She was given freedom. After the absolute hell her life had been, she'd been set free. But she couldn't take it. The wheat field went on and on straight to the horizon. Gold as far as she could see. Pure nature and not a soul to be found.
She could only wander so far without worry overtaking her every emotion. The farther she walked into the wheat the more scared she became about her chances of survival. The only building for miles was the Aperture shed. The only food for miles the wheat she waded through. The only water for miles... none. She was fully aware of the human body's limitations.
She wants to tell herself she went back for companionship. It's lonely with just a cube. She wants to lie to herself. To convince herself that she didn't dive back into hell just for some water.
She'd planned on taking a bottle from the last of the artist's dens and using it to venture further into the wheat. That was before a portal opened beneath her and dropped her into a test chamber.
What a cruel joke from GlaDOS. Let her go into a world where she won't survive, just to lure her back into Aperture. The AI is happy though. After all, she'd kept the portal gun. In Her eyes she'd come prepared.
She hadn't expected the same kind of unfamiliar portal to open up again and spit out Wheatley. With anti-grav no less. Ohhh she wanted to scream at the core, to let loose every foul word she'd ever learned. She'd like to do that to GlaDOS too. She didn't though. Neither of them deserved her voice. It was the one thing this facility couldn't take from her.
She ignored both GlaDOS and Wheatley and after determining there was no way to open a test chamber door on her own, fell back into her old routine.
Wheatley's apology a few chambers in was unexpected. It made her think. The central core was the cause of all this. It corrupted GlaDOS and then Wheatley. No she won't be BFFs like he wants, but maybe she'll learn to forgive.
“Oh, it's you. I thought the elevator from test chamber 93 went to the incinerato... Party... Cake... Location.”
Learning to forgive Her will take longer...
Another core transfer was not something she wanted to do. She'd rather just leave GLaDOS alone. With anyone else in charge the facility will fall into even worse ruin.
The neurotoxin changes her mind instantly.
She regrets putting the space-obsessed core in charge, but it was a better choice than dying. She ignores GLaDOS' head lying on the floor and Spacey's rantings. She agrees with Wheatley this time; what is GLaDOS hiding in the room She'd been staring at when they arrived? A way out? Oh she hopes it's a way out. She might not be dead but if she has to stay here with the new core in charge that could easily change.
“Bet She's got tons of skeletons in her closet." Wheatley pipes in as they head into the hidden room. "Literally, there used to be loads of staff here. I've not seen hide nor hair of them.”
She knows this already. She knows exactly what happened to the staff. To her father. She pushes past the pain and focuses on the task at hand. GLaDOS was hiding a room of Black Mesa boxes?
“Well I never. Where d'you s'pose She got these from?”
Rounding the shelves she lays her eyes on a strange circular structure against the wall. Its middle glows and the unfamiliar portal from much earlier appears.
“That answers that then. After you?”
It's the first time she has ever smiled within Aperture since she was a child. She dives into the blue.
It feels like an endless portal loop. It looks like lights seen through a malfunctioning portal. She has no other frame of reference.
Eventually she lands, the tunnel opening into another portal to throw her out into unfamiliar territory. She'd been hoping for anywhere but Aperture. Or maybe even just outside of Aperture. Even the parking lot would've been fine. What she got was more than she'd ever dreamed of.
She can't remember ever having seen this much green in her life. Grassy meadows are something she never thought she'd see in person. A bit of anxiety returns, equating it to the wheat field situation, but then she sees it. Off in the distance, the hills have doors. Doors mean civilization, which means people.
She's running like her life depends on it. It doesn't register yet that wherever she landed, Wheatley didn't make it.
Civilization here is out of date. She doesn't see any technology whatsoever. The doors built into the hills are for houses. She never thought someone could make a house out of a hill. Then again she never thought she'd leave Aperture.
Someone rounds the corner and stops to stare at her. They are short, almost like a child. But they hold themselves like an adult. They say nothing; just stare.
She almost cries. Another human.
“That's some odd clothin' you've got there. Where d'you come from, miss?” he asks, taking a few steps closer.
She opens her mouth to reply but quickly closes it again. It's been so long since she used her voice–she isn't confident she can anymore.
“Bit shy, huh? It's all right. If you're just passin' through you can rest at my place before headin' out. Might be a bit small for you but if you don't mind I certainly don't.”
She smiles, nods, and follows them down the dirt path to one of the hill houses. Along the way when they're busy facing forward, not looking at her, she allows the tears to come.
The house is small as they said, certainly not meant for someone of her height, but it's cozy. It's warm and welcoming and for the first time she can remember since the morning of Bring Your Daughter to Work Day she actually feels happy. She doesn't know where she is or what's truly going on–she half expects to wake up in a test chamber and find it all a dream–but in the mean time she will allow herself the basic human comforts she has wanted for so long.
“There's some books near the fireplace if you're a readin' sort. D'you have a name, miss?”
Suddenly remembering the other person in the room, she hunkers down into a small chair, portal gun in her lap, and stares at them. Her name... She has to dig through faded memories for that. It's nice of them to be patient with her. “Chell.”
“Sorry to bother,” He takes the other chair across from her. “but could you say that again?”
It's not a surprise they didn't hear. It is a surprise just how quiet her voice is. So many years of being silent have taken a toll. Keeping a hand on her device she uses her free one to wipe her eyes. “Chell.” That's a better pitch. “Thank you.”
A smile. “Oh it's no bother. Happy to help a person in need. Welcome to The Shire by the way. Where are you from?”
Unfamiliar location. Rural area. No technology. It tells her so much and so little. She still doesn't know where she is. “Michigan.” Small sentences only. She fears anything more so soon will hurt. It's already hard to keep a steady pitch.
A few blinks from her new friend. Huh. She never thought she'd think of someone like that ever again.
“I've never heard of it. Must be pretty far away. Where are you on you way to, Chell?”
“Don't know. Just exploring.” Seeing the world for the first time in years. A few rapid blinks to fight the tears back. Her name spoken to her...
“Well, I think you can head out tomorrow. It's getting' late and wanderin' in the dark will do you no good. You can stay on my sofa tonight.” He gets up and starts walking down the hall. “I'll get to making supper then.”
It's overwhelming–all this kindness. Her thoughts drift back to the testing track where such kindness was only left for her by the artist, and due to circumstances was in very minor ways. But she remembers joy in a bottle of water, or an old can of beans, or some boxes to sleep on. Ecstasy came easy when she lucked out with all three.
She wonders if the artist is still alive and if so, did they escape too? Escape is never easy from such a living hell. She made it the first time, but the second would have gone better if Wheatley hadn't-hold on.
Grey eyes go wide as it finally registers. He went in that portal with her. Why didn't they come out together? Standing up quickly bangs her head on the ceiling, but leaning at strange angles to walk comes naturally–years of navigating maintenance ducts and hidden alcoves will drive that into you. The portal gun is left on the chair.
Surprisingly familiar scents lead her to the kitchen where her short friend is cooking. “You all right? I heard a thump.”
She gestures to the low ceiling.
“Ah, sorry about that.” A quiet chuckle as they stir the liquid in the pot. “Everything all right though? Or do you just want to see what I'm makin'?”
A shake of her head. “I just remembered. I was with someone else.” Suspicions confirmed; her throat is starting feel sore.
“Well traveling is always better with a companion. Where are they at?”
That gets them to look up at her, worried. “You sure you want to go lookin' with just a lantern?”
Lantern? No, she doesn't want to explore unfamiliar territory in the dark. Wheatley will survive the night. She's sure of it. Even GlaDOS crushing him didn't kill him. “No. He'll survive.”
“You can leave as early as you want to go lookin' for him.”
She nods and goes back to the chair until the food is ready.
It's been so long since she had a proper meal and a good night's sleep. She owes him so much.
When dawn breaks through the window she gets up, grabs her portal gun, and opens the front door.
Her short friend wanders into the hall, sees this, and waves. “Good luck finding him!”
She smiles back, thanks him, and rushes out onto the dirt path. Following the road back to where she arrived reveals the portal has been dormant there. The swirling blue vortex opens when she nears the area.
For a while she simply stands there in thought. This land is beautiful and its people have been kind to her. She'd like to stay. On the other hand Wheatley had apologized and actually helped her escape this time. They'd left together and he's not here.
She could spend her whole life searching this land. Or if he didn't arrive with her, maybe he never left the tunnel. Maybe he never hit the exit portal like she did.
It might lead back to Aperture. Spacey would be in charge. Or Aperture would be in ruins. Either way escape should be much easier. She trusts her chances. With hopes of finding Wheatley, once again she jumps into the blue.
The tunnel is just as bright as before, but much emptier this time. The core is nowhere to be seen before she hits the exit portal.
It's not Aperture.
This place is a bit dark with glowing lines running along every surface. The only light comes from behind. Turning around reveals this portal has a structure to house it when it opens. It's unlike any technology she's seen. Staring, she circles it to examine every detail.
“Oh hey! You're a new face.”
The voice makes her spin, instinct aiming the portal gun like a weapon. Almost instantly she lowers it though, remembering the kindness of the last stranger, but this voice sounded less human.
As if to confirm her suspicions a robot flies into view. It's rectangular with a purple optic, an antenna on its top, and two arms attached underneath. She suspects similar anti-grav tech to what Wheatley has been outfitted with.
“I thought I set the portal to not randomly pick up anyone else. Must've miscalculated something.”
It's a male voice, and the antenna moves when he speaks. He seems friendly but after Aperture she isn't willing to trust an AI on sight. She glowers at him.
“You know most people's reaction to being unexpectedly abducted by a dimensional rift is confusion, not anger.” The AI twirls in the air and zooms his optic toward her. “But I can work on getting you back if you tell me where you came from.”
Grey eyes widen and she shakes her head. No she never wants to return there.
“Huh. Well in that case, welcome to Vorton! I'm X-PO.”
The Shire, Vorton, she still doesn't understand any of it. She's free though. That's the important thing. She doesn't give the AI a reply aside from staring at the portal again. The purple oval panels lining the frame have odd symbols on them. She can recognize the test chamber warnings but these don't make any sense to her.
“You're the first I've met to be so fascinated by that thing. Well, aside from the Doctor.”
Doctor? No it doesn't matter. She turns away from the structure, venturing further into the dark area. A hand on the wall to examine it–hard, smooth, a little chilly–like panels. No not quite... The Aperture parking lot. Rock. This place is made of rocks with glowing lines.
She continues further until the rock becomes a strange platform floating just above the ground. More anti-grav?
“There's really not much you can do out there.”
Out there? The platform must move. It leads somewhere. She turns to look back at X-PO, then gestures to the platform. She'd feel safer with him following so he can't sabotage the portal while she's out. Not that he would but she isn't so trusting.
“I'm flattered you want my presence! I can't leave the portal behind though– I'm expecting some people.”
Others will be coming? She looks back at the portal, and after a moment of consideration walks back to it. Grey eyes flicker rapidly between it and X-PO followed by a sigh.
The AI lowers to her height and hovers ahead of her. “Is everything all right?
A shake of her head is apparently all the AI needs to get up close and personal. “Well I'm not very good at sympathy since my old master was never one for caring, but I'm a good listener!”
She just stares dejectedly at the portal. It's been a confusing two days...
“Well that was helpful. I'm going to take pity on you and start guessing here. Give me a signal if I'm getting close.”
“You don't want to go home but you keep staring at the portal. So you want to go somewhere else?”
… She hadn't expected the AI to actually be so perceptive. Clearly not Aperture technology. Even GlaDOS can't always read human cues correctly. “Yes.”
If it's not just the strange lighting, then X-PO's optic is brighter. “Great! That's something I can do!” He twirls and floats up to the top rim of the structure. “My name does stand for Experimental Portal Operator. Where to?”
“Wheatley.” The name slips out before she realizes X-PO won't understand.
“Okay I may be a robot but I'm not perfect. I've never heard of that dimension.”
A shake of her head. “Person.”
“Oh you're looking for someone...”
“Any idea where?”
“Well in that case, best of luck!”
His optic glows in time with the portal opening. It occurs to her as she leaps into it that if the other places she will visit are anything like The Shire, she'll be thanking these portals for the rest of her life.
She's bound herself to the goal of finding someone, but all the same she's never felt so free.