BC: The Playlist: Chapter 4

BC: The Playlist: Chapter 4

Almost halfway through this novel! I hope you guys are enjoying these interim posts. Let’s get to this chapters’ inspiration songs.

  • “Grasping Some Beauty”: Epic Soul Factory—As Madison and Zeph re-emerge into modern Aperture and meet more humans, I wanted to convey a sense of awe despite the dilapidated surroundings. This song is ethereal, and the first time I heard it, it made me happy. Hopefully it makes you feel similar things.
  • “Mechanical Planet”: VERIDIA—Another Christian song, my hope is that this plays into the mechanical/existential themes in Portal. I picked out songs for the characters specifically: if Madison had a theme song for the entire story, this would be it.
  • “All These Lives”: Daughtry—And if Callan had a theme song, this would be his. His goal right now, at all costs (the main goal I crafted for him) is to protect his growing tribe and get them out of the facility. His anger stems largely from what’s been done to the rest of his people trapped in the facility.

Aaand, that’s it! Comment if you have any thoughts; and don’t forget to do something positive today, for your own health or for someone else’s: Turn on some music, redecorate, drink a fun drink, step into the sunshine, meet a friend and ask how their day’s been…all that good stuff. God bless! Merry Christmas!

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Chapter 4: Mortality Control

Chapter 4: Mortality Control

Previous chapters:

ch-4-main

Chapter 4: Mortality Control

“All go to the same place. All came from the dust and all return to the dust.”

—Ecclesiastes 3:20, NASB


Zeph stepped in front of me as brisk footsteps approached the corner. My shoulders tightened; I took a step behind his bushy blond head. Murmured voices reached my ears, and then two pairs of legs rounded the corner.

A man appeared—older than us, younger than our parents, with a trimmed beard—with a woman about the same age with a narrow face, and brown hair and eyes. They took about three seconds to move their gazes to us, and another moment for the shock to manifest.

Zeph and I stood silently. The man’s and woman’s expressions changed. Then, the woman’s face lit up. “Ah! What the hell…?” Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Zeph smirk. As she approached us, throwing out her arms, the man continued to stare.

“Hi!” I moved toward the woman, unable to keep the smile off my own face. Our boots clumped shallowly. This hug felt similarly intoxicating to the first: the temperature felt perfect, the company felt sublime, and for a second, I believed we could just stay in this lobby for the foreseeable future.

The woman was talking quickly, saying things I responded to but don’t remember. Her breasts pushed against me, and it seemed for a moment that I had a mother again.

The boys had to intrude, of course. The man spoke up. “Where did you two come from?”

From over her shoulder, I glimpsed a green, fake plant, and at the same time, realized this would be a crucial introduction. We pulled back. I glimpsed Zeph crossing the space now, too. He held out an arm. “My name’s Zeph.”

The man took it, looking into Zeph’s eyes, and nodded. “Callan. This is my wife, Kenda.”

My mouth fell open. What are the odds?

The woman studied me. “What’s your name?”

We exchanged brief histories: Callan and Kenda had awoken thanks to Wheatley, too. Callan viewed the core as well-meaning, and not responsible for their abandonment. In fact, they didn’t seem to consider themselves abandoned. Callan had fallen on his way to retrieve the Portal gun, and broken a bone. Wheatley, assuming he was dead, left him…over two years ago.

My breath caught. “How do you know how long it’s been?”

Zeph stared, as well. “How did you survive that long awake?”

Callan sniffed. “It was easy while she was off…plus, we found the computer that has all the subject data for the Vault.” TAKE US TO IT! I almost blurted, struggling to stay on my lobby chair. “After that, I met Kenda.”

“Oh,” Zeph said, “so you guys weren’t married before?”

Callan smirked. I found I enjoyed the look of a smile on his face. “No. We got married about a month after we met. Short timing, but… circumstances.”

Zeph turned to Kenda. “So, when were you woken up?”

“About a year after Callan.” She leaned sideways in her chair. “He told me—Wheatley told me, that is—that…” I zoned out at his name, anger and sorrow blooming in my chest. Then, as I’d had to do many times, I forced myself into the present. “…thought a woman might be better conversation than the two men he’d already chosen.”

“Two?” Zeph interjected.

I leaned toward Zeph, feeling as if he were my best friend out of all the humans. “How long did you…?”

“I don’t know.” He gazed through Kenda. “I…don’t know.”

“That means,” I said to no one in particular, “I was the last woken up.”

Kenda asked, “You remember how long you’ve been awake?”

“It hasn’t been a year.”

Callan replied, “You said you guys didn’t stay up here long: he took you into Old Aperture?”

Zeph nodded. “To varying levels before dumping our asses; but yes.”

Tremors made a sudden reentrance into our meeting. The hanging lamps above our heads swung angrily. Plants’ leaves shivered.

Callan stood. “Okay. Time to see how fast you are. We need to get to the control annex before it caves in on itself if we want to get profiles of you two.”

No problem. Zeph and I stayed on their heels as Callan—quick for someone who’d broken part of his leg—and Kenda, his found bride, bounded down the hall they’d come out of.

“How many,” Zeph asked, a thrill of hope in his tone, “of these people are alive?”

Callan glanced over his shoulder with hazel-green eyes. “I think that’s better shown than told, friend.”

About five minutes later—no problem, for me—we came to a generic metal door: one of the standard, push-bar ones scattered everywhere. Beyond lay the most technology I’d seen in one room. Linked computers filled half of it, curved against one wall. Several camera feed screens filled the other side, displaying rooms I only glanced at before moving to the center console that held my secrets.

“Okay,” Callan said. “Here’s the plan: get your info pulled up, print it out, and let’s be out of here in two minutes.”

“Two minutes?” Zeph exclaimed. Kenda joined me. I eagerly told her my first name as if she’d forgotten. Kenda pressed buttons, asking me things like my age and height. I guessed—around 5’6”. It took longer than it would have if I’d remembered things like my last name or birthday—but that was why we’d come. Kenda clicked on a file with my picture and pressed print. Butterflies and adrenaline fought for room inside my stomach.

“No way.” Zeph’s tone shook me out of my elation.

Stepping to the left, I gazed at his monitor: lines of text that held the status of the entire Vault.

There were four.

Occupied Suites:

Viable Subjects:

Current Stasis:

Activated Chambers:

Studying the numbers, I felt pressure come unbidden into the space behind my eyes. Tears gradually began to spill onto my cheeks. For a while, we just stared.

10,000

“What do you think…” Zeph started, but couldn’t finish. Another tremor shook the world.

6

Kenda placed a hand on my shoulder, which I barely registered.

9,994 

“We need to go.” Callan’s voice penetrated my thoughts. “Zeph, print out your information. This ceiling’s going to rupture.”

6

“We’re all.” Zeph haltingly moved toward the console. “There’s no one even sleeping.”

“But there are two more awake,” Kenda said. “We were hoping to find all of you.” She held my face. “But it’s a blessing we discovered you alive. The others may not be, if they’ve been awake for long.”

Zeph typed. I studied the display wall, not knowing what to say or focus on or do. For once, I didn’t have a drive to leave the danger.

“Come on.” Callan put a hand on my other shoulder. “We need to move. We’ll find a place to spend the night. Together.”

That got us going, if robotically. Numbers flashed through my mind as Zeph and I clutched our sheets of paper.

“Ah. So that’s where you are.”

The voice reverberated from somewhere in the room. Everyone stopped. Callan’s face turned white as cotton. His hand lay frozen on the door.

“I was worried my Relaxation Vault database had become defective after all these decades. But it seems you were naïve enough to broadcast your location to the entire mainframe. Good going.”

Zeph released a breath. “Is that…?”

Kenda’s head went up, and down.

The chilling tone pounded so loudly it felt suffocating. “Listen carefully. I don’t have a lion’s share of patience at the moment; and you four constitute a small fraction of any threat to this facility. A small, insignificant, mentally handicapped part. So, I’m going to give you the option to do yourselves a favor, and step inside one of the suites, before I’m forced to terminate you.”

Callan bounded to the door. “That sounds like an invitation to leave!” We ran out as our leader pumped his arm, urging us on, back into the Vault.

“It’s a one-way intercom.” Kenda’s tone rose higher. “She can’t hear us. Not that she’d listen.”

Every door we passed sent icy, yet burning, spears through my guts. I choked something back and struggled to put my legs in front of each other. We reached the end of the hall.

“She’ll jam the elevator,” Callan said.

“Or rig it,” Zeph agreed.

As one unit, we bolted for the stairs. Callan wrenched the door open, stepped around it, and promptly turned and shoved Kenda back into the building.

“Helloo.”

I glimpsed the turret a moment before it locked onto me, and dove as well.

A stray bullet or two reported on the papered wall. I strained my neck to see behind me. “Zeph!”

“Here.” His voice sounded strained. When I found him, however, I realized it was just from the position he’d thrown himself into on the other side of the door.

Callan got to his knees. “This is where we need to strategize and go.”

Zeph nodded, and then stared between Callan and I.

After a pause, I motioned toward the door with my chin. “I’ve never been around them—can it see out of its back?”

“No.” Callan opened his mouth to say more, when her voice projected through the air again.

“I suppose I’ll interpret that as a ‘no.’ Interesting, given that you constitute the largest collection of cognizant humans left on earth.”

“Yeah, well, screw you.” Zeph was still curled up against the wall. It struck me that he’d never had to face an outside adversary in the No Zone.

Tremors started up as Callan, Kenda and I crowded the door. The turret’s needle-thin beam shone into the hall, falling between the two holes in the faded, yellow paper.

Callan regarded me. “Here’s the plan. You get to one side and edge out to where you can barely see its eye—and it can barely see you. I’ll come in from the other side.”

I nodded. “Okay. Got it.”

Callan held out a hand. “Make sure not to give it time to finish speaking.”

“Got it.”

We spread out, jumping across the doorway.

“Death is not a strategic option for you. I’m going to gift you one more chance, because you’ve all been alone for so long; and because you’re all incompetent. And after that, I’m going to kill you. The ball’s in your court. And by ball, I mean turret.”

“Ready?” Callan called.

“Yep.” I drew a deep breath, bit my lip, and moved so that I caught sight of the turret’s grotesque, bright eye. That little beam moved to me. My mind froze. My body tensed. Wait

“Deploying.”

I lunged back. Another bullet pierced the wall. I yelped and landed on the carpet.

Callan’s feet were already in the stairwell. I heard a grunt; metal hitting concrete. A metallic twang. Gunfire. I screamed, but Kenda shushed me. I rushed to her side and glanced in: the turret lay down one landing, closing in on itself after apparently riddling the wall.

“What—?”

“There are more.” Callan rejoined us and looked at his wife. “Below. Like two floors down. They can’t make us out up here, but we can’t go down this stairwell.”

Zeph spoke up, on his feet now. “GLaDOS probably has them all rigged.”

“GLaDOS?” I asked. “He told you her name?”

“Yeah. You didn’t know?”

My teeth ground together. My hands clenched.…It shouldn’t matter that Wheatley shared that information with Zephaniah and not me. It needs to not matter now.

“Have it your way. I could have placed you in testing, when the time came. Then you would have had a shot at living longer than twenty-four hours. Good luck trying to use any of the exits.” A faint beep sounded.

Kenda crossed her arms. “We can’t get past them without equipment. Let’s raid one of the rooms, make it a base, and set up camp.”

“You want to stay?” Callan asked.

“Just long enough to work out a better strategy than almost putting a bullet through Madison.”

“They’re turrets. That’s the only way to deal with them. But I suppose you two are tired?” He looked at us hopefully—hopefully that we’d say no.

Zeph shook slightly. He sided with Kenda in wanting to stay the night. While I sympathized with how much overstimulation this must be for him, I also felt disgusted. We’d barely made any ground.

As we trudged back down the hall, I tried to steady my breathing, and thought of Pat. She’d tried to tell me to be careful. I hadn’t listened.

At the same time, here I was.

The room we chose was an inconspicuous one: “suite” 4063. Callan and Kenda had discovered that it didn’t have anyone in it. They insisted Zeph and I take the bed; I told them jokingly that I wasn’t about it. Hugging him was one thing. Going from isolation to sleeping next to someone—even a mutually exhausted friend—was different.

The four of us dropped our meager supplies, and the day came to a close.


Before we’d undergone stasis, test subjects used to ask each other how one would be able to tell, aside from updates, when night fell over Aperture. No one had come up with a helpful answer. Now, up here, where there were holes for light to filter several thousand feet from the surface, it proved doable. Some plants possessed rare flowers that closed up as the shadows dimmed our surroundings. Turns out we’d chosen a room next to a hole-riddled graveyard of another suite; if I stared at the infrastructure, and the plants, this didn’t seem as tangible.

“What’s your birthday?” I asked Zeph. He was seated with his sheet of paper on the other side of a dim lamp. Our crumbling, cushioned chairs used to swivel; now, they crouched on rusted supports at odd angles.

Zeph’s blue-eyed gaze moved across the paper. “March 1st, apparently.” His voice floated quietly, as his eyes scanned the other information for what must have been the fifth time.

“That’s coming up.” Callan sat on a blanket by the empty closet. “About two days from now.”

Zeph looked up. I felt a slight change in air pressure. For a moment, my best friend regarded Callan. “Okay. How do you know that?” Kenda came out of the bathroom to watch. “If today is…February 27th—really—how do you know that? And how much do you really know about the facility?”

Callan straightened. “We’ve had two years in near-solitary confinement to figure it out.”

Zeph replied, “How are we supposed to trust that you’re trying to lead us in the right direction?”

“…Excuse me?”

Zeph’s jaw clenched. “Why should we trust you?”

Kenda took a step forward. “Hey.”

“Sorry,” he replied. “I’m a little sensitive about directions. Kinda went crazy for a year without them. All of our brothers and sisters have just been discovered deceased. And we hardly know you. So, I just want explanations before we proceed.”

“Well,” Kenda said, “before she woke up—for whatever reason that was—we’d been free to roam the facility. Just like you’d been down there.”

“We saw different parts of it,” Callan continued. “Manufacturing; Staff sections; Disposal areas…mostly the closest ones.”

“So,” I asked, “you learned how to get around? You know where these places are?”

Kenda nodded. “Somewhat.”

“Any evidence to back any of that up?” Zeph leaned his elbows on his knees.

Callan glared. “That you have a printed out version of your personal records, courtesy of us. Anything more you need? Some pretzels? A phone call?”

“How about what year it is?” Zeph replied.

“Kid’s got a point,” Kenda said. “We don’t know that.”

Zeph faced her. “I’m…” He stared at his sheet. “Yeah—I’m twenty-six, so don’t be calling anybody here a kid. We all survived—we’ve grown up in here.”

“…You’re right. And we need to preserve whoever we have left. There are still two who may be dead or trapped out there. We need to do this together.”

Again, I felt reluctant about subscribing to an ideal goal like that: we camped now amongst ten thousand skeletons. And despite our knowledge of this underground, we knew anything about the state of the skeletons upstairs in the real universe.

Still, we read our sheets.

Callan Clay had been thirty-two; Kenda Roberts-Clay had been twenty-nine. Both had been awake long enough to have at least one birthday since. Callan’s was September 7th. Kenda’s was January 27th. Under the section entitled “Favorite Things/Hobbies,” one of Kenda’s listed items was candy. Callan enjoyed plane rides.

My birthday had been archived as May 25th. This meant I would still be twenty-one for another few months. Zeph had had his last birthday in the No Zone; this one would be celebrated with humans. He enjoyed Mexican food and the theater. At least, twenty-five-year-old, potential test subject Zephaniah had.

“Yep,” he said later, into the darkness. “Still like Mexican food.”

I smiled for some reason, and closed my eyes.

My dream had a beach. In Old Aperture, I’d dreamt frequently of the sun; but not about a shore.

The scratchiness of a towel lay between me and the sand. My calves down to my feet touched warm sediment. Above, the sun burned—almost too hot. I felt my face burning, and felt satisfaction. From a ways off, the provocative sound of water lapping the shore reached my ears. I knew it would be ice-cold and determined not to budge. From somewhere nearby, I heard a soda can hiss and crackle. All this without opening my eyes.

Zeph’s laugh sounded. I shifted slightly, turned my face to the other side. My legs felt so warm…I shifted again, and realized I was wearing a bathing suit. Well, that’s not conducive to hiding all the bruises and scars. Oh well

Then, the beach began to shake. I felt a hand on my shoulder.

My eyes snapped open. Darkness. Zeph’s face above. Still cold. Our room wasn’t shaking, but something near us was.

“She’s moving the suites.” Zeph’s eyes were wide. “To flush us out. We have to move before she throws us.” From across the room, a gentle thump. Callan packed his bag. I got up, and checked my supplies. Kenda strapped something to her makeshift pack. For a moment, I instinctively missed my mop bucket. Too unwieldy anyway. Inconvenient. In the darkness, the open door to the ever-lit hallway looked like another passage to heaven.

Callan took the lead position again. Half his face and body shone in the light. “Just like we talked about.”

I grabbed the lamp from the desk, its wire coiled around, and followed. Zeph came last. Three suites down, in the hall, a door ripped off its hinges and fell with its chamber from the main structure. The screeching sounded horrible. I cringed.

Callan started running the opposite way, toward the door we’d left the day before. My feet picked up pace. Trying to shake the fatigue, I blinked several times and shook out my free arm. The dim light and sleepiness made it feel like an early hotel checkout. We’d be lucky to check out. Lucky to transcend the silent testing records of everyone in this annex whose doors we flew by. Maybe Callan liked flying; but right now it made me sick: to think about the implications, and realize that no effort to avoid this fate would be eternally successful.

We reached the exit hall.  My heart pumped against the inside of my chest as Callan wrenched open the door. Without hesitating, he bowled forward and struck the newly-placed turret on the landing with half a shower curtain rod. Kenda, Zeph, and I followed him down the stairs. 4063 was on the fourth floor. Kenda and I moved to the front, she armed with shield-like portion of AC grate, and me with my lampstand. On the next landing stood about twenty turrets in multiple rows. Callan swung his bar and managed to knock over a short row. I threw my lamp, gritting my teeth, hoping it didn’t break. Kenda charged forward and knocked over the remaining five or so, all of us desperately trying to avoid stray fire.

Zeph made a sound more of consternation than pain. We continued.

The next two landings went similarly. The thing about turrets is that they’re dumb. And again, if you don’t give them time to lock onto you before you knock them over, you’re golden.

The problem arose as we approached the first floor. GLaDOS had placed a turret in a small alcove to the side, half-hidden behind a fake plant. It fired, and Zeph’s leg crumpled. Callan shoved over the rest of his share of turrets and slammed his hands against the exit door. Kenda and I grabbed Zeph by the shoulders and moved toward it. The turret still fired. I felt Kenda buckle, but she stayed on her feet. We tumbled out, and Callan slammed the door. We collapsed against the outer wall of the Relaxation Vault.

The lack of further threat told me in that instant that GLaDOS must either truly not have eyes over every square inch of facility, or she must have been waiting for us to step into some other trap.

Zeph’s faced twisted in pain, though he sat upright. Hardly wanting to see his leg, I made myself look down. Blood oozed from his thigh. Kenda clutched her arm near her shoulder. Callan was already examining her. “Here.” He tossed me a shirt. “Do you know how to make a tourniquet? Or anything close?”

“Uh…” Rather than admit that I’d never taught myself, I focused on doing the best I could. Zeph cringed and grunted as I tied the fabric. Exhaling, I put a hand on his shoulder. “That was…crazy.”

“Yeah?” His voice came out raw. “You think so?” I chuckled. Until he returned a smirk, I didn’t feel comfortable having done so.

“Okay,” Kenda said. We turned. Her voice held steadier than Zeph’s, but she curled into herself a bit against the wall. “Let’s head to the Companion Cube area.”

Last night, we’d agreed on the semi-high-level manufacturing zone as our best bet for a checkpoint. It stood nearer the surface than anything else the couple knew; and if there was going to be a peaceful location in this hellhole, it would probably be that area. To get there, Callan had said we’d need to traverse the facility horizontally for a few hours. The turret manufacturing wing was around the same level as this Vault. After that, a big area that was a mystery. Then, we’d somehow head up. It was sketchy; but I felt glad to strategize with others.

“Are you sure you can move?” Callan asked. His voice sounded softer.

“Yeah, babe; it’s just my arm.” Kenda struggled to her feet. “Let’s at least put ground behind us, and we can stop for a food break or something. Zeph, are you okay to walk?”

“Yeah.” His teeth were gritted. “It’s…ow. I think I can walk. Just one hit me.”

Holding out an arm to him, I used my other to secure my pack on my shoulder. Still have at least one box of bran bars. We’ll be okay. We have to be.

Despite our injuries, I found myself almost smiling at the joint goal of heading further up—and going to the Companion Cube wing. I’d secretly wanted to visit it ever since the promise. As a rule, I’d tried not to think of the past while in Old Aperture. But now, with a new world open, I allowed myself that smile as I supported a grumbling Zeph down the passage.

Away from test chambers, we walked among plants and winding paths. I caught sight of a forlorn, wilted jumble of leaves on the wall. How long had it been here? Where was its sunlight? Zeph’s eyes wandered eventually, too. I saw him arch his neck to gaze at the ceiling. Here, the metal held together better. Spider-webbed fractures in the alloy crawled their way above our heads. Our boots made dull clunks.

Will GLaDOS send any other messages our way? Maybe she’s occupied with finding the other two? Repairing the facility? Dealing with a “conscious’ AI had never factored into my solo travels. It had always been me vs. the infrastructure. I hefted Zeph up a little. But if the infrastructure is commanded by that sentiencewho wants us dead… How did the test subjects do it?

Something shifted ahead. I jumped. It turned out to only be a plant that Callan had pushed out of his way, that fell from the ceiling with a soft rustle.

Zeph cleared his throat and put his weight on his good leg. “I think I’ve got it from here. Thanks.”

“Are you sure?” I asked. Callan still held his wife’s arm.

“Yeah.” He broke contact. “It’s just really annoying at this point. It’ll help to walk.”

“Okay…”

We continued down the dilapidated, aquarium-like passage until something in the back of my mind nagged at me. The portion of the modern facility that had been locked in my memory had been near her chamber…Wheatley had told me that.

A pang.

I held out a hand to Zeph. “Hey…Remember how we were talking downstairs about her chamber?”

“Yeah?”

“I think…part of the facility I remember going through was near there. And this…”

He looked ahead. “Seem familiar?”

“Yeah. A little bit. But maybe it’s just…”

“Déjà vu,” he finished. “Well, worth a shot. Hey. Callan.”

The leader turned. “What’s up?”

“Madison thinks this segment looks familiar. It might be near the AI chamber. Do you recognize it?”

Kenda replied, “Could be. We’ve never taken this route. But I do know the AI chamber is close to the center of everything.”

Zeph asked, “Could there be a connection to it around here?”

“If there is,” Callan responded, “we sure as hell better hope she doesn’t have surveillance.”

There’ll be surveillance in the Companion Cube area, I wanted to say, but held my tongue. There was weighted silence for a few minutes. I wondered what Pat was doing, and thinking, at that moment, far below. I felt another mild pang.

“So, Zeph,” Kenda said. “Tell us about your life before Aperture.”

Callan raised his eyebrows at her.

“Sure you wanna go there?” Zeph asked.

“Yeah. What’s not on that sheet that we should know about you?”

“Uhh…I used to be in theater at university.”

“Oh really?”

“Yeah.”

“What kind of roles did you get?”

Silence. The soft clumping of boots.

“I had one. I was a brother in The Sound of Music.”

Kenda inhaled. “You can sing?”

“Ah—no.” Zeph smirked, to my amusement. “Well…somewhat. But I never got any roles after that.”

Callan turned. “Why not?”

Zeph shrugged. “The director of the program and I had creative differences.”

“What does that mean?” Callan pressed.

“It means I thought outside the box, and everyone else was scared to leave the box. So they virtually fired me.”

I asked, “Virtually?”

“They took away my agency in the…agency. I didn’t have preference for roles, or a spot on the decision-making team. So they basically forced me to leave.”

I frowned. “Sorry.”

“It’s okay.” The side of his expression I could see against the opposite, dark wall appeared neutral. “I quit theater and got a job at a Mexican restaurant. It worked out.”

“I bet that paid more,” Callan said.

“Yeah.”

I studied the back of Kenda’s head. “What about you, Kenda? You never told us how you ended up meeting Callan.”

She gave me a ghost of a smile. “That’s a long one.”

Zeph looked at her, too. “Can’t be any longer than ours.”

We came to a fork in the passage—one branch leading right from our position, and one going straight.

Kenda looked at her husband. “What do you think?”

Callan took a deep breath and let it out. Zeph and I alternatively stared down the paths. My internal compass wasn’t as good as theirs. I’d memorized the route to my former goal: they’d had to guinea pig their way through this much larger wing. “I’d say straight,” he responded. “Right would probably divert us away from the turret center; and it might actually put us closer to the center as well.”

A chill ran up my spine. Straight’s fine by me.

We started walking again, and Kenda began sharing. “I was woken up a year after Callan.” She gestured to Zeph. “About the same time you were, actually; though, I don’t know how many days fell between us. Wheatley, of course, led me through the same routine we all went through—find the Portal gun and get out, with various levels of intermission.”

For some reason, watching her face and eyes as she relayed her story helped me feel calm.

“See, back then, it wasn’t about trying to save the facility, or us. When he woke up Callan, it was to see if humans were really all he’d heard they were. It was for some fun; some company, maybe.” Involuntarily, I shook my head. “But the lightheartedness didn’t last.”

Callan jumped in. “Wheatley led her down a different path to the gun: tried to take her through the old testing track. She actually got the closest to it, if we can take anything he said at face value.”

“We can’t,” I said.

Callan glanced at me.

Zeph spoke. “She’s right. Everything he said was a lie. Even the places he led us weren’t safe. He was completely insane.”

“Either way,” Kenda said, “we got all the way to the old Chamber 19, which won’t mean anything to you guys, but it was the last chamber before…before the incinerator at the end of the track.”

Zeph and I exchanged glances with saucer-sized eyes, then directed our attention back to her.

“I’m sorry.” She held out a hand. “I didn’t mean to drop that. I wanted to…there’s…”

Zeph cut in. “It’s okay.” We passed a duct-like appendage on the right. “We needed to know. Madison and I aren’t used to the main facility. We’ll take any information you have.”

Kenda nodded. “We got all the way to the incinerator, which we thought was disabled.”

A trio of chills sprinted up my spine. Wheatley had bidden her go through the incinerator, claiming it was safe. Turns out, when cores meddle with power panels, anything can happen.

Kenda realized her mistake when her shoe soles began to feel hot and the air started to smell funny. She ran back the way she’d come; but the thing about the incinerator was that it was meant to be a one-way dump zone. The ledge was too high. This whole time, Wheatley had been frantically attempting to talk her out.

The only alternative was trying the other end for an assailable exit. This proved more effective, but only after the fire had started. Wheatley—being Wheatley—had panicked (this didn’t surprise me, but I still felt disgust and horror as she relayed it). By the time he’d returned, Kenda had already clawed her way out and escaped.

Wheatley didn’t know this. Wheatley assumed he’d been too slow. Wheatley, for the third of four known times in the last two years, abandoned his human charge.

For a while after she finished, everyone stayed quiet. We traversed more hallways; each one had a declining number of plants. Invisibly, GLaDOS was repairing her facility: patching holes, snuffing out any root of insubordinate life. We passed dwindling holes, more like prolonged scratches in the walls.

The same song that played below sounded, only slightly altered. A few different notes, the same melody. The same clicking, ancient support beams, holding up the same, rotating world. Wheatley hadn’t done this to us, though I wasn’t ready to forgive him. We’d created this prison we were sorely unable to escape; and we kept dreaming of a place beyond it; but all that met our eyes was more of the same. A weight pressed down on my chest.

Zeph’s voice filled the elongated chamber. “It’s ridiculous.”

Everyone agreed by not saying anything. By staying close.

Kenda replied, “For a while, it got to my head more than it does.”

“What helped?” I found myself asking, more like a drowning person inquires about a life preserver than out of curiosity.

Kenda gave me a smile and swung her backpack around, unzipped it. She handed me a faded leather book with two words on the cover that I’d never been familiar enough with to spurn it now at first sight. Zeph looked over my shoulder. “For real?” He sounded intrigued.

“For real.”

“Some of us,” Callan called, “are still processing it. There are things in there I don’t agree with.”

Running my hand across its cracked surface, I realized they must have found it in the Vault nightstand.

I flipped open the cover to the first pages; for the next half hour, Zeph and I alternated silently reading passages in different chunks. On a basic level, I felt thankful for something to take my mind off of the present.

How My 2016 Goals Went, and My 2017 Goals

How My 2016 Goals Went, and My 2017 Goals

First off, it feels foreign to type that year—as you surely know from every transition on school papers, documents, and other stuff we do annually. Second of all, I realize there’s a good amount of evidence and simple sentiment against writing “New Year’s Resolutions.” Usually, these arguments come in these forms:

  • “We never keep New Year’s resolutions. Just look at the gym numbers that drop every February.”
  • “You should start improving your life now, not when the calendar changes over.”
  • “Resolutions are just ploys to make people feel better about themselves for “trying.””

Well, here are my reasons for writing this post about my goals for 2017, in the face of those fairly valid statements:

  • Sure, I may not keep every single resolution I make. But this year, I did keep one. I’ll get into that in a minute!
  • Yes, life improvement should be a constant process; and new seasons should aid us in that process: they’re creation’s way of illustrating the truth that, as Solomon says, there’s a season for everything. Why not utilize a new year to our advantage?
  • Sure, some of this involves straight-up trying. What’s so wrong with that? Isn’t trying how all change happens? All the Yoda fans who are about to bombard me with the, “No! There’s only do, there’s no try!” Hold on. All I’m saying is that good intentions aren’t valueless. Achieving goals requires the hard work; however, without that initial spark of motivation, the doing wouldn’t commence.

So hey. Don’t be hard on yourself for past resolutions that are lying around undone. 2017 is a new year! You’re a different person every day. And Jesus gives us the power to overcome. So… write some fun resolutions!

All right. Let me get into my three for this year. I picked three because, last year, I wanted to improve like seven things in my life, and only one ended up carrying throughout all of 2016.

What was the one?

My thankfulness jar!

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Every day, I wrote down one thing I was thankful for that happened. Now, near the end of the year, it’s almost finished! Those scraps of paper are a visual illustration of how overwhelmingly blessed I am. There’s always something in each day to be thankful for; and when it gets difficult to maintain that perspective, something like a gratefulness jar helps.

What were my resolutions that didn’t carry throughout this year?

  • Reading through the entire Bible on one of those yearly plans. I think I got to like one of the Samuels. Haha!
  • To consistently work out. Let’s just all sigh together in unified empathy…except for you faithful people. Teach me your ways.
  • I wanted to write and read something every day, and document it. I’m sure the amount I did this in 2016 was significant; however, as for recording that daily? Forget it.
  • To pray for people every day. Definitely wasn’t as consistent with the people or the daily aspects of this one.

The amount of goals I set for myself was overwhelming. So this year, I’m sticking with three.

My 2017 Goals:

  1. Eat more well-roundedly. Still enjoy sweets and junk food moderately; but balance those things with more fruits and veggies every day.
  1. Work out 2 times per week…yes, this one made it back in a more concrete, reasonable manner.
  1. Make time for writing every single day, no matter how long.

Does that mean they’ll be perfect? No, but hey. That’s okay. If they intimidate you, they’re probably good. I read that somewhere…

Here are some other ideas I have about things I want to STOP doing this year, just as thought fodder:

  • Binging on junk media. It’s extremely easy to go on Youtube or other socials and drink in the negative drama. It makes us feel good about ourselves; it’s entertaining; there’s always an (un)healthy supply of it…but spiritually, this does nothing for me. I want to dwell, as Philippians says, on things that are honoring and edifying to God and to myself.
  • Comparing myself negatively to others. Admiring people’s unique attributes is great. But when that turns into feeding my own insecurities by trying to compare things that weren’t meant to be compared, it’s not fun. I want to work on making myself better, and judging other precious people less. We’re all works in progress, loved by God.
  • Being lenient about quiet time. I haven’t made it as much of a priority; and while I was tempted to put it up there in the main three, I don’t want my time with Jesus to be pressured. I don’t want to stress about how I’m doing. I just want to commune with Him on a more regular, intentional basis. So it’s down here in the ideas section, because that’s on my heart.

All right, guys. Now it’s time to tell me what your thoughts and ideas are for this upcoming year. What are your goals? What are new things you want to try, or get back into? Are you planning a big move? Are you getting married? Are you starting a new workout or eating plan? Are you working on a creative project? Are you going on a sweet vacation?

Let me know in the comments! And have a festive, restful Christmas with Jesus. 🙂

BC: The Playlist: Chapter 3

BC: The Playlist: Chapter 3

Welcome back to the Birthday Candles playlist! This time, we’re covering songs that inspired me for Chapter 3,“Birth of an Asteroid Tribe.” Turns out, asteroid families can be many different types, depending on their size and orbit pattern. Asteroid tribes are one of the smaller varieties of groups. Here are the songs associated with this chapter:  

  • “Start Again”: Conrad Sewell—When Zephaniah and Madison meet, it’s a kind of new beginning. The mood of this song is also conducive to the sorrow and relief they both feel.
  • “Dark Night of the Soul”: Philip Wesley—this is another calm, somber, pretty song. It makes for good writing or thinking music.
  • “I See Fire”: Jasmine Thompson—again, Jasmine Thompson’s more subdued rendition of this song provides a good frame for this chapter. Along with the fact that this song reminds me of the menu screens for Old Aperture in the game, it also applies to my characters. The two humans have seen a lot of things; for the first time, they have the opportunity to share their experiences and trials with another human.

That about wraps this one up! Stay tuned for Chapter 4 and the next playlist. Thank you guys! Leave a comment if you have any thoughts you’d like to share. 🙂 

Chapter 3: Birth of an Asteroid Tribe

Chapter 3: Birth of an Asteroid Tribe

Previous chapters:

ch-3-main

Chapter 3: Birth of an Asteroid Tribe

“As we soared above the town that never loved me,

I realized I finally had a family

‘Run, run, lost boy,’ they say to me,

‘Away from all of reality.’”

—Ruth B.


Everything in the last hour had felt a bit dream-esque; registering another human voice at that moment didn’t jar me for the first five seconds. Then, straining to hear, I climbed to my feet. “Hello?” The word ripped from my throat, bouncing off the iron columns that glistened in the dim light.

Beyond the fence, the lamplight above me sparsely accentuated the darkness with the same honey haze. More distant clangs sounded. A faint shuffling registered, as if brushing the surface of my eardrums. CLANG. I jerked—sucked in breath. “Hello?”

A voice answered.

Male.

Incoherent.

Human.

I jogged to the fence.

“—‘llo…”

I shouted, “Yes—hello.”

“I’m coming!” Faint, but distinguishable.

Energy seared like flares through my veins. My fingers gripped the metal. Someone else—how? He must have just come. I couldn’t stand still. Trying to look around the coils, on my toes, I still couldn’t see anything.

“I’m coming,” he repeated. We exchanged more verbal cues, his voice gravelly, until it warbled across the space, reporting: “I see the light.”

A laugh burst from my lips, and I bounced on the balls of my feet. “Come on.” This isn’t happening. All of this can’t be happening.

“What’s your name?” His voice sounded around my age—strained.

“Madison.” I tasted my name and smiled. “I’m Madison.” A short, fragmented chuckle reached my ears. Involuntarily, I returned it. “What’s yours?”

I didn’t catch it at first—I thought he said “Seph,” which, from what I remembered, wasn’t a guy’s name. Although, down here, now, what did I know? “What?” The echo still impeded my hearing, but I caught it. “Zeph?”

“Yeah.” Short, crisp. He seemed to be just beyond the last coil in my vision. The air felt unnervingly still around my arms.

“As in, Zephaniah?”

A laugh bounced off the springs, rushing across the dark. “Yes. So many people don’t get that.”

I shrugged. “Heard it before somewhere.”

“How old are you? I mean…” More shuffling. “Before you went under.”

“Twenty-one. You?” I couldn’t control my grin. My legs shook, but I hardly noticed.

“Twenty…five, I think? My birthday was close to when they put me under.”

We’re speaking in full sentences!

“Are you close? Can you see me?” I waved my arms.

“Not yet…I can hear you, though; so that’s amazing.”

What happened next was better: from around the farthest coil, I caught the silhouette, the movement, of legs—the appearance of a torso—the figure of someone with a face and neck who walked towards me.

“I see you! I see you!”

As his eyes adjusted, he stopped walking. My feet hit the ground. I let them stay. The world spun. I saw the haze between us, heard the silence of the facility. It felt as if the solar system had quieted to watch. From out of the gloom, the barely discernible figure stared.

“Hi.”

“…Hi,” I returned softly.

“Madison.”

My skin burned. “Yes.” I exhaled. “And…Zephaniah.”

I saw the faintest trace of a smile. “Zeph works.”

“This feels so…”

“Normal?” He began taking steps again.

“Um.” I took a step back. “How long have you…?”

“Don’t be afraid.” His voice was steady. “I know it’s different. I can stop if you want.”

“No. It’s okay. Come…please.”

He started again, more imperatively. “How long have you been down here?”

“Months. I came to Old Aperture….” Hearing my thoughts felt foreign. “…about six months ago?”

He nodded. “Okay.”

Huh. I frowned. “How long have you?”

 “Heck, I don’t even know.”

“You’re the first human friend I’ve had in ages. I’m so glad I found you.”

“Yeah.” His voice shook the slightest bit. “I’m…I can’t even tell you how I feel right now. I haven’t seen light…” I could almost make out his features. “…in so long.”

Zeph crossed the threshold of the ring of light. His blond hair caught my eye first. His face looked milk white. A beard crawled over it, stretching to the bottom of his neck. Above it and a narrow nose, blue eyes met my gaze. His mouth opened, but made no sound.

“I…” I tried. “You…”

He beat me. “You’re beautiful.”

Waves of delight washed through me, familiar, long unfelt. I reached a hand through the links. “Come here.”

Zeph crossed the last few feet, and reached out for me: Warmth. Strange, delicious, human warmth. Happiness and exhaustion ran down my cheeks.

Zeph managed to vault over the fence and land on my side, where he gently crumpled. I went to him. The embrace we shared was impulsive: a feeling akin when you’re hungry, and you don’t realize the satisfaction eating will bring until you’re so full you could pass out. And then, the deep-seated relish of life itself that follows.

Time in Old Aperture had always been fluid. When we finally pulled apart from our hug, we sat, sweaty and dazed, against the lattice of the fence. Before us, the glowing, metal staircase climbed into the ceiling: The final ceiling, for this area.

“I can’t—” Zeph’s voice sounded deeper up close, “—believe this.”

“I know. It feels like a dream. Even that whole elevator ride felt like a dream.”

“Please don’t leave me.”

I turned, and saw his blue eyes fixed on me. “I won’t.” Even then, I wasn’t sure how to promise. There were infinite details. But this goal seemed so much more rewarding than any I’d striven for lately. “I promise.”

Zeph exhaled, leaned back, and closed his eyes. I leaned back, too, and watched the solar system. For the first time, I shared my orbit with another living being. We spun silently, side by side, and succumbed for a short time to the sleep that tinted the entire galaxy.


“They didn’t do science.” Zeph studied the light that shifted across the back of his shaking right hand. His other hand locked onto his arm.

“No one’s arguing that.”

“I mean…” He swallowed. “Th—they…locked themselves in a process. They never saw us. That glass is warped: have you ever seen the observation glass?”

 “Uh, yeah.”

“Cave Johnson’s ego launched the whole thing, but then it…” His cheeks shook.

Adrenaline’s wearing off. “Let’s get you to a more comfortable—”

“No. I’m fine.” I halted, one hand in the air. He continued. “Did you have someone helping you? Feeding you?”

I studied Zeph. His gaze looked too wide. After a moment, I replied. “I assume you did, too.”

He nodded. “A core. But he could never quite reach me…so he dropped things.” His mouth twitched. Color rose to his face before moisture appeared in his eyes. Their blue surfaces softly bounced light off them, like little, reflective moons.

I didn’t know what to do. Heck, I don’t know how to talk to another human anymore. “So…how did you get down?”

The man wiped his eyes with the back of his hand and crossed his arms. Above him, the KEEP OUT sign blazed white and black. “That imbecilic… vault proctor core…”

Despite other stimuli, I was seized with an electric, cold horror at that moment that blocked out all else. “What did you say?”

“What?”

“Who?” The name rose in my throat, and stuck. There’s no reason we should be ashamed to say it. He should be ashamed to say ours.

“Wheatley…you know him?”

I took a shaky breath. “I guess.” I wanted to interrogate and get away from Zephaniah at the same time. “It makes sense that he would be the only way we could wake up.”

“Hey.” He lifted an arm around my shoulders. “It’s okay. We’ve got each other now.”

I felt myself grow dangerously close to unleashing tears, as well. “He left you, too?”

Zeph’s voice softened. “Yeah.” He leaned his head back and exhaled. The metal staircase gleamed in the yellow light like the stairway to heaven. “He woke me up I-don’t-know-how-long ago. We went looking for the gun. As I’m sure you did, too. At least—”

“For a while.”

When he nodded, his beard brushed my temple. “Well, we took a detour. He thought there was a faster way.”

I couldn’t help interjecting again. “Mine was supposed to be a field trip to the Companion Cube wing.”

Zeph’s chest shook with a short laugh. Somewhere far away, metal coils groaned and creaked. “Uh huh. That’s classic.”

My lips curled upward. “I know.”

“Well, we ended up down here.” He paused. “This staircase is the last thing I remember for ages. Weeks. I don’t know how many months it’s been, but…” He squinted. “I’m trying to remember exactly how I ended up past the fence. Eventually, I got so far I couldn’t hear Wheatley’s voice. This area…” He was quiet for so long that I wondered if he’d forgotten he was talking. “I need to tell you something.” I frowned at him. “I know we have to go up; but there’s something you need to know before we do. You felt the tremors.”

“…Yes.” I brushed my blonde hair out of my eyes. “Was there any danger of things falling in there?”

“Yeah, but probably not as much as you had. I couldn’t hear everything from down here, but….” I studied the pores across his face; the way the little hairs on his mustache moved when he talked; his eyelashes. “…someone did something up there.”

“What? Zeph, how do you know it wasn’t just the facility caving in on itself?”

He shook his head. The crisscrossed metal of the fence hurt my back. I shifted. “That would be an intense version of the normal tremors. I’ve heard and felt those before. This was different. If the facility were caving in, really, it would have crushed us. The weight would have brought it all the way down.” Still not willing to contemplate the implications of someone above, awake, I didn’t reply. “Things have been moving in ways they haven’t in months. You felt it, too: something’s off. I’ve been hearing sounds…almost like…things are shifting. Being rebuilt.”

“That’s ridiculous. You can’t…who would…?”

“You know who.”

I don’t. He assumes a lot. 

“You just need to know that if we go up there, there’s a chance we’ll be in more immediate danger than we are.”

“But you were right,” I replied. “We don’t have a choice.”

Zeph and I sat in silence. I figured he’d had more time to absorb this idea. As soon as I could emotionally grasp the possibility of him being right, I inhaled and fired another question. “So, what do you think is going on? Who do you think is left?”

Zeph sighed. “Wheatley.” My heart jumped. I bit my lip. “Her. Definitely her. Someone or something must have reactivated her. Maybe even another human…maybe he woke someone else up.”

Far away, a mammoth coil pierced the air with a shriek.

Until now, I’d been able to handle the idea of other awakened humans up there. This last statement, for some reason, triggered a rage I hadn’t anticipated. “No.”

Zeph’s eyebrows rose. “Excuse me?”

“That’s ridiculous. Why would he wake someone else up? There’s no need. He’s screwed both of us over already.”  The light from above seemed too harsh.

“Never mind,” he said. “We don’t have to talk about all the possibilities now. Let’s just make a game plan.”

It took several deliberate breaths before I was ready to speak. “You’re right. We’re going up. So what are we aiming for?”

Zeph sat up straighter. “That’s the spirit. Good ol’ Madison.” I forced back a smirk. “We can head for the Relaxation Vault. Get some intel on how long we’ve been down here…our last names…maybe our birthdays…?”

I hadn’t been genuinely excited lately; but this suggestion offered something worthwhile to shoot for. All that, with a brand new friend and testing partner. “Yes. Yes, let’s do that.”

Zeph eyes drifted shut and open again. “You’re gorgeous when you smile.”

That didn’t shorten my smile, of course. “Well, then.” I rolled onto my knees. “Why wait?”

“You want to go now?”

“Yeah.” I got one foot under me, eager to leave while motivation was fresh. “Let’s do it. Let’s find out what’s up there.”

Zeph got to his feet. “You heard the lady.” He looked around at the No Zone. “We’re getting the hell out of here.”

I chuckled. “Yeah! What now, Aperture?”

Zeph shook his head, and gestured for me to lead.

My feet stopped at the foot of the staircase. There was no chance of these giving out. First one step, and then another, and another. Before I knew it, I was halfway up, Zeph right behind. His presence at my back made it easier to breathe. Above, coming into view, the familiar gray door stood, with a short hall on the other side. The orange and yellow warning signs hung, just as I remembered them; yet, nothing was quite the same as the last time.

Zeph and I stopped in front of the elevator. He looked at me. “Ready?”

Staring at that skeletal, foreign tube of lights, without any familiar grates or emancipation fields, I didn’t know. I wanted to be: able, willing. The white shell brought back mental flashes of the Relaxation Vault. I shuddered.

“Come on.” Zeph stepped forward.

I stiffened. Then, the part of my brain trained to make a move before Aperture made the final one for you reminded the rest of me that to stay would mean to die. My hands and legs shook as I followed Zeph into the elevator capsule.

The doors swished shut. I whimpered and reached for his hand, which he was already beginning to offer me. “It’s okay.” I felt a tinge of warmth, and the pull of moving up. I wished with every part of me that we would never have to go the opposite way again.


Aperture proper had survived in my memory as a breathing, vibrant amalgamation of machinery and wildlife: little, ever-enduring bugs creeping along deep green forests of leaves that didn’t need much sunlight. The Aperture we emerged into when the doors opened was foreign.

The metal panels on the walls looked coarse, jaded, and dull. Leaves had died on the ground, covering the space with a dusty rug instead of oxygenating it. I fought a feeling of despair as my mental picture crumbled in the face of reality yet again. Before us, a simple staircase stood, leading to an archaic door. The blue, glowing silhouette on it was the only thing that looked remotely alive.

“All right.” Zeph’s voice held a note of the same, lackluster heaviness that sat on my chest. “Let’s do this. I don’t suppose you remember the way back to the Vault.”

I inhaled. “No. You?”

Zeph chuckled. “I hardly remember being here.”

That was true for both of us. There was one fact I had stored away, though. “I remember it was on the other side of her chamber from here.”

We reached the top of the stairs. “Oh. Wonderful.”

The middle panel in the door twisted. The sides shot open faster than anything in Old Aperture. Beyond the door, a narrow catwalk, jammed between two walls, curved for a while before dead-ending above a hallway. Below, this hidden passage led to another door.

“Well, Madison, ready to become test subjects?”

I forced a grin. “I don’t believe I’ve been cleared by the board to be a test subject.”

“Well, that’s a bit irrelevant now, seeing as they’re all probably dead.”

“Good point.”

The walk to the door ended more quickly than I liked. It swished open. Beyond its threshold…A modern test chamber.

I’d daydreamed about these. At least, I’d gotten a feel for the mentality of the facility’s gauntlets in the old spheres. Zeph hadn’t had the same opportunity. I studied the plain, black-and-silver chamber before turning to glimpse his expression. Zeph arced his neck back and took in the entire space. The room was shaped like a rough, fat N, white tiles forming a blank sea to the opposite side, their surfaces marred with soot and dead leaves. Black walls held dainty bars of light, evenly-spaced, but caked over with grime. The ceiling vaulted high above our heads. Brown, wilted vines dangled. Insect sounds emanated from hidden alcoves. A strand of blue lights traversed the walls, landing at the door and leading to a bright, luminescent button. A round one. Huh. How about that? Distantly, a bird’s caw reverberated down to our level. The space seemed to be holding its breath—to be trapped in a time bubble isolated from everything else.

The lights reflected dimly in Zeph’s eyes, giving them a robotic quality. His gaze swept left to right, finally returning to me. He only whistled softly.

“So,” I said. “I guess we just…”

Across the room, on the other side of the big red button, a cube lay dormant. This seemed to be a simple chamber—the sign on the wall held a burnt out number and only the image of a cube and button beneath it were lit.

Zeph strode towards the cube. “I may have been stuck in a hellhole for months, but even I’m not stupid enough to get stumped here.” He hefted the cube in his arms. “They really need to step up their post-apocalyptic game.” When he set it down on the button, the door at the other end swooshed open.

Zeph swept a hand toward the exit. “Onward, my lovely testing partner.”

I grinned.

The following chambers held the same grime and gray air. Occasionally, deep green survivors poked their heads out from between black, rusted panels. They crept up sides of surfaces, clinging to support. The buttons and linking lights grew farther from the chamber entrances; the process of getting the doors open became more complicated. Sometimes, there were strange balls instead of cubes, which lit up in the same way when placed in receptacles. Zeph rolled one like a bowling ball across the floor. Neither of us asked the question hanging in the air amongst the dirty vines: the state of the hardware and the existence of chocolate-black-colored slime at the bottom of a couple of chambers conveyed plenty on that account for now.

After about two hours, past random staff hallways full of dinosaur computers, we crossed an entrance that looked vaguely familiar. Turns out, it was a passageway from the main staff areas to the annex reserved specifically for Relaxation Vault employees. After scrubbing the grime off a sign with our fingers, we located one path to the Vault hotel. Zeph opened a standard swinging door. We stepped inside.

Memories immediately flooded back. The Vault had been designed like a 70s hotel. The floor was a lush, floral carpet. Hanging fixtures and dull, striped paper adorned the top half. Zeph promptly lay down and started making pleased sounds.

I studied the passage. “Do you remember at all what floor you were on?”

“Nope. But this is glorious. We could just stay right here. Sleep on the carpet.”

“I’d rather sleep on a real bed.”

That had him up and walking with me. The knowledge that we were in proximity to humans, alive or dead, had my nerves firing erratically again. “Should we try to wake someone up?”

Zeph contemplated this as we passed rooms. I knew that, with a bigger group, we were surer to make a cleaner exit, especially considering we would most likely have to face her to do it. That seemed impossible. But waking someone up would also probably alert her to our presence.

“No.” Zeph decided. “Let’s wait until we reach the control center, and see who’s still viable. I hate to say it, but it could be more jarring to try now than to find out the easy way.”

Silently, I plodded beside him, my eyes on the floor.

The elevator at the end of the hall held an array of over eighty-four buttons, plus one for a base level, where we correctly surmised the administrative offices would be. As we descended, I got a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach—and not just from dropping. If the halls were this quiet…if we hadn’t seen another human on the way …if it had been at least a few hundred years since everyone had initially been put under, and with the damage of recent tremors, was anyone still viable? Had we just walked through a museum of cadavers?

“Isn’t it funny,” Zeph said suddenly, “how on that test chamber sign, there are defining characteristics; but on our clipboard forms we filled out, we wrote achievements or failures under our names?”

“Um…yes.” Instead of wondering about that fully, I wondered how a person could go months in the dark without a light or a living soul and emerge able to formulate complete sentences and walk around sanely.

We walked into a lavish lobby. The lobbies in Old Aperture had been moth-eaten, eerie things. This one shone with warm light, which bounced off dust-coated tile. Leather armchairs faced one another, containing no holes whatsoever. True, a bunch of the lamps and things were scattered thanks to the tremors; and a couple of windows had been shattered. Still, it was the most dignified place we’d been. I couldn’t help the thought that Pat would be happy to see it, which preceded a kind of rolling hollowness inside my chest.

“Wow.”

Zeph nodded. “Check out them digs. Now…which way to mission control?”

That’s when I heard a distant door close, and footsteps.