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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.

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