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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9. The Last Resort

"I knew it! I knew she had to have something up her sleeve, I knew it was too good to be true! Saves me, brings me back here with all her little humany friends, makes out like she cares, bloody talks to me even, ohh, I knew it, knew she had to be planning something! And all that talk about my memories yesterday, well- well, that just goes to show she probably knew all along, didn't she? Surprised she could even keep a straight face, listening to me going on about my first memory back there, knowing it was all basically rubbish. Clever. Clever girl. Been playing me like- like some sort of, of really easy game. Ludo. Snap. Marbles. Playing me like a... a game of... marbles..."

Wheatley trailed off. He was curled up against the sofa, the lead in his hands, staring down through it into a world of his own. Whatever the scenery was like down there, in the sorry little dimension his mind was currently inhabiting, it probably wouldn't have made for a very attractive holiday brochure.

The bitter inner voice, the one that had so often been proved right and therefore had more confidence in itself than the rest of him put together, wouldn't be silenced. There was a horrible note of triumph in it, now, the smug I-told-you-so recklessness of something with nothing left to lose.

He could remember everything he'd dreamed since they'd left the facility, every scratchy, glitchy old human memory that being hurled into this new body had knocked loose, sent skittering into his head as he slept. He remembered her. The human- his mind cringed abjectly from the idea, pinioned like something clamped into a cage, desperate but unable to flinch away- the human he'd been- had known her.

Had wanted to-

And she'd probably seen everything, on her little screen there. She'd hooked his head up to this- thing, and she'd had a good old look. She'd probably seen it all, the whole lot, and just thinking about that made him feel sick and panicky and something else, harder to describe but something like rummaged through, his mind left carelessly open like a reference book she'd skimmed and tossed aside. It wasn't a good feeling- or, come to that, a new one.

"Just- just wasn't enough for her, was it? Not good enough me just telling her, about my memories, like she asked, ha, no, had to go and apply her tricky little human problem-solving brain. Probably thought, yeah, fair enough it looks like he's properly trying to remember, first memory and everything, but I know old Wheatley, can't trust a word he says, how about I just stroll in and have a look for myself?"

He twitched, the sick choking phantom feeling screwing itself up in what he had no reason to call his throat. He strangled the striped cord between his hands and curled up tighter, trying to overwrite it, trying to bring back the way he'd felt at the very end– that wonderfully blank, empty, painless feeling of being nothing.

"Why didn't she just-"

He stopped, his rising, cracking voice cutting itself off in mid-sentence. Another memory-

[why

why didn't she just

just hold on why didn't she pull me back in I COULD HAVE FIXED EVERYTHING I could

(space I'm in space)

blows up it'll be her own fault and good riddance I could have FIXED IT it would have been brilliant, it would have been a TRIUMPH if it hadn't been for her and her best potato buddy back there, and now I'm in BLOODY SPACE and what am I supposed to do now? What am I

(I'm in space)

she should have let go while I was still connected! Selfish! Selfish, arrogant, traitorous little- you know what, I bet they planned this, all along, the whole time! I bet She was in on it right from the start. Probably having a party, now. A Wahey-We-Got-Rid-Of-Wheatley party. You know, if I'd had a party I would have invited you, love! Because that's MANNERS! Oh, she's never going to hear me, is she? Not up here in bloody space.

(ohmygod ohmygod space)

if she is, actually, still alive. Suppose, all those explosions, fire, whole place coming down round our ears, not to mention the whole sort of oxygen issue up here, she might've kicked the bucket. Or She- assuming they weren't both in on it, and haven't ruled that out, them both being in on it, definitely haven't ruled that out- She might have killed her.

well it's your own fault if you're dead, love! You have nobody but yourself to blame for that one! No good trying to pin it on muggins here, not this time, you've gone and done yourself out of your own alibi! Didn't think that one through, did you?

still can't hear me. Space. Keep forgetting.

(spaaaaaaace ah ah ah I'm in space)

you could have held on to me! You could! Kept your grip, practically all you were bloody good for anyway, grip, jumping, buttons, tests... and the portals... and yes, the odd logical conundrum, like that whole turret scanner rigmarole, and the lasers, but- but who flagged them up for you in the first place? Huh? Who woke you up, who got you that far? That's right, me! I did! And what thanks do I get? You didn't even catch me! You never caught me, even though I told you I could have died, falling off my rail! Even- even if you weren't in Her pocket the whole time- even if you were just trying to escape and therefore- and therefore completely blameless in the matter, that still doesn't get you off the hook for not catching me that first time! Even if you really were, only trying to escape, get up to the surface, like

(spaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaace)

like I

I...

oh... no.]

Wheatley's fingers uncurled, letting the knotted ball of cord flop to the rug like a throttled snake.

It hadn't taken him long to realise what he'd done. Freed from the fever-pit embrace of the mainframe, freed from the Itch and its endless drip-feed of desperate poison, his own shaky sense of reason had crept back in freezing threads. It had been like watching a single cold spotlight slowly turned up over the scene of some awful disaster, being forced to keep looking at the wreckage he'd caused until every horrible detail was picked out with perfect, illuminated clarity. Spiralling deeper into lunar orbit, with Kevin screaming unhinged glee in his audial processor all the while, he'd had nothing to do but regret, nothing to be but sorry.

Am I still sorry?

The question scraped at the back of his mind- weak, tired, but no less important for it, groping blindly for his attention.

Sorry. Sorry for everything, sorry for the things he'd said and done and tried to do, sorry for the trust he'd lost, sorry for repaying the faith she'd shown in him with that immediate, shameless betrayal- he was, and he always would be. Nothing was going to change that, not this loop of wire in his lap, not the pain in his neck or the unwanted human memories battering against his fragile train of thought like acid sleet. He was still sorry, not just because of where his actions had left him, not just because he'd known, floating up there, that if he ever got the chance to speak to her again, he'd bloody well better seem contrite if he wanted any help from her at all. He knew that he was sorry like he knew his optic was blue, or that the little sticker mouldering away somewhere in the dark a whole world away, still clinging in shreds to his old body's battered shell, had once read BRAZIL.

Maybe if he told her that, or at least tried, if he just went to her and told her that he was still sorry, honestly completely sorry, but he didn't want what she'd given him, if he told her he didn't want this unbearable landslide of understanding that made him doubt everything he'd thought he was- and worse, everything he'd ever thought he was capable of being- she might take it back. The bitter little voice of his paranoia, most of its venom drawn, snorted faintly at this, but he managed to ignore it.

"Not likely, but possible," he croaked. "She might."

He stood up, shakily, clinging to the edge of the big table like a mountaineer who has just spotted a goat chewing through their only safety line, the old wood (washed spotless after that morning's baking) cool and grainy under his avatar's splayed palms. Moving as carefully as possible (and yet still managing to hit every single squeaky floorboard with an accuracy no observer would have believed accidental) he felt across the room and up the narrow stairs, just grazing the low arch of the landing, and stopped outside her bedroom door.

No glimmer of ambery light, this time. No light at all, just an open door and an empty room, blankets neat and cushions piled in the pale stripe shafting in behind him from the upstairs landing's one small high window. His own shadow looked warped, far too long, a dark menacing odd-angled thing sprawling across the floor, and he backed away from it in a hurry and retreated back down the yowling, creaking stairs.

Now what now what now what-

Where was she? Had she just nipped out for a stroll? Considering what she must have seen in his head- had the notion that this human had harboured a bit of a- a thing for her all that time ago- had the very idea been so horrifying that she'd just taken off, unable to stay in the same building as him for one more second?

Desperately, he felt through the disorganised mess of log files in his head, all the way down to the neat tidy bundle of the avatar's human-behaviour protocols. The parts of code that belonged to the small information-heavy light-bee felt much less like him than any of the data that he'd carried with him from his old spherical body- it hadn't had the chance to wear in yet, to gain any of the illogical little quirks and peculiarities he tended to etch into the coding he had to access on a daily basis, all the neat shiny corners of the alogrithms knocked off and various impractical shortcuts and unweildy memonics scratched over the top, the route markers of his own rambling, organic trails of thought. The avatar device's unique coding was still mostly free from his [intelligence dampening] influence, and with her missing he found himself reaching frantically for it like a higher authority, the only one he had left.

"There's got to be something in here. Some sort of protocol, little How-To guide- How To Get Rid Of Human Memories, that'd be a good one, that would be absolutely ideal right now- nnnnot readily apparent, though, if it is in here it is bloody well hidden. Would help if there was an index, of some kind... search function... anything? Anything useful at all?"

[Error. Please contact an engineer.]

"Right, that's- No, useful, I said. Full. Not less. I can't contact an engineer, reason; they're all dead. Unless I- held a seance- no, that probably isn't feasible, at this stage. All the engineers are dead, fairly sure about that. Neurotoxin, probably, got them in the end- it is pretty lethal stuff, as the name suggests. Anything else?"

[Error. Please contact an engineer.]

"No. Hm. I suppose I could improvise a sort of ouija board, a communicative tool of some s- wait. Wait, wait, hang on-"

Wheatley turned in the centre of the small front room, blinked sightlessly, pupils flaring brief bright blue in the gloom, scrabbling through the thready white-dark-amber complexity behind his eyes.

"An engineer... does it- does it, actually, specify what kind?"

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

Chell walked south from the bottom of Otten's Field, the tall shadow of Foxglove at her back, heading through the long grass for the series of small, gentle-sloping hills known locally as the Boneyards. She closed her eyes and turned her face to the starry sky, felt the breeze on her closed eyes and sweat-damp forehead, and breathed.

The night was pleasant, fresh, quiet. She'd thought she'd heard something howl off in the distance, a little while ago, but although she'd stood quite still and listened for a whole minute's worth of even breaths, she'd heard nothing else. This was something that had taken her a little while to get acclimatised to, but it wasn't by any means unusual. Out here, as peaceful as it seemed, there was often something- fox, owl, coyote, even a wolf, sometimes- screaming in the night.

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

THUD.

Garret Rickey stuck an arm under his bed and grabbed the long metal-bound case from the dusty, parts-strewn shadows underneath, pulled it out onto the rug, flipped up the catches. He had been going over the blueprints for a particularly uncooperative servo relay at the sloping architect's desk in his chaotic attic room when the noises had started downstairs, which was why he was already fully-dressed and on-the-ball- if extremely tired, bleary-eyed, and not in the best of tempers.

There were a number of reasons he could think of to explain why someone might be making loud noises inside Eaden General in the middle of the night, and none of them were particularly good. Aaron wasn't expected back for a good ten hours on the inside, it had been a pretty fair business week, and he was alone. Foxglove was Garret's consuming interest and he would happily have spent every waking minute on her if he could, but the old man was the closest thing to family he had, and for as long as he was away from the store, Garret would Take Care of Business.

He took the stairs, edging past twenty precariously-stacked boxes of cornflour which Aaron had chosen to store halfway up the staircase, ducked under the stepladder leaning crossways across the stairwell. He walked carefully through the darkened stockroom with the ease of ten years of total familiarity, and stopped by the door, waiting for a clue, a further noise that would give him a sense of where the intruder had got to.

Something, obligingly, went CRASH.

Garret repositioned his hands, reached out, breathed, than in one quick movement flicked the lightswitch by the doorjamb and hit the handle.

"Okay, buddy, what the hell are- jesusChristalmighty! Wheatley?"

"Listen," said Wheatley. He was leaning over the counter, inches from his face, wide-eyed, mad-haired, clingy with bits of dirt and tree. He was also at his absolute loomiest, so distracted that he was entirely forgetting to slump and therefore looked every one of his seventy-nine inches. "It's very, very important that you listen. I need you to stick a thing in my head."

"Wheatley, I could've shot you!"

Wheatley blinked. They were nearly face-to-face (well, face-to-neck) in the sudden light flooding the store, the strings of bare light-bulbs strung ivylike among the high rafters. Somewhere out beyond the open doorway, a dog barked.

"With what?"

Wordlessly, Garret snapped the safety back on the hefty SPAS-12 pump-action shotgun in his hands. It was practically an antique, but that only meant that Garret had had more time and more spare parts available to recondition it, improve it, and generally mess around with it in ways its original inventor had never dreamed possible. The stock traced his hands in quiet soft-glowing red, and the bright laser dot of the night-scope wavered across the far wall.

It took a moment for Wheatley to focus on it. His eyes widened even further, and he stumbled backwards, bumping once again into the stack of paint cans which, once again, failed to register the impact at all.

"Aaah! Don't point that at me! Do you have any idea what those things do?"

"When you get your hands on them? Yeah." Garret shouldered the shotgun. "Not to sound rude or anything, I mean, it's great that you've, uh, dropped by, but... what're you doing wandering around the store in the middle of the night?"

Wheatley looked down, breathed a long and completely oxygen-free breath out into his hands, scruffed through his hair a final time.

"Right, okay, good question. What am I doing wandering around in your store in the middle of the night, answer: looking for you. You weren't out in the field with the big old whatsit-"

"Foxglove?"

"Yeah, you weren't there- not that surprising- middle of the night, and I just thought, bing, lightbulb, maybe he's in the store! I mean, he seems to work there, sometimes, so it's definitely worth a shot. And here you are! Brilliant. Anyway, here's the thing, just going to lay this on you. Here goes. I know you and I haven't always seen eye to eye-"

"Guess not," said Garret, who just about came up to the hollow at the base of Wheatley's neck.

"-and we have had our differences, you know, rivalry, animosity..."

"We... have?"

"Oh, yeah," said Wheatley, although his manic, not-very-happy grin failed to undergo any sort of appropriate change. "I don't like you."

Garret blinked. "Okay..."

"Oh, don't take it like that, mate, it's not personal. I mean, it is personal, sort of, quite personal, you're all clever, and you're all... climbing things and... and knowing what things are called, and you've got that beard, and- and bit shaky on why but it all just makes it a bit hard for me to look at you without having this sort of urge to find something handy for taking a, a sort of swing with, and getting you right in your beardy-weirdy, clever ol' face. It's not very noble of me, I am aware of that, it's not really in the spirit of 'may the best man win' and all that, it's just that what with everything else that's just gone off in my skull here, not much I can do about it."

"Wait," said Garret, slowly, starting to smile. "Are you saying you're jeal-"

"You've- you've got a real mean streak, you have, you know that?" Wheatley cut him off, heedless, twitching, his hands tightening in a white-knuckled deathgrip on the edge of the counter. "Playing your little games, right from the start, you knew bloody well I didn't have a clue what you were talking about, with your- your three-eights crimper, if that's really what it's called- probably isn't- should have seen that little ruse a mile off. You- you just like watching me panic, don't you?"

"What-"

"And then, and then you go off and leave me in charge of this place, knowing, knowing I'd mess something up. Oh, yes, I see it all now, 'oh, that's a brilliant idea, give Wheatley enough lead and he'll throttle himself with it, I don't even have to lift a finger!' Clever! Very clever, always managing to make me look bad, every time you show up, es-especially in front of her! I don't even know why I even thought you-"

"Hey."

Wheatley stopped. Garret was staring at him, freckly brow knotted in confusion, his expression equal parts worried, very slightly amused, and-Wheatley wasn't sure, he was getting better at reading Chell's face but other humans were still mostly closed books to him- maybe just a tiny bit hurt.

"Are you done?"

Wheatley felt a sudden lurch of shame. There were times- and they were often the worst times, when events seemed to be falling out of his power to fix them, when he felt upset, when something unpleasant or painful was lurking inevitably on the horizon- there were times when he just didn't seem to have any control over his mouth whatsoever. Every single negative, unjustified thing he was thinking came falling out of his vocal processors, at no point bothering to consult his actual mind. Which was a shame, because his actual mind was under a lot of pressure at the moment, but it still might have had something to say- had it been asked- about how mean and petty- and stupid- it was to start having a go at somebody whose help you needed, somebody who was quite literally your last hope.

Stupid, stupid, to lose grip of who was on your side so easily, so stupid that it was probably something they'd done to him, all part and parcel of the whole 'terrible ideas' thing, the point of his existence. The more he thought about it, the more he wanted, needed, to forget this, this horrible suspicion of how much smarter- better- he might have been, before.

"Er. Yes, yes I am, done. Sorry. Didn't- um- didn't actually mean any of that, don't know what came over me, really. Stress, I think it's stress, I'm just a bit-"

He sagged. "Never mind. Not really getting the problem solved, this, is it? Like I said, I need you to stick a thing in my head, and standing round here next to all the cans of sad bees gabbing about beards and, and who's jealous of who, is not getting us any further towards achieving that aim."

"Okay, hold on," said Garret, stowing the SPAS-12 under the register and, sensing that he was probably set to be in this for the long haul, wandering around to Wheatley's side of the counter. "That's the second time you've said that. Stick what in your head?"

"This thing here," said Wheatley, and shoved the thing that had been stuck under his arm- rectangular and battered and wrapped in a long tangled lead, into his arms.

"Now, I found this under her couch," he said. "Yeah, you may well stare, odd-looking little gizmo, isn't it? Little-known fact, it is actually possible to use that thing to look inside my actual mind. Even littler- lesser- even lesser-known fact- it takes more than one person. Who is not me. And that is categorically not me being lazy, I promise you, I would absolutely much prefer to not have you fiddling around in my head, but the thing is, I really can't do this by myself. I've tried, I just tried, literally just a few minutes ago, and I definitely managed to ascertain that it is not a solo job. Gave it my best shot- you know, to hack it- I suppose my train of logic was that, yes, it was telling me to contact an engineer, but if anyone was going to be able to get the job done it would me, it being my head. But, no, bad idea, all I actually seem to have ended up doing is sort of accidentally deleting the colour yellow. Still got the word, 'yellow,' no issue there, but absolutely no idea what it looks like. Just sort of felt it go, just like that, ping, gone. Not the most pleasant sensation. Hoping it'll come back."

Garret rubbed his jaw, one-handed, thumbed the skin under his eyes, propped his chin on the cash register. "Okay. Is it... at all possible that this... whatever the hell this is... can maybe wait til morning? 'Cause I did not sleep well- okay, at all- last night, and I was kind of hoping-"

"No," said Wheatley, who had let go of the counter and was instead pacing off his agitation in a tight back-and-forth track between the potatoes and the paint cans. "No, nonono, look, you have no idea what it's like, being in my mind right now."

He flailed his hands again, tracing twitchy tangled patterns in the air like a Mobius strip that had been put in a tumble-dryer, trying to demonstrate his thoughts.

"It's- it's like- aargghh- it's like it's one of those puzzles, for children, where you've got a bunch of holes and shapes and things, and I'm a round one, round block, and my whole- head- is suddenly a great big stringy- rectangular- hole and its like- no, no, I'm not going to fit. Not going to fit. And I thought you, being such a techie and everything-"

He stopped pacing. "Look, cards on the table, I recognise that it probably wasn't the best idea to come straight out and tell you that I don't like you, I can sort of appreciate that is not going to make you any more likely to help me, not really the greatest opening gambit I could have come up with. Um. Can we... start again, please?"

"Sure," said Garret, sleepily, working a slightly sticky key on the cash register up and down with his thumb. "You want me to go out and come in again?"

"Er... no, probably not necessary, just- listen. I need you to get rid of my memories. Not all of them! Not all of them, that part is very important, there is quite a lot of stuff in here that I want to keep, but the thing is I just remembered a whole stonking great big chunk of other stuff, right smack out the blue, and I don't want it. I don't want any of it."

"You want me to... delete your memories," said Garret, sitting up a little and frowning, his fluffy sunbleached brows bunching on his freckly forehead, "with that laptop."

"Yes, exactly, you've got it, can we get on, please? Sooner the better."

"Yeah- you know, I think maybe Dr. Dillon might-"

"Look," said Wheatley, grabbing the lead. "I'll even get it started for you. Hang on, this is a bit technical-"

Getting a fiddly little three-pin connector to fit into a socket is tricky enough in the first place. Getting a fiddly little three-pin connector to fit into a socket when you've only had hands for less than a week is even trickier. Getting a fiddly little three-pin connector to fit into a socket located on the back of your own neck, when you've only had hands for less than a week and your head is exploding with fractured bits of memories that don't even feel like they belong to you, and your hands are shaking like you're going through early-stage testing withdrawal, is a hell of a feat, and Wheatley managed it on the fifth try through sheer luck.

"Ah! There, got it. Other bit goes in here, just plug it in, click, like that, and then what you do is, you push this thing on the flat bit, like this, and it makes this noise. Wait for it-"

The laptop, starting up, played a short, lo-fi three-note tune. Wheatley managed the ghost of a gawky grin.

"I like that bit. Annnd... there, see. New hardware detected. That's me, that is, I'm the new hardware. Thing is, that's about as far as I got. Had a bit of a poke, ping, oops, no more yellow. Bit leery of carrying on after that, sure you can imagine, sooo... there you go. Over to you, Mr. Engineer, this is the part where you, er, help me."

He paused, looked up. Garret had stopped frowning, and was instead standing there by the shelf full of sad bee spraycans with his mouth hanging open.

"What?"

"Holy God," said Garret, softly.

"What you're looking for," said Wheatley, shoving the laptop along the counter towards him, hardly mindful of the lead still attached to the back of his neck, "is- is anything to do with bagels, or needles, or, well, just sort of... being human. In general. That's the problem area. None of that, we don't want any of it, surplus to requirements. Get rid of it."

"That's... that's my codec." Garret reached out, nearly touched the laptop's dim orange-lit screen, stopped. "The one I wrote for... but... how..."

His fingers curled into a dazed pointing gesture, following the line of the lead, from the connector in the laptop's side port all the way along the counter and upwards to Wheatley's neck.

"You're... I don't... I..."

He gave up.

"I need a drink."

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

Moving as if he wasn't quite sure if he was awake or not, as if his grasp of certain fundamental principles of the universe had just taken a pretty hefty thumping- which was pretty much the case- Garret wandered through into the stockroom. Wheatley trailed unwillingly in behind him, ducking the doorframe with millimetres to spare, carrying the laptop in his arms and threatening to trip over the dangling lead jacked into the back of his neck with every step.

Garret made it as far as a half-disassembled reclining armchair which sat, most of its vital machinery exposed, between a heap of pistons and the oversized-bike-wheel thing hanging on the wall. He thumped dazedly into the cushions, staring at Wheatley like a wheel-carving Stone Age genius suddenly handed the blueprints of a Jaguar XKR.

"You've got a- you've got some kind of… hard-drive, in your head."

"Well, ha, no, actually, dzzz, close but no exit. I sort of am a hard-drive in my head. All this bit," Wheatley indicated the rest of his hard-light body with both hands and an impatient up-and-down movement, nearly dropping the laptop in the process, "it's just light, really. Not really sure how it works, lots of protocols, wireframes... but it does, it's all just solid, proddable, pokeable hard-light. Although, when I say proddable, I am not suggesting you try it, I don't enjoy being prodded. Same goes for poking, actually. No poking or- just leave all of that sort of thing right out, is the best idea."

"You're telling me you're a robot," said Garret. His grin started to grow bigger, and the eyes under the tanned freckly forehead started to get brighter and even more fascinated, even more amazed. "You're an A.I, like- jesus, like DOG."

"Nnnot exactly a big fan of dogs."

"You'd've liked this one. Trust me." Garret sat up, fished under the nearest workbench, and came up with a clean jam-jar, just like the dozens nailed to the undersides of the stockroom's many, many shelves, an entire regiment of dusty rounded glass soldiers, filled with nails and bolts and a hundred other assorted bits and bobs.

His hands weren't quite steady, and the bottle clattered musically on the rim of the jar. He'd snagged it from behind the counter before leaving the main store, breaking the bright red-wax seal with a grimy thumb while mumbling something Wheatley hadn't quite followed about sheep and lambs and hanging.

"It's crazy," he said, shakily."I can't- I mean- you're made of light? How is that even-"

Setting down the bottle, he sneaked an eager sideways glance at the laptop. He didn't seem to be able to keep his eyes off it- and the lead, and the way it slotted into the invisible patch at the back of Wheatley's neck.

"Hey... mind if I-"

"Hey, hey, hey, paws off the goods, alright?" Wheatley scrambled to heft the laptop up out of Garret's reach. "Remember when I said I don't like being poked? Well, nothing's changed on that front in the last couple of minutes, still not happy with it. The point is for you to go in and delete the stuff I don't want; it's not a tourist attraction."

Garret shook his head. "Probably should have clued me in when you were talking about, um, rebooting your nervous system earlier... and all the other stuff you kept saying, come to think of it, I thought it was a little weird, but I just didn't think twice about it. I mean, I just assumed you were-"

"Hey, hey," snapped Wheatley, hugging the laptop to his chest with a lot more economy of movement than he generally employed; a spare, defensive little bracing motion. "That word- the one you're thinking of right now- I don't like it, alright? I'm sick of it. I just- I just don't want to hear it."

Garret drank about half of the contents of the jam-jar in one gulp, gritted his teeth, hissed. "Shhhoot... what, 'human'?"

Silence. Glancing up from an idle attempt to balance the jam-jar on the arm of the recliner, Garret looked slightly disconcerted to realise that Wheatley was staring at him, goggle-eyed.

"Wheatley?"

"You... just assumed I was... human?"

"Well I sure as hell didn't assume you were a toaster oven! Jesus tillin' Christ, Wheatley, we've come a long way this last century, there's tech out there we never even dreamed we'd have before the Invasion, but you? I can't even- okay, sorry, I have to see-"

As Garret started to move, Wheatley attempted to snatch the laptop up out of his reach a second time, but Garret was ready for it and practically climbed his arm, grabbed his elbow, kicked off the half-built recliner, caught quite an impressive amount of air for someone with such a stocky, non-aerodynamic build, and grabbed it out of his hand.

"Oi!" squeaked Wheatley. "Hey, that's not fair, give it back!"

"It's my laptop," said Garret, reasonably, placing the recliner between himself and Wheatley and backing off to the maximum safe distance that the lead would allow.

Wheatley lunged clockwise around the recliner. Garret stepped back, maintaining the distance, flipping the screen of the laptop open. The lead swayed between them as they circled haphazardly around the chair, running over Wheatley's stooped shoulder and tugging dangerously at the back of his neck.

"Ohhhh, it's your laptop, is it? Oh, sorry, clearly, that just makes it perfectly acceptable to- wait, whoah, whoah, time out, it's your laptop?"

"Yep," said Garret, typing rapidly, one-handed, the keyboard balanced in the crook of his arm, dodging Wheatley as he made another long-armed grab. "Holy cow, look at all this stuff! What kind of OS- what is this running on?"

"Me! Remember? Me, here, big old wire stuck in my neck- and while we're at it, never mind it being your flipping laptop- if it is, jury's still out on that one as far as I'm concerned- it's my mind!"

"Hey, you said you wanted me to look!"

"Yeah- well- I've changed my mind, it was a terrible idea. I've gone right off it now, you're way too into this, far too enthusiastic about the concept of poking around in my brain. I'm not comfy with it at all."

"Oh, well, excuse the hell out of me, you're only the most amazing thing I've ever seen in the field of experimental electronics, you're totally right, I should be bored out of my skull!"

"Come on, look, I am not in the mood for this, you're just being childish now, not to mention we look completely ridiculous dancing round this chair like this, so just give it ba-"

He stopped dead, so abruptly that Garret, still retreating absently around the chair in an anticlockwise direction while trying to type, caught up and nearly fell over him.

"…am… amazing...?"

"All this code- I mean, who wrote all this stuff? It doesn't even read like someone built it, it's way too organic, it's more like- a translation, or-"

All of a sudden, Wheatley's voice had become very small. "Sorry... just to clarify... did you just call me-"

"Oh, my God," breathed Garret, fingers flying, "your linguistic centre- natural language processing, parse trees, nanosyntax- your vocabulary alone, it's impossible- "

"...trees? What... what've trees got to do with- ?"

"You're amazing," said Garret, slamming the laptop closed as if he didn't actually trust himself to ever be able to resurface if he looked at its contents for even another second (which, again, was more or less the case). He stared up at Wheatley in utter fascination. "You are unbelievably, astonishingly, incredibly… amazing."

Wheatley swallowed, blinking rapidly. He looked stunned, pink around the eyes, terribly vulnerable.

The simple fact was that he had no natural mechanisms to deal with this. He'd evolved complex coping strategies for being told he was rubbish- he'd had plenty of time to work on those- but nobody had ever told him what he was supposed to do if people suddenly turned round and started using words like amazing and astonishing at him. He was completely overwhelmed, and fairly terrified.

"...thanks?"

"Who built you?" said Garret, groping unsteadily for the bottle and his jam-jar. "Are they still alive? Where-"

It was at that point that massive alarm bells started drowning out the shock in Wheatley's head. Garret was fast veering into the sort of area that had made Chell look all white and sick just thinking about anybody finding out about, and it dawned on him- too late, as usual- that going running straight to the tech-obsessed bloke with the big communications tower at the first sign of a hiccup probably wasn't the best way of keeping her secret safe.

Luckily, there was an easy way out, and Wheatley grasped at it like a life-jacket.

"Right, um, I was getting to that, see, the thing is, technically, nobody actually built me- I mean, they did, but... they started with a bit of a prefab, so to speak. They started with this, this human and- and that's what I want to forget. I woke up, just now, bam, no reason, no explanation, with his memories all over mine. And, as I might have mentioned before, I don't want them."

"Why not?"

"Why not? Why not? Well- well, because- because, uh... there's not enough room! That's one reason, not nearly enough room in here for them, annnd, also, 'cause... they are very... boring. That's it, very boring, you don't even want to know how tedious all this stuff is, no reason on earth why anyone would want to have to go through them all. Including me. So just... help me get rid of them. Please."

"Oh, hey," said Garret, still tapping absorbedly away at the keys. "I think I just found your visual centre. You're right, looks like you've deleted a whole hex-triplet here... want me to put it back?"

"You- you can do that?"

"No sweat. You're- I mean, your basic platform in here is actually pretty intuitive, you know? Let's try... F-F-F-F, zero... zero."

Wheatley made an indistinct, startled sort of noise, grabbing at his own head.

"Whooaaahh! Oh, woww, look at that! Yellow! That is tremendous- I really was beginning to think I'd had that, and you would be surprised how many things have yellow in them. Oh... well done."

"You're welcome." Garret parked himself and the laptop down in the half-skeletal recliner again, balanced the screen carefully on his knees, and poured himself another generous drink. "Wheatley, look- adding stuff, that's cool, I got no problem with that, but you seriously want me to get rid of your memories? I mean- they're really that bad?"

"They're not mine, mate, that's the point," said Wheatley. He pulled a face, screwing his tie up into a limp knot with both hands and nearly enough violence to dislodge the little green frog wedged crookedly across it. "They're his. This human- I don't want to remember that I- that he existed. It's not helpful, in fact it actually hurts. Quite a lot. I mean, at least when I was knocking round on my management rail looking after all the- the humans, looking after all the humans, at least then I didn't know I used to be one. Well- not- not 'used to be', I-I'm not him, I wasn't him, he w- look, you see? I'm getting mixed up just talking about it. It's just hassle, it's confusing, I don't need it. Know what I mean?"

"Nope," said Garret.

"Oh. No, well, I can't say I was honestly expecting you to. The- the point is, the point is I just want to wake up and think I'm me and that's all there is to it."

Garret shook his head, watching endless lines of soft orange code run down the laptop's screen. "I don't know," he said. "I haven't seen anything like this before. Screwing around with it like that- it'd be like taking a Picasso and scribbling on it, you know? It just feels all sorts of wrong."

"Trust me," said Wheatley, vehemently, "it is nothing I am going to miss."

"You're sure?"

"I-"

[I said something and she laughed, and it was brilliant, and I should have asked her when I had the chance, because now-]

"I'm- I'm absolutely positive."

Garret shrugged, although he still didn't look happy. He drained his jam-jar glass again, slid out of the recliner, and set the laptop down on the nearest flat surface. "Well, buddy, like you said, it's your mind. Here, take the chair."

Nervously, Wheatley parked himself in the armchair's threadbare seat. Although it was a generously-sized chair, with his feet flat on the floor his knees were still nearly level with his sternum. Garret gave him a thoughtful look, then reached into the partially-skeletal workings below the right armrest, and pulled something.

"Hey, wait, what're you d-"

The chair reclined with a grudging, springy ka-clunng, lowering backwards and extending several nested ankle-level bits which nudged Wheatley's feet off the floor.

"AAH- oh. Right."

"Any better?"

"Er, yes, a bit, definitely a lot more... horizontal... much better view of the ceiling, not that the ceiling's doing anything much at the moment, but if it does, I'll be the first to know. So, um, now we've got the chair sorted- important, important part of the process, obviously- what are you doing, exactly?"

"Give me a minute," said Garret, typing busily.

"Right, okay, got you, sorry, probably not helping your concentration, silence is obviously a lot better suited to the, um, gravity, the complexity of what you're trying to do there. Being silent. Being silent, starting... now."

Pause. Wheatley tried to crane his neck up enough to see what Garret was up to behind him, but only succeeded in sinking deeper into the chair, which, in the reclined position, felt horribly like an upholstered Venus flytrap. He gave up, closed his eyes, and tried his hardest to settle into a state of meditative calm.

Unsurprisingly, this lasted all of ten seconds.

"Ohhh. Oh, you know what? I've just thought, what if this hurts? What if this really hurts? I mean, it might, it definitely might hurt, it usually does when, when someone starts fiddling around in my head, and- "

Garret stopped typing.

"Kind getting a little of out of my purview, to be honest, Wheatley. If you think it's gonna hurt, maybe you need something to take your mind off it. I mean, I'm no doctor, but I guess if you were, uh, human, I'd suggest…"

He trailed off, looked down at his glass, cocked his head on one side.

"You know what, hang on a sec-"

Scritching at his beard where it turned into his sideburns- this seemed to be a habit of his, cropping up whenever he was thinking particularly hard- he wandered off in the direction of a filing cabinet across the room. Wheatley, after a few false starts, managed to kick the recliner back upright, watching him anxiously over his knees as he pulled out the bottom drawer, finger-walked through the surprisingly tidy arrangement of folders inside, and came up with a single plastic looseleaf.

"Here. You know what this is?"

"Umm... Oh, oh, wait, wait, I know this one. It's a plastic bag."

"Inside the bag."

"Oh. Uh… yes, clearly, it's a… very shiny coaster."

"Nope. It's a disc- it's actually a kind of virus."

Wheatley recoiled. "A kind of what? Whoah, whoah, hold on there, cowboy, hold the phone, you are not going to go and stick a virus in my head!"

"Relax, it's short-term, totally benign. It's just a little program I wrote for Foxglove, in case we ever had a problem with lag." Garret snorted. "Might even get to use it one day, if we ever actually get that far."

"Right... because I would have said that a benign virus is sort of a major contradiction in terms. Because it is. I mean, the whole point of virus... es, viruses, is, is to mess everything up. First thing you learn about them, that's what they do, they mess everything up. It's- it's just not a friendly word, 'virus', is it? Call it what you want, prejudice, possibly, but with the best will in the world, 'virus', urrr, no, it's pretty obvious that it's up to no good."

"Actually, some viruses aren't so bad. This one increases system performance, tweaks a few basic processes, reduces network inhibitions… also, it blocks a lot of non-vital input, so maybe it'd help. Think of it kind of like... an anaesthetic."

"Re-really? An- an anaesthetic? Like- like a sort of... painkiller?"

"Exactly like a painkiller."

Wheatley clambered awkwardly over the chairback to get a better look at the disc as Garret tipped it out of the folder and stuck it into the laptop's drive. He definitely wasn't a fan of viruses- as a digital life-form, the fear of anything related to viruses or corruption was hard-coded into him- but he was even less of a fan of pain.

"Umm… well, that, yes, I can see where you're coming from, that does sound fairly innocuous. And useful, definitely, quite useful. Practically- what's the word- medicinal, really, when you put it like that."

"Oh, totally," said Garret, glibly, with only a very faint trace of a smirk. "Medicinal."

Wheatley straightened up and took a deep, purely dramatic breath. He had serious doubts that anything Garret could stick into his head from a little disc like that could really have any impact on the way he was feeling, the queasy ball of tension in his head or his- nono scratch that scratch that not mine they're not mine- intrusive old dream-memories, or the unravelling tendrils of his control over this entire sorry situation, fraying and snapping everywhere whenever he tried to do anything to prove he was in control- but that wasn't the point. The point was, he'd definitely been less than polite to Garret back there, had definitely got off on the wrong foot, and accepting this was at least a small way of making up for it, wasn't it?

"Right, well, you've convinced me. Load it up. Hit me with it."

"Sure?"

"Positive. Go ahead. Let me have it."

Garret typed for a moment or two. "Okay, it's running…"

"Is- is it? Are you sure? Funny, 'cause I'm not feeling anythiiiihhhhhh gaaahhhh-"

Wheatley gasped, nearly losing control of his knees altogether, grabbing the nearest workbench for support. A slow burning sensation rolled through him, ebbing through his neural pathways like spreading tawny-gold fire, dying down to dark embers in the pit of what his mind still- after all this time- believed to be his stomach. His vision swam and the world glowed, colours brighter, shapes sharper, very slightly off-axis, pulling a dazed chuckle out of him as he tried to restore his balance.

It wasn't like that other feeling, that… that Itch. It was nowhere near as strong, for a start. That had been a white-hot mind-melting blaze, staggeringly intense; this was much, much milder, mellow and deceptively benign. It faded, mostly but not entirely, after a few seconds, leaving a warm, buzzy sort of feeling in its wake.

He liked it.

"Huh... ahhahahaahaa... wow." His voice sounded scratchy, hoarse, as if the burning feeling really had scoured something inside his vocal processor. He felt for his glasses, pushing them straight on his nose, scrubbing a hand over his flushing face and slowly-dawning grin. "That- that felt... pretty good, actually..."

Garret had looked alarmed at first, and if Wheatley had been less dazed and more inclined to be suspicious, he might have guessed that the young man hadn't actually been completely sure what would happen when the little virus hit his system. Now, however, he gave Wheatley a quick, assessing sort of look, and started to grin, refilling his own glass and clinking it on the side of the laptop's scrolling screen.

"Moonshine-dot-exe. Cheers."

"It's got a hell of a kick to it," said Wheatley, vaguely, thumbing under his eyes and knocking his glasses wonky again in the process. "Like a mule. Like a unicron. Oh! That's it, that's it, I remember! I remember now, it's not a crow, it's a horse, a sort of horse with a spike on! Although hang on, if that is the case, why didn't they just call it a rhinocehorse? Curious, interesting linguistic choice there… incidentally, you, you know that thing you just did? Could you, um, do it again, please?"

"Uh, well… if you're sure. It's kind of… strong..."

"Not a problem," said Wheatley, with absolute confidence. "I can handle it. Do it again."

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

"Soooo... so there I was, right, thereIwas, lying there, absolute goner, all my, my circuits and everything, fried like, like a… fried thing- pancake… kipper… wherewasI? Oh right, so, there I was, and, and I've got all these little things, error messages, telling me I'm done for... never a brilliant sign when that happens, is it? And- and- and just when I was thinking, thassit, end of the line, next stop Android Hell, express elevator, do not pass Go... you know what she did? Know what she did? She only went and put me in a whole new body! I know, I know, in-credible, right? I couldn't believe it either! She had next to no time to get that sorted, mortal danger round every corner, got enough to worry about getting herself out of there in one piece, let alone me... but that's the thing, isn't it? That's the thing about her! Well, one of the things- one of the many things, about her. Selfless. That's what she is. Don'understannit at all, 'f I'm being honest. I mean, actually no, s'not exactly it, I do, I understand it, as, as, as a concept, but what I mean is, is… well, she could've just left me in there in the first place, couldn't she? But she didn't, even after all that, I mean even couldn't think up a reason why she should've come back for me, and you'd better believe I was trying really, really really hard, under ex-extremely difficult circumstances. Extremely difficult circumstances, ad-adverse, unpleasant… pointy... umm... sorry, where was I?"

"Talking 'bout Chell," said Garret, with commendable diction for someone who had been drinking something from a bottle with no label on it out of a jam-jar for the last hour and a half. He was leaning comfortably back in the recliner, the laptop balanced on his knees. "Sure you're okay there? Like I said, we've got plenty other chairs-"

"No, no, nono, don't you worry about me, I like it down here," said Wheatley, who was sprawled flat on his back on the workshop's concrete floor like the victim of a fairly bizarre crime-scene, the lead still running from the back of his neck to the laptop, gazing up at the ceiling. It was a surreal, interesting view, a shadowy mix-and-match jumble of load-bearing beams, hooks, spools of wire, and parts of things too big and awkward to be stored on the floor or the workbenches. There was half a jet engine up there, hanging on massive staples just where the roof met the wall, next to something that looked like part of a yacht.

"Roomy, that's the word. Anyway... oh, God, yes, her, she is something. She's got that look, that sort of doing things look, it's, it's- well, it's amazing, only, only even when she isn't, looking like that, when she's just, you know, having a little bit of quiet 'me' time, it's still like, wow... it's all in there, you can see it. She's just so... her. That's the thing, really, she's so absolutely sort of her. All of her is, you know? And, and her eyes, and- you know, first time I saw her, I mean really saw her, not a, a screen or whatever, I was like, aaahh! 'Cause I mean, she was all- well, by that point she had been in cryosleep for a bloody long time, admittedly, and I- to be honest I never thought much of how you lot looked, really. Aesthetically. You were all so tall- huh- and a bit creepy, really, with the eyes- two of them- and breathing through a hole in the middle, and it always just sort of bugged me. Got on my nerves, how weird it all looked, like, like- well, like it shouldn't, like there was something I was missing there, I suppose- but, but even then, even then, she, she grew on me, just little things like, like the way she looked when she was thinking, trying to get us out of there, and, and when she was happy when one of our little plans worked out the way it was supposed to, when she solved something. Because it really was all her, you know, doing the work, it really was, all her..."

He drew a vague, formless shape in the air with his hands, then let them flop back any-old-how on his chest, squinting, throat working. The overstuffed feeling in his head had dulled, receded under the little program's effects, but the details were still all there, patches of new memories like handfuls of time-smoothed glass, shifting and tumbling gently over each other as they settled into place.

"He- he really liked her, you know. This human, whatever-his-name-was. He had a whole little speech worked out for her, bit blurry on the details, wasn't exactly Shakespeare or anything, but the, the gist of it was simple enough... her, him, some sort of place that wasn't In There. Particularly cruel irony, that, really, considering..."

A pause.

"I-I've just realised, speaking of In There, you know the other great thing about this floor- welllll, floors in general, come to think of it, out here- they stay put! Very reliable, on the whole, floors out here. You can go, oh, look, a floor, well, thas'going to be sticking around for a while, no problem, you c'n go away and come back, and oh look! There it is again! Exact, exact same place, still flat, still solid, holdingeverythingup. Vastly underrated feature, that. Though- though, have to say, still do not understand some floor-related concepts, out here. Like- like carpet. Just weird, really, carpet. I-I mean, it's a floor, you shouldn't actually be planning to spend much time with your face in it, but you lot- you still decide, why not, let's make it all soft and furry! Don't have anything to do today, let's- let's give the floor a wig!"

He giggled.

"Ohh, you were right, you know, it's pretty bloody strong, this. Sortofff... creeps up on you. How… how many've I had, now?"

Garret glanced up. "Uh, including the first one? That'd be… one."

Wheatley blinked, owlishly. "Wh... what, really?"

"Well, I was gonna give you another shot, but you got a little… woozy, and then you were kind of trying to whistle, I think, and then you started talking about the, uh, relative carrying capacities of different kinds of birds, so I figured I should probably wait a while."

"Ohh. Fair enough."

"You were saying the… the floors move, in this place?"

"Floors, walls, ceilings, you can't trust anything to hang about for more than five minutes. Panels, see." Wheatley raised his hands and attempted, by placing them against each other at a variety of different angles, to demonstrate the shifting, unstable nature of the facility. His task was made more difficult by the fact that his hands didn't quite seem to be exactly where he thought they were in relation to each other, and the walls and ceiling of the workshop itself weren't being exactly what he would have called still, at the moment. The floor was still reassuringly motionless under him, though, and as long as it didn't try to tip him off any time soon, he was happy.

"Funny, you know, I wouldn't have liked this at all, in my old body. Perspective, isn't it, it's all about perspective, how you look at things- like, in this case, from the floor. In that little, tiny... little thing- I'd've been lying down here f'r ages, probably- on the floor, legless, just twiddling my handles and waiting for someone to come along and pick me up. Not my idea of a good time. But, but now, ohhhoho, now I can just get up whenever I feel like it!"

He demonstrated, clambering to his feet with all the grace and elegance of a newborn giraffe. "See? I mean, I've got legs, arms… ohh, you lot just don't know how lucky you are, having all this. And then, and then you go and make us without them, I mean, I'm not sure what the logic was there, put us in charge of everything just so you can kick back and relax, and then make it so we can't even go for a stroll without your help- not, not exactly what I'd call charitable, that."

"See, usually, it's not a problem," said Garret, stretching out sleepily and reaching for his glass, which he'd wedged down the side of the chair. "With you, yeah, I can see that, but I work with machines every day, and, generally it's the opposite. They're not alive, I mean, okay, it feels kinda like they are, sometimes, but most of the time it's hard enough trying to figure out what's wrong with a machine, let alone how to fix it."

"Well, have you ever asked?" said Wheatley. He wandered across to the nearest wall, poked at the thing that looked like an oversized bike wheel, making it swing gently on its hook. "Ever just, you know, gone to a machine and gone, 'hello, what's up with you then? Feeling a bit down, anything I can do? And, while we're on the subject, do you fancy having legs?'"

Behind him, he heard Garret laugh. "Not exactly. I mean, it's not like you can talk to-"

A short, sharp intake of breath, and then silence.

"What?" said Wheatley, turning. He blinked worriedly at Garret, who all of a sudden looked quite a lot like he'd been struck heavily on a particularly important part of his flimsy human skull. Just the look alone was enough to make him glance guiltily back at the wheel-thing, just in case it was a vital part of something that he shouldn't have been prodding. It didn't look it, hanging there all innocently like that, spinning slightly- but then, what did he know?

"Er... Garret? Hello? What?"

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

Chell looked down across Eaden, and frowned. Her walk had taken her, by a fairly direct sort of route, down to the edges of the Boneyards and up the gently-worn grassy track which ran over the highest of the little hills. You could see most of the town from up here, a scattered crossroads of dark shapes under the moon, surrounded by a sprawling patchwork quilt of black-and-blue fields.

On this night, with her senses wide awake and snatching sharply at anything which wasn't quite how it should be, she was immediately drawn to the one thing which shouldn't have been there- a single light from the town, a flicker of orange where everything should have been dark. Eaden did not possess a particularly vibrant night-life, as might have been expected from a place where the one public vendor of alcohol shooed his half-dozen regular customers out the door at about nine if he felt like it and a town dance was considered the height of the social calendar. It was past two in the morning- there was only one reason she could think of explain that little square of light. It had to be Garret, pulling yet another all-nighter at the store, working on some difficult part of Foxglove in the all-purpose workshop he'd made out of Aaron's stockroom.

She started back down towards the town at a light jog, her bare feet whispering in the long grass. She lost sight of the light as she dropped into the fields that bordered the Boneyards, the town hidden by dark hedgerows and bordering trees, the cloudlike shapes of tall silver maples and toothy, jagged lines of spruce. Spotting the eye-height shadow of a low branch in her path, she ducked at the very last moment- a quick, playful movement- and felt the cool dew-heavy brush of leaves against her ear.

That first night, four years ago- it had been moonlit, fresh, just like this- she'd woken under a blanket of stars and stumbled to her feet, everything aching, staggered by the realisation that she was still here, still outside and free and alive. She hadn't even meant to fall asleep in the first place, out there in the endless wheatfields with the flattened path behind her that wasn't long enough, wasn't anywhere near long enough to set her mind at rest. That first night, she'd doubted that it could ever belong enough, that such a distance could exist.

She'd walked miles, that first night, walked until her bare feet bled and her head swam and the wheat had thinned and given way to trees and green fields. She hadn't known where she was going or what she was looking for, she hadn't even known if there was a single living human being left on the planet besides her. That first night, she hadn't even cared. She was free, and there were trees and wide-open spaces and living things calling back and forth in the hedgerows and stars overhead, and that had been enough.

The overgrown track on her right widened and became the beginnings of Hope Street- she climbed the fence by the kissing-gate and jogged on at a brisk pace. Not much had changed in four years, not in the shape of the bushes or the road or the trees, or the town awaiting her, but a lot had changed inside her head. She wasn't running to get out,away- her world had broadened beyond that one simple motivation of alive, being free- she still couldn't take these two things for granted, maybe never would, but she'd learned that there were other things worth fighting for, more complex, more messy and odd and human, that made them worth it. Home, friendship, belonging-

Before the Combine Invasion, the town of Eaden hadn't even existed. The general opinion was that there had been something there, at the crossroads, and something about the structure of the oldest parts of the buildings that remained- the blocky, unlovely shapes, severe angles and cast-concrete slabs- suggested that it might have been some kind of large industrial complex. A factory or a refinery, maybe, a workplace in the middle of an empty expanse of fields. Whatever it had been, it was little more than rubble by the time the first survivors- Aaron's family, among others- had found it. If there had been towns nearby, places where people lived, they had been wiped clean off the map.

Chell slowed, the looming shape of Foxglove close on her right, defining the southern boundary of Otten's Field. The small isolated chunk of recall that seeing herself in Wheatley's memory had jolted loose refused to leave her alone, the strange, slippery knowledge that everything that she'd forgotten was there, hidden neatly away behind the memory-Chell's too-young, unsuspecting face. Where had she called home? What might she have recognised, back then? A town, a city, a house, a flat, a daily commute, street names, posessions, photographs, passwords and phone numbers, the everyday trivia of a life-

She'd never missed it, any of it- she'd never had anything to miss. Things that might have meant the world to her back then had gone unremembered, unmourned- and it was better to be free of that, but it was still so, so strange to think that before all of this- before Her- she'd had a life, been part of other people's lives.

Wheatley's life-

Had it been fair- or right- to go looking for his memories? For the first time, she felt a real twinge of doubt. She'd wanted to confirm her own suspicions that his bizarrely, touchingly human behaviour was more than some scientist's clever reproduction of humanity, and she'd wanted to show him that he'd been more- was alreadymore, if he just tried to be. It was ironic, now she thought of it, that she'd been so eager to prove his humanity that she hadn't stopped to consider it- to consider that he might already be human enough to be just like her, to not want to remember.

A test was there to be solved, end of story. You didn't ask a button for permission before you pressed it, you didn't hang around to check that you had the turret's blessing before you dropped a cube on it, and if you did, you were probably going to end up painting a chamber floor with what was left of your knees. Four years in Eaden had softened her perspective, taught her that the solution to a problem was not always the simplest one, not when you were dealing with people, friends, lives, but she'd never had to bring the two worlds together before. Wheatley might be from That Place, but his jittery, scratched-record humanity made all the difference. He deserved more than just being solved.

She'd made a mistake. It sat uneasily in her mind, her instinct- to set it right as soon as possible- grating against the worrying fact that, set back to square one, she didn't quite know how to approach it.

Or, for that matter, him.

By now, she was almost at the centre of the town, and it was possible to make out the source of the mysterious light. She'd been right- it was coming from the back of Eaden General, from the one small window at the side of the stockroom, painting a soft orange stripe across the jumble of rusting cars and machinery on the other side of the chain-link fence.

She lifted the latch on the heavy steel-mesh gate, let herself in, padded quietly between the strange dinosaur-skeleton shapes of trucks and engines, lifted a hand to knock on the workshop's battered garage doors-

Something fast and violent happened, a sudden blur of motion and flooding light, and Chell managed to catch on that it was only somebody happening to open the door just as she was about to knock on it, just in time to avoid punching the culprit hard in the face.

"Wh- Chell! Hey!" Garret, oblivious to how close he'd just come to a broken jaw, beamed at her from the doorway with the sort of expression she'd come to associate with exciting deliveries of new parts from Depot or a particularly serendipitous find in the stockroom. He was wearing a massive spool of wire over one shoulder and a welding mask with the shield cocked back at the sky, and there was a massive unravelling sheaf of blueprints under his arm, and he looked, at first glance, quite demented.

"Garret, what's-"

"Uh- I'll explain in a minute, okay?" He sidestepped her and stood staring blankly into the darkened yard for a moment, then grabbed something from a heap of scrap metal and vanished into the night. "C'mon!"

Wheatley extricated himself from the workshop doorway behind her, catching his forehead a good one on the rivet-studded metal lintel. "Coming, coming, right behind you, I am- OW! I'm- I'm literally right behind you-"

He saw her, and stopped dead.

They looked at each other for a moment, she, flustered and hair-tumbled from her jog and the shock of Garret's sudden appearance, he, desperately juggling to try and keep hold of more pieces of random machinery than it was really fair to expect anyone to carry at once, and a little bit wobbly on his feet.

There was a small, not-quite-awkward sort of silence. He glanced to one side, seeking inspiration somewhere out in the shadowy junkyard, fidgeted, drew a deep breath.

"Um-"

"Wheatley!" yelled Garret, who by the sounds of it was somewhere past the fence and receding fast. Wheatley jumped, and a thing like a spanner with a lot of poky bits on one end (it was, in fact, a three-eighths crimper) slipped from under his arm. Chell's quick sure hand shot out and caught it, startling a laugh out of him- a surprised, pleased huff of sound that made her smile in response.

He grinned, shifted his grip on everything just enough to take her free hand in his, and pulled her- confused but unresisting- after him.

"Come on, it's all going on here!"

"Wait- what are we doing?"

"I don't know! Science! I think we're doing Science! Come on, let's go!"

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

 
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