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

0Likes
0Comments
1026Views
AA

7. The Monster

Chell climbed down from the crate she was using as a stepladder, and plonked a large, heavy, honey-coloured bowl down on the big central table.

Wheatley watched her nervously, his hands splayed on the floury tabletop. He had his placeholder grin on- the worried, darty-eyed one which meant that he had no idea what was about to happen, and was waiting for a little more input before he decided whether to be pleasantly surprised or properly alarmed.

"What're you doing?"

"We," she said, stressing the word and hefting a two-pound sack of flour onto the tabletop, "are making bread."

"Umm... alright then, uh... why, if you don't mind me asking?"

She paused, and looked at him. He scrambled to backtrack.

"I- I mean, okay, fair enough you doing it, but why me? It's not like I'm a- a making-bread-expert, that's you, you've clearly got all the expertise you need in that area right there in that devilishly clever little brain of yours. Not really going to bring much to the table, metaphorically- or, indeed, literally speaking, I do not have anything to put on this table, although," he added, trying to scrub the flour off his hands with the trailing end of the sofa throw, "I do seem to be taking a fair amount away from it, which is a bit alarming. Fair amount of this sort of... white powdery stuff, seems to be a bit clingy. Um, also, you might have forgotten- understandable, what with me looking all human now and everything- but 'looking', um, 'looking' is still the key word there. I'm not ac- I don't have any of the, er, the requisite equipment. I don't actually eat."

"Fine," said Chell, fetching a jar of yeast from the cold store. She was wearing her old jeans today, the ones she'd been wearing in the facility. They looked somewhat the worse for wear, but she'd beaten the blood and machine oil out of the worn fabric, and she liked them too much to admit defeat. She'd been up bright and early that morning, had left the house long before he'd taken his becoming-something-of-a-habit morning dive off the couch. "You don't have to help."

Help. The effect of this single word was immediate. Wheatley stopped edging from foot to foot, his fidgeting slowed, and Chell could almost see the circuits buzzing away in his head. His eyes brightened behind the glasses, uncannily like the way his optic had flared whenever he'd been psyching up to try and hack something for her, that same hopeful, tentative assumption of responsibility. It was exactly what she'd been counting on. She knew that it was fairly easy to force him to do things- he was about as resistant to threats as a cobweb was to a sandblaster- but if she could induce the same level of motivation, just by saying help...

"Well, hang on, there's no need to put it like that. I mean, I suppose I could give it a go- I've not got anything else on this morning, as it happens- or... any morning, really, itinerary; more or less blank for the foreseeable future, actually, there are not exactly many demands on my time, so... yes. All yours. What can I do?"

He started to lean casually on the table, remembered in the nick of time about all the flour, and settled for leaning casually on the back of the wicker chair, instead.

Chell unrolled the top of the sack of flour, dumping the contents into the bowl. A big mushroom-cloud puff of whiteness rose up into the air, wavered in the sunny front-room light, then drifted sideways with unnatural speed and spread across Wheatley's front. He yelped and stumbled back, swiping at it, sending little eddies of flour dust swirling through the air. As Chell watched, startled, he ran out of backing-up room and hit the wall with a thump that rattled all the bottles on the little shelves, jars of herbs and seeds jingling against each other like chattering teeth.

"Aah! It's alive, it's alive! Get off! Get it off me!"

Chell closed her eyes and massaged the dark smudges beneath them with her thumb and forefinger. Not exactly a great start.

"Wheatley, if it's dangerous, I will tell you. Okay?"

"Well, yes, fine, of course, but that was unprovoked, that was an entirely unprovoked attack! If you're going to start unleashing volatile substances like that at a moment's notice, you could at least warn me first!"

She shook her head, and refocused on the task in front of her. Mixing the yeast in a smaller bowl, she left it to froth, prepared the butter and molasses, and poked a well in the heap of flour. By the time she'd finished, he seemed to have decided that the flour dust really wasn't out to get him and was looming curiously over her, trying to see what she was doing. He was terrible with personal space and she kept having to save the smaller objects on the table from his quick, ungainly elbows. It was like being shadowed by a clumsy, slightly floury coat-rack.

"Oh, that's weird, it's sort of- it's sort of... bubbling. Is that supposed to happen? Also, just out of interest, umm... what is it?"

"Yeast," she said, and then, because he was inspecting the smaller bowl so closely that his nose was nearly touching the froth, and she couldn't resist it, "and it is alive."

He jumped back, and fell over the crate.

She stepped over him and took a few jars from a shelf, added the rest of the ingredients to the flour along with the yeast. Tossing in a good few handfuls of seeds, she mixed the ingredients to a rough dough and split it into two halves, turning both out onto the floury surface of the table.

"Here. Watch me."

He tried. She had to admit, observing him- and she was observing him, far more closely than he suspected- that trying, and once his attention was focused properly on something and not bouncing around in six directions at once, really was something he put his heart into. He watched her like a hawk (or, more accurately, like an anxious heron that'd been told there'd be a test later) biting his lip in concentration, trying to copy her as she kneaded the dough with her fingers and the heels of her hands, working it into a smooth ball.

It was odd, how he invaded her space but not her privacy- even though she was used to doing this alone, working by herself in this sunny front room, half-listening to the staticky undercurrent of quiet music and chatter from the old radio on the windowsill. This was her place, her ritual, but his presence failed to disturb her. She disliked having an audience, hated the sensation of being scrutinised, studied- but he didn't feel like an audience to her, he never had- not while he'd been in his right mind, anyway. She was his audience, if anything, his constant listener, and it was strange how easily she'd fallen back into the role, after four years without his never-ending waterfall voice.

"It's very relaxing, this, isn't it?" he said, after a minute or two. "Very... very sort of... Zen, somehow."

"Piece of advice," she said. "People get jumpy around that word."

"What, Zen?"

"Close enough."

"Why?"

She shrugged, kept kneading. "Bad memories."

He nodded, sagely, hoping it might give her the impression that he knew what on earth she was talking about, and continued to try to keep his ball of dough relatively ball-shaped and not- as it kept threatening to become- a splat. Her own ball was looking a lot healthier and more bread-ish than his, and she worked on it absorbedly, a little crease between her brows, her dark hair pulled tightly back into the knot behind her ears, a scarce few silvergrey strands catching the light just at her temples. He wondered if it was the flour, which seemed to get absolutely everywhere. It was certainly all over him.

"So, um, how long did it take you to learn all this, if you don't mind me asking? Not- not that I'm getting bored or anything- far from it, it's very... relaxing, as I said, I just wondered."

Chell glanced up, brushing her forehead with the back of her wrist. "Not long. It took practice, but it just felt... natural."

"Handy," he observed, poking at his own ball of dough, which was sitting there sullenly on the tabletop as if he'd personally insulted it. "I could do with some of that, to be honest. An unprecedented surge of, of latent, innate talent in... well, in a few key areas, definitely wouldn't hurt, particularly since... oh. That's a bit dodgy. Is it meant to have all lumps in it? Because there were a few to start with, but they seem to be multiplying, which, have to say, is the opposite of what I expected."

"Keep going," she said, spreading a fresh palmful of flour across the table. Wheatley flinched, involuntarily. His static cling problem wasn't getting much better, and everywhere that wasn't sticky with the alarmingly uncooperative dough was getting powdery. Although he was fully aware that it was ridiculous, since his arms and his shirt were made of exactly the same material, he kept feeling the urge to roll his sleeves up.

"Hey, here's a thought," he said. "Have you ever thought of branching out a bit? I mean, I can see you've got a good little thing going here, loaves, rolls, very practical, classic, old favourites, I'm guessing, but maybe not incredibly exciting, given the whole sort of spectrum of baked goods out there. How about trying something with a bit more pizzazz? Like, I don't know, bagels or something? Could be really terrific, bagels. The way forwards."

Chell gave him a quizzical look.

"Ahah, alright, I know where you're coming from, why bagels? Very good question, answer being... er... well, why not bagels? Brilliant invention, bagels, got a good positive feeling about them in general. The way they look, great, and... they're round, and round things are... well, just very aesthetically pleasing, aren't they? And you can put whatever you want in them, bits of plants... lettuce... fruit, and... well, they've got that hole in the middle, nearly forgot that, the hole, very handy for... holding them, I'd imagine, grip, and also... storing very thin drinks. So you've got a very thin drinks glass, you put your drink in it, slot it through the hole in your bagel, and you're not going to be able to knock that over in a hurry, are you? Very clever design, all round. Little pun there- all round- just thought I'd draw your attention to that."

She smirked, took the ball of dough carefully away from his hands- which had been unconsciously busy squeezing it into knuckly clumps- and went down to put it with hers in a cloth-covered tray under the warm pipes in the kitchen. Wheatley followed her, wobbly on the uneven kitchen steps and-

"Ow!"

-clocking his head sharply on the low doorway.

"Your dream," she said, carefully, closing the cupboard door. "Yesterday. You mentioned bagels."

"Umm... oh! Yes, definitely, I did," he said, feeling his smarting forehead. The kitchen was even tinier than her front room, little more than a short stone corridor set into the back of the house, and as she stood up he took a hurried step backwards, suddenly aware of how close she was to him in this small space. "In- in passing. As I said, they were more of a secondary detail, really, in terms of the entire- um, incidentally, out of interest, aren't you supposed to put those in that thing? Big whatsit over there, lots of doors, looks like it'd do some serious damage if it fell on you?"

"Oven," she said, "and not yet. It needs to rise."

He blinked.

"Rise where?"

Chell decided that it would be a hell of a lot easier just to show him once the dough had risen properly, than to start trying to explain microbiology and the fermentation process to him at this point. She washed her hands in the big sink, and then looked across at him.

He was speckled with clots of electrically-charged flour, trying unsuccessfully to unstick his gluey fingers from each other. His eyes flicked from her to the running tap, and he backed off in alarm.

"Whoah, whoah, are you out of your mind? That's water! Do you have any idea how much juice I've got running through this thing? Alright, granted, I'm not entirely clear if it's waterproof or not, that probably would have been one of the things in that manual that you didn't manage to transfer across, along with the door th- never mind, amongst other things- but that's no reason to just decide to have a bash at it on the offchance that it doesn't light me up like bloody November the Fifth! You might as well chuck a toaster into a bath- yes, fine, the toaster might get a bit cleaner, but it's still going to end up fried!"

Chell, still regarding him thoughtfully, turned the tap off and dried her hands on a towel. He had a point. He also had a lot of flour all over him- not to mention, now that she looked properly, a lot of dust and dirt and fluff clinging to his sneakers and trouser bottoms, turning the bright blue-white-and-black surfaces dull and muddy. After several days outside, away from the clean, clinical environment it had been designed to function in, his avatar was becoming nothing more than a giant static-charged lint trap.

"Course," he continued, "I'm still in that 'energy-saving' mode, that might possibly not be helping. Kept it on, basically I thought that on the whole, dishing out nasty burns left right and centre wasn't really going to endear me to anyone, but- oh! That's an idea! Maybe if I turn it off- hm. Bit technical, but..."

He fidgeted for a moment, and Chell privately promised herself that if he asked her to turn round she would smack him round the head with the nearest thing to hand. Fortunately (both for him and the nearest thing to hand, which happened to be a lumpy clay duck that Romy Hatfield's twins had made for her during a brief ornithology phase) he didn't.

"Right, might as well try it. Commencing turning energy-saving mode off, here goes-"

He flickered blue for a moment, then turned his hands over, studied them, pulled a face.

"Oh. Well, that was a bit of an anti-climax. See, I was hoping, that since it burned you, it'd burn off all this crap, but clearly, it's a bit more enduring than those organic little mitts of yours. Umm... so maybe, right, if I left it on for a bit longer, or- oh, hang on! There's a thing in here, another setting, didn't spot it before! 'Incalcination cycle.' Let's see… oh, wow, there's literally a ream of stuff about it here, can't be that complicated, surely. Dum-de-dum, 'standard maintenance procedure, two thousand degrees Kelvin, use with extreme caution,' etcetera, etcetera... well, never mind all that. Incalcination cycle. Run it."

She started to move. "Wait-"

There was a bright, blinding flash, a thick buzzing zzzzzzzap, a short yelp, and the sudden acrid smell of burnt flour. By the time Chell lowered the arm she'd thrown across her eyes, her skin tingling from the sudden, intense wave of heat, Wheatley was brushing the last traces of ash from his hands, looking down at his clean shirt. He looked quite pleased with himself, if slightly dazed.

"Oh, look at that, it worked! Brilliant, just sort of cremated the whole lot- poof, gone- although, admittedly, got a bit hairy there for a second, had no idea all that white stuff was so flammable. Sure it's safe for you to be messing around with it?"

"Usually," managed Chell. She'd had the presence of mind to step back at the last second, saving her eyebrows, but she was still shaken as hell, as anyone who'd just witnessed a split-second case of spontaneous human combustion in the middle of their own kitchen had the right to be.

She put a hand up to his chest and pushed him lightly backwards, and they both looked down at the two blackened size-fourteen footprints he'd left in the middle of the floor.

"Wheatley."

"Um. Yes?"

"Next time you do that... warn me first."

Wheatley swallowed. "Right. Understood."

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

Several hours later, a grim post-mortem was taking place in Chell's front room. The lights were turned down low out of respect for the deceased, and a slow-burning, sweet-scented candle was guttering on the windowsill, filling the room with sepulchral shadows. Wheatley, Romy, her twins, and Duke the collie were grouped around the big table, watching Chell carry out the autopsy.

She levelled her sharpest old breadknife, the serrated edge glinting in the candlelight, and tried, unsuccessfully, to pierce the blackened crust of the... thing in front of her. Calling it a loaf, even in the loosest sense, would probably have been enough to get everyone involved prosecuted under the Trade Descriptions Act.

She tried to saw the end off, and produced no noticable result. Drawing her brows together, she aimed carefully at a jagged fissure running the length of the thing's surface, and stabbed.

Clonk, went the knife, bouncing off. Wheatley winced.

"It looks like a rock," said Max, solemnly, as Chell massaged the shockwaves out of her elbow.

Jason nodded. "From space."

"I've got to say, it's kind of... impressive," said Romy. The four Hatfields often dropped by after school had ended over at the hall- a tradition with its roots partly in Romy's desire to keep her best friend up to date on local news and partly in the twins' violent love affair with Chell's raisin bread- but today they'd stayed for much the same reason that people slow down to look at terrible car crashes.

Romy was right. Wheatley's loaf was a work of art, in its own horrific way. Puffy in places it should have been flat, flat in places it should have been puffy, it leaned like a set of Penrose steps, baffling to the eye. It had strange geometry. It had been out of the oven for at least an hour, but it wouldn't stop smouldering (making the candle and the open windows a necessity, at least for the five present who needed to breathe) suggesting that there were still unpleasant chemical reactions taking place inside. What it had done in the oven was almost as worrying- showing alarming cannibalistic tendencies, it had overflowed its tin and eaten half of Chell's own loaf. It had the surface texture of sandpaper, and seemed to have gained at least two pounds of mass out of nowhere. It weighed roughly about as much as a bowling ball, which was a coincidence, since it was about as edible as one.

Duke the collie, for his part, kept propping his head on the table and giving it confused sideways sniffs, his keen canine nose apparently just as unable to register it as 'food' as it was to register Wheatley as 'human.'

It had taken Chell almost half an hour to force it to let go of the tin. She'd eventually given up and hammered it out with a chisel, and the sides of the thing glittered with half-embedded aluminium shrapnel.

"I don't know what happened," said Wheatley. He was staring forlornly at the thing, chin propped on his hands, which were already smudged with soot. Chell had banned him from 'incalcinating' within twenty yards of anything living or flammable.

Chell wasn't entirely sure what had happened, either. She'd stuck with her policy of non-intervention through the knocking back, second rise, and baking, and she'd been ready for the result to be fairly bad, but the thing on the table was in a category of its own. She was pretty sure that she could have taken the same ingredients and worked for days without ever being able to deliberately produce anything like it.

"Are you sure, right, that you didn't accidentally put the oven on the 'abomination against Science and nature' setting?" Wheatley asked her, plaintively. "Because that would explain quite a lot."

Duke, who seemed to have decided he was the lesser of two bewildering unknowns (the greater being the thing on the table) gave him a consolatory lick. He sighed.

"I'm sick of looking at it, to be honest. Can we just chuck it, please?"

Chell picked up the disastrous thing in both hands, weighing it critically.

"Good idea…"

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

The morning was growing warm, and the long grazing pasture that ran from the back fence of Aaron's yard to the row of trees at the far south was quiet and silvery with dew. A few shaggy sheep wandered and grazed, completely undisturbed by the presence of humans in their field. They could see what was going on, and they were used to it. For them, it was a part of life- every so often, the strange, upright, fleeceless creatures that fed them liked to do this, coming along and making the place untidy with their bits and pieces and making a racket for no good reason, before politely clearing up after themselves and leaving again.

Chell pulled the butt of the shotgun tightly to her shoulder, leaned her cheek against the cool grain of the wood, waited. A little way behind her, Wheatley hung on to his ear-protectors and watched her, half-apprehensive, half-fascinated. The protectors were fairly useless, since his audial receptors weren't exactly located in his ears, but they seemed to make him feel better anyway.

"Pull."

Beside them, Garret, grinning, hit the trigger. The clay-pigeon trap's spring-loaded arm- a chunk of steel cut from an old tractor and held on a coiled wire wound to straining with a crude windlass- snapped forwards with a sound like someone kicking a hollow metal goalpost, flinging a hacked-off slice of Wheatley's mutated loaf nearly sixty feet into the air. Chell tracked it above the level of the trees, her calm, intent eyes following it right to the apex of its arc, waiting for the point between momentum and gravity where it would, just for a moment, seem to float-

The sound of the shot cracked off the trees, brittle and thunder-loud. The black speck exploded, a puff of inky dust against the sky. The sheep went on grazing, the spring lambs leapt into the air and scattered, and Wheatley yelled, a shocked, exhilarated war whoop right in Chell's ear as she ejected the spent cartridge and reloaded.

"WHOOOO! Ahahahaaa, nice shot! Did you see that, it just disappeared! Bam, atomised! Oh, that was amazi- hang about, what are you giving it to me for?"

"Your turn," said Chell. She put the barrel into his hands, taking care to keep it pointed at the grass, and tugged his elbows into a better position, up on her toes for better control of his lanky, tensed-up limbs.

She'd spent countless hours in this wide, sheep-scattered field over the last four years, at least once a week, keeping her hands and her reflexes as sharp as she could. It was yet another part of her universal insurance policy against That Place. She found a curious peace in the practice, and she liked the hand-me-down shotguns and rifles her friends favoured, liked how little their weight and their worn wood and metal had in common with the portal device's cold engulfing handshake, its flat, punchy recoil, the queasy reality-splitting sounds that plagued her dreams.

Recently, her sessions had suffered a sudden check. Emily Kent- a small, somewhat dreamy woman in her mid-fifties who lived at the far end of town from Chell's little house- was Eaden's best potter, and her work graced every kitchen, shelf, and table in town. With a canny eye for the niche market (and a place the size of Eaden pretty much was a niche market, in itself,) she ran a popular sideline in batches of hollow, disc-shaped clay targets, perfect for Chell and anyone else who wanted to keep their hand in without having to chase down something with a heartbeat.

Then- just a couple of weeks ago- Emily had put her back out while throwing a vase, earning herself six weeks of rest on strict orders from Dr. Dillon and creating an abrupt town-wide shortage of inanimate things to shoot at.

Chell's idea had been spot-on- although Wheatley's bread was absolutely useless for human consumption, it was ideal for target practice.

A little of her confidence appeared to transfer to Wheatley, who relaxed enough to let her kick his back foot into a more balanced stance, although he still looked somewhat overwhelmed.

"Wow. Um, I should probably tell you at this point, that- for some reason, for- probably for several, unrelated reasons, lack of limbs probably being way up there- nobody has actually ever voluntarily put me in charge of, of any sort of lethal weapon before."

"That's a big shock," remarked Garret, to a nearby sheep. It cropped another mouthful of grass in bored assent.

Chell reached up and shifted Wheatley's thumb off the barrel, leaning up against his back, keeping her own hand on the gun to stop it wandering upwards. He was slightly mistaken- she was not putting him in charge of this, not entirely. After all, she actually had once voluntarily put him in charge of something that could easily have been classed as a lethal weapon- a very, very large, incredibly lethal weapon, in fact- and that, in his own words, had not ended well.

But she needed him to get it, the concept that she couldn't put into words, that the audience didn't matter, that trying to do things because you wanted to get them done was a million times better than trying to do them because you were afraid that the universe would think you were an idiot if you didn't. Fear was a great motivator when you had nothing else to go on, but it was a rotten substitute for self-confidence, and if there was one thing that his fragile, frantic headlong bravado was not, it was self-confidence.

"Closer to your shoulder," she told him.

"Closer, right..."

Wheatley was finding it hard to concentrate. He didn't feel all that relaxed any more, and he flinched as her free hand darted up under his right arm and adjusted the stock, which kept slipping from the angle of his neck. He wished that this body came with some sort of complicated, attention-requiring trajectory-calculating software, something intrusive that would have kept his mind on the job in hand, instead of what it did have, sight, touch, etcetera, lots of high-quality sensory input which didn't do anything to distract him from how bloody close she was. Being this close to her felt like standing right next to a grenade that might or might not have a pin in it, except where your average grenade was full of regular, boring old explosives, this grenade was packed with a stunning fireworks display. It might still take your eye out, if you were right at ground zero, but it would be worth it.

She steered his arm in an upwards arc, showing him how to follow an imaginary target, telling him various concise things about sight and aim- at least, he was vaguely aware that she was saying words, but the actual detail was a bit lost on him. She was leaning up on her toes, closer than his shadow, and her serious, upturned face rested gently against his elbow, filling the periphery of his vision with her slender cheekbones and dark flyaway hair.

If she noticed his distraction- his suddenly overkeen senses- she showed no sign of it. Her sharp, practical slate-grey gaze was fixed firmly on the middle distance, the blue patch of sky above the trees.

He didn't know why she was involving him in all these things, things that she and the other humans around her could have managed perfectly well without him. In that small bitter inward place that was forever looking for the next notice of dismissal, he was very afraid that this was the point, that she was trying to prove he really wasn't capable of much; that, just like She'd said, he was programmed to have terrible ideas and that was all he would ever be good at. She'd been kind, unbelievably kind, so far, but there was nothing to say she had to be. He knew how ruthless she was, when she wanted to be- and she was very, very good at breaking things.

Oh, but it wasn't all bad- it was a very long way from all bad. She made him nervous- of course she made him nervous, only a moron wouldn't have been nervous of her, crazy-brilliant and as implacable as a loaded gun (fittingly enough) and just as deadly. Yes, she made him nervous, but he was nearly always nervous anyway, and at least this was a hopeful sort of nervousness; comfortable tension, worry without fear. It stunned him to realise that this- here and now, her hand on his arm and the quiet cadence of her low, underused voice at his shoulder- this could easily be the closest he'd ever come to feeling at peace.

She was looking at him. After a moment of mutually confused silence, he came back to something approximating reality and caught on that she'd said something that required an answer.

"Oh, oh, right, um, yes, absolutely, I'm right with you."

She nodded, then nudged his finger into the safety-catch, flipping it off. Too late, he realised that he had possibly just agreed to more than he'd bargained for.

"Oh. Ah... hang on- hang on a minute, having slight second thoughts here, can I just ask, is this going to hurt? Because when you did it, it did look a bit like it might h-"

Several things happened, very nearly all at once.

Garret, in response to a nod from Chell, released the trap. The arm snapped forwards, the loaded chunk of rock-solid frankenbread leapt skywards, the lambs leapt skywards as well, and Wheatley- who hadn't been prepared for this at all, who had in fact been looking in completely the wrong direction- yelped and pulled the trigger.

The shot obliterated the middle branches of a small tree about fifty metres away, the target continued its unassailed plummet towards the ground, and the shotgun itself slammed backwards at about thirty feet a second and nailed Wheatley in the teeth, dropping him like a bag of rocks and sending his ear-protectors flying in a brightly-coloured arc. Chell, who'd just about managed to jerk back in time, caught them.

"Oh, Jesus!" Garret slid off the trap in a hurry. "Is he okay?"

"Ohh… ow," moaned Wheatley. He was lying flat on his back, sprawled like a chalk outline in the long grass. "Oh, God, that really… wait, did- did I hit it? Ohh, I didn't hit it, did I? No. Miles out. Have to say, wasn't- was not expecting that, it's got a kick like a bloody mule, that thing. Not that- I've actually ever been kicked by a mule- or seen a mule, even, now I think about it- but still, pretty confident that I'm correct, in saying that is what it had a kick like. Highly unpleasant, anyway."

Garret stopped in his tracks, a startled, impressed grin quickly replacing the concern on his freckly face.

"Holy God. He's bulletproof."

"Well, fair's fair, that wasn't exactly a bullet, that was a bloody great big gun straight smack to the face, but let's not sweat the small stuff," said Wheatley, sitting up. He caught Chell's eye and looked away, embarrassed, brushing staticky bits of shredded grass off his shoulders. "Sorry, er, that didn't go quite according to plan, did it? I was a bit... distracted, I think, for some reason, no idea why, won't happen again. Ah, that is, if you were planning on going through all that again, obviously, you've got most of a loaf left there, if you did decide you wanted to use up the whole lot, we could easily be here all day. Your call."

His expression was a curious mixture of dread and hope, teetering in a delicate balance between please don't make me do that again and please don't decide I'm not up to it.

Garret glanced up at the sun. "It's still a while before I've got to be down at the store," he said, cheerfully. "What d'you think? Won't hurt to do a couple more."

Chell wasn't so sure, and if that expression was anything to go by, Wheatley wasn't either. Nevertheless, she reached down and caught his hand, hauling him to his feet.

"Fine. This time, listen."

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

"Here you go," said Garret, resurfacing from the very back of the ancient chiller cabinet, the frost-choked section stacked with boxes and bags of deep-frozen produce. "Pretty sure this's been in here since last harvest, anyway."

Chell took the bag of frozen rhubarb and passed it silently across to Wheatley, who was currently sprawled against the big sacks of potatoes at the side of the counter as if someone had maneuvered him over them and then cut all of the strings holding him up. He pressed it gratefully against his shoulder, all of his previous concerns about wet things apparently chucked clean out the window.

Chell couldn't help feeling slightly guilty- although Wheatley couldn't bruise and didn't have bones to break, his hard-light body and its pointlessly accurate ability to feel pain had some definite opinions on the subject of being repeatedly battered with something heavy, and right now it was clearly giving him hell.

"Ahhh, miles better. Give me a minute, this is fairly technical, just got to reboot my nervous system, seems to be stuck on the 'agonising physical trauma' setting at the moment, which is not ideal."

"That's the pain barrier," said Garret, helpfully, hopping back up on his stool behind the counter and rummaging for the dog-eared old electronics magazine he'd stashed underneath. Aaron had taken the store's rickety truck to pick up an order in Depot, the nearest town- an overnight trip on hard roads- leaving him technically in charge. "You've got to push through it."

"Right, well, I'm pushing," said Wheatley, jamming the dripping bag of frozen rhubarb up against the angle of his jaw and shutting his eyes. "Gahhhh... nothing much happening, though, don't seem to be getting through. I think it might be password-protected, this pain barrier whatsit. Nope, nothing doing, still hurts."

Chell, who was sorting through a box of old optical discs on the counter, winced. She'd tried her best to help him past the issue of controlling the recoil, but he'd still only managed to stay on his feet twice, taken her down with him three times- her side still hadn't forgiven her for that part- and stubbornly stuck to his party trick of smacking himself heavily in the face and shoulder with the butt of the gun every time he pulled the trigger. Far from getting better with practice, he'd actually got worse. He'd evolved an alarming habit of simply letting go of the gun mid-shot, destroyed several tree branches and a fence post, and finally blown a hole in the chickenwire that fenced off the pasture from the row of trees.

They'd had to cut the session short after that, while Garret tried to speed-mend the damage and Chell stopped the sheep from making a break for freedom. Wheatley had tried to help, but had only really succeeded in proving that most sheep are absolutely freaked out by strange human-shaped things coming at them flailing their limbs about like mad windmills, and in the end she'd had to gently ask him to stop helping.

"At least though, at least I can actually do something about it, stick something on it, frozen vegetables, whatever- which is brilliant! I mean it, you have no idea how great it is, being able to do something towards alleviating the discomfort, I mean, before, what did I have? Optical lids, couple of handles- basically, if something's getting on your nerves, what can you do? Nothing, you can't do anything, you're stuffed. I once had this- itch in my left port for six months. Couldn't do a thing about it. Drove me bonkers! So what I did in the end, right, was I had this brilliant idea, there was this sharp bit sticking out of the wall in this one place right next to my management rail, and I took a good long run-up-"

Behind the counter, Garret lowered his electronics magazine, and raised one of his eyebrows. Oblivious, Wheatley frowned and took the bag away for a moment, meltwater dripping sluggishly down his neck.

"...and, that's funny, come to think of it I can't actually remember what happened after that. All a bit vague from that point onwards... took care of the itch, though, definitely."

Chell, who was busy giving him a fairly appalled sort of stare, started a little as Garret leaned over the desk and poked her in the shoulder with his magazine.

"Reminds me," he said, quietly. "Got something for you out back."

"Hey, hey, wait for me, I'm coming!" As Chell moved to follow Garret into the stockroom, Wheatley tried to get up, made it halfway, and then keeled over on the potatoes again, clutching the half-melted rhubarb against his neck.

"AAHHhhhh ow ow ow okay no I'm not, not coming, bit of an optimistic assessment there. Uh, tell you what, you- you go on ahead, me and my bag of stuff here are just going to kick back here a while, okay? Just... chilling out here for a bit, if everyone's down with that."

"Great," called Garret. "Hold the fort for us, okay, buddy? We'll be right back."

"Er- right! Fine- that's fine, not a problem. Got you covered, you can count on me..."

The sound of the door behind the counter closing seemed louder than it had before, thudding dully in the big, high-raftered space.

"...buddy. Yeah, not sure it's exactly the word I would have chosen, myself, Mr. I-Know-My-Way-Round-A-Toolbox, but there you go," Wheatley mumbled, sitting up a little and wincing.

He felt an instinctive, needling sort of dislike for Garret. It was near-identical to his resentment towards Aaron- involuntary, illogical, but no less bitter for it.

Garret was smart and confident and had known Chell for about four years longer than Wheatley had. Garret had been hanging out in this peaceful, pleasant little town with her for four whole years while he'd been stuck in orbit around the moon, and just that on its own was a nasty, uncomfortable fact he could do nothing about.

It was close to the way he'd felt when he'd realised all the humans- the ones who'd shown up out of nowhere when he'd brought her back, the ones who'd tried carefully to wake her up, and bombarded him with urgent questions he hadn't known how to answer, and taken her to the doctor's house- had all known her name. It had brought it forcibly home to him that he had no claim on her, hardly anything, not time or usefulness or familiarity or friendship- not even a single favour.

He wasn't much of a fan of being out of Chell's line of sight like this, either. Things seemed to go bad fast whenever she wasn't around, as if her presence was a lucky talisman that he needed to get through the day in this alien place without incident. Well, without much incident, anyway.

It occurred to him then that- ideally- the person in charge of an operation like this should be in a position to oversee the whole area, not sprawled on a heap of potatoes while holding their neck as if afraid it might come unscrewed. It just didn't project the right sort of aura of responsibility and command.

"Not as if there's much going on here, joint not really rocking at the moment, true, but it's- it's the look of the thing, isn't it? It's just simple professionalism. Affects the whole look of the place if the proprietor's spark out in the root vegetables. It's just not a good image."

The store was never completely quiet. He liked that about it- there was always a little noise going on, something up to something in one corner or another. The cranky old chiller cabinet buzzed by the counter, a thick monotonous grinding sort of sound which was just different enough from that Other Sound- the one he'd caught himself missing- to be comforting. The big radio crackled. A couple of wet orange things- fish, his memory vaguely supplied, although he'd thought that fish were supposed to be bigger, more sort of edible-looking- circled inside a big flat-bottomed glass ball on the counter, stuffed between a stack of jam-jars and a rack of spanners. The bit of machinery clamped to the side of the ball wheezed away to itself, blowing bubbles into the water.

Wheatley got up, gingerly, keeping the bag of rhubarb pressed against his neck, and had a go at getting behind the counter. It was harder than it looked, because Garret hadn't bothered to leave the little wooden hatch in the counter propped open, but he eventually managed it by ducking underneath.

There was a lot of interesting things in the shelves around the other side- jars, magazines, folders, reams of paper, books- not the reading kind, these books were all full of columns of handwritten numbers. Very important numbers, probably, whatever they were for.

"It's still fine in here, by the way!" he called. "Everything's under controaaAAA-"

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

"Does that sound like a problem?" asked Garret.

Chell shook her head. Wheatley did a lot of yelling, and by now she had become fairly good at telling the difference between the sort of yell that meant 'I have just become aware of an actual valid source of danger' and the sort of yell that only meant 'something unexpected just happened and I'm surprised.' The noise she'd just heard through the stockroom door was definitely in the latter category.

Garret shrugged and resumed looking in the drawers of the parts-littered workbench. "Well, like I said, I didn't think I was gonna find anything- what you gave me was pretty specialised. So I had a look around out here last night, went through some stuff me and the old man've been meaning to clear out for years, and… score."

He grinned, and dropped a sealed plastic bag into her outstretched hand.

Chell held it up to the light. There was the lead she'd ganked from Wheatley's avatar device, coiled neatly in the plastic with its striped black-white three-pin connector- and there, nestled next to it, another thing, bulkier, uglier, discoloured black steel.

She shook them out into her palm. The thing that Garret had found for her had three holes in one end and a shabby USB jack on a short lead at the other. Taking the two parts carefully between her thumbs and forefingers, she clipped them together. It was a stiff, complaining fit- not surprising, since Wheatley's lead was mint-condition Aperture tech, and the thing Garret had found was from God-knew-where and looked like it had been in a house fire, but it was a fit, nonetheless, complete with a snug, unbudging click at the end.

"Perfect," she said. "I owe you."

"Yes, you do," he said, smirking. She swatted him with the plastic bag.

"It would've been easier if you'd told me exactly what you wanted to do with this thing," he continued, ducking her and lifting a small greysteel laptop case up on to the workbench in front of them. "I mean, I told you, if you actually brought this mystery tech you're working with down here, I could get it set up myself-"

Chell shook her head.

"- but the way I've fixed this baby, I'm pretty sure that if you don't get a picture on start-up, there wouldn't be much else I could do anyway. I've basically loaded every codec I could get my hands on into this thing, and a couple that I cooked up myself trying to get Foxglove talking to all the different systems I've got down there. I've set up a little routine to try 'em all out 'til it hits a positive."

"How's she going?"

Garret slumped a little, letting out a big sigh. All of a sudden he looked younger than his twenty-odd years, tired and a bit forlorn, rubbing his face bearishly with the flats of his hands.

"Could you... maybe ask an easier question?"

It was easy to forget, Chell realised with a guilty sting, that she was not the only person in the world with problems to be solved. Neither was she the only one who had trouble letting go of things that most people would have given up as a lost cause.

Garret had been working on Foxglove for three years now, three years which had started off in a flood of optimism and enthusiasm, with nearly everyone in town getting involved in the site at the bottom of Otten's Field. Back then, there'd almost always been two, three, four, half-a-dozen, or more of the citizens of Eaden down there with him, sawing, hammering, welding, teetering up ladders or on crude scaffolding, standing around Garret and his reams of schematics as he talked and waved his arms around as if steering fleets of imaginary planes into landing. Others had given time, parts, tools. Chell herself had helped whenever she'd had the time- still did, along with Aaron, who was more long-sighted than most, even if he was getting more than a little tired of his stockroom being periodically ramsacked, raided, and used as a engineering workshop.

But the months had turned into years, and the numbers of helpers down at the bottom of Otten's Field had slowly dwindled away, and Foxglove had been nearly finished, always nearly finished. The thing had been nearly finished for the best part of two years, and these days, if you went down to the bottom of Otten's Field, the odds were ten to one that you'd find Garret working down there on his own. Eaden was a place kept alive by its own sleepy but steady progress, and everyone understood that when you struck out into the unknown, sometimes you hit a reef, so nobody blamed him when the amazing things that he'd promised had failed to manifest, but Chell could tell that the loss of faith and interest hurt him more than he showed. The town lived with their fritzy radios, shaky LAN connections, and the three-quarters-of-a-TV-station that you could get by sticking a coat hanger to your chimney and pointing it towards New Detroit (fifty percent news, fifty percent snowstorm, all the time) and although the name carefully stencilled on the comm tower's massive third hoof was Foxglove, more than a few people were starting to jokingly refer to it Garret's Folly.

Chell felt for him, her brainy, amiable, honorary little brother. Working with him, she'd picked up a little practical knowledge- metalwork, carpentry, things that involved breaking stuff apart and turning them into new things were very much her forte- but not nearly enough to help him with the tricky circuitry, the coding, the scratch-built digital wizardry needed to turn Foxglove from an inert work of modern art into something that spoke.

She propped her elbows on his shoulder and leaned over to poke at the laptop's scratched screen. All she could do for the moment was try to take his mind off it, play a little to his endless love of explaining things- and if it helped her with her own problem, well, there wasn't any harm in that, was there?

"Fine. How do I make this work?"

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

"-AHHHoh it's you, short stuff with the wellies. Hello!"

Ellie Otten said nothing. She was too scared to speak.

Ellie was a thoughtful little girl, bright for her age, shy around strangers and good at noticing things that other people- older people, particularly- didn't. Like all small children, there were things that frightened her, terrors that stuck with her despite the reassurances of her parents. Fires, like the blaze that had taken the old mill last summer. The big storm culvert at the other end of town, black and bottomless, like a hungry mouth.

Monsters.

Monsters, like the ones her teacher touched on with sanitised care in class- more to the point, like the pictures Lindsay Randall had shown her once, the ones from her grand-uncle's book. Things like insects and animals but wrong- and worse, things that looked nearly human, but weren't.

Her parents had often reassured her that all the monsters were gone, a long time before she'd even been born, and she'd believed them, right up until the terrifying moment when she'd looked up from playing with Linnell on the gate by Green Pond and seen a monster, a real one, tall as anything and wrong in a way she couldn't have described but somehow just knew, standing right there on the road looking at the old town sign.

And then she'd seen that the monster had Chell- Chell, who was weird and brave and cool, who'd once rescued Linnell when Max Hatfield had accidentally dropped him into the storm culvert and understood about sometimes just not feeling like talking too much. She'd been draped against the monster's back like a dead thing, with her bloody hands hanging over his shoulders and her pale, lifeless face limp against his neck.

Run and scream, Ellie, Linnell had told her. Right now, your legs and your lungs are your best friends.

Which wasn't true, of course, Linnell was her best friend, with Lindsay Randall coming a close second, but Ellie had run and screamed anyway.

Her dad had explained to her later that Chell was okay, and that the monster wasn't a monster at all, just a stranger from out of town, but Ellie had remained inwardly firm on this second point- she knew a monster when she saw one, and she hadn't wanted to see this one ever again.

Except now here she was, frozen to the spot in front of the counter in Mr. Halifax's store with her dad's list of orders for the week in the pocket of her dungarees, with the monster looking right at her. Ellie wouldn't really have been able to explain why she knew there was something very wrong about him, but those eyes were a start. They were too blue- the bright, bright blue of crayons, of the bottom of a painted pool, weirdly depthless.

"Sorry about the, er, screaming," said the monster, with an embarrassed huff of a laugh, leaning over the counter to get a better look at her. "Although, to be fair, no more than you did the other day, going off yelling your head off like that. Tiny bit unnecessary, despite the undeniable urgency of the situation... still, sorry, again, you just scared the life out of me there, sneaking up on me with your silent little welly feet. Hang on, be right with you-"

He dropped something onto the cash register- a bag of squelchy wet red stuff that hit the scrollworked metal top with a splatch- and ducked underneath the hatch in the counter. Ellie squeezed Linnell so hard that her small arm nearly disappeared into his worn green plush. She wanted to run, but this time her feet wouldn't move. She was stuck.

Wheatley surfaced on the shop side of the counter and looked down at her, blinking. He was an expert on the subject of being afraid himself, but he was a lot slower on the uptake when it came to recognising fear in others. It wasn't so much of a lack of empathy as a lack of practice, since nobody- with one very short period of exception- had ever had any reason to be afraid of him before. From the outside, he just didn't recognise the symptoms.

"Look, I'd feel happier if you stopped the whole... staring thing, really. It's a bit rude, particularly with you both doing it, you and your little thing there. Granted, uh, it's only got the one eye, makes it a bit less disconcerting, but-"

"s'not a thing," managed Ellie, in a tiny voice. "s'a vrtignt."

"Right, I have literally no idea what you just said. Volume, see, think there might be something wrong with your little volume control in there, just saying, you might want to get that checked out, because I've met you twice now and you're either shrieking like a banshee or making little squeaking noises like, well, like a bird. Little baby bird. Is it a code? Because if it is- ohh! Oh, or, just thought, maybe you don't speak English! I didn't even think about that. Well, it's okay, then, it's okay, because I've actually got translation software somewhere in here, managed to hang on to that, let's have a try... Hola! Hab-luh... you-sted... uh... English?"

Ellie stared up at him. She could hardly understand him- she'd never heard anything like his strange, rapid-patterned voice, with all its 'r' sounds in the wrong places and its long, gently-rounded vowels- but although she was still afraid she had to admit that, for a monster, he wasn't exactly doing anything very monstrous. He was just… standing there, looking worried, waiting for her to react.

"No? No, nothing doing. Well, er- hey, tell you what, guess who's in charge right now? Have a guess."

Silence.

"You're- you're not going to guess, are you? No. I'll tell you, it's me. Only in charge of the whole store, thank you very much. Officially and everything. And- oh, oh, there's a thought! You're in here, technically, that makes you my first customer! Brilliant! What can I do you for?"

Silence. Ellie continued to stare, and Wheatley's enthusiastic expression sagged a bit in the face of her big-eyed scrutiny. He started to wonder exactly what Chell was doing out there with Garret 'Cleverclogs' Rickey, and how long she was planning to be about it. Without her as his translator, without the fact that she almost always knew when things were going pear-shaped and how to put them right, the small yammer of anxiety telling him that he wasn't handling the situation right was free to grow, unchecked.

"...Nothing, okay, I'm sensing a pattern here. Come on, give me something to work with- this is a shop, traditionally a place where people, um, buy things, is the general concept, so I'm assuming you didn't just come in here for the view."

He gave the nearest shelf a desperate look. It reached all the way to the ceiling, stuffed with a baffling array of different objects, most of which he'd never seen before in his life. He had no idea what they were all for. He supposed that humans recognised them all just by the names written on them, but if that was the case, if they really had to memorise the names of fifteen million random products and objects and things so they didn't end up buying cleaning fluid instead of fruit juice every time they went shopping, then he was amazed that they had enough memory left in those squishy primate brains of theirs to invent so much as a ball-point pen.

"I'd be tempted to say come and grab what you want yourself, but you're never going to be able to reach a fraction of this stuff. Don't mean to be rude, but you're about a foot tall down there, you are quite miniscule. How about, right, how about this as an idea, if I sort of point at some of these things, and, process of elimination, we'll eventually arrive at what you're after. Like... this, how about this? Can of something, writing, um, 'Buzz Off', and it's got a, a picture of a... umm, some sort of sad bee. Right, not sure what's going on there, but any good?"

He looked hopefully at Ellie, who had unfrozen enough to give her head a tiny little shake.

"No. Alright, we could be here a while, but, never mind, how about this? I actually know what this is, it's a light-bulb. In a box. Got a whole stack of them here, nearly all the way to the back of this thing, this shelf, and I actually think they're all the same, so not much variety, but if a... a sixty watt BC pearl's your thing, it's your lucky day. Got millions of them."

Ellie shook her head again. She was more fascinated than afraid, now, and would probably have found her dad's list to show him if she hadn't been so curious to see what he was going to do next. He had his arm nearly up to the shoulder in the shelf, feeling fingertips-first past the bug spray and the stacks of light-bulbs to the dark dusty space at the very back.

"Okay, we've got something else back here, I can feel it, let me just- hmm. Hang on, seems to be a bit stuck, might have to manually override it..."

He braced his other hand on the underside of the shelf above, tugged harder.

"Hah, no, it really does not want to come out. Never mind, I can do this, if it's hidden away at the back here it must be something really important, definitely worth a look. Count of three, I'm going to have a go at a manual override. You might want to stand back."

Obediently, Ellie hopped backwards.

"One... two... thr-"

twannnnnggggg

CLONK

Ellie watched, fascinated. Everything on the shelf- and the shelf above that, and the shelf above that, and everything else all the way up to the high wood-beamed ceiling- jumped, setting off a chorus of tiny warning rattles and clinks, the sound of dozens of rows of hundreds of different things settling gently against each other.

The monster jerked, too, his big buggy eyes widening, an intense curve of pressure suddenly entering his posture, his splayed, braced elbows, his knees just about starting to buckle.

"-Ah. Uh, not to- not to alarm you or anything, a-absolutely no need to panic, but- but, just out of interest- how are you at holding things up?"

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

"'Scuse me," said Ellie, poking her head politely around the door of the stockroom. Garret looked up from the screen of his laptop, Chell just behind him, coiling the striped lead carefully back into its bag.

"Ellie! Hey! What's up?"

"He says to tell you that there's a- a bit of a-" Ellie frowned, looking down at Linnell's tangled paws, trying to get it exactly right. "A bit of a sitch-yew-ayshun d'vellepin."

Garret looked at Chell.

"Does that sound like a pro-"

She was already running.

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

 
Join MovellasFind out what all the buzz is about. Join now to start sharing your creativity and passion
Loading ...