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.’”
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.
I jogged to the fence.
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,” I returned softly.
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?”
“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?”
“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.”
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.”
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.
Zeph nodded. “Check out them digs. Now…which way to mission control?”
That’s when I heard a distant door close, and footsteps.