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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8. The Cold Hard Truth

"Of course, I did actually have it all under control," said Wheatley.

They were walking back across the main square, the late-afternoon light throwing long, crisp black shadows from their feet, from the buildings on the sunset side of the square and the people walking here and there around them, crossing the wide, earthy space on errands of their own. Like a puppet against an illuminated curtain of golden dust, the shadow-Chell walked purposefully ahead, the black rectangle of Garret's laptop held in her crossed arms, and the shadow-Wheatley loped anxiously along behind her.

"And anyway it's- it's like he said, it could have gone at any time, definitely structurally unsound to begin with, that thing. Balanced on a knife-edge. Hanging by- by a thread. On a- uh- it was balanced on the edge of a knife, and the knife that it was balanced on was, itself, hanging by a thread. Accident waiting to happen, is what I'm driving at, practically a miracle it hadn't come down on anyone before. Lucky I flagged it up for you, really, I mean, I'm not suggesting negligence or anything, not pointing blame in any one direction, but someone could have been seriously hurt. Like that little kid, whatsername-"

"Ellie."

"That's the one, yeah, with the wellies… we had a bit of a chat, while you and old cleverclogs back there were fixing the shelf. Told me all about these things, vortigaunts, I think they're called. Amazing! Did you know, right, they can talk to each other over miles? Entire bloody continents, sometimes, and- here's the unbelievable bit- they only do it with their brains! I know! Incredible!"

He waggled his fingers, presumably to indicate the mysterious, awe-inspiring properties of telepathic communication.

"Plus, plus, she gave me a thing, look."

Chell looked. The 'thing' was a hairclip, and with some difficulty, and some tentative help from Ellie's far smaller (and far less clumsy) fingers, he'd managed to wedge it across his tie like a tie-pin.

It had a frog on it.

"It's funny, that, isn't it? That thing where you feel like you'd be proper cut up about it if a, a shelf fell on someone, like you get a bit sort of queasy just thinking about it, even though you don't exactly need them for anything, or hardly know them, even."

Chell slowed a little. It was funny, but not exactly for the reason he meant. The feeling he was describing- empathy, natural concern without a particular motive, call it what you wanted- was not normal, not for anything out of That Place, anyway. No other Aperture device she'd had anything to do with had been capable of trying to express genuine concern- even exhibiting the appearance of it had been beyond them, in most cases.

She'd encountered other personality cores, although she hadn't had the chance to study them in any great detail- on the two occasions when she'd stumbled across them she'd been under a bit too much pressure to start taking notes. On the surface, they'd been just like him- but then that was exactly it, that was all they'd been- surface. They'd all been equipped with one primary function, one ever-repeating obsessive program cycling around their single-layered artificial minds; cake, dubious facts, curiosity, space. They'd barely seemed self-aware. Wheatley's primary function was just as clearly-defined- or at least, it was supposed to be- but where was this simple human depth, this half-crippled complexity, in any of the others?

She stopped, one foot on the first step up to her own front door.

"Wheatley?"

"Yep?" He was still grinning down at the frog-clip.

"What's... your first memory?"

He looked up, startled. "Er- sorry, what?"

She raised her eyebrows at him. He blinked, worry beginning to overlay the surprise.

"Sorry, yes, I-I did hear you, it's just that… well, I don't know, really, it's not the sort of thing I tend to go around thinking about much, usually, my first memory, and of course it would've been absolute yonks ago, ages and ages and… where did this come from all of a sudden? I mean, are you just sort of information-gathering for some reason or- is it a test? It's- it's not a test, is it?"

"No. Just..."

Looking back later, Chell wasn't exactly sure why she did what she did next. Maybe she thought it would help him focus, or grab his attention, or maybe it was because the steps beneath her made his looming six-and-a-half feet just that little bit more accessible to her, or maybe it was simply a moment of pure silly impulse, although that in itselfwas as rare for her as a meteor-strike in July. Whatever it was, she parked Garret's laptop case on her own feet, reached up, and placed her fingertips gently on his temples.

"...try."

He twitched, taken aback by the sudden contact. His glasses caught the sun, flared golden, and she found herself thinking of the long-gone Aperture scientist who must have coded all of this, who must have spent countless hours constructing all this detail and writing it into the avatar device's basic template, taking every hair and texture and movement and recreating it all in hard-light- and for what? To make something that looked human enough to hawk a few products? The word 'overkill' sprang to mind (as it did fairly often in reference to Aperture, although usually in a slightly different context.)

The detail was staggering, when you looked for it. She could see every line of his face, every stratosphere-blue striation in his eyes, his pale near-invisible eyelashes- far lighter than his hair, which was an unremarkable straw-blond and needed combing- the tiny screws at the sides of his glasses, and- there- a single thumbprint smudged, clear as daylight, on the left lens.

"Is... your holding my head going to help me remember?" he said, weakly.

Chell gave a little shrug. She felt strangely giddy, as if she'd been tethered to something for a long time and was only just beginning to pull loose. She was not naturally a touchy-feely person- beyond the occasional hug from a close friend like Romy or Aaron she very rarely initiated contact with anyone. It wasn't that she had a problem with it, exactly- she just wasn't very demonstrative. She tended to keep herself to herself, and not do things that involved a lot of spontaneous contact in public. Things, for example, like taking someone's face - someone she technically only barely knew, at that - gently in her hands in plain view of everyone who happened to be walking across the town square. She knew that a lot of people were probably going to be looking at the two of them, that if she looked up she would see Bill van Buren leaning interestedly against the doorway of his place a couple of doors down, and that Karen Prell and Dina Nelson (if Aaron was Eaden's heart, those two fine citizens were its mouth) were probably staring bug-eyed in her direction from their favourite spot in front of the Hall.

She didn't give a toss.

"Well- I'll have a go," said Wheatley, dubiously, scrunching his eyes tight-closed. "Let's see, first memory, first memoryyy... thing is, it could sort of do with a good spring-cleaning in here anyway, you try hurling everything in your mind into an, an entirely different container all of a sudden and see how tidy everything ends up, not to mention the, uh, the massive trauma from- wait, wait, this is looking promising, I think I've got it. Uh, well, firstly, first of all... it was dark, and I remember thinking, wow, don't think much of this, not much going on, could get seriously boring if all this nothing continues for any great length of time, and then I remember thinking, hang on, hold the phone, I'm thinking, since when was I thinking? A-and then, all of a sudden, blink- just like that-"

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

-there was light.

He felt his optic flare and the neat little central opening in his lens shrink to its narrowest contraction, reacting to the bright harsh overhead lights. He looked up, down, and blinked for absolutely the first time ever. Everything was white- white floors, white walls, white ceiling, white coat on the thing- on the human, that was a human, he was more or less sure of it- who was looming over him, poking urgently at him with a small white tool and muttering to himself. The only things that weren't white were the human's hair, the gooey yellow, red, and pink stuff that was trying to escape from the whitish triange-thing in his free hand, and the photo on the little white badge clipped to his front.

Dale, CA, Intern, he read, and then realised with a happy little flare of accomplishment that he could read.

"-dead if anyone finds out I dropped freaking mustard in the co- oh, shit!"

Talking, that noise was talking, and if Dale, CA, Intern could do it, then so could he.

"Hello!"

"Oh, Jesus," said Dale, CA, Intern, dropping the things in his hands and backing off. This didn't feel like a particularly good start, but he was nothing if not optimistic- literally, he had practically no idea of anything that he was, right now, and that was more than a bit confusing, but if he'd been asked to list the things he thought he might be, optimistic would be way up there, optimism seemed to be a quality he had right in hand. Not that he seemed to have hands.

He wheeled his optic in a loopy arc, testing its rotation, flexed his handles, blink-blink-blinked. Everything he did have was working perfectly, and that was something else to be optimistic about, wasn't it?

"Umm... hi," said Dale, CA, Intern, staring down at him with an expression he thought looked more than a bit worried. "Are you... uh, can you hear me?"

"Loud and clear! Ears: fully-functional. One-hundred-percent functional."

"You-" Dale, CA, Intern swallowed. "You don't... have ears."

"Don't I? Odd, I could have sworn I- no, you're right, actually, I don't, do not seem to. Huh. Oh, well, alright, fair enough! Hearing... thingies, things for the purposes of hearing with: fully functional. That's good, isn't it?"

"Um... yeah, it's- great- sorry, it's just you're not actually... I mean, you're not supposed to be- You know what, um, hold that thought, I'm going to go get my supervisor-"

With that, Dale, CA, Intern shoved the gooey squarish thing somewhere beneath the level of the workstation and left the room. The door hissed heavily shut behind him.

Now the room was completely empty- clean, white, nothing in it except a lot of computer screens filled with orange scrolly text, too small and fast for him to read. In the absence of anything better to do, he experimented with his optic a bit more, counted how many screens there were- fourteen, and counting was another thing that it was nice to find out he could do- hummed a bit, tried to whistle.

He wasn't sure that he liked being on his own. It was, he thought, a little boring, and he hoped it wasn't going to be happening very often, or for very long.

Finally, there were voices from somewhere outside, hurrying, echoing, getting closer.

"...serious error, it was supposed to stay dormant this time, until we could determine the effects of the last set of adjustments-"

"I know, sir, I didn't- I was just working on the calibrations like you told me, and it just fired up and started talking!"

"Well, talking we can work with. We're behind enough as it is. Right, Dale, you've never worked with this thing online before, so listen carefully. Do not say anything that might constitute a paradox. In fact, just keep your mouth shut. This thing is now a total tabula rasa, and we don't want it picking up anything that's going to destabilise its primary function. Understand?"

"Yes, sir."

"Good. And humour it. The last thing we need is the damn thing getting hysterical again. Keycard."

The door made a happy trilling sort of cloc! sound, and hissed open. Dale, CA, Intern hurried back in, a little way ahead of another human- shorter, thinner on top, with his own little badge that read Moss, D, Head of Research.

"Hello!" he said, cheerily, to the new human.

Moss, D, Head of Research smiled at him. "Hello, I.D Core. How're you feeling?"

"Er, good! Feeling pretty alright, actually. No complaints, um, although, is- just to clarify, is that who I am? I.D Core? Only that's not quite-"

"That's what you are. You're a personality core, and that describes your function."

"...Oh."

"You sound uncertain."

"Un- uncertain? No, no, no, I just- I just had a sort of feeling, er, this idea just now, out of nowhere, you know, pow, that I... have a name. Definite name-type-thing. Not I.D whatsit or whatever. I mean, I'm not knocking it, sounds very... Science-y, important, but-"

"I see," said Moss, D, Head of Research, frowning a little and exchanging a glance with Dale, CA, Intern, who was hovering nervously behind him. "So... what is your name, I.D Core?"

"Um..."

He tried to remember. He really tried, shut his optic tight and concentrated- and concentration didn't come easily, it was like trying to keep a lot of differently-sized marbles from rolling down a slope, bright shapes slipping away in all directions over a blanket of dizzy scattered urgency, and all the time a weird dislocated fog lurking underneath. There was a shape, the shape of a word- words- he could almost frame them and catch them and stop them rolling away, but-

"...I don't... I don't know. Umm... I think... a W? W is- is definitely involved, or- hang on, or is it a J? Could be, could be a J, um, it's tricky, I just can't seem to-"

"Do you know why you think you have a name?" said Moss, D, Head of Research.

His optic snapped open again, the lens widening to a large, hopeful bright-blue point. "Er, well, I mean, people usually have names-"

"People do. Personality cores don't."

The point dwindled.

"...Oh."

"However," said Moss, D, Head of Research, thoughtfully, "we, ah... decided that you should be allowed to have a name, I.D Core."

"Wh-" started Dale, CA, Intern. His superior kicked him sharply in the ankle, and continued, smoothly.

"Yes… we programmed it into your memory banks. As, uh, a… special feature."

"You- you did? Oh, well, cheers! Thanks very much!"

"Can you remember it now?"

"Er- well- it's... umm, don't tell me! Don't tell me..."

He tried again. The baffling murky fog was still there, underneath, but now that he knew that it wasn't important, he could push it aside, shove it right under and go after what really mattered. The biggest brightest marble of all, the one they'd given him, it was right there and he could get this right-

"...Wheatley! That's it, isn't it, that's my name! Yes, hahahaa, you're nodding, I'm right, I got it right, brilliant! Wheatley, that's what it is, absolutely nailed that one, didn't I? Spot on. Tremendous."

And this was brilliant, this sensation in itself, a surge of feeling impossible to describe in its simple glad intensity, the sheer joy of Getting it Right. He hoped that there was going to be a lot more of this to come, lots more things to Get Right, because he could get used to this feeling, he really could.

Wheatley. He tried it out again, his name, getting comfortable with the pitch and tone of his brand new voice at the same time. He tried to make it sound urbane, cool, the sound of a smooth go-getting high-flier of an I.D Core (whatever that was) packed into two short syllables. He wasn't sure that he pulled it off, exactly, but never mind, it was a work in progress.

"Wheatley. Oh, great name, love it. It- well, it just sort of fits, you know? Very- very sort of me, somehow."

"Glad to hear it," said Moss, D, Head of Research, absently, making a note on a small pad he seemed to have pulled out from thin air. "Excellent... response."

"It is? Oh, fantastic, are you writing that down? That, that it was an excellent response? I mean, I don't want to be pushy or anything, but, you know, first question out of the gate and I hit it into orbit, so to speak, it'd be nice to have some kind of, of record."

"Er-"

"Nothing fancy, nothing fancy, just something that- that keeps, you know, like a, a memo of some kind, or- or a sticker. Ohh, do I get a sticker? That'd be magical, if I got a sticker."

The two humans looked at each other. Moss, D, Head of Research gave a sort of panicky, demanding do-something flail at Dale, CA, Intern, who looked lost for a moment and then ducked below the level of the workstation. After a moment, Moss, D, Head of Research, followed him, and a frantic whispered exchange took place.

"I don't have anything, sir! I've just got my lunch!"

"Just find something! We're supposed to be on the front line of innovation here, so damn well innovate! Aha! What's this?"

"Uh, that's my bana-"

"I-know-what-it-is you idiot! Here, give it here-"

A moment later, the two scientists reappeared in his line of vision. Dale, CA, Intern looked a bit dubious, whereas Moss, D, Head of Research was smiling, something small and white stuck between his fingers.

"Dale, if you 'd like to do the honours."

Dale, CA, Intern took the little stickery thing, bent down to optic-height and stuck it hurriedly on his inner shell, just to the right of his optic, smoothing it down with his thumb.

"We call this an Aperture Science... er... Positive Reinforcement..."

"Affirmation?" said Dale, CA, Intern, helpfully.

"...Affirmation, um, Sticker. There you go."

The workstation to which he was attached- by some sort of connector cradle, he vaguely understood, a bright-yellow metal rollcage- was highly-polished, its wipe-clean white surface reflective. By craning the inner gimbal that controlled his moving parts downwards, he could see himself, his own bright optic, lower lid half-closed and handle crooked in a faceless, nearly-gestureless equivalent of a big grateful grin.

"Ohh, would you look at that. Thanks, mate, much appreciated- ooh, look, and it's got letters on!"

The little sticker was white against his spotless light-grey shell, lettered in bright blue and orange. He narrowed his lens, focused, squinted.

"BRA... ZIL. Um... Brazil? Is- oh, is it code, of some kind?"

"You can r-" Dale, CA, Intern looked across to his supervisor for help, and found none. If anything, Moss, D, Head of Research looked at even more of a loss than he did. "Uh... yeah. It's code."

"Right! Got you. Code. Annd... what does it mean, exactly?"

"It- uh, well, Bra... zil... well, it's kinda like, short for... a cross between brilliant... and, uh... resilient."

Brilliant and resilient. Oh, he liked the sound of that.

"Ha, wow, I get it, I get it. Brazilliant!"

"Uh... exactly," said Dale, CA, Intern, and- despite a warning glare from Moss, D, Head of Research- patted him awkwardly on the shell. "Brazilliant."

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

"So- so after that," said Wheatley, "they made some more notes, brought in a few more people to have a look- you know the sort, Science-y types, white coats, clipboards... and they asked me some more questions- well, some, ha, felt like millions at the time. Just sort of interview stuff, mostly, your average sort of what-would-you-do-in-a-given-scenario sorts of things, and well, not to blow my own trumpet or anything, I think I did pretty well on them. Blew 'em away, they all seemed well happy, wrote it all down on their little clipboards, and then this one bloke- seemed quite important, definitely one of the big wheels, he was- he said I was much better. Didn't actually say much better than what, come to think of it, but I assume he meant some other core they had in mind for the job. Impressed as anything. He said- and I definitely remember this- he said I was perfect."

His eyes were still closed, and his proud, absolutely guileless grin stretched between Chell's hands, nearly from thumb to thumb. "Sticks with you, something like that. And then they said they had a job for me, very important job, only they had to run a few more tests first and they were going to have to shut me off for a while. Obviously, I wasn't much of a, a fan of that idea, at all, and I said couldn't I stay awake for the tests instead, but they didn't like that, got a bit snappy, to tell the truth, and then they said if I stayed awake while they were doing it, while they were running the tests, I would die. Didn't want that, understandably, so one of them did something and that was that, click, off. Annnd... well, that's it. My first memory."

Wheatley opened his eyes, blinked. His pupils contracted like his old optic in the gentle evening sunlight, dwindling against the blue. "Not particularly gripping, really, not exactly what you'd call high-octane stuff, but at least it's all there."

She nodded, slowly, and took her hands away from his face. He felt curiously bereft at the loss of contact- panicky, almost- but then it had been... nice, just talking into the darkness like that, to be that close to her, just his voice and her touch.

"Nothing... before?" she said.

He looked down at her, confused, anxious. "Before... my first memory? Are... I'm not sure we're on the same page here, to be honest. You're asking if I remember anything before my first memory... answer: no, because it's my first memory. Before that, there wasn't actually a me to have memories, obviously, so recollections are going to be a bit sparse up until that point, and when I say 'a bit sparse' I mean, well, 'non-existent.' Was... sorry, was that the wrong answer?"

She shook her head, but he could tell from her face- her eyes, the slight set of her jaw- that she was disappointed, that he hadn't said the right thing. Again.

He looked away, fighting the sick feeling that had been rising steadily in what technically wasn't his stomach for days now, the queasy terrified little voice that whispered that he shouldn't even be here, that he was losing it, as if his grasp on this whole situation was a cable fraying into thinner and thinner bits, unravelling under the tension. He'd let her down so badly to start with, worse than he could even start to work out how to make up for, and despite his attempts to put a brave face on things, he knew, he knew he'd failed at everything she'd led him into since. Everything she'd prompted him to do since they'd left the facility, task after task, simpler and simpler, right down to even just remembering something the way she'd wanted, and it was all so... horribly... familiar.

What's the equivalent- the little human community-thing equivalent- of Relaxation Centre Attendant? Where do they stick you when they've run out of things for you to be crap at?

He didn't want to think about it but he couldn't help it, like poking at a circuit that you knew was broken just to test the sting. Somewhere out of sight and mind, where nobody had to bother with you, and you weren't really supposed to do anything and you never even saw anyone else- and he knew one thing for absolute certain, wherever that place was, it was the last place that someone like her would ever bother to go if she could help it, even to visit. For some reason, that was the worst part of all.

"Listen," he said, helplessly, "listen, I'm, I'm sorry, I'm trying, all right? All this- I'm- I really am trying."

Chell frowned a little, looking back up at him from the second step, and for that moment he could practically see all that scary-brilliant determination, building behind her eyes like a thunderhead. He prayed that she'd just remembered something completely unrelated that she needed to do- pick up milk, reshingle the roof, blow something up- because the thought that it might be him that she was focusing on with that level of determined resolve in her eyes was- well, it was absolutely terrifying.

And then the moment passed, and she smiled a small preoccupied smile, curled a fist and socked him lightly in the arm- well, 'lightly' by her standards, it stung, but he didn't mind that, not at all- picked up the whatever-it-was she'd borrowed from Garret 'Cleverclogs' Rickey, and turned away, pushing in through her own front door in a bright jangle of bells.

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

Hours later, at the time of night when anyone with any sense should have been asleep, Chell descended the stairs and moved with careful, measured steps into her darkened front room. She circled the big table, playing deliberate hopscotch around the parts of the floor she knew squawked like mad cats when you trod on them.

The air in this room and in the little kitchen was sleepy with the scent of new bread, warm from the cooling oven, and she stopped for a moment, breathing in the dark, taking stock. This was hers, all of this, these white hand-smoothed walls, this uneven floor with its knots and woven rug and the white stripes that the waxing moon drew across it from the window, and although she didn't care a huge amount about stuff it was so good to be able to stand in this space and know it, inside out.

Chell valued connections, familiarity, knowing every nook and cranny and understanding how a place worked- that this door wouldn't shut if this cupboard was open, that she'd repaired the crack in the corner of this window two years ago, using the flat of a breadknife to apply the putty, or that the kids who went to school in the many-purposed town hall had made this wonky sampler for her as a thank-you for showing them how to make bread. The luxury of this safety, this peace of mind, this sense of fitting, had never quite worn off, and she hoped it never would.

Here, on the other hand- right in front of her, as she leaned back thoughtfully against the big table- was something that did not fit. Not in the purely spatial sense- one knee drawn up nearly to his chin, the other sneakered foot dangling off in the other direction, overshooting the arm of the sofa by at least six inches- and not in a general sense, either. Here, where everyone was joined closely together like pieces of a jigsaw, he was like a piece from an entirely different puzzle thrown into the box by accident, and while it didn't matter to her, she could tell that it certainly mattered to him.

She could have tried to reassure him, to tell him that it got better, that it took time- he was gullible and hopeful enough to believe that, she suspected, if it came from her, and she hoped that it was true- but she instinctively wanted to go one better, solve it, hit him with solid incontrovertible proof that it was worth sticking with this. It made perfect sense to her calm, logical, marathon-running mind, and if something beneath that was needling quietly at her, she just put it down to simple technical concern. What she was about to do was a little risky, after all.

It was curious- and useful- that even though he'd stated that he didn't really need to sleep, out here he seemed to have fallen fairly easily into a normal sleep rhythm, or at least a pretty accurate imitation of one. He slept when she slept, happy to switch off for the same six or seven hours that she did, and she wondered what it was like to be able to summon sleep on demand like that, as easily as pressing a button.

Silently, she knelt on the rug by the sofa and opened Garret's laptop, already hooked up to the stripe-headed Aperture lead through the lucky-find connector. Wheatley was curled away from her on the sofa, the back of his neck exposed above the collar of his spectacularly badly-ironed shirt, unmoving. It was a little disconcerting, a small reminder of what he really was; in his sleep mode, at least, he didn't appear to breathe.

Even by moonlight, her eyes and her memory were sharp enough together to place the correct point, the area just at the nape of his neck where the hard-light surface gave way to a simpler optical trick, a small patch of hologram. She held her own breath to steady her hand, and slid the little jack through into the hidden port underneath.

He flinched a little as the connection clicked into true, made a small unintelligible noise of protest. Chell kept still and waited, and he settled, drawing his knee up a little tighter, his hands digging into his own shoulders. She didn't know if there were different layers to his artificial sleep, if, like her, he had REM cycles or anything equivalent- but right now he seemed pretty deeply under, curled up like a ridiculously overlanky hedgehog in a coma, dead to the world.

The laptop's screen flickered, and she pulled it towards her, settling cross-legged against the couch. The low backlit glow threw weird hollow shadows into her face, uplighting her like the mad scientist from any number of the old films they sometimes screened in the town hall (sci-fi, with its high occurrence of deranged, all-powerful computers and sundry other apocalyptic threats to humanity was, unsurprisingly, not her favourite genre, but she'd seen a few, nevertheless).

A screen popped up, maximised itself. The next thing to appear was a progress bar, scanning quickly through a list of all the codecs Garret had loaded on to the machine, the letters blurring into each other, the bar creeping steadily towards the three-quarters mark until -

Device detected- 00004/[F]AS[IV]IDPC241105/AS[I]HRAD
Encryption key found.
Warning - some file formats may be incompatible with current user platform. Converted files may be saved directly to disc.
Do you want to continue?

Did she?

This- what she was about to do- definitely counted as an invasion of privacy. She valued privacy. True, he'd once aggressively dismissed hers just for the sake of a rush of simulated endorphins, but that didn't mean much by this point- two wrongs, in her book, did not make a right, or even a slightly less dubious wrong. She knew damn well that she was on a very shaky moral footing here- except- except she was really only trying to (solve it) help him… wasn't she?

Chell narrowed her eyes, her mouth tightening imperceptibly, and pressed Enter.

At first, she thought she'd crashed the tough old laptop altogether- the screen flickered again and jumped into an entirely different resolution, and the whine of the fan chugging away was worryingly loud. The laptop was growing warm against her legs; she felt the heat through the worn cotton of her shorts and started to consider what she would do if it actually started to smoke.

Wheatley made another unhappy sort of noise and twisted face-down- fortunately the right way and not the one which would have wrapped the lead around his neck like the world's most pointless noose. The whine of the fan stepped up another notch, and the screen flickered a final time- went- for one startling second- dull pixellated Aperture orange- then went black.

She smacked it with the heel of her hand and slumped back against the sofa. An outright failure, a simple you-have-got-to-be-kidding crash, she would have found easier to accept- but it had seemed to be working, it had nearly worked-

Flicker.

Static.

A flash of something, frozen, an image staggered with patches of dead pixels, interference, chunks of red-green-blue, skipping, blurring.

Flicker.

More flashes, one after the other, jerky stop-motion. Whiteness, overhead glare, odd rounded corners, motion. Something starfished against the white- the picture was clearer now- a hand- hands, long-splayed-big-knuckled- cupping in the stream of water from a blue-striped whitemetal faucet. The sound of a splash from the laptop's tinny little speakers, a wobbly distortion over the shaky first-person shot, a winded gasp- a voice.

Chell stared.

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

"...easy, nothing to it, certainly nothing to get worked up about. Not a problem. I'm just going to go up there, and, and say it, this time. Far far braver thing to do than I have ever done, and that- Shakespeare- although, doubt he ever had to do this, famous actor in his day, didn't even have to use his own name, just went round calling himself The Bard, like, like Prince or something. No, he probably had all the oldey-timey girls throwing themselves at him, didn't he? Jammy old sod probably had to fend 'em off with a stick. With a quarterstaff- right, okay, I'm getting distracted again, no more messing about. Thought about it enough now, just action is what's really needed here. Just say it."

He splashed his face again, then looked up and ran wet hands through his hair, turning a not-particularly-memorable side-parted affair into a mad porcupine-quilled wreck which he then fought mostly flat with a comb. His hair was a bit of a problem, although he had a tacit understanding with it. Like its owner, it tended to do its own thing unless explicitly instructed otherwise, at which point it keeled over with cowed docility and did as it was told, right up until the point when it suddenly got another great idea. The only difference was that his own great ideas ranged over a wide variety of subjects, whereas his hair's great ideas mostly revolved around different ways to look like a limp sort of hayrick knocked over in a storm.

"'Hello! The usual, please.' Good start, good start, fairly innocuous, suggests that sort of familiarity. You're one of her regulars. Only- only don't put it like that, ha, no, for God's sake, that does sound fairly dodgy. You're a regular customer. Better. Umm... 'Thanks, that looks great... you know, while I'm up, you know what I find amazing? How you remember what everyone wants, I mean, of course, I noticed you write it down the first time but after that, you- you get it right every time. It's actually quite amazing. Not that I was- I mean, I wasn't specifically watching- ah- I just mean, I have enough trouble remembering where I put my keys in the morning, you know? Let alone whether some perfect stranger likes mustard or not.' Nice save, best not to dwell on it though, keep the momentum going- 'So! Understand you're busy, probably got hundreds of bagels to be delivering, wouldn't want to keep you, but, um...'

He leaned over the sink, screwed his eyes shut for a moment, then looked back to the mirror, searching the reflection of the men's restroom for inspiration. He wasn't sure he agreed with the name, 'restroom.' It suggested a tranquil sort of place, somewhere to go for a bit of a time-out, not somewhere you ended up, terrified, shaky, hands sweating, stomach knotting up into a sick greenish little ball like a dollar bill accidentally put through the wash.

There wasn't much in here to give him any help, either. Only this line of off-white sinks and a strip of overhead lights- one of which was flickering fitfully- the tiled floor, the poster on the wall behind him.

WASH YOUR HANDS!
A GERM-FREE FACILITY
IS A SUPER-RESISTANT RADIATION-ENHANCED NECROTISING PLAGUE-FREE FACILITY!

They'd had to set the last line in extra-small type to fit it on the poster, but they'd still found room to squeeze in a happy face. He tried to copy it, grinned a big hopeful grin. The effect wasn't bad, he thought- his eyes still looked a bit worried, but hopefully she'd be so blown away by his little speech that she wouldn't notice.

Hopefully.

He took off his glasses. There. A lot better. It was a shame that he couldn't actually go and talk to her without them, but he knew from experience that the confidence boost just wasn't worth the massive disorientation. He didn't know a great deal about her, hadn't even managed to get up the courage to ask her name, but he knew that most women didn't tend to find a total inability to tell walls from doorways much of a turn-on.

"But I was wondering, if you're- if you happened to be free, any time soon, in the not-too-distant future, you know, no mad rush or anything- and it really could be any time you wanted, I don't exactly have anything life-altering planned in the foreseeable future, nothing that can't be rescheduled- so, umm... if you were, free, that is, I was wondering whether you might be interested in, in going somewhere. With, with me."

His voice had veered a little too high, become embarrassingly plaintive. He tried again, tried to force himself to sound calmer, smoother, more controlled.

"With me. Sort of doing something, like- well, just as a random example, having a drink. Just after work, nothing, you know, showstopping, really, I mean, I know a nice sort of place, although, obviously, if you knew anywhere I'd be more than open to suggestions, if you did want to do that, if that did sound, um, bearable- and it's okay if it doesn't! Absolutely fine if it doesn't, just say, I'm not going to, to be offended or anything, would totally understand- although, although I would of course prefer it, if you said yes- not trying to influence your decision in any way, there, just saying, cards on the table I'd really, really like it if you did-"

He cut himself off and bonked his head lightly on the very top of the mirror, pressing his forehead against the cool-sharp feeling of the unfinished edge.

"Rrrrghhh. Why is this so hard? This is not hard, you're just making it far too complicated. It's just a drink, you don't have to recite her a bloody saga. Just, just wrap it up now, skip to the end. 'So, yes, that's basically what I'm asking. You, me, some sort of place that isn't in here. Thoughts?' See, that's fine, that's fine, close enough right there. Not hard. Right."

He replaced his glasses and looked at himself in the mirror again, tugged his shirt straight, straightened his tie, checked his watch. Twenty to eleven. His stomach gave an extra-queasy twist, and he put a quivery clammy hand on the mirror, trying to steady himself. It was nearly identical to the way he'd always felt before every job interview he'd ever had, that horrible plummeting sensation of not being good enough, of not being prepared.

"Maybe I should write some of this down."

He-

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-leaned weakly against the flimsy cubicle wall, hidden from the table by the photocopier by a sickly overgrown rubber plant, which had nearly no leaves but was almost as tall as he was. He felt dizzy, his head buzzing as if he wasn't getting quite enough air, and he wished he had a paper bag or something to breathe into. He wasn't entirely sure why breathing into a paper bag was supposed to make you feel less like passing out, although he guessed it was a diversion tactic, that the idea was that you were so preoccupied with what an arse you looked huffing into a paper bag that you stopped thinking about whatever it was that was making you feel like fainting.

There she was. Bang on time as always, you could set your clock by her, if your clock wasn't more or less knackered from being dropped into a Cup Noodle. Even through his panic he felt a kick of pleasure just to see her, as if she was an old friend he hadn't met for some time, and it was ironic to the point of cruelty that he was so scared of trying to talk to her properly, because it really was what he wanted to do most of all. Just talk to her, listen to her voice, find out what she thought about things other than bagels, maybe even hear that amazing laugh.

He hadn't exactly managed to have a proper conversation with her yet, but he'd said something two weeks and three days ago- he couldn't remember what he'd said and he was fairly sure that it hadn't been anything particularly witty or insightful, but she'd actually laughed and that had been brilliant. If there ever ended up being a movie about his life- yes, granted, not the likeliest of possibilities by this point, but you never knew- that bit was definitely going in the highlights reel.

The first time he'd seen her, he'd immediately believed himself to be in love- love at first sight, that mythical thing everyone was always on about, the big L, the real McCoy. This had been naïve of him, he knew that now. You couldn't know you loved someone just by seeing them once across a stack of neatly-sorted bagels. Love was a huge many-layered thing, deeply complex, reliant on a bewilderingly intimate level of insight into a person's heart and soul, all the relevant authorities agreed on that point. No, you definitely needed to run into them at least five or six times to be sure about something as major as that.

It had been almost three months, now, since that first day. He was still terrified of being caught gawking at her, especially since he'd noticed how sharp she was, how she never missed a trick even when dealing with complicated orders from other departments and fussy eaters and people who kept changing their minds all the time- all at once.

He always asked for the same thing whether he really felt like it or not, partly to make her day just that little bit easier, but mostly just for that small sweet moment when he could say 'the usual' and see the slight answering smile that told him that she remembered him.

'Hello.' He'd start with 'Hello.' That was always a safe bet, and he'd take it from there. Even if she said no- and he'd considered having a go at running the numbers on that one, but it had been too depressing and he'd never been any good at probabilities anyway- even if she said no, at least he'd know that he'd tried.

He swallowed, shuffled through the little sheaf of Post-its stuck to his sweaty palm, and was just about to take a determined first step out from behind the leggy rubber plant, when someone behind him said his name.

"Wheatley?"

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He turned.

White coats, that was what registered first, and the small part of his mind that was composed enough to still be thinking about self-preservation yelled a muffled warning. All around him, his colleagues suddenly remembered other things to go and be busy with in different parts of the office, drifting away from him like smaller ships tacking away from a storm.

"Uh... they want to talk to you," said his cubicle-across-the-way-mate, uncomfortably, from beside the three scientists, before edging away, shamefaced.

The first scientist looked impatient, hand already held out for his ID badge. He unclipped it and handed it over, because that was just what you did, what you had to do, and shot an anxious glance over his shoulder towards the photocopier.

"Umm... yes?"

The scientist scanned his badge- beep- looked up, gave him a thin smile.

"Come with us, please."

If he'd been thinking clearly, he might have been more worried. After all, the last time this had happened- the biometrics scan thingummy- it had turned into an extremely unpleasant experience, the kind of extremely unpleasant experience that causes inexplicable deep-tissue bruising and nosebleeds. If he'd been thinking clearly, he might even have tried to ask what they wanted him for, if he'd done anything wrong (always a possibility, he was aware of that)- but his head was still full of hopeful anxiety and the little sheaf of Post-its was screwed up into a damp little wad in his palm, and all he could really think about was whether he was going to be able to make it back before she left or not, because if he missed his chance today, who knew when he'd manage to get enough nerve to try again?

Whatever this was about, he hoped that it wouldn't take long.

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

Chell shook out her stinging hand, gritting her teeth. The act of pulling the lead from Wheatley's neck had generated a short hail of fat, bright-blue sparks, snapping wickedly against her skin, but stronger and sharper by a long shot was the utter shock of seeing-

She took a dazed little step back, and leaned against the table.

Herself. Herself, in his mind. Herself, long, long before her own earliest memories. She'd thought that trying out his lead was a long shot, she'd really only expected to be able to use the little laptop to access the log files he'd mentioned, if she was lucky- but instead she'd got far, far more than she'd bargained for.

Of course, she'd seen herself from the outside before. She wasn't so much camera-shy as camera-indifferent, unless the cameras were specifically aimed at her with less-than-friendly intent, at which point she tended to become camera-hostile and (where possible) downright camera-destructive. Eaden, for all its communication difficulties, was not technologically impaired; it might not be as advanced as the bigger towns and the cities but there were cameras, photographs, even home-shot films on special occasions. There was a clunky old Cinefour camcorder in its battered case under her stairs- she'd traded it from Garret once, on a whim- and a freeze-framer on the kitchen counter next to the lumpy clay duck, endlessly playing the same few moments of herself and Romy at a festival, her friend laughing, reaching again and again to straighten the flowery twist of ivy that was in danger of falling from her hair, the twins crowding the bottom of the frame, colourful near-identical blurs of grins and paper streamers and overexcited dog.

She had also seen herself as few people had- few people ever had, anywhere. She'd looked through holes in the universe itself, taken a sneaky short cut around the laws of physics and seen glimpses of herself without the secondhand filter of a lens or a mirror. She was no stranger to her own appearance. The difference, the difference which nearly floored her, which set her heart hammering, was time.

The woman she'd seen in Wheatley's memory had no idea of the horror lurking in her future, no idea that she would be taken- swallowed alive- spat out into an insane, sterile, sunless world where the only rule was survival. There were no scars on her arms below the unfamiliar blue sweater, no lines of burns or shrapnel on the small quick hands sorting plastic-wrapped packages on the office table. There were no scars in her mind- she was at ease in that dull, oppressive, off-white office, she would not have flinched at the sound of the photocopier whirr-clicking into life, or the public announcement system's metallic overhead echo. Had they stood face to face, the woman she'd seen in Wheatley's memory would have looked at her in confusion, at the threads of grey in the dark hair just above her ears, the dark smudges beneath her eyes, the hardness in them.

What happened to you?

Aperture had happened. Science had happened. She had happened. And now it looked as if she'd been right, that the same had happened to him, that Wheatley was just as much of a victim of That Place as she was, but this- this glimpse of her former self- it was the absolute last thing she'd expected to find.

Moving slowly, with unusual clumsiness, she felt along the edge of the table and found the wicker chair. It creaked under her as she dropped into it, her mind buzzing, a sharp, dry sort of headache clawing out of nowhere and biting dizzily into the back of her skull like a bad head-rush.

She'd- she'd been- she was-

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

She was glad she didn't work down here.

Down here, everyone was afraid. She could sense it, she could nearly smell it, all these face-down scurrying grey drones schooling in and out of their little cubicles like spiritless clockwork. They were all afraid, even the scientists, bright sparks in a sea of corporate mundanity, brilliant like broken mirrors. She knew that the drones were afraid of the scientists, and the cameras that watched them relentlessly from every corner, but what the scientists were afraid of, she had no idea. They were always in a hurry, they hardly had time to eat what she brought them. Sometimes, she doubted that they ever went home.

She never liked riding the cold elevator tubes down into the grey-white clockwork hive, her ears popping as she steadied her crates on their wheeled rack, feeling the surface dwindle above her head. She didn't like being down here, surrounded by these frightened, dull-faced people who didn't even look at her, never even saw her because they'd long since become blind to anything that wasn't a threat. She knew there was something badly wrong here, although she, an outsider, could never quite touch it.

Nobody ever talked about it- not directly, not out loud- but she was sharp and quick and people tended to think that being quiet was the same thing as being deaf, and so she heard things just the same. She caught whispers under stairwells, saw things scrawled on tiles, things smeared away with bleach but still half-legible. This place was full of scared, callous indifference, people relieved itwasn't them but still terrifiedthey could be next. She could never stand it for long, she was always extra-efficient (and that, for her, was something)- shaving off the seconds each time before she could ride the lift to the surface and see the sky again.

He was the only thing that never made her feel uncomfortable about being down here. He was afraid- he was just as scared as the rest of them- and he was terrifically awkward around her (or maybe he was just like that with everyone) but he was hopeful and sincere and he always actually looked at her, saw her, made her feel human. After the first time, he always asked for the same thing and he always had exact change, and he always seemed to be just on the edge of saying something else, but he never did. She always smiled, anyway, to make it easier on them both, before turning to her next customer, and that was how it went, for the few months that she knew him. She figured that if it was important, he'd get round to it soon enough.

He never did.

One day, he didn't show up at the table by the photocopier. After she finally sold out, she picked up her empty crate and walked the few steps down the grey office aisle to the little cubicle she knew belonged to him. She left his bagel in front of his keyboard, just by the bobbing plastic bird, and took a curious glance around the very small, cluttered space he worked in. Nothing unusual- a calendar, a few photographs pinned beneath it, a disorganised landslide of paper and Post-its and technical manuals.

"Don't bother," said someone, just as she turned to leave. She looked across the aisle, into the cubicle across the way. The occupant was sitting in his chair, his back to her, staring at his monitor. He didn't turn round.

"Redacted," he said. "There'll be someone else in there next week. Or not. Up to them."

The monitor, she noticed, was switched off.

"Best not to know," he said, in the same flat voice. "Sorry. I've got a deadline."

She left. For the rest of that week, she retraced her steps once the rest of her bagels had been sold, and left his sitting on his desk, but the voice of doom next door turned out to be right; he never came back, and the following week, she came in to find his cubicle cleared of everything but the computer and the chair. There was a new person in it, too, someone with a blank colourless face who looked right through her.

That day, she rode the lift to the surface as usual, willing it to rise, aware of a little more tightness inside her, a little more urgency. The relief, when she was out at last, was a bittersweet flood, unexpectedly strong.

She was very glad she didn't work down here.

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

Chell came back to herself with a start, stumbling to her feet and drawing an appalling noise, like a leopard in pain, from the creaky floorboards. Wheatley moaned quietly and shifted again, knees tighter to his chest, one arm flopping protectively over the back of his neck. On instinct, she dropped the lead, hooked the laptop towards her with her foot, and booted both smartly under the couch.

She was twanging with shock, her head buzzing, completely stunned. Until now, she'd never remembered any part of her life from Before. She'd always believed that part of her was long-dead, killed by stasis and trauma, eroded completely from her damaged mind.

What she'd just experienced hadn't been a memory- no, she couldn't call it that. It had felt like the thoughts of a stranger, a woman she'd never known, recalling a place she'd never seen- but it had still been hers, nobody else's, from her own past. It was fuzzy and fading, but she clung to it instinctively, the bad and the good- the tension and shapeless fear of that deep-down place, grey offices and grey people and a big, worried, warming smile-

Wheatley. That made perfect sense, too, now that she had all the pieces. His avatar, this model that the device had found for him, it wasn't just a random body that happened to suit him to an uncanny degree, or a computer's idea of an appropriate look for him, like a desktop theme with glasses. It was his body, a digital recreation of his own original flesh and blood, sculpted in hard-light- because she'd been right, he'd actually had a real body, once upon a time. A human body.

He'd been human.

Despite his awkwardness, despite the clear discomfort it caused him to be stuck in this shape, it really was his. In some ways, it was much more his than the small metal ball had ever been, although he'd inhabited that thing for decades, for at least the entire time she'd been in the Relaxation Centre, and she still wasn't sure exactly how long that was.

How old had he been? At a rough guess, she thought he might have been pretty evenly balanced between thirty and forty, although the gentle worried hollows of his eyes and the fine-drawn lines of tension at the corners of his mouth tilted him slightly towards the latter. Not that it mattered, now. Machines had no real concept of the passage of time, and light didn't age.

She nudged a stray coil of lead further under the couch with her foot, biting the sore place at the side of her tongue. She felt crowded, all of a sudden, too cramped, claustrophobic in this small space, even though it was safe and hers.

Chell was usually extremely lucid, aware of her own thoughts and her own motivations, each partitioned and kept in neat check, like files in a particularly well-organised folder. She wasn't used to confusion. After a shock like this, she needed breathing space, time to reorganise.

Oddest of all, she realised, she wanted to talk to him about it, tell him what she'd seen, to explore this bizarre, fractured little connection between them- and wasn't that why she'd done this? To prove he was more than just an Aperture device?

She reached for his shoulder- and stopped.

There was no guarantee he'd remember. There was no guarantee he'd believe her- he might be a hopeless liar but he was all too happy to reject the truth when it didn't suit him, denying it outright when it got in the way of what he wanted to believe. She realised that she didn't want to watch him refuse what she'd found. She didn't want to hear him trying to explain away her small fragile burst of not-quite-memory, the past they'd both lost. For once, the choice was hers to make.

She retreated quietly to the door, taking her comfy old shirt down from the roofing nail hammered into the wood. As much as she realised that she wanted his company at that moment, as much as she just wanted to listen to his calming wittering while she walked off her shock by his side, she just didn't trust him enough to risk his reaction to what she'd seen. What she'd seen, and the way she felt about it- no. She didn't trust him anywhere near enough for that.

The problem was- and it was a problem, she was far too logical and sensible for an impulse so clearly illogical and silly not to be a problem for her- the problem was that she sort of really, really wanted to.

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

He dreamed.

Severed from the connection, the alien call-and-response of the stubborn little non-Aperture construct jacked into his mind, his memories skipped and scattered, skittering down long-suppressed paths and hidden root directories, through drifts of corrupted files, jagged fragments of sound, sight, sensation- pain-

Voices.

"Pentothal, six milligrams. Still getting motor response -"

"Alright, now, try to relax- this may hurt a little-"

It did, it hurt a lot, worse than anything and he didn't even understand, because this couldn't be happening to him, he'd done nothing, nothing wrong-

"-so special about him? File says he's just some nobody from IT, he's not even-"

"Have you seen all these memos? Thinks we should rip out the generators to make room for a squash court. That and about a million other moronic ideas-"

"-the perfect distraction-"

"-Her-"

Darkness, crushing and absolute, and voices, and then the pain had begun again, and whatever they'd given him, it wasn't enough but he couldn't tell them because there was something wrong with his throat, with his mouth, he couldn't speak-

"-who cares? Deep storage, like the others-"

"-calm him down or we'll lose cerebral function entirely-"

"Mark two, calibrating-"

And then he could, he had his voice again but it was all wrong, something was terribly wrong and there was only one thing he wanted, needed, had to do-

"Jesus, someone do something, it's hurting my ears-"

And now this, this didn't hurt but that didn't make it any better than the pain, this feeling, this unbearable draining tearing sensation, huge important chunks of who he was ripping away into the dark like shards of glass from a splintering pane, and he didn't even know what they were because once they were gone, he could hardly hang on to the fact that they'd ever been there at all. And all he could think was pleasepleaseplease nononononono I want to go home I want to go home please- and now he didn't know where or what 'home' was but the thought persevered, a senseless desperate litany of I have to get out I have to get out I have to I I I-

"-three times now, weeks down the drain, this is getting ridiculous. We don't need any of this stuff. As long as it talks and generates bad ideas-"

"-full excision, total recollective suppression-

"-that's a positive on the cognitive rerouter-"

"Try it now."

And then-

Blankness.

Blissful, empty peace. A faint, faint sense of something he'd forgotten, maybe, or something he'd wanted to do, but with so much dim featureless horror so recent he didn't want to remember, didn't even want to try, so much better not to know, not to know anything, not think and not hurt and just be nearly nothing at all-

"I think that's done it. Shut it down."

[error: file corrupted]
[saving to disc, please wait]

[rebooting...]

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

"NO! NononononononoNO!"

Someone was screaming. The darkness was no longer absolute- it had shape, now, not a disorienting void but a small, warm space, dim ambery light from somewhere and the smell of new bread. Even so, Wheatley barely grasped where he was- barely recognised the sound of his own voice.

"It's not true, it's not true!"

He shuddered convulsively, gripping his own head, gabbling broken fragments of nonsense, denial, outright refusal. His thoughts- his mind- buckled under the blurring formless rush of horror, arcing like a stripped live-wire, like the jagged core of a broken tooth, and he rolled over on the threadbare rug, dragged a handful of it into a strangling fist, screamed again, a single long wordless howl of outraged dismay.

For the greater part of his life, he'd known he wasn't completely up to scratch. He'd never been able to fully admit it, let alone come to terms with it, but he'd still known at the back of his mind, in that very small quiet ruthless part of him that refused to turn a blind eye to all his failures, that kept a careful tally of every single one. He loathed that part and usually pretended that it didn't exist, choosing instead to rely on his considerable stock of optimism, his hurling spur-of-the-moment enthusiasm, and his total inability to tell a good idea from a terrible one.

Through it all, whenever his thoughts had strayed into unusually lucid areas, whenever the neverending parade of self-inflicted disasters had really started to get him down, he'd always taken comfort in the fact that it wasn't his fault that he was this way, that he'd been designed for a purpose and that, one day, he would find out what that purpose was supposed to have been, and whatever it was, he would be perfect at it, just like they'd said he was, and everything would be...

He curled slowly into a ball again, hands still locked in the bunched-up folds of the rug, rocking in short, jerky, back-and-forth little lunges. The back of his neck ached too, a peculiar, dragging, underskin sort of pain.

White coats. A plant, sickly and leafless, growing under dull fluorescent lights. A splash of water on tiles, the glint of a needle, a bright curl of sweat-twisted paper, and- and-

"-nononononono... please..."

It made perfect sense, now that he had all the pieces. It was true. She had even outright told him, but he hadn't wanted to listen, had just dismissed it again and again as just another one of Her bonkers, malicious little lies.

You're the moron they built to make me an idiot!

Oh, he'd been perfect for the job, all right. Not good enough to actually succeed, no, oh no, but still, small wonder that he'd never got the hang of things back there in the facility, even when power and control were practically handed to him on a plate, small wonder that he couldn't get anything right even now, that he felt so out of place and pointless out here, among these humans.

"It's not fair it's not FAIR! They told me I was- they- they gave me a sticker!"

They'd lied.

He didn't want to know, but it was too late to stop. He understood. He wasn't even a true construct, like the other cores, like Kevin, like Her. He wasn't human. He was neither, less than either, designed to be pointless, to annoy and distract, a moronic handful of grit in the works of an otherwise perfect machine.

Intelligence Dampening Sphere. Made to inhibit whoever he was stuck to, made to hold them back, to cling to them like a tumour and disrupt their thoughts with inane babble and stupid ideas. Worst of all, the human in his memories- the one who'd gone around looking like he did now, talking with his voice- might have been less than brilliant in the scheme of things, no Einstein or Hawking or- or Chell, but he'd been himself, he'd been whole, and he'd had that thing, that simple human why not? which had spurred him to do all sorts of bonkers things just because it occurred to him that he could. Wheatley hated him, hated him, that smug human bastard with his face, the human whose memories were still crowding into his mind, all the dreams he'd forgotten, jumbled scraps of another life that made a mockery of everything that he was just by being there.

He keeled quietly over onto his side on the rug. It was a nice rug- flat, well-made, comfortable and comforting. He doubted that he was lowering its intelligence by much. Being a rug, its level of cognitive dexterity was probably quite low to begin with, low enough for him not to be much of a burden on its ability to successfully continue being a rug. Maybe, if he promised to stay quiet and not do anything, he could just stay here, on the rug, until either it stopped being a rug or he stopped being him.

Preferably the latter.

After a while, he became aware that something was digging into his shoulder, pressing into exactly the most awkward place and making the mystery ache in the back of his neck even worse. He reached up with numb fingers and found something there, something flat and metallic under his hand, rectangular- and something else, a long tangled loop, reeled out when he'd dragged the hidden part of the rug from under the couch.

He twisted his neck, raised himself on one elbow just enough to look at the whatever-it-was- and stared.

Wheatley had lost a lot of certainties, recently. Some of them had been good to lose, like the certainty that he was going to be floating helplessly around in space (being continually and excitably reminded of the fact) for the rest of his life, or the certainty that he'd never be able to get anywhere without a rail or a helping hand; and some of them had been downright awful to lose, like the certainty that he had to be good for something, or that everything was mostly more or less bound to turn out sort of alright in the end.

He didn't have many certainties left, now, but he still had this, at least- he could recognise an Aperture device when he saw one.

Slow as a sleepwalker, his hand crept out and touched the connector lead's white-striped, three-pinned head.

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

 
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