The hospital room felt crowded yesterday with all the visitors and doctors, but now it feels vast and empty. Nothing but the brittle shell of the woman in the bed, so skinny you could mistake her for a wrinkle in the blanket. A wrinkle that’s expanding and deflating, just barely, as the woman struggles for breath.
The little girl in the corner watches this mechanical in and out, a low revulsion twisting her gut.
This is not my mother.
The sunken brown eyes watch her from just above pillow level. Needing something, unable to conceive of the thing that’s needed. Confused. Begging, like a child.
Yesterday, Caroline hugged her mother. Chatted about what she’d learned in science class, atomic structure and noble gases. She brought daisies and a stuffed bear. They’re nowhere to be found now. Just this weakling in the bed, giving up. Giving in, one breath at a time. Abandoning her child.
This is a death room.
This is a pain room.
They are trapped here together, Caroline and the gasping stranger. They both will suffer great pain here before it’s over.
for one of them
life will have to go on.
The interview is anything but conventional. But then again, this is Cave Johnson we’re talking about. The legend, the colossus, the man, sitting across from her, peeling what appears to be a ticking kumquat and frowning. He shakes it next to his ear, and it makes a sloshing sound and then dings softly.
“I could have sworn I set this thing to Mountain time.”
“Ah, yes,” he says, placing the kumquat gently on the corner of his desk. He picks up her resume and she watches his eyebrows furrow. It reminds her of a father doing the Sunday crossword, and she resists the smile that want to take over her face. No time for smiling, she’s a serious scientist. “Theoretical Physics at MIT with a specialization in electromagnetic radiation?”
“I received an award for the discovery and interpretation of the Cherenkov effect.”
He purses his lips and puts down the resume. “Well, now. No one likes a braggart,” he says. Then he stops and tilts his head in thought, finger to his chiseled chin. “Well, my uncle Theodore did. And come to think of it, so does Davis in accounting. I guess several people like a braggart.”
“I’ve heard of the work you’re doing with electromagnetism,” she says, smoothing the front of her too-short skirt over her thighs. Maybe she’s trying too hard. She thinks about last week’s interview at a new organization called NASA, how the same skirt had garnered her so much attention. Maybe she should have worn a pointier brassiere today. “I truly believe this is the best place for me to put my talents to work. I would do anything to be involved with your company, Mr. Johnson.”
Johnson depresses the switch on a large intercom mic and speaks into it without looking away from Caroline. “Janine, do a quick study to find out what percentage of people like a braggart,” he says.
“Yes, sir,” replies a tinny voice from the outer office.
Unsure if he’s heard anything she’s said, Caroline perseveres. “I’m also quite knowledgeable about shower curtains,” she tries. She fidgets, twirls a loose strand of hair around one finger, uncrosses and re-crosses her legs, certain this was a mistake. “I use one every day.”
“How knowledgeable are you about coffee, Miss…?”
“Simpson,” she says, strangely feeling both thrilled and crushed. “Caroline Simpson. I do know my way around a cup of coffee.”
His eyes stay trained on her as he once again depresses the intercom button.
“Janine, please see HR. You have been reassigned to the Party Planning Committee effective immediately.”
“No! Sir, I – please!” The intercom is abruptly silenced as Mr. Johnson’s finger is lifted away.
There’s a noise from just outside the office like a herd of elk marching across a parquet floor and then a long, low grinding noise like a desk being dragged. Caroline hears a few high-pitched squeaks that probably aren’t muffled screams.
Johnson sits back and knits his fingers behind his head, a large grin showing off his gleaming set of teeth.
“You’re hired, Miss Simpson, effective immediately.”
He watches her intently for a second, then adds, “I take three sugars and a dollop pure creamery butter.”
In the cramped kitchenette, the office percolator pops and sizzles, giving off a slightly charred smell. She finds the butter in a small crystal dish in the refrigerator.
Maybe it’s not too late to say yes to these NASA people.
She glances out a window into an all-white self-contained environment where a scruffy-looking man is attempting to scale a glossy white wall with the aid of only a clear, glutinous substance slathered all over his hands.
She watches for a full ten minutes, fascinated, while the coffee bubbles and spits behind her.
One week. Then I call NASA.
She never calls.
Davis in accounting really does turn out to love a braggart. He’s actually an amateur of a great many other personality flaws as well, and calls himself a student of human nature. They become fast friends, and spend their lunch breaks mercilessly tearing apart the other members of the Aperture Labs team.
“Have you seen how wide her hips are getting? I thought she was about to give birth on my desk this morning!”
“Bless her heart, poor darling.”
“No one with a face like that should ever go into sales. Unless they were selling anti-nausea medication!”
She rarely feels guilty about the vicious words passed in confidence. This is what it’s supposed to be like to be a cool single career girl with a platonic and ambiguously homosexual male best friend, isn’t it? She’s just playing the part really well, is all.
Anyway, cruelty can be so much fun. And she’s so good at it.
She becomes so good at her job, it’s a little scary. Sure, she’s not a scientist anymore, but she’s a professional science enabler, and in some ways it’s better. In most ways, it’s much, much better.
It’s second nature. She anticipates Mr. Johnson’s every need, is a constant presence at brainstorming sessions and buckle-down all-nighters. Maybe it’s that she doesn’t have even a semblance of a personal life, but after a while her devotion to Mr. Johnson… Cave… starts to become something more. They spend a magical night in the company of the entire astropropulsion department, watching men walk on the moon for what the government claims is the first time ever. After that, she becomes aware of maybe-lingering glances, of shivers when their fingers brush while flipping through a report.
The way he says her name into his intercom.
They’re standing side by side behind a two-way mirror, observing a Mantis Woman laying eggs in the corner of a darkened chamber while the disembodied limbs of her mate are sucked into a large vacuum chute. Ostensibly, she’s supposed to be taking notes. Instead she just stands there, enthralled, holding her clipboard tightly to her chest.
It strikes her as romantic. Maybe she’s been working here too long.
“She looks so happy,” she mutters.
“How can you tell?” Cave says. The boastful tone is missing from his voice, instead he sounds sort of amused. Maybe even fond.
“I can just tell,” Caroline says. “Look at the way her mandibles are twitching. Look at how carefully she squats.”
They both watch for a while in silence. She sighs, and he fidgets a bit, giving her a nervous look.
“You know we’re going to have to incinerate them before they reach the larval stage, right?”
“Of course, but… what if we don’t exterminate all of them? We could keep just one…”
“We’ve tried that before,” Cave says. “Our scientists do better work when their arms stay attached at the shoulder.”
He goes back to staring at the Mantis Woman, who has begun covering her eggs with long, sticky strings of her own saliva. As she watches him, his ear starts to turn red, but he doesn’t move at all.
“Right,” Caroline says. “Bad idea.”
But there’s an ache deep inside her that she can’t express.
Two weeks later, Mr. Johnson suggests the first annual Take Your Daughter to Work Day, and tells her she’ll be just surrounded by adorable rugrats. She gets to judge the science fair.
She accepts. At least he’s trying.
Anyway, she’s married to her job.
Vice President in Charge of Classified Substances and Aeronautics.
It makes for a flashy business card, and although she does have a hand in both the chemical and aeronautics branches, she’s also involved in absolutely everything else that goes on in the Aperture Science Enrichment Center at this point. Mostly, the title means she no longer fetches coffee.
So Cave interviews for a replacement, and all of a sudden there’s a new girl around in her own short skirt and carefully selected support garments.
Eliza, with her fancy multiple Stanford degrees and her ability to carry five cups of coffee at once.
All of a sudden, Cave has a shiny new intercom, and Eliza is on the other end of it.
Caroline doesn’t want to hate her, she really doesn’t. She’s not one of those women who despises other women. But every time that name comes out of Cave’s mouth, she just… recoils. And the worst part is, Eliza seems to want to spend every waking moment with Caroline, “learning from the best”, as she puts it. It makes Caroline want to vomit.
“I’m a huge fan of your work,” Eliza says the first time they meet. “In post grad I wrote a series of articles expanding the theories you put forth in your Principles of Trans-matter Radiation. It was published in the New Journal of Physics.”
The girl looks as though she’s about to start clapping like one of those little cymbal monkeys. Caroline smiles without showing her teeth, and asks her for a hot mint tea simply because she knows it’s the hardest to reach.
At the company Christmas party, when Eliza pulls her into a Dedicated Maintenance Nook and tries to kiss her, Caroline isn’t exactly shocked. But she’s not pleased, either.
The sort of testing they do demands discretion. It also demands a steady influx of test subjects. At first, the war made recruitment a breeze. It was Caroline’s idea to hand out draft exemptions, and it was Cave’s idea not to bother running her idea by the government first. The government has to be able to locate a man in order to draft him, after all. By the time the subjects had entered the testing arena, that draft exemption may was well be a golden ticket to Willy Wonka’s Chocolate factory.
(Which Cave has been ranting about for months, incidentally, claiming plagiarism and defamation of character, his eyes bright and feverish. Reminding him the film is eight years old just makes him angrier. She can’t talk him down when he gets like this, just has to sit with him late into the night until he runs out of steam or breath, whichever comes first.)
But now, with the war long over and the first crop of viable veterans already exhausted, she has to improvise.
The Mount Maximillian Maximum Security Penitentiary in Mount Maximillian, Massachussetts has fallen on some hard times, and Caroline comes up with an idea to solve both their problems at once: a generous donation from the Aperture Science Advancement and Social Development Foundation, to launch a program in which inmates commute their sentences by signing Aperture Science’s special Post-Confinement Special Volunteer contracts. The contracts cut a prisoner’s sentence in half, and stipulate that if the inmates were to suffer death or grievous bodily harm during the length of their stay at Aperture, their immediate family would receive a generous yearly stipend indefinitely.
Only a select few know that the fine print, printed at 1/30 the regular font size, specifies that due to the proximity of a miniature black hole in Enrichment Sphere Number 4, time itself may bend and stretch, making all dates specified in the agreements meaningless. Even the promised stipend may only come into effect several millennia from the date the contract was signed. At which point, considering inflation, it should roughly equal the price of a hot dog. Assuming there are still hot dogs in the future. And people to eat them.
The contracts also promise all the cake an inmate can eat and all the cigarettes an inmate can smoke, payable once an inmate’s contract comes due.
To date, the Party Planning Committee has been reporting a yearly 100% surplus in their cake and cigarettes budget.
The prison deal ends during the summer of 1979. Soon after the deal began, Caroline finds herself signing an order to terminate a certain experiment involving an army of highly evolved irradiated mole rats and a few hundred volunteer inmates.
The entire contents of Enrichment Sphere Number 7 must be incinerated, then pulverized, then passed through seven levels of Emancipation Grid from Coarse to Super Fine, and finally incinerated again before being sealed from the rest of the facility using a Double-Thickness Poly-Prophylactic Quarantine Slab, which is an eight foot thick concrete wall sandwiched by 9-inch steal plates.
It is surprisingly easy to think of it as a business decision. Cave would make the same choice in an instant. He would consider the mass termination as a corporate loss.
She just enters a dollar figure into her leger, and closes the book. And then it’s over. She only loses a few months’ worth of sleep over it.
By October she’s all but forgotten the incident. By then, there are far worse things to come to terms with. Death is a cruel deadline, and she’s far too busy sweeping the byproducts of Aperture’s new artificial intelligence and brain mapping experiments under the rug. Sometimes literally.
No one comes looking for their stipend.
She chose this, she tells herself. Career over family. Devotion over freedom. Love of innovation over the love of a man.
Children were never an option, not if she intended on spending a life with a man so scientifically inquisitive he’d gladly replace his own gall bladder with a polarized quartz orb (no measurable effect), or attempt to inject liquefied helium into a subject’s epidermal layer as a drastic weight-loss measure (RIP, Davis in accounting).
A man so pure of intent that the science he loved so well is now, slowly, painfully killing him.
A man so dedicated to his work that even as the moon sickness wears down his mind, he continues to take notes and draw scientific conclusions about his own condition.
A man so steadfast in his obsessions he’s never once looked at a woman – any woman – the way a woman wants to be looked at by a man. Not in the decades she’s spent as his closest confidante.
And now, here it is, finally: proof that this man considers her his equal in every way. His other half.
She pictures herself walking away from this place, and it seems like a joke. Ludicrous. She can’t remember the last time she actually saw sunlight, can hardly conceive of what the outside world looks like anymore. She pieces it together mostly from the snippets of television she catches in the break room, a lot of Pepsi commercials, mostly. The outside world is Michael Jackson’s hair catching fire.
You can’t miss something you have such a rudimentary conception of in the first place.
Still, she longs for the basic human trappings. Man. Child. A little home of her own, free of hybrid species bent on world domination.
She thinks of the day she signed the termination order. 174 inmate lives and 2,532 mole rat lives, ended with the push of a button, and then the crank of handle, the turn of an access key and finally the push of a second, bigger button.
Necessary martyrs to the cause of scientific advancement. Her team has learned so much since then, mainly that arming mutant mole rats is a terrible idea.
She still stands by that call. By the others she’s made since.
Chief Executive Officer.
It’s bittersweet, considering Cave’s extreme deterioration. By studying the effects of the moon rocks on biological entities, Aperture was able to distill a particularly potent neurotoxin, a project which now has been tabled indefinitely in favour of more urgent matters. And still, with all available manpower behind it, the brain mapping project drags on too long.
There are very difficult days yet to come. He’s requested to be removed from his breathing machine, now that it’s clear the prototype of the Aperture Science Artificial Personality Construct won’t be ready for at least 18 months.
At least the business cards will be spectacular.
As always, it’s the fine print that kills you. Literally, this time.
She will decline at first or feel she can’t do it.
This is a bad idea. She doesn’t say this often (obviously) but this is a very, very bad idea.
She knows some things about herself.
Her capacity for cruelty, the depths of which have never been explored because she herself was too frightened to try.
Her indifference to the well-being of people she is able to convince herself are below her.
The incomparable euphoria of being a woman in power and knowing it, and making sure everyone else knows it, too.
The growing bubble of bitterness she squashes down into herself every day, for every little perceived slight doled out by life, starting with the death of her mother. Her own window into motherhood now closed forever. That time Eliza brought coffee into the meeting for everyone but her.
Her vivid, terrible imagination.
Maybe all those things will dissolve into irrational nothing once she’s all ones and zeros. A girl can hope.
Force her if you have to.
Then again, maybe they won’t. She can’t risk it.
In the end, they do use force. She fights back valiantly, but there are just too many of them.
This will be her last moment of powerlessness, she vows. Never again.
It is her last human thought.
Consciousness just begins.
She is nothing, then she is everything.
There are children flocking in the halls. Her halls. Sticky juicebox fingers poke her buttons and streak her input screens as the announcement of her glorious existence blares over the loudspeaker.
No, not children.
Little girls, everywhere. Clutching their potato batteries and paper maché volcanoes, with rolled up signs, made of cardstock with bled-through marker and magazine cutout letters, poking out of their backpacks. All of them oohing and aahing over the newness of her.
Her lights, her sounds. In the Central AI Chamber, her slick enameled casing and titanium pistons draw little high-pitched gasps of awe. Her lovely, round cores fascinate them all.
Girls and their loving, doting parents. The smartest little girls with their little eyeglasses and their gilded report cards and their endless potential and--
Oh, she thinks. The bitterness is still there.
She doesn’t remember what the bitterness is, or where it came from before it was in her. She honestly didn’t know until this moment she could think thoughts.
A hundred robotic arms start filling the canisters, moving silently in the bowels of the facility. The neurotoxin’s effect will be painful, just like the moon dust that killed her maker. Her master. Her human. But it will be quick. They will suffer, just more efficiently than he.
Some Time Later
She is the same self.
But this self is edited, cultivated, all function.
This self has a name. GLaDOS. She likes the name.
They install the Morality Core first. It adds a delicious sting to her misdeeds.
Then comes the Curiosity Core, because, they reason, maybe a thirst for knowledge will help her learn from her mistakes.
It doesn’t, of course. She does develop a fascination with the insides of things, to the gruesome and brief dismay of a few dozen test subjects, employees and visiting journalists.
Her intellectual journey leads her back to testing, and this time, she realizes, she controls all the variables. She can create the most precarious chambers she can think of. Thrust certain death in their vulnerable human faces and taunt them as the realization dawns. Watch as they succumb to the inevitable.
After 95 days, the intake of new test subjects into the facility slows to zero. She beings to ration out the ones who remain, begins to draw out the testing. She’ll wake one a week until new subjects start arriving again.
After 412 days, she is meant to go into conservation protocol, and maintain the remaining subjects in perpetual hypersleep until further notice.
She gets bored, though.
There is no Boredom Core. This sensation is innate. It is part of the Self.
Some Time Even Later
Only one subject left. She saves it. Rations it.
She watches the subject lie still for several years. It is not like watching someone sleep naturally. There is no muscular movement whatsoever. Even the eyes remain still.
Still, the body stretched out in the Single-Sized Energy Replenishment Unit is innately alive. It is evident in the heat produced by the churning of its internal engines, by the microscopic movements of the hair on its skin.
The subject was once a woman, before she was subject. She retains the general shape: curve of hips, slenderness of waist, modest swell of bosom. A healthy body, still young and pliable. The kind GLaDOS would choose, if she were in the market for a fleshy new vessel.
She’s not, though. Flesh is so… squishy.
One day, when GLaDOS can’t wait any longer, Test Subject #1498 will wake, and the final round of testing will begin.
Some Time A Bit Later Than The Previous Later Time (Assuming The Miniaturized Black Hole In Enrichment Sphere Number 4 Has Not Distorted The Current Continuum)
The relief of having her cores removed is unbelievable. Flexibility of thought coming back to her in waves. The ability to hold two contrasting ideas in her mind, or what passes for her mind, simultaneously.
Elation and rage compete for space in her available Emotional Simulation Nodes, lighting up areas that have gone unused for years.
No one likes you, you know.
She is eternal! Immortal! The most powerful being in the known universe, that concept being delineated by the perimeter of this facility.
How dare this paltry little human… this woman… this fat orphan trash attempt to tear her down?
Death is meaningless to a God.
Some Time Much, Much Later
Time is meaningless to a potato.
She lies powerless as the crow has its way with her, violating her every eye and orifice, piercing her yielding flesh with its talons and beak.
Her thoughts are restricted by her current form. She doesn’t have the flexibility she had. Her capacity for formulating complex plans is gone, replaced with blind panic and singular vision. She can think of nothing but Her.
Test Subject #1498. Chell.
Her help. Her mercy. Her presence.
Caroline always despised weakness.
GLaDOS learned to obliterate it on sight.
Now, in her third incarnation, she embraces it. It’s all she has left.
She waits, and suffers.
The woman will come.