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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12. The Fall of Eaden

"Please proceed to the chamber-lock."

They proceeded.

Beyond the interlocked halves of the sliding door, they found not a testing track but several miles of gloomy, emergency-lit corridor, grey and featureless. It had a hurried, half-built look about it, parts of the walls shelled of their brittle ceramic covering, parts of the floor beneath them giving way to clunking swathes of steel mesh.

Orange lagged behind, weighed down by the heavy piece of equipment which the assembly pod- much to Blue's dismay- had connected inextricably to its narrow, rounded back. Blue- still suffering from a minor case of gadget jealousy- exhibited absolutely no sympathy.

They jogged on for the best part of an hour, keeping up an even pace, bickering half-heartedly in their chirping wordless half-language, until eventually the corridor dead-ended in a flat white wall.

Blue shrugged at Orange, who poked the wall with a cautious flat-jointed finger, then leapt back as the whole thing slid apart, juddering and shaking, revealing a great hazy vault of cold air full of strange, blocky, crumbling shapes. It stretched away before them, far beyond the range of their optics- cracked charcoal-grey walls bristling with huge cranelike arms, whole banks of interlocked caterpillar-treads the size of inverted skyscrapers, strung with more and more of the oblong, barcoded shapes. If the two small robots had had any idea of the concept of a 'hatchery', they might have seen the resemblance- hundreds of empty, decaying building-block nests, thousands of broken, suspended crate-things drooping from their guiding crane-arms like abandoned cocoons.

"This is what happens when you leave a moron in charge of a sensitive cryogenic containment facility," the Voice had told them. "There are ten thousand Aperture Science Relaxation Unit Cryo-Chambers in here, and every single one of them is irreparably broken. I doubt that there are even enough functioning parts between them to assemble a thousand functioning chambers. Fortunately, we don't need a thousand functioning chambers."

The Voice drew itself out in a single, long, decidedly wistful note.

"Yet..."

Panels shifted, metal screamed and groaned. Far above them, the great cyclical belts started to turn, grinding in huge juddering scraping pulses like shattering teeth, rotating bank after bank of the suspended units slowly out through the stale static-crackling air. The sound was deafening, like an ocean's worth of pent-up water thundering on metal. It was less of a sound than a feeling, thrumming up through the articulations of their legs from the shuddering catwalk beneath them, rattling their optics in their sockets and sending them staggering back and clinging to the doorway and each other for support.

"This is even worse than I thought. It's going to take quite a while. You two may as well get started. Honestly, it's fine, I don't mind. You just go on ahead while I stay here and do all the hard work."

The thundering vibrations dropped to a dull roar. High above their heads, a long bank of cold-white spotlights buzzed and spat and flickered into life, snowing down years of dust in a milky spindrift as they turned in two sections towards the nearest wall. Blue and Orange looked at each other, then up at the distant pair of bright halos, ten feet apart on the pale age-stained panels and stuttering spasmodically.

"You will see two illuminated areas. I want both of you to place a portal, and then proceed to the elevator."

They proceeded.

The elevator waited at the end of the catwalk, a long, spinelike, arched bridge of mesh and flimsy steel struts which shook and clattered under their feet as they jogged. Far behind them, the dislocated surfaces of the two portals on the high wall- one deep violet, one crimson- shimmered and rolled like oil on water.

They stepped into the elevator. It hissed shut around them, a closing fist that shot them upwards through a hundred dizzying layers of light and shadow, flick-flick-flicking, a barely-glimpsed endless landscape of hanging half-skeletal crates, black against the faint bluish background glow. Down here the light was the optical equivalent of the endless background hum- insubstantial, sourceless, an empty, perpetual reminder that somewhere, She was alive and watching.

The light blinked out, the elevator skimmed up into a new shaft, pitch-black and enclosed, as narrow as a strangled throat. The robots edged impatiently from foot to foot inside the capsule, which- detecting that its passengers were about as organic and conventionally 'alive' as a couple of house bricks- accelerated to a speed that would have forced a human's brain out of their nose like so much runny jam.

After several minutes of humming, high-velocity travel, the elevator hissed to an air-cushioned halt.

The two small robots padded cautiously out into a rounded, domed chamber, small and featureless. The walls were rust-stained and held together with long dribbled lines of welding, patched here and there with frayed, discoloured fragments of posters, bright printed colours faded to pastels and greys, blotched and stained with water and mould. Part of the ceiling had fallen through, and strong overhead lighting streamed down across the gritty floor in sharp-defined swathes.

"Alright," said the Voice, as they squinted up at the bright glow. "Here's the plan. The moron's activated some kind of signal out there. It's an Aperture device, and it's his handiwork, all right- his slimy little signature's all over it. In fact, he might as well have actually signed it 'facility-destroying little idiot'- it would have been just as obvious. The point is, I can't influence the signal, but I can trace it. Whatever it is, it's not moving, and I need you to find it. He wouldn't last five seconds on his own out there, so it has to be somewhere near her. I have no idea why she didn't just drop him in an incinerator while she had the chance, but then, I'm an immeasurable genius and she's a brain-damaged homicidal maniac. I can't be expected to fathom her motivations."

The dented metal walls blinked and flickered. A projection scrolled out across the dirty panels, looping around the entire circumference of the room, a single long string of digits. The two robots twisted to follow it, their bright optics blinking in the patchy, flooding light.

"These coordinates correspond to a location somewhere within the... next chamber. In accordance with standard testing protocols, I am not allowed to communicate with you once you enter, so it is imperative you follow these instructions exactly."

They listened. The line of digits dissolved, reassembled, became a sharp-focused isometric model which drew itself rapidly out against the pitted walls as Her voice echoed on. The model rotated as She spoke, zoomed, showing the watching robots the shape of a simple map- a straight-line route between a green dot and a single radiating, blinking light. Orange nudged Blue and tapped a finger on it, the glow of the projection engulfing the neat little joint.

"And, hey," she said, finally, "be careful out there. This is not a standard test. I'm not kidding, there are a lot of potential hazards. So many terrible things could happen to you, it hardly bears thinking about."

The two small robots exchanged wide, edgy glances. The Voice had their full attention, and- having softened for a moment, almost concerned- it snapped back and sharpened like an unsheathed claw.

"Some of them are probably even almost as terrible as the things which will happen to you if you disappoint me."

With a solid, rusty ka-chunk, a door-shaped gap opened up in the battered wall, cutting the projection in half and filling the small elevator chamber with the vivid, blinding overhead light.

"Good luck."

The projection flicked off.

Step by reluctant step, like a couple of children playing a particularly deadly game of Grandmother's Footsteps, the two robots edged closer to the open doorway. After a moment or two, the glare receded a little, and they could both make out a few rickety steel-mesh steps, leading downwards. Blinking dubiously, Blue shaded its optic with a hand and squinted out into the light, then turned to Orange and gestured an invitation.

After you.

Orange backed off, pigeon-toed, shaking a quick, definite negative.

No way.

Blue rolled its optic, shrugged its linebacker's shoulders, took a step towards the door- then leaped aside, its startled gaze fixed on the chamber wall behind Orange, who whipped round to look and received Blue's solid hydraulic-assisted foot squarely in the middle of its overloaded back. Already teetering under the unaccustomed weight of the extra equipment, the spindly robot staggered, tripped on the edge of the doorway, and vanished with a surprised squeak.

With the point won, Blue followed at once; portal device at the ready and trailing its wobbling fearless here-goes-nothing scream.

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

Wheatley was happy.

It was a peculiar feeling. He'd always considered himself a pro at being happy- perky, lively, generally full of bounce, you name it, being more-or-less sort of upbeat had always been his particular area of expertise. Admittedly, it wasn't that hard for him to put a finger- now that he had fingers- on a specific situation where he remembered not being happy, when for whatever reason he'd felt frustrated or afraid or panicked or just plain bored, but for the most part he'd almost always remained cheerfully, desperately optimistic. He'd never been given to moping- whining, yes, always, but the great thing about having a good old whinge was that it invariably made you feel better afterwards, so you could hardly say it wasn't productive.

The problem was that when he looked back through the blurring stretch of his memories, Wheatley had to admit that his never-ending optimism had run mostly against the grain of reality. From his first hopeful fire-up in the laboratory, through the long list of failed assignments, to the Relaxation Centre and endless years of patrolling and Sleep Mode and lonely boredom, his ability to feel good about himself and his situation had been totally reliant on his own shaky die-hard determination to make the best of things, and to not think too hard about upsetting subjects. When it came down to it, his happiness had completely depended on his ability to not see things the way they really were.

For the first time, he was starting to realise that there were different kinds of being happy. There was a whole sliding scale of happiness- a concept he'd never even dreamed existed- and up until fairly recently, he had only really felt this shallow little hack-job version of his own devising, a flimsy ersatz thing firmly rooted in denial and self-defence. He'd beetled around down There for decades, idling along in neutral, talking to himself and dodging rubble, being cheery for all he was worth and Not Thinking About It. Just like pretending you were capable was better than admitting you were incompetent, being blind and happy was much, much better than having a perfect 20-20 view of Hell. He certainly believed that.

But-

But then he'd met her, and the lines had been redrawn. He hadn't even realised it at the time, but even back then the successes had felt greater, the disappointments harsher, as they'd fought towards freedom together and he'd seen glimpses of- and even tried to imitate- her tight-knit fascinating human depth. He might not have understood it, but he'd seen it just the same, that why-not human determination pushed right up to eleven, her bewildering complexity throwing his own simple little circular self into stark relief.

Not much had changed, really, on that front. She was still bewildering and complicated and scary, she still had the power to awe and terrify him. She was a force of nature, the eye of the storm, she was controlled chaos with a ponytail and a calm, serious slate-grey gaze. She was fast asleep on his chest, and he was deeply, genuinely happy.

There was the difference, right there. This feeling was in a class all by itself, bright, warming, nearly painful but- man alive- worth it, so worth it. Somehow managing at the same time to be brand new and as comfortable as a well-worn track, it felt like it was far too big to fit in this body.

He'd been so caught up in trying to get a handle on the feeling that it had taken him quite a while to realise that she'd drifted off. They'd been talking about astrology; well, he'd been talking about astrology, and she'd been listening and offering the odd word of encouragement (which he hardly needed) and explanation (which he generally did.) He'd pointed out the difference between the distinct types of stars- 'little twinkly ones' as opposed to 'big bright ones'- and moved on to picking out the details of his own carefully-constucted zodiac.

"And that one,"he'd said, pointing, "see, that little sort of letter 'Z' up there, all those little twinkly ones, that one's the Management Rail."

She'd given one of her nose-flaring little snorts. It was a gentle, uncynical sound, and he'd felt it more than he heard it, the slight jerk of her head against his chest.

"Cygnus," she'd said.

"Er, bless you. And over there-"

"That's what it's called," she'd said, gently. "Cygnus. The Swan."

"What- really? They reckon that's a swan, do they? As in, bird, white, long slender neck? Just checking we're on the same page here, because, not gonna lie, I'm- I'm not really seeing the resemblance myself. Management rail, no problem. You can't miss it- look, there's the little connector bit, even- you've got the whole thing there. Just not seeing anything that avian. Oh- hang on though, that's a thought- maybe, right, maybe they've got it upside down!"

He'd made a quick, reproachful little hissy noise. "Classic error. Can't really blame them, though, if that's the case- it's a pretty tiring job, astrology- es-especially for humans, I'd imagine, all that staying up all night waving telescopes about. Person who discovered those stars probably passed spark out on his- on his astrology desk, the next morning, then his assistant or whatever probably comes along, doesn't he, sees the whole star map thing he's been beavering away at all night lying there, upside down, and he thinks, 'ooh, that one looks like a big old swan right there, where's my pen at?' and bang, named, damage done. Tragic."

She'd laughed- silently, but he'd felt that, too. Sight was his absolute favourite sense, and out of the four-and-a-bit he had, it was definitely the one he'd miss the most if he ever lost it again, but just then he'd found himself thinking that maybe it wouldn't be so bad, not being able to see. Not if he could still feel things like that.

He'd wittered on about the Sentry Turret and the Catwalk for a little while after that, one arm propped awkwardly behind his own head, the other tracing tangled and largely incomprehensible shapes in big arcs against the sky. Eventually, he'd registered that she'd stopped responding, and after an initial moment of panic, he'd caught on that she was sound asleep.

She'd been awake for a good long time, now that he thought about it- ever since the previous night when he'd run into her outside the stockroom, and that felt like half a lifetime ago. A lot had happened in a very short time. Wheatley didn't gettired, not physically, at least- to him it was a curious, human concept, running out of oomph when there was nothing physically wrong with your machinery, needing to power down to recharge every few hours- but he had to admit that it would be nice to... switch off, just for a little while. There was no reason why he couldn't. There was nothing pressing to deal with, after all, nothing worrying that needed sorting. For once, there wasn't anything going down at all, apart from her quiet deep-breathing weight on his chest, and the strange-brilliant phantom feeling stirring inside it.

Still grinning like a loon- wondering, vaguely, if it was possible to get stuck this way- he settled back on the grass, and closed his eyes.

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

This is not a standard test, She'd told them.

She hadn't been exaggerating.

This chamber was different from any they had ever solved, any part of the facility the two robots had ever seen. Even the old facility had been nothing like this, the deep-down-under parts they had explored on the search for bits of the thing now plumbed directly into Orange's slender back, the endless dust-tracked forgotten places far beneath Her reach, where abandoned human things still cluttered the halls and the stale air echoed with the strident, arresting voice of a dead man.

This chamber was so big that you couldn't see the walls at all. It had a huge shapeless ceiling which was nearly- not quite- the colour of Blue's optic, wispy with peculiar white fluff. There was an endless draft blowing from nowhere to nowhere, and the floor was covered in tall yellow stuff that looked soft from a distance but whipped and battered stiffly against their legs as they jogged. There were no portal surfaces, no elevators, no Faith Plates, turrets, or Thermal Discouragement beams, not even a single cube. Even more alarmingly, there were no familiar sounds, no dings, buzzes, ticks or crosses, nothing that told them when they were doing something correctly or even making any progress at all.

And-strangest, most disconcerting of all- there was no Voice.

They heard something that sort of sounded like a Negative Value Buzzer at one point, coming out of something sitting on top of a rail in the middle of the yellow leg-battering stuff, but it flapped sulkily off towards the ceiling before they managed to get anywhere near it. They watched it go, a fluttering stark-black rag against the blue, still making its harsh staccato buzz.

Things were weird in this chamber. Blue was the first to discover that if you dug at the floor under the yellow stuff it came away in your hand. You could sort of throw it, but it came apart in powdery drifts and clogged up everything it got into, as they found out by accident when Blue, trying to get rid of the stuff clogged between its fingers, hurled a good half-handful of it directly into Orange's optic. Orange, its attention divided between squeaking indignantly and trying to clear its vision, failed to pay any attention to where it was putting its feet, and promptly trod ankle-deep in a place where the yellow stuff gave way to clear liquid running fast over a bed of tiny irregular-shaped weighted cubes.

Orange threw a panicked fit, dropping its portal device and leaping around like a mad gazelle on one leg, shaking as much of the liquid off its foot as possible, but once it had calmed down enough to submit to a closer examination, they discovered that the liquid didn't appear to have done any damage to its leg at all. It was harmless.

This was probably the point at which both robots decided that- for all its fascinating new features- this chamber was not a place they wanted to stay in for any longer than necessary. Walls you couldn't see were odd, and a ceiling too high to make out properly was even odder, but the idea that someone would make a moat and then fill it with completely benign, non-lethal fluid for no reason wasn't just odd, it was downright creepy.

The two robots trotted along at a quick jog through the endless yellow fuzz. At last, the temperature started to drop, and the lights dimmed in the shapeless ceiling. An assortment of new ones turned themselves on in their place, but they weren't much good, tiny weak pinpricks with no pattern to them in the gathering gloom, and one huge white spotlight, which hung over everything and turned the sea of yellow stuff a ghostly silver around them. They were bewildered by this change, which seemed to indicate some kind of massive localised power failure, but they hurried doggedly onwards all the while, following the single straight line in their heads through the gathering darkness. The shadow-haunted scenery didn't look much like the neat isometric lines of the Plan, but they'd recognised it for what it was as soon as they'd seen it cutting off into the distance beyond the elevator chamber, a dark shallow-worn furrow in the yellow haze.

After all, a corridor didn't have to have a ceiling, or even proper walls, to take you to the solution. It just had to go the right way.

It took a long time. To them, used to challenge and teamwork and frantic split-second activity (and frequent, sudden, impermanent death) it seemed to go on forever. And then, at last, just as they were both absolutely convinced that they'd picked the wrong path, they spotted a vague glow up ahead.

They picked up speed, hurrying onwards, and the silvery-yellow stuff gave way to a softer, greenish substance, and there were more and more rails and even a bristly, odd-looking weighted cube or two. And then, finally, there it was. High above them under the blue-black point-speckled ceiling, still maybe a ten-minute jog away but so close, standing high above the other lights clustered beneath it, there it was.

It was sheer relief to the two little robots to recognise something so definitely right, something that- in the middle of all this strangeness- was exactly the way it had looked on Her Plan. Orange let out a high-pitched little screech of celebration and went into a quick, hippy sort of touch-up shuffle, making the cut-and-shut construction on its back clank and slosh. Blue twisted its torso in a stiff-jointed moonwalking shimmy. The two of them high-fived with a hard metal-on-metal clack, then jogged towards the single, blinking red light.

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

[00004]

Wheatley opened his eyes. The vague sleepy blink of his avatar's eyelids was directly linked to the dual optical channels firing up within, and an observer- had they been standing over him at that exact second- would have been surprised to see his irises flare bright, shallow blue.

[00004]

Numbers. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he had a dim notion that these particular numbers carried some significance, but whatever it was, it it didn't feel particularly urgent. He blinked again and focused on the immediate view, which was limited to grass, stars, and- if he craned his neck- Chell, her dark ponytail falling over his shirt (which, although in dire need of a virtual iron, looked nearly luminous in the moonlight.)

There was something else there, something tiny and unfamiliar perched on the crumpled dark-blueish stripe of his tie, halfway between the blurry tip of his own nose and Chell's sleeping form.

He froze- suddenly wide awake- and stared at it, cross-eyed, focusing as hard as he could. Whatever-it-was had a lot of poky little legs and big long things coming out of its head, and it didn't seem worried about him staring at it at all, even though it was at least a hundred times smaller than he was. As he watched, rooted to the spot, wondering if it was dangerous and whether he ought to either try to flick it off or poke Chell awake or just simply leap up and run for the hills (or, in this case, away from the hills), it drew one of its long back legs against the other, producing a sweet, husky double note.

Skreep-skreep.

"Ohhh," breathed Wheatley. "That's what you are, is it? That's that mystery solved. Funny, you sounded a lot bigger."

The little thing chirped again, then- tik- vanished in a single sproingy hop. He flinched. "Oh come on, no need to take it like-"

[00004]

"AAH!"

He felt Chell start awake and immediately gave himself a hard mental kick for yelling out loud, but it had been impossible not to, with that great sonorous many-toned voice so huge all of a sudden in the back of his mind, resounding through his head like the stroke of a giant, submerged bell.

Chell sat up against him, rolled her shoulders, wincing. "What-"

Wheatley grabbed for his own head, pressing against the shockwave still echoing and fading in his temples. "Nono, it's nothing- it's- I mean, granted I don't actually know what it is to be honest, there's this- this sort of voice- wait- wait, no, I know- it's- it's Foxglove! Keeps saying my name- I mean, not my name, she's not going 'oi, Wheatley', or anything, but it's- well, sort of her nickname, really, for me- my handle, it's- it's a machine thing-"

"In your head?" Chell reached out, touched the long arch of his bent neck, the bare surface just below his hairline.

"Ex-exactly, in- in my head- hey, that's a point, no wires, she's talking to me without wires! Wireless! Huh! That's quite amazing, really, now that I think of it, I didn't even... know she could do that..."

Slowly, Wheatley raised his head. They looked at each other for a long moment, and then Chell was moving, pulling him to his feet, standing as tall as she could against him and staring down towards the firefly lights at the bottom of Otten's Field. Wheatley, with a worried sideways glance, saw that her eyes were narrowed, her jaw set, her body as tense as a trapped nerve.

"Come on." Two sharp, toneless words, and another yank on his arm, and then he was stumbling after her through the long grass, down the whispering slope, desperately trying not to fall flat on his face, which- quite apart from slowing her down- would probably bloody hurt into the bargain, never mind how soft all this grass looked. He'd learned the hard way that just because it seemed nice and fluffy, it didn't mean it was going to be your friend when you went smacking into it at high speed. After the firing range, he wasn't going to fall for that one again.

This had better be something pretty spectacular, he thought, in what he hoped was Foxglove's direction. He didn't have the first idea how to communicate wirelessly, didn't- if he was being brutally honest- didn't even really understand how all of that sort of thing worked, even. It occurred to him then that he probably should have asked Garret for a few more technical details while he had the chance.

Really, when he thought about it like that, it was a bit stupid of him to moan about not understanding how his own systems worked, when he'd never actually tried to find out. Somewhere, there was probably a manual.

Too late now, and all he could do was try to send thoughts in the general direction of up up up and a little forwards. He tried to help them on their way, fixing as sharp a picture as he could of his thoughts zipping through the night and pinging against one of her carefully-positioned satellite dishes, bouncing from there into her great slow stream of almost-consciousness like a single little ball-bearing flicked into the fizzing, ticking heart of a full-sized atomic clock.

Much to his surprise, he actually got a reply.

[error. admin [admin ID: garret_rickey] offline.]

"What?" he said, bewildered. He knew that Foxglove could hear him whether or not he spoke out loud, he could feel his own jittery little communication channel knitted in to the broad ever-streaming flood of data above them- but that wasn't the issue. His heart felt as if it was lodged in his throat (metaphorically speaking, since he had neither,) and he had no idea what was going on beyond the fact that it was more and more starting to feel like a Bad Thing, and he could no more have switched his anxious-autowittering mouth off than he could have suddenly learned to fly.

"I'm not following you- hey hey hey hey Chell- the- the fence thing don't leave me behind-"

Chell, who had cleared the stile at the bottom of the field in a matter of seconds, practically hurdling it in her haste, turned back towards him. He could tell from her edging feet and her pale, set face what it was costing her to stop, even for a second.

"She's- she's saying Garret's gone offline," he said, his words running into each other in their hurry to get out of his mouth before she did a bunk completely and he missed his chance to tell her anything at all, let alone anything that might be useful.

"How?"

"Um- good question, that is a very good question-"

He looked helplessly up into the darkness, the tone of his voice skidding ever-further towards full-on finger-chewing foreboding. "Look, joking aside, love, come on, I think there's a slight possibility that you've got your wires crossed somewhere. There's definitely some kind of misunderstanding going on here one way or another, pretty sure, because- because he can't have just gone offline, he's human, obviously, and humans, humans don't go offline, well, unless- agh!"

Chell grabbed him by the hard-light folds of his shirt, the startling strength in her grip pulling him right down to her level across the bar of the gate, like someone preparing a catapult for firing.

"Boots," she said, very clearly, into his face. "Kitchen cupboard. Go."

"But- it- it can't be anything to do w-"

"Now!"

The word was a punch, an almost-physical shove in the back, not a request or even a demand but a rock-solid marble-carved declaration of what his part in the immediate future was going to be. It went right through him and slammed into the part of his brain usually reserved for his most fundamental protocols. The thought of not going- of arguing the point or stalling or trying to stay with her- simply failed to occur to him, just as it wouldn't have occurred to him to choose not to fall if someone had pushed him off a cliff.

His legs, which most of the time behaved as if they had half a kneecap's worth of common sense and co-ordination between them, suddenly decided that they were actually a proactive, go-getting pair of legs which were Going Places. He was halfway across the field and sprinting in the direction of the town before he even realised what was going on.

He might still have tried to stop, even then, but a snatched glance over his shoulder told him that she'd already pushed through the dark spidery gap in the hedge across the lane, vanishing in the direction of Otten's Field.

It's nothing, he tried to tell himself, ducking through a tangly copse on the edge of the field, getting a low-hanging branch in the face and sticking up an arm just a little too late to ward off what felt like half a tree's worth of its branchy buddies. It's nothing, it's a false alarm. Just a lot of fuss over nothing, it's got to be. We'll laugh about it later.

Oh, he really, really wished he was a better liar.

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

The Plan had worked brilliantly.

Blue was of the opinion that it was the absolute best test they had ever done, even better than the one with all the synchronised moving lasers and the timed panels and the descending ceiling. Orange, who was more cautious, would have advised its companion not to count its chickens before they hatched, but- as previously mentioned- it had no idea what 'hatching' was, and neither of them had ever seen a chicken, either. It might have offered something along the lines of not trying to activate the circuit before the separate components had been point-tested with a multimeter and seen to produce a positive result, but that sounded a lot less catchy and besides, it would have been hell to mime.

Still, a success of this magnitude had to be worth something. Orange prodded the nearest human carefully with the nozzle of its Experimental Device and guessed that, even if She hadn't actually specified a set value per unit, at the very least they were looking at ten whole Science Points, Special Achievements notwithstanding.

Maybe even twenty.

The nozzle left a whitish smudge where it touched, marking the human's pinkish, weirdly malleable casing. Orange started back in alarm, holstering the nozzle- it fitted back into the heavy clip at the side of the Experimental Device, connected by a flexible acrylic hose- then crouched and extended a jointed hand, carefully thumbing the smudge from the human's unresponsive flesh.

She had made that point very, very clear. Damaged humans were useless humans. Useless humans probably weren't worth any Science Points at all. They might even be worth a negative value, and that was a possibility Orange didn't even want to think about. If damaged humans were worth a negative value, it was already in trouble.

An attention-grabbing chirp from Blue made it straighten up, turning away from the single slumped body and stepping gingerly over another, picking its way across.

Blue was standing over another couple of humans, optic narrowed, clearly annoyed. It demonstrated the problem with a few exasperated pantomime tugs. These two humans were still clinging together, motionless but tangled up in each other's arms as if they'd believed the act of hugging each other had some sort of air-purifying, chemical-repellent property. If that really had been their hypothesis, Orange thought, they'd successfully proved it false.

With two of them on the case, it was easy enough to untangle the entwined humans and lie them out side by side on the trampled grass. Blue was still limping a little from the slight setback they'd encountered, and its leg looked like it had had a fight with a Thermal Discouragement Beam and lost, but the limb was still more or less structurally sound. Even in need of maintenance, Blue was still quite capable of lifting a human, which after all only typically weighed a little more than a Weighted Storage Cube, and was a much more flexible, easily-manipulated sort of shape.

The setback had been the only hairy point in an otherwise brilliantly-conceived and perfectly-executed Plan. They'd hardly been able to believe their luck when, following the bright beckoning beacon in the sky and the orange-yellow glow and clamour of strange sounds beneath it, they'd edged quietly through a wall of thick tangly stuff and peered nervously through the last rustling layer, and-

And there they'd been, right in front of them.

Humans.

Dozens of humans.

Dozens of dozens of humans.

They'd only ever seen one human before- THE human- but they were quite capable of processing variance, and these things were definitely the same species. Shorter, taller, different colours, different shapes, but they all firmly lit up as human. All in the same place, all wandering around this rough square of grass right under the beacon- it was like a gift.

Orange had made a shrill excited whinnying noise into its palms, and Blue had clamped a pained hand over its own audial receptor and dealt a sharp warning swat to its companion's narrow shoulder. Humans had audial receptors too- and these humans, in stark contrast to the behaviour they had observed in THE human, were milling aimlessly about and making noises at each other, and that meant they were communicating.

Communication could be a problem.

So Blue had reached up to its broad shoulder and unclipped the thing She had given it, the small black-seamed fist-sized ball. Orange had given a thumbs-up, and Blue had taken the ball in both hands and twisted. At once, the seam had sprung a studded net of little holes, and the whole thing had started to hiss like a severed hydraulic hose. Orange had hopped nervously backwards, but Blue hadn't even hesitated, had just taken a short step up and bowled the thing hard underarm across the grass, out of the thicket concealing them and down the gentle slope. It rolled straight into the crowd of humans, skittered unseen under a long raised platform, and was lost to view.

Ten out of ten.

After that, it had so nearly been perfect. They'd waited a long minute, just long enough to start to worry, and then they'd watched with growing fascination as a small human- tiny, really, with bright red feet- had wobbled dazedly out from under the cloth-draped platform and nearly fallen. It had been caught up and swung into the air by a big, fairly tall sort of human with fluff on its face, who hadn't seemed to think there was anything wrong with it at first, not until another shorter one with a different-coloured casing (and two odd bits of scary grey fluff above its optical lids) had happened to stop on its way past, at which point it had started poking at the small one and making alarmed noises.

A crowd had gathered, which had been perfect because it had brought lots more of them over to the vicinity of the cloth-draped platform and the little hissing ball beneath. And then a flimsy-looking human who'd been particularly close to the action the entire time had just slid to the floor as if someone had hit its killswitch, and they'd all turned and looked, and a few had started hurrying over to help...

It hadn't taken long, after that. The two robots had kept their heads down and watched, utterly riveted. To them, the spectacle was fascinating in the same empty way that watching an aquarium is fascinating- an inscrutable, enthralling stampede, dozens of complex organic programs linked together by a single goal, a flurried ballet of near-random movement.

The smarter humans, those quicker on the uptake- notably, a big sort of grizzled one with a huge, ringing, urgent voice- had tried to execute an evacuation, marshalling the smaller and the already-succumbing towards them, trying to drag them away- but whatever had been inside the little ball was swift-acting and by then it had already been too late. Blue and Orange had waited a good few minutes, until the confusion and the following flat-out panic had subsided, and even the hardiest of the humans in the field had stopped running around like androids with their heads knocked off and dropped quietly and manageably to the trampled grass.

So they'd thought, anyway. In retrospect, Orange thought they probably should have waited a bit longer, but they'd both been so eager to get on with Phase Two and besides- with their somewhat shaky grasp of the entire concept of a 'lie'- it hadn't even occurred to them that humans, like Her, could actually be sneaky.

So they'd shouldered out of the tangle of bushes and out of cover, and jogged happily down the darkened slope into the wide circle of scattered lights below the beacon. Blue had scrabbled under the four-legged platform-thing and retrieved the little ball, which was still hissing weakly away to itself, and twisted it into silence with another sharp two-handed movement.

Together, they had leaned over the nearest slumped, sleeping human (the one with the alarming fluff over its eyes, as it happened)- and that was when the setback had occurred.

It had happened incredibly fast. Blue had prodded the human, gently, and- as if its squashy casing had been a trigger- a tremendous explosive report like a small turret blowing up had knocked the shorter robot's left leg out from under it. The impact hurled Blue flat onto its back in the grass with a shower of sparks and a high shocked warbling scream, its portal device transcribing a neat ten-foot arc in the other direction.

Orange had screamed too, on an even higher note, and in a single movement had thrown itself heroically and supportively under the cloth-draped platform.

Blue, trying frantically to right itself, had heard a thick double KA-KRACK sound from behind it. Rolling over, it had found itself staring directly up the barrel of something long and smoking and distinctly unfriendly-looking.

"Get away from her," the fluff-faced, stocky human holding the thing had said, although it had been a bit muffled because of the torn strip of fabric knotted around its mouth and nose, and Blue had absolutely no idea what it was saying, anyway. It had scrabbled upright, sparking, hydraulic fluid spilling from the brand-new blackened hole in its leg, and backed away from the human, optic flicking side-to-side, looking for a way out.

The human had raised the smoking thing, the stock of it glowing faint scarlet around its hands- and then it had hesitated. Blue wasn't sure, but it thought that the human might have been staring at the small Aperture logo heat-printed neatly just below the level of its optic, sharp black on white.

"What-"

The human might have been about to say something else, but at that point Orange- having very carefully circumnavigated the table from beneath- had bounced up behind it with a panicky sort of run-up hop and hit it hard in the back of the head with a wooden crate. The wood had caved with a dry, dessicated snap, and the human had dropped like an elevator with its cable cut. Basement floor, no waiting.

Orange had looked stricken, tossed the remains of the crate aside with a clatter, and stared down at the human, trying to assess the extent of the damage. Blue, who was understandably less concerned about the welfare of the thing that had nearly shot its leg off, had signed a quick thankful That-was-close at its companion and checked itself over, limping a bit but otherwise none the worse for wear.

Now...

The two of them left the disentangled pair of humans and padded carefully around the generator and the abandoned cluster of equipment, past the dilapidated-looking vehicle-thing parked next to it, and over to the side of the tall redwood structure beyond.

Orange's device did not actually turn out to require that much precision. It was literally accurate to say that anyone capable of hitting the side of a barn at five paces would have been able to operate it perfectly. Orange simply unhooked the hose from the right-hand side- it disengaged from the main, backpack-like part of the device with a satisfying clack- aimed it at the flaking, red-painted wood of the wall, chirped adramatic, self-important stand-back, and opened the valve on the nozzle.

The device jolted, rumbled, let out a few ominous, coughing noises, and then, with a noise like the violent clearing of a giant, horribly phlegmy throat, a viscous splat of white goop hurled itself out of the nozzle at a speed just below that of a standard military crowd-control water-cannon. The sheer force with which the stream of goop struck the wood knocked Orange flying backwards with a squawk, and by the time Blue managed to stop falling about with chittering laughter long enough to come to the rescue, the barn wall was dripping with the stuff, the hose was thrashing and writhing around on the white-puddled grass like a dying snake, and a goop-splattered Orange was chasing it in small, frantic circles, stamping at it like a monkey with a vendetta against its own tail.

Blue slammed its own broader foot sharply down on the nozzle, pinning it, and Orange scrabbled to turn it off, finally managing to holster it with a wet clack. The device gurgled and choked into sulky, dripping silence.

Blue glanced at Orange, who blinked back and shook itself thoroughly, spraying goop. A shared nod, and the two of them turned to face the oozing, white-soaked barn wall.

Time for Phase Three.

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

Long before she reached the border of Otten's Field, Chell knew that something was horribly wrong. She didn't suspect, she knew, she knew it in her gut- a sick freefalling pitching sensation, a skin-crawling certainty that grew stronger with every second.

She felt cold, near-dizzy, sweat springing out on her forehead and her arms, and the fresh, gentle night breeze was a chilly knifeblade against her face. It seemed to take an age to reach the warm scatter of lights around the base of the tower- it seemed to take a lifetime to even get closer. Nightmarish echoes stirred in the back of her mind, the dreams in which she ran and ran through blue-humming darkness, towards a distant glow she could never reach.

She jumped the scrubby ditch and pushed her way through the hedge, not feeling the whipping sting of brambles against her bare skin, stumbling through the long grass towards the edge of the lights. She could hear nothing, nothing at all, no music, voices, chatter, laughter, not a single human sound. Only the breeze, the dry rattle of branches against the barn, and the deep underlying rumble of the generator.

At last, she shouldered out into the light, the open space of the field - stood, breathing hard, eyes shock-blank- speechless.

The field was empty.

Two portals- just as she remembered, exactly as she remembered, two eye-twisting surreal shimmer-edged holes in the world- gaped side-by-side on the white-splattered side of the Otten's barn. One blue, one orange, but- they weren't linked, this detail speared through her shock like a splinter and struck her marrow-deep. The view through each portal wasn't night sky and lantern-light and trampled, white-spattered grass; it was pale-grey straight-angled surfaces and harsh flat light and something below- an endless, blue-traced, spiralling tube.

It took her a second at most to see it all, her adrenalin-spiked mind racing in scissor-straight angles from point to point, a deadly game of join-the-dots with one inevitable, awful solution.

The flattened grass. The scatter of things lying where they'd fallen, a sad little ghost-ship litter of humanity- a hat, a shawl, a broken glass. A faint, sweet, slightly back-of-the-throat taste to the air-

Chell took a single, dreaming step forwards. This- all of this- was so near to the worst of her nightmares that she could hardly process it at all. Her mind couldn't hold on to it, her sense of reality groped desperately for a wake-up call, something familiar, real-

Her bare foot crunched down on a mess of broken, splintery wood. A biting pain shot through her heel, and she stiffened and looked down, recognised the remains of her own bread-crate, shattered and spotted in one place with dark-drying reddish flecks.

Oh, now she was awake.

She heard a sharp surprised chitterof a sound to her left and looked up so fast her neck cracked- it still hadn't forgiven her for falling asleep on Wheatley's awkward-angled chest- and there, just by the side of Aaron's abandoned truck-

She stared at the two robots, and the two robots stared back. She knew them at a glance- she would have known that they were Aperture tech at a hundred paces, but that didn't even matter- she'd seen them before. The memory was dim and blurred by time and pain and exhaustion; the sound of Her voice, the terrible effort of trying to force her aching, unresponsive body to move. She remembered the terror of immobility, of being a near-helpless spectacle for the two pale odd-jointed shapes as they leaned curiously over her, their optics wide with a bright, blank sort of interest.

Four years, and they looked exactly the same as she remembered. There were only three differences that she could make out. The first- and most prosaic- detail was the blackened fist-sized hole in the blue-eyed one's left leg. She could see clean through it.

Secondly, she'd thought they were bigger- but now, in the scattered lamplight, she could see that although their bodies were both to roughly the same scale as her own- limbs, feet, shoulders, hands- the orange-eyed one was several inches shorter than she was, and the blue-eyed one barely came up to the level of her sternum.

Third, they were better-equipped. The orange-eyed one was wearing something like a clunky, cylinder-stacked backpack, with a thick nozzled hose clipped to one side of the frame, all splattered with the same familiar white goop. She'd known it on sight, the instant she'd seen the side of the barn, and the bitter chemical sour-chalk stink of it made her gorge rise.

In both their right hands- jointed, three-fingered claws- she recognised something even more familiar- something she hadn't set eyes on for four years and hadn't ever, ever wanted to see again, but here they were, two of them, two sleek, white-black, glow-muzzled streamlined shapes.

A small crease appeared between Chell's eyebrows, the first outward sign of emotion to appear since she'd arrived. She looked at the shorter, blue-eyed robot. It was holding something else in its free hand, carelessly, forgotten as the two of them stared back at her like a couple of squirrels caught raiding a garden feeder.

She recognised that, as well, the thing the blue-eyed robot was holding. You tended to remember things you'd risked your neck over, and for the sake of the soft-worn greenish thing in the robot's claw- well, for the sake of its owner- she had once hung herself upside-down twenty feet over a rain-swollen storm-drain, trying to hook it to safety with a forked branch.

The blue-eyed robot blinked, and followed the direction of her stare down to Linnell. It seemed to realise that this was an incriminating object, because it started and hurriedly tried to pass the toy to its orange-eyed companion, who swatted it away with a noise like an annoyed dial-up modem.

Like the stroke of twelve in a spaghetti-western standoff, Linnell flopped to the grass. By the time it landed, the three remaining participants in the fight for Eaden were moving, paralysis discarded, a flurry of white-blue-orange on one side, on the other a blur of faded denim and tight, cold, clockwork-wound rage.

Turning to race for their waiting portals, the two robots encountered a serious setback- the truck. It sat directly in their path, a big rusting board-sided roadblock, the cab door still hanging open, just as the sneaky human with the cloth over its face had left it when it had grabbed its weapon from the flatbed.

Orange didn't hesitate- planting one spindly foot on the convenient stepped joint of Blue's plated hip, it boosted itself up, clambered frantically over its companion's body as if Blue was nothing more than a slippery spherical ladder, fell headfirst into the splintery flatbed, and vaulted over the other side with a jubilant squeak. Blue, who with its damaged leg and lack of height had zero chance of following without help, screeched angrily after it, then turned back to see where the human had got to. It screamed again in warbling terror and ducked, and a long steel pole with a spiky jointed thing bunched up at one end shanked humming through the air and slammed into the side of the truck where its optic had been half a second before.

Orange sprinted across the clear grass to the gel-smeared barn wall. Realising that Blue had failed to follow, it jogged the last few yards backwards, hopping from foot to foot in an agony of indecision- then made up its mind and ducked straight through the orange portal, vanishing from sight with a sound so subtle it was barely a sound at all; a tiny, edge-of-hearing thht.

A moment later, the portal vanished as well.

Blue would very much have liked to follow, but Chell had other ideas. Her attack left a dent roughly the length of a human arm in the truck's rusted bodywork, sending the robot ducking desperately to the left. It tried to sprint clockwise around the truck, but Chell swung the pole in a long arc, great loops of cable spooling through the air in its wake, and slammed it across the robot's path like the world's fastest and least friendly parking barrier. Effectively clotheslined, Blue hit the grass hard, the sharp scapula-like edges of its shoulderplates biting into the grass and ripping up shreds of ploughed turf.

It rolled, scrambled to its feet- and promptly tripped headlong over a tufty thing which some inconsiderate human had left sitting all on its own by the generator. It was one of the things that it had seen on the way- roughly the same size and shape as a Weighted Storage Cube, and just as unhelpful to suddenly receive in the shins.

Before it could scrabble upright again, Chell took two fast steps up behind it, whipped the pole around, and drove it downwards as hard as she possibly could.

There was a thick, whispering crunch.

Blue twisted, skreebling in bewildered panic. It tried to get up, and then it tried to scoot backwards, and finally it just tried to move, but it was thwarted by one important factor. The long pole of the microphone jutted upwards through the hole in its leg, as neat as a threaded needle, pinning it to the haybale like a butterfly on a corkboard.

Chell hung on to the jointed end of the pole with both hands, her face set, grinding it down with all her weight as Blue grabbed the other end in its free hand and tried, with increasing urgency, to pull itself loose. The robot tugged, heaved, then threw all its weight into a frantic volley of clattering yanks, and despite Chell clinging limpet-like to the other end like rodeo-rider with a deathwish, the pole slid out of the tight-packed straw in a series of three-inch jerks, finally slipping from the hole in Blue's leg and allowing the robot just enough room to hurl itself free.

Hopping-limping-stumbling backwards, Blue fell against the outer side of the open truck door, striking a resonant clannng and a tired spark from the dented metalWith spooky rattlesnake speed, Chell kicked the pole up into her hands and swung- but Blue had the measure of it this time, and it ducked and clawed a handful of sandy dirt from under its own shoulderplate, hurling it into her face. She fell back a step, spitting and gagging, and Blue used the second this bought to dodge around the open door, placing it between them.

This turned out to be the worst mistake it could possibly have made.

Chell swiped the earth from her face with the back of her arm, and for a moment the human and the robot stood staring at each other through the smeary window- Blue silent and trigger-poised, Chell wet-eyed and dirt-freckled and thinking. A moment, that was all- and then Chell snapped into life like a flipped switch, and shoulder-charged the truck door.

She barely even seemed to accelerate, going from perfect stillness to top speed in no slice of time at all, and as Blue tried to jump back she hit the metal with her entire weight riding on the edge of her shoulder and drove it forwards on its hinge. The heavy door slammed with a hollow WHOK, chewing down on the thinnest point of Blue's articulated right arm- the single length of unshielded tubing that served as both ulna and radius, just above where its wrist disappeared into the double-shelled, vaguely gunlike portal device.

Chell seized the handle and dragged the door halfway open, slammed it again, dragged it open, slammed it again. She was screaming, but hardly any sound was coming out at all, her throat clogged with earth and sheer stomach-knotting fury, and for the most part the only sounds were the crunching WHOK WHOK WHOK of the increasingly bent-up truck door, and Blue's hysterical screeching. The robot kept trying to yank its arm out of the door in the narrow window of opportunity between each WHOK, but the first impact had damaged something fairly vital to the control of the limb, and every time it tried the next WHOK drove it right back in again.

Chell had no idea how many times she slammed the truck door. She lost count- it could be argued that she'd temporarily lost quite a few things- and then finally there was one last locking WHOK, blended with a sharp metallic crack like a descending guillotine, and the blue-eyed robot fell backwards onto the grass, white-blue sparks arcing and skittering prettily from the flattened, dented stump of its right arm.

Chell dragged the truck door open one last time and grabbed the portal gun from the worn leather of the driver-side seat, hugging it to her chest and backing off. She watched the robot like a hawk, head down, her breath making ragged winded sounds in the back of her throat.

Blue clawed one-handedly upright. It took one horrified look at the grim-eyed human standing haloed in the lanternlight, at the fluid-spattered portal device in the human's arms, at its own right hand still clutched around the trigger in a mechanical deathgrip, sparking and twitching like a lizard's severed tail.

Blue turned, and ran for its life.

Chell made no attempt to stop it. She stood very still- breathing- trying to breathe. She could feel hydraulic fluid running down her arm, corkscrewing icily to the point of her elbow as she watched the blue-eyed robot stagger-run across the grass and hurl itself through the portal.

Something moved behind her, just inside the periphery of her vision. She whipped round, swinging the portal gun like a club, and came within an inch of clocking Wheatley clean into the middle of the next calendar month.

"Aaahh! It's me, it's me, don't hit me, it's me!"

Chell felt her head clear, just a little. It was hard to speak, every word having to fight through the terror in her gut and the twisting black rage that was driving her pulse up into a dull freight-train hammer, but in that moment she was so floodingly glad to see him that it hurt.

"You- you chopped his hand off! His whole bloody hand! Are you- are you alright? What... what happened? Where is everyone?"

He sniffed, wrinkled his nose.

"Urghh- that- that is not a good smell. Can- can you smell that? Like- like almonds..."

She shook her head, wordlessly. Her throat was airlock-tight, dry as a desert. It was as if her vocal cords knew what was coming, understood enough to take over and wrap her up in a pre-emptive shield of silence.

Wheatley looked past her to the gel-splattered barn wall, the slow-swirling shape of the remaining portal. He swallowed, his own throat jerking, and the next thing he said came out small and flat and punctured, barely recognisable at all.

"...oh."

The boots were slung, forgotten, over his shoulder. Chell grabbed them and shoved the portal gun into his arms. She needed both hands to tighten the straps, and she leaned against his legs for balance, working as fast as she could.

Wheatley juggled awkwardly with the portal gun, nearly dropping it, cradling it in his long static-grimy palms with an appalled look fixed to his face, like a child-phobic bachelor who has suddenly found themselves holding someone's baby. As he steadied it, clumsily, the blue-eyed robot's hand twitched a final time and slipped from the trigger. It landed on his foot, its boneless jointed fingers flopping over the scarred rubber toe of his sneaker like the legs of a stunned tarantula.

"Come on," said Chell, and this time her voice came more easily, and she pulled herself up on his arm, testing the springs beneath her heels. She kept an eye on the remaining portal, willed it with everything she was worth not to close, to stay, knowing that as every second passed she was pushing her luck more and more- she didn't think there was any way to close it without the gun but she couldn't be sure-

She took it out of his unresisting hands, burying her right hand in the sleek concave mould of the trigger grip, hefting the weight in both arms. Her mind was already moving, mapping itself out in a steady, linear chain- through the portal, the short drop on the other side, the slow-drifting helix-spun tunnel of blue light.

"Wheatley, come o-"

And then she stopped.

She stopped because she finally looked up, and saw his face. She stopped because she saw him, his twitching, trembling hands knotting his tie up in a strangled rope, his eyes too wide and flicking frantically away in every direction as if they really wanted to bolt out of their sockets and get a head start on the rest of him. But, mainly, she stopped because she saw his feet, which were taking little tiny shuffling steps backwards.

Away.

Chell looked up, slowly, from his feet to his face. What she saw there struck through her chest like ice, flash-freezing her insides into ugly, jagged chunks.

He was trying to smile.

It was hard to tell, because his face was refusing to respond properly- it was as if the protocols that controlled his avatar's expression had decided they wanted no part in something so completely insincere. It was a frayed mockery of his usual bonkers stop-the-press front-page grin, and if it was genuine, he could have sued his eyes for libel. One look at it, and the week of warm, tentative peace they'd shared crumbled away from underneath her, and she was back There, in the tunnel, when he'd looked down at her bleeding at his feet and forced his brand new mouth into a smile just as curdled as this one, and said you've got things pretty much under control there, right? and she'd tried to say I'm dying, don't you understand I'm dying and the numb, weary, horribly wise voice at the centre of her had answered yes, he understands. He just doesn't care.

"Wait- wait a second..."

She looked at him. A very faint crease appeared at the top of her nose, and the muzzle of the portal device slipped a fraction of an inch floorwards, but she didn't say a word.

"I- I- I don't think this is a good idea," said Wheatley. Hysteria jittered at the edges of the words, as if he was trying to talk faster than he could think, trying to out-race his own mind so he didn't have to hear the words he was saying. "I- I don't think you've absolutely, entirely thought this through- not blaming you! Not blaming you in the slightest, ha, no, you're hardly in any fit state to be weighing up the pros and cons of this particular situation, umm, as we speak- so- so why not let me? Because I have to say on a- on a preliminary assessment I'm not seeing a huge amount of pros, on the side of 'going in there.' Lots of cons, definitely, got cons coming out of its ears, this idea- almost certain death, that's a good one-"

His voice cracked. He prodded Blue's ex-hand miserably with the toe of his sneaker, turning it over on the grass.

"-whereas- whereas, pros of- of- of 'not going in there,' are- are massive! I- I mean, it's not like- it's not like She's going to come after us, is it? Not now, She's got- she's got a whole town full of test subjects to be getting on with, now!She's hardly going to bother with us, I mean, we're hardly top priority- let's face it, she thinks you're a bloody loony anyway, killed her twice, you got that on your record- and- and me, why would she want me, I'm not even human! We could- we could... just... go..."

He trailed off.

In the silence, the quiet scratch and clatter of branches against the barn sounded much louder than it should have. The wind had picked up, and clouds were scudding across the face of the moon.

"Those... 'test subjects'," said Chell, at last, "are my friends."

There was something terribly wrong with her voice. It was colder than cryosleep, colder than the frost-rimed tunnels under the facility, toneless, lifeless. To Wheatley it sounded worse- much worse- than Hers, infinitely more terrible, because it belonged to her and she had never sounded like this before, ever, her voice had never been aimed at him like this, perfectly on-target as always and sharp as a diamond-tipped drill, her voice had never frozen and burned and shut him out like a slamming door.

Something catastrophic seemed to be happening to the stomach he didn't have. It felt as if it was plummeting to around the level of his knees, and the small blurry voice at the back of his mind- the one that seemed to have a better idea of what was happening than he did- chose this moment to act as interpreter. This feeling, it informed him, meant that he'd just made a bad- awful- hideous- cataclysmically terrible mistake.

Chell was shaking her head, slowly. Perhaps she had an inner interpreter, as well- it certainly looked as if she did, right now. She looked like someone who was finally making themselves listen to some kind of ghastly, staggering truth, something nearly too appalling to accept.

"They're your fr-"

She broke off, mouth tightening to a bloodless line, staring up at him, and it turned out that there was something else inside him that he hadn't even been aware existed, because what he saw in her face at that moment tore a great ragged hole straight through the middle of it, whatever-it-was, left it fluttering in stricken shreds.

"No- wait, wait, Chell, please don't give me that look, just listen, alright, listen! We-we-we can't go back in There, we can't, can't- and, and I don't want you t-"

She cut him off, mid-word. "You're right."

He blinked, the smallest beginnings of a real, half-credulous, relieved-as-anything smile starting to twitch at the edges of his face.

"I... I am?"

"You're not human," she said, and then her face twisted and she turned away and leaped hard into the portal that still shimmered on the splattered wall. There was a final thick-sprung clunk as she kicked off from the very edge of the solid ground where it met the wall, a last glimpse of her dark flying hair as she dropped, and then she vanished from sight.

"Hey- hey nononononono come back come back COME BACK-"

He hurled himself after her, felt something like a tiny, echoing thht- thought wait, how can you feel a noise- and smacked hard into a solid, sour-stinking something, something that went THUD in his face and knocked him sprawling on his back on the churned-up grass, staring up at the blank, white-splattered barn wall.

The portal was gone.

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

 
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