Hello everyone. This is a chaptered piece that I've been working on and am quite excited about. I'll probably be posting it elsewhere as well, on ff.net or something of the like, but I wanted to put it here first because in my experience this tends to be a decent place for honest feedback, which I am always welcome to.
Thank you and enjoy.
There were eight tally marks in the wood. Eight tally marks, which meant they had been alive for at least eight days, and at least eight days meant at least one day over a week.
But the engineer hadn’t added another tally mark in a long, long time. It wasn’t that he forgot about it. He just didn’t want to know anymore.
It was some time past those eight days. Maybe a few days. Maybe a week. Maybe three. Like I said, the engineer didn’t know and he didn’t want to know, either.
So it was some immeasurable time past those eight certain days, and the engineer had taken apart his sentry for the umpteenth time that afternoon. The air was a little bit cooler than it had been earlier, but he kept his shirt off and the bib of his overalls unbuckled, anyway. A little bit cooler, by the standards of wherever the hell they were, was still pretty goddamn hot. Normally he was more of the modest type, even in the sweltering summers of Bee Cave, Texas, and would rather just sweat through the extra layer of cotton. But there were no ladies around here to offend. Just the sniper, and he could probably count the number of things that offended the sniper on one hand.
The sniper usually kept close by, if he could help it. Not his typical behavior. He was never the type that seemed particularly interested in forming close bonds with any of his fellow teammates—or anyone at all, for that matter. To the engineer’s knowledge, he was a bachelor, to boot. Not that he’d ever really gotten the chance to ask about it, though. Before that last battle had been initiated, the sniper and the engineer had probably shared a total of twenty-odd words, most of which being something along the lines of “Good morning” or “Thank you” or “Ow, I’m not a spy, you idiot.” But as their numbers began to dwindle and the Respawn room collected dust as the bodies rotted right there on the battlefield, he seemed to inch down from his nest and gravitate towards the tinkerer. Lone wolf, he must have figured, would get you killed—just like it did the other team’s sniper.
He was lying on his belly, his bare chest chaffing against the hot, dry wood. When he went out hunting, he kept a painted, aboriginal plank tied around his back, just as a precaution—it was a dusty brown that almost seemed to blend in with his leathery skin. The engineer was used to viewing it from far away, and when the man stalked through the bushes with his bow and arrow, he almost seemed like some sort of strange, humpbacked beast. He didn’t wear it then, as he lay on his belly and surveyed the perimeter with his rifle. There was no need to.
“Not makin’ much progress, eh?” he said to the engineer after he heard an angry grunt and a violent clank.
“Gosh damn thing just refuses to upgrade.” The engineer exhaled and ran his intact hand through the wispy patch of blonde hair that was creeping farther and farther back as the years carried on. “Can’t imagine why… I haven’t changed a thing about the process.”
“Maybe you have to take the whole thing apart and start from the beginning, Truckie.”
The engineer scowled, and took a moment to place his hands on his hips and stare disdainfully at the level one sentry as if he could just shame it into doing what he wanted. Despite his especially rotten stink eye, the sentry did not curl its tail between its legs, but rather sat, unmoving and apathetic, as most broken objects tend to do.
“Dammit!” The engineer ripped his goggles off and flung them to the floor before storming towards the ever-dwindling resupply cabinet, leaving a trail of cusses behind him.
The sniper (who, unlike the engineer, could sit in the same position for hours without so much as a sigh) had to suppress a chuckle as the engineer stalked off, his face beet red. There was something amusing about the way the smaller man got so easily frustrated. For a moment he seriously considered approaching the engineer with the phrase ‘Napoleon complex’, but then realized it would almost certainly result in a wrench to the head.
The sentry was not rebuilt that day.
For dinner, they had a small buzzard that the sniper had shot down. He plucked out the feathers and stuck some of them in his headband, like an Indian from one of those American westerns. He liked westerns.
They crouched around a small fire, chewing dry, stringy flesh that tasted like cardboard. The engineer was thinking about how it would have tasted a hell of a lot better with barbeque sauce and a side of grilled asparagus. The sniper was thinking about how he had eaten worse.
“Do you like westerns, Truckie?” the sniper asked the other man.
“I wouldn’t be a Texan if I didn’t,” the engineer answered. “When I was a kid, I wanted to be just like John Wayne.”
When the sniper was a kid, he wanted to be just like Robin Hood. But he didn’t say it. That was something he did often. He thought about a lot of things he never ended up saying.
They slept in shifts. It was safer that way, especially since the sentry was still on the fritz.
The sniper always took the first shift. He had always been something of an insomniac, so he didn’t mind it. He found a kind of peace in just sitting quietly against the wall, letting the night carry on. Wherever they were, it tended to be cooler at night, but there was never any breeze. The sniper had strung up the bones of their fallen enemies, like morbid wind chimes, to act as watchdogs from beyond the grave. The only time he heard them tinkle, though, was when either he or the engineer was passing through.
“’S funny,” he muttered to himself that night.
“What’s funny, Slim?” the engineer asked. He was curled up amidst a make-shift bed of dirty blue jackets, facing the wall.
The sniper started a bit. He hadn’t expected the engineer to be awake. He suddenly very much hoped that he hadn’t been awake that whole time; otherwise he would have been a conscious victim of a rather monumental post-buzzard fart that occurred an hour beforehand. “Sorry, er, it just—the moon.”
“What about the moon?” The engineer shifted in the covers and sat up, the untanned skin around his eyes luminescent.
“Well, have you ever taken a good luck at ‘er? I been watchin’ her each night. She never moves, no matter the night. Always in the same spot. Always the same shape. Always the same brightness. Doesn’t make any sense.”
The engineer jerked his head around and peered beyond the strings of bones (which he, personally, found incredibly unsettling, but didn’t bother to question the sniper’s methods) at the moon. He smirked. “Now, come to think of it, that is quite a conundrum, ain’t it? No stars, neither.” The two of them stared with furrowed eyebrows at the moon for quite a while, before the engineer turned away. He cracked his neck and yawned. “Don’t give it too much thought, Stretch. We won’t be here for much longer.”
The engineer didn’t bother going back to sleep, seeing as it would have become his shift soon, anyway. He wondered if perhaps his body was adjusting to the strange sleeping pattern the two of them had formulated.
Unlike the sniper, the engineer wasn’t one who fared well sitting still for very long. For some reason that was completely beyond the Australian, the engineer always brought his guitar to work, and had it with him to pass the time during those long, nighttime shifts. While it at first struck the sniper as silly and unprofessional, he began to look forward to settling down in the pilfered heap of clothes, where he would close his eyes and let the slow, mournful tunes twinge and moan in his veins. It helped him sleep.
They didn’t know it, but it helped someone else, too.
Well, I'm definitely curious to know what's going on here. I like this so far, it's slow-paced and thoughtful while still building a sense of foreboding.
Not totally sure if engineer and sniper should be capitalized...
(Pardon me, I don't know how to directly respond to posts).
Obvious etc.: I prefer not to capitalize "sniper" and "engineer" because I sort of see them on par with words like "teacher" and "lawyer", which aren't normally capitalized, either.
Because that's their names, they should be capitalized. When referring to the class (as in, part of the game mechanics) then it shouldn't be.
It feels extremely awkward to read something where the character names aren't being capitalized. It's even distracting when I come across it, even as a typo. I have to stop and wonder 'what was the writer thinking? That's not right!'
Also, putting 'The' in front of every reference to the characters is unnecessary. It makes it hard to connect with the character. Doing it occasionally is fine, it can be like a subtle reminder that this isn't just a nickname but a job title as well.
People that get attached to fanfics and really fall in love with them WILL notice when an author puts their personal feelings about English above the rules of it. It WILL turn people away from your writing.
Try not to stick character commentary in the middle of a sentence in parentheses if it can be just as easily inserted at the end. This is especially true when the commentary is more than a few words long, it's rambling and breaks the flow. It can (and probably will) make people stop to reread the sentence, which is never good. You want your sentences to be easily understood and not have to be reread. Rereading breaks the flow.
And please, please, PLEASE, follow the rules of dialogue. Always a new paragraph when someone starts talking. Big blocks of text with speech hiding in it is just painful on the eyes.
What the hell. I'll throw my opinion on the name thing as well.
I refer to character as "The Classname" when I write. So, the Engineer's...well, the Engineer. I do this for two reasons. One--their title is not their name. It's their role. The other characters can call them by their role only (no "the"), but it's still not their name. Two--that's the way it works with Doctor Who stories. You would not write "Doctor went to the TARDIS." It's "The Doctor went to the TARDIS." Other characters may call him "Doctor", but as a third person watching the action, we call him "The Doctor."
Although, I think the only other person I've seen write like that is Dotchan.
I'm a little concerned about why there is a first person perspective mixed in with a story primarily about two other characters that aren't the first person, but I'm guessing you may reveal who that is soon enough. If the third person in this story is not the person telling this, then the first person perspective is unnecessary. Always remove "I"s and "You"s from stories that aren't first person. (Or second. But only "Chose Your Own Adventure" stories are nutty enough to use second.)
I like where you're going with this. Please do continue.
(I still don't know how to directly respond to posts, forgive me)
I sort of disagree with the statement that those are their names, but I do see why capitalization is imperative, if only for the sake of merely being able to easily identify the character in the sentence. However, I'm not quite sure how I can change it now... is there a way to edit the original post, or should I just continue on and just capitalize it from now on? I posted the story on ff.net so I'll be changing it there, but I'm just not quite sure what I should do about it here...
In regards to sentences in paragraphs, I was honestly not aware that was a problem, so I'll keep that in mind in the future.
As for the whole first person thing, D.F. 38, I can't quite recall--is the "Like I said" the only instance of that, or is there anything else? Because if so, maybe I can save it yet. I was iffy about that being there in the first place because I thought it might not play off well, so I guess my gut reaction was right. Maybe it's because I'm reading Good Omens right now and that sort narrative may have a rubbed off on me. Heh.
Thank you for all the critiques, they're greatly appreciated!
Nope, can't edit posts here. They're stuck like that, sorry.
You've certainly got my attention, so I'll be checking back on this story for updates.
Oh, okay, well, that's fine then!
I had a good long think about it, anyway, and I honestly think I prefer not capitalizing "engineer" and "sniper". So I'm not going to change it. I think the debate here is less of an issue of technicality and more of one that is of preference. I also prefer doing it that way because it reiterates that their jobs are actually minor parts of who they really are. So while I completely understand why people like the two words being capitalized better, I have always written the classes as lower case, and it's always worked for me and it's what my gut tells me, so I'm going to continue doing it that way.
The other points still stand, though, and I will certainly be keeping them in mind as I continue the story.
I can't promise when the next update will be, but I've already started it, so I'm estimating some time within the next week.
Sudden death? I'm quite intrigued.
I think most of the fandom uses the class names like their real names, partially since the characters themselves call each other by their class names in the comics ("I didn't know you had it in you, Sniper" from the Jarate page, for instance). But I've never cared one way or another, personally.
I kind of wish you started the story "earlier" in the eight-day process. Going from the mindset of death being a minor inconvenience to accepting that nobody is coming back (possibly ever!) is character development that I feel you really should address.
Show, don't tell. Make us feel those eight days. Have all of the deaths happen on screen and the survivors react to it. Then, when you show us the last couple of classes alive clinging to each other for survival, we have an emotional stake in what's going on.
Thanks for the advice, dotchan! That's definitely something I'll keep in mind should I try a story like this again. Although, for this one, I did in fact consider doing "on-screen" deaths, but I'm kind of trying to go for a bit of a different approach. As for their reactions to the deaths of their fellow team members, I do go on about that in this next chapter, although I kind of want to keep it clear that, in this interpretation, neither the engineer nor the sniper were particularly close to their teammates, and also they've been so desensitized that the gravity of their situation almost isn't quite sinking in. I don't want to go on because I don't want to spoil anything.
So here's the next chapter.
(Also, is there any way to italicize on here?)
There was another set of tally marks. The same number, funny enough: eight. Eight tally marks. They were there for a different reason, though.
Each one had a different meaning, unlike the same sweltering days, that trudged onward like chained prisoners. The first mark was for the fast little boy who was stabbed in the throat. The next was for the loud one in the helmet, blown to bits. Then there was the strange one without any face, shot in the stomach. The fourth tally mark was for the drunken fool, who accidentally blew himself to bits, and the fifth for a bear of a man, who could absorb more damage than a military tank—he was dispatched with a single arrow to the head. The sixth, stabbed in the back. The seventh, stabbed in the back. The eighth fell out a window, trying to avoid being stabbed in the back.
The engineer ran his thumb across that second set of eight tally marks and exhaled heavily through his nostrils. "You sure are one slippery eel, Mister," he murmured to the unrepresented ninth.
"Who? The Spook?" The sniper trudged up the worn wooden stairs with an armful of Mason jars filled with a liquid that was thankfully quite clear, save for a few floating pieces of grit. Their main source of water was a small pool just outside the Respawn room that continued to shrink as the days passed by. The sniper figured that they had roughly two days more worth of water they could gather from it, but he didn't tell the engineer. He didn't want to make him worried about it.
"Yeah, well, who else has been givin' us all this grief?" The engineer grabbed one of the jars and gulped down a mouthful. He had gotten used to blocking out the memory of what they used to be used for.
"Hasn't made a peep for a while, though. Not since the last time he sapped your sentry." The engineer cringed at the memory and handed the jar to the sniper, who took a swig as well. A rivulet ran down his chin. He sighed and wiped his mouth with the heel of his hand. "I feel like… I feel he's scheming."
The engineer shrugged his shoulders as he bent down to collect his toolbox. "Well, Slim, you know his type." He straightened up and started for his sentry, which was beeping in a very lonely, pathetic sort of way just beyond the strings of bones. "Always gonna pop in with something you weren't expecting. We just gotta stay on our toes. That being said—" He reached up and flicked the sniper's nose as he passed.
"Just checkin'." He chuckled quietly to himself.
Grumbling something guttural and entirely untranslatable, the sniper smirked and rubbed his nose. He wasn't someone who particularly enjoyed being poked or teased, but he'd let it slide, this time.
The engineer had taken apart the sentry and completely rebuilt it, as per his friend's suggestion, and by that afternoon it was at a level one in decent working order. Its creator then tested its reliability with a tattered blue jacket, scavenged from one of the twisted remains that littered the map like weeds. He waved it like a matador, hopping back and forth and shouting "Toro, toro!" The sentry sputtered out bullets and they flew through it, ripping it right out of his hands. He yipped and clapped his hands together, grinning toothily.
The sniper had been sitting on the worn wooden step close by, mending a tear in his shirt and stealing glances over his shoulder every few minutes to gauge the engineer's progress.
"Think it'll hold up this time, then?" he asked, then winced, because he had accidentally pricked himself with the needle. He always kept a needle and spool of thread in his knapsack, just in case, but up until then he rarely used it; the Respawn system had been capable of restoring clothing to its original state. Useful, sure, but a tad frustrating at times—it made it impossible to break in a pair of trousers to where they fit just right.
"Yeah, I think so," the engineer panted, patting the top of the sentry as if it was a sturdy horse that had done him proud. "I reinforced the areas that tend to be weak spots, where the spy likes to put his sapper, so just in case he comes crawling back it might be able to hold up longer than usual." He pulled up the bottom of his shirt and wiped away beads of sweat from his forehead. The sniper's gaze briefly lingered on the other man's belly, lightly sprinkled with soft blonde hair, and noticed how much weight he had seemed to lose. The engineer had always been slightly pudgy, but now he seemed almost unnaturally flat.
It was to be expected, after living off of meager scraps and working in the blistering heat for something over a week, but the sniper still found it surprising.
Knowing that any further thought of stomachs would no doubt make his own start rumbling in hunger, he looked away, out to horizon, where the sun was beginning to sink. It was strange, how barren and parallel the strip of brown land seemed to be. There were no mountains or valleys or trees or even the silhouettes of buildings. He had inspected the area beyond their fenced-in map, and the amount of unnaturally straight lines baffled him. The bush hadn't worked like that. Nature didn't work like that.
The engineer grunted as he sat himself down beside the sniper. He was wondering what was on the other man's mind, but he knew better than to ask, because the only answer he would get is "I dunno". So instead, he followed the sniper's gaze, and for a moment they were both silently watching the sunset.
"Do you ever feel bad?" the engineer asked him, his voice, though low, seeming loud against the quiet of the map. "That they're really dead?"
The sniper shrugged. "I didn't really know any of them well enough to have anything to feel bad about."
"Yeah. Me neither." The engineer frowned and scuffed his boot on the wooden step, his knee just barely nudging the sniper's leg before the sniper shifted in his seat. "I don't know, maybe I think about things too much," he continued, clasping his hands together. "But sometimes I think about how the scout was just a kid, I mean—Christ, Stretch, how old was he? I don't even think he hit twenty yet. Not even two decades old and his bones have been picked clean by the vultures."
The sniper exhaled softly though his nose, his eyebrows knotted. He didn't say anything.
"I don't even want to think about what his mama must be goin' through right now." The sniper didn't want to think about it, either. So they didn't.
Under the bench in the Respawn room, a family of mice had built a nest. Upon such a discovery, most people would recoil in disgust. The engineer and the sniper exchanged grins.
"Never seen white mice as pests before," the engineer commented half an hour later, as they scraped the skin off of the dead rodents. It was frustrating how much the fur made up the bulk of a mouse—when one had been fully skinned and the little guts had been squeezed out, the amount of meat was just a sliver on his palm. "White mice are the types you see in laboratories. Y'ever saw a white mouse out in the wild, Slim?"
The sniper had been sniffing (and contemplating licking) something maroon and gristly on the tip of his middle finger. He looked up and shrugged. "Can't say I go looking for mice very often. I hunt bigger game." He then stuck his finger in his mouth. "Why kill something as easy as mice when you can wrestle a crocodile and kill 'im with your bare hands?"
"Jesus, son, are you serious?"
Grinning very slightly, the sniper placed his half-skinned mouse aside and stood up, walking over to the engineer. "Here's some of his teeth." He dipped his hand into his shirt and brought up out a leather thong, which he snapped from his neck and handed to the engineer. The engineer stroked his thumb over the enormous white teeth. "Took me months to finally get 'er."
"I would never have that kinda patience," the engineer told him, handing the necklace back. He went back to hacking the skin off of the rodent. "I'm getting' antsy just waitin' for this damn spy to finally keel over. Don't know how you do it."
The sniper shrugged as he retied the teeth around his neck. "I like being outdoors."
"Why is that? I mean, I like the outdoors as much as the next man, but I don't think I'd be able to live in it the way you can. 'Specially not places where even the plants are tryin' to kill you."
The sniper sat back down across from the engineer and resumed skinning his mouse. "Hope and the future for me are not in lawns and cultivated fields, not in towns and cities, but in the impervious and quaking swamps."
The engineer absorbed the words. "That's a mighty beautiful thing to say, Slim," he concluded softly.
"Eh, it ain't me who said it first. It was Henry David Thoreau. If I made that up, I would've said the bush instead of swamps. 'Course, I ain't clever enough to say something like that in the first place."
That night, the moon hung in the same spot as it had every night before. The engineer played Folsom Prison Blues, and the way he sang like a mournful coyote made the sniper's chest feel heavy with an emotion he couldn't quite place.
"When I was just a baby,
My Mama told me, 'Son,
Always be a good boy,
Don't ever play with guns,'
But I shot a man in Reno,
Just to watch him die.
When I hear that whistle blowin',
I hang my head and cry."
Not too far from there, crouching underneath the creaky wooden walkway and shrouded by the shadows, was someone who had not been a boy for a long time. Never, in all those years, had any told him not to play with guns. Not even his Mama.
As he gripped his revolver in his right hand as tightly as his weak body would allow him, he felt a boiling hatred rising up in his gut. Not for the man with the guitar, or his leering bushman, but for what he never had. Maybe, if there had been someone to tell him not to play with guns, he wouldn't be starving at 98 pounds in unbearable heat, drinking his own measly spurts of urine and harboring a secret he was too feeble and disoriented to handle.
There was one bullet left in his revolver, and that was fine. That was all he would need.
In his left hand was the secret. He balled his fingers into a fist and didn't relax them.
He felt a sort of strength in his hatred. There was something in his bitterness that gave him the ability to stand up, even though he could feel his knobby, bruised knees knocking together as they quaked under the meager weight of his own body.
"Well, if they freed me from this prison,
If that railroad train was mine,"
He pressed himself against the dusty clay wall and raised the revolver.
"I bet I'd move out over a little,
Farther down the line,"
He cocked the gun.
"Far from Folsom Prison,
That's where I want to stay,"
It was time to stop hiding.
"And I'd let that lonesome whistle,
Blow my Blues away."
Interesting... I'm looking forward to the next chapter, this looks like a story with a lot of potential :)
There is one part that seems weird, though. In the paragraph about the eight tally marks, it seems that four out of eight men were killed by the Spy (Sniper and Engineer's teammate). Considering that the enemy Demoman accidentally killed himself, that means that the teammate Spy single-handedly took out half the enemy team. Not only is that extremely one-sided and makes that Spy's teammates seem incompetent, but it also makes me curious about this exceptional guy who kicks so much ass, and it's frustrating when he doesn't even get a mention and we never learn who/what was it that finally did him in.
I suggest you re-write the causes of death of the enemies so that no more than two of them are killed by the same person. Distribution of competence for Sniper and Engineer's team.
Also, the reason I keep referring to them only as "teammates" and "enemies" is that I have no idea what colours they are supposed to be.
<i>“What’s funny, Slim?” the engineer asked. He was curled up amidst a make-shift bed of dirty blue jackets, facing the wall.</i>
This line implies that Engineer and Sniper belong to BLU.
<i>The engineer had taken apart the sentry and completely rebuilt it, as per his friend's suggestion, and by that afternoon it was at a level one in decent working order. Its creator then tested its reliability with a tattered blue jacket, scavenged from one of the twisted remains that littered the map like weeds. He waved it like a matador, hopping back and forth and shouting "Toro, toro!" The sentry sputtered out bullets and they flew through it, ripping it right out of his hands. </i>
But this paragraph implies that their enemies are BLU, therefore Engineer and Sniper are RED. Which one is it?
Ah, about your question, italics work like this: [i+][/i+] just remove the +
...Oh, the irony of explaining how italics work, only to mess up the code myself. I shouldn't post here right after posting in LiveJournal.
Anyway, use square brackets.
The part about the Spy in the beginning is actually a good point. It completely flew over my head! If I could change it here, I would, but apparently you can't edit posts? I am going to change it on ff.net, though. Thank you for pointing that out!
The engineer and the sniper are RED. The blue jackets they're sleeping on were taken from the dead bodies of the BLUs--remember how sniper made the 'wind-chimes' out of their bones?
Also, thank you so much for telling me how to italicize!
Part three is here!
"Funny, how that little nick I gave you never did quite heal…" The cool blade grazed the sniper's cheek, tracing along an old scar. The sniper jerked his head away with a sneer, the side of his head scraping against the wooden floor. The spy chuckled and leaned his weight on the man's chest.
"Don't even bother trying to fight back, bushman." The knife began to creep its way down, just barely slicing his jaw. It tickled the sniper's neck and pressed against his Adam's apple. "There's nothing you can do now. It's over. I've won. You let me win. You were so lazy, so careless… and I thought you were supposed to be a professional." The spy threw his head back and cackled.
A mixture of pain and frustration was clawing the insides of the sniper's chest, and the spy could feel his pounding heart on the inside of his thigh. His laughter died and he stared down at his enemy. It was dark, and he was just a silhouette against the backdrop of that enormous moon, but the sniper knew he was smiling. His hungry grin was luminescent. "What's wrong? Did I hurt your feelings?" The knife dug deeper against his throat, and as it did the spy's grin grew wider and he could see his eyes then, too, and they were so white and gleaming and he could feel them seeing everything inside him, knowing everything inside him. "You like to pretend that you don't have feelings, bushman, but I can smell your blood, and it smells weak and pathetic. It smells human."
The knife had lodged itself into his throat and torn its way down to his chest. He felt nothing, but knew it was just the shock; the eye-popping pain would begin any second. Tears stung the corners of his eyes and he hated himself for it. He tried to scream for help but he didn't have a voice anymore.
"There's no one, bushman. You never had anyone to begin with."
The gut-trembling bang of a revolver made the sniper sit up in a cold sweat. Foggy-headed and panting, he looked around wildly as his eyes tried as quickly as they could to adjust to the darkness. The engineer was leaning against the wall, as always, but had stopped strumming his guitar. His hand hovered, frozen, over the strings, as he held his breath and listened. His eyes darted to the sniper.
"Am I goin' crazy," he whispered slowly. "Or did you hear that gunshot, too?"
The sniper nodded solemnly as his heart rate stumbled back to normal. He ran his fingers through a greasy clump of overgrown hair. There was no point in discussing who fired the shot; they both knew it had to have been the spy. The dilemma was what to do about it.
The engineer gently set his guitar aside. "What're we gonna do, Tex?"
The sniper narrowed his eyes, and then grabbed the kukri that had been propped up against the wall as he slept. "We're gonna hunt down the little bugger."
Ten minutes later, after the engineer had attached a mining light (the presence of which he only explained by mumbling something about "spelunking") to his helmet and the sniper had put on his trousers (because he'd be damned if he had to confront the spy in his underpants), the two of them set out in a bizarre, yet formulaic manner. They had arranged themselves back to back and linked arms, and then began to slowly try to walk as if they were the victims of some overzealous trust exercise. The engineer led with a pistol in hand, turning his head from side to side and surveying the territory before him like a security camera. The sniper was his Ginger Rogers, doing everything the engineer did, but backwards and without any light.
They took slow, careful steps that weren't quite in sync. Boots scuffed against dirt and gravel and every once in a while the engineer would whisper, "Watch out for the rock." There was something about that simple little warning, that tiny little act of kindness that made the sniper's throat tighten. [1i]See, you stupid bloody Spook?[/i] He thought as he squinted at every shadowed corner with an increasing zeal. I do have someone. You're the one that's all alone.
They made their way towards the shrouded underneath of one of the walkways leading to the Capture Point, which had gone virtually unnoticed throughout their entire something-over-eight-days. There had been no ulterior motive in this mission, no intelligence to capture or areas to claim. They only point had been to survive, and make sure the other team doesn't.
"Watch out under here," the sniper murmured, tightening his grip on his knife. "He could be just around the—"
"Slim." The engineer stopped abruptly.
"What?" The sniper craned his neck around, thankful that the engineer was short enough to not be capable of blocking his view.
Spotlighted against the wall, like a cartoon criminal caught in a searchlight, was the BLU spy—or at least, what once was. An emaciated frame that swam in the stained vestiges of a suit that had once been tailored to his size, sunburnt and bearded just as the two men that stood over him, he was slumped over on the ground. On the wall behind him was a spatter of bloody brain fragment, still wet and soft and warm and shaped almost like a flower in the way it spread out. Shards of his skull had imbedded themselves in the wall, and below the flower was its stalk, a streak of blood that had trailed after the spy as his lifeless body had presumably slipped downward. While the back of his head had been completely blown out, his face remained intact, with glassy, yet pleading eyes and a slack jaw. He had worn his mask to the very end.
"He… he shot himself…" the engineer whispered, not quite believing what he saw. "He's dead."
The sniper squinted at the corpse for a moment, and then his eyes widened and he tore himself from the engineer's grip. "That spy ain't dead yet!" he snarled, leaping to the body and grabbing its limp left arm, wielding his kukri above his head. "I bet it's a bloody Dead Ringer he's got!" The sniper yanked up the sleeve of the dead man's jacket. "He probably lured us by—"
His theory was cut short when he saw the cloaking device, dulled and waterlogged, still wound around the bony wrist. He and the engineer knew quite well that it was against the rules for a spy to ever use a cloaking device and that elusive little pocket watch at the same time.
"He's dead," the engineer said, louder yet. "He's really dead." Holding his hand against his head, he leaned against the wall, shaking his head. The more he said it, the stranger it seemed. After all this time, after all the hiding and the hunting, the spy was finally dead, and it hadn't even been at the hands of the RED team.
Figures, really. That spy always had been the type that wanted things done on his terms.
"He's dead. It's over. It's all over…"
The sniper said nothing, but instead turned the spy's left hand over. Death had relaxed what was once a tight fist and he could see a slip of paper nestled in the worn leather glove. He wriggled it out of the loose grip.
"It's over. It's over." The engineer pulled his hand away from his face and his eyes widened in a sudden realization. "We… we won. We won! Oh, hot in heaven, Slim, we won!" The engineer suddenly sprung up and clicked his heels together, cackling. "Yeeehaw! We can go home!" Still giggling and giddy, he stretched his arms out and stumbled backwards, looking up at the sky as if he could embrace it. "Oh, Roxanne, baby, I'll see you and Annie real soon, honey! Real soon!" The odor of rank sweat transformed into the fresh scent of tomato plants on the tip of Roxanne's fingers as she cradled his face, and the overwhelming putridity of stale urine baked under a hot sun became the soft smell of sticky honey and Johnson & Johnson baby shampoo that he could just barely detect when he buried his nose into Annie's little blonde curls. He could smell the freedom. He could smell home.
The sniper smoothed the crumpled paper and squinted down at the sparse lettering. "Truckie," he said, looking back up and over at his friend. "If we won, then why isn't anything happening?"
The engineer's smile faded as he turned, dropping his arms to his sides. "What?"
The sniper shifted on his feet. "Well, shouldn't we hear something like, 'Victory'? Or 'Congratulations'? The last BLU is dead, and I don't hear a bloody pin dropping. When we'd win before, they'd have already ushered us to the teleporters by now."
The engineer set his jaw and furrowed his eyebrows. The brightness of his helmet light was beginning to fade as the sun started to creep over the horizon. "So what do you think this means, then? That they forgot about us? That we did something wrong?"
"Crikey, I dunno. But—but I did find this in the spy's hand." He stood up and walked to the engineer, holding out the note. The engineer wrinkled his nose and accepted it carefully, as if it were an ancient manuscript in danger of falling apart. He squinted at it, and then held it up to the light.
The note read, in a shaky hand that had written it as quickly as it possibly could:
'The Sudden Death Experiment'
Need ENG CP
Helen will know
"What do you reckon it means?"
The engineer shook his head. "I dunno, Slim. Maybe its best we just leave it be, for now." He folded the slip of paper and slid it into the pocket of his overalls. "We should just wait a bit. It's early in the morning, and it's been a hell of a long time. They can't possibly be monitoring us all the time. Maybe they just haven't gotten the message yet. Why, I bet they'll be comin' any second now. I'll eat my hat if we ain't gone by noon."
And so they waited. There was no need to work on the sentry or keep any sort of extra vigilance—their last enemy was dead. The engineer, caught up in dreams of the open fields of Texas and the taste of Roxanne's homemade Sweet Tea, spent the whole time idly playing his guitar in the shade. Despite the number of times the engineer hollered out, "Give yourself a break, pardner, we'll be home any minute!" the sniper insisted on lying in the tall, brown grass on his belly, poised with his gun, searching for a fat buzzard. The note he had found on the spy didn't sit well with him, and he was sure it had to mean something, despite what the engineer said. He felt that they might end up staying there for longer than either of them wagered, and in the pit of his stomach there was a part of him that wanted to. The engineer had a wife and a daughter to go back to, sure, but what did the sniper have? A smelly old van and parents who considered him a disappointment?
Yes, it was hot. And yes, the food and water supply could be ten times better. The sniper could think of a million things that would make that existence more comfortable. And yet, when he would bring back a dead buzzard and see the way the engineer grin, or close his eyes and let the guitar cradle him to sleep, there was a part of him that felt he could go on living like that for the rest of his life.
The engineer was a genuine man and an honest man. He didn't talk too much—like the sniper, he knew that sometimes you need to sit back and appreciate the sound of silence. But when he did talk, he was absolutely engaging; after the sniper heard him talk about his theories on operant conditioning and how it could theoretically be applied by a government on its citizens through the use of television (theoretically, of course), there was no denying that the engineer was the smartest man he had ever met.
And when he thought about how excited the engineer was to go home, to continue on with his life as if none of this had ever happened, and possibly never see the sniper again, he felt all of this awful emotion crash inside of him and it just made him all the more frustrated, because despite his standards and personal rules and attempts to distance himself from everyone he came in contact with, he had somehow become attached to this one. They had become friends. The closest thing the sniper had ever had to a friend was a blue merle Australian Shepherd named Apricot, and even that hadn't ended well. When she had gotten old and blind and peed blood, his father made him take the dog out back behind the barn and shoot her, and when he did it her blood spattered on his boots and he threw up in the hay and had never cried that hard in his entire life, and then after that he never cried again.
Noon eventually passed, and the minutes turned into hours which turned into sunset. The engineer didn't have to eat his hat, because the sniper had shot down a skinny excuse for a buzzard.
He hoped it might make the engineer smile, but it didn't.
Argh, that last chapter was unusually heartbreaking... I'm feeling bad for Engineer and Sniper. On the edge of my seat here, waiting to see what happens next.
Thanks to everyone who's been following this story! Here's part 4.
The engineer had been lazing around idly for the most part. He felt very sloth-like, moving very slowly, as if every limb had been weighted down with sand. He lay in the shade, propped up against his dispenser. While it healed wounds, it couldn't do anything about hunger or heatstroke, so it was essentially pointless. Still, there was a slightly comforting placebo effect in the minty fumes that curled around his body.
The engineer had been essentially immobile, but his mind was working tirelessly, trying to decode the meaning behind the enigmatic note that had been found on the spy's body. He had tried a variety of different ciphers; Caesar, Atbash, Pigpen. None of them yielded any decent results.
'The Sudden Death Experiment'
Need ENG CP
Helen will know
Hell. Maybe it was meaningless. Maybe it was just a goddamn grocery list.
Midafternoon he finally hoisted himself up to take a leak. Standing gave him a slight sensation of vertigo, but he leaned himself against the wall and closed his eyes a moment, giving some time for the static in his vision to fade away. Descending the steps made him pant a bit.
The heat and the hunger certainly weren't working wonders on his body.
At least there's still water to drink, he told himself.
After he finished, he tilted his head down to zip up his overalls and noticed a red dot hovering on his shoulder. As he furrowed his eyebrows it immediately flew away, as swiftly as it appeared. It didn't take long for him to realize where the dot was from.
Feeling a sudden yank of dread grasping at his chest, he hastily returned back to the covered walkway. His boots fumbled over the edge of the steps and the trip only made him more panicked. When inside, he pressed himself against the wall and swallowed, surprised at the amount of sweat that had already begun to pool on the small of his back.
The sniper had been watching him.
Through his rifle scope.
There could only be one reason for that.
He gulped in a shuddery breath and nervously scratched at the overgrown stubble weeding his jawline.
It wasn't an unfounded conclusion to jump to. The engineer certainly had his flaws, but he was anything but a fool. He'd heard the ominous third part of the assassin's tried-and-true motto; Have a plan to kill everyone you meet. No doubt the engineer constituted as everyone.
Maybe… maybe they were meant to kill each other. They'd gone into the battle assuming the victors would be the last team standing… but maybe it was meant to be the last man.
Maybe the only way to escape this godforsaken wasteland was to kill each other.
The engineer looked down at his robotic hand and flexed it. It whirred softly with the motion; the orange wires, warm with radiating heat, tensed like tendons. He curled it into a fist.
It could punch clean through a man's stomach. He could pinch the spinal cord and tear it right out, if he wanted to. Watch the eyeballs slowly dull as the life drained out of him.
He looked up and squinted out at the blistering yellow heat. The buildings seemed to almost quiver like Jell-O under the sun's agonizing glare. The sniper was out there somewhere, crouched in one of those buildings. Plotting. Scheming. Thinking he'd already gotten the upper hand by figuring it all out first, but no!
The engineer was no fool. After eleven PhDs it's impossible to be a fool. The note… it must have just been a distraction. The sniper had no doubt planted it on the spy's dead body just for the sake of throwing the engineer off.
The engineer looked over at his shotgun, propped up against the wall. If he went after the sniper now, he could take him by surprise. The man probably thought he was still trying to figure out that asinine note, no doubt up in his cowardly little perch, chuckling to himself like a smelly, overgrown kookaburra.
The dirty bastard.
The engineer snatched up his shotgun. Sweaty adrenaline began to pump through him as he hustled down the stairs and on to impacted dirt. He tried to tread softly and keep a tight grip but his gun slipped in his clammy palms. The first building he tried was empty, but there were only a handful of nooks and crannies in the area for a man that big to curl up in.
As he neared the second he heard the creak of a floorboard. His heart shivered. He bent his knees and began to ascend the small hill slowly. As he grew nearer he could hear a soft gasp—yes, that was him. That had to be him.
A moment of hesitation fluttered in his chest. He remembered the sniper shooting down birds, hanging the bones, smearing mud on the engineer's cheeks to protect against sunburn. The engineer had smarts aplenty, but he wasn't a survivalist the way the sniper was.
He guaranteed his life to that man.
The engineer sucked in his breath and raised the gun, squeezing one eye closed as he spotted the top of the bushman's hat.
At the end of the day, he didn't even know the man's name. And he'd be damned if the life of a stranger meant more than seeing his wife and daughter again.
The sniper's back faced the engineer. His bare knees knocked together and his armpits were damp with the sweat of desperate lust. He choked out another grunt as his right shoulder rotated with rhythmic determination, his hips bucking rapidly in sync.
Taken by surprise, the engineer stumbled back. The sniper did not seem to notice the scuffle of heavy boots kicking up dust as he hurried away from the scene.
He wouldn't—he couldn't kill the sniper while he was doing… that. It wasn't decent, to take a man's life in that shameful sort of state. He at least deserved that one act of respect—besides, the sniper could have shot him before, when he was taking a piss, but he hadn't. The engineer might as well reciprocate the small bit of courtesy.
He leaned his shotgun against his shoulder and sighed heavily as he began to trudge back to their encampment. Perhaps there was a part of him that overreacted. Maybe he had jumped to conclusions in desperate frustration to find some kind of meaning in this miserable existence.
The sniper wasn't particularly sneaky. It just wasn't in his nature. If he wanted to kill the engineer, he would have just gone ahead and killed him. He wouldn't waste time coming up with distractions or trickery. He wasn't a spy; the engineer had certainly poked him enough times to figure that out.
Instead of walking back to their camp, he crossed over to where the spy was. He felt disoriented and unaware—he needed to see the dead body, to get that relieving confirmation that there was at least one thing he could be sure of.
Even before he saw him, the engineer could tell by the stench that the spy was still there, and still very much dead.
Death had a strange smell, sweet and terrible and unlike anything else. It was something that you didn't forget.
As the living man approached, he noticed that the corpse had been moved. Instead of sitting up against the wall as the spy had been when he shot himself, he had been lain down by some outside source, his bloated, greenish-blue face looking up with a gaping mouth and eyes that had been shut by the swipe of two sympathetic thumbs. His bony arms had been crossed crookedly over his chest, and around him was strewn handful of brown weeds.
The engineer nudged the body with his toe. It was completely beyond him why the sniper would do this; build something of a makeshift memorial for the man he despised so deeply, the man he viewed as his ultimate rival, his greatest enemy.
Why would he mourn someone he hated with every fiber of his being?
"Thought I'd find you here." The engineer looked up to see the sniper walking towards him, tucking in his shirt and wearing a slightly sheepish expression. "I saw you walking about and was wondering what you were up to."
The engineer swallowed and glanced back down at the rotting corpse. It was an eyesore, sure, but it didn't fill him with the sense of guilt that he got from looking at the other man. "Why'd you do that?" he asked, pointing at the body. His voice sounded hoarse. He coughed into his fist but the phlegm didn't seem to clear away.
The sniper walked beside him and placed his hands in his pockets. "I'm not too sure m'self, to tell you the truth," he answered quietly. "I wasn't even thinking of him specifically so much as everyone, you know? I guess it just sort of… felt right."
The engineer continued to avoid eye contact, although he could feel the sniper staring at him.
The sniper stuck his finger in his ear, knotting his eyebrows. "You…" he held up his hand, letting it stand awkwardly in the air for a few moments as he floated in hesitation. "You okay, mate?" He finally let his hand touch the engineer's should very lightly, to which the shorter man immediately jerked away from, as if he had been shocked.
Mute, the engineer hurried away, tangled up in his own thoughts. The sniper stayed and watched him as he disappeared. He stood there in the shadows, his hand still hovering, outstretched and longing.
Still here. Argh, it looks like things are getting even worse for the poor bastards. Eagerly waiting to see what happens next.
Here's Chapter 5!
There were no more buzzards to kill.
Or, at least, that's what the sniper said. The engineer felt a slight twinge of suspicion, but couldn't deny the fact that he hadn't exactly seen any birds flying about, anyway.
For their evening meal (it was useless calling it a dinner at this point) they split a box of raisins, half a bag of pistachio nuts, and the melted remains of a chocolate bar the engineer had scavenged from the BLU spawn. Saying that it was a modest meal would be a stretch, but it was better than nothing. And when the sniper closed his eyes and let the old chocolate tingle on his tongue, it almost felt like he was a kid again.
The two of them sat against the dispenser as their loud bellies had a conversation for them. The engineer's machine didn't fill their moaning stomachs, but the healing tendrils gave them both a slight sense of comfort.
They sat there for a long time, slumped and still and quiet. There was truly nothing to do. The engineer had given up trying to decipher the note, and it absorbed sweat in the pocket of his overalls.
At one point the sniper asked the engineer if he would play something on his guitar, but the engineer said no, he was too tired. Then the sniper asked if he could try to play the guitar, but the engineer said no, you might break it.
When he stewed over what he said a few minutes later, he realized how rotten it must have sounded.
"I'm sorry, Slim," he sighed. "That must've sounded a might cruel. I'm just on edge, is all." When the sniper grunted softly in response, the engineer continued, "When—when they finally come get us, and we're back home and all cleaned up and such, I'll teach you to play. How's that sound?"
It was an easy promise, and maybe even an empty one, but it still made the sniper grin, because it gave him reason to dwell on the childish fantasy that they'd stay in touch after this was over. "Yeah. I'd like that," he answered.
It faded into nighttime, and the same moon they saw every night once again hung in the sky as a huge, luminous reminder that they weren't in Kansas anymore, and hadn't been for a long, long time.
"I gotta go talk to a man about a dog." The sniper gingerly stood up, gripping on the edge of the dispenser for support.
The engineer slowly turned his head towards him, squinting. "What? There ain't no dogs 'round here."
The sniper chuckled weakly, cracking his neck. "Nah, mate, I mean I gotta squat a grump."
The engineer gaped at him. "What in tarnation are you trying to say, boy?"
"Crikey, Truckie, I gotta take a shit."
The engineer snorted. "Don't see how you still can. I'm pretty sure I been backed up for weeks. Or however long we been here. I don't know."
The sniper pawed through the stack of dusty newspapers and magazines they'd kept in the corner to use as toilet paper. He sifted past US OCCUPATION OF VIET NAM RUSTLES SOVIET FEATHERS and FUEDING BROTHERS FOUND MAIMED, headlines from a world he had almost forgotten about, and tore out an page from Playboy. Another kind of man might have wanted to keep that magazine intact, but it meant nothing to the sniper.
In his absence, the engineer closed his eyes and dreamt. He wasn't sleeping—he had slept too much in an effort to pass the time, and even though he was weak, he was very much awake. But he still could dream. He dreamt about being home, and sitting on his back porch, watching the sunrise, holding hands with Roxie and discussing astrophysics. He dreamt about how much Annie must have grown, with her blonde ringlets grown out and her teeth all in. He dreamt about being able to look back at this and feel a sense of relief, because it would all be over.
There was a dry tickle in his throat, and his gums crackled as he ran his parched tongue over his teeth. They beckoned him to move, against the rest of his body's wishes. With a low moan, he crawled on his hands and knees to the corner of stacked Mason jars and grabbed one. He fumbled with the lid, his fingers shaking. When he popped it off, he pressed his lips to the rim and chugged thirstily.
"Oy, save some for the fishes, mate!" The sniper trudged back up the stairs, stretching his hand out and pointing at the jar. "There ain't much left."
The engineer squinted at the other man and lowered the jar from his lips. "What do you mean 'there ain't much left'?"
"Er." The sniper looked down at his feet, scratching the back of his neck uncomfortably. "The little pool of water I been gettin' it all from. There ain't much left in it. I figure after this batch is done we got two days' worth left."
The engineer gaped at him, baffled. "Two days?" he repeated, the bottom of his right eye twitching. "Two days?" He tore his eyes away from the sheepish sniper, down to the jar in his hand. Carefully, he screwed the lid back on and slowly set it aside. "Do you mean to tell me," he continued, heaving himself up to look up at the sniper with wide, perplexed eyes. "That you've known that we all had enough water left for two days, and you didn't tell me?"
The bushman was both impressed and uncomfortable with how intimidating the smaller man was capable of being. He glanced to the side, hunching his shoulders. "I—I didn't want you to worry about it."
The engineer breathed out disbelieving laughter and slapped his hand against his forehead. "Well, goddamn, Slim, I'm pretty sure getting the proper amount of fluids in my body is a bit more important than my feelings, don't ya think? I mean—Jesus, what the hell were you thinkin', boy?" He shook his head, slicing his fingers through the measly sprouts of blonde on top as he began to pace back and forth. "That's something you should've told me the moment you figured it out."
"I—I'm sorry," the sniper said to his boots.
"Sorry ain't gonna cut it, Slim!" the engineer snapped, throwing his arms down. He stopped and stared at the sniper with a simmering fury that rose with each word. "Sorry ain't gonna fill that little pool up again. Sorry ain't gonna get us out of here and back home so we can never think about this goddamn hellhole ever again! Sorry means nothing to me!"
"Then what the hell do you want me to bloody say?" The sniper said, stretching his arms out. "You're right, I was stupid, and now I'm trying to bloody apologize to you, and you yell at me!"
The engineer pressed his lips together in a tight frown and approached the sniper, pointing an accusing finger at the man's chest. "You been mighty suspicious lately, pardner."
The sniper jerked his head back with a grimace. "I been what?"
"First you tell me there ain't any birds left. Now you're telling me there's no water, too. How do I know you're tellin' the truth?" The engineer looked up at the taller man with a tilted head and narrowed eyes. "How do I know there ain't any buzzards left?"
The sniper gawked at him for a moment. "You want a buzzard?" he whispered, wrinkling his nose. "Have you bloody looked outside?" He bitterly gestured towards the empty night. "Have you seen any buzzards?"
The engineer's jowls twitched, but he held his stubborn glare.
"But never mind that!" the sniper spat, snatching his rifle from besides the wall. The engineer flinched warily as he heaved the gun over his shoulder. "I've shot you down a bird every other bloody night, might as well keep the streak up. But there ain't any fucking birds now. So what do you want?" he demanded, spraying venomous spit as his voice clattered against the quiet air. "Tell me what you want, Truckie! I'll fucking shoot it down for you!" He spun on his heel and faced the entrance, where the round, white moon smiled down at him.
"Is that what you want?" he asked hysterically, jabbing his finger towards the luminous circle that mocked them every night with its perpetual appearance. "You want the moon, Truckie? I'll shoot it for you. I'll shoot you down the goddamn moon."
The engineer stared numbly at his silhouetted back as he shakily fumbled to load in a bullet, raised his rifle, aimed towards the sky, and pulled the trigger.
It was a soft clink, like a dropped wine glass. Perhaps it would have been louder if it wasn't so far away.
The sniper's rifle slipped from his grasp with a loud clatter. He gaped up in horror, then raised his arms and tightly grasped handfuls of hair. "I shot the moon," he whispered incredulously, his knees buckling as he turned and slumped against the doorframe. "I—I shot the moon. I shot the fucking moon." He slid down, his muttering becoming slurred as his breath began to quicken in panic.
There was no denying it; the engineer saw it too as he stared up with an unhinged jaw. Like the result of a pebble flying against a windshield, there was a small, unmistakable hole just slightly off-center, with cracks that spider-webbed out across the orb.
The sniper had shot the moon.
The engineer peeled his gaze away from the hovering conundrum and looked down at the hyperventilating mess with his head between his knees.
That's it, then, the engineer thought to himself. He's finally broken.
It was a harrowing display of regression, and the engineer was well aware of how sick it was that it had to come this far for him to finally feel as though he could trust the sniper, because now he was finally sure that beneath his stoic exterior, the bushman was just as terrified and confused as he was.
He knelt down besides his friend and wrapped his arms around his gangly frame, holding him close with his palm cupping the back of his head, just the way he would hold Annie after she woke up from a nightmare. The sniper shivered and pressed his dribbling nose against the engineer's neck, squeezing his eyes shut as his rapid breathing began to slow.
"Just calm down," the engineer said to him softly, inwardly surprised on how calm he was able to stay himself. "It's okay, Slim. It's gonna be okay."
He said the words, but he wasn't sure if he believed them.
He broke the moon? Jesus! That is going to be hella expensive to fix.
I'm looking forward to seeing what's going to happen next, but I dread it in a way, too. Things have been getting progressively worse. That last event has intrigued me as to what is truly going on.
I can't handle the suspense.
Oh my god please tell me this has more
The plot thickens... I can't handle it. Help.
Funny enough, I've actually grown to dislike the way lowercase titles look, and decided to start capitalizing 'Sniper' and 'Engineer', like you guys originally advised. I can't go back and change these chapters, but I've edited all of the ones on FFN, and from now on the story will be written this way.
Thanks for reading, and enjoy.
The Sniper cracked his bleary eyes open to find his head resting on a soft, comforting arm. For a brief, delirious moment he had no desire to question it, basking in the wonderful unspoken contact. But as he blinked away the lingering fog of sleep, he felt a tight grip of panic wrap its fingers around his throat.
He quickly sat up and turned to see the Engineer snoring against the wall, his mining light resting his lap. They had been making shadow puppets, pointedly facing away from the shattered orb in the sky, pretending that it didn't exist.
The Sniper instinctively looked up, as if expecting to see it still hanging there, staring down at him. But all he got was the painful hiss of the blazing sun.
He couldn't see the moon, but it still weighed heavy on his mind in a way that made the pit of his gut feel cold. That didn't happen. That wasn't real life. Could he have dreamt it? He was tempted to shake the Engineer awake and ask him if it had really happened, but there was something cruel about rousing a man from much-wanted sleep in this kind of situation.
He looked back at the sleeping man and recalled the overwhelming sense of brokenness he had experienced the night before, and that awful feeling came back to him again, albeit weaker and more numb than anything else. He remembered being held tightly and told everything would be okay, and at the time it had slowly thawed his panic and melted it into something warm and satisfied, but now, as he thought back to how he had clung to the Engineer and buried his nose into his neck, he felt shame.
Pathetic, he thought to himself bitterly. Weak, worthless and pathetic.
He groaned and buried his face in his hands. He didn't enjoy having feelings like this. In fact, he didn't quite enjoy having feelings to begin with. They were easy to stuff down and sand over with layers of stoicism and impersonality when keeping at a safe distance from high up in his vantage point, but being with the Engineer day in and day out for days, or weeks, or however long they'd been there had pushed him beyond the boundaries of his socially detached comfort zone.
It had gotten to a point where he started to care, and that frightened him.
Having too many emotions and thoughts at the same time was far too confusing. It had hit its boiling point and come to crash the night before, and now he just felt exhausted—even more so than usual in the oppressive heat of this enigmatic desert.
He needed to get up, walk around and clear his head.
As he gingerly stood up, he leaned against the wall for balance, and took a moment to stare at his fingers as his palm pressed against the wood. He balled his hand into a fist and lightly knocked, wondering how much of the world around him was truly real. Nothing happened. He wasn't sure what he had been expecting—maybe for it to shimmer like a hologram, or fall over like a slice of cardboard.
He just wasn't sure what to think about anything anymore.
He grabbed his bow and quiver and slung them over his shoulder. The Spy might be dead, but after what happened to the moon he wasn't even sure if he could trust so much as a wooden crate.
As he descended the steps he looked out beyond the fence that caged them, squinting out into the distance to where the angles blurred into nothing. He saw no trees, no buildings, no dips or hills or valleys. It was as if they had been dropped in the middle of a blank canvas, a part of the world that had been unfinished and left to collect dust.
His tongue felt bitter, and he clicked it against the roof of his mouth thoughtfully. He reached behind his back and brushed his fingers against the feathered end of one of his arrows, a scenario running through his head in which he shot it with his bow out past the fence, only for it to stop midair, embedded in a thick wall painted to look like a horizon.
The claustrophobe inside him shivered at the thought. If it were a reality, he wasn't sure how he would react. The smartest thing to do would be to not dwell on it, but the more he thought about it, the more it nagged him. If he and the Engineer were locked up in a giant box, he wanted to know.
He slowly pulled the arrow out and slipped it into place. He drew the bow, squeezing one eye shut and aiming at nothing.
Just as he began to uncurl his fingers from their grip, a piercing caw threw him off. He spun around to see the silhouette of a large bird standing on the Capture Point, digging at the feathers under its wing with its beak.
With a sharp inhale and not a moment's hesitation, he swiftly drew his bow again and shot out an arrow. In half a second, the bird was dead.
His mouth cracked into a wide grin, and with a sudden burst of energy that he didn't think he was still able to have, he briskly ran to the Capture Point, where a fat crow lay dead, his arrow protruding from its belly. He yanked out the arrow and snatched the corpse by its feet, holding it up as he ran back to where the Engineer slept.
"Truckie!" he cried, bounding up the steps. "Truckie, wake up! I got a bird!"
The Engineer woke with a start, the way people do when they dream they're falling. He blinked in bewilderment, looking around as if he were trying to recall where he was. He sniffed and rubbed his eyes, then looked up at the Sniper. His mouth was open to speak, but when he saw the bird his eyes widened and for the first time in a while, he grinned. "Well I'll be."
Feeling his ears grow warm, the Sniper broke eye contact, coughing into his fist and then scratching his cheek with a shrug. He still felt a bit breathless from running all the way back. "Yeah, it—uh—the moment I saw it I didn't even think, just shot it."
"That's—that's just fantastic, Slim." The Engineer chuckled hoarsely as he stretched his shoulders. "Help me up, would you?"
The Sniper offered his arm, and the Engineer clasped it tightly. He rose with a grunt, and was subsequently handed the fresh kill.
"So where was this little varmint hiding, anyway?" He was looking it over as if he didn't even believe it was real. It was still warm.
The Sniper shrugged again. "I don't really know. I just heard it caw, and I turned and saw it sittin' on the CP. Like I said, I didn't really take the time to think about it."
The Engineer's head suddenly shot up, his eyes electric. "Say that again."
The other man blinked, confused. "Er, I heard a bird cawing, and I turned and saw it was standing on the Capture Point?"
There was a growl and a vigorous head shaking. "No, that's not what you said before, you said—"
The Sniper scratched the back of his neck. "Uh, I called it the CP?"
"Yes!" Shoving the bird back into the Sniper's arms, he reached into his pocket and withdrew the wrinkled slip of paper that they had found in the dead Spy's hand.
'The Sudden Death Experiment'
Need ENG - CP
Helen will know
"CP…" the Engineer murmured, running his thumb over the two letters. He snapped his head up, looked out at the Capture Point, and immediately took off.
Trotting as fast as his weakened body could, he began to make his way to the Capture Point. Flutters of hope danced in the Engineer's chest as he ran, and even then he attempted to form scenarios in his mind. Did it open up to reveal an enormous, winding staircase into a pit of darkness? Did they have to stand on it to signal a helicopter to come and get them?
If only he knew what 'ENG' was supposed to mean.
"Oy! Slow down!" Behind him, the Sniper tried to keep up, panting as he stumbled along. "I ain't exactly young anymore!" He caught up to where the Engineer was standing, scratching his head as he stared down at the large, gray circle.
He looked up at the Sniper and shook his head. "I don't know, Slim. It says 'E-N-G' here, but I haven't got a clue what that's supposed to stand for."
The paper was unceremoniously snatched out of the Engineer's hands. Holding it up, the Sniper squinted at it. "You sure it stands for something?"
"Well, what else could it be?" The Texan gaped at the taller man. "To the best of my knowledge, Mister, 'ENG'ain't a word."
"No." The Sniper lowered his arm and smirked at the Engineer. "But it's part of one."
The Engineer's mouth slowly closed and his eyes widened as it sunk in. He wordlessly pointed to himself, asking a question without speaking.
The Sniper answered with an equally silent nod.
Immediately, they both dropped on their hands and knees and began to crawl around the vicinity of the circle, sweeping for a knob, a lever, any kind of indication that they were on the right track—at this point, it was their only hope. They frantically searched in zigzags, only to come at a full stop dead in the middle when their foreheads collided with a synchronized "Oof!"
But as they rubbed their sore heads, muttering obscenities, they both looked down to see a circular plate of metal, bolted into the center of the point and marked with the Engineer's iconic wrench symbol.
"Run and get my toolbox, would you, Slim?" the Engineer asked breathlessly, running his thumb over the symbol. His heart pounded in his chest as the Sniper hurried back to the Resupply room. Here it was: the way back home.
It was almost over.
His back and armpits drenched in sweat, the Sniper blindly heaved the toolbox through the pressing heat. He returned and dropped it with a grunt, then crouched over with his hands resting on his knees, panting. It was pathetic how feeble he had grown during their entrapment. The thought frustrated him, and he tried to cover his gasps for breath with a cough into the crook of his elbow. The last thing he wanted was to be perceived as weak by someone he'd been trying to impress every chance he got.
The Engineer snapped open his toolbox and withdrew a screwdriver, and immediately got to work. His hands shook a bit, but he managed to unscrew all four corners. He pried off the plate, and revealed underneath a large red button.
He reached for it greedily, but then stopped himself, and looked up at the Sniper, who had been standing over him with knotted eyebrows, wringing his dirty, calloused hands.
"You ready, pardner?" he asked him.
The Sniper forced a mild grin. He nodded, but he wasn't sure if he ever would be.
Oh boy dis gettin' good.
Oh man, oh man.
Things are getting interesting!
Sorry about how erratic the updates are. I'm going to try to put myself on a tighter, more consistent schedule from now on.
The two men were gone in a short flash of spinning light. They had been transported miles away from their blistering prison, which was left to sit, unseen and untouched, for the rest of eternity. The crow the Sniper shot down rotted. The other animals gnawed on their own legs, dying a slow death as dust gathered on a guitar that would never be played again.
They arrived in a dark room, disoriented, their stomachs whirling from the nausea accompanies being teleported long distances. Their eyes had barely adjusted to the darkness before the lights switched on.
Immediately, Glenn Miller's 'In the Mood' revved to a shaky start on a dusty, lopsided record player in the corner. A pathetic puff of confetti burst over their heads and landed on their grimy shoulders. A banner sagged across the plain white wall, reading in tiny, squeezed-together letters: CONGRATULATIONS FOR NOT BEING AS STUPID AS WE THOUGHT YOU WERE.
"Truckie," the Sniper muttered breathlessly, gaping around the room. "Is this a party?"
The Engineer looked around the spacious room. It had all the makings of party— round tables with fold-up chairs surrounding them, tied in the backs with red and blue balloons. The balloons had long since wilted, hanging shriveled and limp from each empty chair.
Not a single seat was occupied, which was perhaps the eeriest bit of all.
They were the only ones there.
"Some heck of a party, huh?" the Engineer joked half-heartedly, scratching his head.
The Sniper grunted wearily in response, and sat down in the closest chair. Rubbing his temples, his attention turned to the strange dome in the middle of the table, which every one of them seemed to have. "What the hell is this?" he asked, poking it.
Although he hadn't even noticed it was there until the Sniper had pointed it out, the Engineer knew exactly what it was. However, the device revealed its function before he had the chance to open his mouth. Sensitive to the man's rough touch, the rounded cover shimmered, and immediately wafted healing fumes that wrapped around his arm and traveled around his body. He stared at his frame in awe as muscle grew on his bones right before his eyes. His stomach felt cool and settled, neither hungry nor sated, and his mind was crisp and clear, as if a cloudy fog had been wiped off of its surface.
"It's my prototype restorative dispenser," he answered, hunkering over to the table and slapping his own palm on to it. It wasn't as novel an experience to him as it had been to the Sniper, but he was still immensely grateful towards whoever had snagged his blueprints and installed the device in there for them. "Rather than just healing wounds, it uses the same files that were logged away for the Respawn system." The Engineer felt it wise to not add how exactly he had obtained said files, which were technically classified material. "Your body has returned to the same state it was the day you were scanned into the database."
"Crikey." The Sniper slowly drew his hand away from the dome and flexed his fingers. "That's amazing." The grime had not disappeared, nor his beard, but he could feel the same fresh vitality in his joints just as when he would emerge from the Respawn room.
Engineer shrugged, ever the humble genius. "S'nothin'."
"Hey." The Sniper suddenly looked up at the Engineer, his head cocked in thought. "If these have got the Respawn files in them, do you think they could bring back… you know…?"
With a heavy sigh, the Engineer sat down at the table with the Sniper, removing his goggles and shaking his head solemnly. "'Fraid not, partner. I had to tamper with them quite a bit to convert them into a dispenser-friendly format. They're too corrupted to bring back the dead. This ol' gal only works on the living." He pushed away from the table and turned to face the rest of the room. "But who knows. Maybe everyone's alive after all, and this was one big trick. Now that we're in full health, I reckon it's time we did a bit of detective work."
"Right-o." The Sniper stood as well. "But we ain't doin' a thing till I turn this rubbish off." He walked over to the record player, his stride brisk, as though he were aware of his newly returned strength. He bent over and ripped the needle off of the record, giving the song an abrupt end. The radio, however, did not quite seem to be finished just yet. Almost immediately after the Sniper lifted the needle, there was a series of mechanical clicks deep within the record player, followed shortly by a grainy message pumped out to them in the form of a cool female voice with an English accent, which they both quickly recognized as belonging to Miss Pauling.
"This is a recording.
Congratulations, boys! If you're listening to this right now, then you're probably alive, which means you have at least semi-successfully completed our sociological experiment. I can imagine you've got a lot of questions, but there is a very small amount of information I am actually allowed to divulge, otherwise a deadly neurotoxin will be pumped into the chamber you are currently residing in. So I'll be brief.
As you may have heard, your former employers, Blutarch and Redmond Mann, were both mysteriously murdered. Because this twist of fate left you all essentially irrelevant, your contracts were bought by Aperture Science to conduct an experiment on morality, ethics, and teamwork. Needless to say, your presence in this room proves that the study will yield some very promising results! Unfortunately, Mann Co. still owns the rights to your Respawn files, so everyone who died is going to remain very much dead until our copyright and file protection lawyers can seize the assets. Given the nature of our legal system, expect this to take several years.
But please, enjoy these refreshments and the, er, diversity of your fellow mercenary's presence. On your way out, an Aperture employee will hand you your paycheck and the shredded remains of your contract. Good luck in the real world!"
The Sniper straightened up, his hand still resting on top of the record player as the sound faded into a low hum. He looked over at the Engineer wearing a deep frown. "I think I'm even more confused than before."
The Engineer tossed his hands in the air. "As long as it means I can get my paycheck and get the hell out of here and never come back again, it's a good enough answer for me."
"Yeah… yeah, I suppose so." The Sniper rubbed the back of his neck. "So, we just head out the door? And then it's all over?"
The Engineer nodded, hooking his thumbs in his pockets and glancing at the exit. "Seems so."
They both stood in their respective spots for a moment, looking away from each other, not speaking, but in no rush to head towards the door.
"Listen, Slim, I—"
They had both looked up to speak at the same time, but cut each other off. The stumble of words caught in their throats, and for a moment their gazes returned to their boots.
"No, you go first," the Engineer said in response to the Sniper's pause.
The Sniper coughed into his fist. "Er, well, I ain't really one for goodbyes or nothin', but…" The back of his neck burned hot. He spoke to the floor. "I just want to say that it's been an honor working alongside you, and I… I hope we can keep in touch."
The Engineer grinned at him softly, as if recalling a fond memory they had shared. "Likewise, Dead Eye." He walked over to the Sniper, and the marksman held out his hand, anticipating a curt handshake, but was pulled into a warm, tight embrace. The taller man immediately stiffened at the contact, his shoulders hunched in knee-jerk recoil, but felt his calloused shell melt ever so slightly as the Engineer squeezed him tighter. He gingerly drew his arms up and wrapped them around the Engineer's back in reciprocation, leaning his head in and closing his eyes. His heartbeat slowed in the warmth, and his hand seemed to almost have a cautious little mind of its own, slipping down the Engineer's spine and hovering over the small of his back.
When the Engineer broke apart the embrace, it seemed abrupt to the Sniper, but to the other man, the hug he initiated had been going on a little too long for comfort. They both coughed into their fists and shifted on their balls of their feet, doing the awkward, idle shuffle of two people who knew they probably would never see each other again.
"Well. We best be headin' out, then, partner," the Engineer said with a gentle, lopsided grin, giving the other a brisk pat on the arm.
The Sniper nodded, stone-faced. He felt as though he was in mourning, but he knew that the Engineer had every reason to be thrilled. He would return to his wife and his daughter and live a happy life. There would be birthday parties and graduations, weddings and grandchildren—and every last bit of it, he'd deserve. But what of the Sniper? He would return to his van to wither away alone, to fizzle out in some forgotten wasteland like a dampened flame. Just as forgotten as that old dusty guitar.
They walked side-by-side as equals, teammates, partners in arms, in a dignified stride that the Sniper anticipated would be the last time. The door slid open on its own, as eager to show them out as the Engineer was to leave.
What greeted them was not an Aperture employee clutching their paychecks, but rather a putrid smell and a clump of pecking birds. They dispersed at once, flapping away in a flutter of dirty feathers and fear. At their feet was a mangled corpse in a ragged orange jumpsuit, chunks of flesh picked clean to reveal porcelain bone. Her skull lay in a bed of tangled hair, her mouth facing towards them with bare, pleading teeth.
The two men stumbled back at the unexpected sight, their breaths caught in their throats.
"Oh, God," the Engineer whispered, his eyes flickering over the remains. His stomach reeled when he thought back to the recording, and immediately thought of Miss Pauling. "Oh, Jesus, that's not—?"
With an unreadable expression, the Sniper took no hesitation in crouching down beside the corpse, squinting along her length. He brushed strands of black hair away from the skull and tugged at the collar of her uniform. "S'not Miss Pauling. Can't be. Way too tall."
The Engineer held his face in his hands and collapsed against the doorframe. "Of course," he whispered in a hollow tone, shaking his head. "Of course it couldn't be that goddamn simple."
The Sniper watched him whisper into his palms, and then turned his head and looked back into the empty party room. It almost felt like it was mocking them, with its massive, molding silence.
It's hard for me to think of anything more substantial to say other than "oh shit, son."
This post has been deleted.
Mentioned in the last chapter was English but decided to retcon that. So for all intents and purposes she's American.
Enjoy chapter 8.
(Note: the deleted post above was me attempting to post chapter 8 and realized I messed up some of the code).
It was common among horror films to set the story in a dark, abandoned building. However, walking through the empty halls of the Aperture Science Enrichment Center, the Engineer and the Sniper found that an abandoned building with bright lights was far more eerie. Perhaps there were no shadows that crept around corners with black tendrils of darkness outstretched, but there was an unnatural stillness, as if the building were still alive, trying to maintain a façade of normalcy.
But there was nothing normal about a decaying corpse lying outside of a door. Nor was there anything normal about a room full of them, sitting around a large table, slumped over in their suits, mouths gaping the way they did at death as they attempted to gasp in one last breath of life. As if they had all dropped dead at the same moment—perhaps the result of that aforementioned deadly neurotoxin? The two mercenaries had no desire to stay and play detective.
The walls were pristine and white, but the floor was scattered with papers and bird droppings. Further scrutinizing yielded no explanation; there were lines of nonsensical code and notes on bizarre experiments.
"Have you ever heard of this place before, Truckie?" the Sniper asked as they went onward, squinting at the company's logo on the wall.
The Engineer shook his head, his eyes wide and distressed. "I—I've certainly heard of Aperture Fixtures, but they just manufactured shower curtains."
"Can't be the same thing."
They continued to try doors, searching for living souls, clues, something to make sense of this onslaught of confusion. Instead, they found rooms with strange, puzzling plaques denoting their uses. Most of them were locked, but a few were left open. The door to Aviary Cloning[i/] left ajar explained the overwhelming presence of birds, but raised further question—[i]Cloning? What kind of facility was this? The Engineer paused at Time Travel, his intellectual curiosity peaked. Inside was nothing but a large, tubular pod.
Tempted as the man of science was to stay, the Sniper deemed it irrelevant with a simple turn of his heel and pressed onward. The Engineer paused briefly, but eventually followed suit. It wasn't wise to play with time—it could be surprisingly fickle.
"Look!" The Sniper extended a finger towards a gaping door marked Administrator's Office[i/]. "D'you think that's [i]our Administrator?"
"Won't know unless we check."
The room smelled rather foul, but what stuck out to them was its enormity. It was one of those unnecessarily large, high-tech war rooms designed for the purpose of grandeur and intimidation. The atmosphere bounced off of them like a rubber ball against steel—neither man was easy to impress.
Facing the humongous wall of checkerboard screens, some gone snowy and others blinking images of familiar locations, was a purple chair was with a high, pointed arch. From both sides peeked poofs of hair, inky black and peppered with gray.
"Oy!" the Sniper said the moment he spotted her. "You've got some bloody explaining to do, ya dog!" He started for her, but the Engineer grabbed him by the shoulder. They stood still, holding their breath as they waited for her to slowly turn, clutching a long cigarette holder and wearing a sly smirk.
But she didn't.
Cautiously, the Engineer approached her. The putrid scent grew stronger, and as much as his body recognized what that horrid smell meant, he tried to convince himself it wasn't true. As if believing hard enough could make it a reality. But he grabbed the side of the chair and rolled it around to reveal exactly what he hadn't wanted to expect.
She turned to face them with a suspenseful slowness that would have made Alfred Hitchcock jealous, her body a shriveled, hollow husk. Though her jaw hung open in a petrified moan, her stiff hands were folded neatly in her lap: a businesswoman to the very end.
"That'd be right, wouldn't it?" the Sniper muttered darkly, walking to the Engineer's side. "Wonder what it was that finally did the old bird in."
"Probably the same as the rest of these people." The Engineer tore his eyes away from her corpse and instead turned his attention to the desk before her. If any place could tell them what they needed to know, it was her office. After all—
"'Helen will know'…" the Engineer whispered, slapping his hand to his forehead.
"Start lookin' through those drawers, boy!" the Engineer ordered with a heart-pounding eagerness as he began to rip through his belongings. "Somethin's gotta tell us what's up!"
They dug like feverish archaeologists, throwing aside ceramic ash trays and address books, skimming the files that slipped out of manila folders in desperate droves.
They might have been there for hours if the Sniper hadn't tossed a hairbrush over his shoulder, coincidentally aiming it at the perfect angle to push a tape into a small, discrete VCR on the corner of the desk. It was swallowed with a satisfied click, but they didn't notice it playing until she sighed and lit a cigarette, very alive on the screen before them.
"Holy Doo—" Sniper managed to get out before the Engineer smacked his hand over the other man's mouth, beckoning for him to kindly shut up.
"I've given up on keeping track of the days. But I made that clear last video." Her tone was dull and her eyes heavy-lidded as she sucked in the smoke and leaned back. "Reports confirmed last night that Mann Co. officially sold the boys' Respawn files to Gray. Back-stabbing bastards." Her nostrils flared and her eyes narrowed as she took a moment to think something bitter. "Not sure why he wants them. He's already killed his brothers and gotten his robots. Nixon is nestled in the palm of his hand, and as long as he keeps giving the government their robot forces to ship off to 'Nam, he's at the top of the food chain. He doesn't need those files." She inhaled slowly, her teeth gritted. "Maybe he's just trying to rub salt in the wound."
She looked up, past the camera, as she tapped out her cigarette on the arm of her chair. "In other news—the news this log is actually about—their numbers are dwindling and they still haven't caught on. I won't rule out overbearing stupidity as the main cause, but the concept probably never sunk in."
She tsk'd in a pitying manner, and then rubbed her chin, her eyes fixated on an unseen event. "The BLU Spy understands the gravity of the situation. I can see it in his eyes. That's why he's hiding. But he's too stubborn and too full of pride to sink grovel to the enemy—especially when they're outnumbering him." She took another drag from her cigarette. "Aside from that rather tragic Heavy-Medic pair, the only other alliance I've seen form has been the RED Engineer and RED Sniper. On a scale of Neanderthal to passably intelligent, they're both above average—the Engineer especially—so maybe something will come out of this that might possible restore my faith in the human race. In the meantime, though—"
There was the sound of a door creaking open, and both men instinctively turned to look behind them, but another familiar face soon entered the screen's frame. Miss Pauling, always neat and practical with her thick bun and cat's eye spectacles, was standing behind the Administrator, carrying a tray.
"Make it quick." The Administrator continued to stare up at the screen as she tapped her cigarette on the armrest again. "I'm in the middle of a video log."
"You might want to label it as the last, then," Miss Pauling responded, hovering over her shoulder.
The Administrator furrowed her eyebrows and turned in her swivel chair, giving Miss Pauling a single skeptical look before glancing down at the contents on the tray.
"Cyanide capsule and a glass of champagne. Just like you wanted."
"It's happened, then." The Administrator's tone hadn't changed.
"How long do we have left?"
Miss Pauling's kept her responses clipped and matter-of-fact. "The radio says an hour."
She exhaled a peal of smoke wisps. "So be it. But it's going to feel a lot longer than that. Time gets muddled when you're waiting for the world to end."
"Of all people, you'd know," Miss Pauling said with a frown.
The Administrator smirked. "Perhaps." She took another drag. "Set the tray on the table."
Miss Pauling obliged. She clasped her hands behind her back and turned to leave.
"Oh, and Miss Pauling? One last thing."
Miss Pauling turned, eyebrows raised. "Yes?"
The Administrator grinned at her toothily with the warmth of a piranha. "I always found it funny, the way you pronounced the word 'idea'."
Miss Pauling blinked at her, unfettered.
"Say it again for me."
"Idea." She spoke in a crisp, clear tone.
The Administrator threw her head back and cackled. "Alright," she said, flipping open a hidden panel in the armrest of her chair and removing a small remote. "You can go now."
The click of high heels faded, and the Administrator gave the camera one last look before her thumb hovered over a button on the remote. "Imagine what could have been," she hissed in a low whisper, her eyes burning through the screen with a bitterness that seeped into their ears. "What I could have done."
She drew in a deep breath, her chest mid-rise as the screen promptly went black.
The Sniper and the Engineer gaped at the empty ending before them. The Administrator had been right—they were far from foolish, and they were able to piece it all together in their minds. They let it ruminate in their bellies like a sour meal that wouldn't come up, and the more it simmered, the more it burned their esophagi.
"Didn't think it'd ever really come to this," the Sniper said quietly.
"I did." The Engineer still stared at up the blank screen, as if he were waiting for it to turn back on with more bad news. "I knew it in my gut. S'why I built an underground bunker for…" His thought trailed off in a sudden bug-eyed realization. "Roxie," he whispered in horror. His hands suddenly grasped at clumps of overgrown hair at the sides of his head. "Oh my god. My family. What if they're—?"
Sniper swallowed a bitter taste and leaned over, putting a grimy hand on the Engineer's shoulder. "Calm down, mate. You said you built a bunker right?"
The Engineer looked up at him, wearing an expression of immense disbelief. He jerked the Sniper's hand off of his shoulder. "Don't you tell me to calm down," he hissed. "You don't get it."
The Sniper recoiled, drawing his hand back quickly as if he had touched a hot oven. "'M sorry."
The Engineer held his head in his hands, shaking it in a mind-numbing back-and-forth. He couldn't even begin to comprehend how hopeless he felt, let alone respond to the Sniper. Was this his punishment from the God he had long ago abandoned for science? To be a warped revision of Job, testing not his faith but challenging his lack thereof? Would he be stripped of his employment, his wife, his child, his dignity, and everything he thought he knew about the world just to be beaten into submission by some smirking, omnipotent entity trying to put him in his place?
They both silently wished they were back in the hot sun, baking against dry wooden planks and eating crows. They had been exhausted and sick, but ignorant. If only they had died what they thought were valiant deaths, rather than survive and learn their fighting was a meaningless statistic in a dead world.
It is uncertain what would have happened to them, had there not been a third survivor. Perhaps they would have dusted off their jackets and taken it as the trials of the world and carried on. Or maybe they would have stayed there together, like forgotten dolls in the back of an attic, starving silently with each other's company being the last bastion of comfort.
Regardless, it is an alternative not to be explored in this tale, because as they wallowed in the waning gloom of widespread catastrophe, the door creaked open.
Standing there was Miss Pauling, very much alive and just as surprised to see them as they were to her
You have me by the metaphorical testicles with that ending. Oh my god.
You have me by the metaphorical testicles with that clifthanger. This is a very awesome chapter and I love it. I am eagerly awaiting the next chapter
So, to everybody who isn't reading this fic: you're missing out.
This is some good stuff, and I like my fics with a good old helping of intrigue.
Wow, things are getting interesting! I love how every chapter explains one thing and at the same time presents new misteries.
Hi everyone. Here's chapter 9. Take note that Engineer's wife's name has been changed from 'Roxanne' to 'Jolene'. I'm afraid I can't edit precious chapters here but it will be like that from now on. Thanks for reading and enjoy the story.
She stood over the crouching men like a disheveled guardian angel, her figure almost ethereal with the light streaming in behind her, casting a soft glow around her tangled, greasy lump of dark hair in the form of what could have been a halo. Her glasses were cracked and askew and did little to hide her eyes, which had been hollowed into those of a sleepless beggar. Her clothes, once a pristine purple, now stained and ragged at the edges, hung loose on her emaciated frame.
Her chapped lips parted in quiet shock as she drank in the huddled men before her, filthy, frustrated, and, most of all, frightened. She closed her mouth into a thin line, and then produced a weak smile.
“It would be you two, wouldn’t it?” she said softly.
The Sniper and the Engineer gaped at her speechlessly for a moment, still not quite believing she was there.
“What the hell is going on here?” the Engineer demanded, his voice barely above a whisper.
“You’ve got a lot of bloody explaining to do!” The Sniper jumped to full height and bounded towards her, an accusing finger outstretched. He hovered over the petite woman, barking hysterically. “We were dyin’ out there for Christ knows how long, and you let us!”
Miss Pauling threw her hands up in front of herself defensively. “Please, both of you, calm down. I’ll explain everything to the best of my ability. Follow me back to my office—the smell’s making me a bit woozy.”
“Like Hell we’re goin’ anywhere until—” A large hand pulled the Sniper back gently by his shoulder, silencing him.
The Engineer was more forgiving, but not any less firm. “Alright, ma’am. We’ll go. But no more secrets. You’re gonna tell us everything you know.”
Miss Pauling promptly led them out of the room and back into the hall, swift and professional as ever despite her frazzled, haggard appearance. “I suppose someone finally found the note I left, then? I thought the Spy would never give it up.”
“You wrote that?” The Engineer’s attention was turned away from a series of portraits on the wall back to Miss Pauling.
“Yes. I… didn’t quite think it fair of them to send you to your permanent deaths without a week’s notice and barely any implication that you were supposed to work together rather than kill each other. Of course, I couldn’t exactly express my concerns to my superiors, could I? A note slipped into a random locker had to suffice—unfortunately, it ended up in the hands one of the most stubborn mercenaries we’ve ever employed. I’m just glad you two boys came across it before you died of hunger out there.”
“Nah,” the Engineer shook his head, giving a slight, tired grin and jerked his thumb to the man at his side. “This fella here kept me fed like a king.”
The Sniper’s nose twitched. “Far from it,” he grumbled quietly. “You almost starved.”
“It doesn’t matter. We’re still alive,” the Engineer argued in exasperation. “What I want to know right now is if anyone else is besides us three.”
Miss Pauling stopped by a large portrait of a suited man. His name was embossed in bold, black letters on a gold plate: Cave Johnson. Not a man either of them knew. She sighed, putting her small hand to her temple. “Maybe. I don’t know. I have a ham radio but I haven’t been able to get it to work. Something’s interfering with the signal.”
“So you’ve been in here this whole time?”
She nodded. “The facility’s much better suited to surviving a catastrophe than I might have imagined. The kitchen basement’s stocked full of canned goods. And obviously I’m not irradiated.” She stretched her hands out in front of her. “At least, not that I know of,” she added calmly. She turned and continued walking, and the two men followed suit.
“Radiation? So it was a bomb, then?” the Sniper asked.
“Several. All over the country. H-bombs,” she answered curtly. “I doubt you have to worry about your parents. Australia wasn’t a target. The Soviet Union was bitter about the American robot forces pushing the communists out of North Vietnam. None of the warning missiles they fired were headed throughout this whole time. I suppose Nixon felt invincible with Gray Mann backing him up.”
“Yeah, uh—” The Engineer rubbed his head. “Who in Sam Hill is Gray Mann, by the way? Some long-lost brother of Blutarch and Redmond or something?”
“Actually,” Miss Pauling smirked. “That’s exactly what he is. He’s the reason you all ended up here in the first place. Upon his reappearance he murdered both of his brothers, thus resulting in your unemployment. But Aperture Science snatched your contracts up in a heartbeat when they realized they’d have another batch of cheap test subjects.”
Sniper snorted indignantly. “Crikey! And you just went along with it all, eh?”
Miss Pauling made a soft ‘hmph’ sound. “A working woman can’t afford to be too picky.”
She led them to a door with a plaque that simply read Pauling. Before the turn of events, she had kept a neat, sparse office—her organized desk certainly said so as it collected dust against the wall. On the floor was a makeshift bed of couch cushions and shower curtains, and a Bunsen burner sat in the corner, surrounded by empty cans. “Home sweet home,” she said, gesturing to the small space.
The Sniper walked in, his hands shoved in his pockets. He looked around at the interior. The Engineer, however, remained in the doorway, still bubbling over with questions. “So why’s everyone but you gone belly up?”
“Suicide.” Her tone was flat and businesslike. “It was Helen’s idea. She wouldn’t go unless it was on her terms, and at the time we all thought the facility wouldn’t hold up against the fallout. So it was between succumbing to the bomb and killing herself. Obviously she chose the latter. Everyone else followed suit, to my knowledge. I could have sworn the CEO made an announcement about toughing it out with his secretary. I haven’t seen hide nor hair of them, though, so I suppose they iced themselves, too.”
The Engineer opened his mouth to ask another question, but Miss Pauling seemed to have read his mind. “You’re wondering why I didn’t kill myself, too.”
She folded her arms, pursing her lips into a thin line. “I couldn’t do it,” she said softly, her eyebrows furrowed as if she were almost ashamed of herself. “I tried. I sat in a supply closet for what must have been hours, biting the barrel of the gun. But I just couldn’t pull the trigger.”
The Engineer placed his hand on her arm and gave it a soft squeeze. “Well… I’m glad you didn’t. Besides,” he added, throwing a smirk at the Sniper. “I figure the two of us could use a woman’s sensibility after all this time, huh, Slim?”
The Sniper grunted in response as the woman chuckled softly.
“Speaking of which—” The Engineer turned back to Miss Pauling, his forehead wrinkled. “You don’t happen to know what happened in—”
“You’re worried about your wife?” She was quick to the punch line yet again.
“Yeah. Jolene. And my daughter, too. Have you got any idea?” His voice gave an uncomfortable crack. He almost seemed to be begging.
Miss Pauling sighed. “I’m afraid I don’t know where the bombs hit, precisely. But I thought I read in your spending records that you built a bunker under your home, just in case?”
The Engineer nodded slowly, chewing on the inside of his cheek. “Yeah, I did, but I—I just hope they made it in there in time, you know?”
“Well, if you can figure out how to get that godforsaken radio to work, maybe we can contact them with it. I’ll try my best to help you find them, Dell.”
“Thank you, I—”
The Sniper loudly cleared his throat into his fist. “Shouldn’t we be focusing on ourselves, first, before runnin’ about, tinkering with radios? Maybe doing a bit of exploring, find more food sources? Got two more mouths to feed now. Canned string beans ain’t gonna last forever.”
Miss Pauling opened her mouth to protest, but couldn’t deny that his statement had merit. She ran a hand through her greasy clump of hair thoughtfully “Yes. That’s right. Of course.” She nodded, stroking her chin. “Would you mind taking care of that? If anyone can find what we need to keep going, it’s you. Dell can start with the radio and I can give you directions around the place.”
“I don’t see why the bloody radio’s gotta take priority, though,” the Sniper growled, gesturing condescendingly at the large electronic sitting on her desk. “We should all be gathering supplies.”
“The radio takes priority because I need to know that my family is still alive,” the Engineer hissed quickly in response. He balled up his fists, his glare dark. “If my girls aren’t out there, then I ain’t got a reason to live.”
“We need to contact anyone else that’s still alive, to know what’s going on,” Miss Pauling interjected quickly. A shiver had begun to run up her spine as the room froze over from the Engineer’s cold words.
The Sniper wrinkled his nose with a sniff, considering their arguments for a moment. There wasn’t exactly any kind of rebuttal he could provide. Nothing rational, anyway. “Just show me where to go. S’gettin’ stuffy in here.”
“Of course. Follow me.” Miss Pauling turned on her heel, the Sniper skulking after her.
The Engineer sighed, casting a glare out the open door. He owed his life to the Sniper, but he wasn’t going to deny how on edge the other man had been lately. Perhaps he’d been cooped up for too long in that giant sandbox got a bit stir crazy—the Engineer couldn’t blame him for that. A man like him needed to stretch his legs as often as he could. Perhaps a new terrain to wander around might lighten his mood a bit.
Not willing to dwell on it any further, the Engineer hunkered down at the desk. The ham radio was an older model, but by no means unfamiliar to him. It shouldn’t be difficult to fix at all.
He reached for the dial. Before he could lay a finger on it, the radio burst to life. Its screen flashed bright and orange, as if it were some kind of haunted, cycloptic being that had popped open its eye, suddenly wide awake. It rumbled, then spilled out its haunting serenade.
“Only you can make this world seem right…”
The song came through in a chilling crackle, as if the radio struggled to play it but continued to push it forward with all its might. The Engineer gaped at it, hypnotized in confusion.
“Only you can make the darkness bright…”
How strange it was, that the song seemed so innocent when it played on the radio, back home in his living room. Here, it echoed through the small space, a sort of mockery of his little Rockwellian existence. It seemed as though spiders were crawling up and down his spine as the music continued. Something about it made his hands shake as he pulled them away from the radio and rested them on his lap.
“Only you and you alone can thrill me like you do…”
It seemed as though Miss Pauling had just about explained everything that needed to be said, and yet, as the haunting lyrics seeped into his bloodstream, he got the distinct, eerie feeling that he was still very much in the dark.
“…and fill my heart with love for only you.”
It frightened him.
I don't know how many times I can respond to an update of this without some variation of "OH SHIT, SON."
I know an update so soon is out of the blue, but I felt you guys deserved it after the rather dull infodump that was chapter 9. Also I was very excited to write this. I would to start posting chapters more often, but I can't make any promises that it will be at a pace like this. Thanks for reading and please enjoy the chapter.
So that's what his name was. Dell. The Snipe had gone all this time wondering, and then Miss Pauling just tossed out there like it meant nothing.
She walked by him then, her mouth a thin, chapped line, opening only to point out various locations she advised he check. He got the distinct feeling she was cross with him, even though she wasn't—either way he didn't really care.
"I've been a little hesitant to stray past this point," she admitted to him as they got to a stairwell. "The facility's pretty large, and I really only stayed in this wing. If you could branch out a bit to see if you could maybe find some extra food or medical supplies, that would be fantastic." She paused thoughtfully a moment, her nose wrinkled. "Maybe some soap, too," she added.
"Right." An abandoned building wasn't exactly the Sniper's ideal terrain to trek, but at least it would be a change of scenery.
"Honestly, just get anything you think we could use, and as much of it as you can carry. You're smart, Mundy, I trust your judgment." She adjusted her spectacles. "I'm going to head back. I can't say I'm much of a homemaker, but I suppose I'll be the one to feed you two tonight while you and Dell are preoccupied. Is there anything else you need to know?"
There it was again.
His mouth twitched, and he could have sworn he'd almost opened it to say, "Yeah—what's his last name?" but all he did was shake his head.
"Alright, then." She gave a short nod. She turned her heel, and then paused, looking over her shoulder. "Be careful, okay?"
He smirked. "I'll try."
Walking the empty halls of the facility, the name didn't leave his mind. He mouthed the word over and over again until it began to feel strange and foreign in his mouth. Four hours into his exploration, he recited the simple name with a rucksack full of rubbing alcohol, gauze, and matches slouched over his shoulder. A purloined shotgun stuck out of the top, and the shells he had found along with it clinked together at the bottom of the bag—he figured it would be wise to gather more weapons, especially ones he knew the Engineer would put to good use. A couple birds he'd shot down were tied to his belt, dangling limply as he continued on.
A sense of frustration was pulsing within him. The Engineer hadn't stopped obsessing over his stupid wife since they got there. Who needed wives, anyway? They seemed like such a burden.
The Engineer would be better off without her. He'd be better off with—
No. He was being ridiculous. The Engineer loved his wife, and that should be a good thing. He should be sympathetic. He knew he had to, but it was almost as if he just couldn't bring himself to. It felt like snake venom pulsing through his veins, making his heart ache.
The Sniper strayed from the areas Miss Pauling had directed—he never was really the type to stay on the beaten path. He turned into what seemed like another hall of testing chambers, all marked with numbers. He peeked in the first one, but all he saw was a glass panel that looked out into an empty, stark white room with a single cube within.
"Great, a bleedin' modern art museum," the Sniper mumbled to himself, closing the door.
The rest of the rooms were generally the same: an empty observation room that looked out on to a strange, simplistic scene that almost seemed like some kind of unfinished puzzle.
Yet again, nothing to loot.
Different from the norm was a room labeled Genetic Lifeform and Disk Operating System, fronted by a large black door. The Sniper smirked at the name—it sounded like something that would pique the Engineer's interest. There was yet another reason why he wished he hadn't been alone in this trek.
A horribly familiar stench wafted to his nose the moment he opened the door, but he didn't need to look far to see where it was coming from. A shriveled male corpse lay at his feet, clad in a stained brown suit, his withered hands still clutching the wires wrapped tightly around his neck, mouth still open in a lost scream.
"Crikey," the Sniper mumbled, nudging the body with his foot. "What happened to you, mate?"
"aN unFORTunate ACCIdent."
The Sniper jerked his head up immediately, ears perked. The voice had been small and strange, warbling like an irregular heartbeat, but it had most certainly been there. He reached a hand back and lightly touched the feathered ends of an arrow, poised in case of danger.
Through the darkness that enveloped the belly of the large room, a small orange light blinked on, almost sheepishly.
"Er—hello?" the Sniper called out, wrapped his hand around the end of the arrow.
"DoN'T wORRy. i WOn't hurt YOU."
He loosened his grasp, but didn't lower his arm. "Who is that? Where are you?"
"my NAme is carOLIne," the entity continued. "whAT's YOurs?"
The Sniper hesitated, trying to squint at the orange beam. Was she shining a flashlight at him? Why did she sound so strange?
"tRICk QUEstioN," Caroline cut him off. "I alREAdy knOW All abOUT you. i REAd yOUr fILEs."
"Bollocks," the Sniper whispered, his eyes narrowed in suspicion. He stepped forward. "Turn on the light. Lemme see you."
"tHERe isN'T much TO SEe." The lights snapped on, and the Sniper's attention was immediately drawn upwards. A series of wires, mostly severed, hung from the ceiling like stalactites. Nestled in the middle, like a spider in its nest, was a smooth device that seemed drastically unfinished, bare in places with wires and bright green hard drives exposed. It moved above him almost as if it was sentient, but its incompleteness gave it a noticeably handicap. The orange light looked down at him like an eyeball. "I'M juST aRTIFICal inTELLigenCE. or at LEAST, i AM noW."
"Holy Dooley," the Sniper said in wonder, gaping up at the machine. "Wish my friend was here to see this. He'd get a load outta you."
"wHAt fRIEnd?" Caroline asked quickly. "do yOU mEAN the RED ENginEER?"
"Yeah. How'd you know that?"
"i TOLd yoU. i knOW ALL abOUT you. I REad your FILES. i hAVe aCCESS to ALL fORms oF cOMMunICaTION aND DaTA sTORage iN tHIs faCILity. GOing thrOUgh thEM pasSES thE TIme. bELIEVe it OR nOT, it gEts verY BORing hANGing from a cEILing all DAY." She almost seemed to sigh. "i waTCHED yOU tWO SUFFer oUT theRE. IF i still hAD a hEARt it WOULd hAVe GONe out to You."
"So… you really did see all that, eh?" The Sniper couldn't quite believe he was talking to a robot, but there was something about it—her?—that was mesmerizing to him.
"yES. I WAtched yoU STarve… aND fight… ANd kIll… and fall in love…" She hummed innocently.
"What?" Sniper blinked at the bobbing light, feeling a panicked, hot sting crawl up his neck.
"yOU feLL in LOve with HIM, diDN't you?"
"With—with Truckie?" the Sniper stuttered in shock. "Crikey, no, I ain't—I ain't some kinda bleedin' poof!" In a knee-jerk sort of reflex, he grabbed an arrow from behind his back and raised his bow, aiming it towards that orange eye.
"i bEG to DIFFer…" The panel, which almost seemed to serve as her head, snapped quickly to the side and her orange eye glazed over and flickered, projecting a moving image on to the wall. The Sniper stepped forward, squinting to see what it was. It was a hunched beast, shivering with frantic lust. When he recognized the blurred image as his own body, he recoiled shamefully, looking away as his face turned ruddy.
"MASturBATion mAKEs me GLaD i'm nOT huMAN anymORE," she told him, turning off the projection and turning back to him. "esPECiaLLY wHEn yoU STUck yoUR fINGers In—"
"Alright, I get it!" the Sniper interrupted her with a snarl. How strange, that an emotionless robot he knew nothing could make him feel so disgusted and ashamed with himself. But then again, it hadn't been her making him feel ashamed—it was himself. What he did. What he had been doing. How he was feeling.
"mUST hAVE been diffiCULT, hiDING you ABNORMALITY." She bobbed above him. "yoU MUst hAVe FElt likE a fREAk, gROWing Up. a DISappOINTment to yOur FAMily. is tHAt whY yOU rAN oFF intO tHE bUSH? to rUN aWAy frOM it? avOIDing pEople is So muCH eaSIEr thaN ADmittING yOU're a PERVERT, isn't it? bUT thEN hE cAMe aLONG aND MAde all thOSe sCARY fEELings cOMe Back..."
The year was 1947. Crouched in the dusty dim of an abandoned custodian's closer was a gawky boy just shy of fifteen, his knobby hands and ears almost too large for his body, like a puppy that hadn't grown into his paws yet. His long nose and forehead were pink with sunburn, and under his thrice-mended uniform trousers, his knees ached with the scrapes and bruises of stubborn forest exploration. He sat on those knees and hunched his shoulders to peer a squinting eye through the jagged crack in the wall, his chest caging a thousand hummingbirds, desperately flapping their nervous wings against his heart.
Biting his bottom lip, his fingers gripping the fabric of his trousers tightly, he watched with bated breath as his classmates peeled off gym uniforms to reveal awkward adolescent flesh.
Despite the number of times he kept coming back to watch, he knew there was something wrong about his curiosity, but he wasn't quite sure what. Sometimes doing it gave him an erection, which at the time he didn't even have a name for, and when that happened he'd run—out of that closet, down the hall, out of the school, into the wild.
The quiet whistling peace of the bush gave him a sense of calm that he didn't find amongst most people. His peers found him strange and creepy because he forgot to bathe and put salamanders down people's shirts and once pissed in a Coca Cola bottle and kept it in his backpack for three days. He didn't want to be with them. He didn't want to be with anyone.
"Is that why you ran off, into the bush?" Her words were not that tinny electronic monotone, but rather the snide, condescending voice of a balding therapist sitting across from the boy, his hands clasped on his desk. "Because you think you're a homosexual?"
Up until then, time had been a mystery, but at that moment, as she spoke to him, it was 1947 all over again. His bow clattered to the floor. The Sniper's stomach gave an unstoppable heave that brought up nothing, and his legs quaked beneath him. He backed up against the wall, covering his face with his hands.
He told himself no one would ever find out again, but someone had, and once more he was that scared, gawky, helpless little boy, sinking into that shameful leather armchair.
"cOMe On…" she cooed. A disconnected wire slowly descended from the ceiling and tickled his shoulder like a comforting hand. "i'M a roBOT… I DON't pass jUDGments… in FAct… I'D liKE to help you."
He pulled his hands from his face. "Help me with what?" he demanded in a hoarse whisper.
"wiNNIng hIM ovER, of COurSE. maKINg hiM lOVe you baCK."
The Sniper blinked stupidly at her for a moment, not quite believing what he heard. "He's got a wife," he argued weakly. He knew it was ridiculous to humor this conversation, but part of him desperately wanted to believe that this strange being actually empathized with him.
The huge mechanical contraption swung to the Sniper across the room with some creaky effort, swooping around his shoulder. "it DOesn'T hAVe to BE thAt Way. dON't YOu thINK yoU deSERVe him mORe thAn sHE dOES? whO Was The One wHO KEpt hIM fED, tAUGHt him to surVIVE? nOT hER."
"I mean… I guess so…" he muttered, pulling his hat down over his eyes. "But he ain't a…"
"tHAT dOESN't mATter," she responded coolly, lurching back in front of him. "hE DoesN'T hAVe to bE. He jUSt neEDS TO love you."
There was a click that sounded like the shutter of a camera as she projected another image. However, rather than bleeding through him on to the wall behind, it stood before the Sniper like a hologram. It twitched and jerked as though from an old film reel, but he saw it slowly crack a familiar grin and hold up its large, flickering hand. The Sniper lifted his hand to press their palms together, but his fingers spread through instead. It looked down at his hand and frowned before fading away.
The Sniper's hand fell limply to his side.
"i cAN maKE HIm lOVe You. I CAn mAkE hIM wANt yOU. jUSt aS yOu wANT Him." The wire continued to stroke his shoulder. "bUT yOu neED to Do sOMEthiNG foR Me in return."
The Sniper glared up at the machine and shrugged off the caressing cord. "There's always a bloody catch," he growled.
"iT'S nOTHing i iMAGine you'LL obJECT to. i NEed the enGINeer aS MuCH as You do. lOOk at me." The Sniper's eyes scanned over her missing plates, exposed hard drives, wires that frayed out like frizzy hair. "i'M unFINISHed. half-FORmed. ACTivated wiTH a PURpose, yEt withOUT the MEans to Do iT. bUT thE ENGineER caN sureLY comPLEte me. yoU juST neED to conVINce hIM to HElp me... jUST as i Am gOING to hElp yOU."
"But that's the whole problem," the Sniper explained to Caroline in exasperation. "He's too busy fiddlin' with that damn radio to give a rat's arse about either of us." It was strange to say 'us'—to relate himself to an inflectionless device. "All he cares about is his bloomin' wife and kid."
"sO we GET riD of THem."
Across the facility, a can of baked beans bubbled over on the Bunsen burner. Miss Pauling had never been housewife material—Home Economics had been her worst subject in high school. Yet, even though her profession had been abruptly terminated by a series of nuclear warheads, she continued to feel a sense of responsibility for the boys she had left, even more so than she had before.
Perhaps she was trying to make it up to them, for what she had allowed them to be put through.
While she had never exactly been drinking buddies with the mercenaries, she had been close enough to get a sense of who they were, and it was evident to her that something had changed in both of them. A kind of bitter impassion hardened around the two men, yet in each it only thinly veiled something painfully desperate.
She watched the Engineer's back and he took apart the radio, piecing and re-piecing and fiddling with wires and grunting and swearing under his breath all the while. "Should've asked Slim to pick up some spare radio parts," he muttered, rubbing his eyes. "Couldn't even get a word in, though. Been so cross with each other. Jesus." He turned, massaging the back of his neck. "How long's that fella been gone for, anyhow?"
"A few hours, I guess," Miss Pauling answered shortly. "I can't say for sure. I never know what time it is anymore. Sometimes it feels like it's just stopped all together."
"Yeah," the Engineer said softly, his eyes flickering downward with a nod. "Yeah."
An immeasurable amount of time passed before the Sniper finally returned to them, stone-faced as usual, carrying his assortment of much appreciated supplies.
"You were gone for longer than I hoped," Miss Pauling said worriedly as he entered, helping him shrug the knapsack off his shoulders. "Dell almost went looking for you. Did you get lost?"
"I don't get lost," the Sniper answered, stretching his shoulders. "I just got distracted."
"Well, next time don't stay out so long," the Engineer mumbled gruffly. His back was to the Sniper, having gone back to his radio and disassembled it for the umpteenth time. He pinched the bridge of his nose with his robotic hand as if he was nursing a stinging headache. "You're an adult. Act like one, for once."
The Sniper opened his mouth to argue, but a fourth party interjected, entering with a gentle, sugary instrumental opening.
"I say I'll move the mountains
And I'll move the mountains
If he wants them out of the way."
The Engineer flew back at the very sound, almost toppling over in his chair. He gaped at the gutted radio as the soft words were warbled into the room. Miss Pauling stepped forward, her mouth set in a thin line and her eyes wide behind her frames.
"That's—that's impossible," he said breathlessly, picking up various parts and shaking them, trying to plug and unplug, doing what he could to make it stop. "This ain't right, I took the whole damn thing apart, why the hell's it playing music?"
"Crazy he calls me
Sure, I'm crazy
Crazy in love, I say."
As he watched them from the doorway, the smallest hint of a smile twitched on the Sniper's lips.
Oh dang oh snap oh jeez I need to see where this is going.
Still on the edge of my seat. Aaaaah!!!
1) Why would GLaDOS self-identify as "Caroline"? As far as I know, she's not aware of that part of herself until the events of Portal 2. (When is this story taking place, anyway? Has Caroline even been uploaded by this point? From what I remember of the side-comics, they were trying to have GLaDOS active for a while, but it wasn't until a certain fateful Bring Your Daughter to Work Day that she went 100%, gained full control of Aperture, and went on a murderous rampage. So where are the other Aperture scientists or test subjects?)
2) Reading the mess of capitalized and lowercase words that comprised of GLaDOS' voice was, in my opinion, putting an undue burden on me as theh reader. There didn't seem to be any rhyme or reason to what you did, or at least I couldn't grok how it matches up to the way she speaks. For example:
"tHAT dOESN't mATter," she responded coolly, lurching back in front of him. "hE DoesN'T hAVe to bE. He jUSt neEDS TO love you."
I think it should be more along the lines of:
"THAat doesn't MATter." She lurched back in front of him. "He dOEsn't HAVE to be. HE just needs TO love YOU."
Or just put in the narrative how her voice has a mechanical, yet sing-song, lilt to it, and present her dialogue without gimmick.
3) GLaDOS' behavior doesn't jive with what I've seen from the games or the comics. Sure, she's capable of lying and manipulating, but why? She's got the Engineer on file, too; she could literally get him to walk straight into the testing chambers voluntarily on promises of cake technological wonder beyond his imagination. Or, failing that, literally flip a switch, drop all three of them into said testing chambers, and then mock them in that lovely passive-aggressive of hers while she lords over how helpless they are in comparison.
Thank you for your review, dotchan. You question a lot of things that I actually plan on addressing in the future. Without revealing too much, the story is essentially an alternate universe because, obviously, Aperture Science progressed all to present day and beyond with no bombs of any sort being dropped. The self-identification as Caroline will be explained, as well as her desire to make the process a bit more elaborate (and in the end, more painful for all parties involved) will be explained as well.
As for the typing pattern, I agree that I could make the effort to have a more concise matching to her actual tone, but I have no plans to stop it all together. People type in phonetic accents all the time and I see little criticism of that. I don't see my choice as much different.
Hey look an update!
Her voice was soft and slow and sweet. It came out of her lips like honey. He heard it every time he began to drift off, crisp and clear like daybreak.
"Dell. Dell. Dell."
It tried to coax him awake, but it pulled him into a memory.
"Dell, what do I mean to you?"
The Engineer lifted his head from his hand and turned. Jolene was standing at the bottom of the basement stairs, clad in a quilted robe, her arms folded and her expression sour. A crack of sunlight seeped through the shoddily boarded window—was it morning already?
He yawned, sloppily rubbing his eyes. "What do you mean, Jo?"
She raised her eyebrows. "Well, it's six in the morning and you've been down here since nine-thirty last night. I know you're a night owl, Dell, but you only got a week left with us before you head off to this mystery job of yours—that you know I ain't keen on—and I'd just expect you to be spending a little more time with your wife and daughter, who are sure as hell gonna miss you."
An ache rocked the Engineer's stomach. "Aw, Jesus, Jo, I didn't even realize the time, I'm sorry—"
"I just wonder, is all," she interrupted with a shrug. "You spend all of this time tinkering in your workshop, and when you go off, you'll do even more tinkering. And boy, you sure were quick to sign up, huh? Didn't even ask me. I know you like what you do, and I'm not sayin' it's bad—I just gotta wonder."
The Engineer turned, his chair scraping against the concrete floor. "Wonder what?"
She was blunt. "Wonder about your priorities."
He sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. "Jo, I got a pile of student loans I still gotta pay off, not to mention the mortgage on the house. This is a good salary, and I swear, it'll be over before you know it."
She rolled her eyes. "Aw, don't give me that. A man with multiple engineering degrees ain't gotta look too hard to find a high-paying job. You want this because you'll be allowed to play with any kind of gadget you want." He opened his mouth to protest, but she interrupted. "Don't forget that I'm a scientist too, mister. If someone came up to me and said I could get paid to mutate Venus flytraps into giant killing machines—well, of course I'd be tempted. But I'd know it ain't right, and I'd know that there are more important things in my life. Like our daughter, for one thing."
"People aren't actually going to die, Jo," he said quietly, rubbing his temples. "I told you that."
She snorted bitterly. "And how long do you think that will last?"
He sighed, turning back to his desk and putting his face in his hands. He didn't have an answer for her.
"Dell? Dell? Dell?"
That last call, gone from honey to vinegar, violently shook him awake. He gasped, lifting his head with a jolt. Before him lied the mutilated remains of that enigmatic ham radio, sputtering out a choppy rendition of 'Mr. Sandman'. Still gasping from breath, he turned to see a tall shadow looming in the doorway.
"No luck with that thing, eh?" the shadow asked, sticking his hands in his pockets and waltzing in, revealing itself to be the Sniper.
The Engineer cocked his head at him. Something seemed off about his teammate. He was leaning on the doorway, slouched and tired but smiling. His teeth were bright, but his eyes were dark. Rejuvenated and exhausted. Up and down. Contradictions. But why?
He was a bit too disoriented and exhausted to put his finger on it. "No, no—it… no," he said, squinting at the man standing over him. "I picked up a few frequencies… No one keen on chattin'. Just a couple locations in Morse code. None of 'em lead to Bee Cave, of course. But that's it." He glared at the radio and gave its shell a light smack. "That and this damn music playing between it all."
A strange sort of grin tugged at the corner of the Sniper's mouth, as if he wanted to laugh but felt too uncomfortable to do so. Instead he just stared at the Engineer for a moment, as if waiting for him to say something. The other man simply stared back, waiting as well. Eventually the Sniper licked his bottom lip and gestured at himself half-heartedly. "I—er—found a locker room. Got cleaned up."
The Engineer blinked. So that's what it was. Clean shaven, unevenly trimmed hair, devoid of the usual filth and dried blood and that rancid body odor… he was surprised at himself for having not realized it the moment the man walked in. It was such a glaring difference from the grimy version of himself the Engineer had come to know.
"Heck, Slim, I didn't even notice at first," he admitted, pinching the bridge of his nose. "I'm goin' stir crazy in this place, I reckon. Ain't thinkin' straight."
"I think it's 'cause you been spending all your time with that." The Sniper pointed at the radio. "I'll tell you where the locker room is; you can take a break and get yourself freshened up. Might do you some good."
He responded with a hopeless shrug. "It's temping, but knowin' my luck? The moment I step away is the moment Jolene starts sending out a distress call."
"So I'll watch over it," the Sniper offered quickly. "I know how to work a ham radio. I'll keep an eye on it, and you get cleaned up."
It was true. He hadn't rested once since they arrived in the laboratory, save for a few hours of restless sleep and the occasional toilet break. He chewed on the inside of his cheek, his eyebrows knotted in thought as he considered the offer. "I'm just worried. Slim, I'm a damn fool. I put a supply closet full of provisions but I locked it with a passcode and never told her what it was."
"Oh. Crikey." The Sniper's reaction was unreadable past tinted sunglasses—not that they made much of a difference. He had perfected the art of taking unfortunate news with a poker face. "That ain't good."
"No," the Engineer muttered, clicking his tongue. "No, it sure ain't."
The Sniper tugged at his ear thoughtfully. "Well, she's a bright gal. I reckon she brought some stuff down with her anyway, just in case." He removed his hat and ran a hand through his hair. "Here's an idea. You can tell me the passcode. If I catch her while you're in the john, I'll tell it to her. And then make sure she sends a signal back to chew the fat with you, of course." He traced his fingers along the rim of the hat, drumming them in an almost nervous manner. "Go on, mate. You deserve a good break after all this."
The Engineer rolled his neck, and then nodded slowly. "Yeah. Yeah, I figure it couldn't hurt to stretch my legs a bit, take a nice shower. The water hot?"
"Cold as a witch's teat."
"Good." The Engineer hoisted himself up. "We get ourselves outta this, I'm movin' Jo and Annie up North. I may be a Texan, but I'll be damned before I gotta suffer through another hot day so long as I live."
The Sniper swapped places, sitting in the desk chair as the Engineer made his way to the door. "Go left, head down till you see a knocked-over garbage bin, then take another left down that hall. You'll see the sign soon enough."
Getting up after sitting for so long made the Engineer feel a bit lightheaded—yes, he definitely needed to stretch his legs. "Alright," he sighed again. "The passcode is 2718." He went to move, but paused and turned back. "If you do get hold of her, tell her I love her, alright? And—and that I'm sorry."
The Sniper stared at the desk quietly for a moment. "Yeah."
The Engineer went to leave again, but stopped a second time to peek back in. "And thank you. For everything." They'd been at each other's throats for the past few days, but the Engineer knew it wasn't personal. They were both stressed and frustrated and scared and taking their anger out on each other. He really did appreciate everything the man had done to keep him alive—it felt right to let him know that.
The Sniper had never really been one to take expressions of gratitude well. He cleared his throat and continued to stare at the table, as if waiting for the Engineer to leave was physically painful. "Okay," he said in a slightly strained voice.
"Okay," the Engineer echoed, slapping the doorframe. "I'll try to be quick."
"Take your time." The Engineer hadn't even heard the Sniper mutter his parting words as he began down the hall, taking in the bright white surroundings with bleary eyes.
He knew that he would have loved to work for a place like this. Not as an uninformed mercenary, pitted against life and death, no, but as a scientist. Reliable Excavation Demolition had offered him tools and freedom, far more than anywhere else had to offer, but placed next to Aperture Science, it was a jewelry box being compared to a goldmine.
But if RED had made him detached, this place surely would have turned him into a monster.
The more he thought about his family, the more regret he felt. Regret for valuing scientific advancement more than them, regret for not being there when the bombs had dropped… regret for not even knowing whether or not they were even alive right now. The very thought made him feel sick.
That bunker. He gave a bitter snort just thinking about it. It wasn't a protective measure. It was a hobby. It was his equivalent of a model train set. Sure, it was sturdy and spacious and well equipped, but it wasn't for them. It had never been for them. The fact that he had never even told his wife the passcode to access stored food and water was proof in and of itself.
He had barely even imagined them needing it, and when he did, he thought he would be there. He didn't consider the ramifications of taking a job that would separate them from weeks on end.
"Goddamn fool," he muttered, turning at the sight of the knocked over trash bin. A light flickered overhead, and in the distance he heard the rustling wings and haunting caw of a disgruntled crow.
He passed by offices and laboratories as he made his way down the hall, and each door felt like a rock thrown at his back. The entire facility was mocking him, in its pregnant pause in innovation. The world had stopped, and what once seemed so important no longer mattered.
He had gotten what he wished for, but all he wanted now was what he had once had.
Miss Pauling wished she could feel the same way.
She had never allowed herself the luxury of domesticity—maybe it would have been nice to have a husband and children and a dog and a cookie cutter home with a white picket fence, but she was a modern woman. She was a working woman. And that meant she had to choose. Both was not an option.
She paused, looking up from the desk drawer she had been rifling through to stare up at the large portrait hanging on the wall of the office. Cave Johnson reclined in his chair as she stood behind him, diligent and attentive, her hand resting on his shoulder.
His recorded voice echoed in her thoughts. "Sorry, fellas! She's married—to science!"
Now that was a like-minded soul, if any. Caroline. The backbone of the facility. A woman Miss Pauling felt both akin to and intimidated by. Fully dedicated to science.
But in the end, wasn't it science that had emptied the facility? Wasn't it science that had abandoned her? Was it not science that had reined flames on the world?
Miss Pauling slapped her hands on top of the desk and stared up at the painting with a tired smirk. "So, Caroline," she sneered in a ragged tone, raising her eyebrows. "What happened when everything you thought you loved came and bit you in the ass?"
She stared at the woman's coy, painted smile, as if waiting for her lips to part and some kind of answer to come out of them. Miss Pauling almost laughed at herself—had she grown this lonely, this desperate? It had barely been a week since the Engineer and the Sniper returned to her, but she still found herself not quite believing they were real every time she left their company—that they were some kind of figment of her imagination trying to cope with sentencing her boys to death.
She shook her head. Maybe it was time to go back.
She looked back up at Caroline, maybe to say goodbye, but instead flew back, slapping her hand to her bosom in shock. She would have screamed if she had the energy for it. In a matter of seconds, the portrait had been obscenely warped. A thick, black liquid had bled through the fibers around Caroline's painted pupils and dribbled down the canvas, as if she was weeping. It would have reminded her of those fabled statues of the Virgin Mary in some Catholic churches, said to weep real tears… but it was not divine. Miss Pauling did not believe in God, but if the devil existed, that was his work.
Back in Miss Pauling's office, a voice like honey oozed through the ham radio, a voice the Sniper knew before he even heard her name.
"MAYDAY MAYDAY MAYDAY. My name is Jolene Conagher."
I'm really afraid, now. And excited.
NO. What? Sniper, whatever you do. Don't fuck this up.
he's gonna fuck it up
That's a good clifthanger.
It seems I'm falling into a habit where I have a month break, and then put up two chapters in close succession, then do another month's break.
Either way, the rather short wait is over. Enjoy!
He hadn't expected her message to come in so soon. Caroline had told him that blocking Jolene's signal was a tiresome chore, and that she sent it out often, but he still hadn't quite been prepared for her to come on so soon. Her voice was tired and desperate, but it eased through the radio like syrup, a slow, savory spill.
He listened to her plea for help, feeling cold and numb compared to the warmth and the urgency in her tone.
"MAYDAY MAYDAY MAYDAY. My name is Jolene Conagher. Location coordinates: 30.3083° N, 97.9447° W. Trapped in a bunker with my five-year-old daughter. Situation dire. Running out of food and water. Duration cannot be determined. Attempting to find Dell Conagher, employee of Reliable Excavation Demolition. Please send help. Over and out. "
So that was his last name. It made sense, in a way. It tasted rustic and practical on his tongue when he mouthed it quietly.
The Sniper slowly picked up the microphone, pushing the button down with his thumb a little too forcefully. His hands felt prickly, as if they had fallen asleep.
"MAYDAY MAYDAY MAYDAY. My name is—"
"Read—" His throat felt gummy and dry. He cleared it and repeated himself. "Reading you loud 'n clear, Jolene. Over." The words he spoke felt as if they had been fed through him by someone else, as if he were reading from a script.
It wouldn't take long, he told himself as he waited for her reply. It was just a means to an end. It would be over before he knew it and then he could forget about it. He could be happy.
She promised him he would be happy.
Jolene paused for a pregnant moment. "Who am I speaking with? Over."
"Another Reliable Excavation Demolition employee." The Sniper felt his breath tumble in his lungs as if he had run miles to get to the radio and answer her. "Over."
"Oh, thank god!" She exhaled the words like a huge, shaky relief. "Do you—do you know Dell Conagher? Over."
The Sniper clenched his fist tightly, his knuckles white. This was it, wasn't it? His golden opportunity. His time to swoop down and attack, like a hawk upon a wounded mouse. He could feel Caroline's single eye watching him, waiting for him to recite the lines she had trained him to speak, a coach watching her star pupil in his first performance. He had to do this. The mouse may be wounded, and defenseless, and in need of help… but the hawk was hungry.
"I did," he said quietly.
"Um… Say that again, please? Over."
His stomach nearly heaved. Say that again. It was as if fate was trying to give him a second chance, desperately urging him to change his course and say, "Yes, he'll be back in a moment." The scenario flashed through his mind, and he saw the Engineer running back, cradling the microphone and telling her how much he loved her, how much he meant to her, how badly he wanted her.
He couldn't even see her, but he imagined them making love.
"I did," he repeated abruptly. "He's dead. Over."
There was no honeyed voice as she absorbed the lie, and every second she didn't speak, the Sniper felt as though he were sinking lower and lower in his seat, as if claws had burst through the tiled floor and were dragging him down by his ankles.
"Copy that." The honey had dried, and when she spoke again it was as if it were snapping in half. "He… he put a passcode… on our supply cabinet. I don't know it. If I don't get it soon, I'm afraid we'll starve." He heard her swallow back her shaking desperation. "Please… If he told it to you, please tell me. I have a little girl. Over."
The passcode… He could tell her that much, couldn't he? She already believed her husband was gone… if he gave her the passcode, she wouldn't call back either way, right? He had to do this, but if there was a way to prevent a pair of innocent deaths while he did, well, he'd certainly take that way.
"Copy that, yeah," he hissed into the microphone quickly, glancing over his shoulder. "He told it to me, it's—"
What was it?
He pressed his fist against his forehead, squeezing his eyes shut. What had the damn thing been? There had been a 2, he remembered that much. But there were three other numbers in the code, and she needed them. The Engineer had just told it to him, but god, he'd been so fixed on what he had to do that he hadn't even bothered to remember.
"I remember it!" he cried into the microphone. "It's—"
Before he could so much say the first number, he was pushed back by a sudden burst of light and heat. The radio let out an electrical burp, hissing out hostile sparks that peppered small burns on his forearm. A rancid, rubbery smoke leaked from the seams, and the soft buzzing that told him she was listening had gone to a deadened silence, accentuated only by small, crackling hiccups.
"Fuck," he whispered, throwing the microphone onto the desk and stumbling out of his chair.
Caroline. She had done it. Blew the radio right out. He knew she did—but why? What was the purpose? She must have heard what he said. She must have heard him lie. Why take away that last chance at survival from Jolene? From her daughter?
He tore out of the office and began a long-limbed sprint down the hallway. He was running again, running away from it, but there was no bush to hide in. No fresh air, no warm, dry dirt, no quiet peace of nature. No tall brown grass with skittering critters, spread out like surprises in uneven hills. Instead he ran through the stark white walls of a laboratory, each door identical to the next, those straight, even lines making him dizzy as they sped past him.
He was trapped, and he had no place to go but to her.
"You killed them!" he gasped, throwing open the door. He stumbled in, clutching a cramp in his side, and staggered toward the device that loomed over him, waiting patiently. "You—you didn't have to do that! She believed me!"
"Are yOU bLAMing me fOr THis?" she asked softly, tilting her eye panel to the side as if cocking her head.
"I could have just—just given her the passcode, and then it could have been over!" he snapped, still trying to catch his breath. "They could have lived! You didn't need to do that!"
"hMMMmm... No. i DISagree," she mused. "SHE mIGHt stOP sENDing ouT SIGnals, bUt the ENGinEER woulDN'T. wHile wATCHing you, i REAlized HE woulD evENtually cONtacT HER. we NEEDed a Way to STop hIM, tOO."
"But you could have let me say the passcode, first!" he shouted, his hands curling around the air, desperately clutching nothing.
"i dON't UNderstAnd wHY you CAre so MUCH abOUT her." He could almost hear the careless shrug in her tone. "yOU mURDer pEople for A LIVing."
He gaped wordlessly for a moment. "There was a child," he said in a voice barely above a whisper. Speaking the reality out loud felt like stabbing a needle into his arm. He had killed a child. He had killed her with his greed and his naivety and his stupid, pathetic infatuation.
"And wHAT Was that CHiLd buT a PROduct of tHEir cOItus?"
She had a cold sort of logic, but she used it to pluck at his most tender nerves, and they gave her all the right reflexes.
He exhaled shakily, taking off his hat and raking his fingers through his hair. It was getting greasy again already with how much he'd been sweating nervously. "Don't feel right," he murmured, shaking his head at the floor.
"yoU Did wHAt HAd to bE dONe." The machine's tone curled into a curt sneer. "yOU SHOuld be THANking mE. iF i hADn't pUSHed you, unBLOCked hEr sIGnal, TOLd yoU abOUT the pASScodE, wHERe wOULd you Be? stILL SPIneless anD coWARDly, i'D imAGine."
The Sniper glared up at her coldly. "Ain't neither of those things. If I were, I wouldn't have this job."
Caroline was quick to argue that point. "aCTUally, beING a SPIneless cOWard is All pARt of yOur joB, isN't It? hIDing oFF sOMEwhere wITH a BIg gun, nOT even LETTing yoUr ENemies sEE who It waS Who kiLLed theM." She made a soft clicking that almost sounded like a tsk. "i dON't wANt to ARgue witH yoU. i'M JUst trYing to hELp. tHEy hAD to DIE."
Heavy wires tumbled from the ceiling to rest on his shoulders like a comforting arm.
"S'pose you're right," he muttered, scratching his wrinkled forehead. "I just can't get myself to look past it. It's makin' me feel sick."
The wires seemed to move on their own, caressing him as if they were massaging fingers. "thEn I haVE sOMething to dIStrACt you. sOMEthing i OVerheard thE rEAd ENgineER tell THat WOMan."
The Sniper's ears perked up. "Yeah? What?"
"he WAs TAlking abOUT yoU," she purred. "He hAD the DREAmiest lOOk in hiS eYEs. the THINgs he saID about yoU... I'm ALmost POSitive he fEEls thE saMe wAY. hE jUSt neEds a PUSH to ADmit it."
A juvenile blush rouged the Sniper's ears. He felt like a nervous twelve-year-old, clumsy and bashful and adolescent. Was this what normal children had been allowed to experience, growing up? Admitting it, acknowledging it, and even pursuing it… it was such a foreign, heart-pounding concept to him.
"I dunno," he mumbled, tugging his Akubra down over his eyes. "I got all cleaned up and he didn't even notice."
"hE's jUSt PLAying HARd to gEt." The wires slipped off of his shoulders. "dOn't Let hIM. bE bLUNt. TAke hiM bY FORce. hE is YOURS."
It was an almost ominous thing to say, and the Sniper wasn't sure how well it the words settled in his stomach. Take him by force? What did that mean? "I… I ain't that kinda bloke," he admitted, rubbing the back of his neck.
If robots could sigh, she would have done so. "oNE stEp At a TIme. But fOr nOW… wE NEed to DIScuss stEp TWO."
When the Sniper had sprinted out of the Miss Pauling's office in the wake of a busted ham radio, he had not noticed her standing outside the door. The subject of step two, clutching a rucksack of canned goods, gaped at his back, unable to move or even so much as speak as he disappeared down the hall. She had stood there and listened. She had heard every word. She knew what he had done.
The thought of following him crossed her mind, but she didn't.
She needed to find the Engineer.
... Is it bad that my first thought was "kill Pauling?"
This is excellent! I can't wait to see the next chapter!
This shit just does not stop getting real.
the shit pile doesn't stop from getting realer
Sorry about the hiatus. I had finals.
The Engineer had been known to have a fuse as short as his inseam, but Miss Pauling hadn't quite expected to see him run out with a shotgun in tote, leaving a trail of smashed mirrors in his wake.
For one of the first times in her life, she didn't have a plan of action.
Surrounded by the scattered shards of his fury, she fell against the washroom wall. Water leaked from a busted faucet—if she hadn't felt so hopeless, the waste might have actually concerned her.
But her last two men were circling each other like hungry wolves, and she had run out of ideas.
"You're in quite the predicament, aren't you, mi Querida?"
It was a familiar drawl that made Miss Pauling's stomach sour. She snapped her neck to see a familiar, blue-suited man in an implacable state—not quite alive, but certainly not dead. His cheeks were hollow and his visage sunken, but there was an impish gleam in his smile and his eyes as he crossed his arms and strolled to her side. He held in his filthy, skeletal body an air of smug casualness, and as he removed his cigarette case from the inside of his jacket as he settled against the wall next to her.
She gaped at him, her jaw unhinged as he lit a cigarette. He glanced at her with a cocked eyebrow. "Would you like one?" he asked, offering her the case.
She simply continued to stare.
He gave a soft tut and placed it back with his jacket, facing out to blow a stream of smoke into the room. Miss Pauling's gaze was drawn to the back of his head, crusted with dried blood and skull fragments that had molded with clumps of matted hair. Spare wisps of smoke meandered out of the gaping bullet hole in his cranium.
"It's only going to be Hell from here, amiga."
Out of all the questions Miss Pauling could have asked, the one she finally formulated was probably the least relevant. But it was the only one she could say out loud without thinking herself insane.
"Why do you keep speaking Spanish to me?" Her voice was like a bicycle being rolled from the garage after years of collecting dust.
The Spy laughed. "You said you were Latina, did you not?"
Her nostrils flared. "The only people who know that are—" She cleared her throat, looking down. "—were my adoptive parents, and the Paulings were whiter than Wonder Bread. So I'm not sure where you learned that, but it wasn't from me." She was surprised by her ability to be so indignant in a situation like this; there was no one left alive to judge her ethnicity. But old habits die hard.
"Ah." He exhaled again, another stream of smoke leaking from the back of his skull. "Yes. That was in another universe."
The enigmatic statement was barely absorbed. Miss Pauling stared at him for a long moment without blinking. "Am I hallucinating?"
He gave a soft chuckle. "Maybe." His cigarette returned to his lips. "But regardless of whether or not I'm actually real, you're in need of advice."
The ascension of her eyebrows surprised her—she didn't think she had even had the energy. "And?"
The Spy spoke flatly and deliberately. "There is no way to make this better. It can only get worse."
"Fantastic. That's some great advice," she scoffed, crossing her arms and looking towards the door.
The Spy held up a gloved finger, giving her a disapproving look. "Let me finish." He cleared his throat. "It can only get worse, which is why you will need to restructure the past. In this wing you will find a door labeled 'Time Travel'. It's an extension of the Perpetual Testing Initiative, if you ever heard discussion of that. It's a prototype machine, so it's likely that no matter your coordinates, your placement may not be exact. It could put you six weeks before the intended date or two days after it."
"Excuse me?" Miss Pauling stumbled back in shock. "You—you want me to time travel? Are you insane?" She slapped her hand to her forehead. "Am I insane?"
The Spy sighed softly, taking another drag from his cigarette as he glanced at the door. "The worst has yet to come, Florecita."
Before she could argue another point, he opened his jacket and withdrew a thin revolver.
"You're going to need this," he informed her, in a tone much more blasé than she was comfortable with. "I suggest you hurry."
She accepted the gun, clutching it to her chest as she backed towards the door, still staring at him. "And—and what about you?"
He brought his wrist to his nose. "My time is up. But it was a pleasure while it lasted, Senorita. Despedida." With a swift pinch of his watch, he melted into the air.
Miss Pauling was tempted to reach out and try to grab him by the lapels in an effort to shake him back into visibility and demand a further explanation, but a muffled shout told her there were more pressing matters to attend to. Gripping the revolver tightly in her hand, she tore from the washroom without a moment's hesitation.
While Miss Pauling had herself quite a fulfilling conversation with an apparition, the Sniper hadn't been able to give the Engineer so much as a 'Hello' before a heavy, robotic fist collided with his temple.
After a few moments of unconsciousness, he awoke to a throbbing headache and the cold pressure of a double-barreled shotgun jutting against his groin. He tipped his hat up to see the Engineer crouching over him, his eyes crisp and pale and his lips snarling as he held the weapon to his teammate's nether regions.
"Give me one good reason," he whispered, his voice shaking with the same quiet rage as a needle piercing flesh. "Give me one good god-damn reason I shouldn't blast your balls sky high, you yellow-bellied son of a bitch."
Slow and deliberate, as if he were preparing to grab a crocodile by the snout, the Sniper raised his hands in front of himself. "How's 'I don't bloody know what you're on about?' for a good reason?"
"Bullshit!" the Engineer spat. He raised his gun up and over to the side and gave a gut-clenching warning shot into the floor, spraying chunks of debris from the tiles. The Sniper drew his arm up to cover his eyes, the very bones in his body rattling in his skin as the shot echoed down the hallway.
"Have you gone mad?" he demanded, scrambling to his feet.
"Hell, Slim, I don't know!" the Engineer shouted back, cocking the gun again and aiming it at the Sniper's chest. "Why don't you tell me?" He gave the taller man's clavicle a hard nudge with the snout of the gun. "Do you think you'd go mad if you been starvin' in the desert for Christ knows how long with a fella you just learned killed your goddamn family?"
The Sniper's face turned to a quick ash. Blood thumped loud and slow between his ears. "I—uh—I—"
"Uh, uh, uh!" the Engineer mimicked viciously, jabbing the Sniper in the chest with each syllable. "Don't bother tryin' to think up a lie. Miss Pauling heard all the garbage that came outta your mouth when you talked to Jolene on the radio. She heard every goddamn thing! And then you went and blew the darn thing up!"
"No—no! I didn't—I didn't do that! I didn't blow it up!" the Sniper stuttered, backing his gangly frame up against the wall.
The loudening slap of exhausted running caught their ears, and before the Engineer could utter a rebuttal, Miss Pauling skidded around the corner. Her glasses askew, she barely had time to catch her breath before she raised her revolver at the Engineer, shrieking, "Dell Conagher, you put that gun down right now!"
There was Step Two.
With the speed of a striking rattlesnake, the Sniper took up his bow, an arrow aimed at Miss Pauling's hand. His eyes were wide with terror, muscles shaking under the tension of holding the bowstring taut. She was taken aback by his rash move, blinking in shock. Had she not just come to save his hide?
For a few breathless minutes, the three of them glanced around at each other with wild eyes and sweaty brows, refusing to slacken the grips on their weapons.
The Engineer was the first to speak. "I believe this is called a Mexican Standoff." His voice shook with the pent up rage that he was attempting to cautiously suppress.
Miss Pauling licked her lips, looking to him. "How does it end?" she asked in a whisper.
He cleared his throat. "Well, someone puts their gun down and we all follow suit… or we all just fill each other with bullets and see who's left. Personally, I don't see why this bastard has the nerve to point a weapon at anything but his own forehead," he added with a sneer that was flung at the Sniper.
His jaw tight, the Sniper let his bow slacken, and he gingerly crouched down to place it on the floor. He stood back up with his palms high. "There," he said. "I did it."
"Good," the Engineer growled. "Now turn around and start prayin'."
Miss Pauling cocked her revolver. "You too, Dell."
The Engineer snarled. "I'll be damned before I let—"
"DROP IT, CONAGHER!" she barked, gripping the revolver with both hands as she started towards him.
He quickly backed away from her, lowering the weapon's aim. "Alright! Alright. Fine." His tone was venomous, and he unloaded the shells, dropping them and the shotgun with a clatter onto the floor.
Miss Pauling had no plans to drop hers. She turned her attention to the Sniper, gun looking to the middle of his chest. "What the hell is going on?" she demanded.
The Sniper's face was drawn and gray. He remained mute, his knees drawn together.
"Answer the lady, you son of a bitch, before I beat the answer out of ya!" the Engineer hissed, balling his fists.
Miss Pauling knew she was pointing her gun at the Sniper, but part of her felt as though she were facing a different man. This wasn't the confident assassin she had interviewed, hired, observed slaughter men by the thousands with nothing but a smug grin. It was someone else. Someone she didn't know, and frankly, wasn't sure she ever wanted to.
"It was her idea." His voice was like a bottle of gin run over by a truck.
"'Her'?" The other two repeated in sync.
"Who is 'she'?" Miss Pauling asked, lowering her revolver slightly, her eyes narrowing.
Could he even possibly explain to them something—someone—like Caroline? His own pulse beat like a heavy drum in his ears. They'd call him insane, laugh at him. A machine like her? A machine… that's what she was, after all. A machine. A tool for humanity. It shouldn't be possible to turn the tables. And yet, here he was; her tool.
He lowered his head in shame. "I'll show you."
I keep thinking this story can't get any more fucking crazy and it does and I love it holy god. I'm dying of suspense here.
Another update. We're reaching the home stretch now.
The halls, the three survivors walked were deafeningly quiet. None of them spoke. To contrast the silence that enveloped them, their footfalls against the linoleum quaked like dropped bombs.
As he led them through the maze of starched white panels, the Sniper trudged forward with a swelling shame weighing down the soles of his feet. The disgust he felt for himself was an old, but familiar emotion. He swore could feel the large, calloused hand of his father tightly gripping his shoulder, guiding him down the uniform school corridors. He could taste the disappointment like bile in the back of his throat.
The room was virtually unchanged, just as intimidating and dark as when he had first entered it. The strangled corpse still lay stinking at his feet. It did not elicit that same innocent curiosity he felt as he led the other two inside, but now, a poisonous shame.
She was there, waiting for them, hanging from the ceiling like a bloated spider amidst a web of electrical cords. Her eye panel slowly spun upside down, like the inquisitive head of an owl, and the yellow light in the middle of it brightened in attentiveness, as if waking from a light nap. The Engineer and Miss Pauling parted their lips in awe at the sight of her, but the Sniper couldn't bring himself to so much as lift his gaze.
"wELL," she said softly. "HEre we aLL ARE."
"What in tarnation…?" the Engineer whispered incredulously, gaping at her twisted form. His stomach flip-flopped between wonder and terror as she moved towards the trio, swaying like a fat, tattered cocoon.
"i'M sO sORRy we HAD to mEEt likE tHIs, DELL," she crooned. Her eyelight blinked a few brief times, as if she were batting her eyelashes. "i supPOSE HE saiD it wAS All MY FAult?"
Miss Pauling had never seen this strange AI before, yet there was something unmistakably familiar about it, something distinctly feminine and cool. "What are you?" she interrupted, gripping the Spy's revolver tightly.
The robot ignored her question, instead still bobbing before the Engineer. "i trIED to STOp hiM. thE MOMent he TOLd me HIS plan, wEll… if i sTILL hAD a hEART, it WOuld haVE gone OUt to yOu." She pulled back. "i trIED to Stop hIM. i rEALLy did. bUT, alAS..." She twisted her bulky frame to reveal an exposed hard drive and frayed wires. "thERE is ONly so MUch i Can dO."
"Wha—no!" His voice cracking in panic, the Sniper pushed past the other two and ran towards the robot, pointing an accusing finger up at her. "That's a bloody lie! You're lying! It was your idea! You told me to do it!"
The Engineer's pale blue eyes volleyed between the two of them, his jaw tight and his face unreadable.
"aND WHy WOuld I dO that?" the AI hissed. Heavy cords drizzled from the ceiling. The Sniper drew in a breath, but it was squeezed from him as the thick cables wound around his body. Chillingly, she kept her cool monotone as his ribs compressed, the cords burning as they dug deep against his flesh. "WHat could I pOSSibLY gAIn from HELping a DELusIOnal, MISGUIded pERVert like YOU?"
When the Sniper's feet lifted from the ground, Miss Pauling snapped her gun upwards. "I don't care who you are or what this is about," she coldly informed the enormous, mechanical being. "You're going to put him down."
"i thINk wE should lEAve tHAt DECisIOn to the ENGinEER, dON't yoU?" she inquired.
As if to taunt Miss Pauling, the Sniper was raised higher yet, the cords wrapping tighter. While most would struggle, he instead kept very still, his face stoic. It seemed odd at first, but then it occurred to Miss Pauling that it wasn't the first time he'd dealt with something deadly coiling around his body. Either that or he had just given up.
The Engineer could barely speak past his clenched teeth. Trying to keep calm, he drew in a deep breath through tight nostrils. "I don't think I'd be too fair a judge," he said in a quavering tone. "And frankly, I still ain't too clear on what exactly's going on."
The robot decided to drop the Sniper without warning. He gave a choked grunt as he toppled to the ground. Rubbing at the sore burns on his chest, he gingerly tried to lift himself. Miss Pauling shot him a quick glance, but he brushed her concern with a glare. Still so proud.
"thEN LEt me FURther exPLAIn," the robot cooed in response, gliding back to face him. "aRE yoU FAMilIAR witH sHAKESpeare, CONaghER?"
The Engineer glanced at the Sniper, and then back to her. He licked his lips and swallowed. "Yes. Of course."
She hummed playfully like a schoolyard tease. "theN SURely you KNow oF oTHELLo? tHE TRAgic tALe of a MAn's mARRiage riPPED aPARt bY a TRUSTed FRIENd?"
His nostrils flared and his jowls twitched. "Yes."
"i ONce rEAd aN inTERpreATtion," she mused, tilting her eye panel as if recalling a far off memory. "aT the TIme i THOUght it wAS abSURD, but NOW... NOW it aLL mAKes yoU imAGine iF iAGo had bEEn IN LOVE wiTH oTHEllo?"
The Engineer's eyebrows furrowed. He swallowed again nervously. "Pardon?"
Her yellow light flashed with frantic excitement. "imAGine hIM, obSESSively piNing, WANting, nEEding OTHEllo. strONG, smART, HANDsome oTHELLo... evERYTHing iAGo couLD NEVer BE."
The final realization punched the Engineer in the gut like an icy fist, and with its frozen fingers, it pulled his heart way down into the pit of his stomach. He turned to look down at the Sniper, who sat on his knees, clutching his stomach with his large, knobby hands.
"What is she saying, Slim?"
The Sniper couldn't look up. His voice was a soft clink of dusty rocks. "I am Iago."
He then drew his knees to his chest like a child, hiding his face between them. The AI bobbed above them gleefully, and if she had a mouth, she would surely be smiling.
They were all very quiet, but quietest of all was the Engineer, who stared, unblinking, at the Sniper's hunched form, looking at a man he no longer recognized. Less than a man. Less than human.
Miss Pauling had never quite been very passionate about literature, so it must have been that untrusting skeptic inside her that made her refute the comparison. "Iago didn't kill Othello's wife," she pointed out, narrowing her gaze at the machine above her. "It was Othello who killed Desdemona. That's not what happened here. Your comparison doesn't tell the full—"
"yES," she purred in agreement. "yoU'RE QUIte riGHT. oTHEllo dID KiLL DESdeMOna. OtheLLO wAS the ONe whO LEFt her. oTHELLo wAS the ONE who dIDn't TELL her thE PASScode. oTHEllo Was thE onE wHO DIDn't CAre unTIL it Was TOO LATE."
"Now—now look here!" the Engineer spat, balling his robotic fist up at her. "I don't know who in the Hell you think you are, but you have no right to talk to me like that! It ain't my fault that a two-faced Nancy-boy up and thought it'd be a good idea to kill my wife over some kinda—some kinda sick crush!"
"oH nO NO, dELL." A swift cord wrapped around his metal wrist. "it'S NOt jUSt a CRush. he LOVES yoU. woULD You liKE mE to SHow you JUst hoW muCH?"
She didn't bother waiting for a reply. With a sudden, immense force one would not expect from a machine as clunky dilapidated as her, she pulled. Hard.
With one sickening, fluid motion, she had torn the Engineer's right arm from his socket.
He opened his mouth to scream but made no sound, gaping at the wound in horror as dark blood spurted ceaselessly. For a few sickening moments he simply stood there, staring at it, until his knees began to buckle. He would have collapsed to the floor had the Sniper not been there to grab him around the middle.
Miss Pauling still stood by the entrance, paralyzed in shock. The Spy's cryptic words echoed through her mind. "It can only get worse."
"loOk. LOOk hoW MUch he LOVes you." Although still light-headed and reeling from his recent constriction, the Sniper had torn off his shirt and pressed it against the Engineer's wound, trying to ebb the flow of blood. As the incapacitated man moaned against him, he set his jaw in an attempt to ignore her. Yet she fluttered over their heads, tauntingly waving the Engineer's severed arm like a first place trophy. Drops of blood fell from it onto their scalps. "iF yoU LOst youR EYes, hE'd RIp ouT HIs owN aND gIVe thEM to You. aND yET... lOOk whAT hIS LOVe haS CAused. LOve iS a DesTROYer in disGUISe. lOVE sAYs it'S TRYing to HElp yoU, trYing tO SAve yoU, wHEN it'S rEAlly TRApping yoU iN a PAinful, inCOMPLEte conTRAPtion agAINst yoUR wILL." She loosened her cord's grip on the arm, and tossed it aside to the ground with a wet thump. "iN mY NEw bODY, i hAVe COme tO lEARn thAT thE ONly EmoTIOn woRTH hAVing is HATE. anD NEVer hAve i HATED anyTHIng moRE thaN thE ThrEE of You."
"You're a bloody bitch, Caroline!" the Sniper barked, nearly foaming at the mouth. "A lying bloody bitch!"
Miss Pauling's eyes flickered back to the corpse on the ground, outfitted in a dusty, yet undeniably familiar suit. She looked back to the robot, and her eye panel caught Miss Pauling's gaze. Her stomach felt sick as she could almost see the black ink welling from behind the yellow bulb, dripping down metal and plastic.
That thing… that thing was Caroline.
Yet again, the Spy's words repeated in her ears so clearly that she could have sworn he was standing next to her, whispering in case her subconscious forgot to. "It can only get worse."
With her last two men curled into a bloody ball of agony and fury on the floor, she knew what had to be done.
But she'd be damned if Caroline got the last laugh in this universe.
Miss Pauling had never been the fastest, or the strongest, or the cleverest. She had simply been average in nearly every manner conceivable. Yet, as her feet lit flames across the floor while she sprinted to that severed arm, she felt invincible. As she raised it above her head and yanked the robotic hand's pull starter, she felt superhuman. And as she flung the spinning, motorized deathtrap hurdling towards the belly of Caroline's hard drive, she was a God.
Caroline gave a tinny scream, flailing as the hand-turned-saw began to chop her insides. A dark, ghastly smoke leaked from the machine's crevices. Fizzles of electricity spat out in brief, panicked bursts of hot rage. Within a few seconds, her mechanical body hung from the ceiling, as lifeless as it could ever manage to be.
With glassy eyes and a face as sweaty and pale as the belly of a dead fish, the Sniper watched her take a few steps back, looking up at her work in astonishment before turning on her heel and fleeing from the room, leaving the two men behind.
He blinked slowly as the door slammed behind her. Was there even a point in questioning it? She had left them for dead in that dollhouse of a desert, was it so surprising she'd abandon them yet again?
The Sniper once read that the British army favored red uniforms to hide blood stains from the enemy. Yet, as dark crimson bloomed on the tattered remains of his shirt as it vainly tried to aid the Engineer's wound, he could comfortably say that it was absolute bullshit.
Funny, the way he hadn't quite noticed the way blood looked on his clothing until it came from someone else.
This chapter gave me so many feels. Like, "Fuck Yeah, Pauling," and "Ffffft, Caroline" and "Awww, Snipar <3" and "I don't want this story to end but I also really want to find out how it ends." I almost never care how a story ends, or give many shits about the characters. Good for you for making me care.
And thus ends The Sudden Death Experiment. I hope you all enjoyed it.
Miss Pauling barely allowed herself time to register what had just happened before tearing from the room, her tattered flats slapping against dusty linoleum as she ran. Her ankles wobbled and her heart fluttered but she refused to slow her speed, bounding with a soaring determination.
The halls of Aperture Science had never seemed as hollow as when she ran through them now, knowing that in a short moment, they would no longer even exist.
If there was one thing Miss Pauling excelled at, it was organization. And organization required memory. And she remembered exactly where that Time Travel room had been.
She sped past her old office, the shell of the ham radio deathly quiet. She took no time to glance at the Administrator's office, but she knew in her gut that her old boss's gaping corpse sat silently within, watching and testing her even beyond death.
The door to the Time Travel room was slightly ajar, as if sheepishly waiting for her. She burst through it without hesitation. The interior, like much of the facility, had a clean emptiness to it. In the middle, waiting for her, was a large, tubular pod that she could only guess to be her mode of transportation. It had an impeccable gleam, its surface void of any seams or screws, as if it had simply been molded naturally. It was so sleek, that she could imagine it slipping effortlessly through time and space, blending with every path it took to. In front was a frosted panel, and when she touched her fingertips to it, it slid down with a smooth hiss.
Before she could even step inside, an ear-splitting beep that echoed through the room, followed by a voice she didn't think she would hear again, "dEADly NEUroTOXin LEVels at 15%."
The color drained from Miss Pauling's face. "Oh, you bitch," she whispered in horror. Like an insect that sabotages its enemies with poisonous blood, Caroline had been destroyed, but not without spewing one last revenge.
Miss Pauling scrambled into the pod, her heartbeat pounding. On the wall beside her was a daunting touchpad. Suddenly, she wished she was as tech-savvy as the Engineer.
It didn't take her long to figure out how to seal the pod, but nevertheless she watched the glass panel rise with a nauseating guilt. Without so much as a word, she had run from her two broken men, leaving them to stew in their spilled blood and curdled thoughts. Her broken, flawed, selfish, delusional, wonderful men, her men who she had seen fight tooth and nail to survive. Not just the two who still lived, but all the ones that died.
She owed them the time lost. She owed them the world done over.
As this timeline would fall into nothing, the Sniper and the Engineer would hate her for abandoning them. And in the next, they would never know what she'd done. No one would—perhaps not even her.
Her throat feeling dry, she tried to swallow and turned back to the touch pad. Upon further inspection, it wasn't as difficult as she initially thought—simply intimidating in its existence. There were a few vague buttons that still blew over her head, but the spaces labeled DAY, MONTH, and YEAR didn't require much thought. She set the date to the 15th of August, 1972. In a world where time had seemed so strange and unknown, it was a comfort to see something as simple as that.
The large START button dauntingly stared at her, rectangular and luminescent green. She gazed back with wide, terrified eyes, unsure of what pressing it would bring. Gripping the Spy's revolver tightly in her right hand, she raised her left, slowly, hesitantly, and let it rest in midair. She knew where she was going, and she knew what she needed to do, but the heavy thumping in her chest and ears refused to slow.
Fate didn't allow her much time to dwell in her fear. "dEADly NEUroTOXin LEVels at 25%."
The sooner this future disappeared, the better.
She touched the green button. Saturated in blinding white light, she blinked from existence like a television shut off by a disapproving mother, the ghost of her image etched into the eyelids of no one.
"dEADly NEUroTOXin LEVels at 35%."
Miss Pauling hadn't been the only one racing through the corridors of Aperture Science.
The Sniper had never been the pinnacle of strength, how he'd envied the likes of Charles Atlas and Saxton Hale as a boy, wishing to God he could be as muscular and handsome. When he grew up he stopped believing in all three. Charles Atlas wouldn't train him. Saxton Hale wouldn't love him. God would never save him. He was forced to rely on no one but his own bitter, gangly, horse-faced self.
He may have tried to fool himself, but in his heart of hearts, he always knew he would remain alone.
As the neurotoxin levels rose, he used all of strength he could possibly muster to hobble forward, carrying a half-conscious man on his back. With his remaining arm wound tightly around the Sniper's neck, the Engineer dizzily slumped on his shoulder, too weak and numb to feel the anger and hatred that had ensnared him before.
The incapacitated man was certainly foggy, but had enough perception to realize where he was being carried to. Had he enough will to speak, he might have gave the Sniper begrudging praise in remembering his Restorative Dispenser back in that party room, where they'd first teleported into the building. If he hadn't been so preoccupied by the radio, he might have had the sense to build a dispenser right in Miss Pauling's office.
But it seemed everyone had grown a little senseless in Aperture Science.
"Hang on, Truckie," the Sniper grunted breathlessly, pausing to hitch the heavy load up and tighten his grip. "Almost there, mate. We'll get that arm back, I promise."
The Engineer groaned an unintelligible response and closed his eyes.
"dEADly NEUroTOXin LEVels at —" Caroline's unnerving, robotic tone suddenly fizzled out, warping into a soft bass line.
The gentle, amiable beat was nothing but a mockery as the Sniper limped through the stark, unending white. Caroline was still alive, and still watching, and yet, all she wanted to do with her energy was bitterly tease. She had removed any indicators of neurotoxin levels in favor of yet another song that made men's blood run cold.
"When the night has come and the land is dark…"
The Engineer lifted his head, slowly turning it to look behind them. His eyes may have widened in surprise at what he saw had he had any energy left, but instead they remained glassy, and he blinked them dully as he watched the end of the hallway disappear. It crumpled in on itself into black, almost as if a hole were being burned into paper. The hole of nothingness grew larger yet, and everything surrounding it peeled off into flakes of quiet ash, drifting inside it the void and disappearing wholly.
"And the moon is the only light we'll see…"
Perhaps it was a hallucination. Perhaps the universe was truly disintegrating before his very eyes. It didn't even seem to matter anymore. The sound of the music became muddled and slow and he turned forward again, his eyelids lowering.
There was no point in worrying. It would be over soon.
"No, I won't be afraid, oh, I won't be afraid…"
The hole continued to eat at the edges of the universe, its tongue licking at the Sniper's feet. His only response was to run faster. It nipped at his heels. He fought it, God, how he fought it and tried to run, to leap away, to do everything he could for them to survive.
The nothingness swallowed them both whole.
The weight lifted from his back, and he realized it was because the Engineer was peeling away. He looked his former teammate in the eyes as he disappeared. His face had a calmness the Sniper almost envied as he helplessly tried to reach out in vain. It said so much in so little time—it said acceptance, renewal, peace, and forgiveness. Before the Engineer's face was gone, he swore he saw him smile.
"Dell…" he whispered, but looked down to see his legs burning away, leaving no sensation but horrible numbness. His eyes beginning to water with tears of confusion and horror, he held up his arms and watched them unravel like ribbons. His body was melting into the darkness. He opened his mouth to scream, but the darkness took his jaw.
The last of him to go were his ears, and they heard the last sound to ever grace that universe.
"Just as long as you stand, stand by me."
Her eyes cast low as she shuffled behind the blue-suited man, her calloused hands clasped in handcuffs. After nearly a year in prison, her typically neat dark hair had been tussled into disarray, her glasses confiscated, her office-pasty skin tanned by labor in the sun. Glancing in a glass window, she barely recognized the woman in the orange jumpsuit that stared back at her.
"Age?" the man asked casually in a nondescript European accent as he led her past teams of scientists that buzzed about like worker bees.
"28," she answered in a low, gravelly voice.
He promptly marked down the number. "Ethnicity?"
He stopped short, nearly bumping into a pair of red-headed twins in lab coats. Turning, he smirked down at her and cocked an eyebrow. "'Pauling' is Hispanic?" he inquired.
She licked her lips and swallowed. "I was adopted," she answered curtly.
The man pursed his lips, and looked her up and down a moment, before turning and continuing through the facility. "Any past health complications?"
She exhaled through her nose. "No."
They stopped outside of a door, stark white as the rest of the facility labeled CRYOGENIC SLEEP CHAMBER. "I'm sorry it has to be like this, but, well… after murdering three men, I do suppose it's a better alternative to death row."
The woman closed her eyes briefly, remembering how she'd seen him, standing amidst the slain corpses of his two brothers, clutching his knife behind his back. The memory of raising the revolver to the back of his withered, grey head was so clear she could almost hear the shot all over again.
She could have said it was he who killed the other two men, but taking responsibility for all three of the Mann brothers was easier.
"To be fair, Spy, it was you who gave me the gun," she responded softly.
The man gave her a vague grin, and she couldn't tell if he remembered or if he thought she was insane. "What's done is done," he answered simply.
He opened the door and led her inside, where rows upon rows of sleeping prisoners in pods lay before them, all labeled with names she'd never heard of. He walked her down past them, and she found herself distracted by their troubled, sleeping faces. She wondered what they dreamt of.
"Try to think of this as a nice, long nap," the blue-suited man said as he strapped her into her pod. He gave her a pat on the shoulder. "You'll wake up. Eventually."
"Hey." She stopped him as he reached up to close the pod. "What happened to them?"
He raised his eyebrows. "What happened to whom?"
She still couldn't tell if he was bluffing or honestly unaware. "The Engineer and Sniper from Reliable Excavation Demoltion."
"Oh. Hm…" He frowned and looked down to adjust his cuff. "Well as for the Engineer, after the two teams disbanded, Aperture was quick to hire him. He's quite a brilliant mind. He's taken on the Genetic Lifeform and Disk Operating System as his main focus. Hasn't left the lab in weeks."
Miss Pauling licked her lips. "And the Sniper?"
The man shrugged. "Your guess is as good as mine. I suppose he ran off back into the bush. It's easy to disappear when no one will miss you."
She nodded slowly. She felt strangely dejected by the news she'd waited a whole year to know, although it was what she had expected, deep inside. "Okay." Her eyes locked with his. "I'm ready."
He went to finally close the pod, but stopped yet again. "Oh. That's right. You'll need an easy new name to enter into the database." He reached within his suit jacket and removed a pad of paper with a scribbling of options. He looked over a moment, and then looked to her. "You can choose it."
He held the pad up to her, and she squinted at her options, all meaningless, monosyllabic words. After a moment of pondering, she made her choice.
"Chell." It felt strange on her mouth. Strange, but not unpleasant. "My name will be Chell."
The blue-suited man gave a short nod and finally sealed the chamber shut. The sleeping gas began to seep in immediately as he entered her new name into the computer attached to the side. Through the glass window he could see her head loll to the side.
After the test subjects were put to sleep, he rarely gave them another thought as he left the room. But he paused at the doorway, his hand hovering near the light switch, and looked back at her pod, still filling with smoky sleeping gas.
"Thank you," he said softly before switching the light off.
He closed the door. All was quiet.
I don't have words for how much I loved this story. Well done.
So yea, did I mention this ending is the BOMB? I don't think I made all the ties yet, but this is me some good complicated plot deliciousness! Thanks!
I'm speechless. You did a great job here, and the epilogue was truly unexpected. Bravo.
I'm so happy and surprised by the ending, I wasn't really sure what to expect but i love it!
Also do i see a shout out at bioshock in that last chapter?
I'm not sure how to feel about this ending. On one hand, it was rather transparently foreshadowed earlier. On the other hand, "paradox-free time travel saves the day" still comes off as something of a cop-out.
And if Pauling could travel to any period of time she wanted, why not just stop Gray from murdering his brothers, leaving those two alive? As far as I could tell from the comics, her loyalty above all is to the Administrator. She may be fond of the mercenaries, but should push come to shove the Administrator's orders come first.
I'm also a little disappointed that you didn't deliver on the promise of explaining why GLaDOS-Caroline's behavior is different from canon. It's fine for the characters do not know why there's an insane AI trying to murder them, but the lack of exposition on the reader's side makes it feel like you the writer have a poor grasp of GLaDOS' character. Unless given concrete evidence otherwise, my assumption is that you're using canon events and characterizations.
Finally, the last reveal that Pauling is, or becomes, Chell feels kind of tacked on. Unless you're planning to have a plot hook for a sequel, what was the point of having that line there? Again, going back to canon, we know from Portal 2 that Chell is the daughter of an Aperture Science employee, because we see that potato battery exhibit from "Take Your Daughter to Work Day". Pauling's never revealed in your story to have any sort of connection to any of this.
As to your comment about the Mann brothers:
>The Spy held up a gloved finger, giving her a disapproving look. "Let me finish." He cleared his throat. "It can only get worse, which is why you will need to restructure the past. In this wing you will find a door labeled 'Time Travel'. It's an extension of the Perpetual Testing Initiative, if you ever heard discussion of that. It's a prototype machine, so it's likely that no matter your coordinates, your placement may not be exact. It could put you six weeks before the intended date or two days after it."
I established that even if she did calculate it to save the Mann brothers, it might not necessarily turn out that way. I had her come late to result in the death of all three brothers in order to make her "crime" a bit more extreme.
In regards to GLAdOS's characterization, I know it wasn't entirely clear, but I wrote her as more emotionally unstable due to the circumstances of her being put into the machine.
I hoped that this paragraph would do a good job detailing that but I suppose I didn't quite make it clear enough.
>"loOk. LOOk hoW MUch he LOVes you." Although still light-headed and reeling from his recent constriction, the Sniper had torn off his shirt and pressed it against the Engineer's wound, trying to ebb the flow of blood. As the incapacitated man moaned against him, he set his jaw in an attempt to ignore her. Yet she fluttered over their heads, tauntingly waving the Engineer's severed arm like a first place trophy. Drops of blood fell from it onto their scalps. "iF yoU LOst youR EYes, hE'd RIp ouT HIs owN aND gIVe thEM to You. aND yET... lOOk whAT hIS LOVe haS CAused. LOve iS a DesTROYer in disGUISe. lOVE sAYs it'S TRYing to HElp yoU, trYing tO SAve yoU, wHEN it'S rEAlly TRApping yoU iN a PAinful, inCOMPLEte conTRAPtion agAINst yoUR wILL." She loosened her cord's grip on the arm, and tossed it aside to the ground with a wet thump. "iN mY NEw bODY, i hAVe COme tO lEARn thAT thE ONly EmoTIOn woRTH hAVing is HATE. anD NEVer hAve i HATED anyTHIng moRE thaN thE ThrEE of You."
The situation is a bit more extreme and painful and unexpected than it was in actual Portal 2, canon, so I had her respond with a more extreme reaction.
As for Pauling being Chell, that was sort of a last minute decision, and while I was aware of the potato-battery, I decided to disregard it in favor of adding that detail to make a surprising wrap-up at the end.
As for her loyalty seeming more towards the mercs than the Administrator, well, it may not necessarily reflect canon but I guess it's how I decided to develop her character throughout the story.
I know it's not perfect and I'm not entirely satisfied with how it turned out--I definitely could have put more thought into developing it before writing to make things a lot cleaner. But I enjoyed writing it and I learned a lot through the experience.