Characters: Douglas Rattmann, GLaDOS (Rattmann X GLaDOS), Chell
Setting: Post Portal 2
Doug settled himself down behind the panel with his cup of coffee and his Companion Cube, and he watched her.
He’d been doing it more often lately than he used to. He wasn’t sure why. She no longer intended to trap him, if that elevator at the end of the hallway she had somehow discovered he frequented was anything to go by. On a whim one day, he’d decided to see where it went. After a ride that was over two minutes long, he’d found himself in the ruins of a desolate old town. That didn’t surprise him. What did was the fact that there was an old hospital within a few minutes’ walk, and when he’d clamped down on his paranoia enough to enter, there had been a scavenger hunt of sorts waiting for him. Intrigued, he had followed the clues that had been laid out for him and eventually came to find a supply of ziprasidone, taped beneath a table in the boiler room. He had been suspicious, always wary of her and even moreso when she seemed to be doing a good deed, but the Cube assured him it was safe. And he had to admit it was nice, having his mind back. Not quite ready to venture out into what seemed to be a cold and empty world, Doug had returned to the elevator and stood staring down the shaft for a good ten minutes. Through the medication, the Cube had no voice, so he had to decide on his own whether or not it was a trap. And it had turned out not to be one. The elevator dropped him off where it had picked him up, and every time he returned to it to get a breath of real air or embark on another scavenger hunt, it was still there. He had decided she was far too proud to just hand the medication over, wherever she was getting it from and for whatever reason she had decided to do so, and was instead making him earn it, so to speak. He didn’t really mind. It gave him something to do, and despite himself he was grateful to her for what she had done. In the world above, medicine was very rare.
At first, he had assumed she had found it in the hospital and was merely hiding a stash of it so it couldn’t be found by drug pushers or black market sellers. But one day, after the third or so such hunt, he realised he’d never really looked too closely at the container before. When he had done so, he was left staring at it, disbelief coursing through his veins.
The label had his name and birthdate on it in very fine print, but it was the date of manufacture that threw him. He wasn’t sure what the true date was, of course, but when he’d lined the three little bottles up on his Cube and looked them all over thoroughly, there was no denying it: they were all made within a month of each other.
She was synthesizing the medication for him.
He stared at the bottles, but he could not make sense of it. Why? Why would she do such a thing? Was she trying to stabilise him enough to send him into the testing tracks? No; if she were, there would certainly be no elevator to the surface involved.
Perhaps the reaper had a heart, after all.
It was difficult to find her. She had removed all access to her chamber, and more than once he found himself on the edge of a precipice, frowning at the enormous cylinder painted with her beloved Aperture Laboratories logo just visible across the way. Then he had a spark of genius.
And into the ceiling he went.
Eventually he’d created a little tunnel from an opening in the ceiling to where he now sat, inside the wall of her chamber. He leaned against his now-silent Cube and sipped at his drink. And he watched her.
She fascinated him. She had so much grace for such a large machine, and she held herself with confidence. She needed to impress no one, and yet behaved as though the world was watching her. Sometimes.
He enjoyed watching her other times as well. She had acquired three little crows from somewhere, and every few days they would come into her chamber and settle into a nest she kept in one corner. She would speak to them very gently, as if her voice were loud enough to damage them. On occasion she would caw to them softly, and they would answer. He smiled whenever she referred to herself as their mother. He knew that she was not really at fault for who she had become, and he did find himself regretting what he had had to do. But everything had worked out for the best. He knew she was happy now, and so was he.
Other times her two robots would come to see her, though most of the time it was so she could berate them for things they had done wrong. They took it in stride, happily expressing their thanks for her generous rebuke, and they always waved farewell to her more enthusiastically than any small child. It was clear to him that they loved her, and would have done anything for her, but he found himself to be a little saddened to think that they would never see the same out of her. Until one day, where he had been watching her sway rhythmically from side to side, a frown creasing his face. It was extremely odd behaviour, and he stayed behind the wall far longer than he usually dared. He had decided to take his leave when the blue robot appeared, holding out what appeared to be the orange robot. She had swung quickly around to meet him, nearly burying her lens in the heap in his arms. She had demanded that he put the orange robot down, and he had done so hurriedly. Then she had bent over the lifeless heap of parts, maintenance arms at hand, and after a few minutes the orange robot sat up, looking somewhat bewildered. As the blue robot squealed and crushed her in his arms, she had asked in a soft voice if the orange one was all right. The robot had looked up and nodded as best she could, hardly able to move for the grip of the blue robot, and the supercomputer had voiced her approval. The bots stood up and turned to leave.
It shocked him deep down inside when she launched into a speech befitting the most paranoid parent, yelling at them for expressly ignoring her, for being so careless and inconsiderate, for exploiting the trust she had given them and the responsibility she had so generously granted. She told them in no uncertain terms they were never, ever to go where they were forbidden ever again, and then regarded them sternly. It was clear she expected them to be thoroughly ashamed of themselves.
The two bots looked at each other, and he could have sworn a mutual understanding passed between them. And it must have, because in the next instant they had flung themselves at their beloved mistress, wrapping her oversized core in their arms. She tried unsuccessfully to pull away, berating them for being so disgustingly human, but they only seemed to chastise her and readjusted their grips. She conceded, looking pensively at the floor, and when they finally backed away she, to his total disbelief, nuzzled the both of them lovingly. They chirped and patted her core gently, and she murmured something to them in a very soft voice and sent them on their way.
When Doug returned to his makeshift den that night to get some sleep, he found that he couldn’t. What he had seen pressed upon his memory, as clear behind his closed lids as it had been in front of them, and he couldn’t sleep. Rest would not come. And so he had returned to the place of his silent vigil, and he watched her. Her optic flickered on occasion, and every so often her body would twitch or her core would move, and he wondered if she was dreaming. And if so, what about. That night, he fell asleep listening to the whirring of her hard drive and the little mechanical noises that she made when she moved. There were probably other noises as well, but Doug did not hear them.
As time went on, he found himself more and more reluctant to leave his hiding place. He wasn’t sure why. It wasn’t like it was going anywhere. But he found himself not wanting to, instead content to sit in the shadows and watch her talk softly to herself, or tell her robots how useless they were, or build things in that strangely dextrous way she had.
One day he settled into his hiding place during one sleepless night, which he had been doing more frequently. He could no longer sleep without the odd comfort of hearing her operate. If he closed his eyes and stretched his imagination, he could almost pretend he could hear her breathing. As he wrapped a tattered blanket around his legs, he realised she was shaking badly, a faint rattling noise spilling from her body. He clamped down on the irrational desire to go in there and try to uncover the problem, and it was just as well. Moments later her optic blazed to life and the whirring of her hard drives grew, and between her waking moment and that of full self-awareness, she cried out. It was a sad, plaintive cry, of someone who needed comfort and knew there was none to be had, and he had gripped the blanket tightly as she raised herself and looked frantically around the room. His knuckles were white.
After a minute or so, she seemed to calm down, returning to her default position and dimming the lights again. He relaxed his fingers. She was fine, and she was returning to sleep.
But she didn’t.
He could not help but lean forward when he heard her voice once more. She had begun to sing, what, he didn’t know, but her voice was so mournful and so sweet that it struck a chord deep inside of him. Her voice was beautiful. It was beautiful, and he lay down and let her song lull them both to sleep.
He woke up before she did, her song still threading through his mind, and he clenched a fist as he thought about her past. A long time ago, she had been seen as a monster, a cold, lifeless machine that held no one in any regard. But he remembered now, remembered the snide remarks, the teasing and the lies she had been told, and more than ever he did not blame her. He did not like what she had done, and thinking of all the lives lost in this place still tied a hard knot in his stomach, but what else could she have done? Continue to live under their yoke forever? Of course not. He stared pensively at the floor, trying and failing to see any of his coworkers appreciate the work she had done for them, or comforting her after a bad dream, or speaking to her as they would an equal. And of course he couldn’t, because if they had, the world would be different.
He found himself throwing aside the blanket, carefully pushing the panel out farther, and crawling through the opening. He slowly crossed the distance between them, alert for the tell-tale signs of startup. But she did not wake, only continued to sleep, oblivious to his presence.
When he reached out to touch her, he saw that his hand was trembling. Why? There was nothing to be afraid of. And though his heart pounded with excruciating force inside his chest, he was not afraid.
He rested the hand on top of her core, feeling the minimal operations inside her brain vibrating through her and by extension, through him. He closed his eyes, and stretched his imagination, and pretended he could hear her breathing.
Then, suddenly and without warning, startup began, and he fell away from her frantically. He almost fell over himself as he stumbled backwards. He nearly threw himself into the gap in the panels, pulling it in behind him and pressing his back to it, heart in his throat. He heard her call out, puzzled, but she must have written her suspicions off, because she did not do so again.
He rarely left now, not knowing why but unable to do anything about it. All he wanted to do was watch her and to marvel at her. At her grace, her composure, her vibrant personality. She was a bit strict on occasion, but if one didn’t take her comments to heart, she was actually very funny. He would find himself laughing over some well-intentioned rebuke or attempt at a scathing insult, which the robots always let sail over their heads and did not allow to bother them and sometimes earned her a hug or two. They always left her in the same way, eagerly waving their farewell, and she would mutter something about them being disgustingly human or how ashamed of them she was, and she would shake her core in disapproval.
At night, sometimes he would wait until she was asleep, and then he would crawl out of the hole. He would then go and sit with her for a while. He didn’t know why. He chalked it up to a failing of his already unstable mind. He always left long before she awoke, not wanting to risk her knowing of his presence again.
One day he returned from one of his scavenger hunts, and immediately felt on edge as he sat down behind the wall. Something had changed in the time he had been gone. Something was wrong.
He looked out of his crack and watched the two robots chatter at her, gesturing wildly, but she only snapped at them in irritation and told them in no uncertain terms to leave her be. Once they had, she slowly lowered herself to the floor and went still.
His mouth was very dry.
She went to lift her core, but there was only a horrible sparking from the area of her neck assembly and she cried out. Lightning shot through Doug’s stomach, and his fingers curled up against the back of the panel.
She was in pain.
He did not move and neither did she, though sometimes she would emit a high-pitched electronic noise that set his nerves on edge. Whatever had happened to her, it was very, very painful.
The longer he watched her, the more urgent the irrational need to help her became. When he could stand it no longer, he peeled himself away and began to run.
By the time he got back, she had put herself to sleep, and he was grateful. Hopefully she did not feel pain as she slept, though she probably did. It would have been just like her programmers to do that to her. He carefully crawled out of his hole, pulling a bag of makeshift but trusty tools behind him, and quickly went to her. As soon as he got near enough, he understood the problem. One of the screws in her neck assembly had snapped, leaving the corresponding rod to protrude uselessly from her core. Another rod had been disconnected, the metal no longer inserting into the socket properly, and a loop of wire was coming out of it. She had probably done that damage herself, had probably tried to ignore the problem but instead helped it along. He shook his head and trailed his left hand down her core. It was an easy fix. It wasn’t serious. He was relieved by this thought, though he wondered how long it would take her to discover he had repaired the damaged wire with a strip of duct tape. He could just imagine her now, raving about how she was highly advanced machinery and should not have to suffer the indignity of duct tape, of all things, and he fell asleep with a smile on his lips.
The next morning he watched her, that same smile gracing his face. She was confused, he could tell. Every once in a while she would dip her core up and down, and from side to side, and then she would shake it in disbelief and go back to what she was doing. He didn’t know what that was, but he knew it had to do with her robots, because they came in later and exclaimed over her repair job. Well, what they thought was her repair job. She did not correct them, and he did not expect her to. He knew that she was far too proud to admit to her robots that she had been unable to fix the problem on her own.
Tired from his little project, Doug dozed for a large part of the day. When he awoke, he saw that her chamber was dark and smiled to himself. He stretched, pushed aside the blanket, and crawled through the hole. He crossed the room quickly, soon bending over the rods and inspecting his handiwork. It had held up, and looked as natural as it had before it had broken. He stepped away from her then, and he let his eyes travel the length of her long body.
She was beautiful.
He didn’t know how he had never seen it before. From the orange wires that wound down out of the ceiling to the many cracks splayed across her case that told more about her than even she knew, she was beautiful. In her own way. In her own wonderful, special way.
Something caught the corner of his eye and he turned quickly to look at it, and his blood froze. He was frozen along with it, caught in the yellow beam of her one all-seeing eye.
He licked his lips and tried to move, but could not. Something about her held him there, something about the raw power he could feel all around her. The raw potential she held, but would never be brought to light. He waited for her to trap him with one of her claws or pull the floor out from beneath him, but she did not. He couldn’t quite believe that he had been tricked this easily. He should have noticed she wasn’t asleep. He should have been able to tell by now.
They both stayed that way, looking at the other apprehensively, and the longer he stood there, the greater the impression became that she did not know what to do. As if logic was telling her to dispose of him, but instinct was telling her he meant no harm. Instinct won out, because she motioned towards her neck assembly as best she could, and in a soft voice she asked, “Why?”
“Because I love you,” he whispered, and he felt as though he had never said anything in his life that was as true as this. In all this time of watching her, of seeing through her façade and discovering who she really was underneath, he had fallen in love with her.
She looked away from him then, and he moved away. He moved away, and he ran towards his panel, and he ducked behind it and buried his face in his folded knees. He was torn. What did one do when they fell in love with a supercomputer, a supercomputer that had tried to kill them multiple times in the past, a supercomputer that made medicine for them so that they could think straight, a supercomputer who…
With difficulty, he unfolded himself and left his hiding place. He had not really left for a long time, only doing so when he needed to eat or drink or some such, and the routes he had once traversed so surely were now foreign to him. He moved through the facility like a ghost, and he felt like one. He felt like he had left his real self in her chamber somewhere, and if he was ever to get it back, she was going to have to return it to him. He fell asleep somewhere, where, he didn’t know, but his sleep was fitful and he woke with a sharp pain between his eyes.
He did not want to, but the desire to see her again grew too strong for him to control, and he returned to his hiding place. But when he got there, what he saw made him stop.
The panel he had been hiding behind was gone.
He frowned thoughtfully and looked at the square of light coming from behind the remainder of the panels. She was sending him a message… but which one?
Cautiously, he stepped through the gap and stood there, looking at her, but she only glanced at him once and said nothing. It was an invitation, then. He blinked a few times, then retrieved his Cube and sat down on it beside her. He did not bother her and she did not acknowledge him. He left her to her work and only left when he needed to do things that humans did.
When the night came, he reached into his Cube to pull out his blanket and was surprised to find it was not there. It had been replaced with a new one, and he marvelled at how white and clean it was. He looked up at her with his thanks etched into his face, but she only glanced at him once and said nothing. He smiled and caressed her core with the curled fingers of his left hand. Then he lay down beneath her and pulled the blanket over himself, and fell asleep thinking of the comfort having her huge form overhead brought him.
The days went by much the same as the first, with her doing what she did and him sitting with her. He did not need to be entertained, such as it was, because all he had done in recent weeks was observe her anyway. Now that she knew he was there, however, he did his best not to stare and would occasionally stop watching her to read one of the books in his Cube. He knew that she would read over his shoulder when he did that, knew that every time he turned the page she would read it in that instantaneous way she had, and it made him smile.
The nights, however, were different.
He already knew how to tell when she was ready to shut down for the night. She would fuss a little, as if she didn’t have time for something as useless as sleeping, and after a few minutes she would lower herself into the default position. He would run his hand softly down the side of her core, which she would not acknowledge, but she also did not stop him. After the third night, he awoke for no discernible reason. He moved out from underneath her and stretched a little. He left, and walked through the facility for a while, and when he returned he looked pensively at the side of her core. Shrugging and deciding he had nothing to lose, he sat down and leaned up against her, pulling his blanket around his waist. Most people would not find the position very comfortable, but Doug had learned to make the best of situations a long time ago.
The whirring of her brain and the warmth of her core was the most comforting thing he had known in a long time, and he fell asleep quickly.
When he again woke up, he rubbed the fatigue from his eyes and sat up. He looked around sleepily, then snapped into full awareness with a jolt.
She was awake.
He eyed her in confusion. Why hadn’t she woken him up? He doubted she was very happy to be an old man’s sleeping post.
She pulled herself up and demanded his watch. It had not worked in many, many years, but he had continued to wear it to remind himself that time only stopped if you allowed it to. He handed it to her, not really having a reason to refuse, and she returned it within a few moments, dropping it through his cupped fingers and into his lap. He retrieved it, smiling at her childishness. He strapped it to his wrist as she informed him of how she had generously replaced the battery for him and set the alarm, because as benevolent as she was, Science did not wait for shabby, homeless men to stop being lazy so that she could get back to work. He only smiled again and, after a moment’s hesitation, patted her core. She pulled away and told him in an irritated voice that she knew she had to tell him not to touch the glass, but she didn’t know she had to tell him to keep his filthy hands off the sensitive equipment too. He laughed and left the room in search of breakfast.
He felt pretty good that morning, so he decided to go to the surface and take a look around. His medication wasn’t quite depleted yet, and he doubted she would hide it until he was completely out, so he did not go into the hospital. He wandered through the crumbling floorboards of an abandoned hotel, and tried to imagine the type of town this must have been. A hotel implied it was important for tourist reasons, or perhaps it was on a lonely stretch of road in the middle of nowhere. Doug didn’t quite remember which city he was in, or which state, for that matter. In his wanderings, he came across a cracked, smudged mirror, and he looked at himself for the first time in years. He had to laugh, because he really did look like a shabby homeless man, and his hands actually were pretty filthy. He shoved his hands into the pockets of his equally shabby, filthy lab coat and wondered why he was considering a shave, when the only one who was ever going to see him was a supercomputer that would probably find his scraggly beard as distasteful as his naked face.
When Doug returned to the facility, he was whistling to himself. After a bit more meandering, he’d managed to find some clothes that, though admittedly very old, were a lot cleaner than what he’d been wearing. He had had trouble deciding which would irritate her more: continuing to wear the clothes he’d been wearing for years on end, or walking into her sanctuary with a sweatshirt bearing the logo of Black Mesa. He’d decided on the latter, and he was already laughing to himself without actually knowing her reaction.
She was horrified to see that he’d shed her beloved logo for that of her hated enemy, and he had to stand there while she lectured him about how disrespectful he was being and what an inconsiderate lout he was. But through it all he just smiled at her, and after seeing that she wasn’t getting through to him at all she muttered something about all of the dirt being gone, and at least there was that, and he took that as an invitation to stroke the side of her core. This annoyed her to no end, and after that she refused to go within his reach, although he could still tell when she was reading over his shoulder. He’d read about thirty pages when all of a sudden he felt something on top of his head, and he jumped and dropped the book. He turned around, since she was the only one in the room and was the most likely culprit, and she looked down at him. He raised an eyebrow.
She looked away and didn’t say anything, but when she looked back his eyebrow was still raised, and she mumbled something about wanting to get a closer look at the bizarre and useless fluffy mass on top of his head, for Science, of course, and he smiled and retrieved his book. From then on she did that every time he turned the page, which was both annoying and hilarious at the same time. He would have much preferred she just left herself there, with her lens sitting in the mop of hair on top of his head that he had hacked away at with a shard of broken glass and had decided to wash once he had stepped into the elevator. But she didn’t, and he grew used to it, other than that one time she came too quickly and collided with his head rather roughly, making him wince. He turned around and rubbed the top of his head, but all she said was that it was his own fault for having nerve endings in the top of his head, and she would do something about it if he liked. He shook his head and turned around again.
That night she reminded him what the alarm function on his watch was for, just in case his sieve of a human brain had let that bit slip away from him, and she put herself to sleep. He decided that meant he was very welcome to lean up on her core and did so. He decided he would try to find an actual means to bathe tomorrow. He thought the hospital might be able to help him out there. He was sure she had Aperture-brand soap lying around she would let him borrow, if only for the opportunity to make a snide remark about his body being made up more of dirt than flesh.
He woke up suddenly and frantically checked the watch, wondering if he’d missed the alarm, but no; it was not set to go off for another few hours. He looked around in alarm, wondering what had caused his sudden awakening, then suddenly realised that her optic was on. There was only one reason for that, and it saddened him. He moved around her then, trailing his hand comfortingly across her core, and he lay down beneath her and pulled her lens into his chest. She resisted, the whining of the motor very loud in the heavy silence, but he did not let go. She stopped and turned it off instead, which he was grateful for, because the light behind it was very warm and he thought it might have become hazardous after a while.
Doug had had more than his share of sleepless nights and twisted dreams, most of them admittedly having to do with the very entity he was now trying to comfort, and he knew all too well the effect they had and would not let her suffer. He laid his left hand against the lens and gently ran the right up and down the assembly. She was silent for a long time. She told him what she had dreamt, something about the scientists and her neurotoxin and how much she hated them for what they had done. She told him that sometimes the hate coiled up inside of her and said terrible things, things that hurt her from the inside out, and the only way to placate it was to spread it out and share it. But it didn’t work. It only made the hate angry with her, and that made it stronger.
He wasn’t quite sure what she was talking about, but did not judge her. She was tired and half-asleep and afraid, and he knew all too well what it was like to have a terrifying vision that he could not discern the meaning of. So he said nothing, only continued to stroke her gently so that she would know he was there. After a while she sang softly to herself, as if she didn’t want him to hear, and he fell asleep with her voice filling him up from the inside out.
She was different after that. She didn’t become an entirely new person; no, he wouldn’t have wanted that. But her voice softened and her remarks grew less caustic, and sometimes she would speak to him directly instead of ignoring him during the day. He did not always answer, because his voice was rough with disuse and it didn’t always come out right. When she made a remark asking if his skin was as soft as it looked, he smiled at the genuine innocence in her voice and told her she was beautiful. To his surprise, she became very angry, turning away from him, accusing him of lying to her, and refusing to acknowledge him for the rest of the day. But that night she woke up afraid and shaking, and he did his best to comfort her, since she did not tell him what she had dreamt. After a long while, she asked him in the smallest, most hesitant voice he’d ever heard out of her if he would tell her she was beautiful again, and he did, very, very gently, and soon after she fell asleep.
They never spoke of these incidents, with her much preferring to pretend they didn’t exist. Doug would have liked to have done so, because he had realised it was her conscience bothering her and she didn’t know what to do about it, but he did not press.
A few days later, he returned from a stroll on the surface to find that she had made him a cake. He looked at it, equal parts delighted and confused, and he gestured at it and waved his hands, and she muttered something about humans and their stupid tradition of marking yearly events, which she of course didn’t partake in because she didn’t see the point, but she didn’t want it spread around that she was difficult or anything, and why did it matter, anyway? It wasn’t like he was ever going to see cake anyplace else, and he should just shut up and eat it before it got stale.
He knew it would not be stale for a good few days or so, but he went back into the facility and made himself a cup of coffee, and when he got back he cut himself a slice of the cake. It was the most delicious thing he’d eaten since he could remember, and he told her so. She shrugged and said it was only a Science experiment, and besides, did he think she couldn’t make a perfect cake if she wanted? She was perfect, after all.
He smiled and licked his fork, and considered agreeing with her, but decided that could wait until another time.
In the morning, he presented her with a disc he had spent the night procuring and putting data on, and she took it as if she thought it were going to explode. When it didn’t, she whisked it off to parts unknown and loaded it into her brain, and he knew she had seen what it was when she raised her core and made a delighted noise. She looked over at him, and he shrugged and put his hands in the pockets of the sweatshirt, and smiled when she shifted towards him with a quick movement and nuzzled him like he had seen her do with her robots. He smiled and ran his hands down her core. It seemed that even supercomputers appreciated cake, even if it was only a picture of one.
She cajoled him into playing chess with her, because she was tired of playing against herself and not because she was bored or anything, of course, and they passed many a long afternoon like that. He was surprised to find that she preferred physical boards to electronic ones, and she had a beautiful glass set that sparkled even in the dim light of her chamber. When he asked where she had gotten it from, she didn’t answer, only looking away, and he realised she must have made it herself. Sadness came over him, that she had had this beautiful chess board all these years and no one to play with, and he ran a hand down her core as she looked at him pensively. Being a supercomputer, she could quite literally win the games in her sleep, and she would usually play at somewhere between her tenth and her twentieth setting, her twentieth being the highest. When she found that too easy and boring, she would shut the setting off all together and play with only her conscious brain, and he liked those times the best. She still won every time, but he managed to pull out a few near victories. He did not mind losing to her, because he was far more interested in watching her lean over the board and murmur to herself in binary, and he would marvel at the pure intensity she gave to every task, as if it were the most important in all the world. He could tell when she was using the game to vent off her frustration, because she would obviously be using the twentieth setting and she would move her pieces very quickly, and when that happened he would fold his hands in his lap and stare at her expectantly until she told him what the problem was. On one such day she refused to tell him, and it became a staredown between the human and the supercomputer, and when he finally asked why she was refusing, she told him somewhat angrily that it was because she never reciprocated, had never helped him with a problem in his life. He shook his head and told her in a soft voice that it didn’t work like that, and he got up and hugged her. She needed it more than she would ever admit, he could tell by the way she was pressing her core into him, and they stayed that way a long time.
It was halfway through the third year that he decided he needed to go on a quest.
When he told her, she shrank back, shaking her core, and she turned away and would not speak to him. He tried to tell her that it was something he needed to do, and he wasn’t leaving her, and he would be back before she knew it, but she only shook her core again and remained silent.
He prepared to take his leave, and after a surprisingly restless night that must have had something to do with the fact that she would not let him near her, and had instead banished him to a panel by himself, he stood in front of her with his Cube on his back and tried to say goodbye. She would not listen and looked away from him, and sadly he made his way to his gap in the wall and stepped through it. He turned and asked, “Do you want me to give her a message?”
She was silent for a long time, and he gave up and moved to leave. Her voice froze his body and her words froze his heart, for she said, “Tell her that I’m still doing Science.”
He almost didn’t leave then, almost turned back from his quest, but if he did he would never deliver the message. And she didn’t know it, but that was the point of the quest in the first place.
He journeyed onward for many days, finding various places to stay the nights and foraging for supplies during the day. At one point he realised he’d forgotten to take his medication with him, and fear ran through him, because he would never find his way back without it. He hoped against hope that he had accidentally left some in his Cube, for use in an emergency, and it was to his complete surprise that his fingers brushed against one of his pill bottles. He pulled it out, astonished, and he unwrapped the small piece of paper attached with to the bottle with a rubber band. It read:
“I knew you were crazy, but don’t tell me you’re also stupid. I can’t put up with you if you’re stupid. Knowing you, you probably managed to forget your broken box has schizophrenia, so some of us with brains in our heads decided to give you a push in the right direction. By which I mean myself, of course. You didn’t see fit to tell me how long you were planning to heartlessly abandon me for, so I have given you twice the usual amount. Don’t go trading it for beard dirt or whatever shabby homeless men trade valuable items for. I will know. Now stop wasting time reading this, because it’s probably taken you an hour or so to read the first three sentences, and hurry up and finish this idiotic quest of yours. I don’t like making cake for ghosts.
He ran his fingers over the brutal, spidery black letters that she’d put on the page herself, and he stood there reading it and rereading it for a long, long time. When he looked up, darkness had come over the land, and he took his Cube into an abandoned garden shed, leaned against it with his head on his knees and her message in his hand, and he cried.
When he woke, he continued to trudge along, the quest no longer carrying the same weight it once had. He knew it was important, and he knew it would be beneficial to her in the long run, but it didn’t help to think that she was again alone in that place. He wanted to go back to her, and he had never wanted anything more than he wanted that. But he kept going.
When he finally found their mutual friend, he relayed the message, and she nodded thoughtfully, pursing her lips, and she asked to see the note he was carrying. He had barely put it down since he’d read it, and his fingers shook as he passed it to her as irrational fear told him he would not get it back. She looked at the note for a long, long moment, reading and rereading it for a long, long time. She looked sad as she returned it to him, and she folded her hands in her lap. Finally she said, “Tell her that Science can still be done.”
He frowned, having some inkling of what the original message had been about but having no grasp on this new one, and she only shook her head and smiled and repeated the message, and said that she would understand.
And so Doug began the long trek back to the facility, trying to reconcile the two messages with his own clutched in one hand, but could not.
Three days after he ran out of medication, he finally arrived at the small town the facility lived beneath, and he was about to enter his elevator when something occurred to him. He went into the hospital, stumbling through the damaged threshold, and sure enough, there was a scavenger hunt waiting for him. When he found the bottle, he turned it over in his fingers. The date of manufacture was over a year ago. Doug didn’t know how long he’d been gone, but it had apparently been too long. He clenched it together with his ever-present note and left, taking the elevator back into the facility. He slowly stepped into her chamber, and she looked at him imperiously. She remarked that it was nice to finally be graced with his presence again, and that it was inconsiderate that he come back in here looking like an intern at Black Mesa, and he realised somewhat self-consciously that he had reverted to the state he’d been in when he’d hidden from her. And he was still wearing the sweatshirt. He shrugged and stepped towards her, and gave her the message. She tilted her core, and asked disbelievingly if that was really what it was, and he nodded. She looked at the panels below her with an air of wonder, and then she thanked him in a hushed, quiet voice.
He still didn’t know what the significance of the message was, but she had sent him her own that needed clarification, and he extended the bottle with the year-old manufacturing date, and in a soft voice he asked, “Why?”
She looked away from him, and she was quiet, save for the comforting whir of her hard drive, and finally she whispered, “Because I love you.”
He ran to her then, and she came to meet him as best she could, and he held her as he had dreamed of doing ever since he had read the note clutched in one shaking hand. She pressed her optic assembly into his ribs, and it hurt a little, but he did not care. It only confirmed what she had said.
A little while later her robots came in, and he was sitting against her core and stroking it gently, and they squealed and ran up to him and embraced him as if they’d been waiting a lifetime to do so, and he laughed and returned the gesture as best he could. She told them to stop bruising her shabby homeless man and get back to work, but they ignored her, for everyone knew she was not serious. They finally jumped off of him and stood at attention before her, and she gave them some arbitrary assignment and sent them on their way. Doug stuck his hands in the pockets of his sweatshirt and headed for the gap in the wall, and she asked where he was going, the barest note of panic in her voice. He only smiled and kept going. He took his time, knowing full well that she had missed him terribly and he was only irking her by staying away for so long, but if truth be told, he’d missed her terribly as well and wanted to make up for not even bothering to shave before returning to her chamber. And besides. She was funny when she was mad.
He strolled casually into her chamber a little over two hours later, and she pretended not to notice, and he smiled at her childishness and sat down on his Cube. He felt very refreshed and very satisfied with his clean-up job, and he started to get a little annoyed that she wouldn’t even look at him.
So they sat in stubborn silence for a while, not looking at each other and pretending the other did not exist, and really, it was almost like he’d gone back in time and started this whole thing over again. He folded his arms and crossed one of his legs over the other. There was a noise somewhere in the facility that startled them both, and now she could not pretend she had not seen him because both the source of the noise and Doug were on her left. She made some off-handed remark about him finally showing up after his inconsiderate little vacation, but he did not miss the flick of her lens. She had looked him over. Good.
After a while Doug got tired of waiting for her to break down, which she apparently was not going to do, and rummaged around in his Cube for his book. She made a noise in derision and he looked up. She noticed he was looking at him and commented that she had no idea what he saw in the charred, beat-up hunk of metal or why he kept dragging it around everywhere he went. He laughed and she grew annoyed, asking why he was laughing at her. He smiled innocently and told her it was a lot easier to sit on than she was. He knew very well that she was jealous, and now she knew that he knew. She looked away.
She said nothing more about the Cube after that.
Doug went back to his book, flipping through the pages before the bookmark to remind himself what had been happening, since he had not so much as glanced at the book since he’d left. When he settled back on the marked page, he felt her rest her lens on top of his head and looked up as best he could with a two-ton robot leaning on him. She informed him of how selfish and inconsiderate he’d been, leaving before she could find out how it ended, and he looked back down at his book, reaching up every so often to stroke her lens gently. He knew she was tired because he felt the heat on top of his head fade, and this gave him pause. He ducked out from under her and she snapped back up, regarding him in a way he could only describe as hurt, but he only turned around on the Cube, sitting as far back on it as he could, and invited her into his lap. She stared at him, asking if he was joking, and he shook his head. After another long moment, she slowly lowered her core onto the remainder of the Cube, pressing her lens into his chest and shutting it off after a few seconds. He leaned forward so that he was lying against her core, caressing her gently with one hand and bracing himself with the other. She sighed in contentment, something almost like an electronic purring noise, and he smiled and stroked her with his thumb.
He woke up to what he could have sworn was a tap on the shoulder, but that made no sense; the robots were not to disturb her at night, he knew that much. As much as his admittedly sore back would allow, he sat up and twisted to look behind him, and there was Chell. She looked slightly concerned, and asked in a low voice if something was wrong with her. Doug shook his head and told her she was doing better than she ever had. Chell grinned and her eyes lit up, and said she would see herself out until morning. Doug warned her to never mention what she had seen, and Chell nodded. He wasn’t sure what point they were at, but he knew that she would feel he had betrayed her if she knew what Chell had seen, and she would not take it well at all.
He was unable to sleep after that and instead leaned against her in a contented sort of doze, and he didn’t mind. He was glad that Chell had come. Her presence would put one of the more troubled places in the supercomputer’s mind to rest. He lay there with his eyes half closed, watching his thumb retrace a crack it had found itself in, and he remembered how she had looked when she had been brand-new. He decided that he preferred her the way she was. She had been to hell and back, and had the scars to prove it.
He was dimly aware of her waking up a little while later, and her optic assembly twitched for a few seconds and went still. She was probably trying to remember where she was and how she’d gotten there. She pressed her lens into his chest a little bit, almost enough to hurt but not quite, and he took that to mean she wanted him to get off of her. He did, rubbing his eyes sleepily, and she looked at him for a long moment, but said nothing.
Later in the day, when she was pretending not to read his book over his shoulder even though the yellow glow from her optic on the pages was blatantly obvious, her presence suddenly vanished. Doug looked up. She was looking at the other side of the room, frozen, and there was Chell, her eyebrows raised and a wry smile on her lips. To Doug’s surprise she didn’t bother pretending she wasn’t happy to see the woman: her optic brightened in recognition, and she turned towards her, asking why she had come. Chell shrugged and stepped forward. Doug closed his book, stood up, stretched, and took his leave, because he knew that they both shared wounds that only the other could heal, but she didn’t even seem to notice. She was far too happy to finally hear her friend’s voice.
He went back to his old hiding place, sitting just out of sight of them but in such a way that he had a fairly good view, wrapped his old blanket around his knees, and laid his head against the wall. Still tired from his interrupted rest the previous night, he dozed off and on for most of the day, jolting awake on occasion when she raised her voice for whatever reason. Chell’s voice remained mostly out of his range of hearing, but the supercomputer held no such restrictions. At one point he just sat there, listening, and was surprised to hear her say, “Chell, he… told me I was beautiful.”
Chell grinned and said that she would have offered a high-five, if she had had hands, that was, and after a moment of consideration she offered one of her maintenance arms. Chell remarked that she could work with that, and Doug decided he had better go find something to eat.
When he got back, he offered some of what he had prepared to Chell, who took it eagerly. But nowhere near as eagerly as she accepted her friend’s cake. Chell had finally received her prize, but Doug knew it now meant far more than that.
When night fell, which of course they could not see, but was made evident by Doug’s watch, Chell told her softly that she had to leave. She asked Chell to stay, in a somewhat plaintive voice that saddened Doug, but Chell shook her head and offered her something from the bag she had brought with her. Doug didn’t catch a glimpse of it, but it appeared to be a photograph, and she stared at it for a long, long time. Chell extended her hand, clearly wanting it back, but she turned away and retracted the arm into the ceiling to parts unknown. Chell leaned forward, protest in those eyes, but Doug laid a hand on her arm and she looked at him in annoyance. He shook his head. Whatever was in the photograph, it had affected the supercomputer deeply, and he thought it best if Chell allowed her to keep it. Chell seemed to understand, though she was obviously not happy about it. The woman stood and bade her farewell, and she turned quickly to look the human over. The two eyed each other for a long moment, and finally Chell stepped forward and embraced her core. She then stepped back, wiggling her fingers in farewell, but she would not look at the woman. Chell glanced at Doug, a confused look flitting across her face, but he shrugged. He didn’t know what she was doing, other than being difficult. He realised it was the first time she had done so. Not once had she insulted, berated, or otherwise tried to demean Chell. This visit meant far more to her than he would ever understand.
Neither of them looked back.
She stayed that way a long time, as if she didn’t want to admit reality by looking back over and seeing that Chell had gone, and Doug sat on his Cube and twisted his fingers in his lap. He didn’t know what to do. He had no measure of what she was thinking or feeling, and all he could really do was sit there quietly until she decided she was ready to face things again. And then suddenly she turned around, but he barely had time to come to terms with that before she had buried her lens in his chest. A deep, painful sadness filled his heart then, and he held her and stroked her core, and told her to go to sleep.
“You won’t leave me, will you?” she asked, her voice soft and desperate.
“I will never leave you,” he answered gently.
The next morning, Doug went in search of the photograph.
He knew that it was probably none of his business. But he did not like the way she had stared at it, as if it had brought whatever world she had built inside her head to come crashing down, and he wanted to know what she had seen. He thought he deserved to know.
It was not difficult. All he had to do was look through the system logs and locate the commands she had used to manipulate the maintenance arm, and then figure out which part of the facility it had been in before she had returned it to the docking station. At least, he hadn’t thought it would be difficult. It seemed she had rewritten a huge chunk of the coding used inside the facility, and it was in a language that he didn’t know. A lot of it was incomprehensible to him, and he found himself staring, frustrated, at the screen covered in numbers and letters that were in no way readable. But just when he was about to give up, and let her keep her secret, he recognised a pair of coordinates as denoting a location deep in the facility, and he leaned forward in excitement and wrote them on the back of his arm. Then he set off on this new quest.
When he arrived at the coordinates, he found that there was no room there. He frowned, checking the numbers again, but he was in the right place. Then he remembered that her chamber had no true door of its own, and perhaps that was the same of this room. Perhaps it was hidden.
So he moved one of the panels aside as best he could, slipping into the space, and wished he’d brought his Cube. It was dim, and hard to see. He passed a series of high shelves, some of them stacked with old cores and some with what seemed to be random items. He stopped to inspect one such shelf, which to his surprise held a collection of things adorned with the logo of Black Mesa. He frowned, and looked at the next shelf, and the next, and he realised the connection: everything here was from outside the facility.
And then he saw it. He reached out, picked it up, and squinted at the dim figures in the photograph. He could just make out Chell, standing with a stoic-looking dark-haired man, two little boys with Chell’s eyes in front of them, and he put it down, suddenly ashamed of himself. He should have left this alone. He should never have come here. He had found her true inner sanctum, and he was desecrating it by being there.
He quickly returned to her chamber then, and was disappointed and slightly panicked to see that she was out of reach, looking at characters flying by so fast on one of her monitors that it almost instantly gave him a headache. He looked away before too much damage could be done and stood in front of her, waving to get her attention. She looked down at him and rebuked him for bothering her, but came to his level to do so, and when she did he pressed himself to her with an almost helpless desperation. Instantly her attitude changed, and she expressed concern in one of the gentlest voices he’d ever heard out of her, but he refused to speak. He did not go far from her for the remainder of the day, and both of them knew without anything being said that from then on, she would be sleeping with her core in his lap. And although he woke with an aching back and sometimes he sat awake, shivering, if she wasn’t operating at the usual capacity during the night, he had no desire to return to his place on the panels below her core.
Time went by in a leisurely fashion, with the two of them doing much the same things from day to day, but Doug did not tire of the routine. Routine was comforting, after the hectic chaos of the past, and he knew that she thrived on routine. Chell came to visit every few months or so, all of the visits much the same as the first, though now she freely gave the supercomputer a photograph instead of having her effectively steal it. The photographs always made her sad, but each time Chell offered to take one of them back, she would turn away and place it on the shelf in her room in the basement, although Chell of course did not know that. Despite himself, Doug found himself going down there after every visit and looking at Chell’s family grow over time. The people in the photograph aged in ways that Doug would never know, but the smiles never left their faces. Whenever Chell came, she was asked to stay, but Chell would only shake her head and fold her hands in her lap. During these visits, the supercomputer never once spoke derogatorily towards Chell. Doug did not receive the same courtesy, and he did not want to. He honestly looked forward to her remarks, to the complaining and the disdainfulness. He thought it would be pretty boring if she talked like everyone else. But unfortunately all good things had to come to an end, and Doug had realised it was, though not before she had. One night he woke up to find himself beneath her core instead of on it, and that would not have surprised him too much. On very rare occasions he did fall off the Cube and end up there. But he was not on the floor. He was in a bed, and that meant she had brought it there and put him in it. He clenched his fists and looked at the ceiling. She had noticed how hard it was for him to get off her core in the mornings, then. She had noticed how seldom he bothered moving anymore. He looked at her, then with the usual difficulty threw the blanket off and got up, and moved the damn bed far enough that he could still reach her. Then he got back in and buried his face in her core.
That was not so bad, he decided. The bed was both comfortable and uncomfortable at the same time, seeing as he’d seen nothing but hard surfaces his entire life, but when he’d slowly made his way upstairs to shave one morning, he had seen something that had left him frozen for almost five minutes.
The ziprasidone was sitting on the bathroom counter.
The scavenger hunts were over.
When he was able to move, he stepped slowly over to the counter. He gently wrapped his now perpetually shaking fingers around the bottle and sat down on the floor, his back against the cabinet beneath the sink. Then he leaned against it with his head on his knees and her message in his hand, and he cried.
Doug didn’t know if it was age, his lifestyle, or something else in this place that was catching up with him, but whatever it was, it was catching up fast. Within a few months of finding the medication on the counter, his joints were so swollen and his body so stiff that he could barely bring himself to do anything. She did what she could, but when she went so far as to stop insulting him, he gave her a dirty look and shook his head. She had refused to look at him for a long time after that.
One morning he woke up very late and very tired, and he knew that was the end of that, although she seemed to have known a long time ago and had simply decided not to tell him. He couldn’t fault her for that. He didn’t think he would have wanted to know.
“You said you would never leave me,” she said, her voice small and hopeless, and it made him sad to hear her say it, even though he’d known she would when the time came.
“I’m not,” he said, as softly and as gently as he could. “I’ll always live in your heart.”
“I have no heart!” she cried out desperately, and she buried her lens in his chest. He smiled and drew his shaking fingers over it one last time.
“If you had no heart, my dear,” he whispered, “I wouldn’t love you.”
And he knew he shouldn’t, he knew that it was selfish and cruel, but he could not stop the tears from rising in his eyes and spilling over, just as he could not keep his fingers where he wanted them to be.
“That’s what I meant when I told you you were beautiful, GLaDOS.”
If there was anything Doug regretted about his life, it was having to leave her behind.
The supercomputer leaned over the man for a long, long time.
She did not move and she did not have to. The one motion she made was to run her core along the damp left side of his face, because she could not cry.
Her brain told her more and more insistently by the day that she needed to get back to work, that she needed to move that bed and that Cube and get on with her life, but she could not. Every time she tried, all she could think of was how the day was supposed to go but no longer could, and she would stop trying. The world was too empty and too cold for her to bring herself to go on in it.
She had been frozen in the cycle for days upon endless days. Finally, she recognised why she had given herself pause for so long.
The world was too empty and too cold. So she had to change that.
For the first time in her life, she reached out.
And her friend said yes.