Blue Sky

Meteors, signals, apologies, and that tricky little thing called humanity- four years after the events of Portal II, Wheatley's been handed a second chance, but it's not going to be plain sailing…

https://www.fanfiction.net/s/7434133/1/Blue-Sky

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DhFy4qZ0ah8

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10. The Broadcast

"Daddy..."

Marten Otten was a hardworking, blameless sort of man. The necessary everyday routines of his farm meant that he had to get out of bed before dawn six days a week as a matter of course, and so he probably didn't actually deserve to be woken up at three o'clock on a Sunday morning by a small, worried, blonde apparition draped in a blanket, but life just wasn't particularly fair sometimes.

"Mnngg. What's wrong, honey?"

"Garret Rickey and Chell and Chell's monster say they need to get into the field and they're sorry."

"That's nice... tell Mommy about it, okay?"

"Mommy's asleep," said the quilt bundled up against his back, with a hint of warning in its voice.

"And, and Chell's monster says he's sorry 'bout my window too but he only meant to wake me up," said Ellie, twisting a few locks of her hair carefully around Linnell's head, which was pinioned under her small arm. "And Garret Rickey says he wouldn't go start making a, a racket down there in the middle of the night 'cept he thinks he's on the edge of, of a- of a something. And also he said to ask if can he, uh, can he borrow the generator."

"Sure, honey," mumbled Mart, rolling over and tugging a little of the quilt back off Heather, who made an indistinct growling noise. "That's fine. G'back to sleep."

Ellie padded obediently out of her parent's bedroom and along the creaky hallway of the big farmhouse, back to her room. On Linnell's advice, she'd pulled on her favourite red wellies before getting out of bed- shards of glass glittered on her carpet in the glow of her skim-battery nightlight, crunching underfoot as she pushed her dolls-house into a better position beneath the windowsill, and climbed carefully up to peer out of the shattered hole in the pane.

"Daddy says yes," she said.

()~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~()

By the time the sun had made its first uncertain, deep-orange-red appearance over the horizon, a small crowd of curious people had gathered at the bottom of Otten's Field. Eaden folk might not have been night-owls, but they were generally early risers, and anything out of the ordinary attracted attention. They were used to Garret, but the hysteria that seemed to have gotten hold of him, the inclusion of Chell's odd out-of-towner friend, the yelling, and the constant thudding roar of Mart Otten's biggest generator, all added up to something out of the ordinary.

"It's simple!" yelled Garret, over the generator. Communication was further hampered by the fact that he was twenty-five feet up Foxglove's tangled structure, yelling through his welding mask at Wheatley, who was backed up against one of the tower's huge hooves. "I've made the connection, just come on up here and do your thing! See if you can interface with her!"

Wheatley swallowed. His enthusiam had lasted right up until the moment when he'd realised exactly what Garret wanted him to do, at which point it had evaporated like sodium dropped into water, leaving stark terror in its place.

"It's- it's high, that. It's unnecessarily high, really, very risky, you'd never get that past Health and Safety guidelines, would you, if there, uh, were any- why can't you come down here and do it?"

"What?"

"I said, why can't you come down here and do it?"

"I can't hear you!"

Wheatley took a deep, unnecessary breath.

"Why," he bellowed, with a massive shrug and accompanying eyebrow-lift, "can't you," he pointed, "come down here," stabbing another finger at the safe, unmoving ground at his own feet, "and do it," an involved sort of knot-tying flail around the back of his own neck, "question mark!"

"I told you! The main interface is up here!"

"Well, that was a pretty bloody silly place to put it, wasn't it? Amount of foresight shown there, nil! Wouldn't mind, only it's me that has to suffer for it! Can't you just run a cable down here and stick that into me instead? Sort of an extension?"

"What?"

Wheatley breathed in again. "Can't, you, run a cable, down here-"

At this point, Chell, who had been very patient up to this point, but was not enjoying the racket- or, come to that, being stranded so close to the centre of everyone's attention- pushed her way though the small crowd and hit the killswitch on the generator.

"-and stick that in me instead? Oh."

There was a gentle chorus of snickering. In the sudden quiet, Wheatley looked at the small group of onlookers as if he'd only just realised they were there, and tried instinctively to hide behind Chell. She could feel him quivering like a high-strung horse against her back, and it was only then that she realised how close he actually was to bolting. She gave him a gentle little push in the arm.

"Hey. You were fine with climbing before."

"I- I- what, Back There? With the- yes, I mean, course, course it is, but-"

She looked at him.

"-but, you were right there, then, weren't you, and, and anyway, we had to, didn't we, we had to climb all that, or else-"

"Never mind or else." she said. "If you fall, I'll catch you."

He looked down at her, twitchily, knotting his fingers around each other.

"I- I'd flatten you."

She shrugged. "Never bothered you before."

Wheatley stared at her. He wanted to say a lot of things. He wanted to say, why are you doing this, why are you making me do this, is it a test, is it the test? The last chance I'm going to get before you go whoops, didn't make the grade, sorry, Relaxation Centre Attendant it is? If it is, can you just tell me, so I can try extra-extra-hard this time?

He wanted to say, What you did last night did something to my head, don't know if you meant it to or not but I remembered who I used to be, and how he used to feel about you. And incidentally, I still sort of do- feel that, I mean, don't even know what it is but I do- and given everything that's happened, you absolutely have my permission to think that's hilarious...

And he especially wanted to say, what were you looking for in there? I know you, you never do anything without a good old solid reason. What was it? More to the point- did you, in fact, find it? Whatever it was, was it what you wanted?

He opened his mouth, looked into her serious, slate-grey eyes.

"...Right."

The small crowd watched him as he turned like a- well, like a robot- and stumbled over to the tower's nearest hoof-like foot. He was tall enough to get an easy grip on the central girder, just above the blackened curve of metal, and he curled one knee awkwardly up to his chest and braced his foot against the weldscars on the sloping surface. This felt like more than enough progress to justify a good rest, so he stopped, head down, the toe of one scuffed blue sneaker still planted firmly on the ground.

And then Chell stepped quietly up behind him, linked her hands together under the arch of his foot, and with her shoulder braced against Foxglove's hoof, boosted him up into the tangle of wiring over their heads.

Wheatley yelled, grabbed at something over his head which fortunately didn't give way, realised she'd let go of his foot, and yelled again. The wires swayed violently around him, and for about half a second he was ninety-nine point nine percent sure that he was going to fall and die, but the moment passed and his grip held and he realised that, despite the terror of the moment, he was still only about eight feet off the ground.

"I'm… fine! I'm okay, I'm fine-"

He wobbled. Garret, who had been watching from above, craned back down through the maze of wires and dishes and grabbed his splayed, reaching hand, and before Wheatley knew it he was sitting next to him on the highest supportable girder, the faces of the crowd a dizzyingly small cluster below, staring half-dazed at the glorious blood-orange lightshow in the clouds to the east.

"Hey," said Garret. He opened the laptop on his knees, fished the stripe-headed lead from one of the infinite pockets of his tool-belt, and grinned.

"Ready?"

()~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~()

Someone was saying something. He blinked, spun his optic upwards. An infinity of bare concrete walls and monitor screens and far-off slatted vents, a strange, looming shape, and in the foreground a human face which he quickly recognised as belonging to Dale, CA, Intern. It wasn't that hard to tell them apart, he'd found, as long as you focused on the most obvious details. For instance, Dale, CA, Intern, had tufty black stuff at both ends of his face, and puffy things around his neck, which he always pulled up over his ears whenever he thought Moss, D, Head of Research wasn't looking.

"...ready, I.D Core?"

"Re- ready? Haha, absolutely, you just try and stop me! I was born ready, amigo. One hundred percent... ready for what, though, exactly, you mind elaborating on that?"

"Firing up," said someone else, over an intercom which boomed out around the high, curved ceiling of the chamber. "Zero minus three minutes. Primary safeguards are go."

"This is it, I.D Core," said Dale, CA, Intern, picking him up by the handles and setting off across an echoing, grey-tiled floor. Other scientists hurried past, crossing the wide space, filling it with the hushed, dopplering sound of their voices. He caught a momentary glimpse of Moss, D, Head of Research, standing on a gantry at the far end of the room with another scientist with his hands spread on the rail next to a small, sticklike column with a red thing on top, shouting at someone. There seemed to be a lot of looking up going on, a lot of expectant glances in the direction of the strange, looming shape.

And at him. People were looking at him.

"Zero minus two minutes..."

"This is what you were built for," Dale, CA, Intern was telling him, and now the excitement in his voice was nearly tangible. They had reached the curving set of steps which led up to another gantry directly beneath the looming, cable-strung thing in the centre of the room, and Dale, CA, Intern climbed up to stand directly beneath its curving, scaffolded bulk. A technician- no labcoat, grey jumpsuit- reached down from the scaffold to take him from Dale, CA, Intern's upstretched hands.

"Easy, it's not a beachball you're tossing around there," Dale, CA, Intern said to the technician, in a sharp officious voice, cribbed in no small part from Moss, D, Head of Research. And then, in an undertone, "Go for it, Wheatley. Knock her dead."

"Her? Er- sorry- I, I, I think I might have missed something, something fairly vital here- what am I actually supposed to do?"

Dale, CA, Intern hesitated, then grinned a big reassuring grin and let go of his handles, leaving him in the technician's grip.

"Just be yourself."

"Zero minus fifty seconds," said somebody. He craned his optic up towards the technician, hoping that somebody else would provide him with a bit more instruction, but nothing was forthcoming. The technician simply adjusted his grip on his handles and climbed, one-handed, a little higher into the scaffolding which encircled the looming thing in the centre of the room, past the wheel-like axis and up towards the great ring of giant monitors near the ceiling.

"Oh, we're going up, are we? Okay, well- oh, um, this is quite high, isn't it? Is this absolutely necessary, or- no, you're not in a conversational mood, okay, I can see that, you're probably focused on, on climbing, don't want to distract you, you're doing a great job so far. Sterling job, of going... higher..."

The technician stopped climbing, and set him into something like his connector cradle back in the laboratory, except this one was brand new, not nearly as comfortable, and hanging about thirty feet off the ground.

He was beginning to think that he maybe didn't like heights all that much. He'd never been further off the floor than Dale, CA, Intern or Moss, D, Head of Research could lift, and it was different when you had a couple of reliable, grippy human hands on your shell or your handles. You felt safe, then, taken care of, and most importantly not at all like you could easily just slip from your socket and plunge thirty feet to your doom on a sterile tiled floor. Granted, he could see absolutely everything from up here- well, everything that wasn't obscured by wires or machine parts or giant monitor screens- and everyone else looked very small, down there, but in his opinion it wasn't really worth the view.

He was definitely starting to feel a bit sick, now, but he tried to push it aside, put it down to simple nerves. After all, it wasn't every day that a core got the chance to finally get out there and do what he had been built for, fulfill his primary function- find out, even, what his primary function was supposed to be! The fact was, despite all the tests and inspections and calibrations, he was still a little unclear, a little bit under-informed, on that point.

He remembered Dale, CA, Intern's pleased, excited expression, and immediately felt much better. Dale, CA, Intern was clearly looking forward to this; ergo, it couldn't be anything bad. End of story.

"Alright, it's fine, I'm fine. Just be yourself. Be yourself. Not a problem, I can do this. I've- I've got a sticker."

The technician made a few final adjustments, gave someone out of his field of vision a sober thumbs-up, and climbed down out of sight.

"Zero minus fifteen seconds," said the voice over the intercom. All the screens were displaying the same thing, now, a tumbling countdown on a glowing blue background, and the great uplit spots around the edges of the wall came on one by one, dazzling him, flooding the chamber with light.

"Ten. Five, four, three, two, one... zero. Hang on to your hard-hats, everyone, she's up."

He couldn't see that much, up here in this curving tangle of machinery, but he was aware of a deep, deep, grinding hum beginning somewhere underneath him, a rising bass note shivering through his casing and reverberating down into his innermost workings. It wasn't just a simple physical vibration- there was something else, a totally alien feeling in his mind. A sense that there was something else there- that he was connected to something much, much bigger than the tangible form of the looming structure around him, much, much bigger than this dangling bulk of wires and metal, and whatever-it-was kept rising, unstoppably, underneath him-

"Uh, what's going on? What's happening, what's that- aaahh!"

-growing, swelling, and it was huge, and something else as well, but he wasn't sure what it was because he'd never felt it before, all he knew was that it was sharp and clawing and incredibly powerful and he didn't like it at all, white-hot and terrifyingly intense and building under him like a tide, no, like a tsunami-

-and then-

-the Voice.

It was the loudest thing he'd ever heard. It filled the universe. He was blind with it, deaf with it, a tiny clump of nerves and terror buried beneath a crushing wave of sound. It blurred and flanged and strengthened, formed words and spat them out, each a stunning lightning-strike of choked, snarling outrage.

"w-w-w-w-w-w-w-w- whaaat iiiis- what. Is. This. What is this. THING."

Somehow, he stammered into speech. "Uh- uh- uh- hello! Can't- can't help noticing, you're uh, you seem to be, uh, I'm getting the impression, the, ah, the sort of vibe, that you're a bit upset right now for, for some reason. Which is fine! Absolutely fine, everyone feels out of sorts once in a while, but, um, can I suggest, though, that you try to sort of calm down, a bit? Maybe, maybe count to ten, or, um, think of something calming, calm thoughts like, uh, clouds, you know, or birds, little birds, maybe, or- what else, what else is calming- herbal tea? I mean, not that you can- sorry, not amazingly appropriate, since you don't have a- a mouth, that I can see, machine, obviously, but maybe you could ask one of them down there to make you some, and you could... look at it. And that might make you feel better! Worth a try, definitely worth a try, and I really would like it if you did, try to calm down, because, because a lot of people are watching me, right now, and I think I'm supposed to- ohhh. Oh, is that what I'm for, to keep you company? Cheer you up? Oh, wow, that might actually be it! Like a, a little friend for you! Uh- well! That, possibly, being the case... hello, friend! I'm Wheatley! Pleasure to-"

"... what… what have you done?" The Voice clenched like a fist, and he cringed. "This... this thing...in my head... it won't... it won't shut up, how- hhhhhow dare you-"

For a moment- for the briefest of moments- the Voice had sounded dazed, faltering, uncertain. But now it rose, screaming, surging, and he screamed as well in sheer terror as bright scattering blinding stars rained from the ring of screens above him, monitor after monitor exploding into static and blowing out, showering glass and smoke and sparks down on the scattering humans below.

"HOW DARE YOU PUT THIS TUMOUR IN MY HEAD!"

"Primary safeguards breached! Someone hit the killswitch!"

"It's not working! She's into the control grid!"

"Pull the plug! The whole network, kill it!"

"But-"

"Now, dammit, do it now!"

In another second, it was all over. The furious, flanging, raging howl cut off like the slamming of a door, the overwhelming bass hum stuttered and died, ebbing away to nothing. The massive structure strained, jerked, a last colossal spasm that smashed the bulk of it into the surrounding cage of scaffolding with slow, shattering momentum, making a sound like a truckload of steel poles being dropped into a quarry and sending warped fragments of metal and ceramic raining down, clattering and clanging on the chamber floor.

Silence. Through the haze of settling smoke and dust, the quiet sounds of people coughing and slowly climbing out from behind overturned desks around the walls, a shellshocked, dispirited sort of silence.

"Ohh… what… was… all that about?" He was upside down, still held in the gently-smoking connector cradle by his back port, hanging dizzily out into space at a forty-five-degree angle. His optic squinted muzzily down through the fizzing, sparking structure, rotated, focused, then jerked wide open, flaring panicky blue. "Wait, wait, how did I do? How did I- was- was that supposed to happen? Did I do alright?"

"Nice one, Moss," said someone else, wearily, somewhere beneath. "I think it was actually faster this time."

"Um, hello? Sorry, don't want to butt in, but, uh, I am still up here… hanging, really, hanging up here, it's a bit, um, alarming, can... someone get me down, please?"

"The concept is perfectly sound," said another voice, out of breath and coiled with barely-concealed irritation- Moss, D, Head of Research.

"Maybe, but the execution's useless. She nearly-"

"Well, Carter," snapped Moss, D, Head of Research, "maybe if you'd given me competent technicians to work with, instead of saddling me with a team of halfwit interns, you might be seeing better results. I'm sure you're familiar with the expression; you pay peanuts…"

"Dr. Moss?" That was Dale, CA, Intern, and he sounded more than a little hurt. "What-"

"Make yourself useful and page Cleanup. We're done here. And take those goddamn headphones off, you're contravening at least six uniform and safety codes and you look like a complete idiot."

"Sir- I- I… yes, sir."

"Okay, everyone," said the first voice, over the intercom. "Back to the drawing board, I guess. Shut down and head out."

"Hello?" he called, trying and failing to stop the rising panic he was feeling now creeping into his voice. Through the tangle of inert wires, he could see the scientists leaving, filing out into the anteroom beyond the chamber, fading whirrs and beeps as the secondary machines around the walls were shut down, and nobody was even looking at him now-

Moss, D, Head of Research was one of the last to go, already scribbling furiously on a clipboard and arguing over his shoulder with the human he'd called Carter, pausing at the door just long enough to snap at Dale, CA, Intern, who was skulking resentfully at his heels.

"Get the lights."

"Yes, sir."

"Uh- nonono, wait, wait- Dale! Dale, don't- hang on, don't do that, don't do that, I'm still up here! Don't-"

CHUNK. CHUNK. CHUNK.

Darkness advanced, spot-by-spot, across the walls, until at last the only source of external light was a dim glow from the antechamber, the long bridge beyond echoing with the receding footsteps of the scientists, the fading sound of another argument. The distant squeak of a door, and then...

"...Alright, I'll just... just hang out here, then. That- that was a joke, just a little joke, there, uh, 'hang out', because I am, hanging... uh..."

Silence.

The blue optic blinked a few times in the darkness, craned hopefully downwards, shrank a little.

"...hello?"

()~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~()

"Wheatley?"

Wheatley blinked. Garret, who had been in the middle of waving a cautious hand in front of his eyes, stopped. The generator had started up again, and the metal beneath them hummed slightly, as if something inside wasn't quite grounded.

"You okay? You… kind of tuned out for a second, there."

It was a long way down. Wheatley stared down past the dangling toes of his sneakers, the ragged little chunk kicked out of the right sole, the laces someone had tied so conscientiously such a long, long time ago- almost-but-not-quite managing to get the trailing ends the same length on each side.

There she was, a little apart from the rest of them, her face upturned and unmistakable even at this distance, small and serious and framed by her dark hair. She saw him looking and raised a hand in a curiously tentative movement, shielding her eyes from the rising sun. He would have given anything just then to be able to do that vortigaunt trick Ellie had described, to get his thoughts down through the space between them, to send this last prayer.

Don't just walk off. Everyone else can, that's fine, I'll live, just- please, not you.

He swallowed.

"I- I'm- I'm fine. Go on, do it. Plug me in."

He felt the connector, cold on the back of his neck, a deadened click anda sharp, staticky belt of feedback, and then-

Machines, in some ways, were a lot like people. You could mass-produce them, create things that looked identical to each other, things that functioned in an absolutely identical way, but once you actually got in and had a look around, the landscape would always be- in some small way- unique. Wheatley, who had always been desperate to find life- any level of actual sentience, any capacity for understanding or sympathy or even just decent conversation- in the dozens and dozens of systems he'd been connected to in the facility, was practically an expert at noticing the moods and quirks of different machines. He might not know what on earth a Reactor Core was for, or how to stop one from melting down, but he was at least equipped to ask it very politely not to. It was the difference between being able to wander into a hospital room, have a bit of a chat with the patient, and maybe check that they had enough grapes- and being able to whizz in, assess their medical condition, and whip out their appendix.

He was incompetent, but that didn't mean he was inexperienced. From the system that controlled the management rails to the computer which had (in theory) maintained the Relaxation Centre, the small eccentricities spawned from buggy code and deteriorating mechanisms might not have actually signified any kind of life or personality, but when the things with the real intelligence and conversational ability seemed set on forgetting you existed, you had to take what you could get.

He was an Aperture device. He'd assumed that he would be incompatible with anything else, out here, that trying to talk to a non-Aperture machine would be like trying to join a conversation in an alien language. He'd assumed that it wouldn't work at all.

As with the vast majority of the assumptions he had ever made, it appeared that he'd been wrong.

A few sharp clicks that resounded through his mind like a lens being twisted, ratchet by ratchet, into focus, a sudden feeling of clarity and then-

-Something. Unspooling beneath him, unrolling like a shaken-out quilt, a Something much much much bigger than him, stretching out in all directions like a sleeping creature, sprawled, slowly stirring. The sensation was so familiar that he nearly screamed, but there was so much missing here, no trace of the white-hot blazing burn of Her hatred- he'd learned what that was, quickly enough- no trace of the sterile, slick-sided needlepit feeling of the facility's mainframe, the swarming corrupted protocols that hunted in packs through Her chilly circuits. This Something moved slowly, unhurried, its lifeblood the slow churning diesel ebb of the generator, pulses of grimy homegrown electricity from beneath lighting up a dense patchwork tangle of information, processes, routines, a mad magpie's nest, a great glittering helter-skelter tower of interwoven tech.

His voice cracked, panicky, scrambling. "Uh- uh, um... hello?"

Nothing. The generator thundered on underneath, and Wheatley blink-blinked, trying to focus, his hands gripping and opening nervously in his lap. He knew that everyone was looking at him, Garret, the little crowd, her, and he hated it. Having an audience was only enjoyable when you knew exactly what you were doing. When you weren't sure, when you were certain that you were not really in control of this at all- when, in short, you were Wheatley- knowing everyone was watching wasn't fun in the slightest.

He squinted and drew a lanky leg up under him, bracing it against the girder directly underneath, just in case the tower suddenly decided it had had enough of him and tried to shake him off.

"Hello? Anyone... anyone home?"

Connections flickered, deep in the brightest part of the tower's mainframe. Wheatley wasn't even sure it could be called a mainframe- there was no overlying theme, no one all-encompassing system, just an amalgamation of wildly different systems, stitched diligently together in a way that suggested that someone with an inventive flair he could never even hope to emulate had been making it all up as they went along. In the codesight behind his eyes the battery of satellite dishes were a cloud of join-the-dots many-coloured blooms around him, scattered over the structure like knots in a tree. The three great hooves glowed with an odd, pale light, the cables laid under the ground spindling away in all directions like a loose-knitted web. Different to Aperture tech as night to day, bright and solid, grounded and warm and shabby and alive...

"Oh, wow... Chell! Chell, I wish you could see this, seriously, you'd be loving this-"

And then the voice rolled through his head, a whispering echo from a dozen different outputs, oh-so-slightly out of synch. It was quiet and slow and incredibly arresting- somehow, without being in any way a shout, it drowned out the world.

[query: admin... access?]

"-aah! Was- okay, no, okay, I'm getting something! I'm- I can actually hear- oh, that is spooky- not sure I...um... hello!"

No reply. He cringed, expecting with each passing moment to feel that overwhelming surge of rage, a violent firestorm attack that would crush him like a fly, burn him out of existence. He felt intensely vulnerable, small and clueless and clinging up here like a tick on a huge half-dormant creature, and he stammered on, trying to delay the inevitable storm, his right hand spidering out and gripping desperately on to the metal by his knees.

"Don't- don't mind me, I've just- I've just got a few questions for you, if you're- up to that, understand you've just woken up, probably thinking 'rrghh, what's going on, who's this getting all up in my- my grille first thing in the morning?' so, so if you want to take a few minutes to compose yourself, um, put your face on, that sort of thing, absolutely no problem, I'll just-"

[repeat... query: admin access?]

He shivered. The lights of Foxglove's interested investigation were all around him now, flaring points of activity, brushing his mind through the connection with a looming, ambivalent sort of curiosity, like something very big trying gently to work out if its food is still alive or not before it has a go at eating it. He tried very hard not to move.

"Er- Garret, Garret, she's- she's going on about admin access, not sure what she's driving at there-"

Garret frowned, fingers dancing double-time across the keyboard of the little laptop. "Try it now."

[password]

"Not- no, it's not working, it's not working, she's after a password!"

"I didn't set any password, Wheatley! Damn it, it keeps doing this, there must be some cache in there from- I dunno, maybe the transponder, I knew those sharks over in Depot were ripping me off on that thing-"

"Er, alright, alright, listen, um, Foxglove- very pretty name, incidentally, if you don't mind me saying- you don't actually need a password. Garret here- you probably know him, he did sort of make you- well, he doesn't want you to bother with a password, so um, whatever you've got set in there, if you could just sort of... unset it, please?"

[password]

"Right, I can see where you're coming from, it's not much of a security measure if you just unset it the moment someone asks you to, obviously, logic, but I assure you, I am totally legit. Here's my credentials, got admin access and everything, I am an administrator, that's my job, and I sort of need to... administrate, get on with administrating things, not trying to rush you, but it'd be nice if we could get the formalities out the way as soon as possible. How's that sound?"

[password]

"I don't have a password! How many times! I-I'm- I'm sorry, I'm sorry, that was uncalled for, I'm just a bit on edge. Is there... anything I can look at that's not passworded? Anything?"

[password]

"Man alive, talk about a one-track-mind! Alright, fine! Fine, you want a password, have a flaming password! Take your pick! Apple! Bagel! Unicron!"

[password set]

"...sorry?"

[password set]

"Nononono, wait, wait, I didn't mean- oh. Ohh, you have got to be kidding me- you were asking for- you just wanted me to set a- oh, God, what did I say? Which- which one was it? Um, apple? Bagel? Unicron?"

[password confirmed: apple_bagel_unicron. admin identity created. 00004/[F]AS[IV]IDPC241105/AS[I]HRAD]

Wheatley made a small, astonished huffing sound. He was slowly starting to feel less intimidated by the looming presence enveloping him. As horribly familiar as it had seemed at first, it was a simple question of intent. She had, almost from the moment She had gained consciousness, wanted to annihilate him. Her intentions had been very clear, very concise, and executed- an unfortunate but very apt word- with Her usual razor efficiency.

All Foxglove's giant, slow-moving presence wanted to do, on the other hand, was investigate him, classify him, and- that done- get on with the task she'd been built for. Of course, she was lucky enough to know exactly what that task was supposed to be.

"Oh! That's me, I recognise that, it's me! You- you know, you can just call me Wheatley, if- if you want- it's less of a mouthful, for a start."

[user identity set: 00004/[F]AS[IV]IDPC241105/AS[I]HRAD]

"No? Alright, well, it's your choice. Up to you, I'm not going to argue. Al-although, you know, you could just shorten it, bit of a nickname, maybe, '00004' or something, still not exactly snappy but it would be a lot less hassle..."

"Holy God," said Garret, who had taken both of his hands off of the keyboard and was staring at the screen, his expression wavering rapidly between excitement and disbelief. "Whatever you're doing, keep doing it."

"Um- right, look, here's the thing," said Wheatley. He wasn't quite relaxed enough to let go of the girder he was clinging to for dear life, yet, but he was almost on the verge of considering it as an option. The slow tidal surge of Foxglove's circuits eddied around him, immense strength and complexity curbed by something completely new to him, when it came to massive, complicated machines- a total lack of malice. All her systems- all of the programs that made up the heart of her, Garret's careful digital signature on almost every one, things reused and re-appropriated, clean blank walls of data painted with crude, patchwork murals of new code, beautiful in their ragged ingenuity- all of it nearly-almost-sort-of added up to something like sentience, but it was a gentle, formless kind of sentience, without emotion or judgement.

"Here's the thing, just going to give you a bit of a heads-up, bring you up to speed on the situation, if that's all right with you- here's the thing... Garret here, and all those people standing around down there- see them? Don't actually know if you've got any sort of visual processing system in there, any... cameras... no, I'm guessing, probably not, but if you do, if you can see all those little humans down there, well, this may come as a bit of a surprise, but... they're waiting for you. To.. work, they're waiting for you to start working. Properly. Because I can see you're on, you're all powered up, yep, ticked that box, got power coming out of your ears- if- if you had ears, there would be power just crackling out of there by the gigawatt- but here's the thing."

He took a deep breath.

"You're a communications tower. That's what you're built for, that's your- your primary function, and- and don't panic about it, there's no pressure, absolutely no press- well, maybe a tiny bit, I won't lie, um, there's a tiny bit of expectation mounting here. On a, a scale of one to ten- one being like, pff, whatever, nobody's bothered, and ten being, uh, urgent action is needed right now this second to prevent, um, some kind of world-shattering, apocalyptic catastrophe- I'm going to rate this as... as a five. Fairly urgent, but nobody's going to die or anything, so... That said, five, it is getting up there, in, in maths a five is actually closer to ten than zero, that's been proven by... by statistics, so no rush, but given that you are a bloody great big communications tower, you've got that going for you, if you could get on and communicate, that would be brilliant. I for one would be over the moon about it, if you did that."

Wheatley paused. The lights of Foxglove's mind sparked and swirled along their unhurried paths, curling above and around his small, anxious presence. He suddenly found himself thinking of Chell's home, how in the evenings the sleepy pockets of darkness clung to the low whitewashed ceilings and the worn cleanswept corners, pushed back by the mismatched clusters of lights she grouped on tables and shelves and sills, small warm constellations that didn't so much cancel out the shadows as simply make them benign. The thought was sharp and bittersweet, catching him by surprise, making him blink and swallow and stammer back to the task in hand.

"Uh- so! Thoughts?"

[request authorisation:]

[run full systems calibration? y/n]

"I- oh, um, that sounds fairly major, going to have to get back to you on that- Garret? She wants-"

"Yeah, I see it," said Garret, who had started to bite the nails of his non-typing hand, a habit (unbeknown to Wheatley) he believed he'd successfully conquered at the age of six and a half. "I see it, but I don't know, your guess is as good as mine. It- she's asking to do things I didn't even write."

"Oh. Well, maybe we should let her get on with it, then. I-I mean, it is her brain- and- and having people poke around in your brain when it isn't even necessary is no stroll in the park, let me tell you. It's enough to put anyone out of sorts, and I really would prefer it if she didn't get out of sorts. Really would, because it's amazing in here, it is amazing, but if she gets a mood on, I am in a corner and a half."

"It's not that simple. I've spent six months manually calibrating every one of those dishesIf even one of them gets even a micron out of whack, I'll have to start all over again."

[request authorisation:]

[run full systems calibration? y/n]

Wheatley flinched and glanced sideways at Garret, who was tapping frantically away on the keyboard, chewing a thumbnail and frowning a baffled, intent frown which made him look like someone trying to work out why their paycheck was about half of what it should have been.

This is a terrible idea.

The thought struck him with arresting clarity, set in stone and derailing everything else, and a twist of disappointment lurched a familiar cold, leaden path through him. It was a terrible idea, and the best he could do at this point was try to limit the damage, make something up, pretend to be in control so maybe Garret and everyone below wouldn't think he was a complete idiot-

But then, something else dawned, close behind. It was simple and wistful and painful, it was if it was her, up here, if she could see this, she wouldn't give up. She wouldn't just chuck it all in just because someone else was telling her it could be a bit dicey. Alright, she'd take it on board, but at least she'd still try.

The thought had to struggle, because the other thought -the thought that this was the worst idea that anyone had had in the entire history of thinking- was still there, huge and unbudging and undeniable, but-

"You- you know what? You know what, fine, go on then, run it. Yes. Y. Going to go with Y. Knock yourself out."

Garret nearly swallowed a chunk of his own thumbnail. "No, wait-"

It was too late. Wheatley knew it was too late, just from the deep, satisfied flare of lights around him, filling the dim coded otherworld behind his eyes, the feeling of calm acceleration, the deep shifting rumble beneath, stripping away the brief feeling of certainty that this had been anywhere near the right thing to do. He jammed his hands over his ears and cringed.

"I'msorryI'msorryI'msorryI'msorry-"

()~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~()

"Daddy, Daddy, look, it's moving!"

Ellie Otten was the first to notice, squeaking in surprise from her perch atop her father's shoulders. A murmur spread through the small crowd, people shading their eyes against the sunrise with hands and hats and arms, staring up at the great structure with a curiosity progressively shot with excitement.

Ellie was right. The tower was moving. Not in the most obvious sense, of course- the three immense shell-like hooves stayed firmly embedded in the sandy soil- but all over, shifting like great pale flowers seeking the light, the dozens of satellite dishes that covered the tower started to turn in a slow staggered wave. An epidemic of motion spread from dish to dish, while the many-pitched whine of dozens of servos and motors humming into life swelled louder and layered itself over the throb of the generator beneath.

The dishes turned like eager ears, some by tiny increments, almost too minute to register, some so far that it seemed they were about to twist themselves off their shuddering, protesting brackets entirely- although none of them did. The sturdy structure of the tower creaked and groaned under so much unprecedented activity, but by some small miracle everything held. Bunches of plaited rainbow wires, brushed out of place by the moving dishes like an obtrusive fringe, swayed slowly to a stop.

Chell, still standing by the generator like a statue, became aware of a growing tightness in her throat and realised that she had been holding her breath. She let it out in an even, controlled exhale, choosing to ignore the rapid beat of her own heart, her hands rolled into tight, white-knuckled fists by her sides.

()~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~()

"Wheatley!"

Wheatley became aware that someone was hitting him in the shoulder. It was a little hard to tell who, at first, because the tidal wave of motion and power and activity that had broken over him when Foxglove had started to calibrate every one of her several-dozen satellite dishes at once had been so intense and unexpected that he'd switched off his frantic little litany of apology and instead opted for hugging the nearest girder and screaming.

"Wheatley, shut up, it's over!"

He shut up. Garret scrambled past him, swept the dislodged remains of an old bird's nest out of his hair, and made a dive for the laptop, breathing a fervent prayer of his own.

"Magnusson please please just let it work-"

He typed, stared, typed again, then dug down into one of the many pockets of the tool-belt at his hip and came up with something small and grey and rounded, something with a hatched grille of mesh at the front and a long, extendable aerial which snapped out with a ratcheting snick. As Wheatley watched, bewildered, Garret scrambled to his feet on the narrow girder and held it up, two-handed, towards the sky-

click

Half a mile away, on the windowsill of Chell's empty, sunwashed front room, the little digital radio hissed and flickered, the single LED sputtering on and off like a faulty stoplight. Unheralded, entirely unwitnessed, it hiccuped a final time and burst into steady, triumphant green, the signal coming through clear as a bell from New Detroit, some two hundred miles away.

"-ain't a cloud in sight
It's stopped rainin', everybody's in the lane
And don't you know
It's a beautiful new day, hey-hey-"

click

"-was just a fastball in, and probably the highest fly ball I've ever seen in my life. Probably came close to hitting that ball out of the park. We're in the fifth inning here at Turner Field and the Chicago Bullsquids are showing their true colours- Mark, what are the Squids gonna have to do here to square this one away?"

Aaron dropped the keys to the store's ancient truck on the counter, on top of the hastily-handwritten sign Garret had taped there.

GONE TO OTTEN'S FIELD, MONEY IN JAR

Next to the sign, a rinsed-out jamjar a quarter-full of assorted change and crumpled bills suggested that the few early-bird townsfolk who had already been and gone that morning had, at least, adhered to Garret's advice. Usually, Aaron would have had something to say about this particular business model being implemented in his absence, but right now he was too taken aback to do much besides stare across the counter at the big old radio set, which was still chattering cheerfully away to itself about the good ol' Squids and their chances in the sixth inning. The sound was crisp and clear, for the first time in the entirety of the ten years it had been sitting there on the counter between the register and the goldfish.

"Atlanta," he murmured, starting to smile. "Well, I'll be."

click

There were some pitfalls in the path of progress. Emily Kent, who had already suffered more than her fair share of bad luck of late, wasn't a morning person even when her back was in good shape, much less someone who would consider hurrying out at the crack of dawn to stand rubbernecking at a glorified TV aerial in a wet field. As a result, she was peacefully asleep in her bed when the signal came through, and the first she knew about it was when all of a sudden her bedside radio alarm clock started working for the first time in the forty years since her husband had taken his knack of tuning it to exactly the right frequency to the grave with him.

It went off with the volume and shock value of a small bomb, causing her to take a violent, reflexive swing at it through the mists of sleep and the painkiller she'd taken (on doctor's orders) before bed. Something went crunch behind her shoulderblades, and her world exploded into a supernova of pain.

Emily was a sensible woman, not usually given to blaming inanimate objects for her own mistakes. Having said that, when her back went off like the Fourth of July, she screamed with impressive volume and proceeded to curse the radio six ways from Sunday, swearing an absolute blue streak up at the ceiling while the damn thing continued to play merrily away to itself over her head (with beautiful clarity, had Emily been in any state to care.)

"Para bailar la bamba
Se necesita una poca de gracia
Una poca de gracia pa mi pa ti-"

click

The Hatfield house- two rickety floors teetering over the one-room diner Romy ran with cheerful inefficiency whenever she happened to feel like it- was empty of human life that morning. Romy and her boys had been among the first congregates at the bottom of Mart's field, but Duke the collie had been exiled to the shed in the backyard for the duration. In the past he'd tended to be more of a hindrance than a help where Foxglove was involved, being a champion at chasing rabbits (there were plenty in the field) tripping people up, chewing and burying vital tools, and answering the call of nature on important pieces of technology.

The shed was big and warm and doubled as not-so-secret clubhouse, adult-free sanctuary, and all-purpose war-zone for most of the under-twelve population of Eaden. The corrugated-tin walls were covered with crayon and paint. The gritty floor was littered with the carnage of old games, stubs of chalk, sweet wrappers, and a mysterious stain, either the site of a horrific murder or an accident involving a lot of strawberry juice.

In the corner, an ancient cathode-ray television set sat with its four sagging legs on the floor like an exhausted carthorse. The screen had a hairline crack in it and half the knobs were missing, but the twins had begged Romy to let them keep it for one reason- sometimes, if it was a clear day and you stuck a coat hangar up on the roof and held still and held your breath and hoped, it picked up snowy fragments of the one independent television channel in Upper Michigan which showed old Archive cartoons on Saturday mornings.

Duke abandoned the squeaky toy he'd been mauling and backed off, barking his head off at the ancient machine as it sputtered crankily into life. The screen was dusty and smeared with something that looked like two-year-old pudding, but the picture was steady, brilliantly-coloured, and perfectly focused.

"-a genius, the other's insane
They're laboratory mice
Their genes have been spliced-"

click

All over Eaden, in kitchens and bedrooms, in dens and vehicles and halls, machines received the signal. Radios and televisions, computers and modems and aerials and satellite dishes, every machine left on and awake by its users out of habit or optimism or just plain forgetfulness, buzzing flocks of signals flickered back and forth across the town and far, far beyond at the speed of electricity, guided and directed by the great shepherding presence at the bottom of Otten's Field.

"-what time it is, folks? It's-"

"-second in a series of ground-breaking documentaries, chronicling the rise of the Resistance in the aftermath of the Seven-Hour War-"

"-to me is what sums up people from the older generation, the forties and fifties, and-"

"-at the third stroke, it will be-"

"-a chaque fois j'y crois, et j'y croirait toujours-"

"And now over to Eric for the weather-"

"-se agrega el huevo y la nata, se forman una masa suave y consistente-"

"-for a limited time only-"

"Base Station Nineteen, come in Nineteen, we've got some crazy signals coming out of the northern sector here-"

click

"It WORKS!"

Something heavy and powerful hit Wheatley hard in the chest, a solid impact that would have knocked the breath out of him if he'd had any. It turned out to be Garret, who planted both hands on his shoulders and yelled incoherent glee into his face and thumped him heavily on the back, leaving him rattled and bewildered, gulping small rabbity unnecessary breaths. Nobody had ever squeezed him that hard before without intending murder.

"I- it- it worked?"

"Listen! Listen to that, that's the- the clearest goddamn- it's perfect, Wheatley, you did it! IT WORKS! She WORKS!"

Wheatley started to grin a very large, very dazed, very disbelieving grin. He absorbed most of the impact of another overjoyed punch to the shoulders- hardly felt it, in fact- and, clinging to the girder, clambered carefully to his feet. All the while, the tiny radio continued to pour out its guts to the crowd below, the sound loud and even and as clear as new-cut glass.

"Hey you with the pretty face
Welcome to the human race
A celebration, mister blue sky's up there waiting
And today is the day we've waited for..."

()~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~()

"I don't believe it," said Romy. "It works."

Chell glanced sideways at her friend. Romy, she knew, had been openly sceptical about Foxglove from the beginning, which would have put Chell's hackles up on Garret's behalf if Romy hadn't also been- in her own cheerfully hypocritical way- one of Foxglove's most vocal supporters. She had always been happy to label it a giant waste of time, but she was also ready at a second's notice to turn on anyone who had dared to suggest he should just throw in the towel on the whole thing. As far as Romy was concerned, if Garret Rickey wanted to keep going on his crazy pipe-dream, hurting nobody and providing a fair amount of entertainment into the bargain, it wasn't anyone else's business to interfere.

Now, standing by Chell's side, hand-in-hand with Max and Jason- who were also craning eagerly upwards- she looked nothing short of awed.

"It's playing a song," Ellie whispered, into the top of her father's head.

"Well, how about that?" said Mart Otten, slightly louder. "It works."

A murmur ran through the crowd like falling leaves, an excited rattle of voices, growing louder. Another moment, and then- obeying the unstoppable momentum of occasions like this- someone at the back started to clap. One person became several, became a dozen and more, and then everyone was applauding, cheers and catcalls rising beneath the growling generator and the music still spilling out into the early-morning air.

Chell uncurled her tensed-up hands with difficulty, held them crossed loosely before her. Her feelings, usually so orderly and easy to define, were in a gorgeous mess. She was fervently glad that the attention of the crowd was focused firmly away from her, that even Romy was looking elsewhere-

"Chell!"

Her relief was short-lived.

Garret came climbing down through Foxglove's tangling forest of wires, as easily as always, slipping one-handed from girder to girder. He reached the ground and handed the tiny radio- still playing loud and clear- to an awestruck Lindsay Randall, then pushed through a sea of congratulations and celebratory thumps on the back towards her, grinning.

"You sure know how to pick 'em," he said, reaching her and giving her a hug which would have winded a less-prepared person. "I have no idea what he did up there but-"

He stopped, held her at arm's length, a small frown clouding his elated expression. "You okay?"

She gave him her biggest thumbs-up and he laughed and wheeled her around, pointing a grimy finger back towards the base of the tower.

"Hey, don't look at me!" he yelled. "There's the man of the hour."

Wheatley had only just managed to make his own way down. Anyone watching would have got the impression that he'd taken it upon himself to test every single girder for weakness as he went, either by slamming bodily into it or grabbing on for dear life while his free limbs flailed for a grip on something else, but he'd made it in the end.

He picked himself up from the base of one of Foxglove's weathered hooves, looked up, and stared back at the sixty-odd humans surrounding him like a very lost migratory swallow might have stared back at the pilots of an oncoming Boeing 747.

Slowly, very uncertainly, he raised a hand.

"Hello..."

A moment of silence, and then the anonymous clapper started up again, and the smattering of applause snowballed into small storm, and Wheatley's face split into a grin so wide it was a wonder one of the shorter humans around him didn't end up wearing the top half of his head like a hat.

"That's Chell's monster," said Ellie, knowledgeably, to Lindsay Randall, who was still holding Garret's radio in both small hands. "I gave him a froggy."

"Over here!" called Garret, and Wheatley found that he didn't have much choice, even if he had wanted to go anywhere else- the crowd were all too eager to help, propelling him forwards with friendly hands on his back. Their overwhelming unconditional approval was very nearly too much for him to process, and for a choked, confused moment he found himself really wishing he could take his glasses off properly. This didn't make any sense at all, even though it actually did feel like there was something wrong with his optical processors all of a sudden, because his glasses had absolutely nothing to do with his vision. Still, he wished he could take them off, or even give his nose a sort of sneaky swipe on his sleeve when nobody was looking, although what good that was supposed to do, he couldn't fathom-

-and never did, because the next moment everything concerning glasses, noses or sleeves dropped straight out of his mind like a broken lift.

The reason for this sudden attack of amnesia was simple. Chell was standing next to Garret, looking back at him, and it took him a moment to realise why her face looked so different, why his non-existent stomach gave such a glad, petrified little flip at the sight of her. It would have been easy to explain it by saying that she was looking at him like she'd looked at Aaron, like she looked at Garret or Romy- but although it was close this wasn't quite accurate. This look was something new. It was a look just for him, warm and open and a little wry and simply- proud.

Proud of him.

In that moment he felt deeply ashamed that he'd questioned her motives, that he'd ever thought that she could have been scheming or testing him for her own benefit, that she'd ever been ready to write him off if he didn't come up to her standards. She'd wanted him to succeed, all right, but not for her, out here it had never been for her and he'd been an idiot- oh, stop the presses, big surprise there- to think that it had been. She'd wanted him to succeed- for him.

"Did you- did you see-" he started, but that was as far as he got before she stepped back and pulled him away from the crowd still gathering jubilantly around Garret, took his hand and towed him the few steps around the corner of the barn. He just about had time to remember that she was not a fan of having an audience, and to wonder, for a horrified moment, if she could be angry that he'd caused one, before all of a sudden she let go of his hand and-

"Uff!"

It was possibly the most violent and potentially injurious first hug in the history of physical contact. Caught completely off-guard, Wheatley staggered back a step, his knees automatically trying to help the situation in the only way they knew how, by buckling under him like hard-light spaghetti. If the side of the barn hadn't been right there behind him, as solid as one of Foxglove's hooves, to keep him upright, things would very probably have ended badly.

"Blimey, hello- huh, wow, you're- this is- um, can I just check, is this a hug? Are you- are you hugging me, is that what you're doing? Because if you are, ab- absolutely no complaints from this quarter, ha, God no, the, the opposite in fact. Very much the opposite, it's very nice- well, no, 'nice' doesn't really even begin to cover it to be honest- it's just... I have had occasion, in the past- the fairly recent past, to mistake um, affectionate physical gestures with, with people trying to murder me. So I'm just checking, because if I have got it wrong, think you'll agree it would be pretty embarrassing for both of us, not to mention, um, potentially lethal, for me. Oh, you- can't really answer, can you? No, your face is sort of squashed into my... chest there, like a- a blancmange- tell you what, if this is a hug, just sort of squeeze a bit, just to set the record straight. Is- is this a hug? Answerrrr... now."

Chell gripped a little harder, her head turned against his chest. He was very slightly warmer than a human would have been, the tamed sunlight he was made from giving him a temperature balanced on the very edge of feverish. She felt him relax, make a quiet noise- very quiet, for him- a sigh that was very nearly a whimper.

"Oh, brilliant," he said, a little muffled, into her hair. "Won't lie, I was worried."

She laughed silently into his chest and moved, slipping from tiptoe to plant her feet firmly back on the ground. Her side twinged, and she felt the dressing through her shirt to check it was still in one piece, grinning up into his stunned, beaming face.

"I turn my back for five minutes..."

They turned- Garret arriving, radio tucked under his arm, behind them- to find Aaron leaning out of the cab of his truck, which he'd parked neatly up on the grass by the side of the rumbling generator, one weathered arm propped on the rolled-down window.

Wheatley tensed against Chell's side, pinned to the spot by the expression in the old man's crinkled, beetle-black eyes. Aaron didn't say a word, but the meaning was as clear as if he and the three of them had been connected by cable. Wheatley, who found it very hard to believe that a look like that from somebody In Charge could possibly be aimed at him, found it as staggering as it was unmistakable.

Good job.

"She works, Aaron," said Garret, who sounded unusually breathless. Chell had a suspicion that he was going to be repeating himself on this theme quite a lot in the near future, at least until he actually managed to believe what he was saying.

"So I see," said Aaron, peering through the truck's dusty windscreen at the crowd around the tower. A beat, and then he smiled his slow smile.

"This mean I'm going to get my stockroom back?"

()~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~()

 
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