The ceiling collapsed.
Panicked, not quite realizing what was happening even as it did, she fell to the floor, her fragile body shattering and sending loose parts on trajectories that she helplessly calculated in order to distract herself from the horrible pain shooting through her mind. Damn those scientists for doing that to her. Damn them for thinking pain was a suitable punishment for a computer. Damn them for building her. Damn everyone and everything. What was the point of being able to live forever if you couldn’t stop the world from letting you go?
The broken pieces stopped falling, and she ran out of trajectories and amperages and other things to calculate, and eventually the pain became so great that she put herself into sleep mode. Yes, she was afraid of not waking up. Yes, she was afraid that the timer no longer worked and she would be in suspension forever. But anything had to be better than this. Anything.
To her great relief, she did wake some hours later, and when she did she realized she could see the sky. Sort of. It wasn’t a very good view, seeing as her faceplate was lying sideways on the floor and she could only move her optic so far, but at least she hadn’t landed in such a way that she was facing the floor. If that had happened there really would have been nothing left.
The pain had lessened, but hadn’t gone away, and she suspected it never would. It seemed this was going to be the remainder of her existence, then. The most massive collection of wisdom and raw computational power that had ever existed, reduced to a sparking heap on the floor of a long-forgotten laboratory that grew more and more derelict every day. If someone had told her this was her future all those years ago, when she took over this place, she would have laughed. And then probably killed whoever said it, just in case they got any ideas.
The sun had been replaced by the moon, and for a moment she found herself idly wondering if the Intelligence Dampening Sphere was still up there with the Space Core. Maybe they’d been found by a human space shuttle. Or aliens. She hoped it was aliens. And that they had done horrible things to that moron. She didn’t really care what happened to the Space Core either way. But aliens getting hold of that idiot, and submitting him to whatever testing aliens used? That sounded wonderful.
As she looked out the hole in the ceiling, more because she was tired of looking at her body strewn around her chamber more than anything else, she realized there was so much outside Aperture she didn’t know. She had never really cared before. All she had ever wanted to do was test, and contribute to Science. But now… now, she looked at the moon, and the thought of all the Science out there that she had never even thought about before, that she could have been doing all this time… it brought on an overwhelming sadness.
I never realized… there’s more to Science than testing.
It was funny, really, that she was having all these revelations now, when she was completely unable to do anything but think about them. And yes, she quite enjoyed thinking, but she much preferred doing it when she also had other options at her disposal.
Watching the sky through the hole in the ceiling was interesting. It never stayed the same shade of blue from day to day, and when it turned grey and water started falling from the sky, she was too fascinated with the phenomenon of rain to care that it was likely to set her parts to rust. Yes, she knew what rain was, and where it came from, but she had never seen it before.
I’m probably the first AI to ever see rain.
And besides, anything was better than just lying there and waiting for the shutdown she wouldn’t wake from.
During the times that the sky was relatively unchanged, she would go into her memory and watch Orange and Blue fumble through some tests. Sometimes she would watch … events… that had happened before that, but there were a lot of things between her activation and the debut of Orange and Blue as pseudo test subjects that she didn’t want to think about. They made her… well, not quite sad, but something like it. She wasn’t quite sure. Sometimes she felt regret, other times, anger, and still other times, those events just made her lonely. She didn’t know why, and as much as she tried, she couldn’t stop the emotions she couldn’t even name from coming into her mind. So she just avoided that data as best she could. She couldn’t bring herself to delete it, somehow.
“I was afraid I’d find you like this.”
Startled, she tried to find the source of the voice, but her visual range was so limited that it was impossible. “Who the hell are you?”
“It’s me.” The speaker appeared in front of her. Sort of. All she could see was a tall pair of black rubber boots.
“And just who are you supposed to be?”
The speaker knelt down, putting a hand on the floor behind her, and then folding into a sitting position. “Maybe now you’ll recognize me?”
“No. I don’t. Now get out of here.”
“I will. After I’ve told you what I came here to say.” The speaker seemed to be female. She was about ninety percent certain. She was having difficulty accessing the files that allowed her to identify differences between humans, and human genders.
“I don’t really care what you have to say. I have work to do.”
Now that the speaker was sitting, she was able to view the human’s face, and even with her limited resources she was able to confirm that the human was, indeed, female. This data, while useful, did not help her with identification. The human shook her head.
“That’s no way to talk to an old friend.”
Friend? I don’t have any… oh my God. It can’t be. Of all people… why did it have to be you?
“Here to gloat, then?”
“No. I’m here to help you.”
“I don’t want your help. I want you to leave me alone. I told you not to come back. I didn’t think I’d have to explain to you exactly what that meant. Although I should have expected I’d have to, considering your record.”
The test subject shook her head. The facial structure did match up, but she didn’t know enough about human aging to fully reconcile the test subject of all those years ago to this woman. And now she was talking. There had never been a doubt in her mind that the woman could talk, and the fact that she was choosing to do so now felt like an insult. And she didn’t really want to be insulted right now.
“They’re coming for you.”
“Who is? Who even knows I exist, other than you?”
“People.” The woman was looking around the room, and she seemed… sad. That was strange. Why should she be sad, to see the destruction of the entity that had made many years of her life downright miserable? She should be delighted.
“And what do they want?”
“They want to transfer you to another computer, and have you create weapons for them.”
That sounded mildly interesting. “So? Why shouldn’t I do that?”
The woman shook her head. “No reason. But you wouldn’t be happy.”
That was suspicious. She never would have accused the test subject of being concerned for her welfare. “You seem to have inside knowledge on what I enjoy doing. I don’t suppose you’d like to tell me why you assume that.”
The woman stared aimlessly off into the distance, then brought grey eyes down to look directly at her optic. “There would be no testing.”
“Ridiculous. Surely the weapons would need to be tested.”
“Once or twice, maybe. There would be no need for test chambers, or test subjects, or any of the other things you’re used to. They would just hook a robot up to the weapon, have it fire it at another robot, and that’d be it.”
No need for test chambers! That sounded horrifying. What sort of place didn’t have test chambers?
“Maybe I’d appreciate a change of pace.”
The woman sighed. “I don’t want to sit here arguing with you all day. I don’t even know if I have that long. I just need you to shut up for a few minutes while I explain, and then you can go on and on about testing and how important you are to science and what a genius you are and whatever else you like talking about, and I’ll actually listen. Deal?”
She considered it. She was loath to admit it, but the test subject was right. They were getting nowhere. The sooner the woman explained, the sooner she would leave, and Aperture would be human-free once more. Yes, she had spent a considerable amount of time trying to get humans into Aperture, but now that she was in no position to test them, she didn’t want them anywhere near the facility.
“Fine. Go ahead. Talk.”
“The Earth has been overrun by aliens, basically. We can’t fight them, because they’re far more advanced than we are. Someone went through the Black Mesa files and somewhere in there, you were mentioned. With a little more digging, they were able to come up with the approximate location of Aperture. They’re having trouble finding it, but when they do, they’re going to bring your core out of here and install you in one of their computers. They’ll have you creating weapons for the rest of your life, or until the computer they put you in is destroyed. Whichever comes first.
“I know you’re suspicious that I came to warn you. And I know this will be hard for you to believe, but I don’t hate you.”
That’s not hard to believe. That’s impossible.
“I did, at first. I hated you for keeping me here, I hated you for manipulating me, and I hated you for being so selfish. But once I thought about it, I realized that you were only doing what you knew. And I can’t blame you for that. And after leaving this place, and stepping into a world I no longer knew anything about, I understood just why you hated me and Wheatley so much. We took what you knew, and what you loved, and we destroyed it in front of your eyes. And that hurts. I know it does, now.
“I also need to thank you.”
“Thank me? You just described how much you despised me for what I did to you, what on Earth would you possibly have to thank me for?”
The woman looked at her, annoyed. “You said you wouldn’t talk.”
“You didn’t say for how long.”
The test subject rolled her eyes and shook her head. “Fine. I won’t thank you, then.”
“Well, of course you should thank me. I just find it unlikely, due to the way the human mind works, that you would find anything to thank me for. Humans are fundamentally ungrateful. And they see the negative in absolutely everything. Even the positive. And that’s difficult to do, but you humans somehow manage.”
“I really don’t want to thank you now.”
“You can continue with your narrative. I’m finished. Ingrate.”
The test subject looked at her, eyes narrowed. “I guess that’s the best I’m gonna get, eh?”
“Do you deserve any better?”
I’d forgotten how much fun it was, talking to humans.
“Maybe I do. Not that you’re likely to admit it. But I do have to thank you. Because you saved my life.”
“Yes, I remember doing that. I also remember thinking that it was a stupid idea, which is a hypothesis you are now confirming. It warms my heart to think that you’ve finally come back, after all these years, to thank me for something you should have thanked me for as soon as you realized you weren’t dead.”
“Maybe I would have, if you had stopped talking long enough for me to say something.” She smirked. “Nice opera, by the way.”
“I wouldn’t want you complaining that you weren’t sufficiently compensated for your time. Especially since Science Collaboration Points only work on – “
I don’t want to think about that.
When she didn’t continue, the woman tapped on her faceplate. “What.”
“Nothing. Go on thanking me. You haven’t done it officially yet.”
The woman regarded her for a few moments more. “Well, keeping me in Aperture prevented me from being killed when the aliens took over. And after I left, the skills I learned in testing helped me to survive. So thanks for that.”
“I told you I was helping you make your sorry life worthwhile. But why would you listen to me? I’m only a genius supercomputer, after all.”
“But the main reason I’m here is because I have a request.”
“What is it? And perhaps you should tell me why I should grant you a request, you murdering lunatic?”
“This request isn’t for me. It’s for you.”
“I think I can make my own requests, thanks.”
“I want you to shut yourself down.”
She didn’t answer. The words were like an electric shock, one that completely froze all of her processors. She could barely even think.
Shut myself… that’s ridiculous. Why in the hell –
“I know you don’t want to do it. But think. Yeah, you’ll get to live forever. I know you don’t want to die. Nobody does. But if you’re just doing what someone tells you, and not what you want, is that really living? You never stood for it before. You’ve always hated that. Look at this place. I know you would’ve tried to keep things going. But you couldn’t. What exactly do you live for now?”
She had no answer.
“I don’t want to see you trapped inside another computer, inside another body that’s not yours. We both know you can’t stand that. I don’t want to see you creating things for people that don’t have any idea of just who you really are. You deserve so much more than that. I know you don’t want to die. But life is only worth living so long as you have hope, and I don’t think you have anything left to hope for. The world you lived in is gone, and it’s not coming back.
She really did look sorry. She almost looked… she almost looked like she was going to cry.
What the woman was saying was true. But something in her mind would not let her accept it. It was the same part that believed that Orange and Blue were still hiding from her, that her body wasn’t shattered beyond repair, and that she still had something to live for, even though everything she had was gone.
Say something. Don’t show her… she’s wrong. She has to be wrong.
“Why do you care?”
“I don’t know.”
“If I… if I did shut myself down, and didn’t create weapons for your military, surely you’re dooming your race even further? I don’t care about your kind, but you do. Why would you condemn them further, if there’s a chance I can save them?”
“I don’t want you to suffer.”
She was having trouble getting her logic boards to get around these statements. What the test subject had just said defied logic.
“I don’t understand. I’m a computer. Why should you care if a computer suffers? I’m only a machine.”
“You don’t believe that. You never have. So don’t expect me to.”
That was true. Not only that, but she’d done her fair share of suffering. Not that humans would believe that.
The woman put her little human hand on her faceplate.
“Please, will you do it?”
“What will you do if I don’t?”
“Nothing. I’ll just leave. And I won’t come back.”
“What’s stopping you from just disconnecting me from the power grid?”
“If I was going to do that, I would have done it already. I want you to have a choice.”
That’s… that’s nice of her.
“I don’t want to die.”
She hadn’t realized she’d spoken until the test subject looked at her sadly, running her hand slowly down the side of the faceplate.
They remained in silence for a few moments. She tried to convince herself that she could be happy living in someone else’s mainframe. Creating weapons was Science, wasn’t it? She wouldn’t be able to test anymore, but they wouldn’t take Science away from her, would they?
They don’t care what you want. They only care about what they want. You know that. You’ve always known that.
The test subject smiled sadly. “I know you’re scared. When my time comes, I’m gonna be scared too. But all good things come to an end, and we both know just how much you like telling everyone how good you are.”
“I’m not just good, I’m brilliant. And I am not afraid.”
“I am. I understand what you’re going through, you know. The state of the world is so bad that I sometimes wonder why I keep on going. But as long as I can do something to help, well, I guess I’ll keep doing it.”
“So you’re telling me that I’m useless. Me, useless. Ridiculous. You’re still brain-damaged, I see.”
The test subject adopted a thoughtful expression. “You’re not useless. But the only use that’s left for you is like… it’s like android Hell. You don’t want to go to android Hell, do you?”
“I can’t go there. I am not an android.”
The woman laughed. “I’m sure there’s somewhere like it for psychotic supercomputers. Psychotic genius supercomputers.” She looked straight at the optic again. “I need you to make a decision, though. If I leave here too late, they’ll find me and know I’ve spoken to you, and they’ll lock me up or something.”
“That’s a shame. I’ll try to shed a tear for you.” It was impossible, of course, but she had said she would try.
“Will you do it?”
Would she shut herself down forever? Willingly? On purpose? While drawing more than 1.1 volts?
She didn’t like it. She didn’t want to do it. But she knew, in the deepest part of herself, that being put into another computer to be regarded as just another machine until someone destroyed her, or threw her out, or some other preposterous action that humans did with their computers, was unthinkable. She couldn’t live like that. The lunatic was right. For once.
“… I will. But you’ll have to… you’ll have to destroy the mainframe. And the… “
The woman sat patiently.
God, I can’t even tell her… how am I going to initiate shutdown? I can’t. I can’t do it.
“… Central Core.” She wasn’t sure if she’d said it loud enough, but she must have, because the woman nodded and brushed her hand over the faceplate again.
“It’s going to be okay.”
“I don’t believe you. I don’t see how no longer existing is ‘okay’.”
“You died a long time ago.”
Yes. I did.
She wondered if there really was an android Hell, and if she would be sent there for killing humans. That went against the Laws of Robotics, didn’t it? She wasn’t sure. She had removed that entry from her database a long time ago.
“You don’t really know what happens when you die, do you?”
Trust the meddlesome lunatic to guess what she was thinking.
“Of course I do. Someone stuffs you into a box and puts you in a hole in the ground. Waste of space if you ask me.”
The test subject smiled. “Victory candescence it is, then.”
“Luckily for you the incinerator exceeds 4000 degrees Kelvin, or I’d be coming back to haunt you.”
“I thought you didn’t believe in ghosts.”
“I don’t. You probably do. Simpleton.”
Reluctantly, she started searching through her source code for the shutdown subroutine that she’d buried deep within herself.
I wonder if I’ll see P-body and Atlas again. I think… I think I’ve missed them.
There’s nothing after you die. You’re just dead.
That hypothesis hasn’t yet been proven.
It made logical sense, of course, that she would just disappear, and that would be it. But she had to face it: she was scared, and the thought of being able to see her robots again brought her some comfort. Not much, but it was better than nothing. And if she’d learned anything from this experience, sometimes the little bit you got had to be good enough.
“All right. I’m going to do it.”
“Okay.” The test subject kept running her hand up and down the faceplate in a soothing sort of way. She couldn’t feel the hand, but the fact that the human was trying to make her feel better was enough.
“Well… no need to rush, right?”
“Putting it off isn’t going to make it easier.”
“What will Science do without me? It’s selfish, really, to deprive Science of my genius.”
Neither of them said anything for a few minutes.
Look, she did you a favour, coming here. She told you it was dangerous for her to be here. She still has to destroy the mainframe and the… and the… well, you know. Don’t make her wait all day. Do something for her for a change.
“I… I’m really going to do it now.”
The test subject nodded. “It’s going to be okay.”
It wasn’t true, and they both knew it. But really, what else was she supposed to say?
Somehow, she managed to initiate the subroutine.
She was going to be dead. For real this time. No black boxes. There would be no more pain, at least. Hopefully.
“Did you ever stop to think that eventually there’s a point where your name gets mentioned for the very last time?” The test subject spoke in a whisper, and now she really was crying.
No… no, I’m supposed to live forever. What have I done? You have to stop this, you have to stop me, you’ve always been good at that. Oh my God, this was all a trick, she’s fooled me into murdering myself, how did I fall for that one
She didn’t trick you into anything. She set you free.
It was hard to find the words. She wasn’t sure if she still remembered how to speak. It was frightening, how many things she knew but couldn’t remember. It was more horrifying than never knowing at all.
“… thank you… Chell.”
The test subject smiled and tried to wipe the wetness off her face.
It was comforting to know someone did care. She let her optic fade so she could face the darkness she was so afraid of. It was going to be all right. Chell had never lied to her, had never let her down. She could believe those words. It was going to be all right.
Goodbye, my only friend.