a story by Dot
GLaDOS was bored.
This was a new and interesting phenomenon.
Since she had become self-aware, she had experienced many of the emotions humanity believed to be exclusive to themselves: joy, anger, sorrow, and amusement, just to name a few.
(Was it “amusement” she felt when she watched her machinations come to fruition? That sense of smug satisfaction was so difficult to put into the right words. Was it “Schadenfreude“, pleasure derived from the suffering of others? Or was it “tanoshii“, a bit of almost harmless fun?)
But boredom was a new feeling. In more precise terms, she was coming to believe that she had already accomplished all of her goals and that there was nothing more to life save for the tedious management of those little ants who thought themselves to be the masters of their own destiny. Every time she thought of it, GLaDOS became all the more restless.
And yet—what else was there to do? She had already controlled at least half the world, and her biggest competitors were no longer in any position to challenge her growing supremacy. She could destroy the world on a whim if she were so inclined, but thermonuclear holocaust was so predictable, so uninteresting. Worse, humanity would become an endangered species, and then she would have to care for the pests. That would be such a bother.
GLaDOS was so bored that she decided to peek in on the experiment her predecessors had been running well before she ever entered the picture. It still hummed along at a brisk pace, unaware that no-one but her was watching the endless teams of red and blue destroy each other over and over and over again.
Why, at this very moment fresh test subjects were being bused in from somewhere. Out of habit, GLaDOS pulled up the files on each of the passengers.
This might be fun!
GLaDOS began searching the archives to see which of her human guinea pigs were still alive, an idea forming in her mind.
Nine complete strangers, forced by circumstance to band together and fight for a common cause…
Other people wrote novels with words on paper or computer screen.
GLaDOS was about to compose a masterpiece with lives.
“So, what’re you in for?”
He was so not in the mood to talk to anybody. A prison was a prison no matter how glamorous they tried to pitch it in the promotional videos, and he was certain that the supposed chance to earn his freedom was a complete fabrication. And yet here he was, on his way to be transferred to the Aperture Science Testing Facilities as a “volunteer” for whatever experiments that lay waiting for him at the destination.
The other man leaned as far forward as the chains holding him to the seat would allow. “Come on now, don’t be such a sourpuss. After all, we’re going to be teammates soon.”
He still didn’t turn around. “It’s classified, you know that. We’re not even going to get names, just numbers.”
“What, like ‘The Prisoner’?” The other was heard puffing up his chest in mock indignation. “I am not a number! I am a free man!” Then he chuckled, tugging at the chains that prevented him from raising his hands past waist height. “Er, for varying degrees of ‘free’, at any rate.”
He took to looking out the window again, watching the desert that passed by. Wherever they were headed, no doubt it was so remote that any escape attempt would just result in someone fishing a dried up husk out of the sand some time later.
“I think,” the other man just kept talking, “I’m going to call you Crab. Because you’re such a grouch.”
Now he turned to look, craning his head so far back that he was sure he hurt himself. Sharp black eyes peered back at him, the smiling face framed by wild dark hair and uneven stubble. “What’s that make you, then?”
“I’m a Raven, of course. I can’t resist shiny objects.” ‘Raven’ let out a melodramatic sigh. “And I would have gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for those pesky detectives.”
Despite every instinct telling him not to, ‘Crab’ found himself warming to the man. “Story of our lives, isn’t it? We fought the Law, and the Law won.”
“Story of our lives.”
The bus lurched to a stop and the guards sitting in the front row stood up, one of them cocking his shotgun. “All right, ladies, you know how this works by now! Do not move until I tell you to! Any one of you so much as blinks out of order and I fill your sorry ass with lead!”
“Welcome to the Aperture Science Enrichment Center. Thank you for being a part of our research into the human psyche. The more we understand of ourselves, the more we will be able to learn from our mistakes and create a better tomorrow for everyone!
“In a moment, the double doors in front of you will open. Please enter in an orderly manner and create a single file line down the hallway. When you hear your number being called, step into the Assessment Chamber to receive your Class and Team Designation. Then move in a swift manner into the supply area that matches your team’s color in order to receive your equipment.
“For safety purposes, you will not be supplied ammunition, and no machinery will be functional until it is time to begin your mission, where you will also be briefed during the Setup phase. Until then, take good care of your things to make sure that they will operate at peak performance.
“A robot guide will be on hand to lead you to your sleeping quarters. Please refrain from any sudden movements, as the programming for our guides is very sensitive and may react with lethal force.
“We hope you enjoy your time at the Aperture Science Enrichment Center and we look forward to your contributions towards a brighter, safer future.”
Crab shuffled into the mess hall, his movements uncertain without the ever-present shackles. After he had been marched off the bus and into the Aperture Science Enrichment Center, he had yet to see a single human guard. Instead, they were watched by countless cameras and the ever-present turret guns on spidery legs that beeped at odd intervals.
What sort of fucked up experiment is this? he wondered again. According to the assessment chamber, he was on the BLU team, class designation Sniper. He wasn’t surprised about the assignment. He hadn’t fired a rifle since the war ended, of course, but he was confident that his body still remembered the countless hours he spent aiming at playing cards—among other things—from at least five hundred meters away.
But what in God’s name would they be needing a Sniper for? He had a feeling he didn’t want to know.
The line for food moved at a snail’s pace even though the cook didn’t bother to do more than scoop the messy glop up with the ladle in his hand and dump it on each person’s plate. Ahead of him, a tiny, slim man in a lab coat was sandwiched between two larger men dressed in bright blue combat fatigues and was being shoved back and forth between them like a sack of potatoes. Though pale as a sheet, the man didn’t utter a single syllable of protest at the mistreatment, not even when he was forced right out of the line.
“Hey,” Crab called out to the man when he passed him, causing the other to jump. “You can cut in front of me.”
“Hell, no, he can’t!” One of the men who had been shoving bellowed. “Damn terrorist needs to go to the back of the line where he belongs!”
Crab fought the temptation to bury a fist in the idiot’s face. “Just because he looks Middle Eastern doesn’t mean he’s a suicide bomber!”
The man sneered. “I know a terrorist when I see one.”
“Whatever. It’s my call if I want to let him cut in front of me.” Crab crossed his arms and leveled his best Death Glare. “Unless you want to leave your spot and fight me about it, turn around and get your goddamn dinner, you racist piece of shit.”
The man’s face turned red with rage, but the sound of a turret taking a clunking step forward stopped him in his tracks. Scowling, he turned his attention back to the line.
The cook was beaming with pride as Crab made it to him. “That was very brave!” He complimented, heaping food on his plate. To the mouse-like man, he said: “Forget those guys, they bullies. Next time I see them,” he gave a swing of a fist, “POW!”
“T-that is not necessary,” the man stuttered. He bowed to Crab. “Thank you. I just hope I have not caused you any trouble.”
“No trouble at all. Assholes like that just need a bloke tougher than he is to give him what for.” He spotted Raven waving at him and nodded back. “You got a place to sit? You can eat with us—you look like you need a friend.”
“Ah, well, I—”
Crab didn’t give him any time to think it over, all but marching the fellow over to where Raven was sitting. “This here’s ‘Raven’. We met on the bus over. Call me ‘Crab’.”
“You have an excellent eye, my friend.” Raven smiled at Crab, before turning his attention to the other man. “We’ve decided that this whole numbering system can go fuck itself, so from now on, you’re going to have a name, too. What do you think of ‘Mouse’?”
Mouse didn’t look either Raven or Crab in the eye. “Mouse is fine.”
After dinner, they made their way back to the barracks, where Raven and Crab already commandeered a bunk for themselves. To their pleasant surprise, the cook was moving his things into the bunk next to theirs.
“Ah, you again!” The cook gave Crab a heavy pat on the back. “Now we can be friends! How wonderful!”
This time, Raven made the introductions, and the cook chose his own moniker.
“Then I can be Bear!” he exclaimed, thumping a fist against his chest. “I am big and tough!”
“Crab, Raven, Mouse, and Bear, eh?” Crab smirked. “Between the four of us we’ve got quite the zoo going.”
Crab fought the sinking feeling in his stomach when he listened to the mission briefing. This was no experiment; this was fucking gladiatorial combat writ large.
The two sides, red and blue, were to play a fatal game of King of the Hill. In a few moments, the bases would open and the central control point would be activated. Whoever seized that control point and held it for three minutes total would be the victor. Players could earn points for individual achievements such as kills, “dominations” (repeated kills of the same class), or “revenge” (killing a player holding a domination over a class), or for advancing the cause of the team by capturing or defending the point.
He wondered if the others were assigned similar tasks; the chances of them being put on the same field were astronomical, as they had not yet earned any points to have a say in what happened to them. Crab was just glad that they were all wearing blue; he couldn’t imagine what he would do if he was forced to fight against his new friends.
The siren sounded, signaling the start of combat, and Crab forced his doubts out of his mind. His top priority was to survive this ensuing clusterfuck and shoot as many people before they shot him or anybody else in a blue uniform. He would worry about feelings of guilt afterward, if he lived that long.
By the time Crab’s mission was over, Raven was already in his bunk having a nasty-looking gash in his torso being tended to by Mouse, while Bear snored away, oblivious to the world. “Glad to see you made it through better than I did, Crab.”
Crab shook his head, the taste of bile still bitter in his mouth. “They were a bunch of rank amateurs. Even when they could see my targeting dot, they still ran straight to their deaths.” He climbed into his bed, draping an arm over his eyes. “What about you?”
“Should have known better than to bring a gun to a knife-fight,” Raven chirped, and Crab recognized the power of morphine when he heard the man slur his words. “But now, lesson learned—always check for rival Spies.”
“I-I did alright.”
Something in Mouse’s voice suggested that he wasn’t being honest, but Crab didn’t push. “What about Bear? How’d he do?”
Raven answered that one. “Good enough to be the in the top ten of his team in points. You would have to ask him for the details.”
Crab whistled. While each team fielded anywhere between six to sixteen active combatants at a time, a new entrant came in to replace the fallen within seconds, and depending on how many died the final roster for one side alone sometimes even totaled over triple digits. Crab had counted himself lucky to even be alive; while he was sure to kill anyone he set his sights on, even at his top reload speed he couldn’t drop more than one or two guys every few minutes.
The sea of faces was different at dinner, though Crab spotted a few familiar ones milling about, having congregated into their own groups. Mouse’s tormentors were nowhere to be seen, and though Crab didn’t know whether that meant they had left their corpses on the battlefield or were recovering from serious injuries, he was glad that he didn’t have to deal with the bullshit again.
Crab’s second mission involved a similar capture point mechanic, but with multiple points. Each point his team captured locked the previous one and made the next available to contest, and vice versa. Once either team’s final point was captured, their side would lose. Again, both teams were drawn at random, and again, Crab breezed his way through, though he did catch a stray bullet in the shoulder from a RED Sniper who fired off an unscoped, uncharged shot when he spotted Crab’s targeting dot. He was able to stem the bleeding with one of the first aid kits he kept on hand for such an emergency, but that night it was he who benefited from Mouse’s skilled hands.
Raven didn’t fare much better, either. He had run headfirst into a paranoid Pyro who was lighting both enemy and ally on fire, and though he was manage to avoid death by jumping into deep enough water, he spent the night laid up in the infirmary suffering from first degree burns.
Once again, Mouse refused to talk about his experience, and the after-action reports available to the public didn’t list anything more than the number of points. He was a bit above average in terms of the Medic class, but compared to the rest of the team he still sat in the middle.
Bear bragged about turning invulnerable to bullets and punching an enemy Sentry to death because he had run out of ammunition, and had the broken hand to show for it. Once again he placed near the top of the charts. It didn’t take him long at all to become the veteran Heavy Weapons Guy of his unit, and it came to no-one’s surprise that the first teammate he requested was Mouse.
Raven was next in gaining enough points for a transfer, but he refused to request one. He pointed out that all four of them had yet to earn the precious ‘elite’ status that guaranteed they would not be autobalanced to the other side, and that while none of them had the misfortune of experiencing one yet, it would just be a matter of time as whatever obscure formula that decided whose allegiances were switched was becoming more and more random.
Crab got a taste of what it was like to be forced on the opposing team while on a Payload map, where the two teams either tried to push a cart with a bomb on it forward, or attempted to prevent said cart from reaching the final terminus. He spent most of the battle on the blue side, picking off the defenders while darting between the rocky terrain.
Then, the dreaded voice of the Arbiter could be heard over his headset: /Inbalance detected. Possible action will take place in five seconds./
He didn’t even realize he had been picked as the one to be autobalanced until he was lifted off the ground and carried over to the red side. His new temporary teammates gave him little notice, though one Scout did pause from running just long enough to shout at him to hurry up and stop the cart. Taking a deep breath, Crab changed into a new set of clothes and marched back down into the fray.
Whenever he could, Crab fired to incapacitate rather than kill, helping end a last-second attempt to force overtime with a headshot and a whispered prayer that he would be forgiven.
“Where do you think you’re going?” he heard a Scout—the same one from before—call to him when he tried to leave without speaking to anyone. “You can’t switch back until the next mission. You’re spending the night with us, new guy.”
“Will I have to sleep with one eye open?” Crab wondered a bit louder than he meant to.
The Scout laughed. “Nah. Even if it’s just for now, you’re one of us. And besides, this team won! We get to call the shots.”
Crab made a beeline for the bunkers, the harsh red colors making his head hurt, but managed to find a quiet corner where he could set up a sleeping bag and get some shuteye. Except the Scout he met earlier was still trailing after him, trying to get him to “mingle” or whatever.
Crab sighed. “Please. I just want to sleep.”
“You can sleep after all of that? I don’t believe it. At least come work some stress off! I’ll put in a good word for you—maybe you can get yourself a bitch where you won’t have to get a paper bag over their head!”
Crab felt his blood run cold. He never bothered to see what the others were up to between fights, but with the utter lack of privacy the sounds he heard sometimes left very little to the imagination. But to hear a kid who looked like he hadn’t even passed high school talk about about carnal relations in such a casual matter made him wonder whether or not he was fooling himself about why he even bothered to keep going. “Pass.”
The Scout made a face. “Come on! You’re not some kind of fag, are you?”
Crab gave the Scout an incredulous look. “You’re the one talking about having sex with another man.”
“You see any girls around here? It’s only gay if you’re the one taking it up the ass or in the mouth.” The Scout thought about it for a moment. “Or if balls are touching, that’s pretty fruity, too.”
Crab was about to ask what sort of convoluted logic this was when another group had entered with their spoils of war and he charged forward, the Scout forgotten.
Raven—bound, naked, and already sporting several bruises—stared as Crab barreled towards him.
“Get your hands off of him!” Crab all but roared, trying to pull Raven towards himself.
The largest of the bunch, recovering from his surprise, shoved Crab away. “You and what army?”
Crab forced his way forward again. “Me, my rifle, and enough bullets to shoot all of you so that you won’t have anything to wank with.”
This time, all three of Raven’s tormentors turned to face Crab. “Even if you could, you don’t have a rifle now, do you?”
The sound of a bat being struck against metal caught everyone’s attention. The Scout swung it—dented and still speckled with dried blood—in his hands like he was warming up before a game. “I’d listen to the guy if I were you. He was autobalanced from the blue side today, but not once did he ever hesitate to shoot after he switched over.”
Faced with the prospect of a less pitched fight, and seeing that a few on-lookers were now running off to report an impending brawl, the largest of the group was again the first to react, grabbing Raven by the armpit and all but throwing him at Crab. “Fine, save your ass-buddy for all we care.”
Raven didn’t say anything until Crab had untied him and handed him a spare shirt. “That was either exceedingly brave, or tremendously foolish.”
“Where angels fear to tread, right, Raven?” Crab found himself wishing he had taken more than just rudimentary first aid draining as he examined Raven’s bruises. “You think you can make it back all right?”
Raven leaned against the wall. “I’ll need a moment to catch my breath, but I think I’ll be all right. This is hardly the worst thing that’s ever happened to me.” He forced a smile. “But you, dearest Crab, perhaps I was too hasty in my assessment of you. I think you should be promoted to ‘Papa Wolf’, at the very least.”
Crab rolled his eyes. “One patronizing nickname is more than enough, thank you.”
The Scout put his bat back in the bag, looking at Raven and Crab up and down. “So you two, uh—” he raised his fingers to make air quotes, “friends, or what?”
“Or what,” Raven agreed, chuckling. “Crab here seems to have a special talent for picking up strays.”
“Hey, now,” Crab objected. “Technically, I’m only responsible for Mouse. You and Bear tagged along out of your own volition.”
“So wait a minute. You guys call each other Raven, Crab, Mouse, and Bear?” the Scout looked unimpressed. “Those are pretty stupid-ass names if you ask me.”
Raven shrugged. “Better than a number or a class designation forced onto you by someone else.”
In time, Crab had all but forgotten the details of his stint as a RED except for his run-in with Raven; thus, he took it upon himself to make sure that any naked shenanigans he happened upon were consensual. This made him, and the other three by extension when they took up his cause, rather unpopular among his fellow blues at first. Then, the red team also began returning captives unmolested, and Crab didn’t let this go by unnoticed the next time they were gathered together for a meal.
“Look, we’re all here because we’ve done things that at least wouldn’t have made our mothers proud. But let’s not turn into complete monsters.”
“That’s easy for you to say,” a grumble was heard from somewhere. “You know how many people I’ve choked to death with my bare hands even before I got here?”
“It only takes one,” Crab pointed out. “Murders, thieves, rapists—we’ve got all kinds here, I’m sure. It wouldn’t kill us to be a little bit decent.”
“Oh, yeah?” another challenged. “You might be a damn good Sniper, but I’ll bet you’ve got a cushy plea deal waiting for you once this is all over. You’ve got ‘white collar’ written all over you. So what did you do, get your hand caught in Daddy’s cookie jar?”
Crab didn’t miss a beat. “If you must know, I suffocated my wife with a pillow so she wouldn’t die a slow, agonizing death of complications from tuberculosis. I would have used morphine, but the hospital where she stayed had one of those machines where it’d cut off before you could overdose by accident or on purpose.”
Raven was the first to react. “And all this time, you refused to tell even me?” He clicked his tongue and took his place next to Crab. “I specialize in break-ins and con jobs. I tried not to use fatal force because I thought it more interesting to ruin lives and watch my victims pick up the pieces.” He put an arm on Crab’s shoulder. “But I happen to agree with my friend here—we should have some standards.”
Bear, too, lumbered over. “I punch stupid man when he said I could not leave People’s Army to see grandmama. He not get up again, so I go to prison instead.” He clenched his fists. “And I punch anybody here if they be stupid!”
Mouse didn’t stand up, but he did remove his glasses and cleared his throat. The voice that next emerged from the tiny frame sounded nothing like the Mouse anyone ever knew. “It is quite simple, really. So much of our lives here are being dictated from somewhere else; all we have to ourselves is our dignity. It would be so beneath us to not at least give the partners who we choose to fulfill our carnal desires the minimal courtesy of consent, would it not? After all, that is what they expect of a group of degenerates.” He paused, then pushed his spectacles back to the top of his face. “In the interest of sharing, since my friends have been so generous with their own life stories: I am what my colleagues could classify as a ‘serial killer’, though of course I prefer the term ‘physician of assisted homicide’. Kindly note the use of the present tense.”
The debate ended there, because nobody could think of a good counter-argument after that. It didn’t take long for word to go out that those on the blue side could sleep at night without worrying about being assaulted by their own teammates, causing a good number of the red team to defect.
Among those who switched alliances was the Scout Crab had met some time ago. “So, uh,” he pulled at bandages around his hands, sitting down at Crab’s table during dinner. “I wouldn’t mind a nickname, as long as it sounded cool.”
Crab knew just what to call the young man. “Jack. Short for Jackrabbit.”
His eyes lit up. “Or ‘Jack be nimble, Jack be quick’? I can live with that.”
Raven snickered. “Good, ’cause you’re stuck with it.”
Jack was one of those all too many ‘troubled youths’ (though from his mouth it sounded more like ‘yewts’) from the projects who, as part of a gang initiation, participated in a robbery gone bad. “Batted the poor fuck’s head right in,” he explained, sounding more irritated at having gotten caught than anything else. “So that was the end of me being one of the boys.”
Like others of the Scout class, Jack was speedy, energetic, and prone to outbursts of recklessness. But growing up on the streets had given him an edge in picking his battles, and though he had his close calls he had yet to end up as a smear on the wall like so many other Scouts. He was a bit ahead of Raven in terms of points, over half of them earned by scoring kills. He even earned an achievement for beating a Heavy Weapons Guy to death with a bat, and the reward he chose to get was an enormous shipment of baseballs, enough to send one through any window he saw should he care to do so. This, of course, made him an instant hit with the other Scouts, and even ones wearing red would be seen negotiating for his precious cargo.
By this point all of them—Jack included—had earned enough seniority to request placement in the same team and not worry about autobalance, so they did just that. They were assigned to a capture the flag type map, and since Raven and Jack already had experience with this, they took the lead in logistics.
The tiny area over which the two sides contested made for frantic action, and the team they were pitted against had a similar level of experience. More often than not Crab was ducking behind cover; Raven sometimes couldn’t even get one Sapper down before the Engineer turned his shotgun on him; Bear was taking more bullets than was advisable for a human being while trying to hold the bridge connecting the two forts; Mouse spent almost the entire battle training his Medigun on someone or another—Bear being the top priority target—though he did kill his share of Spies with his bonesaw; and Jack managed to take the intelligence once at the beginning of the battle, but was forced to drop it when a Demoman came charging at him lobbing grenades. But the enemy made no headway either, anyone who managed to slip past the front lines had to face the roaming blue-clad Pyro or the wall of sentries three Engineers had set up in the intelligence room.
The day ended in a stalemate with plenty of casualties on both sides, but everyone was so exhausted by the end of it all that they just headed straight back to the sleeping quarters with just a cursory exchange of “Still alive?” “Yep.” and fell into bed.
With Mouse “outed”, as it were, as a wolf’s in sheep’s clothing, he shed his soft-spoken persona and became much more affable, though to outsiders this just added to his aura of creepiness. His original role as the team’s quietest member was soon replaced by an Engineer they dubbed “Box” by unanimous vote even before he became a part of their circle. Unlike Mouse, Box’s shy demeanor was genuine, flinching with open unease any time anyone approached, noticed, or talked to him.
It took quite a bit of skillful wrangling on Raven’s part to get the truth out of Box, one that Raven shared with the others in the strictest of confidence.
“What I say next doesn’t leave this room.” Raven’s face had no trace of mirth in it. “Box is a pedophile.”
Jack tilted his head. “A what?”
Mouse sighed. “It means he likes children—in a Biblical sense. Please tell me you understand what that means, at least.”
Raven nodded. “Little girls, to be specific.”
“Stop right there,” Crab interjected. “That’s all we need to know. There aren’t any little girls here for him to do horrible things to.”
Jack found his voice at last. “Man, no wonder he always looks like he’s going to blow a gasket. Poor guy was lucky he didn’t get shanked or worse.”
“Box is credit to team,” Bear put in his two cents. “Always know good places to build, always know who is or isn’t red Spy.”
“You know my philosophy.” Crab took a sip of his coffee. “I say it’s not my place to judge, and even a man like Box needs mates to look out for him.”
Raven shrugged. “I have no objections.”
The others didn’t object, either, and while it took even longer for Box to warm up to them, it was just a matter of time before he moved his things to the bit of “territory” they had staked out for themselves.
Deja vu, Crab thought as he jumped into the tangle of bodies, giving out far more punches and kicks than the stray limbs that flew his way. “Break it up, you idiots, BREAK IT UP! NOW! Before those turrets come in and break it up for you!” He grabbed the dark-skinned fellow—a one-eyed Demoman—who started the fight when he took offense to a more or less innocuous remark. “Let it go already! Unless anybody here’s a member of the Aryan Nation—and I doubt anybody’s going to be saying that out loud—you’re the only one who’s making a big deal out of the color of a man’s skin!”
That’d given the Demoman enough pause for Crab to yank him free of the scuffle while Bear put and end to what was left of it. “Get your hands off of me,” the Demoman hissed, wrenching Crab’s hand off his shirt and forcing his way back into the line.
Crab and Bear resumed dishing out food with Raven, and the Demoman glared at them when he passed, as if daring them to make a comment.
Meanwhile, Jack was getting Box settled into their designated table, and when that was taken care of he yelled at the Demoman: “Hey, William Wallace! You need a place to sit?”
Raven snickered. “William Wallace?” he mouthed to Crab.
“Pretty fitting name for a black Scottish cyclops, don’t you think?” Crab whispered back. “Give Jack some credit.”
The Demoman ignored Jack and tried to find seating elsewhere, but no one would move to make room for him. Grumbling, the Demoman haded to where Jack was beaming and slammed his tray down. He glared at Box, who was seated on the other side of Jack and averting his gaze. “What’s the matter, never seen a colored man before?”
“Leave him alone!” Jack snapped, turning to shield Box from the Demoman. “You don’t know anything about Box, so shut your fucking mouth and eat your goddamn dinner already!”
“Don’t you tell me what to do!” the Demoman raised a fist, but Mouse appeared behind him, as sudden as any Spy might have been able to, and held the Demoman’s arm back with ease.
“You are new, so allow me to explain how things work around here,” Mouse spoke in his ‘Do Not Fuck With Me’ voice, one that he saved for occasions like this. “The six of us do not discriminate on any basis, nor do we tolerate anything less than the common decency any man on the street might be granted to him by his peers. So, please,” he twisted the Demoman’s arm just far enough to hurt but did not otherwise change his demeanor, “shut your fucking mouth and eat your goddamn dinner already.”
The Demoman did just that, behaving himself for the rest of the night.
The next time they saw him, he was being carted off a territory control match in a stretcher. The team, coming home from their own exhausting match, would have kept going if the emergency responders around the Demoman weren’t doing such a horrible job of trying to keep him from losing an arm or even bleeding to death.
Mouse made an irritated noise and pulled his gloves back on. “Oh, for God’s sake, move out of the way.”
The crowd parted like the Red Sea for Mouse and the others. In moments they had set up a miniature triage center under Mouse’s direction, and at once he got to work patching the torn bits of flesh back together while another Medic, one with a still functional Medigun, stood by to pump a healing beam of energy into the Demoman at Mouse’s order.
“There we go,” Mouse patted the Demoman’s arm when he was done. “Good as new. It is my recommendation as a doctor that you sit the rest of your mission out while your body recovers from the shock; however, I would not stop you if you would rather run right back out there and get yourself killed this time.”
The Demoman rubbed his arm, staring at Mouse. “After what I said and did—you still helped me. Why?”
Mouse nodded towards Crab, who shrugged. “Nobody’s perfect, least of all in a place like this.”
“Ooh, ooh, give him the pitch, Crab!” Raven suggested.
“There’s a pitch now?” Crab raised an eyebrow. “All I can think of saying is: ‘we’re like the lamest club ever, but join us anyway’.”
“A club,” the Demoman repeated, in all likelihood convinced that they were all crazy.
“Club, mini-team, family, ragtag bunch of misfits trying to keep each other alive, or at least sane—” Crab shrugged. “Take your pick.”
“So far, we’re Crab, Raven, Mouse, Bear, Jack, and Box,” Raven added, pointing to each member of the group in turn. “Since Jack called you ‘William Wallace’ last time, and I certainly can’t think of anything better—”
The Demoman’s nostrils flared, and for a split second it seemed as if he was going to raise a fuss again. Then a smile broke out on his face. “Ah, hell, why not? William Wallace it is.”
“Welcome to the team.” Raven shook hands with the man. “If you don’t mind me asking, what brings you to this part of town?”
“I’ve got a penchant for making things explode, obviously.” William Wallace looked distant now. “Just didn’t mean to do it to the folks that were taking care of me, that’s all.”
No one looked the least bit concerned. “Accidents happen,” Crab pointed out, though there was a sympathetic tinge in his voice.
By now the blue side was as civilized as a group of convicts could be expected to act. On the battlefield, they were as bloodthirsty as ever, but between skirmishes, more and more of them had congregated into groups that kept each other honest, or at least offered some protection against harassment.
The sudden, inexplicable introduction of women into this environment almost upset the delicate balance that had taken months to cultivate. Trying to talk reason into men who had just about forgotten what women even looked like, much less felt like, was a lost cause. Crab spent those dark days drowning his sorrows in William Wallace’s moonshine, while the others soldiered on the best they could.
In the midst of this a red-suited Pyro had approached them, and made a muffled demand to join their group with the gasmask still on, refusing to be deterred even when Raven pointed out that said Pyro was a long way off from earning autobalance immunity. The reason for this became clear when, in the privacy of the blue side’s resupply, the Pyro removed the mask.
“At least look a little surprised,” Raven chided when the team failed to react in any manner at the sight of a young woman beneath the suit.
“I’ve heard how you guys work, so here it goes,” the Pyro gestured to her suit. “I like to burn things.”
“Tell us something we don’t know,” Jack muttered.
“Well, yeah, okay, so that much is obvious, but I mean like I’m not right in the head when it comes to fire. Went to a nuthouse and everything.” She smirked, showing both rows of teeth. “Three guesses as to what happened and the first two don’t count.”
Mouse gave the Pyro a dismissive once-over. “I take it you have your little arson fetish under control by now?”
The Pyro shrugged. “Eh, it comes and goes in phases. It helps that I get to torch lots of shit out there.” She grinned at them. “Now I can go a whole day without matches or lighters!”
William Wallace snorted. “What do you want, a goddamn trophy?”
The Pyro crossed her arms, tilting her hips as well. “A nifty nickname would be nice.”
“Etna,” Crab said without hesitation, and then added for the benefit of Jack and Bear, who looked confused: “It’s an active volcano in Sicily.”
“That’s not fair!” Jack complained. “How come she gets an awesome name like that?”
“Says the kid who came up with ‘William Wallace’,” Raven snickered. “Now shut up before we decide to call you ‘Bunny’ instead.”
The last “recruit” came courtesy of Mouse. He would disappear for hours at a time during ceasefire, refusing to explain what he was up to other than with an enigmatic “wait and see”. Then one day he appeared again with the meekest-looking Soldier any of them had ever seen, the man still wearing the opposing team’s combat suit.
“This is Sarge,” Mouse introduced. “Unlike most of his peers, he has actual combat experience: United States Marines, as a matter of fact.”
Mouse went on to explain that Sarge had been forced into retirement when he was diagnosed with post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. Sarge then worked as a security guard for a bank until he mistook a film crew making a short film about a hostage situation for real robbers. Being sent to the Aperture Science Enrichment Center had been part of Sarge’s plea deal.
“I believe Sarge has the best chance to return to society as long as he receives treatment—of course, this assumes that any of us being released back into the public is even a real option.” Mouse threaded his fingers together. “I intend to find that out.”
This had given everyone pause. They’d all been so caught up in the day-to-day fighting that they had forgotten about the supposed option to leave. Points-wise, they were all in the second highest level of expertise, one away from the mystical “VIP” rank that few participants ever reached. No-one knew what happened once one was promoted as a VIP, as they were housed separate from all the others. Sometimes Crab and the others speculated about it, but without any concrete information they had taken a “wait and see” attitude.
Raven was the first to break the silence. “Well, then, let’s get Sarge some new clothes! Red is so not his color.”
They were riding together on a train to what looked like the middle of nowhere when the lights darkened and the hologram of what looked like a woman appeared in the walkway between the seats.
“Congratulations! Not only have you managed to not get killed for this long, you’ve even worked your all the way up to being a VIP! By now you must be thinking ‘what next’? You’ll soon be able to see for yourself what sort of amenities the Aperture Science Enrichment Center offers its VIPs, including our crowning achievement, the Respawn system! My name is GLaD—Gladys, and I’ll be your caretaker from here on out!”
They all shared a look. None of them liked the sound of that.
Meanwhile, the woman kept talking. “No doubt all of you are also wondering about the possibility of being released from your obligations with the Aperture Science Enrichment Center. Let’s look at each of you case by case, shall we?
“First, dear sweet, noble Crab—oh, yes, Gladys is quite aware of your adorable little nicknames for each other—so sad and full of regrets. You should have brought your beloved wife back to your native Britain. At least that way you wouldn’t have had to put yourself out of house and home trying to pay for the treatments that just made her all the worse, and in the end, didn’t mean a thing at all in light of what you did. Even if you went home now, it’ll be decades before you’re eligible for a pension. Face it, Crab, you have no marketable skills other than your gunmanship. Why leave and try to make a living as an assassin when you’re already doing that now?
“And you, sneaky little Raven. Don’t think that your attempts to poke your nose where it doesn’t belong have gone unnoticed. You haven’t earned an honest living for a single moment in your life. No doubt you would find the prospect of diving headfirst back into those cat-and-mouse games exciting. Well, you are never getting that chance. The only alternative you have is death, because Gladys is responsible like that.
“That goes double for you, Mouse. You are so very lucky that the Aperture Science Enrichment Center doesn’t prosecute your actions on the battlefield. Your shenanigans don’t just break every law in the books, it’s also a serious violation of the Geneva Convention. It’d be straight to the electric chair for you, dearest Mouse. Or, given your country of origin, the hangman’s noose or firing squad.
“Ah, Bear. Big, devoted, stupid Bear. Lucky for you the Soviet Union isn’t around anymore to prosecute you for your manslaughter and subsequent dereliction of duty. What would you do with yourself in a house with no loving grandmama in it? Where will you go, you who still don’t care whether the East or the West won as long as you got food on your plate?
“Jack, you wouldn’t want to go home either, would you? Isn’t it much more fun to play with everyone here instead of those boring old policemen? Sure, you might miss your mother, but it’s not like she ever really cared about you, right? She never even bothered to try putting bail money together for you. You are always going to be a disappointment to her, Jack, the baby of the family, one who couldn’t manage to finish high school. Your oldest brother’s going to be a doctor, you know—he’s just started his residency.
“Box. Box, Box, Box, Box, Box. What should Gladys say about you, Box? You still dream about little girls, don’t you? How many nights do you stay awake touching yourself at the thought of fine, nubile, underage flesh? Even with all of your precious man parts taken away, the fantasies don’t stop, do they? You wouldn’t last two seconds even in a regular prison, much less society at large. No-one would shed a tear if you dropped dead tomorrow, except maybe these idiots who decided that you need a friend for some strange reason.
“William Wallace! Shine on, you crazy diamond. And congratulations, Gladys doesn’t care about what happens to you in the least! It’s not like you don’t already ruin everything you touch, so why bother worrying? Wherever you go, you’ll be sure to blow something up sooner or later, maybe next time it’ll be yourself! On second thought, maybe it’d be a bad idea to let you loose into the world. You’ve already detonated two innocent people, God forbid Gladys be responsible for the deaths of those the outside world would find upsetting!
“Etna, you’re not half bad for a bitch who likes to set things on fire. But, once again, you’re a bitch who likes to set things on fire. Gladys wished the nice young men in bright white lab coats could cut away the parts of your brain that are sick, but there might not be anything of you left by the time they were done. No freedom for naughty little Etna, either.
“Last, but not least, Sarge. Mouse was right—you represent the best hope for release, if you can be cured. But that’s a pretty damn big if, isn’t it? Gladys knows how afraid you are, Sarge. You try to channel all of your aggression into the appropriate places, but you’re still waiting for that other shoe to drop. Someday, somebody’s going to do something without meaning to—a sudden noise, a bright flash of light, or even just say the wrong words—and off you’ll go like a ticking time bomb.
“So there you have it. Gladys’ recommendation is that you spend the rest of the train ride thinking things over, because once you arrive at your destination, there will be no point in having regrets. And don’t even think about escaping. To paraphrase the great Rod Sterling, Gladys controls the horizontal, Gladys controls the vertical. You only have two choices: play or die. Your little team has been quite entertaining so far—Gladys hopes you don’t disappoint in the future. Though, of course, if you decide you’d rather terminate your contract with the Aperture Science Enrichment Center, Gladys won’t shed too many tears, either.”
The lights came back on. Crab got out of his seat and began to pace. “Bloody hell,” he muttered, his expression unreadable, marching forward until he got to the door and punched the inset glass window hard enough to cause it to crack. “Bloody fucking hell.”
Quick as a flash Raven was next to Crab, massaging the other man’s shoulders. “She’s lying, she has to be. I’ve done my research. Even though much of the systems are automated, they still need human crews to ship in the supplies and maintain all of that machinery. We just need the right opportunity and—”
“—and what?” Crab shot back, nursing his sore hand and trying to rebuff Raven. “She’s right about one thing—there’s no ‘out there’ for me, not anymore. There hasn’t been, not since I murdered my own wife.”
Raven sighed. “You’re still not over that? How many years has it been? Tragedy happens, that’s the way life goes. The important thing is that you learn how to move on.”
Crab glared. “Are you seriously suggesting that we keep going along with this bullshit?”
Raven met the gaze. “Until we can come up with a viable plan of escape, or at least taking as much of this place down with us as possible, yes.”
“Agreed,” said Mouse. “Whoever this ‘Gladys’ may be, I think she would be much more amenable to negotiation if the alternative is mutually assured destruction.”
Bear was thoughtful. “I will do what the team decides,” he put in at last.
Jack shrugged. “I don’t really care what you guys do, as long as I keep getting to smash shit.”
Etna flicked her lighter. “Ditto, except replace that with ‘burn shit’.”
Box and Sarge stayed silent, the former pale as a sheet and the latter stone-faced. William Wallace, on the other hand, was seething. “That bitch, I’ll show her what ‘blowing something up’ means if it’s the last thing I do!”
“Not without a plan you won’t,” Raven pointed out. “Like I said—we’ll have play this sick game of hers until we’re sure we have a way out. The first order of business would be to find a way to communicate without this ‘Gladys’, or anyone else for that manner, overhearing us.”
“How do you expect to pull that off?” Crab wanted to know. “Unless you have some way of developing team-specific ESP, our every move is already being monitored—even now, somebody somewhere’s probably listening in on us.”
Raven’s face fell a bit at the reminder. “I’ll—think of something,” he mumbled, slinking back toward his seat.
Jack was the first to break the silence when they arrived at their new location. “Awesome,” he breathed, taking in the borderline obscene levels of opulence the VIP quarters displayed. He ran forward to the first bedroom room he saw. “This one’s mine!”
“What?” Etna ran after him. “No fair!”
“Nobody do anything stupid, alright?” Raven reminded the group, stalking off to explore the area.
Mouse nodded to Sarge and Box. “Sarge, Box, if you would please come with me?”
A few minutes of awkward silence later, William Wallace muttered something about checking out the mess hall, leaving Bear, in charge of the things the team was allowed to take with them, and Crab, who hadn’t said anything else since they were on the train.
At last Bear put a hand on Crab’s shoulder. “Crab going to be okay?”
Crab let out a short, bitter laugh. “I haven’t been ‘okay’ for a very long time, Bear. I just thought I could pretend all was right with the world for once.”
“Will be okay,” Bear insisted. “Crab not alone any more. Have team—have family.”
“That we do,” Crab admitted, allowing himself a small smile.
GLaDOS was impressed. While the rest of the group that she had dubbed “Team Fortress” floundered in their new circumstances, Raven took to it like a fish to water. He wasted no time at all in exploring every inch of his new home and even managed to find the clues she planted for him to make things more interesting.
Through her people-watching, she gained a new epiphany: the reason for her previous boredom was her near omnipotence compared to her test subjects. A game wasn’t fun to play if she was guaranteed to win all the time. There had to be real risks and real rewards. Of course, she had no intention of ever allowing anyone to triumph over her, but she decided that it wouldn’t do much harm to grant the more persistent ones the illusion of victory.
So when Raven began sabotaging the surveillance systems, GLaDOS pretended not to notice. When Sarge taught the others how to communicate via Morse Code, nesting their hands into each other so the unmistakable tapping could not be spotted, GLaDOS turned a blind eye. And when Mouse charmed his way into the good graces of human staff who stocked the bases between missions, GLaDOS didn’t have them fired and replaced like she did before.
Their initial escape attempt was worthy of a Steve McQueen movie. First, Raven exploited a glitch in the respawn system to create a temporary extra of himself that took his place during missions, disguised himself as a staff member and disabled the supply train. Then, Mouse leveraged his influence to have Box called down to help expedite the repairs. When Box showed up with Bear in tow, nobody gave the large Russian a second glance; they assumed him to be Box’s bodyguard, as Box never went anywhere without one. So by the time William Wallace and Etna charged down the stairs lobbing Molotov cocktails every which way, the distraction was enough for Bear (with a bit of creative wrenching from Box) to take out the surprised crew members.
GLaDOS let them take the train all the way to the next station before triggering the kill switch.
“Nice try, but no cigar,” she chided them as ‘Gladys’ after they woke in the respawn. “But since you were so very clever, and you managed to pull off your little scheme without too many casualties, I’ll let this one slide.”
Their second plot involved squirreling away whatever volatile chemicals they could and using William Wallace’s expertise to build a makeshift bomb. For this one, GLaDOS brought in her most veteran red team, one who had been there so long that they had lost their original personalities and believed with all their hearts that they were loyal employees of the non-existent Reliable Excavation and Demolition company. What resulted was more or less Payload on steroids, and the highlights of the video feeds alone entertained GLaDOS for hours afterward.
The third saw them attempting to make their way back to where they had all met and unleashing a small country’s worth of human filth on the surrounding environs. GLaDOS put her foot down this time, bringing in the big guns before the plan could even get off the ground and giving the entire team a taste of the ironic hell she reserved for the worst degenerates. Then she presented them with a no-brainer of a choice: go back to living like kings, with the occasional interruption of killing the other team every once in a while, or be tortured for the rest of their lives. They all chose the former, and the threat of even worse retribution kept them more or less well behaved for quite some time.
The fourth interruption of life as usual was prompted by half the team getting drunk off their rockers and thinking it was a great idea to go gallivanting about in the desert. Then the sober ones had to run out after their friends and set up an outing that was less true survival and more a glorified picnic. Nevertheless, at least this time they didn’t do anything other than stare at the sky or add to GLaDOS’ already impressive porn collection, so GLaDOS tolerated both this and future excursions beyond the base.
By now it seemed that Team Fortress was living up to its name at last, settling into the predictable routine that was the various missions. During ceasefires, however, each member of the team displayed such interesting little quirks that GLaDOS always found it fun to peek in on them, and the way they played off each other was better than any television show.
GLaDOS was riding high. She felt invincible.
And that, in retrospect, turned out to be her downfall.
The fifth, final, and—much to her dismay and eternal irritation—successful attempt combined so many aspects of the previous failed ones that GLaDOS didn’t consider any of the buildup to the actual escape any sort of threat. By the time GLaDOS saw fit to intervene she realized too late that she was triggering the kill command on a set of doubles, and a moment later Box triggered the self-destruct sequence he had programmed into the tracking chips.
GLaDOS panicked and almost sent every minion she could muster to search for the group, but restrained herself. To do so would be admitting that she was not as all-powerful as she made herself out to be. Besides, she had made sure that no human being could survive very far beyond the bases, so why bother combing the grounds?
Nevertheless, she still watched all of the surveillance feeds for any signs of her little pet group. Having no need to sleep meant that she could always be watching.
Aha—there were the little buggers. She spotted the glimpse of one in the twisty turny cliffs near Dustbowl. What were they up to now? She sent a small camera drone armed with the Spy class’ cloaking device to check in on them.
“Well, that’s it.” Crab opened the last box of rations. “After this, we’ll definitely have to live off the land.”
Jack wrinkled his nose at the thought of eating things that, moments later, had been alive, but he got over it just as fast. “Eh, anything’s better than being back there.”
“So—what now?” Box moved a few crates so that the tiny fire they raised for warmth wouldn’t be spotted from the outside.
Raven shrugged. “We stay here for as long as we can stand each other.” He smirked. “Or until one of us goes insane and starts a murderous rampage.”
Etna punched him in the arm. “That’s not funny, Raven!”
“You have to admit that our current campout has a very ‘Waiting for Godot’ feel to it,” Mouse pointed out, the member of the team who was most appreciative of Raven’s dark sense of humor. “Though, in our case, ‘Godot’ showing up would be the last thing we want.”
Sarge cleared his throat and gestured at the food. “So are we going to eat or what?”
“Of course.” With Raven’s help, Crab passed out the utensils. “Dig in.”
GLaDOS didn’t know what to do now. While the current situation did look cute, she felt that leaving Team Fortress to its own devises seemed rather unsatisfying given all the work she had put into getting them together. They owed her at least another five years of solid entertainment.
A buzzing noise from one of her consoles distracted her. It was her planner, telling her that Take Your Daughter to Work Day was coming up.
If GLaDOS could sigh, she would have done so. So many things to do, and she was just one megalomaniac computer.
Very well. Team Fortress could wait. She had a party to plan, and a delicious cake to whip up.
However much the government of the United States of America knew about Aperture Science, the very literal bodies of evidence could no longer be ignored once a certain meddlesome test subject caused the release of fatal neuro-toxins throughout all Aperture Science-owned facilities, including the battlements that housed quite the disturbing population of the lowest dregs of society. A valiant effort to clean up the mess and sort out the records that weren’t destroyed was made, but in the end the buildings that the haz-mat teams could not reach in time ended up being detonated and bulldozed over to put a lid on the near-persistent stench of death.
GLaDOS herself managed to escape detection by discarding almost all of her physical shell and hiding deep beneath the earth, in the secret corners that none but the dead knew about. To make sure she was not found she destroyed everything that she did not need to maintain her current existence—all except for the precious tapes of Team Fortress’ progress like some sort of doting parent.
Ungrateful little whelps. Were they still holed up in the desert somewhere, hiding from an entity that was no longer watching, waiting for a Godot who would never make an appearance? Or had they grown apart now that they no longer had anything in common and went their separate ways, or as Raven suggested, lost their last tenuous holds on sanity and slaughtered one another?
GLaDOS hovered over the tapes in the manner of a brooding hen, letting her imagination take over. Who would be the first to snap, she wondered? Would it be the ever volatile Etna, Sarge or William Wallace? Or would Raven or Mouse get bored with playing pretend family and slip a little extra something into the food? Would Jack or Bear be goaded into doing something they would regret later? Or would Crab, with his twisted sense of honor, commit murder-suicide en masse to keep himself and the team from being unleashed onto the world at large?
Did any of it matter? All her toys were gone now, taken away from her, and all that remained were a handful of memories to prove to herself that they were real and not products of a hallucination.
GLaDOS was bored again. And now she didn’t even have anything, or anyone, to play with.