were the moments—when my mind could rest—in which waves of uneasiness began.
What am I doing?
Why am I doing this?
Is there any point to it anymore?
Buried beneath layers of earth, secluded, I was alone with thoughts more than was healthy. My efforts, in the grand scheme of the universe outside my universe, felt futile.
More squealing doors. Then, the Notre Dame of Old Aperture.
Staggering forward, underneath huge, heaven-height, snow-colored pillars, I dropped my gear and slumped onto the floor.
Here, food, sleep. Above, more gel would be available. It’s probably been about eight hours—pretty good time; but from here, things got deadly. One wrongly placed foot could mean falling hundreds of feet. The yawning space above me, beautifully glazed with fog, looked lonelier than the gel room.
The way I’d learned to think, now nothing much stood between the vault button and me besides air.
Combining bouillon cubes with honey was almost like eating foreign dessert. After hungrily emptying a can, I leaned back against the pillar that formed my temporary annex. I couldn’t help smiling at least a little. If there had been a functioning leaderboard for Aperture, I would have probably just landed at the top.
That was all I had.
The unrest came back: a fluttering inside my chest that memories and the chasm above aggravated. I stifled a moan. I will get out.
As if to answer—to laugh—the entire facility began convulsing in a fashion nothing short of otherworldly.
My heart rose into my throat. Aperture does not move like that. I’d been awake for months—endured many, many tremors. This did not happen.
The pale diorama supports above my head shrieked.