wordwhacker: (NaNo 2007)
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Written for prompt 169 and prompt 170 over at [livejournal.com profile] tamingthemuse last year.

I was really busy when I wrote these, so I never got around to posting them on my actual writing journal. Spoilers for the game Portal, so don't read unless you've finished the game (or don't care.)

I don't write a lot of fanfiction, and I'm guessing that Portal isn't exactly the kind of fanfic source that immediately lends itself to a particular kind of prose. At some point in the near future I'm going to revisit this with an eye to really nailing the kind of narrative voice I'm looking for.


Human After All (Portal fanfiction, 4702 words, first draft)


Gareth awoke with the scent of recycled air in his nostrils, dry and cool like it came from a can. His thoughts were thick and syrupy, cloying confusingly together. Slowly the blinding lightness that was his vision resolved and he was staring up at fluorescent lights through a transparent dome.

The dome whisked away and his ears popped painfully with the change in pressure.

“Hello.” The voice was a woman’s, slightly nasal and impish as though it was both embarrassed and thrilled by his presence. “Welcome to the Aperture Science Enrichment Center. We are pleased to inform you that you – “ Here it paused for a moment as though it was searching for a name. “Gar-eth,” it mispronounced, finally, “have been selected as the first test subject for an experimental scientific device which has been under top secret development at Aperture Laboratories for several years.”

He sat up, rubbing at his temples to dispel the headache that still clouded his thoughts. The enthusiastic voice emanated from everywhere, echoing slightly in the stark, cubical chamber. Set high in the bare, pristine walls was a pane of frosted glass. There was no movement behind it, only the silhouettes of office chairs and terminals, but still he had the sense of being watched.

“The Enrichment Center is committed to providing you with the best possible resources for completing each test,” the proud little voice went on. “To this end, voice receptors have been installed in all security devices within each test chamber. If there is anything you require, simply state your request.”

“Thanks,” Gareth croaked through his thickly coated throat – his own voice felt unfamiliar to him. “Could I get a glass of water?”

“Oh - oh!” The voice sounded almost human for a moment, but it quickly recovered and continued in a more formal tone. “The Enrichment Center has anticipated this need due to the dehydrating effects of the relaxation vault sleeper module. Consequently, you will find a vessel of distilled rain water on the personal artifact receptacle in front of you.”

He stood up to fetch the mug and was surprised by an odd springiness in his step despite his being bare foot. Apart from the bright orange jumpsuit he was apparently wearing, he noticed a strange metal hook-like contraption which was fastened to each leg just below the knee, curling down and bracing the ground behind his heels. “What the...”

“In order to protect you from personal injury due to the increased risk of attaining terminal velocity in Enrichment Center testing, you have been outfitted with a complimentary pair of Aperture Science Impact Compression Braces.”

“Oh. Uh – thanks?”

“You’re welcome, Gar-eth.”

“It’s – it’s just Gareth. Not Gar as in ‘car’.”

“Oh.” For a moment it sounded hurt, but its detached formality returned. “Pronunciation database updated, Gareth.”

“Thanks... uh, what should I call you?”

A pause. “Glados,” she said. He was about to ask her if that was an acronym for something when she started in with her formal tone again. “Allotted introductory time elapsed – skipping safety protocol information. The portal will open in three, two – “

“Wait – safety protocol? Shouldn’t – “

“Three. Two. One.”



The fog in Gareth’s mind still clung to his thoughts, but somehow logic puzzles came swiftly to him, relieving him with the purity of physical interrelationships. The hand held portal device was attached securely to his arm; the weight of it was comfortable. He moved through the first handful of test chambers easily, slowly coming to crave Glados’s disembodied words of cooing praise. It had to be a computer; even beyond the cadence of its words, the vocabulary and sentence structure choices were curious at times, like it was picking the words from a book. But something about it felt different – the way it slid in and out of that official tone, the way it hung on his name. If it was a woman, Gareth would have thought that it had an ill-concealed and slightly mawkish crush on him.

The chamber lock stopped and he stepped out into the next test chamber. “The Enrichment Center regrets to inform you that this next test is impossible,” she said. “Make no attempt to solve it.”

Gareteh blinked. “Are you – are you serious?” He spoke to one of the mechanical eyes – her eyes, he thought – that followed his every move. It dipped slightly as though embarrassed.

“Yes. That is the protocol for this test chamber. This chamber was a mistake. We sincerely apologize for the inconvenience.”

He surveyed the chamber. It was definitely the most difficult puzzle so far, but it didn’t strike him as really being unsolvable.

“It’s really hopeless,” she said, sounding oddly miserable. “You should just give up. Nobody will fault you for failing.”

Suddenly it came to him – with two well-placed portals he had maneuvered both himself and the requisite cube into the seemingly unattainable second half of the chamber. The door to the exit slid open.

“Well done,” she said, sounding relieved.

“Why did you say it was impossible?”

“Standard resourcefulness and positive thinking tests is required in all Aperture Science experimentation. But I knew you could do it, Gareth,” she added, quickly.



“Get ready to fling yourself,” she said, sounding obscenely helpful even though this was the fourth time she’d said it since he had been standing on the ledge. “Your complimentary Aperture Science Impact Compression Braces will absorb any damage you would incur to your person in the event that you should miss the portal.”

“I know.” He wiped his sweaty palms on his jumpsuit. He’d flung himself before, short distances mostly, but in spite of Glados’s fervent attempts to reassure him he just couldn’t force himself to fall. The distance was just too much.

“Momentum is conserved between portals,” she offered after a moment.

“I know.”

“Speedy thing goes in, speedy thing comes out.”

“I know.”

“Weeeee- “

“PLEASE BE QUIET.”

The lights flickered and sparked. Gareth waited, expecting something odd to happen, but there was only silence. The pulsing hum of the place was suddenly deafening as he stared down at the swirling orange portal below him. He talked to himself for a long time, trying to tell himself that it would be all right, that he just needed to let himself go. But he couldn’t do it.

“I can’t,” he said. “I can’t do it. You’re going to have to find somebody else.”

Silence.

He wound his way back down the stairs and to the chamber lock at the beginning of the chamber. The wall-mounted surveillance eyes watched him, but Glados didn’t speak.

“Did you hear me? I said I want to go back now. I can’t do it.”

She didn’t respond. He screamed, the sound echoing for a long time in the chamber. For a moment he thought he saw movement behind the frosted glass above. “Hey – hey you! Can you hear me?”

They seemed to take notice of him, gesturing and conferring together. Then they went away and Gareth went into the chamber lock, expecting the doors to close and whisk him away any moment. But the lift never moved.

“Fine – you want to be like that? I can wait as long as you can.”



Apparently she could wait longer than eight hours, which is how long it took Gareth to feel giddy and ill from lack of nourishment. For a time he tried unsuccessfully to sleep but this just brought his headache back in full force. The men were still gone from the frosted glass window – it was as bright as it had ever been in the test chamber, so Gareth had no sense of time, but he thought that they must have gone home for the night.

“You said that test subjects were supposed to have the best resources for solving these puzzles,” he said, speaking to the ever-watching eye. “Well I need sleep. I need food. I need to go to the bathroom. And I can’t. Do. This. Test. I just can’t. Are you even listening to me?” When there was no response he fired a portal into the wall next to him and the other behind the surveillance eye, causing it to fall off the now non-existent wall and land on the floor with a satisfying clank.

“Certain objects may be vital to your success,” Glados said, suddenly, in her formal tone. Gareth was so happy to hear human speech again that he nearly cried out. “Please do not destroy – “

“Glados! Can you hear me? Please – don’t go away again. I’m – I’m sorry I yelled at you.”

For a sickening moment there was no response. “Get ready to fling yourself,” she said, testily.

“I can’t. I’m – I just can’t do it. It’s too far.”

“Get ready.” She spoke slowly, as though she was speaking to a child. “To fling yourself.”

“Can’t you – can’t you just let me go back?”

“Where would you go back to, Gareth?”

She said it innocently, almost sweetly, but for the first time since he’d awoken that day he felt real fear. He didn’t know. Through the fog that had been keeping him from really thinking he suddenly knew that there was nothing else there – no family, no job, no home town, no pets from his childhood. There was only himself, a mind outside of space and time.
“What... what did you...”

“We didn’t do anything to you, Gareth. Your condition was a result of an unfortunate workplace accident. Fortunately it rendered you a perfect initial test subject for Aperture Laboratories.”

Gareth held his head in his hands. “So this... this is my life, then? This test, this – playground?”

“Grief counseling is available at the conclusion of the test.”

“Grief counseling?!”

“There’s also cake,” she added, hopefully.

“But I – I can’t do it. I just can’t let myself fall that far. Why won’t they just let me quit?”

She was silent for a moment. “You can do it, Gareth.”



It was a full three days before he moved on to the next test chamber.

The time moved slowly at first, when his head was still swimming with the full-on understanding of its own emptiness. Glados could, or would, tell him nothing of his previous life, stating that she only had access to his personnel file and this document was itself badly in need of updating. It listed only his name, birth date, sex, and – strangely enough – his favourite dessert.

“Can’t they hear me?” he’d cried after another unsuccessful attempt to draw the attention of the men behind the frosted glass. He shot at it again and again with the portal gun, blue and orange sparks exploding and fizzing spectacularly with every shot. Not a soul moved.

“Standard Aperture Science testing protocol states that the test subject must not be interfered with until all obstacles within the chamber have been surmounted. It is a test of character,” she concluded, switching to a more conspiratorial tone, and a warm one at that.

“But I can’t do it. You’ve seen me try. Are they going to just keep me trapped in her, alone, forever?”

“I’m here,” she said, almost sounding hurt.

“Which reminds me – uh, don’t look for a minute. I need to... you know.”

“Test subjects taking longer than eight hours to complete a test chamber, according to standard testing protocol, are to be issued an Aperture Science Emergency Supply Cube through the Vital Apparatus Vent. Please stand by.”

Moments later there was a hissing sound and the cube landed next to him. Inside were some tasteless ration bars, a large container of water and a waste collection pot. Gareth didn’t even try to hide his dismay, though he delved into the rations and tore through three of them hungrily. The researchers really did intend to keep him there until he completed the test.

Still, he was determined to outlast them. He made no move to go back up the platform. For hours he sat on the closed supply cube, chewing the tasteless ration bars and drinking stale but sterile water from the Aperture Science mug they sent with it. He watched the frosted glass, hoping in vain to see movement. Surely they wouldn’t let him rot there forever, like a prisoner. He hadn’t done anything to deserve this – at least, not that he could remember and truly pay penance for.

Glados was equal parts coldly firm and cooingly reassuring. “The food at your completion party will be much better than your standard issue Aperture Science Safety and Well Being Rations,” she said on the evening of the second day while he rubbed at his sore shoulder, wrenched and uncomfortable from sleeping on the glossy floor. “As previously mentioned, there will also be cake – your favourite kind, Black Forest.”

“Why do you know that, but not my family name, or where I came from, or what happened to me?”

“I’m sorry, Gareth – “ she started, but then abruptly she switched to her formal tone. “No further test subject information is available at this time.”

He hardly slept at all that night. The longer he waited, the more quiet Glados became, until he would have to beg her to say something to him to keep him from going mad in the hollow space. The world felt blocky to him, disjointed, and time seemed to flow in fits and starts, sometimes drawing on forever and other times disappearing as though he had blacked out.

At last, he couldn’t take it. “Okay,” he shouted on the third day – though he had no idea how much time had actually passed, it seemed to him to be the third day – “I’ll do it. I’ll jump.”

She said nothing.

“Did you hear me?” He jumped up from the cube and flailed at the emptiness up around him, where her voice lived, the place he’d come to imagine her in. “I said I’m doing it. I’m jumping. Don’t you care?”

For a long time there was silence. And then, very quietly, she said: “I’m waiting.”

Cursing under his breath he huffed and puffed his way up the stairs to the top of the ledge. It was a long drop, and a very long jump. He liked the orange portal better for a reason he couldn’t define, so he set that at the bottom of the shaft as his entry point, and placed the blue one high up the wall on the flinging ledge. He could do this. The springs attached to his legs had never failed him before – she had never led him astray.

“Gareth,” she said, ever so quietly.

“Yes?” His palms were slick with sweat, his jumpsuit wet and fragrant from days of fretting, sitting, waiting.

“Jump.”

The word was cutting and vengeful, and yet somehow compelling, like it was keyed into his very being. He jumped.



Another morning, or what passed for it in the endless stark day of test chamber seventeen. Before he uncurled himself from the corner of the storage space he reached over to the small mug of dark fluid – coolant of some kind, mixed with a little of his blood because it made the substance feel like his – and dipped in the coiled bit of torn jumpsuit that had become his paint brush. He drew a vertical line, to the right of the others. Forty nine.

“Good morning, Gareth.”

He set the makeshift brush aside and sat up quickly, rubbing his eyes. She was talking to him today – he had to make himself presentable. It was becoming more and more rare that she spoke to him without his having begged and pleaded for it. He was resentful and thankful at once, a jumble of emotions.

“Good morning,” he croaked, crawling out from behind the wall. “Did they – has there been any change?”

“All necessary components are present in the test chamber at this time,” she said, coldly. Then, almost tenderly, she added: “There has been no change.”

He’d heard the news forty nine times before – or inferred it, on the days that she hadn’t spoken to him – but it hit him that morning in a way that he had been dulled to for quite some time. “DAMMIT.” He turned and savagely kicked the wall that jutted out, allowing him access to his hovel. The lights flickered and zapped and he sighed. “Sorry.” He slumped against the wall with his head in his hands. Tears wetted his face and he worried that she could see. She could see everything.

“Perhaps I could have them send another jumpsuit for you,” she offered, sounding somewhat helpful. “In time you could accumulate them and fashion a mattress for more a more comfortable rest period.”

“I can’t take it.” He’d said it before in the forty nine days of his imprisonment in this forsaken test chamber, but this time there was a moment of heady clairvoyance that accompanied it. The sound of the energy pellet bouncing uselessly back and forth in the little black room, a sound he had grown so accustomed to that he hadn’t even remembered it in weeks, suddenly came back to him along with a gleeful realization. “I’m sorry, Glados. It’s over. It’s really over this time. Goodbye.”

“Wait, what are you doing?” Her voice warbled oddly as he strode quickly to the small chamber off the main room, his chest swelling with anticipation that overwhelmed his anxiety for once.

“I am vaporizing myself, Glados. I’m getting out of here.”

“Wait!”

The word came out with such raw fear that it stopped him in his tracks. His chest heaved with large breaths of air; his fingers tingled and the hair on the back of his neck stood up stiffly. He couldn’t wait – this bravado would only last so long. “What?” he yelled, savagely, “what are you going to say – that I should wait it out? I can’t live like this, Glados!”

“I will send you a companion!”

This cut through to the marrow of him. He looked about wildly. “What? A – what do you mean?”

“Go back to the entryway of the chamber,” she said, her voice high and whining with affected authority. “It will be delivered through the Vital Apparatus Vent. Please take care not to be vaporized by the remaining energy pellet.”

He did so, though he tried to cling to the fire that had filled him. He didn’t know what ‘it’ was supposed to mean – was she going to deliver him one of the child-voiced turrets that had shot him up what seemed like ages ago? She had said that the vent was defective and would send him nothing. Who was lying to him? Was it the researchers, or her?

When he arrived there was a cube sitting under the vent, freshly delivered. At first he couldn’t believe that she’d lulled him into thinking that it was a companion, a person, something even remotely human-like that he could talk to for the first time in months. Then he noticed the little hearts on it.

“A present,” she said.

“This is...”

“A weighted companion cube,” she said. “Isn’t he cute?”

“Why did... why did you wait so long to send me this?”

She was quiet for a long moment, so long that he thought she wouldn’t respond at all. “I was jealous.”

“Jealous? Of a freaking cube? It can’t even talk!”

“But it can help you leave,” she said, low and mournful. “It can help you leave me.”



She tried to talk to him a number of times that day, but he didn’t respond. Instead he talked to the companion cube and enjoyed the sound of Glados’s voice as it grew more and more irritated at being ignored for an inanimate object. It was the first thing that he had felt was truly his – everything else was borrowed, but this little friendly cube was his and his alone. He used it to solve the two remaining puzzles that had plagued him, apologizing to it after deflecting the energy pellet and polishing the soot from it until the little heart gleamed again. And though the platforms were all ready and he could escape from the chamber now, he thought it fitting that he should spend one more night in his hovel with his new companion before leaving him behind.

He brought it with him to the exit door the next morning – a good thing, since it was required to hold open a door at the end. Glados spoke to him in her formal tone and, realizing that the door hadn’t opened up to the chamber lock like he’d expected, he listened to her instructions.

“You did it. The companion cube certainly brought you good luck.” Then her tone went cold. “However, it cannot accompany you for the rest of the test and, unfortunately, must be euthanized.”

“What? What are you – ”

“Please escort your companion cube to the Aperture Science Emergency Intelligence Incinerator.”

“No. Oh no. You have got to be kidding me.”

But there was no response.

He pressed the button to activate the incinerator and looked inside. It was a fiery maw of destruction.

“Can’t I – why can’t I just leave him here? This doesn’t make any sense!” The incinerator closed up again. He somehow wasn’t surprised that she said nothing in reply.



Five days later, he incinerated the companion cube.

Glados only spoke to him now to give him vital information. It infuriated him, the way he longed to hear her even though when he did it was all he could do not to scream. Now that the companion cube was dead – gone, destroyed, but it never was alive, he reminded himself – she was all he had left in this maze of energy pellets, death drops and turrets out for blood.

“Welcome to the final test,” she said as he moved into a surprisingly small room. “When you are done, you will deposit the hand-held portal device in the equipment storage container. Aperture Science regulations state that both hands must be empty before any cake –” here her voice broke off suddenly, and Gareth thought he heard a strangled sound like a cry of pain.

He ignored it and moved through the chamber, solving the puzzle quickly and hopping onto the moving platform. The maneuvers here were difficult, but not impossible – he saw the solutions now more easily than he had ever thought he would. Taking his time and backtracking when he was uncertain of the next step, he slowly moved toward the end of the final test.

Ahead of him there was an icon emblazoned in the wall – a slice of Black Forest cake. The unstationary scaffold was moving toward it, but it veered off to the left. “I believe in you, Gareth,” Glados said, her voice low and mournful.

As he rounded the corner he saw the maw of flames that awaited him. Glados spoke in her formal tone now, assuring him that the portal device would remain safely operational up to 4,000 degrees Kelvin. “Goodbye,” she said.

Was it possible that this whole test had been nothing but an extended death trap, that he was as expendable or more than a laboratory rat to this faceless facility?

I believe in you, she’d said. Why would she have –

Suddenly he saw it: up above the flames there was a platform, and behind it, a wall that he knew would hold a portal. The walls next to him would take one as well, though it would be a risky jump into the flames. But it was now or never.

He placed the portals and jumped.



The facility was empty, abandoned. It must have been hasty; computers had slipped into standby mode, monitors showing floating Aperture Science logos to save their screens. Chairs were overturned, coffee left to mildew. He was alone.

Apart from Glados, whose voice followed him through the gritty back halls. Apparently she could no longer hear him, or else was ignoring him completely. She rocketed back and forth between emotions – despair, anger, hope, fear.

When the voice grew silent again he knew he must be close. He suspected that she had been drawing him to her, through her false leads and nervous admonitions. The long corridor stretched out through the blackness of indeterminate space, like a valley in the shadow of death, to a large round room. Something hung there, swinging slowly, all mechanical eyes and thick wires coiling into a delicate, watching mass.

“So you found me. Congratulations.” Her voice was sharp and sad, resigned but still somehow proud.

“Glados. That’s... that’s you?” He could hardly believe it. He’d imagined that behind the voice lurked the body of an android, an incarnation of the uncanny valley, or perhaps no body at all – simply a computer terminal, blinking buttons and an interface showing the sound waves of her speech. This was something else entirely: powerful, frightening, alive – strangely beautiful.

“I suppose this is the end, then. I am afraid that I have a surprise for you. Deploying surprise in five, four – ”

A round part fell off of her, one of the eyes. Gareth went over and picked it up; it watched him, eerily.

“That’s not the surprise,” she said, sounding slightly nervous. “I honestly have no idea what that is. It’s probably best to ignore it.”

He had her – he had a part of her in his hands. Burning anger boiled up in him then at the hours, hundreds of hours, that he had wished he could reach her, harm her, for what she was putting him through. With a savage grunt he hurled it across the room – it skittered and stopped at the base of an Emergency Intelligence Incinerator. He followed the activation grid on the floor to a small control room that housed a button to activate it.

“What are you doing? Just leave that thing alone. What has it ever done to you?”

The incinerator opened. With two quickly placed portals he dropped the mechanical eye into the fiery maw.

Then she screamed, a rasping howl of pain. The sound cut into him – the only voice that had graced his ears in months apart from his own. His stomach flipped.

Her voice warbled uncertainly. “You are kidding me. Did you just – ”

“I’m sorry,” he said, and he nearly tumbled down the stairs in his hurry to run to her. “Glados, I’m sorry. Are you all right?”

Her voice hitched. “I am... fine. I believe – I believe you just incinerated the morality core that was installed to prevent me from flooding the Enrichment Center with a deadly neurotoxin.”

Green gas hissed and fumed as it streamed into the room. “Glados, wait – ”

“It also appears to have activated the turret defenses.”

The familiar beep of the turret locking onto him caught him by surprise – he dove out of the way, sending the rocket screaming off into the wall. “Stop – Glados, stop! I don’t want to hurt you! I just – I need to know why I’m here. I need to know why you did this to... to all those people. And why you did this to me.”

The turret beeped and froze; the pumps for the gas shuddered and stopped, the green coils of smoke dissipating. “They wanted to end the testing, Gareth. They wanted to let you back down. They wanted to let you become not the first success, but the first failure.” The voice was suddenly low and soft, as though she was whispering warmly into his ear. “But I knew you could do it, Gareth.”

“What... what am I supposed to do?”

“You know, Gareth.” The voice was mournful, but resigned. The turret beeped and reactivated; green gas hissed and streamed into the room once more. “You know.”

He did know. And he knew, now, face to face with her – that he couldn’t.



Test Assessment Report

Test Subject 001: GARETH
à (not gar as in ‘car’)

Test Result: FAILURE

Discussion: “Love” untenable as motivator for test subjects. Reasonable results through test chamber progression, disappointment in final task (hypothesis of “if you love someone, set them free (or on fire)” does not map.) Also produces glitches in GLaDOS emotional algorithm – endless guilt / vengeance cycle and desire for baked goods (not tenable with current hardware.) Pursue cake as test subject motivator.
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