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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5. The Mistake

Wheatley shut off his optical processors, and prepared to enter Sleep Mode.

After her talk with Aaron, Chell had led the way back to her own small house on the corner. Nobody locked their doors in Eaden, apparently, and Chell, who was nothing if not adaptable, hadn't locked hers when she'd set out for the facility. The news of her injury must have travelled fast, because when they'd walked in (well, Chell had walked in, Wheatley had followed on the second try, clutching his forehead) there had been a little cluster of things sitting on the table; a jam-jar full of flowers, bright yellow and heavy-headed, a bag of apples, a covered stoneware container with a note propped on top. Chell had smiled, read the note- 'WHAT THE HELL, MICHELLE?' and taken the container down the steps into the kitchen.

"Mate of yours?" he'd asked, when she'd come back.

She'd glanced at the note, wryly. "Romy."

"Oh, right, okay, fair enough… only, can't help noticing, is 'Michelle' your-"

"No," she'd said, and had sat down to eat the stuff in the container, which, for some reason, she'd made hotter.

The rest of the evening had passed along the same sorts of lines. He'd wandered and wittered, poking curiously at her possessions, tripping over the rugs, and more or less making an enormous nuisance of himself, while the light had faded slowly from the big window and she'd quietly got on with a list of necessary human sorts of things. She'd eaten, put the long-fall boots away somewhere in the kitchen, then gone upstairs for a while. From the alarming hissing and clonking and hammering sounds which had ensued, she'd apparently gone up there to get some major hydraulics-based DIY work done, which had struck him as a bit odd. Just as he'd made up his mind to go and make sure nothing catastrophic was going on, however, she'd reappeared- a lot cleaner, with her dark hair sticking out at weird wet angles like a storm-tossed seabird, and completely different clothes on.

It took a bit of getting used to, this whole 'clothes' business. Machines- turrets and computers and cores like himself looked the same all the time, aging and corroding maybe, picking up the odd inspection stamp or upgrade, but still keeping more or less the same basic outer shell. Unless they completely switched bodies, as he had- twice, now, no less- their appearance never changed. Even his new avatar, human-looking as it was, would feature the same work shirt and creased tie, the same office-y trousers and hoofing great big sneakers, no matter what happened to it.

Humans, on the other hand, seemed to chuck different bits of clothing on and off all the time. They never settled on one thing. In the first place, he'd got used to her being white and orange, with her hair at the top and her boots at the bottom. When she'd come back to get him, all dusty grey-blue from the waist down and light grey above, well, it was just lucky he was such a whizz at human facial recognition, or they might have had some difficulties. And as if all that wasn't complicated enough, when she'd come downstairs after all the clonking and hissing, she'd changed again, now dark blue around the legs and soft and red everywhere up to her neck, even her arms. Bewildering, was what it was.

She'd looked better afterwards, though, mad hair notwithstanding. With all the grime washed away, it was easy to see that she looked much healthier now than she had four years ago- he'd always had a sort of suspicion that humans weren't really supposed to be sickly-pale and grey around the eyes and pink-blue around the fingers and noses, and it looked like he'd been right. She had a new way of holding herself now, as well, a new liveliness which somehow made her look even more like she was about to take a running jump and kick the universe in the teeth than she had before.

After she'd come back downstairs, she'd fluffed her hair about with a towel for a while, and messed around with the new bandage on her ribs, and then fallen asleep very suddenly at the table. Terrified that she'd started to malfunction again, he'd done the first thing which occurred to him and poked her quite hard in the ear. She'd woken up, cuffed him sharply around the side of the head in retaliation- he'd been leaning anxiously over her at the time, and had therefore been within range- and taken herself off to sleep properly, somewhere upstairs.

"Do you sleep?" she'd asked, just before she'd set off up the tiny staircase.

"Can do," he'd said, cheerily. "Well, more of a sleep mode, really. All simulated, of course, but it's the same sort of thing. Not a lot of point to it, to be honest, for me, other than killing time, but you know, it's an option. It's there."

"So's the sofa," she'd observed, and left him to it.

It had taken him a while to work out what she'd meant, but he'd eventually remembered that yes, humans had a habit of parking themselves horizontally on soft things when they slept. He'd decided that he might as well have a go, in honour of the new body and everything. When in Rome, etcetera.

It was all going fairly well, he felt. He was free, first and foremost, and while technically he'd been free for the last four years, he didn't exactly feel like he could count it as 'freedom.' Space had been more like purgatory, not quite Android Hell or the room where all the robots screamed at you for no reason, but getting up there- maybe not equivalent to Her reign of terror, but still four years of miserable, featureless nothing. This, on the other hand, was the real deal. He was free, outside, and the fact that he wasn't dead was just the icing on the cake.

Not only that, but she wasn't dead, either, and on the face of it she didn't seem to hate him quite as much as he'd expected her to. She was even talking to him now, saying actual words- sentences, even!- and since this was more than any other human had done for nearly as long as he could remember, he couldn't help feeling way ahead of the curve.

He settled back on the sagging sofa, which was a good deal too short for him and necessitated a sort of sideways position, curled like a hedgehog who couldn't be bothered to roll up properly.

It was true that, on paper, Sleep Mode was more or less pointless. It was just an energy conservation setting- not much different from the one which let him touch things without burning them, in this new light-based body. He certainly didn't need to conserve power- the thing ran off sunlight, as far as he could make out, which meant that as long as that big blazing ball up there put in an appearance every so often, he was good to go.

For Wheatley, however, Sleep Mode had probably been the only thing which had kept him sane, stopped him from going utterly scenery-chewing bonkers over those days and months and years and decades when the only alternative had been the long empty maintenance tracks, his own voice echoing off the walls, the silence and decay of the dormant facility.

He curled up a little more- it was still very strange to him, to be all long and angular instead of small and round and cornerless- and slept.

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

[Sleep Mode activated]
[error: file incomplete]
[Accessing…]

He stretched, his fingertips brushing the grey-tile ceiling, then settled back into his chair and trundled the squeaky wheels back into the grooves worn in the carpet. The little clock on the shelf above his desk read 03:21, and had for the last four hours- it wasn't the most accurate little thing, and tended to have problems with numbers larger than seven. He was used to interpreting it, and by his calculations (half maths and half wishful thinking) this meant it was nearly eleven o'clock.

It was funny, how a single moment could completely change your idea of 'job satisfaction.' He'd spent the majority of the last few years of his life in this little cubicle, with its clunky computer and the technical manuals hidden everywhere he could find space for them, just him and his To-Do List and his little drinky bird bobbing away under the calendar he'd pinned to the partition. Every weekday from nine to six and three on Saturdays, regular as clockwork, reviewing the buggy code his computer flagged up for him, fixing it as much as he could, and then- select-send- off it went into the pool to be picked up and polished by someone who actually knew what they were doing. As jobs went, his was about as technically difficult and vital to Aperture Laboratories as that of the guy who polished the glass bits on the front of the vending machines. A monkey could do it. A monkey had done it, for a while, but the primate-assisted employee reduction scheme hadn't really panned out that well in the end, and besides, the monkeys had wanted better working conditions.

He didn't mind. It was a necessary job in its own small way, and besides, he was only hanging on to it until something better came along, until the higher-ups got around to having a look at all the amazing ideas he kept sending them and realised that if they wanted to really get things done around here they couldn't do better than come to him. He was going places, he was, any day now. And it wasn't all bad in the meantime, he had his own little cubicle and his own pens, and okay, he had issues with the company's laughable notion of proper legroom, but some people didn't even have a desk so he could hardly complain.

As he settled back, his elbow caught the edge of the desk, making his monitor wobble and knocking a plastic fork into the shredder (everything was stacked precariously up against everything else in his messy, tiny cubicle, and small stationery-based catastrophes like this happened on a fairly regular basis). It made a horrendous noise, and he nearly fell off the squeaky chair altogether in his hurry to lunge for the plug before it could chew the whole thing up and choke on it.

He stood up to get another fork, glanced absently over the partition in the direction of the photocopier-

-and fell helplessly, hopelessly, in love.

There was a girl by the photocopier. She was taking things one by one out of a red plastic crate wedged against her hip and lining them up on the small table by the machine. She was neatly and casually dressed, with dark hair in a ponytail and the most serious, most intense, most amazing eyes he'd ever seen in his life.

He'd never seen her before. He had no idea what she was doing there, and was in no state of mind to be able to work it out from the clues available. Having spent the last thirty-six years or so prior to this moment fairly convinced that the idea of love at first sight was a nice sort of thing in concept but probably didn't really exist, it was extremely disconcerting to discover that he'd been completely wrong.

The shock had a serious impact on him. It had certainly had a serious impact on his little clock, which he promptly knocked off its shelf and into a half-eaten Cup Noodle in his hurry to duck down below the level of the partition before something awful happened, like her happening to look up from her crate and spotting him.

He waited a moment, heart stuck in his mouth like a large, inconvenient gobstopper, then dived across the aisle to the cubicle across the way.

"Who's she?"

"Jesus Christ, learn to knock! Who's who?"

"The girl by the photocopier!"

"What, the bagel girl? No idea. Look, I'm really busy right now, I've got a deadline, and between you and me, my team leader stopped coming in to work last week, so I'm kind of-"

"Bagel- wait, wait, hold on, rewind, what bagel girl? We've never had bagels, nobody told me anything about bagels, since when did that happen?"

"Since we got the memo. Bagel delivery, weekdays, some new outsourced catering contract, hell if I know. They're bagels. They're good. They're also all we're likely to get since OSHA shut down the cafeteria. And I still have a deadline. Anything else?"

"I never got any memo!"

"You've locked yourself out of your email again, haven't you?"

"W- okay, never mind, never mind, there might possibly have been a memo, but-"

"Look, if you want a bagel, go and get one. You don't actually need a requisition form."

"Oh God, I could," he said, sliding down the cubicle wall, as if the realisation that he could actually go and get a bagel from the girl by the photocopier was equivalent to Newton's epiphany on gravity, or Archimedes' Eureka moment in the bath. "I actually could."

"Great. I'm happy for you. While you're up, get me a ham on rye."

He gulped, knotting his tie up in a clammy stranglehold. "Right. Right, okay. Not a problem. I'll just walk over there and go 'hi! Here for a bagel! What have you got?' Though, on second thoughts, sounds a little pushy, bit demanding, maybe something more like 'hello, any bagels left, then?' though, of course, that's sort of insinuating that she hasn't had enough foresight to match supply with demand, could be taken as a bit of an insult, so possibly it's better to go with something specific, something along the lines of 'hey! After a bagel, got something with cheese in?' Except I don't really like cheese that much, also, sounds a bit wimpy, really, cheese, something a bit more sort of manly might be better for a first impression, right? What's a proper manly sort of bagel?'"

"Oh for the love of GOD I have a DEADLINE!"

"Right, yes, you're right, best thing is probably to be natural," he said, getting to his feet and sneaking another look across at the photocopier. She was still there, stacking bagels into neat pyramids and checking them off a list with a slight crease of concentration just between her eyebrows, and he felt his pulse hike to something between a gallop and a hum. "Be myself. Improvise. Nothing to it. What's the worst that could happen?- Oh, God- right, no, no, not thinking about that, definitely not thinking about worst-case scenarios right now, that's a bad path to go down-"

"PLEASE! LEAVE!"

"Okay, right, wish me luck. Here I go." He swallowed again, ran a finger around his collar, tugged his tie straight, and-

[redacted; file corrupt]
[diverting active]
[rebooting…]

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

-fell off the sofa.

The front room was full of warm early-morning sunlight. The radio was on, sputtering faintly as it played something quiet and a little jazzy, and the solid thump of his avatar hitting the floor shook the windowsill it was perched on and made it spit a loud burst of static.

Chell was standing at the big table, sliding freshly-baked rolls from a wire grill to a slatted wooden tray. She paused and watched him struggle to his feet with a slightly quizzical expression, then went back to her work. There was flour on her nose and her shirt- grey, this time, no sleeves, she'd changed again- and it looked like she'd been up for some time.

"Morning," said Wheatley, leaning casually on the table in a carefully-calculated impression of somebody who hadn't just had to pick himself up off the floor. His head felt a little overstuffed, as if there was too much information crammed in there the wrong way around, all squashed up to fit and not meshing quite right with anything that might have helped him make sense of it.

"Hey, guess what? You were in my dream! Just remembered. Don't know what it was about, really, but you were definitely in it, you and something about… I dunno… bagels, possibly? Yeah, you and bagels, I'm pretty sure those were the most salient details. Eerie."

Wincing a little, she leaned across the table for a thing that looked like a very puffy, patchworked pair of gloves sewn together at the wrists. It was slightly out of her reach, and Wheatley grabbed it for her, passed it across, kept talking.

"Wonder what it means? You know, symbolism and that. If you had one of those, er, dream dictionaries, I think they're called, we could look it up. The bagels, I mean, not you. You wouldn't be in there, obviously, not unless it was an uncannily specific sort of dream dictionary, although to be fair, I think you were more important than the bagels, in the dream itself. Maybe there'd be an entry for something like 'mysterious and taciturn female,' or 'short dark-haired stranger' or 'pretty human with baked g- ahhhh, aha, no, umm, of course, when I say 'pretty,' I am of course referring to your basic human aesthetic social-ideological ideals of beauty, obviously, not presuming to make any judgement calls on the subject myself, although if I didI'd probably still… er…"

Wheatley trailed off. She'd stopped stacking rolls into a second layer in the crate, and was looking at him again, a small crease between her eyebrows.

"…and, and, er, is it just me, or is it bloody hot in here? I don't think it's just me. This little device I'm in hasn't got a fan in it or anything, you know, no onboard cooling systems whatsoever, so it's a legitimate concern. I could seriously be overheating my whole central processor here. In fact, you know what, just to be safe, I think I'll go and get a bit of fresh air. Back in a tick!"

He lunged for the door, which, mercifully, she'd propped open.

The front door of the little bakery opened directly out on a wide, grassless, half-paved area surrounded by other buildings. He hadn't paid a lot of attention to it last night- they'd only skirted it briefly and he'd been anxious to get out of the gathering darkness and into somewhere with functioning electric light- but now he had a better look it occurred to him that this was probably the hub of the town, whatever you called one of those. A sort of central square, except it was more of a flattened half-circle, really, a worn-down widening around the place where the roads met.

Wheatley let out a pointless breath and parked himself on the curb outside Chell's front door. Her home, like most of the other buildings around the edge of the square-squashed-circle-whatever, had a sort of stitched-together look from the outside, the same piecemeal appearance as the red-brick hall with its rickety bell-tower across the way, as if it had been based on an older structure left half-standing before she- or some other industrious human- had come along and patched it up.

"Alright, that was a bit weird," he said, propping his chin on his knees. "Don't think she noticed anything though, think I might have got away with that, just about. Smooth."

He certainly hadn't intended to steer the conversation- to him, his rambling and her silence was a conversation- into such a perilous area. He had a vague suspicion that what he'd dreamed- whatever he'd dreamed- was to blame. He couldn't remember it properly for the life of him, but he remembered seeing her- and the way he'd felt, as if- well, as utterly daft as it was, as if he'd-

Wheatley was not exactly slow. His thoughts actually moved fairly quickly. It was just that they moved in all the wrong directions, and at the wrong times, and got distracted, and waylaid, and met each other coming back, and went for little wanders to take in the scenery, and bumped into each other, and basically did everything except what Chell's thoughts did, which was move in clean economical straight lines and not stop for anything. He often ended up with no idea why he'd done something, or said something- only that, on the spur of the moment, something had told him it was a brilliant idea. For the most part, he was driven by how things felt- for example, how it had felt good, the previous day, to re-introduce himself to her. It had felt almost like a fresh start, as if you really could do something like that, as if the two of them could just choose to go 'hallo, we haven't met' and get rid of all the nastiness lurking between them. The past, the things he'd done.

Machines could forget like that, they could be reformatted, lose their memories through corruption or have them restored to factory settings-

-and humans could lose their memories too, of course, if their brains got knocked around enough. Chell herself was proof of that-

His fragile train of thought was interrupted as she stepped out of her front door, balancing her crate on her hip as she pulled it shut behind her. She'd pulled an old shirt on over her grey thing, and brushed the flour off her nose.

"Oi-oi," said Wheatley, scrambling hurriedly to his feet. "Just- just getting some air, like I said. Lovely day out here, actually, very refreshing. Update on the old onboard cooling systems; seem to be A-OK now, must have just been a momentary glitch, so, uhh, no harm done. Just, er, leave a window open or something in future, alright? We're off, then?"

She nodded, paused to get a better grip on the crate, then set off across the circle-square-area. He followed her, his lanky legs taking more or less one stride for every two of hers, yet still somehow managing to lag behind.

There were quite a few other humans about, heading across the square on errands of their own, standing in twos and threes, chatting. A small group of children were dashing around in front of the hall, playing catch with a small, brightly-painted cube that hovered crankily back and forth, evading their snatching hands.

The adults who noticed Chell, Wheatley noticed, seemed pretty happy to see her. They waved or called out to her, gave him curious, slightly confused looks which made him feel more than a little awkward. Hurrying to follow her a bit more closely, it occurred to him that he did sort of stick out a bit, and not just because he was wearing a tie. He hadn't quite realised it until now- seeing lots of humans at once for the first time in forever- but he wasn't just a bit tall, in this new body. He was very, very tall. He was tall enough that anyone looking at him would immediately go, 'Christ, that bloke's tall."

It was slowly starting to dawn on him that being big, bigger than everyone else, wasn't necessarily the brilliant be-all-and-end-all achievement he'd thought it was. It wasn't just because you tended to hit your head on things and you couldn't fit on sofas. You couldn't fit anywhere. You were an albatross flailing around on stilts and people- normal-sized people- looked at you as if you were sort of letting the side down, as if you were going around being all freakishly tall at them on purpose.

Chell, who wasn't particularly tall herself, looked taller than she was because she held herself as if she had carbon-steel in her spine. Wheatley, on the other hand, found himself doing the opposite, stooping a bit as he hurried after her, apologising for all six feet and seven inches with a perpetual, half-embarrassed, half-hearted shrug.

"Amazing, all this. Proper ingenious. All this architecture, free-standing structures, windows, doors, you name it, all over the place, and it's not as if you can just go 'oh, I fancy a wall over here' and toss up a few panels, job done, is it? All this, basically made out of dirt and bits of rock. And it looks pretty sturdy, too, I mean, you couldn't just push it over, I'm guessing. Probably not quite as resilient, I mean, it wouldn't stand up to anything over a couple of thousand Kelvin, for example, or a major earthquake, ha, no, this lot would fall apart like a, a house of cards in one of those, but still, bloody good try, given the available resources. Look, that one's huge!"

The building he'd spotted definitely was the largest on the square; three-storied, heavy, wedged into the rough triangle of open ground between the main street and a smaller road which ran south into the distance. Over the sun-bleached canopy, flaking white letters on the brick front spelled out;

EADEN GENERAL
EST. 2030

Chell stepped into the shade under the canopy, balanced the crate on her hip again, and pushed the door openjangling the bell hanging from a spring just inside.

Walking in out of the rising mid-morning heat, the interior of the general store was cool and dark. The walls were whitewashed and panelled up to waist-height in varnished wood, but it was hard to make out much of them because of the sheer volume of things in the way.

Rows of shelves ran the length of the big room, mismatched and multi-purpose, from stackers which were barely more than planks fixed to metal rebar, to dark polished shelves with woodworked, scrolling edges. A bewildering variety of goods covered every surface, from giant sacks of flour and grain and pyramids of canned goods, to rows of storm lamps, clothes, folded on racks and hanging from pegs, baskets of fruit and vegetables, medicines, things in jars, great spools of wire and string. Signs hung everywhere, some hand-lettered, some printed in big black inky letters, as if they'd been hammered out on a giant typewriter with a slightly dodgy letter 'e'.

A geriatric-looking chiller cabinet buzzed complainingly in a corner, its blue-lit interior full of bottles and jugs and- oddly enough- some things which looked like machine parts. A scrolling LED screen hung above the wide counter, displaying a running list of goods and prices in dotty amber type, and a radio on the counter- a much bigger and sturdier model than the one in Chell's front room- was chattering away to itself, the signal badly fuzzy but just about recognisable as some kind of sports report.

Aaron Halifax was leaning across the counter, browsing through a seed catalogue as thick as a house brick with a young woman about Chell's age, who had her back to her and was dividing her attention between poking various pictures of vegetables in the catalogue, talking, and restraining a black-and-white collie, which seemed to be harbouring an unrealistic conviction that by jumping like a mad four-legged kangaroo, it would be able to reach the large side of bacon hanging from the rafters by the chiller cabinet.

Chell set her crate down on the only empty space the counter had to offer, between a few glass jars of candy and a display of different-sized roofing nails. Aaron glanced up and grinned his slow grin at her, and his customer turned, spotted her, and in the space of a moment had hurdled her own dog and tackled her violently around the shoulders.

"Chell!"

Chell managed to absorb the impact without falling over the crate of potatoes behind her, although it was a near thing. The collie bounced around her legs, sniffed Wheatley's ankles suspiciously, then flattened its ears and backed off, making a low noise like a gear skipping.

Wheatley stepped hurriedly behind Chell.

"What happened to y- Duke!" The woman grabbed the collie's collar. "Siddown! What happened to you! Vic said you'd been shot and- no, Duke, bad! -and nobody round here'll give me a straight answer, let alone General Halifax here, I might as well be talking to a-"

"Romy," said Chell, disentangling herself, "I'm fine. Thanks for the soup."

"You and I have a very different definition of 'fine', Mi-chelle! Don't expect soup next time you show up dead out of nowhere and don't even tell anyone where you're going, I'll tell you that right now!"

"I don't get soup if I'm dead," said Chell, dryly. "Noted. Aaron-"

"Not to butt in or anything," said Wheatley, who was watching the bristling collie with some alarm, "but- er- what is that thing, exactly?"

"What's what thing?" said Romy, who appeared to have only just noticed that Wheatley was there at all. "Where did this guy fall from?"

"Oh, er, recently? About, um, two hundred and forty thousand miles above- ouch!"

"This is Wheatley," said Chell, a little too quickly.

"Yeah- specifically, that was my shin! Just 'cause it's not actually there in terms of conventional matter-based physics, it doesn't mean you can go mashing your foot into it whenever you like, cheers!"

He eyed Duke with dislike. "So that's a dog, is it? Is it, er, for anything in particular? Got any useful function, apart from making noise and looking like it needs a haircut?"

Chell was starting to feel like she might be getting a headache. Romy was staring at Wheatley, appropriately enough, as if he had just landed from the moon, as were most of Aaron's other customers who had witnessed the exchange so far. Chell didn't like to be anywhere near the centre of attention at the best of times, and she really did not feel in the mood to start trucking out a load of long-winded explanations to everyone who happened to be in earshot, particularly when the whole thing came dangerously near to the topic which was still giving her cold sweats about broaching with anyone here, even now.

Fortunately, Aaron had spotted her discomfort, and he chose this moment to close the seed catalogue and come around the counter to collect the crate of rolls.

"If you can't get Duke to behave in my store, Miss Hatfield, going to have to ask you to tie him up outside."

Romy looked as if she might have argued, but Duke chose that moment to make a sudden stiff-legged sort of lunge at Wheatley's ankle, stepping the hitched-gear noise up to something closer to a revving engine. Wheatley yelped and backed into a pyramid of paint cans, which were luckily too well-stacked to even wobble.

"Duke! I don't know what's the matter with the dumb- Jason! Max! Get up here and take Duke out front!"

A couple of small boys, who up until this point had been engaged in tearing up and down the furthest aisle and murdering each other with bright-painted wooden ray-guns, came racing up to the front of the store and grabbed the growling collie by the collar.

"Hey, it's Chell!"

"Ellie Otten said you were dead!"

Chell shrugged at them. "I got better."

"Whoah! Who's that guy?"

"Is he a giant?"

"He's like a Strider!"

"No, I'm not," Wheatley told them, loftily, unflattening himself from the paint cans and straightening his tie. "Whatever one of those is. Um, incidentally, are you clones, by any chance? 'Cause I was under the impression that cloning technology wasn't really conventionally sanctioned, beyond-"

"We're twins," said Max, staring up at Wheatley. "Why are you so tall?"

"Max," said Romy, in the same voice she'd used on the collie.

"I'm only asking."

"I- well- I just am, alright?" said Wheatley, who was starting to get a bit annoyed, mostly out of self-consciousness. "No need to go on about it, really, is there? I mean, what about you? Why are you so ginger?"

"What's that on your shirt?" said Jason.

Wheatley looked down at the Aperture logo on his front pocket. It was smallish, and an unobtrusive sort of grey, but he still wasn't amazingly happy with it being there for all to see. He stuck his hand over it.

"Um, just- just a logo, doesn't mean anything in particular. So you're twins, are you? I've heard about this, actually. Which- um- which one of you's the evil one? Just for future reference."

"He is," chorused the twins, immediately, pointing at each other. They grabbed the collie's collar again, and- giggling- dragged him out of the store.

"They get that question a lot," said Romy, as the door jingled shut behind them. "I think they rehearse."

"Well, I wasn't about to pick a fight with them, was I?" said Wheatley, reasonably. "I mean, they were armed."

"Come out back for a second, okay?" said Aaron to Chell, steering a confused-looking Romy gently out of the way by the shoulders and opening the hatch in the counter. "Folks, I'll be back in a couple of shakes- and by the by, Lindsay Randall, I know exactly how many marbles are in that jar, so don't get any ideas."

The stockroom of Aaron's store was a wide, low-ceilinged workshop area. Once, it had been no more than what it was called- a place to store stock- but by this stage in its life the entire space was lined with long wooden workbenches, their scarred surfaces littered with machine parts, tools, a treasure cave of disassembled, unrecognisable junk. On second glance, there was clear delineation at work here, a method to the madness- most of the clutter was strictly heavy mechanics, hydraulics, farm equipment, but a couple of the far workbenches were set aside, stacked with computer parts, circuitboards, wires, the shells of a couple of disassembled monitors, a soldering iron and magnifying lenses on a wall-mounted rack by a idling computer monitor. The CPU connected to it was a gunmetal-grey thing propped up on its case on the desk, its innards exposed, whirring quietly away to itself.

The air smelled of oil and old metal, despite the far door being wide open on a back yard of packed dirt, and Wheatley was caught between a sense of uneasiness at the sight of so many dead, disassembled machines and hardware, and a much more confusing feeling which, if he'd tried to pinpoint it, he might have realised was security. There was a lot of tech in here- dead or alive- and for the first time since he'd left the facility, he wasn't in a minority.

Aaron wandered over to a cluster of spare parts in the corner. He ran his hand over something which looked like an oversized, soot-blackened bike wheel without the spokes, and gave it an idle tap, setting it turning back and forth on the wall.

"You feel up to talking now?"

Wheatley would have guessed, from Chell's pale, set face, that she didn't, not in the slightest. Clearly his ability to interpret human facial expressions was a bit buggier than he'd thought, though, because she nodded, took a deep breath.

"There's a- a place," she said. "About a day's walk to the northeast. That's where I... came from. Monday morning... I went back."

"And nearly got yourself killed for your trouble," said Aaron, leaving the wheel spinning gently, and turning towards her. "Chell, I'd be the last one in the world to make you dig up things you'd rather leave buried, but it seems to me, that if there's something that dangerous that close to us, maybe it'd be a plan to go take a-"

"NO!"

If he'd actually had any skin, Wheatley would have jumped out of it. It wasn't just the sudden volume- although that was unexpected enough, coming from her direction- it was the way she suddenly ignited, going from still and tense to explosive, in the same way a nuclear reaction is explosive. It was a contained explosion, under control but only just, every part of her slight body braced to snapping point by some kind of fearful inner chain of combustion, her eyes blazing in her pale face.

Aaron didn't look quite as alarmed as Wheatley felt, but then, he'd probably only seen her like this when her bread dough didn't rise properly or something, some minor crisis which ended in a few blistered fingers and a charred French stick, whereas the last time Wheatley remembered seeing her face sort of implode like that, the result had been hundreds of millions of dollars worth of damage to vital computer systems that happened to have been attached to him at the time, and- indirectly, admittedly- his being ripped out of his body and chucked into space.

"Hey, now-"

"That place-" She struggled. "It's poison, Aaron. Leave it alone."

She looked up, wildly, as if she'd forgotten for a moment that there was anyone else there at all, and caught Wheatley's eye. He really would have been much happier if she hadn't, just then- as scary-brilliant as she was when she got worked up like this, it was the kind of grand awe-inspiring force of nature that you felt better watching from the safety of a concrete bunker a few miles away, and if anyone happened to have a pair of those special smoked glasses lying around spare in there as well, that would be ideal.

"Wheatley- tell him."

Because the thing was, if you didn't, if you stayed at ground zero and took your chances, this sort of thing was liable to happen. Wheatley opened his mouth a couple of times before he could get anything coherent out of it.

"Wh- waitwait, wait, what, tell him what?"

She shot him a look so white-hot and deadly that he suddenly wished very much that he was a sphere again, and could roll his optic nearly all the way up into his inner shell and put a layer of mostly impenetrable metal between himself and her. He cringed.

"Right! Right, understood, got you, tell him, alright- it's- it's- well, like she said, it's a place. It's underground, and it- it's bloody huge. Goes down for - and I- look, I don't really want to go into it, to be honest, I'd sort of much rather not, can't you just-"

He glanced appealingly at her, which was a mistake, because it allowed him to get a better look at her expression.

"-alright! Alright, bloody hell, where was I? Oh, right, it goes on for miles- bottomless, really- as soon as you think you've got is all mapped out, whoops, what's that over there, it's a whole other bit. And it all moves around, so you couldn't really map it out anyway- shifts about, like a big sort of Rubix cube, and I don't know about you but personally I never could get the hang of those. Needs fingers, see, something like that, needs that whole sort of manual dexterity thing which, up until fairly recently, I did not actually have. Not that that's particularly relevant one way or another, but-"

He swallowed, twisting his hands around each other. If he was attempting to demonstrate his new manual dexterity, he wasn't doing it very well.

"-but, but, it's not that you need to worry about. I mean, yeah, you could get lost if you wandered in there, well, you probably would get lost if, if you wandered in there, actually, get stuck somewhere with no way out and starve to death if you were lucky, or fall down a pit or something, but that's sort of the best-case scenario, because- because of Her."

He stammered on, a blinking, twitching, nervous mess, far too caught up in the nightmare he was describing to try to temper it with any trace of his usual false bravado. Just speaking about the facility, about Her, hearing his own voice shakily describing everything he'd tried so hard to escape was nearly as bad as actually being back there. He wanted to stop, but he simply didn't have the nerve- not while she was still glaring at him like that, as if daring him to make another objection.

"And She's a- a proper lunatic, I'm not kidding- She's not human, by the way, making that absolutely clear, She is nothing like you lot- and She controls everything down there. Being in there is like- it's like being in Her mind, and She's a genius squared by I don't know how many times, and She's totally flaming bonkers, and She bloody hates you. I- I mean, She literally does not care if you live or die, because all that matters to Her, and I mean all that matters to Her, is Science. And if She needs to kill you, 'cause of Science, ohh, She will. Without even thinking about it. Argh, splat, you're dead, count up how many Science points you got, onto the next one. Chell here is the only human that ever managed to get one over Her, and she only managed it because- because- I-I don't actually even know how she managed it, to be honest, but it probably involved a lot of explosions. Oh, God- and to be honest it's not much better if you're a machine, really, because fine, it's, it's harder for Her to kill you, but that doesn't mean She hasn't got a whole list full of other options, other things She could have a go at, while you're there."

Wheatley stared at the scuffed toes of his sneakers. He was shaking.

"And dying's bad- probably, really bad- they told me it was- I, I don't know, I've never died- but I think probably some things... some things are even worse."

There was a silence. Wheatley, who didn't feel up to looking anywhere else right now, continued to study his sneakers. There was a nasty gouge out of the rubber texture on the right one- it looked like whoever it was that had contributed their biometrics to the avatar in the first place had taken a run up and kicked something pretty hard. Vaguely, he hoped it hadn't been a football.

The tense atmosphere in the stockroom was broken by a faint crash and an outbreak of shouting from the other side of the wall. With a gentle clunk, Aaron put the whatsit he'd been tinkering with down on the nearest workbench, and started for the door. As far as it was possible to tell, between his craggy brows and dark crinkled eyes, he looked thoughtful, and very sober.

"Hold that thought a second," he said, and left, closing the door behind him.

Wheatley gulped, scrubbing a shaky hand across his face, under the hard-light ghost of his glasses, leaving them askew. "Oh, God. Let's not do that again, okay? Let's not go for an encore. Know it sounds daft, but just thinking about it- I- I was bloody terrified."

"Yeah."

She looked up at him. There was a smile there, but it wasn't a happy smile. It certainly wasn't anything like the one she'd given Aaron, yesterday, outside the doctors'. There was a bitter note to it, and something else- hard, and a little... guilty?

"And convincing."

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

"You used me!"

Wheatley strode out of the workshop's back door, yanking his head to the side at the last minute to avoid smacking it into the frame, resembling nothing so much as a furious giraffe with an unusually bad sense of its own dimensions.

"You bloody used me!"

Chell followed him, arms folded. "A little."

He swung round on her. "Oh, fine, a little? Yeah, that makes me feel so much better, that does. Yeah, you knew having to go on about Her'd scare the pants off me so Father Christmas back there'd take your word for it, but it's fine, you were only using me a little, I obviously have no right to feel badly treated in any way, shape, or form!"

"Look-"

"I am of course being extremely sarcastic right now, just in case you weren't picking up on that!"

"People do what he says. If he thinks-"

"Yeah, I get the basic idea, thanks! I may possibly be a bit slowish on the uptake sometimes, but I'm not, as I may have mentioned once or twice before, a moron!"

The yard was full of parts of ancient vehicles, mouldering generators, salvaged scrap metal, hulks of heavy equipment either given up for dead or in the process of being restored. It wasn't easy, looking at some of the rusting hulks, to guess which category they belonged to. Wheatley splashed through an oily puddle and kicked the front bumper of a rotting M35 cargo truck, either hoping to relieve his feelings or replicate the ding on his right sneaker. The bumper made a nasty groaning noise, and fell off.

"Of course, it doesn't matter if I end up feeling like I'm about to have a flipping heart attack, does it, as long as you get to prove your point! I mean, it's not going to do me any harm, is it? I haven't even got a bloody heart! Clearly, right, obviously, that then gives you total carte blanche to take the heart I have not in fact got- unless you're talking in a purely metaphorical sense, which I am- and kick it around like a- a- football! Oh, right, sorry, in retrospect that makes total sense! Should have known! I am still being very sarcastic here, by the way!"

"I figured."

"And don't you give me that look, lady! You think this is hilarious, don't you? No, really, it's great, go on, everyone have a laugh at wimpy little Wheatley, he gets absolutely scared stiff if you force him to relive the time a maniac supercomputer with the powers of a bloody god crushed him half to death and left him for scrap metal, or the time She stuck things in his brain and made him replay the worst parts of his entire life over and over,it's brilliant! Hey, that's a point, I only just thought of that now! Making me remember all that, yeah, master stroke, you know what?"

She'd dropped her arms by now, and was watching him, wary, apprehensive. A warning twinge at the back of his mind told him that she probably knew where he was going with this, being the whizz at joining the dots together that she was, but he didn't care. He was too angry- offended- hurt- to stop.

"You know what? She'd be proud. Yeah, you heard me, exactly like something She'd pull, that was. Nice to know you two have something in c-"

Her open palm smacked hard across the side of his jaw, snapping his neck back in a display of artificial kinetics which would have been extremely impressive if it hadn't also stung like hell. He recoiled, as did she- he holding his jaw, she her bandaged side.

They stared at each other. All of a sudden, the metre or so of oily packed dirt between them felt like a vast, vast distance, far too wide even for him to reach across. He saw stark pain in her eyes and realised that, without planning to- of course, since when did anything he planned work this well- he'd hurt her again.

"Oh," he said. "No. No, I didn't-"

Her eyes narrowed. Wheatley shut up, took a stumbling step backwards, tripped over the bumper, and made a run for it.

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

"What's up with him?"

Chell turned, quickly. Aaron was standing in the workshop's back doorway, shading his eyes against the sun with the back of his hand.

"That Randall kid is a regular genius for not listening to good advice," he said. "Now I get to close while we pick up five hundred thirty-two marbles and a load of broken glass, which isn't exactly my idea of recreation. You okay?"

She started to shrug out of sheer habit, then stopped.

Aaron had always, always been straight with her. He'd never so much as shaded the truth for her benefit, showing a lack of duality which could easily be mistaken for naivety by someone who'd never seen him dicker with a salesman or a trader from out of town. And she had been honest with him in return, but she hadn't exactly trusted him with her confidence, had she? Not on this single, vital subject.

When she looked at it that way, it was a pretty shabby way to treat a friend. And as for Wheatley- yes, he was a hypocrite of unbelievable proportions to accuse her of using him, while being so stunningly blind to the irony of itbut the horrible thing was, he had a point. It was a small, crooked sort of point, and it needed sharpening, but it was there. She'd seen his fear, his reluctance, and she'd forced him anyway, because she'd known he'd make a convincing spectacle.

But it was for a good reason-

She shook her head. She didn't know how to explain to Aaron that she was having to fight off the growing feeling that she'd managed to live among humans for four years without actually managing to become any more humane. It sat in her stomach like a stone in the bottom of a pond, flat and murky, sickish.

"Didn't think so." Aaron was watching her closely. He reached into the pocket of his shirt and pulled out a little book; leatherbound, scarred and weathered and carefully stitched together. "Here, I was looking through this old thing last night. My dad's old journal- he was just a kid then, back when this place was just a heap of rubble in the road."

Taking his time, he leafed through a couple of the soft, yellowed pages. "I ever tell you my grandaddy used to run supply caches for the Resistance?"

The Resistance. It was a powerful, evocative phrase, even now. The people who had stood up for humanity in its darkest hour were regarded as near-mythical heroes, and their stories struck a chord even for Chell, who'd never even known they'd existed until four years ago. She was, after all, pretty damn resistant herself.

Most of the time, she chalked up the loss of her memory as a mercy, plain and simple. The world had changed beyond recognition while she'd been in cryosleep in the Relaxation Centre. If she'd had memories- friends, family, a home, a life-

As it was, she had nothing to tie her to the world which had existed before the Combine invasion, before the Seven Hour War, the portal storms, the Resistance liberation of Earth- and she was practical enough to be grateful. She couldn't even imagine how much harder would it have been, walking out into a world where everything she'd known was gone forever, and having to live the rest of her life knowing what she'd lost.

The way it was, she'd had a lot to learn when she'd first arrived in the gentle little community of Eaden, but then, what the hell was she, if not a quick learner? She'd absorbed as much as she could, as much as was relevant to her new life, and trusted that she'd pick up the rest over time. She'd never seen a Vortigaunt face-to-face, or travelled any further than New Detroit, but she had as good a grasp of the history as any of them, and after the things she'd faced in the facility, none of it had fazed her that much. It had actually been the smaller things that had been harder to relearn, the trivial little things which should by all logic have been easy to get the hang of.

Proportion had been the difficulty, mostly- having a sense of it, and adjusting it to fit her new life. Hard to care that much about questions such as whether or not you should wash your hair in the morning, to frame an example, when you had previously been occupied with questions like whether or not you could sprint into cover before the turret-fire took your knees off.

It was only lucky that she'd found something that she could really focus on- something that felt right, that she found she could do- to connect her to her new life, or she might have ended up finding it difficult to care about anything at all.

Aaron tapped his finger on an open page. "Now, Dad used to help out whenever he could, and one day he was out scouting around to the north, when he stumbled across something kind of out of the ordinary. Said he took it for a crash site, at first, a downed Hunter, something like that... but it didn't quite add up."

He looked up at her. "Talks about a big paved lot on the edge of some woods, crater in the ground and a bunch of junk just lying around for no good reason, rusting away. Something off about it, too. 'Couldn't say why, but I felt like I was being watched. There might have been more to find, but I didn't stay any longer than I had to. It was no good, that place. I'm not going back.'

He held the book out to her. She took it, and felt a cold shock go right through her, from her scalp to her toes. Halifax Sr. hadn't been much of an artist, but the faded pencil sketches under the words were clear enough. There was the fence, the little guard hut with its striped barrier, light poles leaning like shattered spaghetti, a graveyard of parts against a line of dark scribbled trees. It was incredibly eerie- like looking at a snapshot right out of her own mind.

"Have to admit, it never occurred to me till yesterday that my dad's no-good place and the place you came from might've been one and the same. If I thought about it at all, I guess I just put it down to a jumpy kid expecting Combine round every corner. If I'd known-"

"-you might've gone looking," said Chell. She was staring fixedly at the page. "Thank God you didn't."

He gave her a thoughtful, measuring look. "That no-good, huh?"

Her voice was fervent. "Worse."

Aaron was silent for a while, rubbing his eyebrow absently with a thumb. "You know I'd do anything it took to protect this town," he said, eventually. "Figure you would, too, come to that. And from what I can tell this place is trouble with a capital T. But if the only three people I know actually been there- you, my dad, this young fella of yours- are all telling me to leave well enough alone, I'm not too thick-skulled to listen."

Chell, who had been unconsciously holding herself like a prisoner about to receive sentence, started breathing again.

She was not the kind of person who set much store by big showy verbal promises- and with something this serious, she wouldn't have presumed to demand one from Aaron anyway, even if she had been. It was enough for her that he properly understood the gravity of it, the danger- now that she could tell he was convinced, that his good sense would not allow him to take it lightly, her mind was far more easy.

Under the circumstances, she'd even let him get away with the young fella of yours.

"Speaking of thick-skulled... you'd probably best catch up with him while you still can. On those legs, he'll be halfway to the Boneyards by now. You know," Aaron added, glancing across the yard to the open gate at the far end, "moment I set eyes on him, I thought he reminded me of someone. Took me till just now to place it."

His eyes stayed on her, kindly, concerned. "Someone I met 'bout four years ago now. Just walked into town one day out of nowhere, just like that. Jumping at shadows, looking at every little thing like they'd never seen like of it before, like any second they were going to wake up and find themselves somewhere else. Somewhere they weren't too partial to, either."

She looked away.

"Now, that someone... she was strong, and she got better. Him, though..." Aaron gave an expressive shrug. Other folks, the shrug suggested, might rate Wheatley's chances how they liked, but he, Aaron, had his own opinion, and it wasn't overly positive. "Kind of squirrelly, isn't he?"

Chell bit the sore place on her tongue lightly, deciding how to respond. On one level she agreed- outburst aside, so far Wheatley seemed to be taking to her town like a duck to lava. It was probably stretching the boundaries of optimism to expect anything else, and yet...

"If you'd been there," she said, eventually, "you'd be squirrelly, too."

She pressed his father's journal gently back into his hands, and headed out through the gate.

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

 
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