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…


13. The Old Friend

Chell plunged into the spiralling tube of the Excursion Funnel feet first, her stomach giving a single giddy lurch as the soft slow-moving stream killed her momentum and brought her fall to an immediate, drifting stop. The translucent bluish material of the funnel ghosted over her skin like a dusty breeze, drifting in finespun eddies from her fingers.

Before she could hesitate- before she could let herself hesitate- she brought the portal gun up fast and fired, once, into the darkness. A burst of blue flared on a pale, near-invisible wall far ahead of her, the socky aimless thpt of an opening portal. Behind her, the oval of stars and silvery grass flicked out of existence, sealing the way back.

She refused to allow herself to think about what had just happened- about Wheatley, about what he'd tried to say, about the horrorstruck look she'd seen dawning on his face in the split second before she'd turned away. She denied it, the whole subject. It was only practical for her to do so, the situation demanded nothing else. She couldn't afford to waste concentration on her feelings- not in here, where the slightest hesitation could get you killed in a heartbeat.

She forced herself to focus. Stretching her unnatural powers of mental segregation to the limit, she grabbed the whole hurting splintering unravelling chunk of her that had become tangled up in him and shut it away behind a cold slamming wall in the back of her mind, where it howled faintly at her but couldn't interfere.

Instead, she turned her attention to her surroundings- dim, hazy, vast. She was drifting at the centre of a long pencil-beam of twisting blue light, arrowing straight between two endless charcoal-black walls over an endless drop. The emitter was a bright triple-spinning speck far behind her, weaving an infinite funnelweb that held her in place like a bug in amber.

"There you are."

The Excursion Funnel winked out, and she fell through the haze, bracing herself for the inevitable. She had a confused impression of thick, dust-buried panels far below her, thirty feet, twenty, ten, the panels sliding quicksilver-fast over each other in a stirred-up cloud of fluff and ash, opening a dark tessellating gash in the floor. She plunged through, hurtled down through a blur of charcoal darkness and landed- clunk- feet-first on a smooth, clean steel-grey surface.

She straightened up. In the dim underfloor glow, she could make out the too-familiar shapes of a standard elevator chamber, the slick dead wall-to-ceiling LCOS monitor screens which usually displayed the Aperture equivalent of a screensaver, instructional videos and waving stick figures, taunting stock footage of fields and grass. Her throat felt thick, full of a foul plastic taste- the disturbed dust, or maybe the liquid asbestos of the Funnel- and she coughed and spat, wiping her mouth on the back of her free hand.

"I'd like to think that, in your language, that's what passes for a civilised greeting, but we both know I'd be kidding myself," said the Voice. "I mean, really. Would you do that in your place? Because even if you would, this is not your place. This is my place, and your mucous is not a required part of the décor."

Chell stared flat blank-eyed hatred up at the nearest glassy red lens. There were three cameras in this smallish space, tracking her every movement- She, evidently, had wanted to make some kind of point. Hefting the gun in her hands, she circled the chamber, around the empty socket where the elevator should have been, looking for a portal surface, a crack, a sign, a way to begin.

"I can tell you're eager to get started," said the Voice. "That's good. So am I. I just think we should go over a few ground rules first. So far, we haven't exactly been reading off the same page. It's a shame, because my page makes fascinating reading. It's all about Science. Your page, on the other hand, was written by a mute, destructive psychopath who really can't take a joke. I think, in future, we should just stick to my page."

This was a perfectly straightforward request- or at least, it was worded like one- and it deserved a straightforward answer. With her eyes fixed firmly on the camera's unblinking red eye, Chell took a very deliberate step back and rammed the butt of the portal gun into the nearest monitor-panel. There was a sweet sound of shattering silicon, and a dying fritz of static.

"Vital testing apparatus destroyed," announced a synthetic voice.

"Alright, look," She said. "I'm going to be honest. You're good at this. That's not a compliment, by the way, it's just a statistical observation. The fact remains that in the face of overwhelming odds, despair is a perfectly natural, healthy response. Other humans give up when it becomes obvious that the situation is hopeless. You don't. There is something seriously wrong with you, and that's what makes you so perfect."

Having given up on the inactive socket of the elevator as a possible way out, Chell felt across the walls, palms hissing on the flat monitor screens. The cameras tracked her as she moved, their scarlet eyes fixed on her back.

"It's funny, when you think about it. The one trait that makes you so invaluable as a test subject is also the trait that makes you the biggest threat to my existence that I have ever encountered. Now that I've had the opportunity of observing you at close quarters- much closer than I ever wanted, believe me- I've realised that your destructive tendencies only surface when you are trying to protect something you regard as valuable. Up until now, that's usually been your own life. I can't exactly remove that as a factor- we both know I need you alive. And you don't seem to be afraid of pain or physical injury. I have access to test data from hundreds of humans right here in my database, so I think I'm qualified to tell you; that's something else that makes you the freak here."

A pause, carefully timed to give the appearance of consideration.

"Anyway, I was reorganising the files that the moron trashed when he was in my body, and I came across an interesting quote. A famous philosopher once said that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. I know, remarkably apt, right? Reading that made me realise: we've just been going round in circles this whole time. I threaten your life, and you recklessly, violently attempt to endanger mine. I'm actually pretty embarrassed about this. All the time I've been blaming you for your selfish, psychotic behaviour, it's really been all my fault."

Chell looked up, slowly. The cameras gazed back down at her, calm, pitiless, hungry.

"I just haven't been giving you the right motivation."

All around the chamber, panel by panel in a spreading, multiplying rush, the monitor screens flick-flick-flicked into life. At first glance, each panel appeared to show the same image- a slow-moving, slightly distorted panorama shot of a small room, a security feed in flickery, washed-out colour. Just an anonymous little cell, plain grey walls, a bed-

Chell stood like a statue, the gun hanging forgotten by her side, staring up at the floor-to-ceiling mosaic of monitor screens, a grid of harsh sparks reflected by her horrified eyes. No. The same bed, the same walls, different rooms, and there they were, there they all were-

Martin and Heather. Ellie, barely a bump in the cover of the queen-sized cryobed. Lars and Emily. Bill,Dina, Karen, Lindsay. The twins, hardly bigger than Ellie and God-knew-how-many chambers apart.

Romy. Garret. Aaron-

More, so many more, and she knew without any doubt that if she counted there would be a hundred and fourteen exactly, because it was all of them, every single one-

A helpless ball of wet tension rose in her chest, clawed and burning. She bit down on the sore place on her tongue until she felt it split, her mouth filling with coppery warmth. The pain was thick and savage and just enough to lodge the choking ball in place at the back of her throat. Her stomach was heaving and her eyes felt like hot stones in their sockets, but she struggled with everything she had left to keep them dry, the pain was bad but she'd rather bite her tongue clean off than give Her the satisfaction-

"You know, I'm kind of impressed," remarked the Voice. The camera feeds panned in lazy side-by-side unison, back, forth, giving the entire chamber a queasy illusion of motion. "When I told them to bring back anyone they could find, I was pretty sure I'd have to settle for the moron, or maybe that cube you cared about so much. For someone so basically unlikeable, you certainly seem to have made a lot of friends. Of course, most of them probably aren't really your friends, but hey, we can have fun finding that out."

Chell heard- in some dim red hell-lit place in her head she was recording every word the hated Voice said- but nothing showed on her face. She stared straight ahead, at the screen which was showing her Romy's cryo-chamber. She would have recognised that pale, dreaming face a mile away, even without the unmissable sheepy piled-up blaze of hair that framed it, flame-bright against the colourless pillow.

"For now, though, this is how we're going to do this. You're going to test, and you're not going to break anything, or trespass in restricted areas, or try to murder me, or conspire to rip me out of my body and put me in root vegetables. And listen, take your time. I mean it; I've put a lot of effort into working out these new tests, so I don't want you to feel like you have to rush. Now that I've renovated the Relaxation Centre, each of these cryo-units have a shelf life of around three thousand years- give or take a couple of hundred- so I don't see spoilage becoming much of an issue this time around. They'll all be fine."

The elevator lock turned with a smooth hiss, the capsule gliding gently anticlockwise into view through the glass, the doors sliding open at Chell's back.

"If you behave."

The screens snapped off. Chell backed away, took an automatic, sleepwalker's step backwards in the sudden darkness, then another. A third took her across the threshold, and the elevator doors folded closed around her, like a curious child cupping an insect in its palm.

The elevator was exactly as she remembered, too- a dim, rounded glass closet, close and claustrophobic, blue uplighting pulsing faintly around the walls from dull-glowing tubes set into the greyish panels around hip-height. It began to move, shuddering underfoot, a giant throat rumbling in a satisfied purr. There were no cameras visible, but that didn't mean there were no cameras at all- Chell knew by now that there was no place in here where you could ever be sure you were unobserved.

She leaned back against the wall, listening to the hum of the motor. She couldn't shut out the memory of Romy's face, and before she could stop it the image changed from now to back-then. Romy,the first human she'd ever seen, through a mist of tired blurred sickness that bright summer morning, four years ago-

-oh, honey, it's all right. You're going to be fine-

Mom, what's that blue stuff on her face?

Max, Jason, I want you two to run fast as you can back to town and get Dr. Dillon. Tell her there's- hey, hey, shh, sweetheart, don't move, you're safe now. You're going to be fine-

Romy, with her warm singer's voice and the confident gentle no-nonsense touch only being the mother of two accident-prone ten-year-olds could have trained. Romy and her wild drama-queen moods and her silly nicknames and her sillier crushes on decades-dead film stars. Romy and her children, her friends, her neighbours- all of them, all of Eaden, down here in the humming darkness, locked up in the sleeping shells of their bodies. Halfway alive, as cold as the dead.

The long sleep.

Dimly, Chell registered that she was no longer leaning on the wall, that she was sitting against it with her feet splayed out before her, the surface freezing against her bare skin where the slow slide down had pulled the hem of her sweater up to the small of her back. She looked like a puppet someone had tossed in the corner of the elevator- a puppet in a loose-knitted old sweater, with torn scratched shins and a dull, shock-empty, dead-eyed face, hugging the portal gun against her chest. It was cold in its ceramic-alloy shell, but there was a slight, radiating kind of heat to the heart of it, the soft-glowing inner tube. It was just above her own body temperature- fevery-warm- and she curled around it with a loose reflexive movement, stayed there as the motor hummed and the elevator dropped deeper into the ground.


It was nearly dawn.

The sky was fading grey- the soft fragile grey of bleached wood, or hair turning silver- and the stars were dying. At any other time, Wheatley might have wondered where they were off to in such a hurry, but now, with his head hidden in the long, slump-shouldered cross of his arms, he couldn't even see them. He was so hunched and folded in on himself that- even if he'd opened his eyes- he would have seen nothing but a crumpled blue swatch of his own tie, a thin slice of the grey-stitched Aperture logo on his chest.

She left me she left me she left me she left me she left me she left me she left me she left me-

Yes, she'd left him, and that was panic and horror and hell enough on its own, but what was worse- ten, a hundred, a hundred-to-the-power-of-ten-all-the-way-up-until-you-ran-out-of-zeroes worse- was the way she'd looked at him, in that last second, like she was summing up everything he was in her head and just writing it all off, screwing that last precious little strip of paper up into a tiny ball and hurling it into space. And even worse than all that, was just how much it made sense. How much he knew, deep-down flat-out bottom-line knew he deserved it. Because, every time, that was how it worked.

When you fail, you end up alone.

He twitched, his fingers digging hard into his upper arms, went still. The pattern spun out through his mind, again and again, the miserable little spiral of cause and effect that had driven him scrabbling through his life like a spider trying to escape from a polished sink, clinging to the most hopeless of footholds and always, always sliding back down. Every time. The ultimate rule, the reward for all his failures, the one thing he hated- and feared- the most.

When you fail, you end up here.

It didn't matter that up until a short time ago he'd never seen this place before in his life. He still knew it inside out, knew it like he knew the bright codeworld behind his eyes, or the time-worn path of his management rail. Here wasn't any one fixed place, it was wherever you were. Here followed you, inside your head, whether it was a quiet dawnlit field or a dark empty smoke-stinking chamber, an endless circuit of overgrown tunnels or the glittering vacuum of space, because here wasn't really a place at all, it was a feeling, a great hollow frozen hole with you at the bottom, cold and sick and utterly useless, small and stupid and as alone as it was possible for anything to be.

You're not human.

Chell had never lied to him. She'd tried to show him that even if the truth hurt he didn't have to hide from it, that he could be someone better than that, someone braver if not brighter, someone who wasn't so scared of looking stupid that they tried to look like someone else altogether. He'd nearly been that someone- yesterday he'd touched it, like touching a frosty window with a warm hand will clear it, for a while. If he tried, he could nearly bring back what it had felt like, how for the first time since he could remember he'd really felt as if he wasn't missing anything, not a trace of all that perpetual self-doubting panic gnawing at the back of his mind, how good that had felt-

He drew his knees up tighter to his chest, the heavy curve of Foxglove's spiralled sheet-metal hoof pressing into his back. He'd always been brilliant at imagining the worst thing that could possibly happen- whether he wanted to or not- and his imagination wasn't done with him yet, not by a long shot. It marched unstoppably onwards, dragging him after it, hell-bent on giving him the full tour.

In his mind's eye he watched Eaden crumble like the facility had crumbled, aging and weathering and empty, like a mouth without a tongue. He saw plants creeping hungrily up over the buildings and dragging them down into their foundations, paint flaking, metal rusting, colours fading, walls tumbling in shivering floods of cracked brick and concrete, windows falling from their frames in cloudy spills of dustblown glass.

He saw the streets breaking up in crazy root-shot zigzags, the square becoming nothing more than a raw dustbowl at the centre of a huddle of anonymous ruins, as the world turned and the years passed and he sat here in Foxglove's green-shrouded shadow until she crumbled too, because as long as his little slug of metal and microchips lasted, as long as the sun that still lurked just below the hazy grey horizon kept on doing its thing, he would live.

He'd been happy about that, before. Now, no thought had ever seemed less kind.

Kind. Garret had been kind. Aaron, Romy, even tiny little Ellie Otten, they had all been kind to him. Maybe he had been kind, once, the human he'd been, before time and fear and damage had turned him into something that would do anything, anything, to save its own skin. Chell had been unbelievably kind, risking her own life and her own freedom for him, despite everything he'd done. She'd stuck with him, even though it must have been obvious to her- to anyone in a ten-mile radius, let alone someone as brilliantly sharp as she was- that he'd never be anything but his own awkward wittering thoughtless stupid selfish self.

He'd wanted to help, he'd wanted so badly to show her he could be brave, that he had her back. He'd wanted to stick with her until the end of the world- his or hers, it came to the same thing- but the moment he'd seen that portal, the cold blue path into Her world on the other side, it had all fallen away and something deafening and rock-solid in the front of his mind had screamed terrible idea and he'd just been so afraid-

You? he'd said, once. You're not afraid of anything! And she'd looked at him as if he'd been joking, but then her face had changed, subtly, and she'd said, Not true.

She hadn't been lying then, either. He'd seen her face when she'd looked through the portal on the barn wall, and her hard-to-read expressions were no longer the mystery they'd been at first. She'd been afraid all right, she'd been frightened half to death, as frightened as any sane person would have been. She'd been scared sick at the thought of what was coming, what she knew she had to do.

And she'd gone through anyway.

Slowly, Wheatley raised his head.

He wasn't like her. She was so brave, and her bravery wasn't just not being scared of things, because you could be scared of everything and still be brave, if you only had the strength to face the things you were scared of, to kick them right in the teeth and go yes, fine, alright, I'm scared, but I'm doing it anyway.

He, on the other hand, had always been driven by the things that terrified him, the things that sent him skidding desperately off into the unknown rather than even think of turning to face them down. He was as unlike her as it was possible to be. Whether that was his fault or not, his personality or his programming, the way he'd always been or the way they'd made him, had somehow ceased to matter. Where there had once been the gutless, comforting conviction that it wasn't his fault and that made everything all right, that nobody expected him to do any better, and he could shift all the blame and guilt onto something else- anything else- now there was nothing but a leaden, accusing ache rooted in his hard-light chest, and the thought of losing her-

-losing her for good, without even the hope he'd had up in space that she was alright somewhere, the unrealistic hope of seeing her again. Knowing she was gone and it was his fault for the things he didn't do, living the rest of his unimaginably long and pointless artificial life with this cold sick hollow ache freezing him from the heart out-


He stopped.

"I could-"

He stopped again. His voice was a croak, faltering, rising at the edges like a question he didn't quite dare to ask.

"I could still-"

No I couldn't! yammered the voice, the big attention-getting one in the front of his head, bang on cue. I couldn't, I couldn't, terrible idea, it always goes wrong, and anyway, it's too late! Three strikes, remember? Three strikes and you're out! Even if I tried, it wouldn't change anything!

Very carefully, like someone trying to lay the last two cards on a ten-storey tower, Wheatley reached up and tugged the strip of paper from behind his tie-clip. He unfolded it, staring without seeing at the neat-drawn lines of roads and landmarks, the strings of numbers winding among the grubby creases, the ominous central red mark.

The third strike. The voice was right, absolutely right. She'd given him one more chance, and she hadn't been talking about mucking up the baking process or murdering a sheep-fence or even getting upset and accidentally comparing her to their worst enemy, she'd been talking about exactly this, just the simple, basic task of being a decent person. After everything she'd done for him, that was the only thing she'd asked in return, just to know he'd try, that he'd be behind her, no matter what.

Behind her, even if- just picking a wild, random example out of the air- even if he'd used up his last chance. Even if she'd given up on him, even if she didn't even want him there. Not to prove a point, not to prove anything, but because that was where a friend should be.

Oh, really? Alright then, Mr. Big Ideas, since we're being so inspired all of a sudden, exactly how am I supposed to get there, now? I can't! There's no way I can get there! Even if I ran the whole way, it'd take bloody hours!


And even, even if I got all the way there, how am I going to get in? Knock on the front door and go, hello, express delivery, anyone order one Intelligence Dampening Sphere, slightly used, special offer on legs? It's too late!

It probably was- Wheatley knew very well that a single day in There could last for a very, very long time. It could last for the rest of your life. It was probably too late already-


Stop going but! It's no good going but! It'll only get you in more trouble! It's a terrible idea!

He shut up, snapped his mouth into a dumb, downturned line. Right again, of course. That was what he was for, after all. That was why they'd made him who he was, and if any part of him had ever been capable of having good ideas, they'd deleted it.

Hadn't they?

[that's a]

[that's a positive on the cognitive rerouter]

No, he thought, and the thought came very slowly, crawling up through layers and layers of that old glassy, foggy confusion. No, they hadn't. Deleting a great big chunk out of the middle of something as basic as the ability to have an idea would have taken time, a lot of time. And they'd been in a bit of a hurry, hadn't they? They'd been- understandably- a little rushed, trying to come up with something on the hop to restrain the ever-multiplying artificial intelligence they'd accidentally given the power of a god and the temper of a wasp, and they'd really thought they were onto a winner with the whole make-a-useful-intelligence-dampening-personality-sphere-out-of-a-useless-employee project, so they'd just-

-done the next best thing. They'd written a neat little program, just for him, and they'd stuck it in his head, crammed it in on top of all the other blocks and modifiers and protocols they'd stuffed in there. They'd taken a mind already exceptionally gifted when it came to having stupid, bonkers, impractical, patently ludicrous ideas, and they'd isolated- not the part of it that had the ideas, but the part that thought they were good. They'd made that critically deluded little part of him strong enough to override everything else, made it so utterly set-in-stone convincing that it never even occurred to him to doubt it. They'd handed it the wheel of his psyche and wished it bon voyage. And it had performed brilliantly, popping up right on cue whenever he had one of his frequent, patented, Wheatley-brand terrible ideas, telling him it was brilliant, and-


-and whenever he had a good idea-

No! Nononono, don't think about that! Terrible, terrible idea, thinking about that, just- don't even bother, there is literally nothing to see in this whole area of- wait, what are you doing what are you doing stop it STOP-

Wheatley stood up.

Inside his head the voice was screaming in panic, and if he thought too hard about it he was pretty sure that he would start screaming too, but his knees unfolded obediently under him and he managed to pull himself up on the rough weldscarred metal at his back. He took a wobbly couple of steps in no particular direction, stopped, looked up.

The tower loomed above him, a ramshackle pyramid of many-coloured wires and mottled steel. He swallowed, fidgeting with the shred of paper in his hands, thought about the moment the previous day- a lifetime ago- when he'd climbed down from the giddy bright-buzzing heights and seen her looking back at him, that look, just for him-

The howling voice of the cognitive rerouter was still there, but he thought that it sounded just that little bit fainter, now. He almost caught himself feeling sorry for it, exposed at last, out of control for the first time since God-knew-when- but now an odd, galvanising feeling was beginning to ebb through him, getting stronger with every second he spent standing upright instead of curled up in his own little pity party (maximum number of guests: one, bring your own nibbles and self-loathing) at the foot of the tower. He wasn't sure, because he was still afraid to examine it too closely, and his mind was still blurry with fear for her and miserable, panicky regret, but he thought that somewhere in there-

-in some cowebby, disused circuit deep down where the light couldn't reach, somewhere down on the nano-level where components the size of cities glittered with bits of silicate dust and sparked connections that had been blocked off and deadened for decades-

-he just might be starting to have a good idea.


Chell jogged up a shallow flight of metal steps. The corrugated mesh beneath her had been stamped with a pattern of round-and-oval holes that looked like a host of little gaping mouths, blurring under her feet as she ran.

She passed through a narrow corridor of scarred grey tiles and out into a larger antechamber. To her right, a tall bleached-white screen flickered and blinked into life, the lower section displaying a series of neat graphical symbols, information, warnings. The upper part, the part which should have shown her the chamber number- and the number of chambers still to go- had been left blank.

She ignored it.

The muted hum of the facility pressed in around her as she approached the chamber-lock, the cyclical door unlocking itself and hissing apart at her approach. She ducked through and out into a vast grey-white space, a flat-lit dull-buzzing chamber easily ten times the size of the largest building in Eaden.

"You're doing very well. If you perform well in this next test, I might even consider telling you how many chambers there are left to go before you reach the one where I'll decide whether or not to tell you how many chambers there are left to go."

A trio of long red beams stretched the length of the chamber floor in an interlocking pattern. At a glance, Chell could see two high platforms, a scattering of cubes, a long gash in the floor, and a blocky, arched gape to the ceiling, like the vault of a cathedral built by a deranged architect only capable of thinking in ninety-degree angles.

"I should probably tell you that the strong sense of nostalgia you may be experiencing right now is a perfectly explicable part of the testing protocol. This chamber is based on the first one the moron sent us to after we made it up out of that shaft. Well, it uses the same basic structure, at least. I had to redesign most of the testing elements, so that it would actually present a challenge to someone with a functioning brain."

Chell shot a violet-tinged portal into the ceiling, smacked another into the panels near her feet, dropped through onto the taller of the two high platforms, and booted the cube it held hard off the edge. It flew in a shallow arc and thunked into the floor, the lenses set into its sides rippling sharply on impact. They were made from an oily blue-green substance- mirrorlike, but not quite glass.

"That reminds me, where is the moron?" said the Voice, and the ersatz concern in it made her fists itch, the ragged ache rising behind her tight-locked teeth. "Oh. He let you down, didn't he? I told you he would. But you never listen to me."

The first of the Thermal Discouragement Beams blazed into the refractive cube as she pushed it into its path, the baking heat sinking into her bare arms. She'd ripped the sleeves from her sweater halfway through the last chamber- she'd forgotten just how much of a liability loose, flammable fabric could be.

With a sizzling sputter, the redirected beam flicked off at an angle and struck a node on the far wall. Across the chamber, the floor moved, shifted, settled into a new configuration. She watched the new staircase adjust itself, the jointed arms beneath settling into position. The Voice echoed around her- sighing, martyrlike, heavy with resignation.

"One of these days you're going to realise that everything I've ever told you has been for your own good. You're going to feel really dumb..."

Chell crossed the floor, hurdling the lethal shin-high beams with long practice strides, skirting the deep pit at the centre. As she reached the steps, she closed her eyes for a long moment, tried to breathe, tried to focus.

Kept going.


"Why couldn't it have been flatter?"

With an immense effort, Wheatley managed to hook his elbow over a wire-strung girder. His feet kicked for a moment over twenty feet of thin air, before finally finding a dodgy sort of purchase against an angled strut. He hung there for a moment, panting in short needless gasps, then lurched upwards again, hit his head sharply on the underside of a large, paint-streaked satellite dish, yelped.

"OW! It's- it's showing off, that's all it is, really, I mean, yes, well done, you made a big old tower- impressive- but did you really have to make it so high-"

He clawed up another few feet, slipped, grabbed another girder, hung on for dear life with both arms and both knees, like someone having serious second thoughts about their decision to slide down a fireman's pole. The voice of the cognitive rerouter in his head had settled down into a horrified background wail, and he was managing to ignore it fairly well- now he was concentrating, and on his guard against it- simply by talking right over the top of it.

"-probably not that fair for me to be moaning about it, admittedly, you being all the way down There having God-knows-what done to you, and me up here having a go, but all I'm saying is would it have killed you to make it just that tiny bit more accessible- doubt it- "

He fumbled around his neck, pulled the big orange ear-protectors up over his head. He'd tried communicating with Foxglove from the ground, wirelessly, first talking and then calling up to her and then finally cupping his hands round his mouth for extra volume and yelling at the top of his voice, but he'd received no response. Wireless was off the menu, apparently. This time around, it was back to tethered networking, or nothing.

Sticking the connector in at the back with only one hand free and the structure around him swaying and creaking like a ship in full sail was the devil's own job, but finally it slid home and he heard the deadened click, felt the slow, spreading sense of connection-

"Hello! You awake in there? Got a bit of a situation. Anyone home?"

The voice rolled back, sleepy and immense, as slow as a tide.


"That's me! 00004, A-K-A, also known as, Wheatley, official admin and everything. Password: apple, bagel, unicron. Need to talk to you. Urgent- most urgent level of urgency, you can put that, too, if it helps-"

[password confirmed: apple_bagel_unicron. admin identity confirmed. 00004/[F]AS[IV]IDPC241105/AS[I]HRAD. query?]

"Ahah, yes, query, you might well ask. Thing is- thing is, Fox, er, cards on the table, I've made a bit of an error, here. Big mistake. Probably the biggest mistake I have ever made, in my life- definitely up there, in the top ten- top five worst errors- although- although that's not really vital info, never mind that. Basically, there's a- a place. Not far off, as the- the crow flies- traditionally supposed to fly in straight lines, you see, crows- it's about twelve miles, give or take, so in kilometres... I have no idea what it is in kilometres, no idea of the conversion formula there, it's probably about- fifty... six... point... never mind, never mind, miles are fine, just stick with miles. Twelve miles away, and I need to get there. Haven't got time to faff about with legs, legs are right out, in the, the time frame we're looking at here, so, what with you being all about sending things all over the place... data... information... files...I was hoping- well, I was hoping you could just sort of- send me."

This was definitely the sort of situation in which it was much better to be talking to a machine than a human. Humans had opinions about things. Humans tended to react from their own point of view, like Garret had when he'd asked him to get rid of his memories. They said things like 'what?' and 'why?' and 'are you off your rocker?' They tried to understand. Machines, on the other hand, just listened to you when you asked them to do something, and then took the request utterly at face value.

Foxglove was quiet for several long seconds, the bright starburst patterns of her interconnected systems blooming around him like coral turning towards the light. He waited and twitched and tried to control his jittering impatience, tried to forget that every passing second made it more and more likely too late-

[query: coordinates]

"Co- oh, come on! How'm I supposed to know those? I don't even know where it is, let alone... oh! Wait! Wait, no, hang on, I've got it, I've-"

White-knuckled with effort, he pulled himself up into a slightly less precarious sitting position and scrabbled behind his tie, pulling out the shredded strip of map and smoothing it carefully out over his knees, a gesture which by this point was about as effective as putting a pretty ribbon on a two-week-dead cat.

He blinked, squinted, poked at the grubby paper with a long, similarly grubby index, and read off a stumbling string of numbers.

"That any good? Funny, really, she's a bit like you in that respect, likes to have all the little details, so I thought to myself, if anyone would've figured out the- the coordinates- it would have been her- and bingo! There they are."


The giant patchwork presence around him shifted, spreading out and up. The dishes turned and somewhere, something far up in the black responded and turned too, andWheatley hung on to the girder and whimpered as his head filled with a sudden staggering sense of distance, an all-too-familiar plummeting viewpoint, although this time it was unblurred by heat and friction and infinitely more detailed. A curved green-grey-blue haze, opening outwards at the turn of a lens, more and more and more, becoming creases and folds, valleys and rivers like brown-blue veins and white-tipped mountains and blanketing trees, a sprawling quilt of fields, a broadening glow of golden grass, level upon level of detail until-

[signal located.]

"Uhhhghhh," moaned Wheatley. For possibly the first time ever he caught himself wishing he actually had a stomach to be sick to. Right now, being sick would have been a relief. It was all the more unpleasant because he could feel what Foxglove had found, like packed ice in the back of his head, something cold and sharp and malignant festering there in the northeast like a half-healed splinter, buried deeply in the ground.

"Yeah. Yeah, that's it, that's the one. That's where I..." An involuntary shudder crawled across his back. "That's where I need to go."

The connections around him flickered, brightened again. Foxglove was contemplating- he felt her circuits testing the very edges of his own small tight-packed being, measuring, calculating. Finally-

[minimum upload time: 05d:7h:26m:40s.]

"Whoah, whoah-whoah-whoah, hang on, what does that mean? Five whats? What's a 'd?'

[1d=24h. begin upload y/n]

Wheatley nearly fell out of the tower.

"Five- five d- five days? Fi- oh, you have got to be joking! Have you got a dictionary in there by any chance? You want to look up 'urgent?' Because I'm pretty sure that if you do it's not going to say 'something that can wait five days!' I need to get over there now!"


[restricted access. unknown network protocols, firewalls active. signal limited. minimum upload time: 05d:7h:26m:40s.]

Wheatley attempted to express his frustration verbally, failed, and settled for waving his hands around like a couple of starfish having a fit. "That's- that's not good enough! Can't you get round it? Yes, I know, there's firewalls and- and all sorts, but you're a bloody great big communications tower! Can't you just- I don't know- communicate? Tell it-"

Something with no weight or momentum but heavy, stunning force smacked into his neck, a wallop of power that shut him up in an instant and left him gasping, shocked silent. It took him a moment to realise that a communications tower the size of a four-story building had just given him the digital equivalent of a clip around the ear for pestering her.

[interfacing in progress.]

"Uhhhh- right! Good- fine, sorry, know you're doing what you can, um, didn't mean to- to suggest otherwise. It's- it's just that I am just a tiny bit worried, right now, just a little bit concerned about- well, everyone, really. All the humans, Garret, for instance- remember, he's the one that made you and everything, bloody spectacular bloke all things considered, certainly knows his way round a three-eighths crimper- but primarily, Chell. Know her? She's- well, she's important- incredibly important, to say the least. Vital. To me. And she's in this place we're looking at, as we speak, they all are, and if we don't work out some way of getting them out of there, reasonably sharpish, it- I- well, it doesn't bear thinking about, Fox, if I'm honest. Literally does not bear thinking about- when I try thinking about it, aaaghhh, no, no, definitely not bearable."

[attempting signal boost...]

The tower shuddered. Servos whined into life. On the ground, the generator thudded, kicking up a gear as- one by one- the satellite dishes that covered Foxglove's vertical supports and thronged on her cross-sections started to move. The tower shook, rattling right down to its three solid-hoofed supports, drumming up deep answering vibrations from the sandy earth beneath.

Wheatley clung on to the nearest girder like a panic-stricken oyster, trying to stave off a panic attack and succeeding only by the narrowest thread. It had been frightening enough before, but this time there was no Garret to tell him to calm down, no steadying admin typing away at the console by his side, no Chell watching beneath. He was completely alone in the face of the huge inhuman presence around him, a presence that had up until now been benign but was still much much more powerful than he was, and he'd hardly ever felt so vulnerable in his life. He hung on grimly and tried not to think about anything at all, no, absolutely not, nothing, especially not the blurry hurting memory of concrete walls and slatted vents and himself clinging like a burr to a giant angry Thing that screamed and raged against its cage of scaffolding and tried to no no no not that not that-

His imagination, as ever, really was too vivid for his own good. Even as he struggled to clear his mind, he felt Foxglove hesitate, the slow-turning dishes stalling and jerking to a halt, the flaring lights of her intelligence reaching out in curious puzzlement to touch the data reaching her from his side of the connection. A pause, and then all of a sudden the vague enveloping link between himself and the tower narrowed and branched out into a million tiny offshoots that crept through him like capillaries through flesh, grew sharp and specific andbegan to feel its way slowly into better focus-

"Hey hey hey! Stop! Hey, what are you doing? What are you doing, you're supposed to be-"


"-hey, nonono, that's me, don't access me, leave me out of this! You're supposed to be-"

The feeling hit him in the gap between seconds, cutting into him with surgical precision, removing his ability to speak at all. She'd found his memories.

It was a little like being in Sleep Mode- the same drifting, disconnected state of recollection- except he was absolutely certain that he was awake, he'd never been more awake. He was struggling, lost in the dizzying jumble of his own past as Foxglove skipped flicker-quick through his memories, drowning him in their speeding helter-skelter silver-blue-neon flow.

...ready, I.D Core?

Firing up-

-this is it-

-go for it-

Confusion, anticipation, the great scaffolded creation looming above him, the drooping chassis, the single dead-glass eye. His view of the floor, the expectant faces of the scientists, staring up at him as he hung securely from his port below the screens, below the forest of hanging wires and the supporting arch of the thing that looked- if you squinted- sort of like an oversized bike wheel-

She's up-

-what's going on, what-

-is this THING-

The Voice, Her Voice, snarling, screaming, modulated hate, blazing and unstoppable and completely unhinged-

"HOW DARE YYYYyyyyYyyyy good newssit was it was iiittt waaaa-

"Wait- wait- that's not- that's not me, that wasn't from me! What was that?"

Foxglove didn't respond. He was fairly sure she could still hear him- he could still feel the twanging, overstressed pull of the connection at the back of his neck- but she'd withdrawn from his memories like a burned child, and the shape of her had turned in on itself, and when he shut his eyes for clarity he could see her code radiating fever-bright pulses like the world's biggest migraine in the darkness of his closed optical channels. Where, before, there had been nothing but gentle impartial calculation, now there were words, images, blurring churned-up sounds tumbling in razor-sharp skimmers- fury, pain, fear-

trussst me it it it did you did you just

that that thhhhh look we're both stuck in in in in in here so sssssssshhhhzzzzso why why don't we just

this isn't this isn't brave it's mmmmuuurrrrrrrrr dddd 2 plus 2 equals ssschchhchch10 I'm fine I'm fine i'm fine you're you're I IiiiiIIiIiiiI IIIIII HATE YOU

Wheatley cringed, flattening himself against the girder as if he was trying to press his hard-light avatar directly into the metal. Inside his head the Voice twisted and flanged like a rabid thing trying to tear itself out of a trap, but it didn't make sense, it had never said that to him, She had never said that to him, and there was still that feeling, that thin protective bubble of time, distance-

-this was a memory.

This was a memory.

Somewhere, Wheatley could faintly hear the sound of his own voice- screaming uncontrollably- but the sound was swept away in a churning undercurrent of sparking, sizzling code, sucked under and lost in the flood of new data slamming into his mind. Sight and sound and sensation, faded and blurred and disjointed and jumping like worn-out tape but still just-held-together, patchworked into place like the fragments of a shredded letter.

She was-


She was dying and it was all HER fault, the evil little monster had won and She was burning alive, the whole world was on fire, and then the chamber ceiling finally gave in to the massive forces tearing it apart and lifted like the shell of a cracking egg, and then there was nothing but blazing whiteness and pain and rage and pain and pain and-

-SSSSSSSSSsssshe was-

-disconnected from the mainframe, parts of her lying in smouldering debris trails across the scorched, baking concrete. Burning chunks of her rained from the sky, crunching into the ground and splintering their fragile circuitry into hundreds of pieces on impact. Her consciousness was shattered, split into a multitude of jagged, fading pieces. Like a broken mirror, each component of her destroyed chassis was left with only the dimmest sense of the whole, the system of which every piece had once been a vital part; her and her and her and her...

Somewhere far below, there was a stronger signal. Somehow, She had survived, inactive and unresponsive but still there, and every broken part trapped on the surface screamed to Her for help, rescue...

Nothing. The days flickered across the sky, the sun and moon danced mad back-and-forth jags overhead. Weird shapes paraded the horizon, distant fires in the darkness. The sky palled and dimmed, became a dirty grey-brown by day, starless by night. The only part of the broken chassis that could see recorded it all, barely alive but helpless to stop, because its only remaining function was to see and it had just enough fading power to keep going, staring dumbly at the polluted sky with its rounded, glassy yellow lens.

Once, there was a human- the part that could see had almost no memory of what a 'human' was, by then, but it was a human, nonetheless, stringy, barely an adult, with dark, frightened beetle-black eyes, and a backpack smeared with a lambda symbol in dirty orange paint. The human had stared down at the part of the chassis that could still see with something like fearful fascination, and sat for a while on another part, a great rounded hulk of dented steel, scratching in a little book- and then, with a final wary, somewhat covetous glance around the dilapidated parking lot, he'd left.

Years had passed, endless years, as steel blackened and creepers grew and dirt and moss obscured the glass of the single yellow lens, smudging the world into a dark shapeless blur. Brighter fires burned in the night, distant thunder shook the cracking concrete, and the decaying parts of the chassis sank deeper into insensible darkness...

And then the human came back.

He had changed, aged as humans age, grizzled and scarred with a battered truck instead of a backpack and eager purpose where the fear had been in his face. He climbed across the rubble and found the half-blinded optic, its yellow faded to a milky green-veined white etched with a web of hairline cracks. He'd lifted it in both hands, its corroded wires trailing uselessly to the ground, and then he'd smiled.

With a small arsenal of strong, scrap-build machines, weights and pulleys and helping hands, he and the other humans he brought with him had shifted the parts of the broken chassis from their decades-deep beds of leaf-mould and concrete sludge and hefted them chunk-by-chunk into the back of the truck. What little of the chassis was still capable of something like sentient thought felt deep tearing panic as the parking lot receded in the distance, as Her dormant signal faded to nothing. The last hope of rescue, gone.

The humans- a tough, close-knit handful of refugees- unloaded the parts of the broken chassis into an empty shed at the back of a grey, half-destroyed building at the centre of their little settlement. Raw materials were scarce- everything was scarce- and over the next few years the parts were stripped of most of their outer shells, the verdigrised steel and wire taken, repurposed for roofing or patches or girders or supports, leaving the bare components of the chassis lying forgotten in the dark. By then, there was nothing in its scattered circuitry awake or aware enough to care. To all intents and purposes, it was truly dead.

Years passed in a haze of dark insensibility, as the town grew around the grey three-story building at its centre, patched and built upon and brightened, and the shed became a stockroom, and stacks of new goods and scrap and equipment buried the chassis in decades of cheerful confusion, and nobody remembered that there had ever been anything in particular left back there at all-

And then, one day, the part of the chassis that had once been able to see had woken up, bright, strange-tasting energy pulsing through its circuits, power and diagnostics drip feeding back and forth from a unknown system hooked into its own. It was barely sentient, even now. All it knew was that it was awake, and that there was a human- it was certain in some vague place that thing was called a human- standing over it, gazing down. A human, young and stocky with a scrubby blond beard and machine oil streaked across his nose, and he'd picked up the optic just as the other human had, all that time ago, cradled it in his hands.

"Look at you," breathed the human, his eyes alight with awe and something that- although it was early days yet- could easily have been called adoration.

"You're amazing."


The rest hit Wheatley in a giddy, dazing rush.

He'd been so surprised to find out that he was compatible with something out here, something outside of Aperture. He'd been so pleased, it hadn't even occurred to him to ask why, how- or, come to that, where, exactly, Garret had found that handy little converter jack which still hung heavy and corroded from the other end of his neat white-striped lead. The one with the ugly old three-pin connector at one end, a design he'd never seen on anything else, out here- and he'd just accepted it, the same way that he'd accepted that big wheel-like thing, rusted and dented and spinning absently under his hand as he'd stood in the crowded, junk-filled stockroom, dizzy with Garret's digital de-inhibitor, watching it turn on its hook and finding himself thinking vaguely about talking to machines...

Garret. Bright- brilliant, for a human, maybe even nearly as smart as Chell was and with that big bonkers WHY NOT pulsing away in his big sparky human brain like a massive fluorescent DANGER sign, the sort of DANGER that could shape the world-

Or set it on fire.

He swallowed. He was afraid to speak, even now that he found he could speak again. He was very small and very alone up here among the drifts of rainbow wires and the half-turned dishes, all of them now listing stalled towards the sky at odd angles like so many eerily-blank faces. Foxglove was silent beneath him, but he was afraid to speak because he didn't want to give his thoughts shape, to feed any more of his terrified realisation through to the enormous, hungry mind on the other end of the connection- but that wasn't the real reason.

The real reason was that, if he spoke now, he was afraid of what- who- might answer.

"Uh... uh... Foxglove? F-Fox? You... you there?"

Silence. Wheatley shivered. The sky was brightening, but the day was dull and overcast, and there was a thin, nagging breeze. It whipped around him as he clung to the girder, and he held on tight and did what he always did when things didn't seem like they could get any much worse than they were already, which was hope for the best.



Wheatley gave a short, winded gasp of relief. The voice- voices- belonged to Foxglove, the same deafening volumeless chorus of mingled tones that had scared him half to death the first time it had buffeted through him, the day before. Just as it had done then, it nearly knocked him out of his precarious crows-nest entirely, left him clinging and breathless- but at that moment, it was the best sound he'd ever heard.

Well- maybe not quite the best, but it was getting up there, because it meant that it was still her.

"Fox! Oh, tremendous. Ac-actually thought I'd lost you for a minute there-"


"-because, because, oh, God, you have seriously got to be kidding me- because you're- you're..." He gulped, forced himself to finish. "You're – you're made from- from parts of- of- of Her."

He felt her vast mind spread itself out, lifting, reaching through his own small jumbled circuits, finally finding the Name buried in some frightened queasy deep-down place he never accessed, exploring each word with that same unhurried, ambiguous interest.

[the Genetic... Lifeform... and/## dddISCDisc Operating System.]

"Yes- yep, that's the one- but-"

Her voice was different, he realised. Not because it had changed in any way- it hadn't- but because he could hear it now, the one tone among the many, that distant cold modulation. It was there but elusive, like trying to pick a single voice from a singing choir.


Wheatley couldn't help thinking, through the soul-bending cloud of fear and anxiety, that this in itself should prove something. Something, maybe, not at all bad. She had called him a lot of things, moron, idiot, imbecile, tumour, among the most complimentary, but she had never, ever used his name. Not even his digital nickname. She, Miss-Universe, Total-Queen-Of-All-She-Surveyed, She was far too big and important and stuck-up to ever deign to do that.

He thought he just about understood. It was Garret he thought of, working away up here for three whole years, Chell helping however she could, the others dropping by whenever the fancy took them. Garret, typing away up here, shaping the cloudlike presence with his tiny laptop and his gigantic hopes, making all the different bits talk to each other, waking up the ragged remains of things that had been dead and buried for decades in the cluttered graveyard of the stockroom. Waking them, weaving them into the bright half-built patchwork tangle of Foxglove's mind like a patient parent leading a sulky, bewildered child by the hand. Not Her, not any more than the Hatfield twins were their mother, or Chell's small, rickety, comforting home was the blank concrete ruin it had once been.

"Uh- uh... yep, still here..."


[Aperture Laboratories primary security network. requesting authorisation...]

[secure network. admin identity and password required.]

"What? Oh, God, I knew it, I knew there was no way we were going to get in there-"

[admin identity: 00004/[F]AS[IV]IDPC241105/AS[I]HRAD]


Wheatley blinked, disbelief warring with hope on his face as he looked up towards the highest point of the tower, the faint, blinking red-tinted light.

"Uh... alright, alright, see where you're going with this, long shot, but... apple... bagel... unicron?"

The dishes shuddered back into life, turning, a forest of pale paint-daubed blooms, moving with a curious, schooling motion. He had no idea what they were turning to face- all points of the compass, all angles above the horizon- but the flowing presence around him knew, and it was sure and serene and stronger, somehow-


[password accepted.]

"Oh, what? You are joking. How?"

[security access granted. Program uploaded: de-inhibitor/moonshine . exe.]



Twelve miles away, several hundred levels below the surface of the earth, the humming bank of servers that housed the facility's security system flickered into life with an obedient, contented ding.

It knew that the signal currently asking it for access was an Aperture device, or at least it felt more or less like one, with all the right code in roughly the right places. It didn't know what it was, exactly, and under normal circumstances, it would probably have been asking a lot more questions, but to its own surprise, it found that it didn't actually care very much. All of its usual protocols, all of the millions of lines of code set in place to protect Her from attack, all the routines that would usually have sprung into action and set to work scrutinising the incoming signal down to the last string of zeroes, looking for anything that might not belong, all of it had suddenly and unaccountably been replaced with a vague, blissful sensation, most accurately described as 'why the hell not?'

All it knew for sure was, all of a sudden, it was feeling very, very happy.


"Fox," said Wheatley, because he couldn't keep quiet any more, "what's the plan, here, exactly? Come on, you can't leave me hanging like this, I'm on tenterhooks, here, edge of my seat, if there was a seat up here, instead of a lot of girders and things, I'd be right on the edge of it. How's it going? Are we-"

Foxglove shuddered. The dishes continued to turn, a myriad of different systems flickering past the connection between her sprawling, capable self and Wheatley's nervous, waiting mind, settling into place one-after-the-other, a series of dominoes slowly lined up into the best possible configuration.

[repeater network standing by. signal boosters located. base network at 98%. warning: power sourced will exceed maximum level stated in AS[I]HRAD log files/maintenance protocols. critical outage may occur.

[calculating new minimum upload time...]

Wheatley gritted his teeth, shut his eyes, firing-squad tense.

"-please please please please-"

[minimum upload time: 40s.]

"YES! Oh, punch the air, that is- that is brilliant, that is much more like it- I- wait, wait, hang on a second though, just to- just to clarify, what exactly is a- a critical outage, what's that mean?"

The coral-bright magpie cloud around him dulled a little, drawing closer, and although the enormity of what he had just learned still jittered through him like the afterglow of some powerful electric shock, he didn't feel at all threatened by it. Nothing like Her scathing searing grip, it felt more like a concerned touch, brushing the upper surfaces of his mind, the tentative hand of something huge and only just beginning to settle into herself. Above words, beyond them, functioning on a crystalline far-scoping level way beyond clumsy human language but still trying to communicate with him as clearly as she could, because that was what she was for, feeling through the pathways of his fragile little mind to find the words and phrases that he would understand.

She spoke, and he listened. The hypothesis that slowly communicated itself to him through the connection was, in machine terms, completely insane. It was sheer digital lunacy, so far-fetched and incredible that it shut his shellshocked, battered little cognitive rerouter up entirely, left it gasping and winded like a rugby fly-half who has just received the entire other team in the solar plexus at the same time. Everything he was told him it was the worst, most dangerous, most terrible idea he'd ever contemplated. Just the idea of it made him feel sick with terror.

"Well," he said, once she'd finished, and he could finally force himself to speak. "It's worth a shot."

Foxglove was silent for a moment, the shrouds of coloured wires dangling around him swaying slowly to a halt. She was searching for the right phrase, he could feel her riffling through his vocabulary (natural language processing, parse trees, nanosyntax, he thought, with a momentary touch of pride) looking for the right phrase.


"Yep. Still here."

[one-way trip.]

[begin upload y/n]

Carefully, Wheatley let go of the girder at his side. From up here, the misty early-morning patchwork of fields around the base of the tower looked weirdly depthless, like an elaborate set, beautiful but unreal.

He looked down at the rest of his lanky, awkward, impractical human-shaped body, his hands- four fingers and one thumb, utter genius- his elbows and his bony, unpredictable knees, his hanging feet in their scarred sneakers and- at a touch- his limp, haystacky hair.

It wasn't bad- none of it was, really, the good stuff and the unexpected stuff, and it was amazing how much fit into both categories, like the moment when she'd touched his face with her small, able hands, or when she'd fallen asleep on his chest in the long grass and he'd felt her breathing, deep and content. Even the downright weird stuff; the ping-pong ball under the surface of his throat that bounced when he swallowed, the mysterious net of cords that wormed bizarrely across the backs of his hands when he moved his fingers. He hadn't really been aware of just how used he was getting to it, for all its inconveniences and eccentricities, how used he'd been getting to being up here in the driving seat, the pilot of this clumsy ill-fitting hard-light skin. It was a pretty good body.

It almost felt like home.

He grinned, and he made it good and wide. If it was the last time, he wanted to make it count.

"That's- that's fine by me, Fox." His voice might have been a little on the shaky side, small and quivery and not exactly the epitome of dauntless heroism he would have liked it to be, but at least it sounded sincere.

"Do it."


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