Chapter 2: 11.2 Kilometers Per Second
“The baby bat
Screamed out in fright,
Turn on the dark,
I’m afraid of the light.”
The first fall I had after waking up took place in the Relaxation Vault, six months back or so. Staring blearily at the microwave across from the bed, I’d listened to the familiar drone of the automated announcer wish me “good morning.”
How does he know it’s morning? I’d thought. There’s no real sun.
“You have been in suspension for…”
He hadn’t said fifty days. He’s said “thirty-seven.” And “thousand.” And “one hundred.” And “eighty-seven.” And “days.”
I’d flailed out of bed, landing on my arm with a duo of thumps. Not able to make myself do the math at that moment, I hadn’t faced the full reality of those numbers until Old Aperture. Those lost days, I’d never get back.
That fallout, though, wouldn’t be anything compared to this. Now, above me, rust-colored rods met with white concrete beams in a kind of childlike, hollow structure that shook and warped beneath volcanic tremors. Pulling my mop bucket behind me, I tried not to lose my footing as I circumvented the base, reviewing my options. I could pick the most stable way up; or I could wait.
That wasn’t an option this time. Anything could happen in minutes—the structure could come down. And this was the time. I felt it deeply, interwoven with a need to get away from the waiting room. No more waiting.
Bracing myself on a concrete support, I tied a gel bottle to one end of the rope to make it easier to throw. My first two attempts to lug it over the lowest iron bar failed. Whirling it like a slingshot produced better results. The knot was tricky, but it didn’t have to be perfect. Once I tied off my bucket to the other rope, I worked my feet up the concrete beam until the bar was within reach.
Five minutes to surmount the first level turned into ten for the second. Standing was loathsome: the tremors would abate just enough to attempt it, and then return with full gusto. On my way to the third level, my foot slipped off the bar. I flailed—gripped the beam, the sensation of freefalling reeling through my mind. It took longer than I would have liked to be able to move again.
The roof of Notre Dame—any flat surface, really—proved more difficult to climb over than a bar. A good amount of my blue gel had spilled by this point; but at that moment, all I wanted was a flat surface beneath me. As if my arrival to the next level triggered a change in the entire, mammoth infrastructure, the facility exhaled and stopped moving. My fingers stayed glued to the metal even though the only thing to grip was mesh. Creaks and settling surfaces…echoes flying for hundreds of meters overhead—and now, downward as well. If Old Aperture represented the forlorn edge of the galaxy, this place formed the intermission between Jupiter and Mars. From Notre Dame to what I’d dubbed the “No Zone”—the one-level ring of stairs and fence directly beneath Aperture proper—there was no purpose: no fully-formed test chambers. No sign of past human staffing.
Sitting too long. Thinking too much. Bad emotions will follow. I exhaled—maybe the last thing in the facility to do so in more ways than one—and wrapped the bucket rope around my hand.
The next four hours, full of a similar process, leading me to the vent duct, aren’t worth recounting. What is worth recounting, though, is the best part of the trek, bar none: the surprise that delighted me upon reaching the vent shaft. There is a closet immediately upon entering this space—it has one of those keypads with the spotty responses. It wouldn’t have been worth my time to breach it; but I discovered the tremors had had some good effects, too.
Dropping my rope and pack, I released a laugh: the lock had been broken. The door swung open on its frame. It responded to a yank by yawning even further from the wall. Inside, four pristine boxes of the holy grail of Old Aperture: Aperture Science Nutritional Bran Bars. These personnel closets had held the only food available to staff, in another twisted rendition of Cave Johnson policies. Microwaves had been thought to “inhibit the firing of portals,” Pat told me their records said, or some scientific ranting like that.
Seizing the boxes into my arms, I ripped off one of the perforated lids and inhaled. Nutty, earthy scent—granola and dried fruit. My mouth filled with saliva. So, so much better than bouillon cubes! In a minute, I’d chomped and swallowed two square bars. They had long been stale—as if that mattered. By the time I really breathed, I only had two full boxes left and half a third. Once again, storage unit findings had saved my life.
This had been my celebration feast for reaching the highest point ever. A smile broke across my face as I lugged my gear down the catwalk to the upshot of the vent. Retying my blonde hair back—sweaty tendrils had obscured my vision for a time—I gazed upwards. My arm muscles felt gelatinous. The tremors abating had been a blessing; but my strength was shot. I’d never had this problem before—actually facing an internal obstacle greater than the deadly outer ones.
Gazing at the tunnel above me, I almost felt as about to enter warp speed—like when Han Solo activates his hyper drive, and the stars around the ship become running milk. Outside this iron universe—this solar system of gunmetal asteroids and planets—what awaited me? Geographically, organically, I already knew: a wasteland of plants and decrepit machinery shells destined to rot beneath the surface of the real earth. But who was left…? Had I been missed? Did anyone alive on this planet even know I was alive?
My brain hatched an idea as I felt a pang of surprising regret. I never expected to mourn leaving; but the human psyche has something about the familiar that it cleaves onto under stress.
Maybe that’s the entire problem. Pulling the bucket up to the edge of the walk, I mused, Would I have gotten out of here sooner if my thoughts of Wheatley hadn’t been so obsessive? If I had been able to sleep every night, or forgive him—forget him—would that have fueled my vigor?
“How about we take a little detour, eh?” His cheery voice rang down from above. Our path had been towards the portal gun so far—towards freedom. Although, being awake, ambling along a concrete, non-sleep-conjured passageway, romantically adorned with leaves and vines, I hadn’t minded the hypothetical.
“Where to?” I smiled up at the bright blue core.
“Anywhere you like,” Wheatley replied. His eye widened. “Oh! We could tour the Companion Cube Manufacturing Wing—that’s always a cheery place.”
My lungs filled. “There’s an entire wing for that?”
He nodded, his bottom eyelid—the metal equivalent—rising. “Yeah! They literally do nothing but roll them off the line. Magical place. You know how She used to have one for each subject. Well, come on! I’ll show you where it is.”
“Great.” I trotted down the passageway, stepping over deep green vines, brushed by dappled sunlight: the result of marred metal, melted holes—as if the roof above wasn’t even a surface—wasn’t even Swiss cheese. More like a thick net. I was a fish, encapsulated in a time gone by beneath the earth, swimming through a tubular, horizontal tank.
Breathing in Aperture, I followed the bright blue sphere of life, marveling at how technology had both trapped us in the past and ushered in the future. If a person—a real, breathing, walk-on-two-legs person—could be encased in a personality core, then what was next? What was left in the universe to create? Hadn’t we done it all? Wheatley would never die…right?
Energy stored in me for decades coursed freely through my veins, making me feel part of the living network surrounding our metal universe. As we passed dilapidated walls, I fancied I felt my skin growing more supple. No wonder these halls housed the manufacturing of companion cubes: vitality and maybe even love seemed to revitalize more as we drew closer to our destination.
I breathed in, and Aperture—enchanted, sun-sprinkled, orbiting Aperture—exhaled in all of her slumbering beauty.
Wheatley had commented at some point along our journey that the path might not have been the correct way after all.
It hadn’t been.
Reluctantly, though not without excitement, I’d agreed to a tour of Old Aperture. The gels, the history, the infrastructure captured the imagination instantly. I felt like a kid, being led by a chipper—maybe even dapper—tour guide.
My plan to escape this solar system of extinction was to throw blue gel on the walls, pack enough of it in a spray bottle to last me, and alternate scampering up the sides of the vent using any momentum to be found. The bucket still held enough gel to be generous, too. Sticking my hand into the mixture, I balanced on the rail and threw a handful onto the wall across from me—a little lower, to compensate for my fall. Once that was done, I spread some on the surface of the walkway directly beneath the railing. That way, I’d have something to get me back up to where I was now. Then, I threw some on the opposite wall, about three feet higher than me. Gel had always been forgiving to me—it buoyed my flesh even if all of my body wasn’t touching the affected area. It had holistically negative effects on the inside of the body, as well; so I endeavored not to put my hand anywhere near my lips during this procedure.
I’m getting out, I’m getting out, I’m getting out…!
The chant repeated, adrenaline built, as I spotted my first checkpoint up the wall: a grate in a smaller vent that ran up the tunnel. I could stop there, spread more gel, and continue. After that, it would take two or three more such steps.
Grate. Button room. Button. Elevator. Freedom.
“Okay.” I breathed. “Okay, okay…”
Leaning away from the rail, held aloft only by my hands, I allowed myself to tip forward. I released my grip, and focused all my attention on the spot of blue beneath me.
Sailing through the air with gel is exhilarating, and intense. I hit the wall, hit the next wall, hit the opposite again before being able to think. Then, flailing my arms, I tried to lock a hold on the grate.
My ribs met the surface of the walk again. I gasped. Five feet. Not too terribly far. What concerned me, as I regained air, was the probability of a failure a few minutes from here. I’d thought the tunnel was less threatening than Notre Dame; but there was less security.
Stay positive, I commanded myself. The walls and the things behind them groaned and creaked in a benign way. Have to position myself to grab it. Fall backwards first.
This produced better results. Grappling aching fingers around the narrow, biting grate links sent a rush of accomplishment ripping through my veins. Buzzing in my head.
I spread gel from the single blue bottle as far up as I could, then bit my lip, weighing the chances of being able to land the next, flat, checkpoint—about twenty feet up.
“These vents and chambers go down for miles,” a memory of his voice invaded my thoughts. “If you fell—well, that would be absolutely horrifying—wouldn’t wish that on anyone—but, if you fell, you could probably be doing it for a minute or more. Straight down. Crack every bone in your body, you would.”
My teeth ground against each other. Gazing upward, feeling the weight of my body suspended by fingers and two scrambling footholds, I paused. I smelled the metal inches from my face. Anger bloomed in my chest as, at the same time, icy fear splashed against the insides of my rib cage.
“No use trying to get through these corridors without me, love. I know this entire place like the back of my…well, blueprints. You know—blueprints. Studied them while I watched you all sleeping. Quite educational. Follow me—this way.”
“This way,” “this way,” “this way…”
The next jump, to my violent shock, was successful. My shoes landed squarely on the hollow metal of the vent’s top. “YES!” In the sonorous tunnel, my voice penetrated down to the depths of my universe. Elation shot through me as lightning. “I am the ultimate test subject of Old Aperture!” I screamed to no one.
Other sporadic, celebratory fist pumps and things of that nature resulted, until I caught sight of the grate, through which I could see the button room, and refocused my dwindling energy.
Almost there. Wheatley…going to find Wheatley. Going to make him answer for six months in the dark.
Hot anger blended with elation until some kind of nauseous, fever-fire set my fingers shaking. My mind couldn’t wrap itself around this, no matter how hard I tried. For a sickening moment, paralysis seized my muscles. I could fail. Gripping my bottle, I took a deep, slow breath. Keep going.
Above me, the tunnel curved in semi-perpendicular fashion, which would allow me to walk the last few feet to the button room. The trickiest part was going to be the last jump, because there were no more holds.
Without warning, the tunnel felt too isolated. The walls and matter behind them seemed too silent. I felt like being in a vacuum—a shrinking wormhole buried in obscurity—time, and space.
No one knows where I am. I will never get out. Even if I do, everything’s pointless. Becoming more aware of my breathing, I stared at the fraction of the grate that I could see. The bright lights through it—like stadium lights—were the sun. Too white. Glaring. I breathed in and tasted the scent of metal and copper and salt and felt in my mind the taste of meaninglessness and the shakiness of fear.
I can’t do this by myself…
Placing a hand against the vent wall, I became fully aware of something I loathed being aware of in this specific way: my own existence.
I realized I was there, in my own body. My eyes—the windows I looked out of—me, no one else—focused on this patch of wall—which no one else would ever see exactly like this, in this moment, again. Alone, existing, breathing, trapped, I felt the air, the walls, creation around me, and bit my lower lip.
Stave off the—focus on something else. My bra itched against my skin, grime and sweat irritating the cavities behind my knees. No use—The light—the thoughts—back to feeling like a spectator in my body. Trying to escape myself, I spoke. “Blue.” To remind my brain of the rational goal here—which wasn’t caving in on itself. “Blue gel.” Usually this worked; but the feeling always came back, in quiet moments. Everything in Old Aperture was too quiet: and loud. Too hidden. Too out in the open.
Jamming my hand into the blue bottle, I threw a splotch at the opposite wall without aiming. A frustrated exhale left my mouth. Don’t waste gel. Not now, Madison!
Pursing my lips, I aimed, and this time landed a big glop where the spot I would have beneath me would propel me. Then, arcing back, I hurled another blotch at the wall behind me and managed to get it pretty far. That will put me…about ten feet below the turn. Blue gel went on the metal below me. I reviewed the trajectory, adjusted my direction, and held my breath. Took a swinging step forward…
Bang—bang—bang—faster than anticipated—always. My arms connected with a surface. I dug in my fingernails. Sliding, a screech—pain shooting through my fingers—the swooping sensation of losing ground. I cried out. My foot found something thin and narrow. I threw my arms around as much of the vent as I could. It cut my stomach—my shirt rode up. The only thought I had was that I was going to fall. I gripped it as hard as I could.
My momentum stopped.
Air brushed over my stomach. Glancing up, knowing I probably had seconds before my arms gave out, I realized I was just a handful of feet from the ledge. It went slowly: First, hiking up my knees; then, with quivering arms, inching higher. One after another, hyperventilating, willing myself not to be sick, until my elbows and knees pulled their way over the concrete slant and I knelt, sweat dripping from my forehead, stomach, and arms.
The jog to the grate was a blur. Exhaustion and elation don’t always mix well, and don’t leave room for much thinking. I remember hacking at the metal with a rough can edge I’d brought—the rusted, thread links didn’t fight me. I made a circle—the closest I could get—big enough to fit myself through, and the lifted myself out through it.
Then, that glorious ceiling was finally directly above me.
Tilting my head brought my button room into view: a chamber suspended in this final annex almost at its vaulted ceiling…higher than I’d remembered. Less emotion met me than I wanted. No fun feelings. No full satisfaction. I’m here. I made it. Why aren’t I leaping? Breath escaped through my lips. The only visible way up was a rickety catwalk that appeared about to crumble. Not sure I won’t, either…hasn’t been this bad in a while. Those lights are suffocating…can’t escape this reign.
The reign of Aperture was like a ghost: it outlasted all outside knowledge of its kingdom, reached its gnarled, rotted claws deep into the earth and held on, laughing at everything trapped in its bowels until the end of time, and who knew what time it really was?
No, don’t be stupid. I won’t die here.
And the entire thing will come down on top of me.
And then what?
Suspension would be relief compared to the empty abyss on the other side of that sleep. Dull, stunted weight crept into my arms again. Move.
I didn’t remember my pack until I stepped away from it. Then, the catwalk, where every creaking, hazardous step felt like a mile. I told my legs they couldn’t be this tired, and fought not to close my eyes. The unearthly groan the metal gave when I stepped into the button chamber didn’t bode well for my return.
In all my daydreams about the button, it had been a dull, practical thing—a means. Maybe it was the lights; maybe it was my delirium, or my mind feeling as shaky as everything else about to come down; or that my hands and thighs couldn’t stop quivering; but that illuminated, glowing, cherry, bulb-like disk looked beautiful. Almost as if it negated the planets around it, offering freedom. “HATCH OVERRIDE,” it read.
Override of what? The past six months?
Even as I crossed the chip-tiled room, felt the cool, Plexiglas surface beneath my stinging palm, and applied the pressure, I knew that couldn’t be true.
Flashing, red lights—groaning pistons—the majestic, godly vault door disconnecting from the passageway to heaven—it all hardly registered. I made it back down the staircase before it was reduced metal splinters, and I crossed other, shorter catwalks to get into the cage-like elevator.
This is like a dream…
Worse than that…
Everything I’d ever wanted…and it wasn’t enough. Movement and progress, but nothing of what I’d expected to feel. Of what I needed to be all right. The elevator rose as if I weighed nothing. My emotions floated somewhere above, in the haze, as I exhaled from one metal corner.
Flying doesn’t feel like this.
Pulled up through space, ferried the last few years through time, my soul felt as heavy as a testing sphere: as a planet.
As I reached the apex of my half-year dream—as the elevator docked and the doors swung lazily open—the realization settled on me: there was no real way out. Just up. Up until reaching the next ceiling.
As I crawled beyond the doors from some primal necessity to get out of the only thing that could drag me back down into my own, bouillon-cube-filled hell, I beheld the No Zone for the second time. The in-between strip, housing titan coils the size of giants’ bedsprings, hazed dark, and DANGER! KEEP OUT! Signs, posted on the fence that surrounded my circular area.
Within a lonely halo of light, on the safe side of the fence, the final staircase climbed to Aperture proper. I stared blankly ahead, planning on moving…in a few seconds.
From beyond the cursed fence, destined to reign in this slice of nothing for as long as it endured, creaks, groans, and the other usual suspects sounded. They brought a certain level of rationale back to my fuzzy brain.
More tremors are what I expected to hear. What I didn’t expect was what came: a sharp, metallic CLANG, and the grunting of a human voice.