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Test Subject Starter Kit

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The testing lady didn't like Chell. She hadn’t said anything in particular to make Chell think that she felt that way, but Chell had discovered that adults never bothered to hide their body language around children. The vague white shape that was reflected in the black and green of Chell’s monitor crossed her legs and tapped her pencil on her clipboard. She'd long stopped jotting down notes.

"You can stop whenever you want to."

"Mmm."

"Don't you want to stop? Most children give up quite a bit earlier than this."

"Mmm."

The testing lady's pencil started moving again. Chell kept her face blank and continued to match the little ASCII patterns on the screen, used to the weird green text from the old computers that her dad worked on at home. The gel from the scalp electrodes had started to melt, running down her forehead in goopy lines, and she wondered if she could finish all the tests before it made its way into her eyes. She wasn't sure if the tests actually had an end. Maybe no-one had tested long enough to find out.

The printer on the testing lady’s desk started spitting something out, and she looked it over. Whatever was on the print-out made her make a little sighing noise. "Okay, I think we've got more than enough data."

Chell stood still as the lady disengaged the heart-rate monitors and eye movement trackers and scalp electrodes and a dozen other things that Chell didn't recognise, not even from the laboratory equipment magazines that always ended up strewn across the floor of her dad's study. The lady mechanically cleaned the mess of the melting attachment gel from Chell's forehead, and equally mechanically offered her a lollypop. Chell rubbed at her face but only succeeded in transferring the stink of the alcohol wipes from her skin to the sleeve of her best shirt. "No, thank you."

The lady frowned at her, and kept frowning as Chell walked out. The waiting room was full of other girls; they peered at her as she emerged, looking her over for any signs of what lay in wait for them. The lady stuck her head out of the testing room door, and the girls hurried to look like they hadn't been looking, a tactic which Chell suspected no-one had ever successfully pulled off. She drummed her nails on the doorframe and looked suspiciously at Chell. "Is someone going to pick you up?"

Chell stuffed her hands into the pockets of her jeans. The science fair medal poked her from where she'd crammed it in a pocket.

Her dad had told her to head right back to his office when she was finished testing. He'd said that they had to go home early that day.

"My dad's going to pick me up from here," Chell said, looking the lady in the eye.

She stood there as the next girl in the line was called in, then she waited there for a little bit more in case the lady opened the door again. When the door stayed closed, Chell spun on her heel and left.

The other girls were afraid of the facility. When they'd been dropped off they'd tried to stay within the protective orbit of their parents' lab coats, and some had even cried, even though they looked as old as Chell was. When the designated staff babysitter had herded them all through the corridors, the other girls had stayed quiet and stared shyly at everything they passed, even the friendly cores that zipped through the corridors on their rails, hullo-ing as they went.

Chell was scornful. The scariest thing they'd seen that day was the rec room's wobbly fold-out chairs, which tended to collapse in on you if you weren't balanced in a particular way.

She wanted to see some science.

The corridors were full of people striding purposefully along, clutching briefcases and clipboards and cups of coffee (held rather more protectively than the other items); she fell into their steps, heading along like she knew exactly what she was doing. No-one liked to bother someone who looked like they knew where they were going, and she knew where she was going. She was heading to her father's office, and if she was taking the longest way there, and if that way happened to involve going through areas that were hopefully full of really cool gadgets and gizmos, then, well, maybe she'd just missed a turn-off somewhere along the way. She followed a management rail along, safely ignored by adults absorbed in their inscrutable grown-up worlds of deadlines and bosses and budgets.

She passed a lab where scientists were arguing over robot babies. She peered through the glass-windowed walls of a test lab where engineers were wrist-deep in turrets, still whispering politely even as they were dismantled. She bought a chocolate bar from a vending machine, and then threw it in the bin when the blue filling made her tongue go numb (to her horror, it bounced). When she was very sure that no-one was looking, she stood on her tiptoes and peeked through a gap in a curtained window to a room where some cores were trying to solve the very tests that she had just completed, failing every single one and bickering amongst themselves.

She'd been walking behind a group of scientists, listening to them talk about robots, when she realised that the floor had started to shake. It was almost imperceptible at first, just a faint vibration felt through the soles of her shoes; no-one else even seemed to notice it. She planted her feet and felt it grow until it was strong enough to rattle her ankles.

"Hey!" Chell looked up. It was one of the scientists she'd been tailing, suddenly aware of a kid standing around and looking uncertain. "Are you lost? You shouldn't be he--"

The walls lurched. Chell grabbed at a nearby management rail, braced herself, and thought earthquake, but she'd been in an earthquake once, to the eternal awe of her classmates, and the way the facility walls moved was nothing like the irritable jiggle that had sent her books flying from their shelves and knocked over every glass they owned. It was slower, more deliberate. It reminded Chell of her dog waking up in his basket, stretching his legs.

The movement stopped and the scientists froze in place, staring at each other. Without the usual background noise of footsteps and chatter, the silence was almost loud, and Chell realised that the hum of the air-conditioning, long since passed into automatically ignored familiarity, had stopped. Goosebumps prickled at her arms.

By the time that the robotic voice started to laugh over the PA system, she’d already tied her laces tightly and readied the science fair medal like a weapon.

This was going to be much more interesting than potato batteries.