The warm summer sun shone in through the open window as Chell stood at the sink, washing dishes. She kept a steady rhythm going, enjoying the normality of the task. Occasionally, she would close her eyes and simply bask in its rays as well as the warm breeze. It still felt just as good as it had when she’d first escaped that place.
Chell shook her head, trying to get rid of those thoughts. It had been years since she’d walked out of that place. She’d built a life for herself here, on the surface. She’d grown. She’d healed. No one who met her would even guess at the horrors she’d faced once, long ago.
Chell smiled contentedly. Her past was her past, yes, but it had been so long that she rarely ever felt haunted by it anymore.
She felt warm arms wrap around her from behind, and suddenly everything began to blur around the edges. The dynamics were all wrong. The scene was too bright, the colors too vivid. The arms let go of her and instead cold hands wrapped around her neck, choking her. Chell dropped the dish and it hit nothing as it fell, disappearing from the scene. The cheery yellow of the kitchen stayed that way as Chell clutched at the hands and gasped for air, but the sun’s intensity burned brighter and brighter until she was blind. Blind and unable to breathe.
Chell shot up in her bed, gasping for breath. Her hand had instinctively found the base of her neck to make sure that there was definitely nothing there. Trying to catch her breath, she looked around the room in an attempt to identify familiar things around her. The room was still in its nighttime programming, and she had no way of knowing when the day cycle would return. She glanced over to the open closet, where her long fall boots - now clean - were propped up against the wall. She found the trash can across the room from her where she’d dumped her old, tattered clothes after finding new ones. The Companion Cube, also recently cleaned, sat on the chair next to the desk. Her gaze finally landed on the portal gun, laying on the desk. It looked almost out of place in here, its smooth, clean design contrasting against the simple, warm layout of the room.
Chell flopped back onto her pillow and threw her arm across her face as her breathing eventually slowed down. She had only been back for three nights before this nightmare showed up. Before that, her nights had been dreamless for months.
Her breath was back at a relaxed pace, and Chell felt herself enter that limbo between waking and sleep. However, she was startled again when the room lit up and the Announcer started speaking.
“Good Morning! You have been in suspension for -NINE NINE NINE-”
Annoyed, Chell rolled over and rapped on the wall with her fist, letting GLaDOS know that the room’s Announcer programming was still active. And broken at that, since the numbers never changed when it woke her up.
“-In compliance with state and federal regulations-”
Chell groaned and covered her ears with her pillow, barely managing to muffle the Announcer’s grating voice. She didn’t have any other name to call it besides “the Announcer,” the voice who had guided her through the ruined enrichment center months ago.
“-must be revived periodically-” The Announcer was suddenly cut off, his voice replaced by GLaDOS’s smooth tone.
“Oh, that must not be fixed yet. Don’t worry, I have my most capable corrupted cores working on it.”
Chell rolled her eyes and got out of bed, heading to the adjacent bathroom so she could brush her teeth and wash her face. The AI’s voice, though considerably softer and less aurally offensive than the Announcer’s, was somehow harder to ignore.
“Of course, I suppose I could fix it myself, but I’m just so busy with the cooperative testing initiative as well as fixing the rest of my facility that was destroyed during that idiot’s span of control-”
GLaDOS’s voice grew harsher and more angry as she spoke, and Chell idly wondered if she should be concerned for her own safety before shrugging it off. It had always been interesting to Chell to observe the AI’s vocal patterns, even in the very beginning when it had sounded heavily automated. She remembered noticing when the central core’s personality started showing through the automated speech. It had been early on, when the disembodied voice had first complimented her.
“You’re doing - very - well!”
It had sounded fake even compared to the automated tone of the rest of her speech. In fact, some of the longer messages had sounded almost human if not for the robotic pitch. Compliments, however, always sounded stale. Like the AI was saying them through gritted teeth because she had to, because it was part of her programming.
Her dry humor had also eventually started resurfacing, and the AI made comments such as, “The floor here will kill you. Try to avoid it.”
“When the testing is over, you will be - missed -”
Her toothbrush clattered as it fell into the sink, and Chell gripped the edges of the counter and attempted to steady her breathing once again. Attempting to recover from trauma in the very place that had caused it was probably not the best idea. But it was her only option.
“What was that?” GLaDOS was pulled out of her rant. “I told you I was trusting you not to destroy anything. I could easily send you back up to the surface-”
Chell rolled her eyes before picking up her toothbrush and rinsing it off. She only half-listened to the AI’s speech as she washed her face. She had once made her own sort of puzzle out of figuring out the voice’s nuances as a way to distract herself from the seemingly-endless tests. Now, though, it was even easier to recognize the vocal patterns, as there were no cores attached to GLaDOS moderating her speech and actions. Chell recognized the certain tone of affection used whenever the AI said “my facility,” and there was no mistaking her anger towards Wheatley.
Chell herself didn’t really know how to feel about that core, and did her best to avoid thinking about him when she could. For now, she was just grateful that GLaDOS was preoccupied with anger towards someone that wasn’t her.
“Did you hear me? I said you don’t care.” Chell winced when she realized she’d gone too long without listening to her. She exited the bathroom, lightly drumming her knuckles on a wall as a way to acknowledge the AI as she approached the closet.
She heard a sigh. “I see you’re once again refusing speech. I don’t understand why you feel the need to do this, we both know you can talk.”
Pretending to ignore her, Chell stood observing the clothes in her closet. For a while on that first day, all she had scrounged up from the rest of the Enrichment Center were jumpsuits and undergarments similar to what she already had. She later struck gold when she found a pair of jeans, especially when she realized they fit her. That same room had also had socks, a real bra (as opposed to the sports bras that the Enrichment Center supplied), and even a skirt. However, the bra was too small for her and the skirt was useless, as it was impractical for navigating the facility. The socks were practically a godsend, though, as she hadn’t found any before that. She also found a pair of track pants that she figured would be more comfortable to walk around in than the jumpsuit. She didn’t find any pajamas, but she did find a couple pairs of black sweatpants with the Aperture logo running down the thigh as well as one black jacket of similar design. She’d decided to use the sweatpants for pajamas, and the jacket was currently hanging in her closet for...well…
Chell didn’t really know when she would ever need a jacket. It wasn’t like there were seasons down here, and she wasn’t sure how much she would be inclined to make trips to the surface. Even so, it would probably take a lot to persuade GLaDOS to let her go. She vaguely remembered the central core once mentioning something about a cryogenic refrigeration wing, but it was unlikely she’d ever go there.
Willingly, that is.
“You know, it would probably be best for your vocal chords if you used them every once in a-” the voice cut off as Chell took off her shirt, causing her to look around in confusion as a blush crept onto her face. She didn’t care if the AI had seen her undress, but she did care if there were cameras in the room that she didn’t know about. She put on a bra and a new tank top and started analysing the walls and ceiling, searching for any sort of hidden camera. Unable to find anything, she changed into the track pants and had put on one boot when GLaDOS returned.
“Sorry, it seems those two imbeciles can’t stay out of trouble even when they’re not testing. Where was I? Ah, yes, your idiotic refusal to speak.”
Chell felt a blush creep onto her face again. So the AI hadn’t seen her, she was just distracted at a coincidental moment. Once again ignoring her, Chell stuffed her foot into her other boot, grabbed the portal gun, and headed out the door and onto the catwalk. A camera on the wall outside started tracking her movement as soon as she left her room.
The piece of catwalk that was supposed to act as a hallway had a portal-holding wall at one end and a gap where an intersection had been. Across the gap was more catwalk that led back towards the central core’s chamber. Down below her, Chell knew there was a portal-holding surface she could use to launch if she dropped down. She had three options as for where she could launch to. The wall across the gap would land her right back where she was, which was useless. The wall behind her would shoot her across the gap and onto the catwalk that led to other relaxation rooms and, eventually, GLaDOS’s chamber. There was also a wall next to her that would shoot her across the abyss - hopefully to the catwalk that she could see in the distance.
Deciding that she would head in that direction, Chell aimed as high up on the wall next to her as she could.
“What are you doing?”
She backtracked a little so she could run and increase her momentum.
“You won’t make it with that launch.”
Chell took off on a run towards the gap.
The AI’s shout came too late; she had already jumped down, shooting her portal as she fell. Chell told herself GLaDOS was just trying to trick her. She’d made launches like this before, after all.
But as Chell flew out of the portal on the wall and flipped so she was upright, she realized that she had miscalculated. She was going to get close to the edge of the catwalk, but close wasn’t going to keep her alive.
She tried to figure out a way to fix it. Maybe she could grab onto the railing. Just as she had settled on this as her only option, a platform shot up from the abyss, essentially extending the catwalk. It caught her abruptly, causing her to roll forward with her momentum. She scrambled off the platform and onto the catwalk, gripping a railing as she caught her breath.
“Don’t ever make me do something like that again,” GLaDOS chided, clearly disturbed by the fact that she had to save the life of the person she used to want dead. For the second time, no less. “If I hadn’t-”
“Thank you,” Chell interrupted as she stood back up. She had to hold back a smile as the AI stopped speaking out of shock of hearing her voice. She really was grateful, but she was also slowly implementing her own rules. Chell secretly considered it a sort of training for the AI; she would only speak to her if she did something...good. For lack of a better word. She wasn’t sure how well this positive-reinforcement method would work on a computer system, or how long it would take for GLaDOS to figure out what she was doing, but for now the simple joy of shocking the AI was enough for her.
“Like I said, don’t expect me to be able to prevent you from dying all the time and fix your idiotic decisions.”
Chell grinned and kept moving, eager to explore wherever this catwalk led.